Monday, April 9, 2012

Diet for a Small Planet: Lessons for the Long Haul

Last September, I attended the 40th anniversary celebration of Frances Moore Lappé's book "Diet for a Small Planet" in New York City, entitled "Feeding Hope, Living Democracy."  At this event I heard Frances say that "hunger is not caused by a scarcity of food, but a scarcity of democracy" - a quote which truly intrigued me.  (How ironic that the event was held only five days after the start of Occupy Wall Street!)  
While my reading list is always umpteen books long, I figured Diet for a Small Planet should be pretty high on my priority list.  I'd already read her daughter Anna's book, "Diet for a Hot Planet", and have a lot of respect for them both as women in the food movement who also support Oxfam America and HEN.  Today I finished reading Book 1 of "Diet for a Small Planet," and I will say it definitely lived up to its reputation. What I could not believe is how everything Frances wrote about 20, 40 years ago (1971 edition updated in 1991) is still just as relevant today as ever.  We still have the same issues with our food system, but the stories of struggles and successes in overcoming food injustices all over the world are just as inspiring as ever.
Working to change the food system is a daunting task, because the roots of the issue are so multifaceted and cannot be solved with one solution.  It's easy to get overwhelmed and not know what to do first, as happens over and over again in my life in NYC.  But Frances gives some words of encouragement, from the lives of some people whose names still ring a bell 30 years later.  From the life of Harry Chapin, co-founder of World Hunger Year (now WhyHunger) and namesake of the Harry Chapin Media Awards which were created to encourage the media to "tell the story of hunger and poverty," Frances tells us to use what we have.  Well, I have the experiences of life and the books I've read and films I've seen, and this blog, so can write about what I know.  Meanwhile, Oxfam America has relationships with many famous music groups across the country who can continue in the vein of Harry Chapin and encourage musicians to speak out against hunger and poverty.
Frances next talks about how Joan Gussow - the matriarch of the "eat-locally-think-globally food movement," source of inspiration for Michael Pollan, and professor emerita at Teachers College, Columbia University - believes that her decision to study nutrition was probably the "first real decision in her whole life."  She struggled past the dull image of nutrition to learn the science of how food works in the body, and as a result has earned the respect of people interested in bridging the gap between studying food from a scientific perspective and learning about where food comes from... the ground.  I picked up a copy of her book "Growing, Older" when at the NY Botanical Gardens last year and look forward to reading it someday.
Frances tells the story of Michael Jacobson from Center for Science in the Public Interest, a highly respectable organization which has gained a lot of publicity within the last year since CSPI re-launched the annual Food Day initiative on October 24, 2011. Mike Jacobson started off studying biochemistry, and wanted to do something to touch more immediate social problems than could be solved in a chemistry laboratory, so he started looking into the hazards of food additives as an intern with Ralph Nader.  (Fortunately for us, the research into food additives that Mr. Jacobson started in the 1970's has evolved into a food additive safety database available online and on phone apps, called Chemical Cuisine.)
It was also interesting to read about a Nestlé infant-formula boycott at the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, and to think about how the ICCR could become more engaged around food justice issues in the future (perhaps through the food justice work that NY Faith & Justice has started? hmm....).
Frances Moore Lappé gives us some other tips in the chapter "Lessons for the Long Haul" that are of note.  These include:
  • working with others - finding a core group who can push you further than when trying to work on the issue alone
  • using the direct experience of oppression - whether placed in a situation involuntarily or voluntarily
  • remaining critical of oneself and one's organization - such as Larry Simon's experience with working with Oxfam America, when "he concluded that Oxfam should not work in certain countries where government repression is so strong that it precludes the existence of any organization working for redistribution of power, the only kind of organization which Oxfam wants to support" 
  • hard work and balance - hard work and self-discipline are important, and balance important so as to prevent burnout; but some of us have recognized that working for social change is incredibly rewarding, makes life interesting, and gives us the opportunity to work with people who are equally inspiring and passionate about social change and food justice. 
There is still so much more to learn and so much more to share.  (I did not even touch upon the books' themes of citizen democracy, meat's impact on the world, or protein complementarity in this post!)  But when you surround yourself with incredible people, read books by inspiring visionaries, and stand on the shoulders of the giants who have paved the way before us - anything is possible.

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