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A globetrotting food activist calls New Orleans home.
The nature of Danielle Nierenberg’s career means she can make virtually anywhere in the world her home base, but the 37-year-old activist and author chose New Orleans.
“Why not live in a city that exemplifies hope and success?” Nierenberg says. “It’s a hopeful city that can regenerate itself. And no food quite compares anywhere else in the United States. I figure if I’m going to be at home, I might as well make it a fun place.”
Nierenberg travels the world as the co-founder of Food Tank, a “food think tank” specializing in education, research and advocacy around issues of food security and sustainable agriculture worldwide. She also keeps a busy speaking schedule, appearing regularly on MSNBC, Fox News and Al Jazeera. She’s given talks at major international events like World Food Prize, The New York Times Food for Tomorrow Conference, TEDxManhattan, Edible Institute and more. And she’s written articles and op-ed pieces for major publications like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today and Bloomberg Businessweek.
The Defiance, Missouri native says she didn’t always have a robust understanding of the issues facing agricultural systems and farmers.
“I was always an environmentalist from a very young age,” Nierenberg says. “But in my head I blamed farmers for destroying the environment. Once I started working with these farmers and understood many of them were protecting indigenous crops and protecting water and soil, it really became clear to me how they’re so important for linking not just food production but public health, environmental sustainability, and poverty alleviation.”
This understanding was developed during Nierenberg’s undergraduate studies at Monmouth College in Illinois. The small liberal arts school allowed her to develop her own major, which she built around environmental policy and government with a healthy dose of science courses for a strong foundation.
Then, Nierenberg completed a Peace Corps stint in the Dominican Republic as an environmental awareness educator, where she shared a bathroom with 16 or 18 neighbors, experienced clean water shortages, started a tree nursery and worked closely with farmers. One aspect of her project was working in a school district running environmentally focused summer camps and helping teachers develop learning materials.
“In a lot of developing countries it’s just a lot of memorization, and there’s no sort of interaction, so we tried to really work with these awesome teachers who were doing a lot with very little, to incorporate more of that and to have me there when I could be so that the kids got something a little bit different,” she says.
Next it was on to Tufts University’s School of Nutrition, Science and Policy for a Masters in Agriculture, Food and Environment. After eight years working at Washington, D.C. environmental think tank Worldwatch Institute, Nierenberg founded Food Tank.
“I learned so much at the World Watch Institute, it’s really where I grew up, but like a lot of environmental organizations it’s focused on the problems and a little bit doom-and-gloom…At this point now I’ve traveled to 60-plus countries –and I traveled my whole career, but what I found on the ground is there’s so much inspiration,” she says. “There are definitely problems, but there are also all these inspiring examples of hope and success and things that can be replicated or scaled up in different ways.”
Nierenberg’s schedule would be exhausting to someone with less passion. Meeting the people she’s helping firsthand keeps her inspired.
“I get to talk to real people who are changing the food system every day. If it wasn’t for them, why would anyone do this work?… They motivate me. I don’t mean to sound naïve and trite; I really mean it. I’m constantly inspired, even if I’m jetlagged, by what’s going on on the ground. I’m so lucky and I want to tell those stories.”
Nierenberg hopes to add more voices from her home community and encourages anyone with relevant information on the food movement in New Orleans to contact her at foodtank.com.