According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 50% of adults in America struggle with preventable chronic diseases that are related to poor eating patterns. Obesity affects 19% of children and 42% of adults, costing taxpayers over $ 147 billion dollars annually in medical expenses. The number reported for childhood obesity today is more than three times the numbers reported three decades ago. This undesirable trajectory is further compounded by the fact that nutrition education, which is considered an integral part of a well-rounded education, is lagging in US schools, which provide less than 8 hours of it annually.
Julia Olayanju, Ph.D. is a scientist and educator who believes that early nutrition education in K-12 schools is not only important but expedient. According to her, “introducing the science of food and health in a way that helps the students understand why their food choices matter to their overall wellbeing is essential. We need to provide instruction on what to eat and the rationale for why those choices matter. ” This is why Olayanju founded FoodNiche-ED, a community-centric platform that helps teachers educate students on the science of food and health, engaging them in activities, competitions and rewards.
FoodNiche has collaborated with dietitians, scientists and educators and leveraged technology to create resources that help students learn and engage on the topic of healthier eating. A pilot program already has enrolled nine schools and has more than 10,000 students in the pipeline.
For more than four years, Olayanju has been drawing attention to issues in our communities, facilitating thought-provoking conversations on shaping a healthier food system. Prior to FoodNiche-ED, she founded FoodNiche Inc., where she has built a community of over 50,000 food enthusiasts, innovators, entrepreneurs and investors to drive change towards a healthier food system. Through internationally-recognized conferences such as the FoodNiche Tech Summit and FoodNiche Global Health Innovation Summit, major stakeholders in the food industry come together to discuss approaches to change. Olayanju has partnered with several organizations with aligned objectives over the past few years, including Kroger Health, SAP Next Gen, PepsiCo and other leading food brands.
Olayanju became passionate about helping people live healthier lives at age seven, when she unexpectedly lost an aunt due to disease. However, her perspective di lei about food was completely changed while working on her doctoral research work understanding the anticancer properties in a class of compounds found in cruciferous vegetables called isothiocyanates. “I just could not think of food the same way again,” she says. “My research fueled my desire to promote educational opportunities for people innovating the food we eat, for students, and for people of any age to learn about food and their health.”
Olayanju advises aspiring changemakers to figure out what they truly want and confidently go for it. “Think about someone embarking on a trip without a specific destination in mind,” she says. “The person will turn any direction, stop at any spot, and probably return home tired, unfulfilled or both. Compare this to someone who has a specific destination in mind, someone with clarity on why a destination is of interest. If they miss their way, they can ask for help, assess their progress or lack of it. This person is more likely to return home fulfilled than the person without a sense of direction. This applies to your career as well. Knowing what you want guides the type of job opportunities you explore and training opportunities you seek and mentors you consider. It all starts with having a definite desire. Every other thing builds on that. “