Toni Head Shot

Toni Liquori

Ed. Notes- In this era of disclosure, Toni is a friend in addition to one of those who has made a difference in the world. Like Jane, she received her Doctorate from Columbia University Teachers College under the Guidance of Joan Dye Gussow.


MEET: Toni Liquori


Let's start with where you are from and your background

Child of immigrant parents, I’m from a small town (West Springfield) on the other side of the Connecticut River from Springfield, Massachusetts. My dad was born in Italy (the “sister” city to Springfield) and my mom, Canada. Because my 1950s childhood tested their assimilation, we only heard their native languages when they didn’t want my brothers and I to know what they were talking about or when the extended families gathered at weddings, funerals, holidays, etc. To this day, I’m lousy with languages.

My dad worked in a factory, joined its union, and retired in a supervisory position. My mom held a couple of different part-time jobs but most of her energy went to taking care of the five kids, cooking and cleaning the house. She worked hard at this. I was the only girl, so was doted on. My brothers took care of the lawn mowing and raking, the windows, shoveling, and playing a lot of sports. I cheered them on and read a lot. My dad bought food for the family at different markets, often taking me with him on weeknights or Sunday mornings. A special one was the Italian market owned by a cousin in the South End of Springfield, the major Italian neighbor-hood. Dad cut and packaged all her fresh meats on Saturdays in return for the meat our family ate the following week. Because of this, our table was always full, which left me unaware for the longest time that ours was a working class family. I never exactly felt a want.

While there were many happy childhood memories, a standout for me was making chicken soup with dad on Sunday mornings after Mass. First we would drive to the South End to pick up fresh bread and rolls and sweets/desserts from the bakeries. Back in the kitchen, we would make the stock from the chicken and veggies. (Little did I know my dad had killed and de-feathered the chicken in the basement the night before upon return from his cousin’s market.) Last step was adding the rice or noodles. Following all of this, we sat down to a most delicious chicken soup with Parmesan cheese, fresh rolls and sandwich meats, usually milk (sometimes soda) and a treat from that remarkable pastry shop.

What interested you in hunger and education?

Along with so many others, I read about hunger and marched for social justice in college but did not fully confront such issues until I was a Vista worker in Wichita, Kansas (1972-74). My Vista experience was loosely organized to say the least and took more time than I could then imagine to get itself grounded. Somehow, by partnering with peers, members of the local Vista Board, the Wichitans we came to know, the local Legal Services office, and Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), we organized the transition of federal food assistance for poor people – from the Surplus Commodities to Food Stamps in Sedgwick County, Kansas. This effort initially arose from my shock at the obvious poor food quality of the commodities (e.g., insect-infested flour, no fresh foods, canned meats riddled with fats, etc.) the elders picked up monthly. Surely, this country could do better! No doubt, this food assistance transition would have taken place without Vista organizing efforts. Yet, I like to think it happened a bit sooner because of our awakening. Looking back, my Vista experience was more of an “in-your-face” awakening to our class-bound society and its inherent racism, defining who shall eat, what they shall eat and how our food system needs to change.

After a more thoughtful search than I managed for my college admission, I accepted a Public Health Traineeship in New York (tuition paid for my Masters of Public Health) rather than a community organizing apprenticeship in Chicago. While my traineeship was not a perfect fit, I learned a lot and began meeting the NYC community of people who would become my mentors and colleagues over the next four decades. Looking back, I’m grateful because all of this enabled me to build a career that combined community-based work and graduate-level teaching at Teachers College Columbia University.

What issues do you work on and why?

At some point while co-teaching with Joan Gussow (my mentor and now good friend), Joan explained herself to the class as a nutritionist who was most interested with all that took place “before the swallow” (or, food consumption). While consumption is central to the nutrition profession, Joan’s primary interests were located well before the “swallow” – in terms of how food grows, is processed and marketed. Given these interests, Joan was seen as a renegade within the profession for the longest time – Doctorate, Chairperson of the Nutrition Department at Teachers College Columbia University and much more. The food industry – determining what we eat, how food arrives in the marketplace, and who has access to it and in what form – has moved us a long way from how my dad and I shopped during the 1950s and 1960s. Reflecting on this led me to see how narrowly the profession had come to define itself over time – almost solely to “the swallow” – as if nothing else mattered.

By the 1990s, the idea that the nutrition profession was shaped by an industrialized agriculture to one side (Joan) and the health care industry (my public health background) on its other – touched me deeply. In time, positioning the swallow as she did became core to my own dissertation, entitled “Food Matters”. Constructing this case study gave me the opportunity to explore how food – what I and many other mostly white women who had taught/studied nutrition at Teachers College since the 1930s ate every day (or, “the swallow”) – had changed, hand-in-hand with the increasingly technological bases of the agriculture and health care industries on either side of it.

What are the biggest challenges for the issues that you care most about today?

Division and inequity now cut deeply across the nation, threatening our democracy, whatever is left of it. Because of the span of the nutrition profession – from the food system, to what we eat and its impact on human and environmental health – the contours of the division and inequity have become painfully clear.

Current food purchasing trends increase the availability of shelf-stable, highly-processed food products and decrease the proportion of whole, regionally-sourced and minimally processed foods on our plates. Class and race divisions leave the poor, especially those drawn from communities of color, and the elderly who are most in need of a diverse mix of whole and minimally processed food with the least access to them. And because of the inequities built into the wider culture – especially so during food emergencies such as the current Covid 19 pandemic – they experience higher rates of the widely preventable diet-related disease (obesity, diabetes, hypertension, etc.), death and hospitalization. Cruelly, the more typical food emergency response to the pandemic ends up increasing the flow of shelf-stable, highly-processed food products to distribution points across poor neighborhoods. It’s a vicious cycle.

What drives you?

I'm driven by the idea that food and health equity is really the only approach that makes any kind of sense for personal, community and planetary health. More practice in how to build genuine equity into all dimesnions of our world as it changes is where my thinking takes me these days. Since I’m retired and no longer comsumed by day-to-day organizing and/or teaching, determining how I bring this into my current life is a daunting work very much in process.

In conclusion, what message do you want to deliver to our readers? What do you think your legacy should be?

Frankly as far as legacy goes, I'm hoping to be remembered as a set of shoulders upon which others built.

Toni Joan Pam 1

Toni Liquori, Joan Dye Gussow & Pamela Koch

eliminate hunger

About us

Kids Can Make a Difference is a program of iEARN (International Education and Resource Network), the world's largest non-profit global network. iEARN enables teachers and youth to use the Internet and other technologies to collaborate on projects that enhance learning and make a difference in the world.

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