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Former UN Official Martin Bloem Brings Food Systems Expertise to His New Role as Center for a Livable Future Director

Martin Bloem brings a global perspective to the issues of food access, security and justice.

Interview by Brian W. Simpson • Photo by Chris Hartlove

Martin Bloem has traveled the world in the name of food. The former UN World Food Programme official has extensive experience working on a range of public health issues in Africa, Asia and Latin America. His latest post: Baltimore. 

In November, he took over as director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. Bloem, MD, PhD, is a food visionary who combines a deep-thinking, philosophical outlook with on-the-ground know-how. (He did vitamin A research in Thailand, Bangladesh, Indonesia, China, Vietnam and Laos in the 1990s and later served as the regional director for Helen Keller International in Asia-Pacific.) 

In this Q&A, Bloem discusses where he wants to lead CLF over the long term, how his international experience will inform CLF’s domestic work, what people need to know about food systems and how he’s liking his new hometown.

Where would you like to take CLF in the next five or 10 years?

The sustainable development goals are very important, since these goals have been created and endorsed by the whole world. What CLF does dovetails with so many of the SDGs, easily more than half. Over the next five to 10 years, I would like to see us continue our public health emphasis while expanding our food systems thinking to reach into more fields like climate action and hunger. 

In my prior experience working with Harvard, Columbia and New York University, I’ve recognized a great interest in integrating food systems and sustainability into public health curricula. Many of our public health problems, domestically as well as globally, are linked to the health of our food system. I’d like to see CLF contributing its public health and food system expertise in important arenas that we are not currently very active in but provide great potential. Here’s an example: The Department of International Health is working on a “Feed the Future” project in Nepal, and CLF’s expertise in urban food systems is directly applicable. I’d like to see CLF strengthen collaborative relationships with others throughout the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering, JHU and beyond—and am confident in the mutual benefits of doing so.  

Why did you want to lead CLF?

In my role at the World Food Programme, I was responsible for developing global policies on nutrition and food security with my colleagues from [the UN Food and Agriculture Organization], UNICEF, WHO and [the International Fund for Agricultural Development]. And as WFP’s Global Coordinator for UNAIDS, I was responsible for the nutrition, food security and humanitarian aspects of the HIV/AIDS global policy. So, when I heard about the position at CLF, I was very excited to apply my global policy perspective to a deeper dive on the science around the issues of food access, security and justice in the context of food systems. During my recruitment interviews, I was also impressed with CLF staff’s technical expertise, and [their] enormous dedication and motivation for the mandate of CLF.

I quickly saw the value of CLF in its current form and in its potential. We have so much strong research and practice happening in this one center.

You spent 12 years at WFP and have worked extensively overseas. CLF has a primarily domestic focus. How will your international experience affect your leadership of CLF?

As I mentioned before, I believe in the SDGs, and that means that each country needs to contribute to these goals in the ways that build on their strengths. I believe in and recognize the value of CLF’s domestic work. While it’s certainly good to stick to what you do well, the lessons learned from our domestic work are very relevant, valuable and applicable internationally.

The U.S. food system is so important for the rest of the world. A lot of countries are following our lead in how we practice agriculture.

 The U.S. has a lot of negative examples in terms of food and food systems: Big Soda, fast food, confined animal feeding operations—

I absolutely agree. CLF is contributing to the body of knowledge regarding many of the biggest challenges of our food system, such as the various impacts of industrial food animal production. In addition, CLF is exploring several ways that can help us move toward a more sustainable food system. CLF wants to identify and promote the approaches to food production that incorporate goals of sustainability and health.  

The U.S. food system is so important for the rest of the world. Much of what is happening in Maryland matters and is relevant because a lot of countries are following our lead in how we practice agriculture. This point helps illustrate how I view our domestic focus being important internationally. We need to get out and [say] what the U.S. has done wrong and what we’ve learned—and just as importantly, how to get it done right. 

What do you think most people don’t understand about food systems?

To address big problems like obesity, there is a need for systems thinking and analysis. We in public health can and want to talk about the complexity of the food system, but we also absolutely must be fluent in the language of agriculturists, economists, policymakers, business leaders, environmentalists, communities and other stakeholders so we can establish a division of labor that tackles smaller problems with simpler solutions. We want to create a patchwork of food system solutions—some of those effecting change will be from the private sector, some from the policy world, and so on. I want to see CLF be the thread that weaves together theories and practice.

How’s the move from Rome to Baltimore been? 

Already my wife, Sylvia, and I feel so comfortable here; we feel that Baltimore is home. The city is a microcosm of the world—while the city is so interesting and beautiful, there are still many problems to be solved, and everyone is working so hard on them. People are proud of their city, and I understand that.

 

The Center for a Livable Future is housed in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering

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