Ten Questions with Ray Offenheiser, President of Oxfam America

Staff Writer
From foodtank.com, by Ray Offenheiser
Ten Questions with Ray Offenheiser, President of Oxfam America

Food Tank, in partnership with American University, is hosting the 2nd Annual Food Tank Summit in Washington, D.C. on April 20–21, 2016. 

This two-day event will feature more than 75 different speakers from the food and agriculture field. Researchers, farmers, chefs, policymakers, government officials, and students will come together for panels on topics including food waste, urban agriculture, family farmers, farm workers, and more. 

Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Ray Offenheiser, the President of Oxfam America, who will be speaking at the summit.

Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to get involved in food and agriculture?

Ray Offenheiser (RO): I witnessed the horrible photos of the Biafra famine in the early 1970s and felt the desire to make some kind of contribution to addressing global hunger. I sought out graduate programs working on practical solutions and ended up at Cornell, which at that time was the epicenter of the Green Revolution in the 1970s and caught up in the many debates about the efficacy of this approach relative to other strategies—a debate I have been a part of ever since.

FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?

RO: With public sector resources stagnant or declining, we are focusing energy on what the private sector can do to improve the food system. We have launched efforts to make the biggest food companies better actors in the food system through our Behind the Brands campaign, pushing them to do better on gender issues, land rights, and building climate resilience. Through it all, we are pursuing a vision of small, hard-working, but under-resourced food producers as the central engine of the food system. 

FT: What innovations in agriculture and the food system are you most excited about?

RO: In general, agriculture and food are under-invested sectors. But there is tremendous innovation happening at every level. Recently, the international community has become much more serious about reducing food waste in the food system, from soil to stomach. We see great new crop storage technologies coming into view, and some funding to take them to scale. We are seeing social and communications innovation to affirm “ugly food” and question some of the norms that lead to huge wastage. There are lots of great ideas on how to do this, with large benefits along the way. 

FT: Can you share a story about a food hero that inspired you?

RO: One of the high points of my career was the five years I spent in Bangladesh in the early 1990s as the Ford Foundation’s country representative, watching the emergence of BRAC (initially known as the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee), which was born in the aftermath of the horrific Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, when millions of Bengalis faced famine. BRAC began as a modest effort of Fazle Abed, a young Bengali who left his job as an executive with Shell Oil in Chittagong and chose to serve his people at a time of tremendous suffering. These were dire times. BRAC emerged as a humanitarian response to this crisis. Over time, BRAC took on a wider mission of addressing poverty, and Abed brought his business training to exploring ways that BRAC might empower the poor, particularly women, to manage their own lives. They experimented with diverse livelihood programs, from cash for work to micro-credit lending, from silk rearing to fisheries, from crop diversification to dairying, and many more. Abed had a unique ability to see economic opportunity in a resource-constrained environment where no one else could, and turn it into a highly successful program accessible to the poorest families.  

FT: What drives you every day to fight for the bettering of our food system?

RO: Poverty is not a lack of money; it’s a lack of power. Likewise, hunger is rarely a lack of food, but rather a reflection of an unfair system that deprives some and enriches others. The food system is woven through with issues of justice and human rights. That’s why I care. And that’s why I believe it’s important that organizations like Food Tank help us all understand how these injustices are embedded in our food system, understand the power relations and vested interests that sustain them, and generate exciting propositions for change.

FT: What’s the biggest problem within the food system our parents and grandparents didn't have to deal with?

RO: Globalization has provided many benefits for the food system, but has created many new challenges. The food systems of our parents and grandparents were regional or even local in scale. Food was much more expensive and, generally, less diverse. But the system was also more connected between farmers and consumers. Today, the food is “distanced” from both consumers and producers. We love our food, but we often don’t really know our food, where it comes from, and the conditions under which it is produced. 

FT: What’s the first, most pressing issue you’d like to see solved within the food system?

RO: The first, most pressing issue of the food system should always be making sure everyone has adequate food. Hunger is an abomination and should be ended, like we ended slavery. Food is a human right and should be recognized as such. It’s all about access and affordability.

FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?

RO: We get to vote on the food system at least three times a day, with every meal. Each time you eat, you can choose to eat food that is lower-impact, more responsibly-sourced, more delicious and fresh. Every meal and every visit to the grocery store is a chance to ask questions, pursue justice, and make your family and the world a healthier place. Voting with your mouth is a pleasure, but, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that you should also pursue food justice with your ballot in November.

FT: What’s one issue within the food system you’d like to see completely solved for the next generation?

RO: Hunger. I said it before, but I’ll keep saying it until it’s not an issue. We can end hunger. Under the new sustainable development goals, the world has now accepted a mission to end hunger by 2030. It’s completely feasible to do. The only question is if political leaders have the courage and will to do it. 

FT: What agricultural issue would you like for the next president of the United States to immediately address?

RO: I’ve been disheartened and angered by the backlash against America’s premier anti-hunger program, SNAP. SNAP levels shot up during the financial crisis as so many families needed assistance to get food on the table. The financial crisis devastated family savings and left many vulnerable. SNAP did what it was supposed to do. It fed the most vulnerable. But some politicians have targeted SNAP for cuts or reforms that would lower benefits and put more burdens on recipients. Food is a human right. We need to treat it as such. 

To find out more about the event, see the full list of speakers, and purchase tickets, please click HERE. Interested participants who cannot join can also sign up for the livestream HERE.

To join us at Food Tank's São Paulo, Brazil Summit in September 2016, please click HERE. To join us at Food Tank's Sacramento, CA Summit on September 22–23, 2016, please click HERE. To join us at Food Tank's Chicago, IL Summit on November 16–17, 2016, please click HERE

Want to become a sponsor of the Food Tank Summit? Please click HERE

Want to suggest a speaker for one of the Summits? Please click HERE

Want to watch videos from last year's Food Tank Summit? Please click HERE

Sponsors for this year's Food Tank Summit in Washington, D.C. include: Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, Chaia DC, Chipotle, Clif Bar, D.C. Government, Driscoll's, Edible DC, Elevation Burger, Fair Trade USA, Food and Environment Reporting Network, Global Environmental Politics Program of the School of International Service, Greener Media, Inter Press Service, Leafware, Niman Ranch, Organic Valley, Panera Bread, and VegFund. 

Join the discussion using #FoodTank across Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter!