Wenonah Hauter, director of Food and Water Watch, answers questions
With what environmental organization are you affiliated?
I am the executive director of Food and Water Watch, a brand-new consumer advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.
What does your organization do?
We’re focused on protecting two critical essentials: food and water. Our mission is to challenge the economic and political forces that are promoting industrialized food production and the commodification of the oceans and freshwater sources. Our goal is to engage in substantive public policy work, while at the same time engaging in campaigns that make complex issues exciting and easy to understand.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
I’m spending a lot of time getting our new organization off the ground. We just moved into our new offices two weeks ago, so we’re still unpacking boxes and ironing out technology problems. I’m a little wistful for the good old days when all you had to do was unpack, plug in the typewriter, and hook up the phones.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I grew up in the late ’60s and had my first political experiences in high school in rural Virginia. We girls weren’t allowed to wear pants to school, so we agitated for a dress-code change — and won. When my high school integrated, the African-American girls from a high school across town who had been cheerleaders were told they couldn’t keep their places because tryouts had happened the year before. We organized a sit-in in the lobby to protest this injustice and were all kicked out of school for two weeks, but they did allow the girls to be on the cheerleading team. I also became involved in the anti-war movement. Many of the boys I knew were being drafted to go to Vietnam. Seeing your friends forced to go fight in an unjust and immoral war is a very politicizing experience.
It was also about this time that I became really interested in organic agriculture and the back-to-the-land movement. While I was in college, I lived in a commune in rural Virginia where we grew a lot of our own food and lived very simply — no plumbing or central heat.
My first job out of college was working in rural southwest Virginia for an anti-poverty program. I spent several years working on poverty and aging issues. During this time, I got involved with the anti-nuclear movement. In 1984, I inherited my family’s farm in northern Virginia and moved there. I eventually decided to find a job in Washington, D.C., fighting for a clean environment. I worked for the Union of Concerned Scientists organizing around renewable-energy issues, and I ran Citizen Action’s environmental program. In 1997, I started working for Public Citizen, running the Critical Mass Energy Program. Eventually, we expanded that program to include food and water issues. In November 2005, because of the growth of our program, Public Citizen spun off the food and water issues into Food and Water Watch.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in New Jersey and during my early years lived in Pennsylvania, California, Montana, and Washington state, but my family ended up on a farm in Virginia.
Today, I live on that same farm, which my husband runs as a Community-Supported Agriculture program. I get to eat terrific organic food that’s grown just steps away from my front door. I feel lucky that my public and private lives are in sync!
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
I am outraged that companies like Nestle, Pepsi, and Coke are getting away with selling bottled water to consumers as a healthy option that is better than tap water. Bottled water is almost entirely unregulated, and studies have shown that some bottled water has more bacteria and chemicals than tap water. Bottling water from springs (water mining) can have a devastating effect on ecosystems. Also, the containers release dangerous toxic chemicals into the air and water when they are manufactured and when they are burned or buried. Think of how we could improve our tap-water infrastructure if we took the money spent on bottled water and spent it on our public water systems.
What’s your environmental vice?
Eating blueberries out of season.
What are you reading these days?
For the last couple years, I’ve been reading the biographies of the presidents in order. But sometimes I get interested in a period and read a lot of other related things. I just finished a book called Edith and Woodrow: The Wilson White House by Phyllis Levin and have started reading Ron Powers’ biography of Mark Twain.
What’s your favorite meal?
I love homemade pasta with spicy red sauce, but beans, tortillas, avocados, and picante sauce are tied for first place.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I really do prefer whole-wheat bread and brown rice.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
Making environmentalism mainstream.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly?
Allowing environmentalism to be co-opted by niche marketers.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
I think the best thing we could do for the environment is to take the money out of politics. As long as our campaign-finance laws amount to legalized bribery, we will not be able to protect the environment.
Who was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
I never watch TV — haven’t for 25 years. But I love movies, especially screwball comedies from the ’30s and ’40s. Some of my favorites are Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Howard Hawk’s Bringing Up Baby.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Become an informed consumer. Go to the Eat Well Guide and see where you can buy sustainably produced meat, poultry, and dairy products.