INNOVATOR: Ricardo Salvador, champion of food and agriculture

Ricardo Salvador is the senior scientist and director of the Food & Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He previously worked as a program officer for Food, Health and Well-being with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. He is the winner of 2013 James Beard Foundation Leadership Award for his lifetime achievement in creating more healthful, affordable sustainable food. Salvador works with citizens, scientists, economists and politicians to transition our current food system into one that grows healthy foods while employing sustainable practices.

HERITAGE: I was born and raised in Mexico, actually in Mexico City, and was raised in Southern Mexico in the states of Puebla and Oaxaca. I came to the United States as a teenager. Legally. Most people are interested in that. The reason is simply that my mother is a German-American woman who went to Mexico as a missionary and met my father, who is a Native American man from the state of Oaxaca.

SIBLINGS: There are four of us total. I’m the oldest and I’m followed by two sisters and a younger brother. All of them live in El Paso, Texas, which is the city that we moved to when we came from Mexico. My younger brother is the certified genius in the family. He’s a professional at the University of Texas in El Paso. An organic chemist. And my two sisters worked in the school district in El Paso.

CURRENT FAMILY: Manuela and I just celebrated our 31st anniversary in August and we have two wonderful young children aged 30 and 27. One lives in San Francisco, and is a computer software engineer. And the other is a graphic designer and lives in Cincinnati.

FIRST PAYING JOB: When I was a teenager, probably somewhere around 15 years old, I had my first paying job. It paid $2 an hour and this is El Paso, Texas. I would get up very early in the morning and get picked up by the milk man. My job consisted of putting together an order in a basket and I would hop out, run to the front door, leave the basket there with the milk, the ice cream, the orange juice, the yogurt, whatever they had ordered and pick up an empty basket, run back to the truck. When that job was over that summer, the driver, who never said more than a sentence or two, gave a speech. And he said: “I made lots of wrong choices in my life and here I am, driving a milk delivery truck. So you make smarter decisions than me.” It was a very important lesson for me.

BEST PIECE OF ADVICE YOU’VE EVER RECEIVED: I announced to my father when I finished high school that I was done with school. That I couldn’t see any value in going on with any more education. And I was going to go back to our family’s village in southern Mexico and basically farm with them. My father did a very wise thing. He actually affirmed my intention. And he said, “You know, I can see what you want to do here. But why don’t you think about this — if you go to help your family right now, think about what you have to offer. You’ll be one more mouth to feed. If you really want to go back and contribute, why don’t you study something that will help? You know, they need doctors, study medicine. They need help with legal problems, become a lawyer. They’re farmers, study agriculture.” So, as my dad suggested, I became an agronomist. I could see the practical application of that. That was the wisest advice I’d ever received in my whole life because it really was a decision point in my life and my father didn’t obligate me, and didn’t make me feel stupid for wanting to abandon the opportunities that I had in front of me. He just appealed to my reason.

IF YOU COULDN’T DO WHAT YOU DO FOR A LIVING, WHAT WOULD YOU DO: I’d like to think that I would be in something creative, namely music. But I also think I have the makings of a doctor or the makings of a pilot. So there’s a number of things that I could be doing. But actually, I never think that way. I’m utterly fulfilled doing what I’m doing and I have a lot to do and feel privileged to have the platform that I have here at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

FAVORITE FOOD MEMORY: When I was 16 years of age, an uncle -just a year ahead of me in age– and I walked to our family’s village from the nearest drop off point of a bus route. You needed to ride a bus six hours to get to this drop  off point and then walk for six hours down a ravine, across a river, up the opposite ravine and then you’d be at our village. We were both teenagers and men and very stupid and did all of that without thinking that we’d get hungry or that we’d get thirsty. It was a very hot day and it was very arduous and we made it to one of my uncle’s places in this village at something like 3:30 in the afternoon and we were both the most miserable, hungry human beings you can imagine. And immediately upon going into my uncle’s home, he served this piping hot meal. It was fish, fresh caught from the stream we had just crossed earlier in the day, rice and angel hair soup. And limeade from the lime tree outside the front door. And that was the most welcome, medicinal, healing, nourishing meal I ever had in my whole life.


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