Roll Onward, Food Tank

April 16, 2013
Mattaman McKearnee
April 19, 2013

Every so often, an issue of dramatic comestible import enters our consciousness: the infamous genetic manipulations of Monsanto’s corn, the raging terror of Mad Cow Disease, horse meat tucked into our Big Macs. But more often than not—though food is of primary importance in our consumerist culture—gustatory issues remain outside common ken. Part of it is wanton ignorance, and part of it is simply a lack of education. For those in the middle of ethical debates surrounding food and its provenance, widespread conversation is stunted, adulterated, or altogether absent. These are the crusaders who dare to ask: If food is so important to us, shouldn’t we be talking about it more?

The answer for most is an unqualified “yes.” The tough part, however, is getting the conversation going—and keeping it going. Ethical debates on GMOs might be pertinent to our health, but they’re hardly sexy topics. Which is why Danielle Nierenberg and Ellen Gustafson have charged forward with a new idea, melding the traditions of politics, academia, and everything we eat. It’s called, The Food Tank.

Of course, think tanks have been around for decades in this country, and rarely would anyone bat an eye at a new one. Most hone in on issues of significant political and governmental gravity, while others—like the Brookings Institution—cover a wide array of topics. Still, with all of the heated debates in courtrooms and legislative houses surrounding what we eat, it’s a wonder that more energy hasn’t been spent on the most necessary topic of all: food.

Hence, the brainchild of Neirenberg and Gustafson. It’s young yet—birthed in early 2013—but bears the marks of a successful venture. And perhaps more than its predecessors, The Food Tank vows to keep discussions accessible and open to the lay consumer. They’ve framed their mission succinctly:

The Food Think Tank is for the 7 billion people who have to eat every day. We will offer solutions and environmentally sustainable ways of alleviating hunger, obesity, and poverty by creating a network of connections and information for us to consume and share.

Food Tank is for farmers and producers, policy makers and government leaders, researchers and scientists, academics and journalists, and the funding and donor communities to collaborate on providing sustainable solutions for our most pressing environmental and social problems.

We understand the importance of listening to the needs of the community. We will shed light on the projects that are already working and bring those innovations to a wider audience.

Both Nierenberg and Gustafson come from gustatory pasts; Nierenberg spent years working on sustainable agriculture across the globe, including two years in the Dominican Republic as a Peace Corps Volunteer, while Gustafson comes from an executive director position with another think tank, the 30 Project, which aggressively attacks many of the same issues The Food Tank hopes to address.

The question is: How does this work in practice? It starts with education—through their website, where statistics, graphics, and links to outside organizations shape a vision of food needs across the globe; through webinars and conferences, where leading food personalities from chefs to farmers talk candidly about what’s missing in the food industry today; and through community forums where perspectives are shared from one culture to the next. The next step, ideally, is where people are inspired enough to do something—to volunteer, to donate, to change lifelong habits.

While The Food Tank characterizes itself as a new concept in think-tank spheres, it’s not trying to reinvent the wheel. Connection to existing organizations opens the door both for continued conversation about what’s needed, and presents a call to action in the face of extreme poverty, crippling obesity, and environmental erosion.

It’s worth noting that the tone Nierenberg and Gustafson have adopted is encouragingly positive. There is a distinct optimism at work here: “We hope to bridge the domestic and global food issues by highlighting how hunger, obesity, climate change, unemployment, and other problems can be solved by more research and investment in agriculture,” they say. “We’ll highlight hope and success in agriculture. We will feature innovative ideas that are already working on the ground.” There’s no doomsaying here, but a culture of empowerment.

Before action happens, however, The Food Tank needs to get our attention. And it starts with the cold truth about what’s happening in the world of food. For example:

Poverty: One out of every six children in developing countries is underweight.

Obesity: Obesity rates have more than doubled wordlwide since 1980.

Agriculture: 500 million small farms worldwide, most still relying on rain-fed agriculture, provide up to 80 percent of food consumed in most of the developing world. They need our support.

And that’s just the beginning. The charge? Read more, act more, do more. We can start by watching the recording (posted online) of the April 17 Food Tank gathering, a meeting devoted to improving the agricultural and culinary microcosm of Chicago. Then, we explore, write, read, and do. We stay informed. We build healthy disciplines. We live by example. And we get to know our food.

It begins at, and leads to an ethical revelation we simply can’t ignore.

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