Barry McNamara  |   Published July 23, 2020

A Voice for Good Food

Food activist Danielle Nierenberg ’95 receives prestigious Julia Child Award for her work as a food activist.

MONMOUTH, Ill. – During her childhood, activist Danielle Nierenberg relied on books more than television during her leisure time. Still, the 1995 Monmouth College graduate did have a few favorite TV personalities, including one whose name is on the award that Nierenberg was presented earlier this month – the Julia Child Award, which comes with a $50,000 grant. The award is presented by the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts.

DANIELLE NIERENBERG: Inspired at the age of 13 by the book Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Mo... DANIELLE NIERENBERG: Inspired at the age of 13 by the book Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappé.“I remember watching her on PBS,” said Nierenberg, who grew up in the unincorporated Missouri community of Defiance. “We lived out in the boondocks, and PBS was one of the four channels that we got. She was the only woman chef I’d ever seen. Watching her really set the stage for me.”

As did one of the books that a young Nierenberg read that began her trajectory to the Julia Child Award, which is presented annually to a person who has made a profound and significant difference in the way America cooks, eats and drinks.

At the age of 13, Nierenberg read Diet for a Small Planet, a 1971 bestselling book by Frances Moore Lappé. It was the first major book to note the environmental impact of meat production.

“Her work really inspired me, and it influenced what I tried to write about in the newspaper,” said Nierenberg, referring to the weekly “On the Environment” column she wrote for the Daily Review Atlas as a Monmouth student. “I know her personally now – we’re friends.”

From Monmouth, Nierenberg went to Boston, where she completed her master’s degree in agriculture, food and environment at the School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.

Child was living in Boston at the time, which influenced Nierenberg’s choice of part-time employment.

“I took a job at a pizza place, partly because she was known to order from there,” said Nierenberg. “It never happened while I was there, but the chance that it could made going into work more exciting.”

Nourishing the Planet

In the two decades since, Nierenberg has become a leading journalist, author and activist on food-related issues such as the spread of factory farming in the developing world and innovations in sustainable agriculture.

In 2009, she co-founded the Nourishing the Planet project housed at the Worldwatch Institute and became its director. As part of that role, she spent 18 months in sub-Saharan Africa, looking for solutions to poverty and hunger in 30 countries.

In 2013, she was a co-founder of Food Tank: The Think Tank for Food. The organization aims to offer solutions and environmentally sustainable ways of alleviating hunger, obesity and poverty by creating a network of connections and information.

“We try to do things like teach children where food comes from,” said Nierenberg. “We work toward getting people to change the way they grow, harvest, eat and dispose of food. And we try to highlight folks who have often been under-represented like farmers, grocers, truck drivers. They are essential frontline workers, much like healthcare workers are.”

Promoting World Food Day

Nierenberg will use part of the $50,000 grant money for a Food Talk Live event at the Smithsonian Institute on World Food Day, Oct. 16. The events Nierenberg helps organize are known for “bringing together people who aren’t likely to be in the same room – food advocates and company executives, people from different sides of the aisle,” she said.

Speaking about those events in a Washington Post article about her award, Nierenberg said: “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 Julia Child Award has also increased Nierenberg’s visibility, including an appearance on the Inside Julia’s Kitchen podcast, for which she prepared a meal that was shown on Instagram Live. She chose a vegetarian version of a Julia Child staple – beef bourguignon.

“My husband eats meat,” said Nierenberg. “He’d have steak every day if he could. But he told me my dish was the most delicious thing he’s ever eaten.”

Nierenberg, who lives in Baltimore, was informed of her award several months ago and could only tell her mother and husband about it.

“I was shocked, floored. I cried, just burst into tears,” she said of the honor, which has typically been presented to leading American chefs. “I’m still in shock, to be honest. I never thought I’d be associated with Julia Child and other chefs. They made a real switch this year.”

Nierenberg also became emotional when thinking about Monmouth faculty member Ira Smolensky, who helped her set the direction of her future.

“I really wish Ira could have seen me win this award,” said Nierenberg of the late political science professor, who was one of her mentors. “I wouldn’t have been able to achieve what I’ve achieved without Ira. He would be really proud of this.”

Danielle Nierenberg at 2015 TEDxManhattan

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