You might expect something called the Julia Child Award to be given to a visionary chef or accomplished restaurateur—and for the past five years, you would have been right.
But while “visionary” and “accomplished” are apt descriptors for this year’s honoree, cooking is not her strong suit. “I’m not a chef. Just ask my husband,” joked Danielle Nierenberg, N01, co-founder and president of the nonprofit Food Tank, which does education and advocacy work supporting a healthier, more sustainable, more equitable food system.
Most recently, chef and restaurateur Jose Andres and Border Grill co-chefs and co-owners Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Veniger received the annual award and $50,000 grant from the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts.
But Nierenberg’s expertise lies in bringing people together, starting conversations, and creating openings for change. “We want to convene people who otherwise wouldn’t talk to each other, to organize a safe space where corporate executives, agricultural companies, and food justice advocates can talk about what’s working and what’s not, and possible solutions,” Nierenberg said. “We want to create the opportunity for uncomfortable conversations. I think a lot lies in that uncomfortableness if you can leave your biases at the door.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing, this work is more important than ever. Unprecedented stresses on the food system have exposed its flaws—as well as the opportunities for solutions, Nierenberg said. “I think people are finally seeing things that were easy to ignore before, like the treatment of food workers in restaurants and processing plants, and the fragility of our food system,” Nierenberg said. “COVID-19 is not the last thing we’re going to have to endure, and now people are learning how to better prepare and really transform the food system in different ways.”
Food justice and equity will be the focus of the new one-year fellowship Nierenberg plans to establish with the Julia Child grant. “The food movement in the U.S. needs more diversity in all forms—age, gender, socioeconomic, and cultural diversity—and I hope that’s what comes out of this scholarship,” Nierenberg said. Food Tank will also use the award funds to hold a series of online talks starting in late 2020, whose possible themes include next steps for the food system post-COVID. The series, which may shift to in-person venues around the country later in 2021, will be held together with the Julia Child Foundation.
Many years ago, Julia Child was known to place orders at Emma’s Pizza in Kendall Square, where Nierenberg worked on weekends while completing an internship through the Friedman School. Nierenberg still remembers excitedly waiting for her to call. “She aimed to be friendly and accessible and to make cooking not just joyous, but comfortable and meaningful,” Nierenberg said.
The Julia Child Award is meant for which is meant for a person or team “who has made a profound and significant difference in the way America cooks, eats, and drinks,” according to the foundation’s website. “The fact that the Julia Child Foundation has taken a risk and pivoted to highlight a food activist is personally fulfilling for me, and a really beautiful thing for them to do,” Nierenberg said. “It’s a recognition of not just the impact of Food Tank’s work, but of the people doing incredible work combating food waste, mitigating climate change, and creating more equality in the food system—voices that don’t always get heard.”
It’s also a bright spot during a time when they’re few and far between, said Nierenberg, who appreciates that online events can reach a wider audience, but who can’t wait to get back into the field. “I’m so grateful for the gift the Julia Foundation has given us, which will allow us to expand and reinforce our work,” Nierenberg said. “I feel very hopeful about the future of food and agriculture, especially in the United States, and I think what we’re going to see worldwide will be very exciting.”
Monica Jimenez can be reached at email@example.com.