By Charlotte Burnod
Raj Patel is a writer, activist and currently a research professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Associated with Via Campesina, the professor champions sustainable agricultural systems and farmers’ rights. Patel, who moved to Austin from the Bay Area last year, is the author of “Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System” as well as “The Value of Nothing,” a New York Times bestseller. Here, ORANGE speaks with Patel about his personal food interests and upcoming works.
ORANGE: If you could have dinner with anyone, who would it be?
Patel: I have no idea! The answer that immediately came to my mind is, I love eating with my family. I have a young family, and eating with kids and exploring new tastes with them can be a lot of fun, so that’s my immediate answer. I make it a point of being home for meals and I enjoy immensely just having meals with my family.
I would have dinner with Indra Nooyi. She’s the head of Pepsi, and I’ve been trying for the past few months to have dinner with her because I am interested in her views on the future of the food system, and when the head of Pepsi says she is interested in thinking about the food system, that seems to me to be a conversation that would be super interesting. So I’d love to have dinner with her. I’m really interested in hearing what she has to say.
O: Do you like to cook? What are your favorite dishes?
P: My favorite dishes are something involving paneer, which is a kind of Indian cheese. And when my mother-in-law cooks it, it’s freshly curdled milk. It’s just an incredible, incredible dish. But I’m pretty personal with my food tastes, although I’m open to trying new things. Those are staples I go to, but basically foods that are local, fresh and in season just generally taste pretty good — I enjoy that.
O: Do you have any favorite Austin staples?
P: Tacos are something I’ve never had anywhere else, and I love how it can be a mix a variety of textures all at the same time, you know. It’s greasy, it’s salty, it’s crunchy.
O: What are your favorite things about Austin and UT?
P: I’ve been meeting with the City of Austin’s food policy manager, and I’m very excited that next semester the LBJ School, where I’m based, will have as its clients the city’s food policy manager. And we [my colleague Erin Lentz, assistant professor of public affairs, and I] will be working over the next few years with a succession of LBJ students to inform the city and help the city develop its food policy. There’s an energy in Austin and kind of a willingness to be open to some new ideas as to how the city might eat. It’s very exciting.
O: What are you currently working on?
P: I’m working on a multimedia project at the moment, called “Generation Food,” and the film is being directed by Steve James [director of “Hoop Dreams”]... Which is going to be a way of telling stories about people transforming the food system. So in addition to the film, I’m writing a book about that.
To learn more about Patel and his work, visit his website at rajpatel.org. Or, check out his upcoming fall semester class, open to undergraduates: World Food System 1450-2050.