Ten Questions with Alesha Black, Director at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs

From foodtank.com by Marisa Tsai
Ten Questions with Alesha Black, Director at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs

Food Tank, in partnership with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, is hosting the 1st Annual Chicago Food Tank Summit on November 16, 2016. 

This event will feature more than 40 different speakers from the food and agriculture field. Researchers, farmers, chefs, policymakers, government officials, and students will come together for interactive panels, networking, and delicious food, followed by a day of hands-on activities and opportunities for attendees.

Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Alesha Black, Director of the Global Food and Agriculture Program at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, who will be speaking at the summit.

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

Alesha Black (AB): Getting involved in agriculture was a happy accident. I am originally from Iowa and come from several of hardworking farming families. I never saw agriculture as ‘cool’ or interesting, but found after a short exposure that agricultural progress is the story of my family and humanity. When advancements in agriculture are utilized, families and individuals get a choice about where to spend their time. Do they want to farm or become an entrepreneur in the city? Be a teacher? Agricultural progress and food security grant people the choice to freely choose a healthy and productive life---on the farm or not. I find that inspiring.

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

AB: I think consumers, producers, the private sector, and policymakers have asymmetric understanding about the inherent tradeoffs of food production and that leads to lack of coherence and sometimes a lack of productive movement forward--at a moment when challenges are breathing down our necks and we need to move forward collectively. I think we need to have more conversations that are based on factual trade-offs. I sometimes wish for a less ideological conversation and a more factual one that forces a discussion of real, and difficult tradeoffs that we have to make across affordability, natural resource use, the push and pull of public and private goods in agricultural technology, and a whole range of other things. So the big opportunity is greater convergence on what constitute ‘the facts’ and more coherence in collective problem solving once there.

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

AB: I think new breakthroughs in data, analytics and modeling will lead us to confront the tradeoffs inherent in our food system in ways we never could before. It will offer us the opportunity to make choices that affect all of humanity from the individual, micro-level, to the global level and that will revolutionize the system. It will force us to confront questions: What do we value most in our system and what choices, innovations and sacrifices will we have to make to realize that new food system?

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

AB: Gene White is a food hero of mine. She has been fighting for healthy food for kids her whole life here in the US and around the world. In her 90s, she still never stops fighting, encouraging, building bridges, and looking for more solutions. She makes people around her behave better, strive harder, and dig deeper to overcome the hurdles that keep children from having enough to eat. She’s amazing.

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

AB: I’m driven by the knowledge that solutions exist that simply need to get deployed-- and that when they do-- families just like mine will have new choices and better lives. Agriculture and food security can be the major keys to unlock opportunity for so many of the most disadvantaged around the world.

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

AB: My grandparents were totally unaware of the damaging effects of overuse and inappropriate use of agro-chemicals and how it hurts their health. While maybe not the biggest problem, it strikes me that lack of education about how to use inputs is still a problem in communities of people like my grandparents, who were less educated, and that’s unacceptable 100 years later with the communication advances the world has made. We’ve made progress, but we should be able to bridge the communication gaps that still exist. 

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

AB: I’d like us to apply our efforts more deliberately to water across the board. It’s a resource that is under threat and needs more attention in the policy realm, among technologists, and greater awareness among consumers as they try to make informed choices about what to buy and consume. I think this is a good entry point for changes in food waste as well (how much water are you throwing away?).

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

AB: Never throw away vegetables or meat, at the very minimum. They’re too precious.

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

AB: Extreme hunger and food insecurity. It’s stupid it still exists. We have solutions and we’re not applying our collective effort to solve it.

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

AB: Scaling up educational and service offerings that would lead to every American baby having a healthy ‘First 1000 Days’. We also should support those around the world in this fight, but a new president can work with Health and Human Services, USDA, Department of Education, and state authorities to make small changes that would lead to big gains for kids, families and the economy long-term.


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 live-stream HERE.

Want to become a sponsor of the Food Tank Summit? Please email Bernard at Bernard@foodtank.com

Want to watch videos from previous Food Tank Summits? Please click HERE

Sponsors for this year's Food Tank Summit in Chicago include: Almond Board of California, Annie’s Inc., Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, Blue Apron, Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Clif Bar & Company, Driscoll's, Elevation Burger, Farmer’s Fridge, Food and Environment Reporting Network, Inter Press Service (IPS), Niman Ranch, and Organic Valley. More to be announced soon.

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