In 1971 Frances Moore Lappé’s first book, Diet for a Small Planet, tackled the premise that an exploding population and diminishing food sources were the root causes of poverty; rather, she said, poverty and hunger resulted from faulty distribution and waste. “It was policy, not scarcity.” The solution: a revitalized, personalized democracy, and an increased sense of commitment to (and community with) each other. Sixteen books later, Lappé, 64, is still working for that with her Small Planet Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Q: Where did your activism begin?
A: My parents founded a Unitarian church in Fort Worth, Texas—and integrated it, which was radical. They not only talked the talk, they walked the walk. My favorite memory of childhood was being in my room, at the other end of the hallway from the kitchen. Looking down the hall, I could see the coffeepot on the stove, and hear what I called the “hum” from the kitchen—the grownups sitting around the table, talking about the big important things: How do we make the world better? What’s our duty here?
Q: Was there one particular galvanizing event that set you in this direction?
A: Out of college, I went to work for the city of Philadelphia. My “cover” was that I was a housing inspector, but I was really organizing for welfare rights, going door to door in difficult neighborhoods (difficult for a white woman, anyway), talking to folks, helping them know their rights. One woman I met and became very close to—her name was Lily—died of a heart attack in her 40s. I was convinced she’d died of poverty, not of disease. Her kids didn’t have enough food, she had to fight with the landlord for heat, they couldn’t get medicine when they were sick, if she worked there was nobody to take care of her children. Everything was a struggle; eventually she just died of it. We all were coresponsible for that. Welfare organizing, well, I couldn’t see that it was direct enough tackling of the root of Lily’s death. She died from being poor. How could this happen in our country? I wanted to find out.
Q: So you became a detective?
A: Yes, I began to perfect my own personal research technique: curiosity. Following my nose. The experts were saying that the population problem was going to be the end of us; worldwide famine was coming. I was pretty naive, I just didn’t believe we were out of food, out of room, out of possibility. So I started researching it, mostly at Berkeley’s Giannini Foundation Library, while the student riots and the Free University campus strikes went on outside. By the way, in my experience, that was not about a lot of bored rich kids. Sure, there was some bad behavior, some not very good strategizing in terms of getting the “grownups” to listen—but if you can’t insist on idealism and act on it when you’re in college, when is the time?
Q: So—what did you learn by following your nose?
A: I read everything I could—economics, cultural rituals, who grows what, where food comes from, where it goes, how it gets grown or planted, and suddenly I realized, what, we’re feeding a third of the world’s grain to livestock? With so little return? That made no sense to me—it was about policy, not scarcity. Or maybe a created scarcity. I thought, “Well, I can’t stop the war, but maybe I can figure out how to feed people.” Food is the most personal yet universal thing we have; it connects us to the earth, to each other; it involves rituals of sharing; it’s what we give ourselves every day.
Q: And the solution is?
A: Well, first, we have to define the problem, don’t we? Why are we creating a world of conditions we abhor? As individuals, we don’t believe it’s okay to rob people, we don’t believe it’s okay to starve them or steal their water or make their air dirty—so why do we go along with it when corporations do it or governments do it? What do we know about how human beings are hard-wired, about what’s best in us, and for us? We know the answer to that: clean water, air, safety for our children, education, dignity of work, peace. Democracy is dangerous if it’s not understood as a way of life where the values of democracy permeate every aspect of our lives. Don’t put bad chemicals in the groundwater, or in your neighbors’ groundwater. Don’t put plastic into dog food. Don’t eat anything you can’t pronounce. Buy locally, support local growers and sustainable agriculture. Find a way to make your work actually connect to your life. This isn’t idealism; it’s common sense, it’s reality.
Q: What’s the good news?
A: The farmers market phenomenon, all over the country. People are hungry for good food not sprayed with chemicals, but also for the experience of connecting with their neighbors, and connecting with where the food comes from. I was driving back to Boston from a conference in western Mass., the Mass. Turnpike—saw an official sign, “Farmers Market, next exit.” I thought I was hallucinating. Thought, “That’s my dream come true, and there it is, and I’m hallucinating.” But no, it was true.