“Each of us has an incredible ability to effect massive change just from what we have on our plate,” said sustainable food system activist Ellen Gustafson, speaking to a standing-room only crowd in the Geneva Room Tuesday night. As the latest speaker in the fall President’s Forum Speaker Series, and one in a series of speakers who hit on the theme of the “Power of an Idea,” Gustafson presented “A New Understanding of Hunger, Obesity and the Food System,” discussing the high correlation between hunger and violence, the urgency of school food programs as a means of ensuring student success, and the impact individuals can have simply by thinking and choosing more carefully about what they eat.
“Ellen Gustafson is a social entrepreneur, someone who less than 10 years ago was an undergraduate at Columbia, and in that time has put together a very interesting organization,” said President Mark D. Gearan, introducing her to the audience.
Gustafson earned her B.A. in international politics from Columbia University, completing a thesis on terrorism as a global issue. She began her career investigating terrorism for the Council on Foreign Relations as a research associate for Military Fellows, and then worked as a terrorism investigative reporter with ABC News. Through this work, she discovered how the food supply could be the target of a terrorist act. This inspired Gustafson to focus on food and nutrition as vital linkages to violence and terrorism.
“I would rush through my daily terrorism briefings so that I could spend the rest of the day reading about food and nutrition,” she explained.
She eventually became a spokesperson for the United Nations World Food Program, recognizing the need for school food programs as a basic prerequisite to children being able to succeed in schools and in life.
“In the school lunch line we saw the potential to save and change lives,” she said.
Honing her focus on this issue, Gustafson co-founded FEED Projects in 2007. FEED provides a portion of its proceeds to the United Nations World Food Program. In addition to accepting monetary donations, FEED sells T-shirts and accessories, as well as bags that tell consumers how many people they would feed by purchasing the bag. Since its inception, FEED has provided more than 65 million school meals to children throughout the world, and school meals to all the children in Rwanda for a year.
As its success grew, Gustafson stayed true to her core belief in and passion about feeding children. Although pushed to give their bags away to celebrities, FEED never did. “If they wanted a bag they could buy the bag. They were in the best position to do so,” she asserted.
With FEED, Gustafson was listed in Inc. and on the Fortune 100 list.
“All you need to do is want to work hard. Do something in a mission oriented way and know where you are going and what is important to you,” she said.
Realizing how difficult it was to find healthy food options, Gustafson switched her focus to nutrition and the health risks of a lack of proper nutrition – both malnourishment and obesity. She explained, no matter where she went, it was always easy to find a Coca Cola and white bread, but finding nutritious food was often much harder.
“It was always really difficult to find the types of food that I would want to eat,” she shared, adding for those without means the choices are limited not only by supply, but by the high cost of healthy, fresher foods and lower cost of processed foods.
Gustafson has since launched into her latest project, the 30 Project. The goal is to, in the next 30 years, reverse the damage that has been done in the past 30 years.
“In the past 30 years something has happened that has radically changed how we live and how we eat and we need to make a change,” she said.
Since 1980, she explained, agriculture has consolidated and a loss of jobs in farming has had an impact on both the economy and the food supply. In that same timeframe, changes in fast food brought about dramatic changes in our diets while growing from a $6 billion industry to a $110 billion industry.
Her call to action is to “change dinner.” Gustafson explained people can change the food system by changing what they consume – supporting the farmers in our communities, buying local and buying healthy.
She also pointed to college campuses as places that can be successful impetus for change: “The places where local food movements on campus have been successful are the places where they were driven by the students demanding nutritious options.”
Attendees found Gustafson to be a direct, dynamic, and passionate speaker who noticeably engaged the audience. She demanded action.
“I thought that her discussion was very empowering and motivational because she showed us what a difference she has been able to make at such a young age,” said Emily FitzGerald ’14.
Classmate Kendra Futera ’14 was also inspired by Gustafson’s making big on small ideas, “I learned that it is possible to start with nothing but an idea and be able to create something that can make a difference on both small and large scales,” she said.
Gustafson also held a question and answer session at the end of her talk, touching on topics such as subsidy policies, Denmark’s fat tax, high-tech science advancements in irrigation and water filtration, and fair trade issues.
Established in the winter of 2000 by President Mark D. Gearan, the President’s Forum Series is designed to bring a variety of speakers to campus to share their knowledge and ideas with students, faculty and staff of the Colleges, as well as with interested community members. Before serving as President of HWS, Gearan was the director of the Peace Corps. He also served in the White House as Assistant to the President and Director of Communications, as well as Deputy Chief of Staff during the Clinton administration.