People: Ellen Gustafson, Co-Founder, Food Tank and FEED Projects

People: Ellen Gustafson, Co-Founder, Food Tank and FEED Projects

By Shea Parton

Photos by Ellen Gustafson

On August 27th we finally crossed paths with Ellen Gustafson co-founder of the Food Tank and FEED Projects. After an introduction from Invisible Children founder, Jason Russell, she arrived as the moderator for our Media & Community. After our event we reconnected with New Jersey native, Ellen Gustafson, while she was home in sunny San Diego. Ellen helped us gather the following images to summarize her work and humored an interview to share with all of us what it truly means to rethink food.

What drew you to your present career and how have your experiences prepared you?

I have always been very interested in big global issues and I started my career focused on international security and terrorism. A few years in, I made the link between hunger and violence and realized that if we addressed peoples basic food security, broader security would likely follow. At the same time, I've been a young, American woman in an age where being healthy and staying fit are increasingly complicated - both due to the rampant cheap and crappy food all around us and the images of stick-thin models that we are supposed to magically mirror. My current work as a thinker, speaker, writer and entrepreneur is focused on connecting the global issues of hunger and obesity together so that we can develop the common solutions to both problems and actually build a healtheri food system.

Please describe your work approach?

I think that the only way to truly push the world forward is to take a holistic approach to issues and then create "pedestrian" solutions - meaning solutions that people can be a part of in their daily lives. To be more specific, in food, we have developed a system of buying and eating food that tastes good or is convenient or cheap on one side and then spending our MUCH smaller philanthropy budget on trying to "end hunger" or "save the planet". If instead, we repurposed our food dollars toward food systems and producers that actually helped make food healthier, provided good jobs and fair pay, invested in our local communities and were good stewards of the environment, we could make a MUCH bigger difference in the world. This principle of changing our daily spending habits as a way to "be the change we want to see in the world" expands to our things, too. Why buy a cheaply made, big business t-shirt, that has a "give back" of a few cents on the dollar, when we can buy a sustainably and fairly produced product that is actually embedded with making the world a little bit better in the way that it is made. One of the best ways to help our own country and community get stronger is to buy locally-produced goods and food and if we want to help lift communities around the world out of poverty, paying a fair price for their goods and food is a long-term investment that is not simply a charity donation.

What do you feel is the future of the food industry?

I am so excited for the future of the food industry and for the creative disruption yet to come. Although some people see a future where science and technology take food down a scary, unnatural path, I see the trends of the other direction growing and strengthening. More consumers are choosing organic, local and fair trade foods, because they are understanding the connections between our personal health and that of the planet. Technology is enabling us to use our phones to buy directly from local farmers and changing logistics and renewed interest in walkable communities is changing the way we view the food "marketplace". Just like the supermarket, consolidation, middle of no-where mega-stores, and shelf-stable junk food were the trends of the last thirty years, all of those trends could switch as consumer demands and habits change and new entrepreneurs rise up with better solutions. The big behemoths are aware and they are rightfully grasping for ways to stay relevant, but unfortunately for them, the history of creative disruption in capitalism suggests that tomorrow's winners are just starting up!

What are you reading right now? What are your favorite books and magazines?

My current book rotation includes "Cooked" by Michael Pollan and "The Perfect Protein" by Andrew Sharpless and I have been loving the new magazine, 'Modern Farmer'. I regularly read 'Edible San Diego' (of course), 'The Economist', 'Foreign Affairs', and just got a subscription to "Scientific American'. Those make me sound pretty nerdy, actually.

What about Apolis resonates most with you?

I think the future of commerce is meaning and connection...there is just too much crap out there and the process of making all the crap is bad for the world and, in turn, bad for us. The Apolis motto of "advocacy through industry" is in many ways both philanthropy 2.0 and capitalism 2.0 wrapped up in pretty things for us to buy. The intersection of those two seemingly-disparate agendas is when the "true cost" of our goods and services is actually accounted for...for example, it really costs way more to the earth and its people to make a cheap t-shirt and many, many consumers are just beginning to realize that. Apolis' goods are built to account for those true costs and are therefore embedded with a truly meaningful story and statement about the world we want. Its really hard to "be the change you want to see in the world" when you are not wearing the right shoes!


Ellen Gustafson was born in the suburbs of New Jersy and now lives in San Diego with her Naval Officer husband. She is the co-founder of Food Tank and FEED Projects. Ellen was also previously a US Spokesperson for the UN World Food Program, a terrorism research reporter in the ABC News Investigative Unit and a research associate for the Military Fellows at the Council on Foreign Relation. She has a BA in International Politics from Columbia University. We are thankful for Ellen's friendship and willingness to be an Apolis Nomad, a group of inspiring friends that contribute to the Apolis Journal and regularly field-test our collection on their travels to help us improve durability. For more details of how to become an Apolis Nomad, email us.

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