Ask Umbra dishes with Anna Lappé
Q. Organic food was all the rage, and now it’s all about local. In terms of the whole locavore movement, what do you see as its importance, and what is the most important thing in your mind, organic or local?
A. Part of the confusion that people might be feeling is this kind of whiplash. First, everybody said it was organic, and now, everybody’s saying it’s local, and what’s a shopper to do? Part of that whiplash was media-constructed in the sense that media loves controversy. To be anti-organic, pro-local is one sort of controversy. But also media loves new trends. Unfortunately for those of us who are advocating for sustainable food, the good, healthy, environmentally friendly food is a pretty old story. But the media doesn’t like that story. They need a new story. So there was a way in which local became the new media darling, and the coverage of it didn’t explain the full concept of local in a way that connected it to the organic movement and to movements that have been around for a long time.
The message about the importance of local often got oversimplified to just be a message of food miles. And the message about food miles got oversimplified to just be about the distance of the farm to your plate. Obviously the food system is much more complicated than that. The reasons we should go local have to do with a whole range of concerns, including the value in having agriculture biodiversity in our country and protecting our green spaces. We know that our agricultural soils are an important place to store carbon. We also know from land use studies and emissions studies what happens when you convert vibrant farmland to a dead strip mall; that has enormous emissions implications. So there’s a multitude of different reasons why local is important, and they add to the story of organic. They aren’t in competition with the story of organic.
Q. Organic food is still pretty pricey; how can we make it more accessible and affordable to low-income people? And how do you think we can get more farmers on board with these sustainable growing practices?
A. I often hear people say, “But Anna, talking about organic food or local food or climate-friendly food—these foods are so elitist; they are so out of reach for most of us.” And I like to stress that the food system that’s truly elitist is our current American food system, which shuts out almost 40 million people who are unsure how they will feed themselves, a food system that makes the worst calories for us, the cheapest and most accessible calories in the supermarket. We really need to call out our current food system for what it is, which is elitist, and argue that what we need to do is really throw our weight behind the kinds of government policies that support food that’s healthier for the planet and healthier for our bodies. Right now the government gives out enormous handouts of our tax dollars just for food, but it’s just not going to food that you and I eat. Most of it’s going to commodities that end up either as high fructose corn syrup or as feed for livestock. So the extent to which we can support policies that help build a greener food infrastructure, those will be policies that help more people access healthy food.
Q. What does your family’s typical diet consist of?
A. My daughter—she’s 9 months—she eats what we eat basically. We eat a very plant-centered diet; occasionally we have sustainable seafood. We really try to support our local farmers market and our local farms as much as possible.
Even though so much of my work is focused on food and what we eat, I found myself a bit overwhelmed thinking about how complicated it’s going to be when I start feeding my daughter solids and how hard it’s going to be to make her food. And I was so glad to have the advice from a friend who is a pediatrician—I wrote the forward to his book called Feeding Baby Green. What he said and what all my other nutritionist friends emphasized to me is that babies are pretty much like you’d imagine them to be: small people. They don’t need to necessarily eat special food. There are a few forbidden foods, but basically your kids can really eat what you eat. But there’s been a deliberate, protracted, very well funded campaign by the food industry over the last 30 years to get us to believe that kids don’t want to eat the food we eat, to get us to believe kids should be fed different food, and that food should be brightly colored, very sweet, and should come in all funny shapes and sizes. There’s been a protracted campaign to get us into buy that myth, so it’s been really liberating for me and my family to to watch our daughter love to eat and love to eat the foods we eat. We basically take most of the meals we cook for ourselves, throw it in a food processor to make it easy for her to chew, and feed it to her. She’s a great eater.
Q. What do you see as a real sign of a cleaner, greener world that’s happening right now?
A. One of the big things I’m really hopeful about is the growing movement of people in cities connecting to local farms, growing their own food. Again, this is because of where I live in a city and who I’m connected to, but there are initiatives, projects around connecting community to food popping up across the country. You can see it in projects like Brooklyn Grange, and in the reports we hear from some of the seed sellers that they’ve run out of supply of certain seeds because there’s been such a run by urban gardeners, community gardeners, and kitchen gardeners around the country.