Industrialized food harms the earth and our bodies. Thankfully, there’s a wave of passionate innovators who are growing a healthier food culture, one radish at a time.
Food is love. The first time I ever heard that was when I asked my friend Jona what in the world he was thinking cooking for 100 hungry guests on his own wedding night. Jona bought heirloom tomatoes from his neighborhood farmers’ market and served a splash of rich golden squash soup in shot glasses hand-painted to match the bridal flowers. The vegetarian menu wowed even the most committed carnivores at the party, and each course served to tighten the bonds of our shared community.
It’s easy to believe that food is love when you’re enjoying a special meal for family and friends, or when you bite into a peach that’s still warm from the sun. But how do those words apply to a society where people eat meals alone in their cars, or where whole communities don’t have access to basic fresh produce, let alone a sun-warmed peach?
On a late summer afternoon last year, my two-and-a-half-year-old son and I went to one of our favorite spots, where a series of paths wind between woods and fields, around the old grounds of a defunct psychiatric hospital on the edge of Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood. Nowadays it’s home to the Boston Nature Center and the Clark Cooper Community Gardens, where gardeners from all walks of life share tips and talk about the weather, while naturalists watch wild turkeys patrol the edges of the plots. My gregarious son hails them all, saying hello to the growers, the butterflies, the turkeys, and the vegetables ripening on the vine. It’s a little bit of magic to see this slice of the world through his eyes, where everything here belongs together and has a role to play. The scenery is beautiful, but what’s even more inspiring are the people working and living together, growing healthy food and a strong community while revitalizing the environment.
Elsewhere in Mattapan—and throughout the city, the nation, and the world—the view is not always as lovely, with epidemics of malnutrition and obesity striking within the same communities, sometimes paradoxically within the same person. Many experts say that this growing crisis is due in large part to an industrial food system that pollutes the environment while propagating cheap, low-nutrition processed food. One out of every three children born in 2000 could develop diabetes, the Centers for Disease Control tells us, and obesity rates are rising. Today’s children may be the first generation of Americans to live shorter lives than their parents.
At its best, food is love; at its worst, it can be toxic—to our health, to the environment, and to our communities.
In response, a diverse food movement has arisen, with farmers, public health activists, social justice advocates, and people who love to eat well, all collaborating to create alternatives to the industrial food system. The real beauty of this movement is that none of its strands can exist in isolation. It’s a healthy, vibrant ecosystem—a community of innovators helping to grow a new sustainable food culture.
Here are five key players who embody the diverse ideals and approaches of this movement. They’re working in cities and out in the countryside, on the left and the right of the political spectrum, with gourmets and with communities that are struggling with hunger. Some of them came to the movement when they realized that food was a key component of social justice; others came to share their love of fresh healthy food when they realized that too few people had access to it. A sense of intention connects them all—a commitment to building a food system that promotes not just efficiency and profits, but health, community, environment, and ethics.
Frances Moore Lappé
In 1971, Frances Moore Lappé found herself poring over books and reports in the agricultural library at the University of California, Berkeley. She felt confused. In study after study, evidence showed there was more than enough food for the world to eat, yet policy makers and pundits were talking about famine and lack.
“I was this kid trying to figure out, ‘Why is there hunger in the world when there’s enough food to make us all chubby?’” she says.
She went on to write Diet for a Small Planet (1971), a three-million copy best-selling cookbook that provided delicious recipes and showed how adopting a diet based on grains and vegetables, and eating lower on the food chain, would allow everyone on earth to have enough food.
It wasn’t the details of the diet that were the key revelation, Lappé told me in a recent interview: it was the simple realization that scarcity is a state of mind.
“If we start with a sense of lack—lack of stuff and lack of goodness—we’ve bought this caricature of ourselves, this shriveled sense of ourselves, that all we can count on is greed,” Lappé says. But in the real world, we’re all much more than that. “Look at the behaviors and traits that have been hardwired into us. Cruelty? Selfishness? Yes, but also fairness, cooperation, and creativity.”
Breaking through this illusion of scarcity—the idea that we don’t have enough to eat or that we don’t have the power to change the world—has been the constant theme of her work (which includes 16 books and co-founding the anti-hunger think tank Food First). She’s as passionate about it as ever. In her latest book, Getting a Grip: Clarity, Creativity, and Courage in a World Gone Mad (2007), she says that under the wrong conditions—extreme concentrations of power, cultures of anonymity, and scapegoating—most of us will behave selfishly and cruelly.
The beauty of the food justice and sustainable food movements, she says, is that they create the opposite of these conditions, which allow our better selves to shine through. Social power is dispersed, anonymity is diminished by true community, and everyone has to shoulder some of the responsibility for the state of the world we live in. It’s easy to see how when we eat and garden together, shop at a farmers’ market, or become a member of a community-sponsored agricultural project, we don’t just build a healthier food system, we build a healthier democracy.
Since she started writing about food, Lappé says, things have gotten a lot worse, but also a lot better.
“We’re heading very rapidly in two directions. The dominant direction is horrific. We’ve turned food into a health hazard,” she says. “At the same time, much more than I ever could have imagined when I began, people are reclaiming their own food traditions, learning more about soil ecology. A recent study from the University of Michigan shows that if the whole world went organic we would increase food output and build a healthier environment.
“My hope is in the evidence, and the evidence is in,” says Lappé. “We have the power to make a better world.”
Seeds of Justice
“Food has always been at the heart of the struggle for social justice,” says Makani Themba-Nixon, a community health advocate. According to her, it’s all a question of “Who has access to land, to food?”
Often the answer comes down to race and wealth, Themba-Nixon says. That’s part of the reason the epidemics of childhood obesity, diabetes, and heart disease have hit communities of color particularly hard, and that’s why it’s crucial to empower these communities to find appropriate, integrated local solutions.
Themba-Nixon is the executive director of Washington, DC–based Communities Creating Healthy Environments (CCHE), a new nationwide initiative to support innovative solutions to the crisis. In its first round of funding in 2009, CCHE supported water activists in the Southwest, youth programs in Madison and New Orleans, and a program to introduce community vegetable gardens on a tribal nation’s ranch in Montana. Think of it as an innovation incubator, supporting creative strategies that other communities can learn from and build on.
As for childhood obesity, Themba-Nixon says, we won’t solve the problem without addressing the root causes—the land-use policies, predatory marketing, and underfunded public infrastructure that make it difficult for kids and families to make healthy choices in the first place. It’s easy to blame personal choice and individual character flaws for problems like obesity, which seem so private, but it’s not enough to simply ask individuals why they don’t take better care of themselves. We also have to ask, as communities and as a society, questions like, Is anyone selling fresh fruit and vegetables nearby? Are the streets and parks in the neighborhoods safe for children to play in? Is the soil in the neighborhood too contaminated for gardening? And what’s for lunch at school?
Part of Themba-Nixon’s inspiration in the fight for social justice is a love for healthy food that started in her own childhood.
“I was very fortunate to be raised by a mom who was into organic and growing your own before it was cool,” she says. “She was always baking things and sprouting things. It gave me a great appreciation for food, not just as fuel but as something sacred and alive.”
Caretaker of Creation
Joel Salatin calls himself a Christian conservative libertarian environmentalist and a “lunatic farmer.” He also calls himself a “caretaker of creation,” believing that his role as a farmer is to make the cattle, chickens, turkeys, pigs, and, most important of all, the grasses on his farm, happy, and then to stay as far out of the way as possible while nature produces abundant healthy food. He sells it all from his local food shed, to his neighbors, and to nearby restaurants.
“Pasture-based livestock and local food systems can feed the world and heal the land,” Salatin says. “These are not mutually exclusive.”
As proof, Salatin offers his own Polyface Farm, a family-owned, multi-generational 550-acre operation in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. He’s been so successful at proving his claim that he now devotes several months a year to writing and speaking about his message and methods.
Salatin believes that we were put here to nurture God’s creation, not to pillage it for maximum profit in the short term. The secret to the abundance of the farm is a carefully choreographed dance that mimics and enhances the natural food web of a grassland ecosystem. Salatin’s pigs, turkeys, and rabbits, as well as the farm’s 450 acres of woodland, all have their own dances to perform. Sunlight feeds a polyculture of grasses, cattle graze on that pasture (encouraging the grass to grow again), the cattle’s manure feeds the insects that feed the poultry, the chicken manure enriches the soil, and so on.
If the answer is as simple as letting nature work, why is our food system such a mess?
“First of all, as a culture we have been raised with a dominion mentality not balanced with a nurturing mentality,” Salatin says. “We have not had an environmental ethic, but rather an exploitation ethic. We ran through the environment much faster than we realized it was not limitless. Second, as a Western parts-oriented culture, we did not practice holism like Eastern cultures. While this made us technologically superior, we sacrificed social and environmental ethics.”
You don’t have to take his word for it, either. Salatin is so convinced of the virtue in his way of farming that his entire operation is open to the public—from the pigs aerating cow manure to the chickens and turkeys foraging in their mobile enclosures. And, as Salatin says, they’re not only producing delicious food for the local market, they’re healing the land. Since his family bought the farm in 1961, the Salatins have transformed their Shenandoah Valley home from an eroded shell of a farm into a treasury of living abundance.
“Awareness of our connection to our ecological umbilical brings decision-making integrity to our daily lives,” says Salatin. “And it allows us to participate in a cause far bigger than ourselves, with the joyful reality that we are creating the landscape our children will inherit, one bit at a time.”
A Delicious Revolution
Every day, on her commute between her home and her world-famous restaurant, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, Alice Waters drives past the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. When she first began to notice the school around 15 years ago, it looked so poorly maintained—with raggedy overgrown lawns and broken windows—that she thought it might be abandoned. In fact, she writes in her recent book, Edible Schoolyard (2008), more than 1,000 sixth, seventh, and eighth graders were studying there.
Waters is known for revolutionizing American cooking—bringing simple, exquisite flavors to life with fresh, local, sustainably produced ingredients—and helping to launch the Slow Food movement in the United States. But before she became a chef she had been a pre-school teacher at a local Montessori school and has always been a firm believer in the value of public schools. The sight of the King school on her daily commute was a sobering reminder of the harsh reality of public education for many of our underserved children. She decided to see if she could help change that reality.
In her first visit to the school, Waters outlined a wildly ambitious plan to completely overhaul the way the kids experienced food—growing their own in a garden, learning to cook it themselves, and sharing it with their classmates. Today the King school’s Edible Schoolyard is a prototype for a new kind of holistic healthy school lunch program. Kids learn to grow and cook their own food—and eat much healthier lunches, teachers incorporate the garden into their science, math, and humanities classes, and parents and neighbors build new relationships that strengthen the school and its community.
Waters’ Chez Panisse Foundation has also helped launch a sister program in New Orleans, a sustainable food project at Yale University, and a network of school gardens and holistic culinary projects sprouting across the country.
In September 2009, the Greensboro Children’s Museum in North Carolina broke ground on a new garden, becoming the first children’s museum in the country to join the movement.
Each garden is created by the children to be a lovely place and to help make their school more beautiful. This isn’t a side effect of the project; it’s one of the main principles. “Beauty is a language,” Waters writes. “A beautifully prepared environment, where deliberate thought has gone into everything from the garden paths to the plates on the tables, communicates to children that we care about them.”
It’s all part of what Waters calls her “delicious revolution.” The secret is that the seemingly selfish act of wanting to eat delightful food is actually based on sharing and connecting: people cook together, eat together, and work together with their local farmers to build a healthy community.
Tilling the Inner City
When Will Allen bought Growing Power, a nursery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, his plan was to start a small urban farm where he could grow produce for sale to the local community. That modest vision changed when a group of neighborhood kids asked him to show them how to grow their own food. What was meant to be a small for-profit business has grown into a nonprofit community food center, offering not just produce but the know-how to grow, process, market, and distribute sustainable healthy food. It’s one of the most influential forces in urban farming in the nation, if not the world.
Allen, a MacArthur Fellow and a former professional basketball player and marketing executive, has developed innovative holistic techniques for integrating fish farming into his plant-growing operation. Growing Power produces astonishing amounts of food and lush vermicompost in remarkably small spaces—25,000 plants, thousands of fish, plus laying hens, goats, rabbits, and turkeys, all on two acres of inner-city land. This oasis of fresh nutritious food lies in the heart of what Allen calls a “food desert,” but Growing Power’s message and methods are spreading far and wide, with spin-offs and partner projects around the nation and a new project launching through the Clinton Global Initiative to share the methodology in Africa.
Everything on the small city farm is integrated: The aquaponics tank not only grows fish, it also produces nutrient-rich water for the tomatoes and salad greens grown in the greenhouse. Allen’s beloved worms, which he proudly counts among his livestock, not only digest millions of pounds of food waste to produce nutrient-rich compost, they generate all the heat needed to keep the greenhouses warm and producing vegetables throughout a harsh Midwestern winter. But the soil and the food grown on the property aren’t an end in themselves; they’re the means—the groundwork upon which strong communities can come together to solve the profound problems of our food system.
“A lot of times I’ve heard, ‘Let’s go in—we have 200 vacant lots—bring some compost in and throw it down, and everyody’s going to run out of their houses and start farming,” Allen told a group of activists in Minneapolis earlier this year. “If you’re not able to engage the community, nothing else can really be sustained.”
Allen is working to overcome the all-too-common perception—especially among urban youth—that farm work must be cruel, grueling, or dirty. The 6’7″ force of nature who appears year round and all over the country in his trademark sleeveless hooded sweatshirt, has turned the gift for sales that he first exhibited at corporations like Kentucky Fried Chicken to promote something much more precious than the secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices: inspiration for a community of citizens to work together and take control of their own food system.
“I don’t build gardens with fences. Everybody’s talking about, ‘You gotta put up a fence to protect the garden.’ No. You have to engage the community,” Allen says.
He sees a future with 50 million new growers—not just full-scale farmers but families with rows of pots on their porches, students turning soil in schoolyards, neighbors sharing plots in community gardens. If it works, they won’t just be growing food. They’ll be growing stronger interdependent communities that rely on and nurture one another as surely as the tilapia and lake perch growing in Allen’s aquaponics tanks depend on the composting worms and floating watercress that complete their cycle of life.
Learn more about these sustainable food projects and how you can get involved:
No yard? No community gardens near you? No problem. Use this Web-based tool to start your own.
The digital home of the original Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, CA, with resources to help you start your own school garden project.
The blog that pre-digests all the important food policy and sustainability issues for you.
Will Allen’s tips for growing worm compost, establishing an aquaponics greenhouse, or getting involved in the movement for sustainable community food systems.
Learn more about Community Supported Agriculture, where consumers buy a share in a local farm’s production and get ultra-fresh food while providing farmers with better cash flow.
Get the lowdown on Joel Salatin’s model of pasture-based permaculture.
Slow Food USA
The United States branch of the international movement to support good, clean, and fair food and to preserve endangered culinary and cultural institutions in the face of fast food and fast life.
Small Planet Institute
Tools and tips for skillful engagement in democracy, including “food democracy,” from Frances Moore Lappé and daughter Anna Lappé.
The Ethical Diet
Changing the way you eat is a good start, but real change comes when we build communities that can support viable alternatives. Here are eight steps to help you expand the circle of good food in your life—beyond your plate and into your neighborhood:
• Start talking about food. Don’t stop.
• Learn where the food you already eat comes from.
• Ask at your local markets and restaurants if any of the food is locally or sustainably sourced—let them know that this is something that their customers value.
• Talk to producers at farmers’ markets to find out what the freshest and most delicious local foods are at the moment.
• Talk to your friends and family about your food traditions and values. An elaborate potluck feast—or a trip to gather you-pick strawberries—is a perfect opportunity for meaningful conversation.
• Grow something yourself and then eat it. You don’t need to launch a new community garden project to feel the power of connecting directly to the food chain. Plant a pot of basil on your porch and make one perfect batch of pesto, or capture some wild yeast and make an über-local batch of sourdough bread.
• Make eye contact with the people around you when you’re eating. At a harried family meal, this simple moment of connection can create a sense of calm. In a crowded café, it can help you build new friendships and expand your personal community.
• Add meaning to your meals by saying grace. You can thank God or simply take time to acknowledge the community of people, plants, and animals that worked together to provide your food. Infusing food with intention is also a great way to encourage yourself to eat healthier.
Learn about other sustainable food visionaries, print out tasty recipes, and more.
Jake Miller is a freelance writer based in Boston, Massachusetts. He has cultivated tomatoes in his window, basil on his porch, and worm compost under his desk.
Photo by Alamy / fotolia.com
The Good Food Revolution