This week on Rootstock Radio, host Theresa Marquez speaks to Frances Moore Lappe, author, activist, and cofounder of three organizations. Most recently, Frances participated in Democracy Spring, a movement committed to taking money out of politics and putting more people in politics, enforcing voter rights, and the Supreme Court understanding that the right to speak must be driven by a meaningful right to be heard.
By combining two of her passions, Frances has found a way to combat both hunger and a lack of the right to democracy. “Hunger,” she says, “is not caused by a scarcity of food but a scarcity of democracy.” No one is hungry by choice, “hunger is the symptom of powerlessness,” and powerlessness is the opposite of democracy. Frances has seen this powerlessness play out in India where fresh water is scarce, but Pepsi is still advertised. The power is held mostly by a few companies, and therefore low income individuals have no choice but to buy the products they are offered. She believes that even members of the human race who have fewer resources are worthy of a voice to speak out against the higher powers.
“We are the most cooperative species,” says Frances. Studies show that when we cooperate, our brains have a reaction in the pleasure center that looks like we’re eating chocolate. However, we need to feel respected in order to cooperate, and more power of the people in our democracy is one step in that direction.
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 so delighted to be here today with author-activist, co-founder of three organizations, Frances Moore Lappé. We spoke with Frankie, as her friends call her, previously for Rootstock Radio in February 2016. And it couldn’t be a larger honor to have Frankie back, talking about Democracy Spring and democracy, the very week of our presidential election. So welcome, Frankie.
FRANCES MOORE LAPPÉ: Oh, thank you so much, Theresa. it’s a great honor for me. I’ve always loved talking to you, so thank you.
TM: So, you know, I was reading the Yes magazine article in which you talked about your experience with Democracy Spring. And you said—it was posted April 12th—and you said, “Yesterday was the most important day of my life.” What a great way to start out an article! And so I’m hoping that you can explain to our listeners, what is Democracy Spring and what happened on April 11th that it became the most important day of your life?
FML: (laughing) Yeah, I have that picture, my hand in the air and the biggest smile on my face, right after I was quoted that way.
TM: Beautiful, so beautiful!
FML: I love looking at it—it makes me smile. And my son points out that in that photo of me, I have a pen in my hand, which he said is “Perfect, Mom!” So democracy, yes, with a pen in the air!
Well, Democracy Spring I first learned about last winter and found that what was happening is what I’d been wanting all my life, and that is people coming together from all walks of life saying that democracy is not just something done to us or for us in Washington. It’s us. It’s what we ourselves are doing to create the world we want. And they organized—“they,” the Democracy Spring folks—they grew out of the group called 99Rise, which originated with a lot of people who participated in [the] Occupy movement. And they organized a march that started in Philadelphia at the Liberty Bell and took us all the way through to the steps of the Capitol.
So I was part of, as we were walking into Washington with three demands—they had to do with yes, money out of politics and citizens’ voices in, as it’s our democracy; voting rights for all, to not only end the voter suppression but enhance voting rights; and as well as beginning the process of clearing the way with the Supreme Court to understanding that the right to speak must include a meaningful right to be heard. In other words, if we’re drowned out by the power of money, then that’s not really free speech. So all of those things were in my heart as I marched.
TM: Wow, that’s very, very powerful. You marched with a lot of people, like 400?
FML: As we marched in, there were about 150 of us as we marched in from Philly. And as we approached, and I could see the Capitol, it came into my focus, as we were marching and we were chanting—we were chanting, “Whose democracy? Our democracy! Whose democracy? Our democracy!”—just as I saw the Capitol, Theresa. And I was just weeping because something cellularly, something in my bones, so to speak, something deep shifted in that moment. And that’s what I meant by that statement.
And what shifted is suddenly I felt like an owner: Yes, this is mydemocracy. I have solutions. I’m not just, and all of us aren’t just, on the outside, pleading to be heard. We have solutions. Sort of like we’re the grownups in the room here, right? We’re not just complaining. We’re saying solutions are right here to be had, and we will do what it takes to make them come real, manifest them.
So I really felt, for the first time in my life, that I was part of a broader democracy movement, that… I think of it… I use the beautiful term from my hero, now deceased unfortunately, Wangari Maatthai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize because of her work in Kenya and elsewhere for the Green Belt Movement, the village tree-planting movement. And she used the beautiful metaphor of a canopy of hope. And as I marched that long distance—and it was completely bipartisan; I met a Republican lawyer from California, I got to talk to people I would never meet otherwise, for example veterans, that I just don’t get to talk to in my life very much. And so anyway, the point is that out of that experience, I felt like something foundationally shifted, that I was under this canopy of hope that was linking all the issues that we care about—the environment, hunger, racial justice, you name it—that the feeling, the knowing that we can’t progress ultimately without democracy itself, because democracy means the voice of regular people, not the undue power of private wealth over our democracy.
TM: Well, you know, I think that you are starting to answer what my next question was going to be, and that is, listeners out there, you’re probably asking, “Now, Theresa, what does democracy have to do with food? This is a food and farm show.” And I think it’s such a great topic to talk about: What does democracy have to do with the Good Food movement, and why should we care about it?
FML: Well, as you know, Theresa, my life began, as an adult, really focused on hunger. And by the early ’80s I was saying hunger is not caused by a scarcity of food, and certainly that’s still true today, or more so. It’s not caused by a scarcity of food but a scarcity of democracy. And then, of course, I had to go on and explain.
And so let me put it this way: that no one chooses to go hungry. If one is hungry it’s because we’ve been denied choice. And increasingly, we can go into this, denied choice not just to get the calories we need but the nutrition we need. And so lack of voice, lack of real choice, to me, is anti-democratic, the opposite of democracy. So I began to say, wherever people are hungry, it belies the existence of real democracy, democracy as it’s full of promise. No one chooses that state.
And so in our new book, World Hunger: 10 Myths, we actually start there. We start with the question of what is hunger, and we identify it as really four emotions of a grief, humiliation, a fear, and just feeling powerless. That is what is represented in these emotions. And that is what it feels like—not just the rumbling of your stomach, of course, or depletion, weakness, but this emotional state of not being able to protect yourself and those you love. That is what hunger is.
And so we go from there to really understand hunger is a symptom of powerlessness, and anti-democracy is the reason for that sense of powerlessness. So we cannot separate fundamental right to food from democracy itself. We have to understand that our very survival depends, of course, on eating, and if we’re not eating then our democratic rights are being denied. So that’s where I began. And the theme of living democracy, I call it, democracy as a culture that we create together—it’s not just a distant structure of government—that that relates to every part of our food system.
TM: Well, it’s part of what I was hoping we could cover a little bit today. There’s another subtle, it seems, unempowerment, you might say, situation as we look at the Good Food movement, what some people call “real food.” One of my guests last week was talking about, Ellen Barnard, real food—how do we get real food to people. And what she meant was the kinds of obesity and diabetes that we’re seeing in very much the low-income neighborhoods, where they are in food deserts, where it’s a lot easier to get bags of Cheetos and chips to fill your stomach than it is fresh vegetables and “real food.” But isn’t there some unempowerment there in our democracy, with that inability to have access to good food?
FML: Absolutely, absolutely. So it’s not just calories, it’s nutrition. And the story that Anna and I remember from our trip to India, where, when we were writing Hope’s Edge, is that we’d just been at a festival where some villagers were showing us the nutritious drinks that had always been available to them in their culture, of mango juice and lychee fruit. And yet we were driving in rural India and saw huge signs painted on eucalyptus groves, signs advertising Pepsi.
And so what we saw then was this concentration of power, which is the anti-democracy theme here, allowing a very tightly held corporation, in terms of their wealth, to move into countries that have plenty of food for their people, and yet they’re being advertised and these very harmful drinks, sugary sodas, being advertised as and being available often in places where you can’t even get clean water. And then people get hooked on those sugary drinks, and their health goes to pieces. I mean, I talked to a doctor in India who said that in the past his patients were lacking in calories, and that was their problem. And he said now they all have enough calories, but 60 percent have heart conditions and diabetes because the quality of their diet is going down.
And so what we see in what I call “one-rule economy,” what I call “primitive capitalism,” unfortunately we see an economy that isn’t embedded in democratic rule, then it’s driven by one rule, and that is “highest return to existing wealth,” so that those who already own shares, they become wealthier and wealthier, those who own the companies. And therefore we have monopoly take over, whether it’s in seeds or in other aspects of processed foods in our food system, and that then we see that what sells is the most addictive to our bodies—we know sugar and salt. And often people who are very low-income can buy a lot of calories fairly cheaply, if you look at the per-package cost, and their health is very much hurt by this. But it’s this vicious cycle.
And so we have to see it for what it…for this, to me, what health is, to see it as the absence of democracy. Because again, our common sense tells us that this cannot work, where the food industry is held in such few hands, and that the concentration of what’s in our supermarkets is not healthy for us and [is] implicated in most of the deadly diseases that we’re dying from. So we have to go that deep to begin to get hold of where we are in the world today, that that is the direction.
And the good news that you are part of is that there is a democracy movement that embraces agroecology, organic farming, that embraces that because it’s not just about, as you know, it’s not just about protecting the soil and protecting farm workers and consumers from chemicals. It’s about empowerment of farmers, giving farmers a real choice as well. That’s why I see this, all that I’m part of, as part of a democracy movement.
TM: Well, you know, you started out with the Democracy Spring, talking about the number one demand was get money out of politics and put people first—put people in politics, get money out of politics. And so when we look at what you just talked about, in that the amount of corporate influence that we have in our democracy, so some people say we don’t even have a democracy anymore, we have some kind of oligarchy—certainly part of that is… We always joke about how we go to DC and we throw our thimbleful of water in the ocean, while the big food companies throw in a lot more than a thimble. They have huge influence through spending millions of dollars on lobbyists. But even worse, this idea of this revolving door between food industry and biotech and large corporate businesses, and USDA, EPA, FDA, key jobs. How are we trying to get this money out of politics and get more awareness about these rather shady political deals that get made?
FML: Yeah, and that, what you described, the revolving door, as it’s called, is another piece of it. As we all know, that we’re influenced by those whom we associate with. And this is what happens, is that when people are making decisions as lawmakers, they know that they might be offered a job if they vote the right way. Even if they’re not consciously thinking of it, they think, “Ah, if I vote in a way that’s friendly to industry, I might get a really high-pay job after I’m a legislator.” So it’s pernicious. It’s really real.
And what I would say is, all of you listening—and I hope you can hear my excitement in my voice, because I think it’s really a turning point for our country right now—I welcome you to visit a couple of websites. One, we at Small Planet here in Massachusetts, we’ve created something called, the URL is just FieldGuidetoDemocracy.org. The document, it’s a living document that we’re continuing to create, our website that we’re continuing to create. It’s called “Field Guide to the Money-Out-of-Politics Movement.” And we’re expanding it to the voting rights and other aspects, including the kind of thing, Theresa, that you just mentioned, in terms of [the] revolving-door problem.
So you can get a feel, if you go there, to… It’s just “Field Guide to Democracy” is all you’d have to remember. And you can see that there is an organization now called Democracy Initiative that 60 different groups—you know, whether it be environment or food or money in politics, so many issues—but they’ve all come together, and they’re all addressing exactly what we’re talking about today: How do we get our voices in and big money out? And it’s called the Democracy Initiative, now representing 30 million members.
And so the theme here was, I love this metaphor. I was talking about how my life is this one stream with two currents: food and democracy. And I couldn’t give up either one—you know, they’re both who I am. And so this man, Josh Silver at Represent.Us, here in Massachusetts, he said, “Frankie,” he said, “You know, you can love two children at once.” And I said, “Right, I have two children—I can do that!” And so the beauty of this democracy movement is that truly it is a movement of movements. So whatever your issue passion is—maybe it is the question of GMOs and that threat on so many levels, or some other issue—you don’t have to give that up. But see it in this foundational question of democracy itself, because without real voice, we can’t address any of these dire problems that our planet is facing.
And so it’s just really exciting to me. And also so many young people get it. So many young people get it, and that’s why the response in this last campaign. But in Democracy Spring I saw a lot of young people involved, including veterans, including people from all walks of life, really.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with author-activist, co-founder of three organizations—I think, Frankie, now it’s probably more five—and happy to say a friend, Frances Moore Lappé.
Pretty exciting to see that, kind of a broader coalition of the older and the younger together, because I think that’s probably what it’s going to take. Some of us haven’t voted yet, and some of us have already voted. And it’s hard to think that this election will finally be over next week. But this Field Guide that you talked about—can you just tell us, what are a couple of the things on that Field Guide to getting the money out of politics that you are recommending that citizens, yes, get involved in democracy. Well, what else is in that Field Guide that you might point out?
FML: Well, there’s one very specific piece of legislation that’s really commonsense, and it does have a little bit of bipartisan. Yes, it’s not as bipartisan as I would like, but it’s very commonsense. It’s called “Government by the People,” put forth initially by Representative John Sarbanes from Maryland. And he presents it as a way to get citizens, as he put it—we interviewed him recently—out of the bleachers and onto the field. Instead of just having better rules, which of course we need, for things like the revolving door and rules that will empower voters in many ways. But what he’s advocating is a piece of legislation that would enable you and me to have small donors matched by sixfold, so that any candidate who refused to take big money, refused to take corporate money, super PAC money, could get support enough to run for office from regular people like us, supported, matched sixfold by the public purse. And this is a way to ensure that private interests are not driving out the public interest, and it’s a way of really making citizens feel empowered.
For example, last year Seattle, Washington, citizens voted for a similar approach, but it’s a voucher system where every citizen, every voter, gets four $25 vouchers that they can then allocate however they choose, for in the City Council race. So that’s a very simple way to both get big money out and to give voters a feeling that they can be players, even if they don’t have big money themselves to contribute. Because a tiny percent of Americans contribute to political campaigns, and this would be a way to change that would really give us voice. So there’s that very practical kind of approach. Again, it already has over 100 sponsors. And that’s the kind of thing that we, as citizens, could advocate for the new Congress.
There are pieces of legislation that have been passed in a number of states that would extend, protect voting rights, which have been so under attack in numerous states. And so there’s a way to get involved. You can look up, in our Field Guide, you could look up, depending on where you are, you can search and find the kinds of groups that are active in your state on these issues. Like in Oregon, where they passed Motor Voter, so that automatic registration when you register for, I believe, any kind of government thing like a driver’s license. And they saw, in the first month, this huge increase in registration for voting. It’s the kind of thing that you can opt out of if you choose, but people didn’t. They really appreciated that just nudge to become a voter.
So there are a lot of very practical things that it doesn’t… As I often say to myself, because I don’t have one, it doesn’t take a PhD in political science to get this. You know, it’s pretty basic. And that’s something that other countries are doing successfully, and reducing the kind of private interest in government that we know is anathema.
TM: I couldn’t agree with you more on that, Frankie. And what a beautiful statement. I once heard a gentleman speak about how we would solve our water problems, and his last comment in his presentation was, “We will only solve it through cooperation.” And that brings up the question, for me, of this link between democracy and cooperation, as someone very devoted to the whole cooperative model and this idea of cooperation. And I think you were speaking to it, but I’d love to hear you say how you see those two linked.
FML: Well, I think that what the cooperative movement means to me is that it is grounded in human dignity. And dignity is one of those words that’s hard to define but you know what it means in your heart, right? And the cooperative movement embodies dignity. It says that every member is worthy of a voice. And that brings out the best in us, and that enables, then, cooperation. So I think beneath the model of cooperation in the cooperative movement, the global cooperative movement, is this core, core premise of human dignity.
And when I visited other parts of the world and interviewed people who were part of cooperatives, they speak from that point of self-respect and knowing that they have a voice. And that then changes everything for us as human beings. I think we so need to feel that we count and that we’re respected, and then we can cooperate. And I think that so many people feel so disrespected today, it’s very hard to cooperate, right? If you feel just stepped on, then you’re angry, and that does not really bring forth our cooperative spirit.
But I want to add at the end of that, because I so believe in the cooperative model, that when—I love this—that studies done at Emory University many years ago, they looked at our brains when we were competing and when we were cooperating. And they learned that actually our brains react, when we cooperate, in the pleasure centers that look like we’re eating chocolate, it’s so pleasurable. So I love chocolate, so I love this study! And so cooperation, we often think, “Oh, we’ve got to teach kids to cooperate…” Of course, you know, we all have to learn how to share, et cetera. But to really also appreciate that there’s something deep in human nature that we evolved.
There’s a beautiful book called Mothers and Others by anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. She argues, and she is a distinguished professor at UC–Berkeley and elsewhere, but argues with a lot of evidence that we are the most cooperative, the most social species. And her thesis is that it grew out of shared child-rearing, that we had to trust one another more than any other species because we learned that we could evolve best in our tribes if we trusted each other to take care of each other’s babies so that we could be better hunter-gatherers. Anyway, it’s a beautiful theory about us, and it makes a lot of sense to me. And that we learn to read each other, to trust each other in a way that runs deeper than other species—you know, this idea that we can kind of read other people’s minds by our expressions, to some extent. And that builds the kind of trust that makes cooperation possible, that makes…
So why is the cooperative model increasing throughout the world? It’s because it taps into, I believe, this deep desire for voice and our deep capacities for cooperation, which distinguish our species.
TM: So well said. Thank you so much, Frankie. And for our listeners, I just want to point out a couple of, three sites maybe that you might want to get more information. Certainly SmallPlanet.org, which is an organization that Frankie and her daughter Anna have both been instrumental in putting together. I love this new one, FieldGuidetoDemocracy.org.
FML: Yeah, FieldGuidetoDemocracy.org, and there you can read about the Democracy Initiative, you can read about Represent.Us. You can read about the various groups and initiatives that I’ve talked about today. And we’re a little team here, and we’re devoted to good food and good democracy. And so please, firstname.lastname@example.org. You know, join us in gaining your voice by giving us feedback on that, because we want that to just grow into a place that people just love to go to and get pumped up about democracy, about being part of and having a voice in democracy.
TM: So I just want to thank you so much for that, Frankie, and for all the wonderful wisdom that you always share with us.
FML: My great pleasure, Theresa. Thank you so much.
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