Ellen Gustafson: Food System Activist
Ellen Gustafson speaks about better nutrition and how she and business parter Lauren Bush, created a company to feed those in need globally.
Food System Activist
Since 1980, changes in U.S. food production have led to a global dynamic of one billion overweight and one billion hungry. Ellen Gustafson's 30 Project aims to address this problem by bringing together key organizations and activists to work together to create a sustainable global food system.
ELLEN GUSTAFSON: There's this weird dichotomy in the food system where kind of unhealthy food is almost universally available, but really healthy food that makes people productive and able to learn and able to grow is really hard to come by.
The 30 Project was this idea that came out of looking at the last 30 years of the food system and seeing that, since then, we've developed this massive crisis of malnutrition where a billion people are hungry and a billion people are overweight. It's really time for us to look at the next 30 years and say, how are we going to get this right? How do we get the people that fight hunger, the people that fight obesity all to [? align ?] so that we can have a food system that provides healthy food for everyone all around the world. My vision is that if we get these two groups of people to sit down and talk, they'll realize, hey, these two issues are actually really similar.
We're doing dinners where we're gathering stakeholders. You hear a nutritionist at a grocery store, and a small organic farmer, and a big farmer, and a hunger advocate have a conversation saying, oh wow, I actually didn't realize that we're really trying to do the same thing here. And if we work together, and if we have sort of a coordinated long term vision, we're actually more likely to get there and more likely to end both problems.
My early career and the initial path I was going down had nothing to do with food. And I started to really realize, when I get out of bed in the morning, the first news I want to read is about food and what's going on in Darfur and understanding nutrition issues, understanding global hunger issues. And I started to realize a connection between my own personal interest in nutrition and the fact that these places around the world that become terrorist hotbeds, or sort of insecure, often start as hungry places.
So I worked at the World Food Program, met my FEED business partner Lauren, who had this idea and sort of a sample of a bag. She was like, I want to sell these bags, and each bag sold would give food to a hungry child through their school feeding program. I said, you know, I think this could be a business. I think this is not just one bag. I think this is a company and a brand.
And so we started a company. And once we got all the [? whole ?] [? foods ?] regions to sign on, we were able to provide $4.3 million of donations that led to essentially funding the Rwandan school feeding operations for about a year. Every single day, we eat, and our food choices are part of this massive huge global network that seems so disconnected from us, but we essentially have power in that food system.
ELLEN GUSTAFSON: From my perspective, a hugely important challenge is understanding what feminism means to us. I find it an incredibly important conversation because, in the food space, in many ways, our grandmothers and our mothers were told to like throw off your apron and get out of the kitchen, use this TV dinner, go get your family dinner at a fast food restaurant and that's all going to be fine. Reality is we now know it's not going to be fine.
So we have absolutely the responsibility as women to take control of the food system, at least in our own homes. How does the fact that we want to prepare really healthy meals for ourselves and our families jive with that we want to have awesome careers and be really successful outside the home as well. And I think figuring that out, and valuing appropriately the time spent preparing food, and the time spent doing things that are healthy in our own homes, is going to be a hugely important challenge to figure out in the future.
ELLEN GUSTAFSON: I think the essential crisis is childbearing, and that we have not found the balance of what does this all mean? The reality is, you know, if somebody gets hired and they then get engaged and then get married, there's this trajectory that everyone thinks they're going on-- that means they're going to leave and-- or they're going to be less productive or whatever-- whatever it is that the eventuality of children creates in a woman's career path.
And I think we have to rethink what all of that looks like.
We also, by the way, have to rethink how men interface with that. I think we have to think, you know, what is a man's role vis-a-vis a home, what is a woman's role vis-a-vis a home, who wants to do what, and how can we actually, you know, how can couples present that to their employers in a way that makes sense, both from a salary perspective and from a time perspective?
ELLEN GUSTAFSON: When you have a unique perspective on any big problem, the first challenge is to say, how do I convince other people that this is the right way to look at it? Or at least a new way to look at it? And that's really what I've been doing over the last year, is public speaking and in the dinners that I've been having around the country, is sitting down with people and saying, really look. Look at these two issues. Look at how they've developed over this trajectory. And try to think differently about them. And it's amazing that sometimes, it just takes that spark. And I've had just wonderful reactions from people who've worked in the food world for years saying, oh, wow! I really never thought of it that way.
ELLEN GUSTAFSON: I think the most meaningful piece of advice that we could all follow, and that I think we all kind of struggle to follow, is to just live your values. If you just live your own values, really in a meaningful way, the world is probably going to be OK.
If people can just eat in the way that we want the food system to be, then the food system will likely shift in that direction. There's too much of a disconnect, I think, in the way that we're meant to live and then what we envision for the world. And if we actually kind of harmonize those things a little bit more, even just in the daily choices that we make, that's actually probably a really nice, harmonious, and productive way to live.
ELLEN GUSTAFSON: My dad is really interested in entrepreneurship, and I think taught me a lot about the idea of risk-taking and following your dreams and following your passion. And really, I mean I think the idea of risk, and seeing that, and seeing a parent take risks is really valuable because a lot of people don't have that experience.
ELLEN GUSTAFSON: My mama has this really deep sense-- and it was very forceful in her teaching as a mother that you have to care about your fellow man. You have to remember your fellow man. And it wasn't so much about a religious idea. It was this idea of as human beings, we really are all connected to each other. And whatever you do in life, if your riches come in a way that degrades your fellow man, it's not worth it. And you haven't had a life well lived.
ELLEN GUSTAFSON: I had a mentor in my first job. Her name is Lisa Shields, and she is the head of communications at the Council on Foreign Relations. And she taught me a really important lesson, which is that you can get up in the morning, you can put on a great looking outfit that's stylish, that you feel great in, but then you can go and do really important work.
And I think in the history of the women's movement, there was the sense that like you can't necessarily be both. It's awesome to be as healthy and vibrant as you possibly can, as stylish as you possibly can, but also do really important work. And I think that's something that we, going forward, are definitely going to instill our daughters with.