Food Activist Champions Farmers, Makes 6 Predictions

Baldor Specialty Foods also has an Imperfect Produce program. ( Photo courtesy Baldor Specialty Foods )

In the on-going conversations between consumers, food companies and farmers, Danielle Nierenberg says farmers don’t always get their voices heard to the degree that they should.

“Our job…is to really highlight what they’re doing to feed us all,” says Nierenberg, co-founder of Food Tank a research and advocacy organization that she says likes to “highlight stories of hope and success in the food system, both internationally and domestically.”

Nierenberg was recently awarded the 2020 Julia Child Award for her work as a researcher, policy activist and food system expert. She talked with AgriTalk Host Chip Flory on Monday about the award, food-related issues and how different groups of people are treated.

One of the things she addressed was food disparity in the U.S. She notes that while there are abundant sources of healthy, nutritious food in many parts of the country, many other areas are underserved, creating “inequity and inequality” for people. She says she experienced that first-hand growing up in rural America, in eastern Missouri, near Defiance.

“When I was a kid, we used to drive 45 minutes to the grocery store because we lived way, way out in the country, and that's still the same for a lot of people in both rural and urban areas,” she says.

Nierenberg wants to draw attention to the lack of access to healthy, nutritious food and help solve that problem—the solution to which she says involves more than simply building a grocery store in underserved areas.

“If you go into a community and tell them what they want, then you're making a huge mistake. Development only works when people (in that community) are part of the process, when it's very democratic and participatory,” she says.

Vulnerabilities of the supply chain, exposed during the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, have heightened the concerns she has that all people need access to high-quality food. She says new methods and approaches for getting food to people need to be developed.

“I think there’s going to be a transformation in how we think about the way our food and agriculture systems work,” she notes. “(That includes) how workers are treated and valued, how farmers are treated. Farmers in North America have had a rough time over the last few years, and the pandemic has only made it worse—low prices, safety concerns…the fragility of our mental-health systems.”

Flory says that the drive for efficiency created some of the vulnerabilities that exist in the current supply chain. He asked Nierenberg, “So, do we go backwards on the efficiency, and if we do go backwards on the efficiency, what does that do to the sustainability of the industry?”

Nierenberg says the food industry needs to find ways to combine efficiency with sustainability. One solution, she says, might be shortening the “long, long” supply chain.

She says Americans can expect many changes in the next 12 months, and offers these six predictions about food services, workers and restaurants:

  1. Grocery delivery service will triple in the next year.
  2. Food delivery will also triple in the next year.
  3. 85% of independent restaurants will likely go out of business.
  4. Expect to see a huge growth in unionization of food workers.
  5. Sustainable food business will continue to disrupt food as growth of direct to consumer continues.
  6. Community supported agriculture (CSAs) will experience 10X growth.

The award Nierenberg received was made by The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts. She will receive the award at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. during a special ceremony that will kick off the sixth annual Smithsonian Food History Weekend, Oct. 15 to Oct.17, 2020.

Hear more of her interview on AgriTalk here: