Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Solutionary Women: Anna Lappé of Grub

I was thrilled when Ilyse Hogue, contacted me to say that her friend Anna Lappé was in town to promote her new book, Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen, and might be available for an interview. You can hear the interview on the Big Vision Podcast, or read the transcript below. In addition to co-authoring Grub with Bryant Terry, Anna also co-authored Hope's Edge with her mother Frances Moore Lappé and is a co-founder, with her mother, of the Small Planet Fund, and a founding principal of the Small Planet Institute, based in Cambridge Massachusetts.

"Grub" is our word for food that's local, that's sustainable, and that's grown with fairness from all along the way, from the seed to the table. And when we, my co-author Bryant Terry and I, were talking about doing this book project together, and we were trying to think about, is there one word out there to describe the food that we talk about in the book, and that we encourage people to support and to buy and to eat, and we celebrate? We just didn't feel like any one word really summed it up. For instance, "organic". A lot of people have a lot of various associations with the word organic, and for some people organic implies food that's for a certain kind of person, that makes a certain amount of money and lives in a certain area, and we also know that organic only tells you a little piece about your food. It only tells you about how that food was produced, but it doesn't tell you how far away it was produced, it doesn't tell you how the farm workers were treated and if the farmer was paid a fair price. It doesn't tell you any of that. And so organic didn't cut it, and there was no other word out there that summed up the food that we talk about in our book, Grub. So "grub" became our kind of catchall term for those three things, for kind of the values of local, of sustainable, and of fairness. And also I really like the word "grub" to talk about this food because, to me, grub has been used forever in a slangy way to talk about food, and it has always, to me, connoted food that's kind of everybody's food, and kind of down-home country cooking, and home cooking. We really like the idea that this food we're talking about isn't precious, and it's food that should be accessible to everybody. You know, there's no reason why, especially in a country like the U.S., we all shouldn't have access to this food.

What are some of the Grub success stories that you've seen?

Well, in the past couple months, I've been to 28 cities, or something like that, all across the country. And really in every single city I have been meeting incredible people and learning about local efforts that I didn't even know existed when I was doing the research for Grub and so it's everything from, for instance, just across the Bay in Berkeley, the city of Berkeley hiring Anne Cooper to be the head of Berkeley Unified School Districts' food service, and to try to really revolutionize how kids eat. And actually instead of having them eat high calorie, high fat, high sugar, high salt, bad-for-you food, to actually bring in fresh food, and connect with local farmers and farms. And so Anne Cooper and Berkeley is a great example for me of the success story, but it's not just in Berkeley, where people might think, "Oh yeah, of course, Berkeley, you know, of course they're doing that in Berkeley." There are now more than 200 school districts all across the country that are doing this kind of thing, and in a lot of the cities that I went to, I met people in school districts that are bringing in healthy foods. So that's just one example. I threw a Grub party at a friend's farm in rural North Carolina that was started by four friends who were living in Brooklyn, living the city life, and decided to take over the family farm in North Carolina, and have totally taken over this farm, and made it organic, selling to their neighbors, selling to their community. That, to me, is another success story of young people who are realizing how important it is to keep the farms that are growing food, growing food in a healthy way, to keep them alive, and thriving. But I could go on and on, I mean everywhere I went, there were amazing stories, and I kind of feel like now I could open up an atlas, or a map of the United States, and point to anywhere, and go there and find people who are doing this work of really trying to insure that there's healthy food available for everybody.

What brought you to this work? Why did you write Grub?

The genesis of Grub in some ways goes way, way back, but it some ways it also was a direct result of having done this book project with my mother, Francis Moore Lappé, we wrote a book that came out in 2002 called Hope's Edge, and that book was our chronicling this incredible journey we took to Bangladesh, India, Brazil, Poland, Kenya, France, and to places in the U.S. And in that book we were really interested in hearing the voices, the stories of people around the world that were addressing the root causes of hunger and poverty. We met some of the most incredible social movement leaders, and met Wangari Mathai, this incredible environmental leader in Kenya who ended up winning the Nobel Peace Prize several years ago.

And so after that experience, of writing that book, and talking to those people around the world and coming home, I had moved back to Brooklyn, New York, and I was thinking about what I wanted to do for my next project. One of the things that kept coming up for me is I was thinking about, what did I learn? What are some of the things that I learned in writing the book? I kept hearing from people around the world how much of an impact the United States has on the rest of the world. Well, we all know that probably, but especially in terms of food, especially in terms of hunger, especially in terms of the fate of farmers around the world. The policies that get set here, the ways in which we either have regulations and standards that corporations have to follow, or don't. The way U.S. consumers shop for food, the choices that we make about the food we buy, all of these things are having a ripple effect, not just in our own bodies, in our own country, but all around the world. And so it became really important in my mind for me to think about another project that would actually get me looking at and get me talking about what's happening in this country, with the awareness that what we do here as individuals, as consumers, as citizens, has this global effect. That often, I think, the percentage of Americans who have passports is like, eight percent of Americans have passports. And so you think about, most of us also aren't leaving the country; most of the news we get from around the world is very narrowly focused on a few hot spots, that's it. And so I think it's easy to forget that we have this global impact as a nation of individuals, right? So just trying to get us to really see that.

How did you connect with your Grub co-author?

I met Bryant Terry, who became my co-author, actually, very fortuitously. I had just moved to Brooklyn, New York, and I knew some people who were part of this organization called The Active Element Foundation, and they had just published a book called The Future 500. It was a listing, really, of 500 youth-led activist organizations all around the country, at least one in every single state, and there were all kinds of really incredible projects. So one afternoon I was home in this new neighborhood of mine in Brooklyn and I thought I would flip through The Future 500 and see who was doing stuff that was interesting to me, and that was into the kind of issues that I was working on, and that also if anybody happened to live near me, or be working near me, that would be an added bonus.

And so I got to this description of this organization called b-healthy! which stands for Build Healthy Eating and Lifestyles to Help Youth. And I was reading it, and the organization works with low-income young people in New York City, and was an organization that was teaching young people about how to cook healthy food. But going beyond that, not just how to cook that food, but why should they, and why should they care? And then even going beyond that, and getting the young people to then ask the next question, which is, "Why is it that in my low-income neighborhood in the Bronx, or in Queens, or in East New York, it's easy for me to find a bottle of alcohol, but it's really hard for me to find an organic fresh local tomato?" Meanwhile in Union Square, and in all these places throughout the city, it's really easy to find these amazing local produce. So kind of getting them to ask those questions then getting them to become leaders in fighting for those foods and fighting for that in their community.

So I thought, "Wow, this sounds like an amazing organization," and then I read about the founder and it turned out that he lived five blocks away from me in this neighborhood. So, I mustered up the courage to send him an email, and said, "You don't know me, but I'd really love to meet you and talk about your work." It turns out that he had actually read Hope's Edge, knew about my work, and so we ended up meeting for coffee, and we just kind of struck up a friendship first, and then over many conversations we had this idea of working on this book together.

Britt: What do you want people listening to this podcast to do? What is one small action that they can take?

Well, I think the good thing about this work, and about really the message of Grub the book, and of my work, is that I think a lot of people are constantly asking me the question of "What can I do?" And I think the good news is that there's a lot we can do. Of course, the bad news flip side to that is because so much is going wrong, there's a lot we can do. But I think just to get people to realize that we never know the impact of our actions. A lot of people feel like, "Well, whatever I do is so inconsequential it won't make a difference." But I've met so many people who their step, their action, their activism, their voice has been a tipping point in something really much larger than they ever dreamed possible happening.

And so I often talk about that metaphor we have where people downplay their potential impact by saying that they'd feel like they were just a drop in the bucket. And I was thinking about it. When you think about being a drop in the bucket and that sense of futileness that that conveys, well, it's really I think more that people feel like they're like a drop in the desert, because it's that feeling of it dissipating even before it touches ground. Because if you think about a bucket, and especially a very small bucket, but if you think about the idea of that bucket as a container of your drops, and your one drop, well, you could be the drop that pushes the water over the edge, and that actually a bucket can fill up really fast. And so I think part of my work with Hope's Edge and with Grub is getting people to see the bucket, to realize that they're not alone, and that all of these drops are not just dissipating, that we're actually adding to each other, and that in the same way that there can be this negative cycle and this momentum of negativity. There's also this momentum of positive action, that now that we have. For instance, as I mentioned before, we have these 200 school districts that are connecting with area farms to bring in fresh local food into the schools. Well, that number is only increasing, and you think about farmers' markets. In the early seventies in this country there were just a few hundred farmers' markets left, and there are now more than 4, 000 farmers' markets around the country. And so again, there's only going to be more farmers' markets if we keep this momentum going.

So, I think partly what I hope people do is just kind of reframe their own sense of power and realize that actually we have a lot more power than we think and that part of the strategy, part of the dynamic of the status quo is to try to get us to not see that power and accept the way things are. So whatever you can do to realize your own power, I say, is an important step because I don't think there's any one way of life, that your life has to look a certain way to really be part of making a difference. I think that I certainly have friends that cross the whole spectrum in terms of what they're choosing to do with their personal and professional lives, and I still think of them as very much change makers. So whether it's just thinking about it on a daily basis, food is one of those things that you do buy every day, probably, or you eat it every day, if you're not buying it every day, and to realize that every time we go to the supermarket, or go to a farmers' market, or go to a food coop, that the choices that we make about food are really a vote for the world that we want. So every time I buy organic produce, for instance, I feel like I'm part of saying, "I'm sick and tired of 1.2 billion pounds of pesticides being sprayed every year in this country; I don't want to buy into it," literally. I think it's been a very long time since I've bought, for instance, a Coca-Cola product, although it gets harder now that they make Dasani, and they own Odwalla, and they do all these things. But I try not to buy, for instance, Coca-Cola, and until I think that their company has better business practices, I plan not to. So that's just one thing, one very simple thing that we all can do, I mean, we all do it anyway, and whether we like it or not, our dollars are casting a vote, and it's either a vote that you're consciously making, or you're unconsciously making. And so that's one thing that we all do every day anyway

And then I think that, again, there's no one right answer about, beyond that, what people choose to do. I think any way in which we engage with the world, whether it's just having conversations with our friends, or reading a book that we think is interesting, or will be informative, or reading the newspaper, or any of those things are important, as well as if you do have the time and you want to be more engaged, there are these thousands of ways to get engaged. That's also what is so inspiring for me to see, all these people around the country that are really defining "activism" in a whole variety of ways so that it can mean volunteering at your kid's school, or it can mean trying to run for office, or it can mean a whole range of different things. It doesn't have to look one certain way.

Britt :
Are there any books that have particularly inspired you that you can recommend?

Well, some of my favorite books, and I should for full disclosure say that this is an organization whose board I'm about to join in a month or two, which I'm really excited about, but some of my favorite books that have been really influential for me are from an organization called the Center for Media and Democracy. And they're called, Toxic Sludge is Good For You, is one of them, and Trust Us, We're Experts is another. Just something about those books and how they helped me understand how to see the world with fresh eyes, and how to see how the ways in which industry shapes public perception, and about a whole range of different issues through their public relations and through the way in which they spin themselves, and the media, has been really helpful for me in thinking through a lot of these issues. I mean, I sort of see it like, I just was talking to a friend of mine who's an ethnobotanist, and he was taking us through Central Park on an edible walking tour of Central Park. And he was showing us all the things you could eat in Central Park. And basically it seemed like you could pretty much eat anything, but don't hold me to that! But basically we were eating all these different leaves, off of all these different trees, and he was pointing all of them out. He knew the names of everything, and he knew exactly their medicinal purposes, and their healing purposes, and how they tasted, everything. And there was this way in which when he walked through Central Park that he just saw the trees for what they were, he had names for them, he just could see right through them in some ways.

And I think about how through those books, Toxic Sludge is Good For You, and other books that I've read, and Marion Nestle's work, who, she wrote Food Politics and Safe Food and her latest book, What to Eat, or Eric Schlosser's books, and through my own research, I mean, I feel like I can walk into the supermarket now and I don't see the veneers of the labels. I can kind of penetrate the products in a way that I didn't before, just like my ethnobotanist friend can do in Central Park. It's a liberating feeling as opposed to an oppressive one, and it's like, "Ok, I know that in a supermarket of these 40,000 items, about half of them come from ten corporations, and I know that of these 40,000 items I can pretty much guess which ones, about three quarters of them, will have genetically modified organisms in them and, ok, I can pretty much know which ones are going to have high fructose corn syrup, or the things I want to stay away from." So it's sort of about kind of exposing ourselves to that information to figure out a way to penetrate the world with new eyes.

Is there anything else you want people to know about Grub?

Well, one of the things that we really stress in our book is that eating this food and sharing it with your friends and family is a fun thing to do, and so the menus in Grub that Bryant created are oriented around dinner parties. We include suggested soundtracks of music to listen to while you're cooking and while you're having fun, and that ultimately it's also about feeling good. Since I got into this work through Hope's Edge and now through Grub, I don't always eat the perfect diet by any means, but I know how good it feels when I do. And that's something that I think is really a really critical point that we stress in the book and in our work.

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