Frances Moore Lappé / Forty years ago, before the ideas of eating with a smaller carbon footprint and eschewing factory-farmed beef were en vogue, Frances Moore Lappé wrote Diet for a Small Planet, a book that exposed the excessive waste in the grain-fed meat industry and championed instead a plant-based diet. This book and her work since then garnered recognition around the world; Gourmet Magazine named Lappé among 25 people (including Thomas Jefferson, Upton Sinclair and Julia Child), whose work has changed the way America eats. Lappé sees food as an entry point for what she calls a “living democracy,” in which each person’s actions are intentional and accountable, and each person strives for a world they want to live in.
Lappe arrives in Honolulu this week for two lectures: Facts/Myths of World Hunger: Politics of Scarcity, and Food Democracy: Ideas and Stories to Liberate Our Food Systems. The following is an abridged interview with the Weekly.
Why is food an entry point to the larger issues of politics?
It dawned on me, food is our most direct link to the earth, something we do every day. We make choices about it every day, multiple times a day. It brings us together with one another. It is the basis of ritual and religious tradition…There’s the cultural role of food as well, as it’s really personal–it directly connects us with our own bodies and how we feel.
So it is both incredibly spiritual and with religious meaning for people. I just thought if I follow that thread, that would be a pathway to making things better. How, if we could create a food system for all of us, that would make us all healthy, then in the process we have to address political, economic, social, psychological, all those dimensions.
So how do you make a more plant-based, conscious diet more accessible to people with less money?
The whole movement has to be seen as one of liberation and not as a top-down order, a preachy sort of movement. It has to do with liberation and people seeing that the diet that is most available to them–certainly here in the States–and that the diet most available to poor people is a diet sure to make a huge portion of us sick.
On the surface, processed food can appear to be cheaper, but [it’s not] actually, in terms of nutrients and, of course, the health insurance that you buy when you buy healthier food.
For example, I once compared how many calories you would get and how many nutrients you would get from one pound of hamburger and one pound of potato chips compared to whole beans and one pound of whole brown rice. For half the price you could get vastly more nutrients. It’s learning not that you’re a bad person kind of thing. But you can liberate yourself from something that is costly and eat something that is healthy. So that’s the spirit. It’s all about liberation for me. Not forcing oneself to do one thing.
I guess it’s also a convenience factor and also a familiarity issue with how to cook the ingredients. So how do you liberate people?
It’s all about face-to-face. It’s about friendship, for people to feel excited to be part of it. I think in Oakland, Calif., at the People’s Grocery, the young people there are really concerned about their parents getting diabetic and not healthy, so the young people got interested in learning new recipes and cooking with their folks and trying different kinds of food in the house.
It’s not going to happen by telling people what to do. It’s really about the fun in being part of a group and experimenting and feeling like you’re really freeing yourself from the top-down control of advertisers. So that’s what the appeal to me is.
I remember when I wrote Diet for a Small Planet, I thought, “Oh you mean, I’m not a victim anymore of food advertisers, I can make choices?” I can make choices based on what is healthy for my body, what I really like. I really felt like I was an adventurer. I really felt like I was an explorer and free from the top-down control of the industry then and now.
For me, it’s all about the human connection of sharing that kind of excitement with other people…None of us want to wake up someday and think, “I’m really unhealthy…I just let myself be pushed around by food advertisers who were enticing me.”
If there is plenty of food, why is there hunger?
Hunger is just a symptom of a deeper problem…what I call the “one rule economy,” a market driven by highest return to people who already have all the wealth. So we end up with a world where there’s more and more inequality.
So you have a country like India, for example, which produces enough food, but the number of billionaires doubled last year. In India the grain is now rotting instead of people having access to it because the people are just too poor buy it because of the extreme inequalities of power.
Similarly, here in the US half of our children will be on food stamps at some point, even though we are in many ways the world’s preeminent producer. It’s all about the economic dimension of democracy. Hunger is a reflection not of a lack of food, but a lack of what I call a living democracy, a lack of democracy in which we all have a voice. Because no one chooses to go hungry.
Whenever there is hunger, it means that democracy is yet to be fulfilled. What my work is about is trying to alert people that a real democracy is possible…I grew up thinking somehow we had a democracy.
I didn’t realize that I had to be a part of creating it. But we can’t create something we can’t imagine. So I see my job as helping people really to imagine a living democracy.
When I’m there in Hawaii, I’ll be talking about people in different parts of the world who are building a new, living democracy, but doing it by reclaiming traditional practices as well.