Lynette Johnson, Executive Director of the Society of St. Andrew (SoSA), will be speaking at the inaugural New York City Food Tank Summit, “Focusing on Food Loss and Food Waste,” which will be held in partnership with Rethink Food Waste Through Economics and Data (ReFED) and with support from The Rockefeller Foundation and The Fink Family Foundation on September 13, 2017.
Johnson originally joined SoSA in 2010 as Regional Director for Tennessee and Alabama, overseeing day-to-day operations in both states. She developed gleaning networks that engage thousands of volunteers each year in hands-on food recovery work. In just three years, that work put about 14 million servings of food on the tables of hungry Alabamians and Tennesseans. In late 2013, Lynette joined
In late 2013, Lynette joined SoSA’s national staff, serving as Director of Church Relations. In this capacity, she invited congregations into conversations about hunger and food waste, introducing them to the possibility of gleaning to feed people in need in their own communities. Lynette’s prior careers have included stints as a church educator, pastor, editor, and magazine art director. She holds degrees from the College of William and Mary and Scarritt Graduate School.
Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Johnson about the inspirations for her work and how we can each get involved with reducing food waste.
Food Tank (FT): What originally inspired you to get involved in your work?
Lynette Johnson (LJ): I first read about the Society of St. Andrew in a religious publication in the mid-1980s. The story was about an obscure do-gooder group that sent volunteers into fields for a week to dig and gather potatoes remaining after commercial harvest. They spent some time in the evenings educating the volunteers about hunger in the U.S. and in the world, its extent, causes, and some possible solutions even. The potatoes went to feeding agencies, to be shared with hungry people.
I thought that model of neighbor helping neighbor and people working together, finding abundance to address scarcity, made so much sense. I wanted to work for the Society of St. Andrew immediately, though it took me about 15 years or so to actually make that happen.
FT: What makes you continue to want to be involved in this kind of work?
LJ: As a person of faith, I am captivated by the concept of abundance, in a world that operates almost entirely on the principle of scarcity. In our everyday lives, in our national policies, we act as though the Earth and all its resources (and our own personal resources) are a zero sum game. ‘Grab all you can, because there’s not enough to go around. If I have enough, there won’t be enough for you.’ And we act as though that’s okay. My faith tells me that’s not okay. I believe that if we have or find abundance, it is our responsibility—I’d even say it’s our calling—to do whatever it takes to share that abundance with people who are in need.
FT: Who inspired you as a kid?
LJ: My parents. Most of my earliest memories involve my parents volunteering, doing their part to make a difference in our community, not in big, showy ways, but through regular, quiet commitments tutoring children, leading scouts, visiting homebound seniors, etc. In 1960s Civil Rights-era Alabama, my parents weren’t marching and protesting (though those were really important activities!), they were at the inner-city community center every Tuesday evening helping kids with homework. I think their actions really impressed on me the importance of working in a ground-level, local way to bring about change.
FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?
LJ: I was just reading that NGOs working in famine-ravaged areas are finding it hard to get people in richer nations to care about the 20 million people at risk of starvation. The massive scale of the problem, I think, makes it easier to consider it ‘not our problem.’ If we want people to care, I think the problem has to be presented as manageable enough that we feel as though our own contribution—our thinking, our ideas, our buying power, our four tomato plants, our backyard composting, our decisions, and our efforts—will make a difference.
We absolutely need those who can draw and interpret the big picture—we need ReFED and WHO, Oxfam and Bread for the World, the EPA and WFP, USAID and The Rockefeller Foundation, and so many others—to show us the scope of needs and possibilities and continue their work on a national and global scale.
But we also need organizations like mine (that engages volunteers in field gleaning), the county farmers’ market association, the community table that welcomes everyone in for a free meal, the ugly veggie CSA, and the supermarket that sells imperfect fruit to really bring food system issues and needs to a hyper-local, very personal level.
We need people to care in small ways so that we can help them begin to care in big ways and effect change on a much larger scale. Organizations on the ground locally also need to be very intentional about growing our volunteers and donors into advocates and leaders, at all levels. (And my organization, for one, has not been intentional about this. We are working on it!) To quote Dr. Seuss, ‘Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.’
FT: Can you share a story about a food hero who inspired you?
LJ: Just one? Jonathan Bloom and Dana Gunders, of course, who opened my eyes to the sheer volume of food waste in this country. But, frankly, anyone who grows food is my hero, from teachers everywhere, who help kindergarteners plant beans in little paper cups; to my next door neighbor whose row of mixed vegetables grows in a narrow space next to her house; to my grandmother who grew (and ate and shared and ‘put up’) a vast array of vegetables on a two-acre plot, into her 80s; to every farmer and farm worker that puts in endless days of backbreaking labor, season after season, to put food on my table and yours, in spite of unpredictable weather, imperfect regulations, and the vicissitudes of the market. If these folks can care enough to work that hard to grow food, how can I not do my part to see that their efforts are not wasted?
FT: What’s the most pressing issue in food and agriculture that you’d like to see solved?
LJ: The FAO’s 2017 report, The Future of Food and Agriculture: Trends and Challenges, does such a great job of laying out the issues, and they are all critical to feeding the world’s population. From my perspective, making food systems more efficient, resilient, and inclusive would be a most pressing issue. Today, I’m especially focused on that ‘inclusive’ part: I absolutely believe that access to food is a universal human right and that every person deserves a place and a full plate at the table. We need to ensure that every laborer can afford to eat the food they grow and tend.
FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
LJ: Eat what you buy.
The NYC Food Tank Summit is now Sold Out. Register HERE to watch the livestream on Facebook. A few tickets remain for the Summit Dinner at Blue Hill Restaurant with a special menu from Chef Dan Barber. Apply to attend HERE. If you live in New York City, join us on September 14 for our FREE outdoor dance workout led by Broadway performers called Garjana featuring many great speakers raising awareness about food waste issues. Register HERE.