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NIEHS-funded trainee receives peace grant

By Melissa Kerr
October 2010

Barbara Kowalcyk
LennonOno Grant for Peace 2010 winner Barbara Kowalcyk (Photo courtesy of Barbara Kowalcyk)

Barbara Kowalcyk, co-founder of the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention (CFI)( Exit NIEHS, will receive the LennonOno Grant For Peace 2010( Exit NIEHS on Oct. 9 for her efforts to improve food safety. The grant was started by Yoko Ono in 2002 and is given in honor of the peace activism ideals of John Lennon. Kowalcyk is supported by an NIEHS training grant during her studies at the University of Cincinnati.

"The [LennonOno] Grant focuses on the issues where healing is needed," Ono explained in 2002 when the Grant was initiated. The honor is bestowed bienially and awards two recipients $50,000. This year marks what would have been John Lennon's 70th birthday, and Ono has decided to grant four awards to honor the occasion.

The presentation of these awards will be in conjunction with the lighting of the Imagine Peace Tower located on the island of Videy near the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik. Kowalcyk joins the ranks of esteemed peace advocates, such as investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, Israeli artist Zvi Goldstein, and Palestinian artist Khalil Rabah.

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"I am very honored to have received the LennonOno Grant for Peace," said Kowalcyk. "This award will help focus international attention on the fundamental importance of food safety to a healthy civil society and highlights the need for a holistic and sustainable approach to food and food safety that integrates human, animal, and environmental health."

Food safety issue struck home for prize winner

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every year an estimated 76 million Americans become ill from foodborne bacteria, 325,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 die. With E. coli alone, about 70,000 infections are reported yearly resulting in about 60 deaths. Unfortunately, these grim statistics were played out in the life of Kowalcyk's own two-year-old son, Kevin.

In 2001, after returning home from a family vacation, Kevin suffered from a fever and gastrointestinal symptoms. After a few days of worsening symptoms, he was admitted to the hospital where tests proved he had contracted a very aggressive strain of the bacteria E. coli O157:H7. With no treatments or cure available, Kevin's health declined until he died on Aug. 11, 2001, only twelve days after his symptoms started.

Feeling ignored by a lack of local, state, and federal governmental response, Kowalcyk began teaching others of the dangers of foodborne illnesses. She volunteered as a consumer advocate, served on a number of boards and committees on food safety, and gave several presentations including testifying before policymakers in Washington, D.C. She recently participated in the documentary film, "Food, Inc.," and is currently pursuing a doctorate in environmental health with a focus on epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Cincinnati. Along with her mother, she founded the Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving public health by preventing illness and death due to foodborne disease, through research, education, and advocacy.

"I think Ms. Ono has recognized - as many others have - that food sustainability and food safety play a vital role in global health and world peace," said Kowalcyk. With her family along to witness the event, Kowalcyk and the other honorees will receive the awards on Oct. 9 and join Ono in lighting the Imagine Peace Tower that will remain lit until Dec. 8, the anniversary of Lennon's death.

Kowalcyk is also a contender in the Huffington Post Game Changers( Exit NIEHS series. According to the website, the series highlights innovators within different categories, and Kowalcyk is one of the names listed as an "Ultimate Food Game Changer."

(Melissa Kerr studies chemistry at North Carolina Central University. She is currently an intern in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)

Recipients of the LennonOno Grant for Peace 2010

  • Filmmaker Josh Fox wrote and directed the documentary feature film Gasland ( Exit NIEHS in 2010. Josh's work is known for its mix of gripping narrative, heightened imagery and its commitment to socially conscious themes and subjects.
  • Barbara Kowalcyk was propelled into food safety advocacy in 2001, when her two-year-old son, Kevin, died after suffering an E. coli infection from tainted food. Kowalcyk and her mother, Patricia Buck, created CFI( Exit NIEHS, a national non-profit organization committed to improving public health by preventing foodborne illness through research, education, advocacy, and service.
  • Author Michael Pollan has been writing books and articles about the places where nature and culture intersect: on our plates, in our farms and gardens, and in the built environment. He is the author of numerous best sellers, most recently Food Rules: An Eater's Manual.
  • Author, poet, and activist Alice Walker is known for her brave stance against racism, sexism, and human rights issues. In 2009, she traveled to Gaza along with a group of 60 other female activists from the anti-war group Code Pink to oppose the controversial blockade and violence against Gaza by Israel and Egypt. Her book Overcoming Speechlessness documents her experiences in Gaza and abroad.

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