The award honors someone “who has made a profound and significant difference in the way America cooks, eats and drinks,” and it comes with a $50,000 grant that Nierenberg plans to use to put on events with the foundation called Food Tank Food Talk Live. The talks will kick off in Washington in October as part of the Smithsonian’s Food History Weekend.
We recently caught up with Nierenberg to talk about the time she didn’t meet Julia Child, inviting people to have uncomfortable conversations and her clutch quarantine meal.
It seems like many people who love food have a Julia Child moment or story. What’s yours?
I have two! When I was a kid, we lived in the boonies. I grew up in a town called Defiance, Missouri, watching a lot of PBS, because it was one of the four channels we got. And she struck me because she was a woman, and the other chefs were men. So it was my parents’ anniversary, and I made one of her chicken recipes. For a 10-year-old, it seemed so fancy to me. And that was always a fond memory for my parents.
Then when I went to Tufts Friedman [the university’s school of nutrition] in Boston, I worked at a pizza place, and one of the reasons was that they said that Julia Child lived nearby and that she would order from them. So every time I came to work, I would think, “Maybe it’s tonight!” I kept waiting. She never did order from me, but it made going to work exciting.
I could never have predicted that my name would ever be said in the same sentence as hers. I just hope I can continue her legacy in a small way.
This award has typically gone to a famous chef. What does it say about the moment that we’re in that it has gone to an activist?
As a recipient, I am a little intimidated. I know some of the previous recipients. I think it shows how the food culture in the United States has evolved, that it’s not just about celebrity chefs. They paved the way for the work we’re doing. It demonstrates a lot of forward thinking to choose someone like me and my organization. We are trying to bring together voices and amplify folks who haven’t had their voices heard.
I think it speaks to the recognition that there’s a need for more equity and social justice in the food system.
The pandemic has laid bare so many flaws in the agriculture industry — problems with supply chains, the vulnerability of workers and, because of the economic downturn and school closures, widespread hunger. What should people learn?
It’s clear — the veil has been lifted. All the cracks have been exposed, whether it’s with food workers or the supply chain. Most consumers didn’t see them before, and now they can’t not. One bright spot is that we cannot go back to normal. Normal left us very vulnerable. Now is our time to … what’s that word everyone keeps using? To pivot — to really develop long-lasting solutions, to create more jobs and equity, and better nutrition, and really delicious food.
What can a consumer do to that end?
Before, you had consumers who didn’t even know what a CSA [community-supported agriculture program] was. But what’s come out of this is that people know who they trust — they trust farmers — and they’re seeking out local producers. Well, that is, consumers who can afford them.
Another thing is the honoring and respecting of our food system workers. Knowing that your grocery clerk is someone who you should think about. Tipping your delivery guy. Showing kindness to them. Buying local still holds true — but one thing everyone can do is respecting these folks and honoring what they do.
A big part of your work is setting up conversations and conferences. It’s easy to say, well you’re preaching to the choir, and all the people you’re inviting already agree with each other. But you’ve recently started bringing corporate entities into these discussions — how productive is that?
Our role is to make people uncomfortable. Having food-justice advocates on the same stage as corporate food executives and policymakers and legislative staffers can do that. If you had asked me 15 years ago, would I be talking to these companies, I would have said, “Heck no, they’re part of the problem.” But now I understand: If we’re not talking to the people we disagree with, the food system will always be broken.
The protests over the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement have pushed racial inequities in the food system into the spotlight. What would a more racially just food system look like?
If there’s an underserved community, sometimes we think if we just pop in a grocery store, that will fix things. There’s a tendency to go into communities and tell people what they need rather than asking them what they want and need.
If you ask Karen Washington at Rise & Root Farm, what she says about her BIPOC [black, indigenous and people of color] community is, they need investment. There needs to be investment in people who don’t look like me. If we want a more socially just and racially just world, we must invest in entrepreneurs and leaders who are already there doing the work, and that’s how you create sustainable systems.
So we’re all cooking at home more these days. What’s been the hero of your pandemic pantry?
My husband and I live in Baltimore, and we usually eat out a lot, so this has been a big change. Honestly our go-to is pretty simple — it’s Mexican food. I figure I can keep tortillas, cheese and beans around.
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