Norbert Wilson, PhD, is speaking at the inaugural Boston Food Tank Summit, “Investing in Discovery,” which will be held in collaboration with Tufts University and Oxfam America on April 1, 2017.
In January, Norbert joined the Friedman School at Tufts University as tenure-track Professor. He is a published researcher who centers his work on food waste and food choice, especially for individuals living with low incomes. Norbert uses “nudges,” based on behavioral economics, to encourage the selection of healthier products at food pantries. Concerning food waste, Norbert uses experimental economics to explore how date labels influence future food waste. Additionally, he has worked on food safety and quality issues in international trade and domestic food systems. He also loves good coffee and has published an analysis of coffee quality and prices.
Food Tank had the opportunity to ask Norbert a few questions about what inspired his research and passion for understanding the way people make their daily food choices.
Food Tank (FT): What originally inspired you to get involved in your work?
Norbert Wilson (NW): My current work centers on two areas: Addressing food insecurity and food waste. I grew up in rural Georgia, where food insecurity and diet-related diseases are prevalent. When I graduated from college and was headed to California for graduate school, my doctor said to me that this move would be good because our diet in the South is lethal. While I did not go to graduate school to study food and nutrition issues, my context shaped my future. After graduate school, I moved to Alabama, and I saw the challenges of food access and poor food choice in stark contrast to what I saw in California. As I progressed through academic ranks, I began to look beyond my earlier research of agricultural policies and trade to begin thinking about food and nutrition. One colleague suggested that I work with a nutritionist, I also began working with a rural sociologist, these women shaped my understanding of the food and agricultural landscape and the need for work on nutrition. In part, these activities led to me becoming a member of the Food Bank of East Alabama, which opened my eyes to hunger relief and the larger food system.
FT: What makes you continue to want to be involved in this kind of work?
NW: Working with food banks, talking with students and colleagues at the Friedman School, seeing community and family members struggle with food access and diet-related diseases, among others, encourage me to continue in this work.
FT: Who inspired you as a kid?
NW: My family, church community, and 4-H advisors. They believed in me. They saw my potential, supported me, and encouraged me to do my best.
FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?
NW: Creating opportunities to develop shared values between consumers, producers, and retailers.
FT: Can you share a story about a food hero who inspired you?
NW: Martha Henk is one of my food heroes. She is the Executive Director of the Food Bank of East Alabama. She had learned of client choices food pantries, where clients could choose the products that they wanted, and she was inspired to develop one for the community. Through planning, fundraising, and friend-raising, she and the board created the Community Market, a food pantry at the border of Auburn and Opelika AL. At Community Market, clients can shop the pantry like a grocery store. Pantries like these respect the dignity of clients by granting them opportunities to make food choices.
FT: What’s the most pressing issue in food and agriculture that you’d like to see solved?
NW: Ensuring that people who have limited access to food can purchase good, nutrition foods, which are produced in sustainable methods.
FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
NW: We need to modify our consumption habits to lower our waste of food and nutrients.
FT: What advice can you give to President Trump and the U.S. Congress on food and agriculture?
NW: Restrictions on SNAP and block grants of the program may have significant negative consequences for households struggling with food access. Please engage in careful analysis before implementing any significant policy changes. Careful piloting and evaluation of changes should guide future decisions.
On the international front, U.S. growers and consumers gain from international trade of food and agricultural products. Policies such as tariffs that restrict trade may have negative consequences for growers, workers, and consumers.
Click here to purchase tickets to Food Tank’s inaugural Boston Summit.