Profile: Food Tank Founder Danielle Nierenberg

Earlier this month, Food Tank, a non-profit organization dedicated to building a sustainable global food system, hosted a panel at American University that brought together students, community members, and leaders in the food sphere. The panel, called “The Real Cost of Food” examined the social, environmental, and health impacts of producing food using an economic model called True Cost Accounting.

True Cost Accounting is a way to analyze and value the food we eat based on everything that goes into producing that food. When you go to the grocery store and buy an apple, the price you pay at the register is only a fraction of what it actually cost to produce that apple. That’s where True Cost Accounting comes in. It calculates a true value by factoring in the environmental costs (including water use, energy consumption, and damage from pollution and pesticides), economic costs (namely agricultural subsidies), social costs (such as equity, quality of life, and fair wages), and health costs (including hunger, obesity, disease caused by poor nutrition, and antibiotic resistance).

All of that is to say that if you think you’re getting a better deal ordering a burger off the dollar menu at a fast food joint instead of a grass-fed, humanely raised one at sustainable restaurant, you’re really not. That cost is still being incurred, you’re just not the one paying it. According to the United National Food and Agriculture Organization, producing the 550 billion Big Macs sold each year in the US creates 2.66 billion pounds of carbon dioxide, and researchers from the McKinsey Global Institute estimate that excess weight and obesity costs the US $2 trillion globally in healthcare costs.

The money you save by getting that fast food burger is the result of cutting environmental, economic, social, and health costs. A restaurant that sells a more expensive burger isn’t overcharging you – they are more accurately factoring in the true cost of producing that burger. A fast food joint that sells a 99-cent burger is shirking their responsibility and instead passing off expenses to the environment, to workers, and to society.

Food Tank’s full report is fascinating – it takes a much deeper look at True Cost Accounting, and examines both the negative effects as well as the positive benefits in the equation. It presents the copious research done on the topic from around the world, and lays out a path for the future. I highly recommend checking it out for yourself to see what the food we eat is really costing us. It can be downloaded by clicking on the link to the report on this page.

Food Tank’s founder, Danielle Nierenberg, is the driving force behind this report and the other work that the organization does. With deep roots in the DC area and experience with agriculture and food production all around the world, I wanted to chat with her to find out more about why she’s dedicated her life to this work, and where Food Tank and the global food system are heading.

Courtesy of American University

Danielle addresses the audience at the Real Cost of Food Event. Courtesy of American University.

Lani Furbank: What motivated you to get involved in the food sphere and what is your educational and professional background?

Danielle Nierenberg: Getting interested in food started for me as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic. I really saw the connection between how farmers were growing food and public health and the impact on the environment. Before that, I was an environmentalist. I grew up in a small town in the Midwest of about 300 people called Defiance, Missouri. I grew up around farmers and didn’t think they were all that smart, to be honest, and sort of looked down on them. Being a Peace Corps volunteer made me realize, gosh, I grew up with all these crazy amazing people who are doing amazing things… Just learning from farmers on the ground… and realizing that farmers aren’t villains, they’re not destroying the environment, they’re really trying to do a lot of things that will benefit us all. And so that led to me going to the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy to study in a program called Agriculture, Food, and Environment, which really brought all those things together, so I have a Masters of Science from Tufts.

LF: What inspired you to take those experiences and start Food Tank, and what stood out to you about the need for an organization like this?

DN: I was working for many years at an environmental think tank in DC, the Worldwatch Institute, which was started by Lester Brown in 1974, and if you had asked me as a nerdy high school student where I wanted to work, I would have told you the Worldwatch Institute… I had a foundation grant to study agricultural innovation, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, and at that time I visited about 35 countries, by now I’ve visited 60 plus, and really interviewing hundreds of farmers and researchers and scientists and NGOs and advocates and activists and journalists and professors on the ground and really getting their thoughts about what’s working to help alleviate hunger, poverty, food loss, and food waste, and all these other problems we see in the food system, and really learn from them what they were doing to solve these things. So working at this environmental organization was a great experience for me, but as environmental think tanks go, some of them tend to be a little doom and gloom. And I was seeing a lot of hope and success on the ground and really wanted to show people what’s working, what can foundations invest in, what can consumers get excited about, what can farmers learn from other farmers in parts of the world. So that’s really what inspired me to start Food Tank and be able to tell those stories of hope and success to our audience.

LF: In your travels for Worldwatch and your work with Food Tank, it sounds like you’ve encountered a lot of people who are contributing to reforming the food system. Can you share a success story?

DN: I was able to visit this group of women farmers in Niger, which is one of the poorest countries in the world, and they organized themselves into a co-op with the help of a research organization called the International Center for Agriculture in the Semi-Arid Tropics… They were growing a variety of crops including trees, fruit trees, indigenous crops, and also a lot of vegetables, and then able to feed their families with this food, but also have a surplus to sell at market… They’re about 50 of them… They were making about $300 per year before they started the farm, and now they make around $1500 per year, each of these women… I mean, that’s not a lot of money, they’re making about $5 a day right now, from 90 cents before, but when you ask them how their lives have changed, they say things like, “I was able to buy my husband a bicycle so he can get to his field where he’s growing cotton, or other crops,” or “I’m able to send my children to school,” “I’m fatter now.” These women were not fat at all, but they were better nourished, is what they were trying to tell me. So it’s those kinds of things that can really transform people’s lives…What really, I think, matters, is how they’ve been able to improve and set an example for their families and their communities, and show that they can pull themselves out of what is a really dire situation, and I just think those kinds of things are so inspiring.

LF: Food Tank is only a couple of years old, but it’s already making a splash, partnering with major organizations, putting out research, and more. What are you most proud of so far?

DN: We set out to not try to reinvent the wheel, we want to really be a platform for the good food movement. We don’t want to compete with other organizations; we really want to propel what they’re doing to a wider audience. So I think our partnerships, which range from small non-profits to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, we’ve really been able to bring a different group of stakeholders together and help break down those silos that exist in the food system, where you don’t have farmers talking to scientists or scientists talking to nutritionists, or anyone talking to the funding and donor community…We had a very successful big event in January of this year in collaboration with the George Washington University, it was our first annual Food Tank Summit. Next year, we’ll be having four Food Tank Summits, one in DC in April, another São Paolo, Brazil in May, one in California in September, and then finally one in Chicago in November. But we’re really proud of being able to partner with different organizations and pull amazing speakers together, not just to have boring PowerPoint presentations, because we all go to those conferences all the time, but to engage in real dialogue on stage and with our audience so that people can feel that they’re part of something, that they’re not just listening to talking heads.

LF: It sounds like that first annual Food Tank Summit was a big success. What were some of the highlights of that event, and what’s in store for your second Food Tank Summit?

DN: We’re really proud to partner with Kathleen Merrigan, who’s the former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, and is now the Executive Director of Sustainability at George Washington University. She’s such an incredible leader in this space and being able to share her wisdom with our audience was great. We had everyone from Tom Colicchio to Congresswoman Chellie Pingree speak, it was just an incredible way to get farmers and policy makers and others really talking to one another. That summit sold out within minutes of us announcing it. We had a 1500 person waiting list and 300 tickets were sold. We just are really looking forward to expanding these over the next year… This year, we had a two-day event with panels each day, and some of the feedback we received is people were really inspired and excited to learn a lot of new things, but then they didn’t know what to do with it. So with each of these events we’ll have one day of listening and creating conversation and then another day of doing, whether that’s being on Capitol Hill, or visiting urban farms, or with our São Paolo event, we’ll be having a visit to one of our board member’s farms, it’s one of the largest organic farms in Brazil. In Chicago we’ll have the opportunity to meet with local food activists and advocates who are doing amazing things. So just having a day where people are not just sitting in their seats and learning, but really getting out into these neighborhoods and communities and learning from people who are actually doing the work.

LF: Your recent research report on the Real Cost of Food was well-received by a large audience at American University. Can you tell us a little bit more about that report?

DN: Again, our goal is not to reinvent the wheel, but we wanted to put together a lay of the land report that shows where true cost accounting in the food system is at, who are the organizations who are leading the efforts around trying to put a value, not necessarily a price, but put a value on both the positive and negative externalities, and then point a way forward… There needs to be more investment from businesses and policy makers, and the funding and donor communities, to really help farmers and all of us as eaters really know the true value of what we’re eating. So that was a really exciting…we had Michael Berger, who’s one of the founding partners of Elevation Burger, which is a restaurant chain that serves only organic, grass-fed beef. We had academics from American University, we had leaders from the Union of Concerned Scientists, who are one of the leading proponents of true costs accounting. So it was a really exciting way to get our message out there and show what work is being done, how can it be used, and really the importance of being able to value what we’re producing and consuming.

LF: Food Tank’s work is quite large in scope. What is the most challenging part of running an organization like this?

DN: We’re trying to balance the need for fundraising along with all the other things that we need to do. We’re a very small, scrappy organization that’s mostly comprised of women, and so we’re really just trying to do a lot with a little, as many organizations are. Our biggest challenge is how do we grow this organization sustainably, but we’re still very young as a nonprofit and really wanting to do a lot of things, and I think one of our biggest challenges is being able to be the think tank that we want to be: this forum where people come for information, come for insight, come to be connected to others who are seeking information. So as we grow, I’m very confident that we’ll meet all those challenges, it’s just, we’re sort of in our gawky, adolescent phase, and I think over the next year we’ll really grow up and be able to do the work that we know is so important and be able to do it well.

LF: As the organization does continue to grow and mature, what are some of the concrete goals you have for the next few years?

DN: I look at these four summits that we’re doing next year, and it really is only the beginning… We want to be able to help propel financially some of the organizations that we’ve been able to highlight over the last couple of years through a Johnny Appleseed fund where we’re able to help a lot of these groups who need very small amounts of money, $5,000 or $10,000, to really scale, not necessarily up, but to scale out their projects. We hope to build more partnerships. We’ve had this incredible momentum and ability to partner with a variety of groups, but I think that’s one of our biggest strengths, so just being able to continue that will be a huge focus for us over the next five years.

LF: To reveal a little bit about your personality, I have a couple of fun questions for you. If you were going to be a full-time farmer, what crop would you grow and why?

DN: I think sweet potatoes, because I love them so much. I live in Louisiana, and so sweet potatoes are very special to that state, so I think I’d love to be like Ben Burkett, who’s the head of the National Family Farm Coalition, and one of the best farmers I know, in not just Louisiana, but in the world, and be able to grow the delicious sweet potatoes that he grows.

LF: What’s your favorite sustainable restaurant in the US?

DN: I love John Besh’s restaurants in Louisiana, including August and Pizza Domenica, and I love his whole philosophy around connecting people to food and highlighting the farmers that are providing the produce and the meat to his restaurants. He’s also very involved in the community and nurturing young people, so I’m really excited about being able to eat at all of his restaurants in New Orleans.

LF: Looking toward the future, what can the average eater or consumer do to help propel this mission of building a sustainable global food system?

DN: One of the things that I think has been so exciting over the last 10 or 15 years is this huge expansion in knowledge of what’s local, and people really choosing to go to farmers markets, or joining a CSA, or buying more organic food or antibiotic-free meat. People are interested; we have this moment in time where people are really interested in where their food comes from. And a lot of this has been for selfish reasons, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. People feel better. They feel better because they’re connected to the farmer who grew their vegetables, or they feel better because they think eating more organic or sustainably grown food is better for their health, or they are eating more vegetables because they decided that they were only going to eat meat a couple times a week instead of every day, and I’m hoping that we can turn that foodie momentum into a bigger movement for real change in the food system. We’ve seen some of that with the work that the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United is doing around better wages for restaurant workers, you see it with some of the work that Oxfam America has done about highlighting what’s going on in the poultry processing industry in the United States, but I think we need more. We need people to not just be concerned about where their particular food comes from, but realize that this is a right that everyone deserves. Everyone deserves safe, healthy, affordable food, and that’s not been the case, not just for people in the developing world, but in the United States. So I’m hoping that we can galvanize those efforts and that energy that’s there to really push for bigger food system change.

Find out more about Food Tank and learn how you can get involved or register for an upcoming event by visiting their website.

1 Comment

  1. Danielle Tergis

    Nice job Lani! Thanks for your support of Food Tank.


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