Parke Wilde, PhD, food economist at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, is one of the organizing committee members for 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.
At Tufts, Parke teaches graduate-level courses in statistics and U.S. food policy. His research addresses food security and hunger measurement, the economics of food assistance programs, and federal dietary guidance policy. He has been a member of the Institute of Medicine’s Food Forum and currently is on the scientific and technical advisory committee for Menus of Change, an initiative to advance the health and sustainability of the restaurant industry. Parke keeps a food policy blog and has authored a book, Food Policy in the United States: An Introduction. Beginning in 2016, he directs the USDA-funded Tufts/UConn Research Innovation and Development Grants in Economics (RIDGE) program.
Food Tank spoke with Parke about his food heroes, inspirations, and hope for the future of food.
Food Tank (FT): What originally inspired you to get involved in your work?
Parke Wilde (PW): My first professional job was with the Community Nutrition Institute, a public interest advocacy organization working on nutrition policy issues, in the early 1990s. I had originally been introduced to the organization by an undergraduate professor, a political scientist who specialized in food policy. Critical themes in food policy debates from that time period have recurred throughout the subsequent decades.
FT: What makes you continue to want to be involved in this kind of work?
PW: There is so much opportunity to meet the world’s food needs better than we currently are doing. My students constantly challenge me to be dissatisfied with the structural inadequacies of the food system that has been handed down to us.
FT: Who inspired you as a kid?
PW: These examples are not quite from childhood, but from my early college years, when I came to admire people who combined a sense of timeless principle with the concrete, time-specific, rough-and-tumble business of actual political accomplishment. Some of these people are famous and historical (Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King), and some were famous and contemporary to the times when I started to think about these things (Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa). Among people who are less famous to U.S. audiences, I have a special admiration for people who were scholars or teachers first and then later made a real difference in politics and the food system (Julius Nyerere, Lee Teng-Hui, Jose Graziano da Silva).
FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?
PW: It is possible to begin with better and more fruitful conversations across the main chasms in contemporary food policy arguments: not just Republicans and Democrats, but farmers and city folk, coastal and heartland residents, local food advocates and global thinkers, people whose food safety fear is microbial contamination and people whose food safety fear is new technologies, meat eaters and vegetarians, and, just to take one example close to home, economists and non-economists.
FT: Can you share a story about a food hero who inspired you?
PW: Your question causes me to remember things I haven’t thought about for many years, whose connections to food policy research now appear in hindsight. As a young child growing up in Washington, D.C., my parents took me to an event honoring Cesar Chavez, whose work with the United Farm Workers I knew at the time only from a children’s book. In the early 1980s, attending D.C. Public Schools, I enjoyed a classmate’s birthday party at his mother’s restaurant, Restaurant Nora, not yet knowing anything about Nora Pouillon’s leadership in local and sustainable restaurant sourcing.
FT: What’s the most pressing issue in food and agriculture that you’d like to see solved?
PW: Producing food that is simultaneously healthy, environmentally sustainable, and sufficient for the world’s population.
FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
PW: Following a tradition espoused by the heroes you asked about earlier, I think it is valuable to live one’s own life according to the same principles that one advocates in the food system and the larger political and economic system. Because readers of this interview likely already have heightened awareness about their food choices, may I mention a different issue altogether? Colleagues and I have organized a campaign to encourage people in university communities to set goals and make intentional changes in how much they fly during these times of climate change (see flyingless.org).
FT: What advice can you give to President Trump and the U.S. Congress on food and agriculture?
PW: Choose your battles. Must we really argue about everything at the same time? Where possible, contemplate opportunities for bipartisan agreement that don’t require you to sacrifice fundamental principles. Just to take the example of nutrition assistance programs, last year’s bipartisan National Hunger Commission has a report that merits a second look.
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