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"Food Sleuth" Melinda Hemmelgarn (Part 2)

We had so much to talk about with registered dietitian and “investigative nutritionist” Melinda Hemmelgarn that we had to split our chat into two episodes! Listen to part one here, and click above to listen to part two. Enjoy!

THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, listeners, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. It is my privilege today to be speaking with a good friend, Melinda Hemmelgarn, who is a registered dietician, an investigative nutritionist, and is one of the most dedicated food activists I think I’ve ever met. Part two of this wonderful conversation with Melinda.


TM: Melinda, I am just so in admiration when I hear you speak, that for you the glass is half full. And I’m wondering, this idea that we have solutions to our problems, how do you think about that in your glass-is-half-full attitude? Are you seeing solutions as you interview people, as you move around as a dietician through all the problems?

MELINDA HEMMELGARN: I don’t know if you know John Ikerd, John is a former agricultural economist who used to be with the University of Missouri, and he now lives in Fairfield, Iowa, and does a lot of work on sustainability. On my dark days, sometimes I would call John and tell him, “Oh my gosh, there’s going to be 2,4-D sprayed now because of resistant weeds,” and so on and so forth. Or I’d call him up and say, “Oh gosh, this antibiotic resistance—we’re going to lose our precious antibiotics if we don’t stop raising animals with these prophylactic doses.” And he said, “Melinda, you’ve got to have hope. Hope is so critical in moving forward.” So I think of those words from John as I do move through and navigate through this information.

You and I were both at the Bioneers conference, and I think that what made it so wonderful for me, and I’m assuming for you as well, is that every presentation brought messages of hope and solution. We have no other choice but to move forward with that—otherwise we would just give up right? So let us move forward together with hope and also with a keen focus on these solutions, and what everyone… Or each of us brings something different to the table, but working together we can truly have a sustainable world.

TM: What fun talking with you about these things, and thank you so much for talking about Bioneers and our experience there. And you were talking about how you and I were talking about art and science. I happen to love that topic because I think science is very, very important but it’s not always accessible to everyone. So talk to me some more about some of the things you were thinking from our discussion about art and science.

MH: Yeah, you know, this is a really important topic, because I think what those of us who are frustrated with some of the science is that we end up with this “he said, she said” science and it’s very difficult for people to navigate the science that’s out there, that’s presented. You know, what is the truth? You’ve got industry-funded science, you’ve got independently funded science. How does the average consumer make sense of all of these messages?

And this is something that Joan Gussow actually—the mother or the matriarch of this nutritional ecology that we were talking about—she mentions this about how very difficult it is to navigate science. But what I find so fascinating is that of course we need science—absolutely. I’m a big fan of research. It forms the basis of what we understand about food and health and agriculture, nutrition, and so on. But when it comes to debates and arguments, we really don’t win with these facts and with these scientific statements. We win with art, we win with emotion. And so as much as science is important, so are the personal stories; so is art. We have to appreciate these contributions to the full discussion about food and nutrition and health. So it’s not just science that’s important; it’s also the art, the poetry, the stories, the music, that is really going to bring this work forward.

TM: Are you seeing any examples? As you and I discussed this, and I know we had a very short conversation of it in between some amazing presentations at Bioneers. But what they did was they brought art, they brought poetry, they brought music, so we’re definitely seeing it at Bioneers. Are you seeing it anywhere else?

MH: You know, I see it everywhere. I see small farms having celebrations on their farm, bringing in art and music. I have a friend in St. Louis who operates—she’s an organic farmer—she operates a farm called EarthDance, and she brings art and culture to her farm while feeding people in her community very well. For example, she’ll have a formal dance; she’ll have a celebration around pesto. She folds in art and music to change our culture, to make healthful food the norm rather than the exception.

You know, there was a wonderful quote that was shared at one of the sessions at Bioneers. It was a quote by Bertholt Brecht, and the quote is, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” And I think that the more we can fold art and music and poetry into this good food movement, the stronger it will be, because at the end of the day we are human beings, we are part of culture. This is agriculture, right? That includes art. It is about food, it is about science, it’s great to understand how food does keep us well on a cellular level—I find that fascinating. But in order to encourage people to eat good food, we have to bring their hands to the soil and help them really appreciate the beauty and culture of it.

TM: You know, as you and I talk a lot about mirroring women’s wisdom and special contribution or unique contribution to changing the world—and of course, changing the way we produce food has such an enormous impact, like on 70 percent of potable water for example. Do you see this stories, art, poetry, and going back to stories again, as a way that maybe would be the way women can contribute more?

MH: Yes, I think it’s the only way out of this mess, to be honest. And I don’t think that my conclusions here are unique, I remember when we sat with each other listening to Sister Simone Campbell, who was one of the keynote presenters at Bioneers. And she spoke about how she herself is an attorney and she’s worked on Capitol Hill, and she’s used facts to try to win cases. And she said, “You know, many times they fall on stone walls.” And then she said, “But we have to tell people stories. We have to hear their stories, because that breaks our heart open, and that enables us to truly create change.” And so she makes us laugh, but she also recognizes how important stories are to building community and connection. This idea of talking to people that we wouldn’t maybe ordinarily speak with—strangers in the supermarket, for example—and asking them what they care about.

What I have discovered in working on a project that I—I work on a project with my husband called “Food, Art, Revolution, Media,” and we interview farmers and we compare their stories on the farm with some of the media spin around agriculture. And these conversations are vital, and what we’ve learned is that everybody has a story, and most people want to share those stories.

And I think, as human beings, it’s our role to make a richer community by hearing and listening to each other’s stories, and wondering how can we work together to make it better for all of us, in cooperation. I mean, that’s the beauty of Organic Valley, is it’s a cooperative. We need much more cooperation and less focus on individualism, which is another point, of course, that Sister Simone Campbell made. You know, when we started going down this individual-man-on-a-horse kind of image and cultural identity—John Wayne!—we ran into trouble with that. We work together naturally as human beings, and that’s what makes a rich, healthy culture.

TM: You know, I kind of am just really fascinated with this idea of those of you who are listening out there who think, “You know, it’s really interesting to talk about these activists, but I don’t really need to be an activist.” But you know, I think what I’m hearing from you that I like so much is that being an activist can be as simple as telling your story of celebrating pesto, of making a special dish for your friends, saying, “Here’s my grandmother’s dish, and how it’s different is I used all these local farm ingredients in it.” et cetera, et cetera. That everybody can be an activist; everyone who eats can be an activist.

And I so love Carlo Petrini’s description of consumers. I think those of you on the radio have heard me quote Carlo Petrini before, when he said, “It’s better to cut your tongue out than call yourself a consumer.” And where he says and insists that we are all co-producers. And I would just like to actually say one other thing with regards to science. A friend of mine once said, “I am so sick of science. It’s science shmience.” And so I actually do want to say, appreciate your thought that we want facts—it’s very, very important—but we also can’t depend on facts changing the world right now.

MH: Yeah, well, you know, we need—I mean, I am a nutritional scientist. I love biology. I love understanding chemistry. I love biochemistry, because when I took biochemistry I learned that it answered the why questions on a cellular level. I want to understand how endocrine disruptors work in the body so that I can make a larger, more confident stand against adding pesticides to our environment, because I understand the mechanisms and I think it’s important.

I encourage dieticians too, to have their first exposure, their first job experiences, in a hospital so that they can see the ravages of poverty and poor diet and lifestyles that were forced upon them through exploitation. Look at the lab values, look at what these lifestyles have done to these people on a cellular level, and then move forth to get into prevention and stop these things from happening. So I value science very much, but I also value art. Those two things work together.

And what I loved about Carlo Petrini, and I’m really glad you brought him up, is he was the man that I first heard define good food. You know, it’s like he described it—he was talking about going to the Sonoma Valley in California. He had this wonderful plate of food—I mean, it was delicious, you know, as only you would have in California, in this Mediterranean climate—a wonderful, diverse plate, lots of color, rich flavors. And then he said, “But you know, the workers in the fields were being treated like slaves.” And he said, “That is not good food.”

And that is what I hope to do, certainly in my working with Food Sleuth Radio, is to help people think beyond their plates. It’s not just about the nutrients that you’re taking into your body. They’re important, don’t get me wrong. But it’s really important to think beyond our plate and say, what was the producer’s life like? Did somebody who picked this tomato, were they living in the back of a truck or a broken-down trailer? And if that’s the case, I don’t want any part of that tomato. I want a just and fair food system that’s safe and clean.


TM: We are speaking with dietician Melinda Hemmelgarn, who has a wonderful little radio show called Food Sleuth and is what you might call an investigative nutritionist.

Well, it is so fantastic that we move into so many different topics, and I’m just so grateful that you are being sure to bring up a major, major topic that we have to bring forward, I hope this year more, and year after year after year. And that is the social justice piece of this, how food is a social justice issue.

You’re just reminding me today, and I’m so glad you did: I just learned today, that the USDA threw out Enlist Duo, in that they found that the evidence that the biotech industry brought forth… That 2,4-D, which those folks who are kind of as old as I am know as a major ingredient of Agent Orange, which got sprayed on the Vietnamese in the 1960s, first it was rubberstamped and now it’s been recalled. And I don’t know that you heard that. But today, Enlist Duo, which is the substitute for Roundup Ready, just got pulled back from the USDA. So there is a win, not just for wheat eaters, but mostly, and I hope that many of you know this, mostly it’s a win for the farm workers and those of us who live in rural communities, because we are the ones that will be exposed the most and will have the highest rates of birth defects, miscarriages, and, of course, cancer. Those people in rural communities, farmers and farm workers, just simply have the highest rates of these things.

MH: That’s exactly right, and I was familiar with the decision; I celebrated this decision. You know, I think that… My first job when I got out of dietetic training was at the veterans’ hospital here in Columbia, Missouri. And I remember the Vietnam vets were coming in, and they were having symptoms related to, they thought, Agent Orange. Now it’s assumed that if you were in Vietnam you were exposed, and there’s a long list of illnesses related to exposure.

But to call this combination of 2,4-D and glyphosate “Enlist Duo”? I don’t know if it was meant to be a cruel joke or a slap in the face to our veterans, but it’s a poor choice in name. It’s also a poor choice to be combining these ingredients and spraying them on our land. It gets into our water. You know, I love water. Theresa, you and I both love to kayak and swim in our beautiful rivers and streams. And there was an expectation—and this was a USDA quote, I believe—of a four- to eightfold increase in 2,4-D spraying, should these genetically engineered crops be approved.

And I think what a lot of people don’t understand—and I just had this conversation at my farmers’ market last weekend, so it’s still fresh in my mind. But an educated woman did not know what was wrong with GMOs. And I said, “Every application of genetic engineering has to be looked at separately.” But the truth of the matter is that the bulk of genetic-engineered crops have been engineered to withstand spraying with herbicides. And so we’ve seen this drastic increase in herbicide exposure to farm workers, to our earth, to our water. These compounds don’t break down and go away. They get embedded in sediment, they get concentrated in the fish that we eat, they’re in the water that we drink, they end up being in our cord blood, in our urine, in our breast milk. I don’t think this is a smart move.

So denying approval was a great thing—we can celebrate that. But we must remain vigilant. We can’t just rest on our laurels now and say, “Great, everything’s fine.” We have to make sure that this combination never gets approved. And let me just add that this combination of compounds has never been tested in combination for long-term health effects on our children.


TM: Melinda, I can’t thank you enough for just all the wisdom that you share with me and that you’re sharing with us now. I almost want to end with, or at least start closing, since our time is running out, with a thought that Rosalinda Guillen, who is a social justice activist in Bellingham, Washington, and she said something very similar to you: The tomato, maybe, you think tastes good, but unless you can taste social justice, don’t eat it.

MH: That’s beautiful.

TM: So I was very much taken with that. I want to make sure to just back up, just a little bit, and you mentioned something about you and your husband, and that you are in a project together, and you said Food, Art, Revolution, and Media, I don’t know whether our listeners caught it, but that acronym is FARM.

MH: Right.

TM: And I’ve seen some of these beautiful photographs that your husband is doing in your photography project. So I surely would love to have you say just a little bit about that. And how is it being seen, and where can people see it, and what are your hopes for your FARM project?

MH: You know, that FARM project started as a way to raise money for our local farmers’ market. And we started out doing a calendar where we interviewed different farmers, and we asked all the farmers the same three questions: What do you love about your work? What are your greatest challenges? And what do you want the world to know? And from those three questions, we got pages of thoughts and insights from farmers who are producing our food. And so we produced two calendars, actually. We did one for our local farmers’ market, and we had so much fun doing it that we did another one to raise money for the Missouri Organic Association.

And then we realized doing calendars really is kind of difficult because you’ve got a very narrow window to sell that product and to raise money for your cause. So we turned that into greeting cards, and the purpose was to use compelling images to raise the voices, to amplify the voices of the famers and to get snippets of their wisdom that they could share with others. So the greeting cards that we produced, they have this beautiful image, thanks to my husband, on the cover. And then on the back, you’ll see the face of the farmer with a quote.

And I’ve shared some images with you, I think, that you can have Rootstock Radio, but some of the comments were absolutely so insightful and moving. The hands of Sine Berhanu, for example. And I should mention that the calendar started out with the title of “Farm Hands: Honoring the People Who Feed Us.” And we visited farmers and my husband photographed their hands, their beautiful, hardworking hands. Nothing is more poignant—all those calluses and wrinkles and soil, and just beautiful.

But Sine Berhanu is originally from Ethiopia, and she actually started in a kitchen in St. Louis, where she brings welfare-to-work moms in to teach them how to produce good food. And she sells these delicious Ethiopian dips through some different outlets. But she said because of her Ethiopian roots, she has a different cultural context, but she saw the value of good food, not only in keeping people well, but keeping people out of prison, keeping people happy. Healthy people will be productive members of our communities. So, yes, food is medicine, but it’s so much more than that. It’s the most important thing that we put in our bodies—that and water.

And other farmers, I remember interviewing Dan Kelly, who is the only organic-certified apple orchardist in Missouri. He lives on the Mississippi River. And I asked him why he farmed organically, and he said, “Because I live here.” Because he’s in love with the migratory birds that fly over his farm and he would never want to do anything to harm them.

I felt like those voices, those messages, needed to be amplified. And so when I give presentations around the country, I speak and I write and I bring these voices of farmers to my audiences, largely dietician audiences. I want them to know, I want them to hear the voices of farmers.


TM: I am so excited that you are leaving us with this interest in farming and farmers. And I just have to ask, I bet you’ve interviewed just lots and lots of farmers from around the country.

MH: Farmers, soil scientists, nutritionists, doctors, artists, filmmakers—anyone who has a puzzle piece to fit into that bigger picture that we call the larger food system. And each one of them brings something to the table. One of my most enjoyable and memorable interviews was actually with a photographer who took pictures of the insides of people’s refrigerators.

So if you can imagine this, he’d meet strangers on the street and say, “Could I—would you mind if I came inside and took a picture?” Could you imagine? I don’t know if I’d say yes to that, that’s kind of personal! But these people did. And when you look at the photographs, and then you want to ask, why does the inside of your refrigerator look as it does? Is it because you’re not making a living wage? Is it because you’re working so many hours that all you have are takeout foods? Does it look beautiful because you just joined an organic CSA? And so it opens up a whole world, and the pictures draw us in.

TM: Well, since we’re so close to Thanksgiving, I hope no one asks me after Thanksgiving to look into my refrigerator.

MH: Well, it’s going to be jam-packed with leftovers, I hope. I feel very blessed in that regard.

TM: And we are so, so fortunate, that is for sure. Melinda, how long have you been doing Food Sleuth? I just have to ask that. When you talk about how many people you’ve interviewed, I’m now curious, how many people have you interviewed for how long?

MH: Well, we’ve been doing a show once a week, and we’ve been doing it—this is going on our seventh year. So we have over three hundred interviews of people. And people can access the archives. You know, this is a collection; this is an archive, stories of our food system. And I’m happy to say the University of Wisconsin has a historical archive and they are also collecting some of these to keep alive these very important voices. And unfortunately many of them have left the earth, so we want to keep them alive.

TM: Well, Melinda, I am so, so honored to be your friend and to know you and just watch all the good things that you’re doing. And I’m also wanting to remind our listeners that you too are an activist, just by the way you eat and your food and the kinds of stories you can tell to your friends and family about the things that are important to you about the good food movement, that we all really have a role to play. You’ve shown so well, Melinda, just how that can be done.

For those of you who are interested in some of these several hundred radio interviews that Melinda has done over these many years, you can see Food Sleuth Radio—get your pencil out now because it’s kind of long—, or you can contact Melinda directly at foodsleuth at And Melinda, how about that beautiful photography of your husband on FARM? Is that something that they can see in any way on your own radio site or somewhere else?

MH: Yes, my husband keeps a blog where he has the images. And I’ll have to send you that link—it’s Enduring Image—but I will send you that link and maybe we can have that posted. [] That might be the best way to do it. Because, again, and it’s the same thing with Food Sleuth Radio: if I was more savvy at this I’d probably have a shorter link and know what I was doing more. But if you just Google “Food Sleuth Radio” plus “Public Radio Exchange,” those archives will come up. And I also want to say you can go to, which is our production studio, and you can also find the archives there. And in both places that archive is searchable.

TM: Once again, we are talking with Melinda Hemmelgarn, dietician, investigative nutritionist, board member, Food Sleuth, her radio, and I want to make sure: two children, mom, nature enthusiast, and so on. And, Melinda, so grateful that you’re my friend. And thank you so much.

MH: Oh, the feeling is mutual, the feeling is mutual. And also let’s direct people to Organic Valley’s Rootstock blog, where you and I both share our thoughts about food and good health.

TM: If you do and then you look and say “radio” and then also look on the blog, you’ll see Melinda often will have some words of wisdom there, and other wonderful folks who plug into the Rootstock blog. So once again, so great to hear from you, Melinda. Have a lovely holiday.

MH: You too, Theresa.

TM: And so much thankfulness for all the great work and inspiration that you represent.

MH: Thank you.