WRITTEN BY SHANNON WIANECKI PHOTOGRAPHY BY BARRY FRANKEL
“I’m very, very particular about what cup I use to drink my coffee,” laughs Melissa Newirth. She doesn’t take herself seriously, though her immaculate kitchen shelves reflect a devotion to aesthetics. Each cup, vase, and bowl has the authority of a work of art. “I love Japanese pottery,” she says, “because it’s so light and the rims are so thin.” She holds up a porcelain mug by Yumiko Iihosi. Feather-light, it’s the color of midday clouds, with a handle as plain as a wedding band. “The handle has to feel good on my finger and the rim on my lips,” she says. “That’s what I look for.”
Newirth looks for and finds exceptional ceramics, textiles, and housewares from around the world for her online shop, Cloth and Goods. Her taste hews to Japanese, Scandinavian, and mid-century minimalism. In particular, she seeks out artisans who use ancient techniques to create modern, useful objects. “So you have both beauty and quality,” she says. Her selection of bizenware exemplifies this. For nearly 1,000 years potters in Bizen, Japan, have fired reddish-copper clay in kilns, producing unglazed vessels famous for their water resistance and resilience. These rustic artifacts are precious; Newirth sells sets of Bizen cups and pitchers for upwards of $300. Her website offers equally exquisite indigo pillows and throws.
Originally from New York, Newirth migrated west through Santa Cruz and Portland to land on Maui. She and her daughter bought two acres in Hā‘iku and built a cottage (for mom), a house (for daughter), and a barn (for the whole family). The barn serves as headquarters for Cloth and Goods and a gathering place for friends, community events, and pop-up shops. Reminiscent of a Nordic farmhouse, it’s tall and narrow with a dark grey exterior and sliding wood doors. The clean, stark lines make a statement while embracing the surrounding mountains and ocean. “If it wasn’t going to be architecturally interesting, I didn’t want to do it,” says Newirth, who also works as an interior designer.
Her own interior spaces are spare, white, and sensual. Her commitment to simplicity manifests in every corner of the property—from the tufts of bunchgrass along the driveway to the open cabinetry stocked with ceramics. While she loves a cup with a delicate handle, it really depends on her mood. She picks another favorite from the shelf—a small, vaselike tumbler—and cradles it in both hands. “Sometimes,” she says, “I want to hold my coffee like this.”
WHAT IS IT? HOW DO YOU DRINK IT? Coffee leaf tea is an herbal tea prepared from the fresh green leaves of the coffee plant (either Coffea robusta or Coffea arabica). Once harvested, the leaves are roasted and crumpled or ground up before being brewed or steeped in hot water like normal tea. The resulting beverage is similar in taste to green tea, but has a lower caffeine content than both regular tea and coffee.
Studies have discovered that tea made from coffee leaves is more healthful than both of the other beverages. Scientists have found that “coffee leaf tea” contains high levels of healthy com-pounds accredited with lowering the risk of heart disease and dia-betes, as well as an abundance of antioxidants.
Imagine the intoxicating aroma of lokelani rose—Maui’s official flower—at your fingertips, year- round. Simply harvest fresh, unsprayed roses at their peak and preserve their fragrance with this easy steam distillation process. Use rosewater in a spray bottle for a spritz throughout the day, as a flavor boost in juices, lattes, desserts, and savory dishes, or in DIY face cleansers, scrubs, masks, and toners.
For more ideas, find inspiration and recipes in the Rose chapter of my memoir cookbook Kale & Caramel: Recipes for Body, Heart, and Table (Atria, $22) and online at kaleandcaramel.com.
Homemade Rosewater 8 cups lightly packed fresh, fragrant rose petals 5 cups water 8-10 cups ice, as needed
Select a large stockpot with a lid that has a knob you can unscrew. You will invert the lid so the steam can drip down the middle, hence removing the knob.
Pluck the rose petals and place them in the stock pot. Create some space in the center of the pot and place a large canning lid screw band ring in the middle. Place a small bowl on top of the screw band ring. The bowl will catch the rosewater as it drips from the inverted lid.
Pour ~5 cups of water into the bottom of the pot, or enough to reach halfway up the petals.
On the stove, cover the pot with the inverted lid and fill the top with ice cubes. Turn heat to medium, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low.
As the ice melts, use a ladle to scoop the water from the lid, discard, and add more ice cubes. Continue for 20 minutes or so, until most of the water around the base of the petals is gone.
Remove from heat and pour the distilled rosewater from the small bowl into a glass jar to cool.
Once the rosewater is room temperature, seal, and store in the fridge to preserve.
WRITTEN BY SHAWN STEIMAN, PHD COVER PHOTO BY BLAKE WISZ
Twenty years ago, the only word associated with Hawai‘i’s coffee industry was “Kona.” For the better part of the 20th century, Kona was the only region in Hawai‘i growing significant amounts of coffee; even though a few other regions were producing coffee again by the 1990s, Kona was all anyone thought about. Today, not only do people know about the other nine growing regions across five islands within the state, but the industry is doing innovative and fun things. Hawai‘i is once again on the cutting edge of the global coffee industry!
The innovation is happening not just on farms, but at every stage of the production chain. This article will explore a few of the ways Hawai‘i is keeping pace with the rest of the modern coffee world, and even doing things few other places are. It will look at how Hawai‘i farmers are striving for unique flavors and maximizing efficiency in their farming practices. It will touch on Hawai‘i’s coffee house scene, barista culture, and the myriad competitions and educational opportunities taking place in the island chain. Finally, it will explore products made from coffee and coffee material, going beyond the traditional black brew.
HOW DID THE INDUSTRY GET SO HIP?
Hawai‘i coffee farming has been at the forefront of efficiency and technological advancement since the 1960s, when agricultural scientists at the University of Hawai‘i were busy conducting groundbreaking research and passing it on to farmers both local and abroad. When plans were being made to plant large, mechanically harvested farms across the state, the university paired with those nascent farm operations to conduct the research that would facilitate those plans, while the Hawai‘i Agriculture Research Center began developing its own coffee expertise and research agenda.
By the 1990s, not only were those large farms in production, but some small farms in Kona began the transition to estate farms. These new estates focused on selling roasted coffee directly to customers rather than selling the coffee fruit to a processing middleman. The maturation of the Internet also played a significant role, allowing farmers to learn more about the coffee industry and connect directly with consumers.
All the while, the specialty coffee industry was growing; by the early 2000s, it was a significant and important segment of the global coffee industry. Specialty coffee, while tricky to pin down, has become defined by its attention to quality and the meaningful relationships that develop along the coffee production chain.
As all of the different pieces came together, Hawai‘i residents began to recognize the new business opportunities related to specialty coffee, and started seeking out more complex and interesting coffees to work with. There was, however, a major hurdle they needed to clear: creating products and doing business in Hawai‘i is expensive, so locally made products came with a high price tag for the consumer. The only way to survive was to innovate – increase efficiency, create high-quality, diversified product lines, and get consumers excited.
PRODUCTION AND PROCESSING
For coffee farmers, competing on the world stage means producing a bean that, when well roasted and brewed, results in an inherently complex cup of coffee. In other words, the coffee shouldn’t taste simply like coffee, but it should have additional flavor experiences. These flavors can be reminiscent of all sorts of things: flowers, fruits, herbs, caramel, honey, spices… Essentially, these are coffees that deliver more than mere caffeine, and are interesting enough to be worth thinking about. These are the coffees Hawai‘i farmers are aiming for.
There are certain hard-to-control, environmental factors – like climate – that influence a coffee’s flavor. While farmers can’t do much about these, they do have power over some other factors, such as choosing to plant varieties that have the potential to generate complexity.
All farms in Hawai‘i grow the species Coffea arabica. Most farms are planted with a variety called ‘Typica.’ It can produce extraordinary cups, but it has limitations. This has led some farmers to try planting varieties more common in other parts of the world in hopes of discovering fun, new flavors. Some of these varieties are ‘Bourbon,’ ‘SL28,’ ‘Margogype,’ and the famous ‘Geisha.’
One of the most important research projects that came out of the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center was a breeding program to produce high quality varieties unique to Hawai‘i. Some of those varieties are now being grown and have been very well received. Two varieties of note are ‘Pohihiu,’ grown at Waialua Estate Coffee and Cacao on O‘ahu, and ‘Mamo,’ grown at Greenwell Farms in Kona.
Variety selection isn’t the only tool a farmer has to produce quality coffee. Fine-tuning cultural practices can also lead to healthier plants, which often produce better tasting coffee. Kauai Coffee Company in Kalaheo, the largest coffee farm in Hawai‘ i, is implementing modern technology to do just this, while increasing the efficiency of their operation. They’ve installed water sensors in the soil throughout the farm that wirelessly transmit data for quick feedback on water availability for the crop. They use drones with infrared cameras to help measure crop health, and they’ve installed cameras on their mechanical harvesters to give instant feedback to the operators, enabling them to make immediate changes to optimize the harvest.
A third area where Hawai‘i farmers are delving into new territory is in cherry processing. The coffee we brew is the seed of a fruit. To get to that seed and prepare it for roasting, the coffee fruit, or cherries, must first be processed. How that occurs will influence the final flavor of the coffee.
Kona View Coffee in Holualoa has been experimenting with the pulp dried method (a.k.a. honey process). While most farmers dry their coffee on patios, they’ve built a shed that allows them to manipulate the drying conditions, thereby allowing them to create a red honey coffee – a coffee that is sweeter and has a defined acidity relative to other processing methods.
In the parchment dried method (a.k.a. washed process), a handful of farmers across the state are spiking the fermentation tank with known yeast strains, rather than letting ambient populations control the process. This practice is a very active area of scientific research around the world but only a relatively small number of farmers in other countries are experimenting with it. This purposeful addition of yeast strains tends to contribute a slight, often positive flavor enhancement.
The industry’s modernity goes beyond developments on the farm. Hawai‘i’s coffee houses, once purveyors of caffeine and third spaces (after home and work), now celebrate the ideals of specialty coffee: celebrating a coffee’s origin and brewing it meticulously. While no census of Hawai‘i’s coffee houses has ever existed, anecdotally it seems like there are a lot more coffee houses in Hawai‘i than there were ten years ago. As an example, look at Honolulu’s Salt at Kaka‘ako, it contains five different coffee houses within a single city block development!
These establishments employ people who have chosen coffee as a career path. They brew coffee using novel, though often simplistic, methods. In many coffee houses, a customer can order a cup of coffee brewed just for them. Typically, the coffee is sourced from specific farms around the world (including Hawai‘ i) and customers are provided with details about the coffee, such as what varieties it may contain and the elevation at which it was grown. These new coffee houses are highlighting the origin and taste of coffee, a relatively new concept in the global coffee industry.
Perhaps the most novel territory is the opportunity for a vertically integrated, farm-to-cup operation. An example of this is Kona Coffee & Tea, a 20-year-old farming operation in Kona that, 15 years ago, opened its own coffee house to share the coffee the company grows, processes, and roasts. Since opening, they’ve transitioned from just brewing and selling their own coffee to being actively involved in the global specialty coffee community.
A hallmark of an advanced and mature coffee industry is the presence of competitions that celebrate coffee production and the skills of coffee industry workers. Hawai‘i has both!
The annual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival and the Hawai‘i Coffee Association have been hosting cupping competitions to discover the extraordinary coffees grown in Hawai‘i. Within the past decade, both organizations have been following competition systems that are used and recognized throughout the international specialty coffee community. The Festival has even experimented with a novel, locally developed competition system.
Barista competitions seem to now be regular events in Hawai‘i. This past July, Hawai‘i had its second Aeropress Competition, and in August, its first U.S. Brewers Cup competition. Both are preliminary rounds that send a winner to the national competitions.
Without knowledge, no one grows or advances. The local coffee industry has long understood this, and workshops and seminars have occurred sporadically throughout time, mostly for farmers. Now, however, coffee education is available across the state for everyone from farmers to consumers.
There are several companies that offer an array of workshops, seminars, hands-on trainings, farmer consulting, consumer education, or Specialty Coffee Association coffee skills modules. There’s something for everyone, no matter how much coffee experience a person or company already has.
Not all of the education comes from private companies; most farmer or industry associations have educational aims. For example, the Maui Coffee Association, an amalgamation of coffee businesses and enthusiasts on Maui, manages to sneak in education opportunities for farmers and consumers throughout the year. During their monthly meeting, they set aside 20- 30 minutes for a member to teach a new concept or discuss an experiment they’ve recently conducted. The association also brings in experts from around the state, country, and world to share knowledge with members. Most notable, perhaps, is their annual Seed To Cup Coffee Festival, which provides coffee fun for attendees alongside a host of learning opportunities.
COFFEE, BUT NOT QUITE
Roasting and brewing coffee beans will always be the most common way of interacting with the coffee plant, but some companies in Hawai‘i have recognized that there are other useful parts of the plant, and even roasted coffee can be destined for more than warming a mug.
The fruit that surrounds the coffee seed is edible. While it isn’t the tastiest of fruits, when it is dried down, it can be brewed as a tea (one of the first ways the coffee plant was consumed, in fact). Locally, a handful of companies offer it to consumers, often under the traditional name for it, cascara. Hala Tree, a farm in Kona, sells pure cascara, while Haleiwa Plantation on O‘ahu’s North Shore blends it with other plants to create flavorful, complex tisanes.
Other companies make use of the coffee cherries but not for direct brewing. Kona Red and Hawai‘i Coffee Company use extracts of the anti-oxidant rich cherries to add to their beverages or roasted coffee products, thus capturing the superfood potential of coffee.
With the help of bees, Hala Tree uses a unique part of the plant – flower nectar – to create another unusual coffee-related product: honey. While they can’t guarantee all the honey is made from coffee nectar, most of it probably is. The honey doesn’t taste like coffee, but it does taste different from other honey made on the farm.
Roasted coffee has long been a common additive to chocolate bars. However, a small coffee farm in Puna, Big Island Coffee Roasters, has inverted that paradigm and reinvented the “chocolate” bar. They produce a coffee bar, made similarly to a chocolate bar, but with coffee instead of chocolate.
Hawai‘i has a rare and special coffee industry, as it both produces and consumes coffee. This affords it the opportunity to make connections and innovations in different places all across the industry. Pay attention to what is going on with Hawai‘i coffee; you may not find it happening anywhere else in the world.
Shawn Steiman, Ph.D, is a coffee scientist, consultant, and entrepreneur. His coffee research has included coffee production, entomology, ecology, physiology, biochemistry, organoleptic quality, and brewing. He owns Coffea Consulting and co-owns Daylight Mind Coffee Company. Steiman regularly presents seminars, workshops, and tastings at public and private events. He has authored numerous articles in scientific journals, trade magazines, newsletters, and newspapers. He is the author of The Hawai‘i Coffee Book, The Little Coffee Know-It-All, and co-editor and author of Coffee- A Comprehensive Guide to the Bean, the Beverage, and the Industry.
Stories abound on how the cocktail got its name, but not a single one involves a rooster’s derrière.
If you’ve ever wrapped your lips around a Mojito, an Old Fashioned or a Cosmopolitan, then you know the joy of the cocktail—a concert of flavors blended together to tickle the taste buds and warm the belly. The terms “mixed drink” and “cocktail” are used interchangeably, but die-hard drinkophiles know the difference. Discern the true definition of a cocktail and you’ll have a clever little conversation starter in your pocket, and if you really want to impress your friends, enlighten them with a few theories on how this palate-pleasing invention got such a curious name.
While the phrase “mixed drink” refers simply to a libation involving alcohol stirred or shaken with one or more ingredients, the cocktail boasts a more specific definition. To be a bona fide cocktail, a beverage must combine at least three things—alcohol, a sweet substance and a bitter or citrus additive.
If you’ve got a distilled spirit and a non-alcoholic mixer like soda or fruit juice in your cup, you’re actually sipping on a highball (Gin and Tonic). If the bartender poured you a spirit and a liqueur (sweetened distilled alcohol), you’re downing a “duo” (Black Russian: vodka and Kahlúa). Spirit plus liqueur plus mixer? You’ve just ordered a “trio” (White Russian: vodka, Kahlúa and cream).
Perhaps the word cocktail first cropped up among the tavern proprietors in colonial America. In an effort to economically dispose of the “nasty lastys,” bartenders advertised “cock tailings”—drinks combining the tail end of various liquor barrels in a mash-up that didn’t taste half-bad. The spigots on said barrels were called—you guessed it— “cocks.”
The first print reference using the word as a beverage showed up in the 1803 Vermont publication, The Farmer’s Cabinet, where the act of imbibing a cocktail was said to be “excellent for the head.” Three years later, an official definition appeared in the federalist New York newspaper Balance and Columbian Repository, but with an opposite take on how the concoction impacted a drinker’s state of mind:
The California Mai Tai? Despite its tropical name, this hero of the Tiki generation was said to have been born by the hand of Victor J. Bergeron, proprietor of the California restaurant chain Trader Vic’s. Bergeron reportedly made it for a few mates who were on holiday from Tahiti in 1944, one of whom offered the Tahitian language compliment Maita’i roa ae!, which means “out of this world!” His recipe had no dark rum float, umbrella or fruit, but today’s version goes something like this:
INGREDIENTS 2 oz dark rum 1 oz light rum ½ oz orange Curacao ½ oz orgeat syrup ¼ oz lime juice Pineapple wedge Maraschino cherry 1 decorative mini-umbrella
METHOD Shake all ingredients except the dark rum with ice, strain into highball glass and use a spoon to float the dark rum on top.
“A cock-tail, then, is a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind—sugar, water, and bitters—it is vulgarly called a bittered sling and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion, inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. It is said, also to be of great use to a Democratic candidate: because, a person having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow anything else.”
An equally convincing cocktail naming anecdote set in the 1800s concerns a Creole apothecary named Antoine Amédée Peychaud, the fellow credited with inventing bitters, an herbal alcoholic potion once touted as a fountain of youth and a cure for malaria. In his French Quarter pharmacy, Peychaud sprinkled his secret bitters formula into a shaker full of bourbon and served it in a French eggcup, or coquetier. Typical Americans butchering the French language, his customers mispronounced it “cock-tay,” which evolved into the “cocktail” we know and love today.
Finally, our favorite alias story comes from spirits historian David Wondrich’s journey down the rabbit hole for his 2007 book, Imbibe. He confidently concludes that the cocktail came to be after the meeting of two ideas: the early English trend of adding a stimulant—often ginger—to liven up alcoholic beverages, and a practice common in the business of horse trade:
“If you had an old horse you were trying to sell, you would put some ginger up its butt, and it would cock its tail up and be frisky. That was known as ‘cock-tail’… It became this morning thing. Something to ‘cock your tail up,’ like an eye-opener.”
And so the silly sounding term was adopted far and wide as a reference to anything that added spirit to a person’s mood, and eventually caught on as the right way to order alcoholic spirits mixed up with the bitters/sugar formula.
The true intention behind the original naming of the cocktail is anyone’s guess. But if you’ve ever sipped a spicy Bloody Mary the morning after a night of spirited drinking, you know why this last version makes perfect sense!
Harvey Wallbanger, the Fictional Liquor Salesman. This 1960s gem is as fun to drink as it is to say. Historian David Wondrich credits its inception to a marketing strategy created by McKesson Imports Company to boost sales of Galliano, an Italian liqueur. The campaign included the Harvey Wallbanger mascot, a surfer-type character who helped put a face to the drink.
INGREDIENTS 1 ½ oz (3 parts) vodka 3 oz (6 parts) fresh orange juice ½ oz (1 part) Galliano
METHOD Fill tall glass with ice then add orange juice, Vodka and Galliano and stir. Serve with orange slice.
Don’t Mess with a Texas Margarita. Ah the lovely Margarita — so popular, she’s the most widely ordered cocktail worldwide. Some claim the drink originated in Mexico, but legend has it that it was actually head bartender Santos Cruz who first mixed one up in 1948 for legendary sing-er Peggy Lee at the Balinese Room in Galveston, Texas. Lee’s nickname was Margaret, hence the adaptation of “Margarita.” Today we enjoy all kinds of creative reimagining with fruit additions, flavored tequilas and various rim spices. (Cucumber Jalapeno Margarita, anyone?)
INGREDIENTS 1 part white tequila ½ part Cointreau ½ part fresh lime juice
METHOD Fill shaker with ice, tequilla, Cointreau and fresh lime juice. Wet the rim of the glass with lime and turn upside down in salt to rim the glass. Shake, strain and serve with lime wheel.
WRITTEN BY KELLY JEFFERS LEAD BARMAN AT MUD HEN WATER IN KAIMUKI, OAHU
When you walk into a drinking establishment and want to get the attention of the person working behind the bar, some names may elicit a quicker response than others. Some of us will answer if you call us barkeep. Others will answer to barman or barmaid. Some answer to mixologist, tapster, liquid chef, or bottle jockey. Two of my former colleagues would love it if you addressed them as cocktologists. But the one way to get every single person working behind a bar to answer you is to simply hail a bartender.
Bartenders go by many names and take many forms, depending on whether we’re slinging mixed drinks at a club, muddling fresh, local fruit at a farm-to-table restaurant, showing guests how to get that perfect pour at a pub, or working behind one of the many other vastly different bars around the world. While we come from many different backgrounds, all bartenders are charged with the same duty: to make you, the guest, happy. As a bartender talks with you, we’re afforded a small peek into your soul; the more we talk with you the better we get at knowing how to make you happy while you grace our barstools with your presence. The more we make you happy, the more we see you at our bar, and the more like family you become. This is what every good bartender wants. To make our family of guests happy.
Take one of Mud Hen Water’s regulars, Fred. When Fred comes in for a regular pau hana or just to check that the barstools are still comfortable, he always gets an old fashioned with muddled cherry and orange peel as his first drink. When the world starts tilting in a direction we don’t like, all of us have that thing that sets our world straight again. For Fred, all the bartenders at Mud Hen Water know that thing that sets his world back straight again is an old fashioned done the way he likes it. The more we get to know Fred and his family, the more they have become part of our family. Getting to know how Fred likes his drinks and food has lead to all of us forming a bond that goes beyond serving a great old fashioned. Bartending transcends the mere act of making drinks.
I’ve poured drinks behind a lot of different bars, and it’s allowed me the opportunity to view humanity through a unique lens. Or should I say lenses? While behind the bar I’ve seen people through the lens of a therapist, a babysitter, a teacher, a friend, a family member, a politician, and an entertainer among many other professions I’ve had to channel while bartending. I’ve had to wear many other hats while I bartend. The longer you bartend the more people you meet, and the more ways you develop to change hats when the needs of the guest call for you to become something more than a bartender.
One day, I told Fred that I had some CBDs at the bar for his cancer symptoms and would love to try to mix some in a cocktail for him. For those that don’t know, CBDs are extracts from the Cannabis plant that have medicinal qualities, but have none of the psychoactive qualities. I tried the best I could to give something extra to a bar regular that every day bartending doesn’t normally cover. This led to other conversations with Fred eventually asking me if this was the future of cocktails and if I knew Talk Story what the future of bartending would be. What is the future of bartending? Seems I’ve done a good job of convincing Fred that I am some how qualified of even being asked that. I’m not sure I’m the guy to shake the magic 8-ball on that question, but I’ll give it a shot.
I do see CBDs and THC playing a roll in future bartending. I believe once the legal hurdles are taken care of, bartenders who are looking to elevate guest experiences will start using these in drinks in a safe way. I’m also hoping the future of bartending starts to mimic the past. I’d love to see more bars using only fresh, SEASONAL ingredients sourced locally and grown naturally and only using alcoholic products that come from producers with a consciousness toward environmental sustainability. Getting rid of all single use plastics. These things are what the whole world was doing before advances in modern technology. And if going back to this “retro” way of doing things means that some products that don’t practice sustainability don’t get a place on our backbars, then we must choose our planet over profit.
Given the current rate of resource consumption on our planet, sustainability is a practice that all humans will eventually have to adopt in all aspects of our lives, including the way we enjoy going out to eat and drink. I see this as an important part of the future of bartending that I’m hoping will happen sooner rather than later.
Not many people realize that bartending used to be a profession that was looked down upon by society. I hope the future bartenders of the world become megaphones for the needs and wants of their communities, all while having a good ol’ time making you, the guest, happy.
WORDS: COLLEEN LEONARDI & DANIELLE NIERENBERG PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF FOOD TANK
A Q&A with Danielle Nierenberg about her dynamic nonprofit and how it’s changing the way we talk solutions in the global food community
Food Tank calls itself the “Think Tank for Food.” A global community with a robust online platform, their vision works to “push for food system change.” Established in 2013 by President Danielle Nierenberg, the nonprofit offers information-packed newsletters, volunteer opportunities, yearly summits and an upcoming book, scheduled for release later this year. You can also become a member of the organization and engage in solutions-oriented conversations within the sustainable food movement from your desk.
“We try to be as interactive with folks as possible and we’re very open to engaging as much as time allows,” Nierenberg says, and she means it. She takes phone calls from people who have simple questions, like where to start with sustainable agriculture, and spent a lovely afternoon talking with me about Food Tank’s origins, how they stay positive in a “doom and gloom” food industry and what gives her hope—the core tenet of Food Tank—for a future of empowered, engaged and healthy eaters and farmers.
Q: Why did you create Food Tank?
Danielle Nierenberg: I was working for many years at an environmental think tank in D.C. Eventually, when I left I was the director of their food and agriculture program. We were really good at highlighting what wasn’t working and all of the problems. And in so many ways, you have to talk about the problems when you’re talking about the food system.
I was doing a lot of work interviewing farmers, scientists, women’s groups, chefs, nutritionists and policy makers all over the world. What I was hearing was a lot of hope and a lot of innovation that had potential to be scaled up and scaled out but wasn’t getting the investment, research and attention it needed. There were solutions; we just weren’t hearing enough about them. That was the real impetus behind it.
And to build a platform for the good-food movement, for different organizations to be highlighted and for them to feel like they can come to Food Tank and find non-biased information, that it can be a resource for everyone—from regular moms and dads to policy makers and business leaders. That platform is really important to us so that people feel like they can be critical, offer suggestions, call us out on things and build a dialogue through our daily articles and research publications.
And then being able to meet in person at our Food Tank Summits, where we’re bringing together unlikely suspects, like executives from McDonald’s and Cargill and Monsanto on the stage with food justice advocates having a real dialogue. There is a lot of demonizing when we talk about food issues. [We want] to really get people to talk to and listen to one another and understand that there is always going to be disagreement but that if we’re not all listening to one another, the things that we care about are never going to come to fruition.
Q: You touch on sustainable agriculture as key to your mission, but what is sustainable agriculture, how is it different or similar to indigenous farming practices and why is it so central to these global food issues?
A: Sustainable agriculture has so many definitions. For me, a sustainable agriculture system is one that is environmentally, economically and socially sustainable. One that is regenerative. It’s not just extracting resources from the land but putting them back in. One that is able to make farmers a fair wage and also provide accessible, affordable food to eaters, and that doesn’t treat farmers, food workers and women as slaves to the food system, but one that treats them respectfully and humanely. And that’s very different from the industrial system of agriculture.
When Food Tank talks about indigenous and traditional practices in other countries what we’re trying to highlight is that there are many of these practices that have a lot of potential, like rainwater harvesting, cover cropping, different irrigation practices that have been forgotten, and natural forms of fertilizing land as opposed to getting artificial fertilizer out of a bag. They’ve been ignored in favor of some technologies that offer a lot of promise but are very expensive.
One of the key things that we try to do is highlight both high and low technologies, and combine big data, which is a term that is being thrown around a lot now because of GPS and drones and all this great information that we’re able to collect. [We’re asking] how can you get it to farmers, whether they’re small and large? Like being able to harness the use of cell phones, which has grown so tremendously across Sub-Saharan Africa and places like India, and having farmers being able to have access to data and information about weather systems and markets that they never would have before.
I think there are ways to not ignore the new and fancy things that are coming about, but to combine them with the things that we know already work.
“Sustainable agriculture has so many definitions. For me, a sustainable agriculture system is one that is environmentally, economically and socially sustainable. One that is regenera- tive.”
Q: I read you joined the Peace Corps and worked in the Dominican Republic for two years, and you continue to travel the globe interviewing farmers. How has working with people from all over the world, particularly women farmers, influenced your perspectives on real solutions to climate change, obesity, malnutrition and poverty?
A: The thing about women farmers is that they’ve been invisible for so long, whether you’re talking about the United States or the global south. When people think of farmers they think of men, either male farmers tilling fields by hand or sitting on a combine. They don’t understand that women make up nearly half of all farmers in the world. And in some cases, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, they make up to 80% of the agriculture labor force.
Yet they’re denied access to the same resources as men. They don’t get an education and extension services. They often are not allowed to own land. The bankers don’t listen to them, or [women farmers are] afraid to go to the banking and lending institutions. The real opportunity here is that if we invest in and pay attention to women farmers, data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization suggests that we could increase yields by 20 to 30% and lift as many as 100 million people out of hunger.
So I think there is a real opportunity we’re missing there. From my travels and my experiences with the Peace Corps, or I was just in Senegal recently, we really need to listen to the needs of women farmers and make sure they’re not ignored when you’re developing new innovations or new technologies, or when you’re concentrating on some of these more sustainable or traditional practices.
Q: Journalism about sustainable food and farming issues these days can be so mired in the negative. What values do you practice and hold close to help you and your team stay future-focused on positive solutions?
A: Oh gosh, that’s a good question. No one has ever asked me that. I think we try to talk to people who inspire us. When we get article ideas from our fellows and our interns I like to ask, “Who is your hero or heroine, who has inspired you? Why did you want to work here? What kind of person made you want to do this? Did you grow up on a farm, or in a city and always wanted to grow food on a rooftop?” It’s just about being able to get those ideas flowing.
You know, there’s so much negativity. I get negative. But I think because I get this opportunity to work with so many young people who are so passionate and so energetic … we started this fellows program last year to get really keen, excited, smart people on board for three to six months with a stipend. And talking to these candidates for the position yesterday, they’re so energetic and come from so many backgrounds. That’s honestly what keeps me going: having all these young people. I learn from them all the time.
Q: Tell me a bit about the journey of trying to eat well in your own community and what challenges you face as an eater and cook?
A: I love food. I wouldn’t be in this if I didn’t care about food. Food Tank talks so much about food loss and food waste. I have the same tendency that a lot of people have. Like, I see something beautiful at the farmers market or the grocery store, and I’m, like, “I want it,” but because I travel all the time, at least in the past, a lot of food used to get wasted.
So I’ve had to practice what we preach and find different ways to preserve the foods that I want, so making more soups and pickling. That’s been a journey for me, for sure. I want to make sure I’m following the same values that we’re putting out into the world.
Q: Is there a recent experience from your travels and work that makes you smile and have faith in creating, as your mission states, “a global community for safe, healthy, nourished eaters”?
A: There is one I think about a lot, and it happened several years ago now. It is the one that makes me smile the most.
I was in Niger with this group of about 50 women farmers who were working with a research institute. They had built a community farm that they themselves ran. They were using solar drip technology to irrigate their crops, because Niger is very dry. They were growing a lot of fruits and vegetables but also ornamental and fruit trees to sell, which you can get a high price for.
One of the questions I always ask anyone I’m meeting is, “How did this innovation change you, what kind of transformation took place?” I was talking to these women and having it translated back to me. They would say things like, “I was able to buy my husband a bicycle so that he doesn’t have to walk to the land where he’s growing food,” or “I was able to send my children to school, because I couldn’t do that before” or “buy books or medical supplies.”
And then, one of the women said to me, “We’re fatter now.” And these women are not fat. What they mean is they’re better nourished and eating a more diverse group of foods.
They were making more money. We forget farmers are businesspeople. These farmers were making about a dollar a day before they started this garden. Now each of them is making about $1,500 a year. That’s a huge increase.
And I think that’s what transforms things. Understanding that the food system has to be all of those things mentioned before— environmentally, economically and socially sustainable. And that project, for me, really encompasses all those things, and the fact that these women thought they were fat when they’re really not. They were just eating a lot better.
Learn more about Danielle and how Food Tank can become your food think tank at FoodTank.com.
In 2013, Danielle Nierenberg co-founded Food Tank, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization focused on building a global community for safe, healthy, nourished eaters. Food Tank is a global convener, research organization, and non-biased creator of original research impacting the food system.
Food Tank’s Summits, held across the United States and expanding internationally, have hosted hundreds of speakers and sold-out audiences of thousands of participants, with hundreds of thousands joining via livestream reaching millions across social media. The Summits are one of the most important forums bringing together all sides of food issues for critical discussion partnered with major universities and moderated by major food journalists. Food Tank is also publishing original articles daily and partners with over 70 major organizations including academic institutions like George Washington University and Tufts; U.N. organizations like the FAO, UNEP, and IFAD; funding and donor community organizations such as the Rockefeller Foundation and the the Christensen Fund; and global nonprofits such as Slow Food USA and Oxfam America.
Danielle also conducts extensive on-the-ground research, traveling to more than 70 countries across sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. She has met with thousands farmers and farmers’ groups, scientists and researchers, policymakers and government leaders, students and academics, as well as journalists, documenting what’s working to help alleviate hunger and poverty while protecting the environment.
Danielle’s knowledge of global agriculture issues has been cited widely in more than 20,000 major print and broadcast outlets worldwide, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the International Herald Tribune, The Washington Post, BBC, MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Le Monde (France), the Mail and Guardian (South Africa), the East African (Kenya), TIME magazine, the Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France Presse, Voice of America, the Times of India, the Sydney Morning Herald, and many more.
Danielle speaks at more than 100 events per year, including major conferences and events all over the world. These events include The World Food Prize/Borlaug Dialogues, American College of Lifestyle Medicine Conference, James Beard Foundation Leadership Awards, Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition’s International Forum on Food and Nutrition, Edible Institute, Milan Urban Food Pact Awards, Aspen Institute Environment Forum, the European Commission, the Chicago Council Global Food Security Symposium, National Geographic’s Food Forum, the Sustainable Food Summit, the Hilton Humanitarian Awards, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Global Forum and Expo on Family Farming, New York Times Food for Tomorrow, TEDxManhattan, BITE, and many others.
Danielle has an M.S. in Agriculture, Food, and Environment from the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and spent two years volunteering for the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic.
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