Dr. Joan Dye Gussow, professor emeritus of nutrition and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, author, food policy expert, environmentalist AND gardener, has been called the “matriarch of the eat-locally-think-globally food movement” by the New York Times. Joan has served on the Diet, Nutrition and Cancer Panel of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the board of the National Gardening Association and the Food and Nutrition Board. In a four year term on the Food Advisory Committee of the Food and Drug Administration, she considered such issues as genetically altered tomatoes, cattle hormones, and unabsorbable fats. Joan also served a five year term on the National Organic Standards Board, where she helped shape the regulations that determine the quality of foods the USDA certifies as organic. A long-time organic mini-farmer, she lives on the west bank of the Hudson River in Piermont, New York, where she grows her own produce.
In the 1970s, when Joan began writing about nutrition, she says the field “was about everything that happened after food left the mouth. It was post-eating.” Her colleagues weren’t considering the link between nutrients and the actual food people eat, which of course today, she notes, is “the even more bizarre part” about the approach to nutrition at the time.
Joan has worked tirelessly throughout her career to help people—in the field of nutrition and beyond—make the connection between nutrition and food, and she’s cautiously optimistic about the progress that’s been made. “I would like to believe that there is some significant change,” she says. There is a lot more interest in school gardens and involving students in the production of their own food than there was fifty years ago. However, she also emphasizes that in terms of lasting and meaningful progress, we still have a long way to go. “There’s been no increase in fruit and vegetable consumption, for all the talk! For all the celebration of it! Those statistics just don’t budge.”
“I don’t know what it will take to really change the American food system, and if it will be changeable. I don’t really know,” she says. Of course, Joan’s career and hard work is a testament to the fact that not knowing if something can be done is NOT an excuse to give up on trying.
To hear more about all the ways Dr. Joan Gussow has worked—and continues working—to change our food system for the better, listen at the link below, on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts.
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: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here with Joan Dye Gussow, who is the Mary Swartz Rose professor emeritus and former chair of the Columbia University Teachers College nutrition education program. Joan lives and gardens organically on the west bank of the Hudson River. And although she is long retired from the Teachers College, she still teaches there every fall, and the course is Nutritional Ecology. And Joan, welcome. It is just, as always, an honor and a delight to be speaking with you.
JOAN GUSSOW: Well, thank you, Theresa.
TM: Every time I talk with you I learn so much. And of course, I always tell my friends that when I grow up I want to be like Joan. (Laughing) I have to ask you, first and foremost, how’s your garden this year? And did you have problems with the Hudson River like you have in the past, where it’s come up and flooded?
JG: Well, you know, I was flooded three years in a row: 2010, 2011, and 2012, which was Sandy, which put nine feet of water in my yard. And then, so, as a result of Sandy, I built a berm out there on my riverbank, so I have this three-foot berm. And the idea was not to keep the water out, because it’ll come around it into surrounding areas, but to keep the lumber out. I mean, I had a ten-foot-long, four-foot in diameter—and I have literally measured it; I have chunks of it in my yard so I measured it—log bumping up against the base of my house, which is about 120 feet from the river.
TM: But I can tell that you are still very, very active in your garden, aren’t you?
JG: I am, though I’ve reached the point where I’m aware that I’m getting older and it is harder to do all of that. And we had a terrible year for weeds—I’ve never experienced anything like this year for weeds. I don’t know whether it was something I did wrong or what. It was really an exhausting year.
But I got the Brussels sprouts past their white fly over-infestation, which did me in the last two years, and I said if I don’t get any this year, I’m stopping growing them. And I just used soap over and over, and they’re fine. So that’s good. And I have chard—I just picked chard, I just am making a soup, my favorite chard rice soup for dinner. And I have kale out there. So, you know, it’s not bad.
TM: I know that you believe in simple cooking.
JG: Well, as a matter of fact, it’s very funny because I used to not like chard. I now like chard but I didn’t used to like it, and I would grow it because it was pretty. But then I had some friends here and they said, “Oh, I’ll send you a recipe.” So I call it the McClelland Chard Rescue Soup, because they sent this recipe and it is so delicious that I make it whenever I have the chance.
TM: For our listeners, one of the things that Joan is famous for is she actually coined—I don’t know if this is the right way to say it—coined the concept “nutritional ecology.” And going back into history in the 1970s, you decided to study nutrition. I was really amazed reading about that period of time when people didn’t at all connect food with soil.
JG: Well, they didn’t actually connect nutrition with food—that’s the even more bizarre part. I mean, I remember being told by people in the food industry, they loved nutrition education as long as it was nutrition education, not food education. They wanted us to teach about nutrients, and that’s basically what the field was about. I mean, it was about everything that happened after the food left the mouth. I mean, it was post-eating, you know. That was what nutrition was about.
TM: Well, you know, since you’ve got into the field of nutrition, so much has changed, hasn’t it? What are kind of some of the big things that you’ve seen change since 1978 when you wrote The Web of Life: Lessons in Nutritional Ecology?
JG: The Feeding Web.
TM: The Feeding Web—excuse me, The Feeding Web. And what hasn’t changed?
JG: You know, there are a lot of people talking about food, there’s a lot of interest in gourmet food, there’s a lot of interest in “local food” done in restaurants by chefs that cost, you know, $400 for dinner. But I would like to believe that there was some significant change, and if there is it’s that it’s starting in the schools. I mean, I do think it’s encouraging that there are so many kids being taught—they have, there are so many community gardens, kitchen gardens in the schools, and there is so much interest in using the food in the cafeteria and letting the kids know how it works. There’s really a lot of that, at least on the coasts. And I’m pretty sure that it’s true everywhere, that there’s much more acceptance of the notion that it’s a good idea to have a garden in the schoolyard. That will really change kids. They learn things there that the [unclear—presses? (5:36)] are going to have a hard time beating out of their brains.
But we have a very, very dysfunctional food system. And my own feeling, I just the other, the last course I taught, the session I taught last Wednesday was on biotech. And I was saying to the students that 20 years ago, 25 years ago maybe, Fred Kirschenmann and I were at a conference where the topic of biotech came up, and it was very new at that point. And I remember I found it incredibly depressing. And I remember Fred and I were at the airport getting ready to go home, and I said, “Fred, this is really disgustingly sick, what’s happening. What’s going to stop them?” And he said, “Oh, Joan, nature will stop them. We just hope it’ll happen in time.”
And I said to the students, you know, I have this feeling… You know, Arkansas has just banned dicamba. I mean, they’ve done this thing of now rejiggering the seeds so that they’ll now tolerate these awful herbicides, which spread like crazy, take out vineyards, take out orchards. I mean, dicamba is a really bad actor, and they’ve built it in. And then they—you probably know this—but they released the seed that was meant to tolerate dicamba. You know, you could grow your soybean crop and spray the whole thing with dicamba and the crop would survive. And they put out the seed a year before they got approval for the registration for the form of dicamba that didn’t spread all over the place, because dicamba is notorious for doing that.
And so what was the farmer going to do? He’d paid extra for this seed, there was no dicamba on the shelf that was specifically formulated, so he just used dicamba. And they just had so much drift and so much damage. And I found myself saying, you know, maybe we’re just about getting to the point where nature is going to take hold and say, “Okay, you’ve tried. You tried total control. It’s not working, folks. It’s not working.”
And I don’t know, when I look at the whole food system, as I do when I teach this course, I want to be optimistic. We try to put stuff in the readings that are optimistic, and the students do not…the students are appalled, you know? They’re appalled by what’s going on out there.
TM: I’d love to go back to the millennials, because I would think the millennials and then this new “iGen” or whatever, they’re your students now. Are they different than the students that you’ve been teaching for, goodness, 30 years—actually more than 30 years?
JG: Well, yes, I’ve been teaching for much… I began teaching in 1970, so we’re talking a very long time. So I would say at least half of our students are either Chinese, Japanese, or Middle Eastern.
JG: And I mean, you know, Kuwait and Egypt… And it’s fascinating. And they often bring insights from their own countries. Probably the most interesting and, I found, the most depressing is that I’ve had students write that they never heard of global warming until they got out of college. I mean, there’s also a booklet going around, there’s a booklet that’s being distributed by Heartland or somebody, that we reproduce some of it in our readings just to show the students what they’re up against, which is showing that global warming is nonsense, and so forth and so on, saying to teachers, “Here is the background for you to tell the truth in your classroom.” And they sent it out to thousands of teachers.
So there’s a lot of propaganda going on that’s very hard to combat. I mean, it’s very exciting to be a teacher and have that much effect on students. I mean, there is no question: I would not be teaching at my present age if I did not find it incredibly rewarding to be able to enlighten students whose education, they’re often very well educated but they aren’t well educated on these topics. I mean, even if they’re in the field of nutrition, they’re particularly not educated on these topics, you know?
TM: Well, that hasn’t changed much then, since you started.
JG: It has not, no. I used to have to argue, I used to have friends who would say, “Oh, Joan, look at all of this, and look at all of that.” I now don’t run into that anymore. They see what I’m saying, that there’s a lot of verbalization. But if you really look at the fact, you know, half of our cropland is planted to corn and soybeans, which never feed a single person. We still have the GMO people saying we have to feed 9 billion, even though there have been studies showing there’s no increase in yield. In other words, it doesn’t…the post-fact society. It’s a post-fact society and it’s very, very hard.
I think I do it—I think Pam and I, in our class, change lots of hearts and minds. But we have a whole semester.
TM: But, you know, I’m so grateful that you are such an influencer and that you’re still out there influencing these young folks. When you were starting out in the 1970s and being the head of the Teachers College, didn’t you have the same things where propaganda would come in all the time on “This is the way you should be teaching X, Y, or Z”?
JG: It’s interesting, because about 10 years ago, probably 20, I put in a session in the course called “Information Pollution.” There were publications from the Egg Board, from the Dairy Council, from the Meat Board, from the Sweeteners Council. There were these pamphlets or newsletters that would come to the students. And then there was this beginning, really, the beginning of the sort of intense propaganda about biotech, and the intense negativepropaganda about organic.
So I felt like I had to arm the students to be able to kind of look carefully at this kind of stuff and know what they were seeing—be aware of the source. There’s so much lobbying in Washington. And I had read a wonderful piece by William Greider in a chapter of a book of his called Who Will Tell the People?, which was all about the degree to which there was all this lobbying going on in Washington. So I felt it was important to educate the students about that, and I began to do that.
And I must say that that has really blossomed, because trying now to sort out truth, as you know, is just…
TM: Well, yeah, we have a new term now: post-truth.
JG: Yes, right. We live in a very, very disturbing time. I will just simply say that I hold against Donald Trump the fact that he took a whole year out of my life when I don’t have that many left. You know, I really, really, really find myself having been captured by this news cycle which has no cycle, which just is this incredible outpouring of crap. And then, if you’re not paying attention, you discover that the thing you cared about the most has just been done away with. You know, if you look at what his appointees are doing, it’s really bad.
TM: Well, you know, you have actually been quoted as saying that, in your Growing Olderbook, there are possibilities that the world is headed off a cliff. What are some of the things that make you feel that way, given the food world?
JG: Well, I realized a long time ago that the size of the supermarket and the number of items on the shelves make the idea that I would ever convince anybody to live the way I did impossible. So I faced that a long time ago. I don’t know what it will take to fight against this totally impossible food system. Forty thousand items—how do you make a rational choice from 40,000 items on the supermarket shelf? I mean, my local supermarket just remodeled—I think there are now 37 aisles. And when they first reopened, there were all us old people, the lame, the halt and the blind, all staggering around this store with their carts, trying to find anything.
But I used to think that if every single customer bought one different thing, they still wouldn’t be able to sell one of each item in the store—there were so many. You know, there’s a counter that has sushi now, there’s a counter that has prepared salads. There’s allthis stuff. How on earth do you begin to attach people back to the land and to the food and to the farmers, when none of it seems to have anything to do with them, you know? I despair of that.
But I also know that there are people out there, like me, saying, you know, “Shop around the edges of the store and avoid the dangerous middle. Try not to get your meat from the standard food system.” And you know, there are a few of us. But I don’t know what it will take to really change the American food system, and if it will be changeable. I don’t really know.
There’s a book called Lentil Underground, which is about people in the Midwest trying to begin to grow some other things besides corn and soy. And so they started this lentil business, which seems to be really taking off and doing well, because of course it restores the fields and it’s much healthier and all that. So there are these little, these things happening. It’s just that the size of the institution, and when you look at the concentration of money and how that money buys… You know, the Congress is up to their armpits in money. And I don’t know how we begin to make changes in anything with all that money blocking absolutely everything that you start to change.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio, and I’m Theresa Marquez. And I’m here today with Joan Dye Gussow, who is a former chair of Columbia University’s Teachers College, and actually is still teaching a class there every fall, and is just an amazing influencer and brilliant thinker about the food system. I wanted to mention a few of Joan’s books. Besides The Feeding Web: Issues in Nutritional Ecology, written in 1978; The Nutrition Debate with Paul Thomas in 1986; one of my favorite books that I read a long time ago, Joan, Chicken Little, Tomato Sauce and Agriculture. How about This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader, in 2001; and lots of essays, articles, and so on; Growing, Older: A Chronicle of Death, Life, and Vegetables. And we’re just talking about how difficult it is to change the American food system and how frustrating it is to watch what Joan and others feel like, a food system that’s about to go off a cliff.
And this whole idea of “real food” is something that you represent for me and so many other people. Real food—what is that? How would you describe that?
JG: Well, I think real food is food that you know the source of. I mean, I would say that real food is food that you can connect back to the soil—you can look at it and say, “Oh, I see where that came from.” There’s a—I don’t have it in front of me so I can’t quote it—but Arundhati Roy once wrote a piece about, you know, I go to New York and there are all these lights and everything is fancy and there are these big buildings, and so forth, she says, but I don’t know how did it get there. How did it get made out of soil? You know, that all comes from the soil and the rock and the earth, but I don’t know how, and I need to know how. We all need to know how.
And that’s how I feel about food. You know, food actually comes from the soil. And it’s amazing to see students who come out here. I bring them out here for the organics session on a Saturday, and they walk around the garden. They’ve never seen anything dug. They’ve never seen anything living. It’s amazing! And I think that’s what I think real food is, is something that you can connect back to where it was grown. And it doesn’t mean you can’t have any bread or any processed food; that’s not the point. The point is simply, is the connection so remote that it just seems like a factory-manufactured object, which fundamentally it is.
So I think that just trying to get as close to the farmer as you can, when you choose your food. The students were trying, were feeling so depressed about what they were going to start counseling people on, because most people couldn’t afford, or a lot of people they counsel can’t afford organic. And one of the students said, you know, if people made the bulk of their diet from grains and beans, they could afford organic for their produce, because they’d be saving so much money not eating a lot of meat.
And I also think that if people use some of the guides about what has the most pesticide and what has the least, and choose their produce that way, and try to avoid the standard meat system, which I think is a horror—I don’t think it’s that hard. It’s just that we’re so used to the idea of just picking up something in a wrapper and eating it, that the idea that we should have any connection to the earth is truly strange for people. I mean, I always, one of the first questions I ask, where was the last thing you ate grown? You know, I say just the state will do, or just the country will do. But it’s hard even for that. And these are nutrition majors, so they’re thinking more about food than most people are thinking about food.
TM: So, Joan, do you think that the further that some portion of our world gets to the edge of the cliff, isn’t there a strong movement to try and get more in touch with food by certain segments of the population? I mean, there must be some upside to the craziness that we’re seeing.
JG: No, I think there is some upside. I mean, I think there are such people, and some of them are my students, and that I see that in the students and how they’re living. What I don’t see, given the fact that half our cropland is still devoted to growing corn and soy, given the realities that most of it is genetically engineered and the percent of farmland that is organic, as you know, it’s like up to 1 percent. It feels to me like it’s been 1 percent forever, Theresa. It doesn’t seem to…
We all get hopeful because our own friends, you know… I mean, I just got a James Beard award for leadership. But it’s so funny, I got up and I said, “Well, I have to say, it was nice to get an award for leadership,” I said, “because when I started talking about this, I looked back and there wasn’t anybody back there following!” And I still feel, you know, I feel like I’m sort of like Margaret Mead. It’s like the world hasn’t really gotten any better, “but you’re still here, Joan, so we’re celebrating you because you survived.”
I mean, I appreciate what I get from people about the difference I’ve made, but I look around and I say, you know, I’m not really encouraged by what I see out there. I see these incredible over-caloried, over-fatted, over-whatever meals that people are going out for. I see the kind of food that is still in the supermarket. And I know there’s probably more fresh food now in the supermarket; produce sections are probably larger. I was writing about something recently and there’s been no increase in fruit and vegetable consumption, for all the talk and all the celebration of it. It’s just, those statistics just don’t budge.
TM: Well, I think as we wind this down I have to ask you this question: Can you think of something that could be a tipping point or could move the needle?
JG: Years ago, when I wrote Chicken Little, you know, Chicken Little was all about that they could make it all in tanks, and what would stop it. And what I said at the time was I thought fear might stop it. I think if things like the dicamba thing—I mean, Arkansas is not precisely a liberal state, right? They’re banning something in Arkansas—you know, that’s something. If the companies keep pushing more and more toxic herbicides because they don’t have anything else to make money except by engineering their plants so that they can tolerate those herbicides, you’re going to get the thing you have with glyphosate, that it’s changing the whole world out there—it’s changing the soil bacteria, it’s probably changing our gut bacteria.
More and more people are beginning to ask, you know, if Bt makes holes in the guts of insects, what accounts for the fact that everyone seems to be newly allergic to things they were never allergic to before? What accounts for the fact that we know so many teenagers with stomach problems? Everyone notices that. All my students comment on that, how many people they know who have these sort of chronic, undiagnosable stomach disorders. And does that have anything to do with the fact that we have all these plants full of Bt now? You know, they’ve been playing with the world now for 50 years, since World War II, which was more than 50 years I now realize. But they have thrown these poisons out into the environment. And I don’t think it can go on indefinitely. And I think it’s going to begin to do things that are scaring people.
TM: Yeah, and I think it probably already is doing things that are certainly scaring me.
JG: Yeah, well, I don’t know, did you read Modified, Caitlin Shetterly’s book about biotech?
TM: No, it’s Modified…
JG: It’s called Modified. It’s just called Modified. And she’s a woman who had an article published—Elle published an article by her and she subsequently did a book. She had allergies for like three years; she was very, very ill. She could hardly move, her hands were—she could hardly button her child’s clothes, and it was just killing her. She was having this really, really difficult thing, and she went to everybody. She tried different [unclear] diets and she went to different allergists, and she went to—well, everybody. And finally her doctor said, “I’m sick of this. You have to go see this guy. He knows lots of things nobody else knows.”
So she went to, I think, Ohio. And he listened to the whole story, he had her whole record, and he finally said to her, “I think you might be allergic to GMO corn.” The upshot is that she tried to get rid of corn in her diet, when it’s made into all these things like her plastic cup that she drinks her coffee out of, or the covering for the ironing board, or… I mean, just everything. And she got well.
So I said to my students, I said, “Okay, here we are,” I said, “you know, you’re all scientists. This is an [unclear—“an n of 1”? (26:19)] of one. Do you take this seriously?” And they all said, “Of course.” And one woman in the class said, “This happened to me.” I said, “What?!” She said, “Exactly the same thing. I was reading this and I said, this is exactly what happened to me.” I said, “What did you do?” She said, “Well, I went on an organic diet for another reason, and I got well.”
So do you think there are a few other people out there like that? I do.
TM: Yeah, there’s a lot of them.
JG: Yeah. And so I’m saying at some point, I think there’s going to be enough disorder and pain and mysterious stuff, and somebody’s going to drop a seed in it and it’s just going to just spread in terms of rebellion against all this manipulation and…[unclear]. And let’s hope. I mean, let’s hope there are enough of us out there trying to say, “Okay, now you understand. Now let me tell you what’s been going on.” Which is, you know, that’s what I think we have to hope for. We have to be prepared with the truth and be able then, when people panic, to say, “Okay, this is what you can do. This is how you can be the safest, and so forth and so on.”
TM: So maybe there is a quiet thing happening that just hasn’t hit the hundredth monkey yet, or hasn’t had as much attention. But some days I think that there’s a quiet revolution happening in that, at a certain point in time, when we’re pretty close to that cliff, that it will kind of explode and we’ll find that there’s a whole lot more people more concerned than we think.
JG: I hope you’re right. And I’m basically an optimist; as a temperament I’m an optimist, so I keep trying. And you know, I really do believe that the only thing you can do is to tell the truth, every time you get a chance. And maybe it’ll swing. We really don’t know.
TM: For our listeners, I just want to say what an amazing woman you are, Joan. You’re so vibrant, so full of life and activism; you’re teaching; you’re still out there in your garden, working. And so you’re just such a great model for us all, and I just want to thank you for that.
JG: Thank you so much for being so nice.
TM: It’s so wonderful to talk with you.
JG: It’s been great to talk with you, Theresa.