For those of us involved in the food world, it's hard to remember that many of the truths we take as a given--that advertising influences how we eat as a country, often detrimentally; that agricultural programs sometimes protect businesses rather than people; that public policy can be a powerful tool in shifting how Americans eat and, consequently, their health--are relative newcomers in the national discourse. The person directly responsible for raising these points, along with countless other critical questions about the food-related intersections between science, culture, and politics? Dr. Marion Nestle.
The author of the groundbreaking Food Politics, as well as several other seminal books such as Safe Food, What to Eat, and the recently published Eat, Drink, Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics, Nestle has been an extraordinary force in shaping the way we think and talk about food. "She has done more than anyone to take nutrition off the shelf and get it out where it can be useful," says 2011 JBF Leadership Award recipient and sociology professor Janet Poppendieck.
Dr. Nestle began her career as a biologist before teaching her first nutrition course at Brandeis University. In the early 1990s, after a stint as a nutrition policy advisor in the Department of Health and Human Services, Nestle attended a presentation on the behavioral causes of cancer, specifically cigarette smoking and diet. As she watched slide after slide exposing the ways cigarettes were marketed to children, she realized that the same was true for junk food. "It wasn't that I didn't know about food marketing," she remembers. "It was just that I'd never noticed." This revelation led to the publication of Food Politics, which brought the health problems caused by marketing food to children into the public consciousness.
What's more, she did it in a way that resonated with researchers and nonacademics alike. "Nestle's approach to nutrition is a unique blend of hard science, policy analysis, political astuteness, and wit," says Poppendieck. "She is able to translate complex technical information into guidance that regular people can digest."
In addition to publishing an astounding body of work, Nestle is a dynamic and dedicated educator. At NYU since 1988, she was originally hired to chair a department of home economics. "Now that was a challenge," Nestle recalls. "It was essential that we bring the curriculum into the 21st century." In response she and her colleagues unveiled the university's pioneering program in food studies in 1996. Over the past two decades Nestle has also worked closely with NYU library curator Marvin Taylor to acquire the collection of more than 55,000 food studies books that was recently named in her honor.
Perhaps Nestle's greatest achievement is the inspiration she has provided to colleagues, activists, students, and food lovers throughout the world. "Her insatiable curiosity and relentless tenacity to unearth the truth are contagious," says 2011 JBF Leadership Award recipient and FoodCorps co-founder Debra Eschmeyer. Echoes Poppendieck: "Marion helped us to see food as a vital aspect of human life worthy of the best efforts of scholars. We are all in her debt."
The 2013 JBF Leadership Awards recognize visionaries from a broad range of backgrounds, including government, nonprofit, and literary arts, who are working toward creating a healthier, safer, and more sustainable food world. Now in its third year, the Leadership Awards recognize specific outstanding initiatives as well as bodies of work and lifetime achievement. Winners were honored at a dinner ceremony that took place during the James Beard Foundation Food Conference on October 21 in New York City. For more information, click here.