In 2010, I embarked on a mission to passionately proclaim a worldview about the global food system: that hunger and obesity are essentially the same problem and require the same set of solutions.
At that point, I had been focused on fighting hunger for a few years, both as a Public Information Officer at the UN World Food Program and as the cofounder of a company called FEED. I got into the hunger fight through work on global security issues—which are often linked to food security issues—and had spent almost five years focused on food as the solution to many of our world’s problems.
On a trip to Uganda and Kenya in 2009, I noticed that along with U.S. food aid bags of corn-soy blend, it was generally easy to find things like soda and processed junk food, even in the most rural villages, but clearly not easy to find the locally grown mix of nutritious foods we all need to thrive.
As I returned back to JFK airport in New York, I had a bizarre revelation: The only foods I could find at the big-city, American airport were soda and junk food, too. As I dove into an obsessive personal quest to understand why, I started to read more and more about food systems, agriculture, the changes that have taken place to create the obesity epidemic and the reasons for persistent and growing hunger.
My initial research yielded a few key data points: Everything seemed to get crazy in the global food system around 1980. When I looked at the graphs of the obesity epidemic I noticed the start date was 1980. The shift from agriculture aid to food aid happened in the last 30 years. The major push towards agriculture and food business consolidation? Yup, hastened since 1980 and since around 1980 America has lost about a quarter of our farms. Since 1980, the percent of the dollar that farmers receive is down, the number of natural disasters affecting agriculture and the global temperatures are up, food allergies and health care spending are up, and we still have about 49 million hungry Americans. (Oh yeah, and the Supreme Court case to allow for the patenting of GM foods? That happened in 1980 as well.)
Also, in 1980, I was born, along with millions of my peers around the world. Ok, that’s certainly not a major event, but relevant because in 2010, while obsessively looking at all this data, I realized that many major food system problems, which seemed so entrenched and unflinching and overwhelming, were really just created in our lifetime. So, if human innovation (and greed and power) could create a world of over one billion overweight and almost one billion hungry in just thirty years, surely we could unravel the bad and invest in the good to create a healthier food system in our lifetime, too?
In pursuit of this goal, I decided that the first step was to get people to really understand the problem. In 2010, around the time I gave my first TEDx Talk
, I created a little organization called the 30 Project
. My goal was to change the conversation that had theretofore been very segmented—between hunger-fighters on one side and obesity activists on the other. I was firmly convinced that if more conferences and organizations and talks were focused on “obesity + hunger = one global food issue,” we could get the right people talking about the right ways to rebuild a food system that addresses both problems.
In the past three years since the launch of the 30 Project, the craziest thing has happened: Much of what I had hoped for. I have now spoken on many panels about hunger and obesity as one malnutrition crisis. I have seen venerable groups like the World Economic Forum, the World Food Prize, and TEDx Manhattan
create programming focused on looking holistically at food system change. I’ve hosted dinners of likeminded folks from San Francisco to Sioux City, Iowa, and connected new leaders who are changing the food system. The tide has shifted and today more people who work on hunger and obesity are connected and working together.
In many ways, one of the key goals of the 30 Project—to be a part of changing the conversation—has been accomplished. I believe the ultimate goal of a nonprofit should be to put itself out of business. Stay tuned for what’s next.