Summer 2017

Highlighting the Heroes

Unearthing ideas to fix the bad stuff, Food Tank starts with the good.

By Julie Flaherty

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“I wanted to put a human face on these issues,” said Danielle Nierenberg, “and focus on what’s working rather than what’s not.” Photo: Romero and Romero Photography

Danielle Nierenberg, N01, could see smart ways that we could feed the hungry, fight obesity and still preserve the environment. She just needed a lot more people to know about them. So in 2013 she quit her job, took $6,000 of her savings and set out to see if a global network of concerned citizens—from academics and farmers to activists and moms and dads—could help build a more sustainable, nutritious food system.

The New Orleans-based nonprofit she founded, Food Tank: The Think Tank for Food, which sponsored a two-day summit at Tufts on April 1, has already built an online following of more than 500,000 people from 190 countries. As president, Nierenberg uses Food Tank to promote fixes that are as diverse as those who devise them—homeowners in Florida and California who donate their lawns as organic garden space, for example, and an Australian group that rescues surplus airline food to feed the hungry. The stories she shares on the Food Tank website and on social media are light on jargon and heavy on the “food heroes” behind the innovations.

We spoke to Nierenberg about her hopes for the future of food.

Tufts Nutrition: You studied environmental policy in college and then spent two years with the Peace Corps, working with farmers in the Dominican Republic. How did that influence you?

Danielle Nierenberg: I thought that all farmers were the same, part of one big industry. I blamed them for destroying the environment. That all changed for me in the Peace Corps. Being on the ground, I saw there are farms of all sizes doing things in different ways, both bad and good. I realized those farmers had a lot more to teach me than I could ever teach them. The more farmers have resources and ideas and connections with other farmers, the better they can do their jobs.

TN: During your 11 years at the Worldwatch Institute, you spent months traveling through sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Asia talking to farmers, scientists and others about food. What were some of your takeaways?

DN: A lot of what we did at Worldwatch was very gloom and doom. But the work I was seeing on the ground was very hopeful and coming from unexpected places. Despite everything we’ve been hearing, sub-Saharan Africa has a lot of potential to be the leader in sustainable agriculture and preserving biodiversity and creating better equality for youth and women.

I was seeing really innovative things that weren’t getting a lot of attention. I wanted to put a human face on these issues, share them with other farmers, scientists and researchers, and focus on what’s working rather than what’s not. It’s what inspired me to create Food Tank.

TN: Food Tank does seem to have a very positive outlook. You’ve posted stories like “Nine Women of Color Who Are Changing the Food Industry.”

DN: We do have to talk about the problems, but I think at this point, we all know what they are. We really need to highlight the solutions. If you spend time in sub-Saharan Africa, or even in rural America, you can look around and feel very despondent. If you don’t look for the good and realize there is potential there to be scaled up, then we could all just give up. The urgency of these issues is too great to give up.

Learn more about upcoming Food Tank events at foodtank.com.

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