Continuing a Legacy of Activism: Anna Lappé of the Small Planet Institute
We had the opportunity to speak with author and activist Anna Lappé of the Small Planet Institute about her work, her motivations, and the legacy of work that she has continued from her parents and her grandparents. Today, Anna is co-author or author of three books, including Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet, co-authored with her mother, Frances Moore Lappé, which picks up where Frances’s Diet for a Small Planet (1971) left off, and Diet for a Hot Planet, in which Anna exposes another complication to our food system – the climate crisis. Anna is also a contributing author to ten other books.
“I feel like what’s been very clear for me throughout my whole life with both my relationship with my mother and my father…is that the work that they are engaged in is work that is about fundamentally transforming our world, and that work will not be completed in any one lifetime. It just will not. I don’t say that to depress us; I say that because that is the reality. We’re talking about work that goes on generation after generation, so for me, it feels very exciting to be a part of that legacy.”
In addition to the inspirational-story-spreading Small Planet Institute, Anna also heads up the Real Food Media Project (an international video contest), and has created a number of Food Mythbusters videos debunking the commonly held beliefs about our food system and exposing the realities – and the solutions that are right under our noses. Learn more about Anna and what she’s up to at annalappe.com.
Read “Busting Big Myths about our Food,” a guest contribution by Anna Lappé about her path leading up to the Real Food Media Project.
Also listen to our two-part Rootstock Radio interview with her mother, Frances Moore Lappé, where we discuss world hunger, the myth that the U.S. must feed the world, and the false promise of GMOs. Click here for part 1 and part 2.
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: We’re speaking today with Anna Lappé, who is from the Small Planet Institute. And it is really exciting to have Anna with us today, and we’re going to be speaking about her work, what’s motivating her, and why she’s doing what she’s doing and just her whole history.
So, Anna, I can’t tell you what an honor it is for me to be speaking with you. And it’s very exciting to be kind of like a person who’s an elder, but yet being able to see how wonderful it is to learn from the younger people around me, and I feel like you’re an inspiration to me. So I just want you to know that. I hope that you don’t mind that I’m going to be interviewing you, but I’m going to have to talk about your mother some.
ANNA LAPPÉ: I don’t mind one bit.
TM: And in fact, in 1972, she wrote Diet for a Small Planet, Frances Moore Lappé, and she changed my life and made me a lifetime activist. And I probably was always going in that direction, but when I read Diet for a Small Planet, it really changed my life. And I have a feeling that you also are changing people’s lives, too. You have followed, not just followed in your mother’s footsteps, but really stood on her shoulders, and I so admire you for that.
As a post–World War II, first of the baby boomers, we were disinheriters. We weren’t going to stand on anyone’s shoulders. They say the fruit doesn’t fall far from the trees, but you know, some kids rebel and some people learn from their parents. Just how was it for you, growing up?
AL: Well, as one of my friends, who works with his father, put it, he said, “You know, there’s a lot in this world to rebel against. I don’t have to rebel against the politics of my father.” So I feel like I can still call myself rebellious without feeling like I have to rebel against either my mother or my father.
And I think you’re right about this different perspective of my generation versus what you were saying about your generation felt like it really had to be breaking from the pack and stepping out, being different. And I feel like what’s been very clear for me, throughout my whole life, with both my relationship with my mother and my father—and I’m close to both of them, was close to my father—is that the work that they are engaged in is work that is about fundamentally transforming our world. And that work is not the work that will be completed in any one lifetime. It just will not. And that isn’t—I don’t say that to depress us. I say that just because that is the reality. And so we’re talking about work that goes on, generation after generation. And so for me it feels very exciting to be a part of that legacy, and that’s very much how I see my place in this world.
My father, he was a really incredible toxicologist and epidemiologist, and a lot of his work was working from the scientist’s perspective, working on exposing the toxic impact of using chemicals in the field. So he worked with farm worker communities and helped to expose how much the toxic pesticides in the fields were hurting farm workers who were in contact with those chemicals all the time. And he did a lot of work around really trying to protect the most vulnerable people in our communities from toxins in the environment. And so I feel like my work is very connected to him as well. And to me, it feels like there’s nothing else I’d rather do in the world than be doing this work that connects me to my family, my parents, and even my grandparents.
TM: Well, that is what we would call, then, you’re just following your heritage. That’s fantastic.
AL: Yeah, and it goes deep. You know, I just, out of the blue the other day, I decided to Google my grandmother’s name. I named my first daughter after her—her name is Jeanette. So I decided to Google her name, and a book popped up about the history of the teachers’ strike that she helped to lead in Newark, New Jersey, in the early 1970s, that this historian at this community college in New Jersey had written. And so, of course, I had to order the book.
And the book came a few weeks ago, and I read this book, and it was a history of this teachers’ strike that I’d always heard about that she was involved in, but I hadn’t heard the details. And she’d passed away a few years before the researcher had started his work, but she had recorded the story of her experience of engaging in the strike, and my grandfather gave this historian the tapes. And so her voice was in this book. And I was so struck in reading it, discovering elements of my grandmother that I’d heard about but never really knew. And to feel the sense that this family tradition of really trying to figure out how we can make a difference in the world—it’s not just my mother or my father, but it was my grandmother as well.
TM: That’s pretty exciting to hear. You know, sometimes I wonder, and maybe you do too, “Gee, why am I doing what I’m doing?” It’s sometimes days are—they aren’t very much fun because you’re constantly trying to get messages out to people who don’t want to hear them. Do you find that just thinking about your heritage keeps you on that path of what you feel you need to do or what you want to do?
AL: Well, I think there’s a difference between asking oneself the question of “Am I being most effective and how can I be more effective?” and asking yourself, “Is what I’m doing worth it at all?” I think that—I think all of us, who are trying to be smart about the work we do, are always trying to figure out on a daily basis, “Is this most effective way to be using my time?” But I think that broader question of “Am I making a difference?” is one that, actually, you can’t answer. You never know.
I think about the stories of all of the biggest and most inspiring change makers who I’ve met. The Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai, for instance, the Kenyan activist who helped to plant, through her movement that she founded in the 1970s, more than fifty million trees and engage a whole nation of women in democracy building. I think about her story. And when she started the Green Belt Movement, she had no idea what impact she was going to have and how big the movement would grow. And when I first met her, a few years before she got the Nobel Peace Prize, she was still wondering, on a daily basis, if her organization was going to stay afloat. They were struggling for funding; they were up against a tyrannical regime that was threatening her organic agriculture educators with arrest. I mean, it was a day-to-day struggle.
And when, a few years after we met her, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, it was this incredible moment where you realize she was never doing the work she was doing because she thought someday she would win the Nobel Prize. She was doing the work because she, in a way, had no choice. This was work that she was, maybe, destined to do. This was work that she so believed in. And she did it day after day after day, without expectation that it would necessarily result in, for instance, some huge public recognition.
And a friend of ours was with Wangari the day that she got the phone call with the news that she’d been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. And they were driving on the outskirts of Nairobi at the time, driving to visit village women who were some of her constituents, as a member of parliament, when they got the phone call. And one of the first things she said wasn’t “I won” but “We won.” And then the next thing she said was, “I just didn’t know anyone was listening.” So it was the sense that she had no idea that she was having this ripple effect.
TM: When I read Half the Sky, I really thought about your book, Hope’s Edge, with your mom, in that it was about these stories of women who just are doing it and under the most remarkable odds. Like so many things against them and yet they’re going to do it anyway. And that is something that, I think, women, in particular, was an inspiration. And certainly Half the Sky was an inspiration for me too.
AL: And I think what I also was struck by is how so many of the initiatives that we saw on the ground that were just so rational, and so who could be against them? They make so much sense. Something like teaching farmers in Kenya to employ organic practices so they don’t have to spend their hard-earned money, that they might not even have, on chemicals and fertilizer. Teaching them practices to plant and grow and nourish indigenous crops that grow well in their climate. I mean, what could make more sense than that? Well, in the movement that we were learning about that Wangari Maathai had founded, those organic educators were being threatened with arrest for teaching those practices. Why is that an offense?
Well, because the government at the time was so aligned with the pesticide companies, that it was a huge threat to imagine that farmers all across the country could be learning how to grow food abundantly without having to buy the chemicals. That is a threat to the chemical companies for sure. So it was this interesting experience to learn about ideas that are so rational, and what are they butting up against? What is the status quo so concerned about when people are pushing for these ideas?
TM: You know, it seems to me that then you learned at a great age, just all the barriers for us to change. And I bet you agree with me that we have—you’ve seen all the solutions and yet we have all these barriers, and a lot of them political and profit-driven, that stop us from making those changes.
I guess I’ll fast-forward a little bit from Hope’s Edge, twelve years ago, to today, Diet for a Hot Planet, which we were pretty excited to see. And what a tremendous gift for us to have a book that has put all these resources together so that we can understand the power of our fork, as I think you put it in your book so nicely, that the way we eat has huge impact. What inspired you to do Diet for a Hot Planet?
AL: Well, at the time I started working on Diet for a Hot Planet, a United Nations report came out that, for the first time, looked at all of the greenhouse gas emissions related to livestock production. And these researchers estimated that about 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions globally come from animal production. And I remember kind of finishing that report and thinking to myself, “Wow, why didn’t I know this before? Why doesn’t everybody know this?” And if this is the emissions related to just livestock production, what are the emissions, overall, [related] to our food sector?
So I started looking into it. And the numbers look like about one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions come from, either directly or indirectly, how we produce our food—where we grow it, how we grow it, how we cook it, and what we do with the waste. And when you think about, what do most people think about when they think about the drivers of climate change, food is not central to that conversation. And I was hoping, through my research and through that book, to really help people put food into the conversation about climate change.
But the most exciting part of the process for me was that, in asking these questions about the connection between food and climate, was discovering the incredible potential of farming to be part of the solution. And that was something I did not expect to discover at all.
TM: That really came across strong in the book, and that that problem can also be turned around and heal the Earth and heal people. Have you found ways that you think are effective to try and get our messages out, to try and talk to the status quo, the dominant paradigm that we’re living now? And that is, “If it isn’t profitable, then it’s not worth anything.” What do you think’s working?
AL: Well, cognitive scientists have come to a lot of discoveries about how our minds work. And one of the things that I think is really fascinating is they’ve learned that the way human beings have adapted to be able to manage the onslaught of information that we get every day is to develop frames, frames of reference in our mind. Jean Piaget talked about these as schemas. And these are ways that we take in information and organize them, ways that we’re able to handle such incredible, incredible amounts of information. And, in a way, this is very logical and makes a lot of sense and it’s helpful.
But what happens is, and when this becomes the opposite of helpful, is when those frames are blocking us from seeing solutions right in front of us or a crisis right in front of us. And I think that’s exactly what’s happening around food and farming, where scientists have found that these frames can be so powerful that even if you have facts coming at you, day after day, that contradict those frames, that you’re more likely to toss away those facts than to change your frame.
And I think a lot of people have this frame in their mind that we need chemicals in agriculture in order to feed the world; that the only way that we’re going to have enough food to feed everyone is if we are reliant on synthetic fertilizer; that organic farming is kind of for the past, and the future is all about conventional or chemical farming. These are the frames that we have in our minds. And we could hit people with the facts about “Well, actually organic farming is highly productive,” and “Actually, as mined minerals and fossil fuels become more expensive and more scarce, we’re going to need to go organic.” You know, we can hit people with the facts. But I think one of the other things that we need to do is recognize that people have these frames and discover… One of the most effective ways to shift people’s frames is to have people experience moments of cognitive dissonance. Your expectation of reality and reality are so butting up against each other and so contradictory that you can no longer hold on to your frame, right?
So for me, one of my biggest moments of cognitive dissonance happened with an Organic Valley farmer, where I was visiting this farmer as part of the Hope’s Edge tour and research, and had this moment where I was standing on this organic farm and I was talking to this farmer and hearing one of my first stories of a farmer who’d gotten sick from chemical exposure and had decided at that moment where he realized that it was the way he was farming that made him so sick that he was going to take a different path. And that was my first moment of really having it sink in that when you as a consumer are buying non-organic food, you are part of a process that’s making farmers sick. And it was kind of a breaking down in my mind of a frame about food that I think a lot of us hold.
TM: Do you think that there’s something that you’ve seen connects farmers from all over the world?
AL: Yes, and I think the other thing that I’m seeing, and certainly I see it now that I have young kids, is that one of the biggest changes since I was a kid is how many more opportunities there are for people, all people, to connect to farmers in this country. I mean, when I was growing up, in the early 1970s, there were barely any farmers’ markets left in the United States. There are now more than 7,500, right? When I was growing up, there was nothing called Community Supported Agriculture, where you could become a shareholder of a farm and you’d be able to have this direct relationship to a farm without having to become a farmer. Today there are thousands of CSA farms. In New York City alone, there are 110 CSA programs, and about 150,000 people are connecting, either through the CSA program or other programs in New York City, directly to farmers in the state.
So there’s all kind of ways for young people to be connecting to where their food comes from, and growing it themselves, that I think we don’t even appreciate—we can’t even imagine how that is going to shift the relationship to food of this generation that’s growing up today.
TM: So you know, I think what I’m being inspired about and I’m hearing is that, gee, if we could just get more and more people to go to farmers’ markets, to know about CSAs, and—because we are so disconnected with our food. Yesterday I heard a speaker talk about how she has a plum tree in her yard, and that actually her neighbor asked her, “I just saw you pick a plum off that tree and eat it—is that safe?” So there still is this huge disconnect. I mean, how are we going to get connected as a whole human species, especially in the United States?
AL: Well, I think that, like I said, in the past twelve years since I’ve been engaged in this work, I have seen this incredible transformation of all of these new ways to connect people to their food, whether it’s programs in schools or… I just finished researching a piece about how programs in hospitals, so connecting farms to hospitals. I just spent a couple days last year—had to spend a couple days at a hospital last year—and they had a farmers’ market every week in the hospital.
But I think that as we think about ways to build those connections from institutions like hospitals or schools or universities to farms, communities to farms, is to also be aware of how to prevent the bifurcation of our food system. How do we ensure that we’re not creating two Americas of food? That we’re not creating the America of food for those of us who can afford to have the time to go to the farmers’ market and to connect with our farmers and to maybe pay a little bit more for our food, and those Americans who are increasingly, barely making enough money to put food on the table. And so I think that that is a concern that many of us share, of how do we ensure that any change that we’re making in the system is one that benefits everyone?
TM: Exactly. And I think that what you’re pointing out is that hunger and eating good food isn’t just about availability. It’s a social justice issue. It’s an income issue for some people. When I think about your piece, MythBusters, which I think I saw your one MythBusters about genetically modified organisms and conventional agriculture and the myths that we have around that. And I see that what you’re trying to do it try and bust the frame into a new frame. What made you have the inspiration to do this MythBusters and—it’s a series isn’t it? Are you planning a series for it?
AL: Yeah, so Food MythBusters is a new project I’m working on with a bunch of fabulous food and farming organizations across the country, so it’s a collaborative effort. And the idea is that over the twelve years that I’ve been doing this work and talking to folks on the ground about food, I’ve kept hearing the same questions. And then I started realizing that those questions are these frames that people have about food. And so they’re questions like, “But wait, don’t we need industrial agriculture to feed the world?” or “Don’t people just really want this food? Isn’t this the food that people really crave?” or “Is it affordable to eat sustainably? Isn’t industrial food just so cheap?” These are some of the questions.
And so each of the Food MythBusters movies takes on one of these myths and hopefully in an engaging, fun-to-watch way. And you’re right, it’s very much about trying to break open these frames and trying to get people to have a moment to open their minds and hopefully try to think differently. And so far we’ve released the first one and had a really fabulous response. And what’s been, to me, really exciting is that we’ve gotten volunteers from all around the world who’ve wanted to translate the movie into—now there’s twelve languages. And we just sent a DVD off to Uganda with this project that’s working on farming programs in Uganda. So it’s clearly not just questions that are being asked by folks in the United States. It’s all over the world.
TM: Well, that’s good to hear. How are you pushing it out, disseminating it?
AL: Well to me, one of the things that I’m interested in is not just how many hits does it get—which, of course, everybody wants a lot of people to see it—but also the more kind of qualitative experience. How is it helping to shift people’s consciousness? How is it helping to get energy behind really exciting campaigns? And so a lot of what I’ve been doing is working with partner organizations, who are doing great work on the ground, to have this movie help them get energy and support for what they’re doing.
So Real Food Challenge is this fabulous organization that we work with that is working with college students to get the college students to advocate their administrations to bring more sustainable food onto college campuses. Great idea—seems like a no-brainer. As one of my friends put it, you’re teaching the jungle in English 101—those students should not be eating it for lunch.
TM: Good point!
AL: Good point! So, so far, the Real Food Challenge movement has just taken off like wildfire on campuses across the country. There are about more than 256 campuses involved—it’s just been around for a few years. And so the organizers have used our Food MythBuster movies in training camps for the students who are organizing on their campuses.
AL: And the other thing that I do with the project, as I do with all my work, is all of what I talk about, all of my writing, it’s all evidence based, right? It’s all about what we actually know in the world. And so the script, even though it’s six and a half minutes, has I don’t know how many footnotes—hundreds of footnotes. But it has links to all the research, all the resources, so students can dig deeper if they want to. There’s also a companion reading guide, again, to help people dig deeper into the questions that the movie raises, and really showing people that this is based on science, it’s based on evidence, it’s based on experience.
TM: Anna, for our listeners, they want—right now they’re trying to, they’re Googling it, I can just tell—but what would be the link for them to go on?
AL: It’s foodmyths.org.
TM: Great. I feel like there’s this blackout of real information about what’s going in our food system and in our bodies, in the media, which is no longer reliable. The media seems so bought out and so in the hand of the corporations. You’re nodding your head—you’re in agreement with that?
AL: Well I think that more so, it’s that we just lack a media. You know, I talk to my friends who are journalists who work for the New York Times, and they talk about how they just don’t have the time to do the reporting that they used to. They don’t have time to do the investigation that they used to. And there’s still—of course the Times still does some incredible reporting, but I don’t think they would even deny that they don’t have the resources they used to, and that there’s so many newspapers that just don’t exist.
I think about when we did our book tour for Hope’s Edge in 2002, when I look at the magazines that covered us, the newspapers that wrote about us, the radio stations that had us on, when I did my book tour for Diet for a Hot Planet I would say about one-third of them were left. One-third of those institutions were left. And then you look at, okay, so what are we left with? We’re left with online media, social media, blogs… Of course, all of that doesn’t carry the same gravitas as media institutions.
But even more concerning to me is that we’re relying on these online structures that are mediated by companies that are driven by their own mission and mandate, by profit. So if you look at Facebook now, for instance, my friends who run a project, an education project that has 200,000 members now on their Facebook page—if they want to have any of their Facebook posts be seen by their whole community of 200,000 people who have said, “Yes, I want to be following you on Facebook.” they have to pay Facebook three hundred dollars to promote that post to 100 percent of their followers or only a portion of their followers will even see it.
So as I think about the distribution for my Food MythBusters project, I think about how the terrain of social media and online media has changed, so that in order for me to be seen by more people online, I have to be paying to have that promotion happen, whether it’s paying on Facebook or paying various fora for that to really spread.
And so I think those two things are so concerning to me. At the same time we’re losing mainstream media; the money simply isn’t there, those outlets aren’t there, let alone the influence of the millions behind corporate-funded PR machine. But on the other hand, you have this online media that has the veneer of it’s democratic, it’s open source, anybody can have access to any information, actually being limited and shaped by for-profit interests. And so those trends are very scary to me, and I feel like all the more reason we need more of us being media makers on the ground, in communities, spreading the word, people to people, community to community.
TM: It’s been fantastic talking to you, Anna. And as I said, a thousand ideas of what I could talk to you about. So it’s an inspiration to see all the good things you’re doing. And thank you.
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