Ten Questions with Regina Northouse, Executive Director of the Food Recovery Network

Ten Questions with Regina Northouse, Executive Director of the Food Recovery Network
Staff Writer
From foodtank.com, by Lani Furbank

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 Regina Northouse, the Executive Director of the Food Recovery Network (FRN). Regina will be speaking at the summit.

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

Regina Northouse (RN): I've spent my career working on social justice issues: civil liberties, anti-poverty, women's health, and other areas that make communities strong like art and culture. For me, food connects intrinsically to basic rights; it connects negatively to systemic poverty and systems of power and threads through what can make a community strong and bring us together. A friend of mine who works in the food system in Pittsburgh, and with whom I had participated in a community food exchange, told me about the role at FRN because she knew about my workforce development background with college students and passion for social justice, and because we wanted to work together on these most important issues. So many worlds collided in the best possible way when I took the role of executive director with FRN. What inspired me was the opportunity to work with young people, the opportunity to work with people who think collaboration is one of the most effective tools to solving problems and innovating, and also to continue to work alongside others who, while we are all diverse and have different experiences, believe we can do things better to care for our environment and for people. 

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

RN: John Stuart Mills defined it when he said, “The will of the people, moreover, practically means the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people," and each day, the will of the people demands a change in how we handle surplus food. There is now an open door for that will to flood up to our policies around agriculture systems, for that will to stream over to our manufacturing and packaging systems, and for that will to enact on all of us to think about our own individual habits and to change habits for the better.

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

RN: I have to give a shout out to Ben Simon and Imperfect Produce. His new company sells "ugly" produce in the form of community-supported agriculture shares at super discounted prices. The model uses produce trucks carrying "store-ready" produce to deliver the ugly produce to his warehouse so no extra hauling is needed. Consumers are also responsible for the drive for absolutely flawless produce in grocery stores and grocers have responded, and over-responded. It's a complex situation that considers the psychology of the consumer, competition among grocers, and myth and fact. Ben's company is changing the culture to give ugly produce a space on the shelf while at the same time addressing a community need to have lower prices for healthy foods. 

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

RN: I have a strong belief in the ability of our country's youth to positively change systems to better our communities. I was inspired by the co-founders of FRN, who started FRN as a student group at one university and through sheer will, persistence, grit, and trial and error moved that student group to become the largest student-driven organization fighting waste and feeding people in just five years. It's inspiring to see a simple solution to a complex community ill be applied across the country by some of our youngest leaders.

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

RN: People don't need to go to bed hungry in our country, or wonder where their next meal is coming from. "Period, end of sentence," as my dad would say. We have all the pieces in front of us right now to change this. In our lifetime, we can put those pieces together to ensure people no longer go hungry, since there will always be surplus food. This isn't pie-in-the-sky stuff, this literally could happen with the right people in place, the right understanding, the right prioritization, and the right will. We already have the food, and much of the logistics are also already in place. I'm driven to support my community to get that food in the hands of those who need it, and I get to do this work with some of the most incredible [young] minds you could ever imagine. I learn so much every day from my team and the FRN network.

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

RN: Gosh, what a great question. This reminds me that I need to call my grandmother...There's so much, right? I think one problem would be choice. Technology and advancement in all points of food production have given us more choices than ever before. It's been a couple of generations now where we expect to have bananas all year-round, and today, there are even more fruits and vegetables we demand no matter what the season. That demand means we alter how and where we grow our food—to great effects and deleterious effects. We truck products from across the world when we can grow those items regionally; we grow huge amounts of food in mono-farms that cause disease...I could go on and on. While I don't want to limit our choices, I do think there are regional approaches we can take, and continue to take, that lessen the burden on our environment. There are ways we can preserve foods from our region so we have them to eat year-round, and I see that happening more and more in my immediate D.C. community and elsewhere. I mean, I will say, though our choices have grown, our parents and grandparents also grew up in times where you wasted not and wanted not. My parents always had a garden when I was a kid, and those are cultural mores that we are embracing from previous generations.

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

RN: That we produce whole foods to meet current demand at a price point that families can afford in all communities, and that we feed people first with the surplus edible food that might be leftover at the community level.

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

RN: Much of the edible food that is wasted comes from individual households. We've already paid for this good food, and because of our busy lives or not knowing when something is good or not—whatever the cause—we end up tossing out our good food. One small change I think we can all make, until there are national "use by” dates we can all understand, is to sniff and test your foods in your refrigerator that have a "sell by," "use by," or "best before" date. If you're unsure, well, yes, compost the food when you can. BUT, if the food smells great, and you nibble on it and it tastes good, well, I'd eat it.

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

RN: I have the same answer as for the most pressing issue. At the production level, I think we can balance things so we're not growing food, processing that food, and then throwing much of it away. Let's not leave half a head of romaine on the field because consumers only want "hearts of romaine." Give consumers the hearts of romaine, and use the outer leaves for other things while educating consumers that if they use the whole head in the first place, they can have the heart of romaine and enough outer leaves to make other kinds of dishes, hopefully for the same price.

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

RN: Standardized "use by" dates would be great. Making permanent (or at least long-term) tax deductions for donating surplus food to give businesses incentives to do the right thing, and make recovering and donating surplus food the norm, not the exception. I would love to see Chellie Pingree’s Food Recovery Act move forward because there are so many provisions in there that are attainable and, I think, can create food jobs.

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. 

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