Dr. Julia Olayanju, PhD, MPH, is the founder of FoodNiche, Inc. and FoodNiche-ED. FoodNiche, Inc. is focused on creating a healthier food system through strategic partnerships and educational programming. Since 2017, the company has brought together food industry stakeholders and relevant experts in academic communities for thought-provoking conversations about tackling the challenges facing our food system. The company, which has partnered with several Fortune 500 companies, also provides strategic consulting services to emerging food companies. More recently Dr. Olayanju founded FoodNiche-ED, which leverages technology to empower teachers to easily incorporate food and health education into their curricula.
She currently lives in New Jersey with her husband and two sons.
Food Policy Center: Thank you for taking the time to chat with us! Let’s start with a little bit about your background. You have degrees in molecular genetics and public health. What sparked your interest in these fields of study?
Julia Olayanju: Curiosity is one underlying reason for all my academic pursuits. Prior to returning for a PhD, my interest was primarily in understanding disease development, with the goal of helping to find a cure. While working towards my PhD, a series of events triggered my curiosity about food and the role it plays in our overall well-being. Fortunately, I was able to engage in research that broadened my knowledge of how compounds in food interact with our genome to impact our health. It opened my eyes to how important food is to health and helped me to understand that we should do more to educate people about the critical relationship between the food they eat and their overall well-being.
FPC: What was the impetus for starting FoodNiche-ED? Could you tell me more about what the organization does?
JO: FoodNiche-ED was founded in response to the undesirable trajectory we see in our communities today. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in five children in the United States is obese. This is three times the number that was reported three decades ago. It is also reported that more than 50 percent of adults in America struggle with preventable chronic diseases that are related to poor eating patterns. Unfortunately, fewer than eight hours of nutrition education are provided annually in US schools. This is much fewer than the 40 to 50 hours recommended by CDC for behavioral change. Those numbers challenged me to put my training and experiences to work creating a platform with resources that will make it easy for teachers to introduce nutrition education in the classroom in a way that is engaging for the students and does not increase the workload of the teachers.
FPC: How did you make the decision to combine games and technology with nutrition education in schools through FoodNiche-ED?
JO: We were thinking about different ways to engage students, and gamification came to mind. But ultimately it was the way the students responded during testing that sealed the decision. Students love the fact that they can earn points for their activities and also compete with peers.
FPC: For several years now, you have been working with food industry leaders in the academic space. What have been the common themes that come up among these stakeholders, regarding issues to address in our food systems? What do you, personally, think is the biggest challenge, and how should it be addressed?
JO: The need to reduce our dependence on animal protein and build a more sustainable food system seems to be the most important issue for many people. It is quite obvious that our current approach is not sustainable and there is a need to innovate in order to tackle these issues successfully. However, I personally believe that there is also a need to prioritize consumer well-being in all food innovation, especially alternative protein products. These products are quite different from what people are used to, so it is very important for companies to invest in research and consumer-education initiatives. It is crucial for companies innovating in cultivated meat to take the lead in educating consumers and tackle the misconceptions so that when the products eventually hit the market, people are waiting for them – not just people in the food community, but consumers everywhere.
FPC: As a mom, what do you think are the most important concepts for your sons to learn about food and health? What do you hope will change in the food industry for future generations?
JO: I think it is important for us to change the way we think about food. How we see food influences how we approach dinnertime and the choices we make. This is not about one diet or the other; it is more about understanding that the food we eat consistently over time can impact health outcomes positively or negatively. Having that knowledge will trigger curiosity, prompt people to ask questions or explore learning opportunities, and, most importantly, make better food choices.
FPC: How has your background in research influenced your current work in food systems change and nutrition education?
JO: The research I did exploring the anticancer properties in bioactive compounds found in cruciferous vegetables opened my eyes to the important role food plays in our health and also led to my work promoting the science of food and health education. I believe it is important to provide students with a scientific rationale for food choices, not just instruction about what to eat and what not to eat. It is important to start early as well.
FPC: Where do you want FoodNiche-Ed to be in five or ten years? How do you anticipate the work getting harder or easier?
JO: I see FoodNiche-ED giving every child an opportunity to learn about the importance of food with relation to their health in a fun and engaging way.
FPC: Any last thoughts?
JO: Knowing the critical role food plays in our overall well-being, I believe it is important for everyone, both young and old, to take the time to learn more about how the food they eat impacts their health.
City or town you call home: Budd Lake, New Jersey
Job title: Founder
Background and education: Geneticist, Rutgers University and Harvard University
Your breakfast this morning: Strawberry and banana smoothie
Favorite food: Salmon, mashed potatoes
Favorite food hangout: Red Lobster