2016 Leadership Award Honoree: Raj Patel

Raj Patel
Author, Activist, and Academic

Raj Patel’s desire to change the world started early, while visiting family in India at the age of five. “There was a girl at a traffic light, and she was asking for money for food,” he recalls. “I was incredibly upset with my parents, the situation, why she didn’t have food and we did. When we got home to England I started renting out my toys to my classmates and sending the money to end hunger in Africa. It didn’t work, but that’s what set me off on this road.”

Nearly 40 years later, after stints at the World Bank and the World Trade Organization (both of which he would later protest against) as well as the Institute for Food and Development Policy (also known as Food First, where he remains a Fellow), Patel’s passion for social justice still roars.

“Raj is one of the best thinkers in the food movement,” says author, journalist, professor, and 2014 Leadership Award recipient Michael Pollan, with whom Patel taught the 2014 Edible Education class at the University of California, Berkeley. “He brings a perspective very few of us have, both in terms of his training as an econo-mist and political scientist, and the fact that he has such an international perspective.”

In his book Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, Patel exposed how the same forces are causing the skyrocketing numbers of both starving people and obese people worldwide. “There’s no one thing wrong with the food system—it’s a lot of different things,” he says. “Part of the response has been to encourage magical thinking: if we take the sugar out of soda, or take the trans fats out of this or add vitamins to that, or if we eat local or raise wages… None of these things by themselves will make a difference, because the food system is a system. If you’re only thinking from one angle, you’re missing the bigger picture.”

Now a Research Professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin, Patel is also working on a documentary project called Generation Food with award-winning filmmaker Steve James.

“I was hoping to be done fighting hunger after renting out my toys. But I don’t think an honest look at any solution is going to yield a perfect world. It’s only going to yield new questions. That’s the work, why I’m doing what I’m doing,” he says. “Who else gets to do what they started when they were five and still have that sense of purpose?”