This election season, Carol Moseley Braun isn’t gunning to become the first black president or the first female president. (Been there, done that.) Instead, she’s trying to break ground in another arena, one she considers vastly more satisfying than politics: food. Healthy, organic, biodynamic food.
Photo: AP / Seth Perlman
In 2002, after a couple of decades in politics — she served as an Illinois state senator from 1978 to 1987, a U.S. senator for Illinois from 1993 to 1999, and ambassador to New Zealand from 1999 to 2001 — Brown founded Good Food Organics in Chicago. That gave way to a line of biodynamic products called Ambassador Organics, which includes coffees, teas, and spices now sold in some Whole Foods outlets and other health-food stores.
Braun spoke to me from her office in Chicago about her transition from politician to food purveyor, and the challenge of making healthy food available to all.
Are you feeling nostalgic about the current presidential race, or are you glad you’re not in the fray?
I call myself a “recovering politician.” And because I get to deal with food, I can take my mind off politics. Food trumps politics any day!
As the first major-party female presidential candidate and one of the first African-American candidates, do you feel like you helped pave the way for the campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton?
I certainly hope so. I decided to run when my little 10-year-old niece said, “But Auntie Carol, all the presidents are boys.” And I stood there and I said, “Sweetie, girls can be president, too” — knowing I was lying to her. And I just decided I was not going to let that lie stand. That was the reason I got out there to run.
And I hope that by doing so it made it a little easier for Barack and for Hillary, and for any nontraditional candidate. We need to open it up so that the American people can tap the best and the brightest in whatever shape they come in.
Which candidate do you think has the strongest environmental platform?
OK, see, that gets into politics — [laughs] — which I try to avoid!
You could have taken your post-political path in many directions. Why nutrition and sustainability?
I’ve been involved with farm policy throughout my career — from my days 30 years ago in the state legislature, when I created the agriculture high school here in Cook County, Ill., to my work in the United States Senate, to my ambassadorship in New Zealand, with all the agriculture there.
On a personal level, my great-grandfather bought a 600-acre farm back in that little window after the Civil War when blacks could buy property in Alabama. Most of the property is still in the family today, and I came back home from New Zealand with the idea that I’d take over the family farm and do it as a biodynamic farm — continuing my public service by getting involved with healthy food, sustainable agriculture, and nutrition.
But just as I started restoring the farm, Sept. 11 happened. That brought me back to Chicago, where my whole family is. I had to be with family and the people I loved. I tried for about four months to make almost weekly trips from Alabama to Illinois, and it was a nightmare. So in 2002 I ended the farm project and began Good Food Organics, the umbrella company for our line of biodynamic products called Ambassador Organics.
Why biodynamic? There are plenty of consumers who shop for organic, but biodynamic hasn’t caught on in the same way.
That is the core, compelling proposition of this company. Biodynamic farming is the most sustainable farming model in the world, and we are the first company in America to market a line of biodynamic organic products. This will give people a point of reference for the best-quality, healthiest, purest organic products to be found anywhere on the planet.
Do you hope to bring organics to more African-American consumers and communities of color that have yet to benefit from the organic trend?
Yes, over time I think that I can. With organics, as with a lot of things, the divide is less race than it is economics. In fact, a recent study by the Hartman Group found that the fastest-growing segment per capita of the organic market is among what would traditionally be called ethnic markets — blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and other people of color.
The main challenge is making more organic products available across the board to the American people, which will help to bring the prices down, in turn making the products available to more people. It’s basic supply and demand. I’d hate to see organic and healthier foods only available to the rich. I think that would be a real tragedy because it’s a matter of health, of nutrition, of our commitment to sustain the planet. We should make certain that economics and wealth are not barriers to access.
How will your company market its products to more diverse and lower-income communities? Currently, you are selling products in Whole Foods, which markets mostly to middle- and upper-income consumers.
Right now, we’re just trying to market the products — period! [Laughs.] We’re just getting started, and haven’t gotten to the point where we can make those kinds of differentiations in terms of what communities we go into.
I’m grateful that Whole Foods is taking our products on, but you don’t find the high-end stores in inner-city communities. These are what my colleague LaDonna Redmond calls “food ghettos” or “food deserts” — communities with nutritional deficits, where fast food is far more accessible than grocery stores. We’re in negotiations now with some retailers such as Dominick’s that would make us more accessible across the board, but it will take some time.
Besides cost, what are the other challenges of bringing healthier food into “food deserts”? Is it also about education and better marketing to these communities?
Yes. It’s a lot of things. It’s accessibility, availability, information sharing, branding. The more we teach people about nutrition and sustainability, and make healthy food appealing, the more we can influence food preferences.
What are your future plans for Good Food Organics and your public-health activism?
Right now we have a line of tea, a line of coffee, and a line of spices, but not food in the classic sense. I’m hoping that as we grow the company, we’ll move more and more in the direction of actual food.
More broadly speaking, I’ll try to build a constituency for biodynamics here in the United States in the service of both public health and environmental sustainability. It’s part of a bigger vision of sustainability that serves a lot of different goals simultaneously: The more we can convert farms to organic production, the greater we promote sustainable agriculture — as opposed to these big megafarms that are run by computers. The more we can promote human-scale farming, the more we can support not only care of the environment but also care of farm-community economies.
Wal-Mart has declared its plans to “democratize sustainability” by making green products available to everyone. Do you think Wal-Mart can be a force for good in this regard?
I do. I’ll be honest with you: when I first heard the CEO of Wal-Mart talking about sustainability and green development, I almost lost my teeth. [Laughs.] I was surprised, but delighted.
This should not be a conversation in which people who have lots of money talk to each other. This ought to be a conversation about nutrition that we can make available to every child, about what kind of country we want to have, even about how our health-care system works. And so if you put all these pieces together, having Wal-Mart as an advocate for organics is a very, very positive thing. All of us ought to take a moment and pat them on the back and encourage them to do even more.
Do you think we’ll have to sacrifice quality of organic and biodynamic foods for the mass market?
I would resist violently, vigorously any diminution of the food quality. That’s the whole point — to give people healthier food. Healthier food, more nutritious food, food that is produced using sustainable agricultural methods.
In the long view, do you see organic and biodynamic foods becoming the norm, or do you think they will always have a minority share of the food market?
Oh, I hope we can grow it. I see it as essential to the health of the public and the planet. Rudolph Steiner, who was the originator of what we now call biodynamic, said that our food would get to the point where it no longer nourished our bodies. He pointed to agriculture as a core value in terms of the health of the community, the physical health of individuals, the health of the planet. Biodynamics brings all of that together with a spirituality that speaks to the connectedness of all living things.
You source many of your biodynamic spices and ingredients from overseas, which contradicts the principles of the local-food movement. Is it an important and realistic priority for you to get locally sourced ingredients?
Oh, sure. The goals aren’t contradictory at all. It is certainly better to have local sources than to bring something in from China. The problem is, tea doesn’t come from the U.S., neither does coffee. That’s why I source those products abroad. If we’re going to bring stuff in from abroad, we need to make sure that it meets the highest standards so that we’re not giving the American people any less in terms of nutrition than they would get here at home.
What kind of regulations do you think we need to support this trend and improve health and nutrition in America?
The Department of Agriculture would do well to help people transition into organics. The current farm subsidies are hideous. Many small farmers cannot afford to take their production offline for three years to clean up the soil. So just as we have a law that we have support for cleaning up toxic-waste sites, we ought to be able to provide financial support for small farmers who are trying to convert to organics. Furthermore, if we’re going to encourage farmers to transition out of tobacco, which we’re doing, then why not couple that with moving into production of healthier food? We should also have federal programs that put more fruits, veggies, and healthier foods into schools.
These issues are also deeply connected to health-care policy. If we’re going to reform and make health care available to the American people, we need to start with the basics, which include making sure that people have access to healthy food, and not food that leaves them diabetic and with gout and high blood pressure and the like.
As senator, you were known as the “Ethanol Queen” among Illinois farmers. Corn ethanol is now getting a lot of criticism from environmentalists for having negligible environmental benefits because of the fossil-fuel inputs. Do you see these as legitimate concerns? Where do you stand now on ethanol?
I think they are legitimate concerns. The idea was not ethanol, the idea was renewable fuel. Ethanol was a first step — we rolled out the carpet with tax breaks and so on to inspire and promote the creation of ethanol. But it wasn’t supposed to be the end of the conversation, but rather the beginning of it. I just hope that we don’t get stuck on ethanol.
What have you done personally to improve your diet and live a sustainable lifestyle?
[Laughs.] I’m laughing because I’m about 30 pounds overweight. I like to call it “traditionally built” for an African woman. I’m working on it, OK? I love ice cream, things like that.
But seriously, I go back to the days of Adelle Davis in terms of healthy eating.
What’s your favorite recipe?
I love to make a dish we call Blueberry Whip. I whip up milk with a bit of honey and a bit of cinnamon and vanilla into a whipped cream. All of the ingredients must be the absolute best biodynamic ingredients you can find — conventional milk may have traces of bovine growth hormone. Then I put my whipped mixture on top of biodynamic blueberries, which are very succulent. It is really, really yummy.