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Feeding the world: A career in global food

By Jody Berger, Center for Innovation in Global Health

Ertharin Cousin, JD, wants people to eat. Not just some people and not just some of the time. She wants all people to have access to nutritious food every day. 

The former executive director of the World Food Programme has worked to feed people throughout a career that includes an ambassadorship to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, an executive role with a national grocery chain, and president of the nation’s largest hunger relief organization. 

Cousin is currently serving as a fellow and endowed lecturer at Stanford and she was the recent guest at an event sponsored by the Center for Innovation in Global Health. The conversation was moderated by Paul Costello, senior communications strategist and advisor.

“We’re looking at our food system,” she said during the event. “And it’s broken today. More than 800 million people are chronically undernourished.”

Cousin’s determination to feed people is rooted in family history. When Costello asked about her childhood in Chicago, she started by talking of grandparents who grew up in Georgia and Louisiana. 

“They were tenant farmers on the property that their grandparents were slaves on,” Cousin said. Her parents were part of the Great Migration, when six million African Americans moved north from the rural South. 

Her father was a chef who launched his own business and her mother worked in social services. Both parents became involved in progressive politics and shared their passion with their three children.

“At 10 or 11, I distributed literature for candidates on street corners,” Cousin said. “I remember sitting in Rev. Jesse Jackson’s living room as the community was deciding whether he would run for president [in 1988].”

In 2004, Cousin became chief operating officer of America’s Second Harvest, a confederation of 200 food banks that later became Feeding America. When Hurricane Katrina hit, she said she oversaw the operation to distribute 62 million pounds of food across the region. 

She was appointed to the UN position in 2009, a year after people in 40 cities around the world rioted in response to surging prices for wheat and rice. “The interesting thing is that poor people don’t riot,” she said. “Middle class people could no longer afford food and that’s who riots.”

At the UN, Cousin provided a voice to hungry people around the world and represented them before world leaders. “Oftentimes, you’re negotiating with someone you know is lying to you,” she said. 

Cousin said that she remains as determined as ever to feed people. She’s focused on using new technologies, changes in public policy and financing tools to support those who are food insecure around the world.  

When asked how she viewed the future, given the scope of the problem, Cousin did not hesitate. “Absolutely, I’m optimistic,” she said.

This story was published on the Scope Blog.