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Groceries for a Small Planet

Frances Moore Lappé on food and democracy


Frances Moore Lappé.  Photo By Richard Rowe.
  • Frances Moore Lappé. Photo By Richard Rowe.

It was all part of someone's insidious plan, and I fell for it. As I wheeled my cart through the door of the supermarket, I saw the display of carefully arranged peaches, looking, well, just peachy — and in February. Knowing full well that peaches are a summer fruit, which meant these came from halfway across the planet, I succumbed to temptation and bought one. I knew better, but I did it anyway.

I confessed my sin this morning while talking with Frances Moore Lappé, author of Diet for a Small Planet. Part cookbook, part vegetarian manifesto, her 1971 book sold more than three million copies. In it she offered a fairly simple solution to international food scarcity, a shift away from an inefficient system that feeds much of the world's grain to animals so that man can eat beef. Her ideas influenced countless lives, even if they did not lead to a wholesale switch away from a meat diet.

I read her book in the '70s, and while I probably added more rice and beans to my diet (as per her advice), I remained an omnivore. And I'll admit, I'm not always a conscientious shopper. I try to think global and buy local, but there's the occasional imported South American peach (and worse).

Lappé's response to my confession was somewhat unexpected. She said nothing of the international trade aspect of my purchase, asking only, "Did it taste good?" It did not. It had not tasted like anything at all.

"For me, a big part of my writing and my speaking is not that you should shape up and do the right thing," said Lappé. "I'm suggesting that we shed a belief system that makes us feel like victims, makes us feel powerless. It makes us part of a world that's not good for ourselves, or others. It's really a mater of realizing we've been sold a bill of goods."

I met Lappé six years ago when she came to Humboldt County to address a national convention of the Consumer Cooperative Management Association. After her Saturday morning talk I shepherded her around the Arcata Farmers' Market and took her to meet some of the area's organic farmers. (See the Journal story "Frankie and the Farmers," June 20, 2002.)

At the time she'd just published Hope's Edge: the Next Diet for a Small Planet, a 30th anniversary sequel to her '70s bestseller. Hope's Edge followed Frankie and her daughter Anna around the world as they looked at the economics of the food industry and met individuals making positive changes in the way food is produced and delivered.

Lappé's latest book, Getting a Grip: Clarity, Creativity and Courage in a World Gone Mad, came out last fall. This time she takes the long view of world problems, advocating fundamental changes in the way we relate to power and suggesting that we need to make a paradigm shift in modern democracy. That's what she'll be talking about when she comes to town on Sunday for a discussion and booksigning in Arcata.

Not that food and food distribution are ever far from her mind.

"Of course food was my way in and it has continued to be the thread," she said. "Food is the most basic need of all. If you're going to understand why people are hungry, you have to go beneath all the issues to see who's deciding. You have to look at who's making the decisions about everything — from who controls the land and seeds and water to who has the money to buy food to eat. Those are all social questions.

"What I argue is that those answers reflect a mental map, a belief system that is currently sweeping the world. It's a system where power is concentrated, one that makes most of us feel utterly powerless. It says that we are so flawed as human beings that we have to turn over our fate to some infallible force above us. We've come to believe in an organization of the market by one rule, and that is the highest return to existing wealth, to the people who own the shares."

In short, we put profit above people, and money men, driven by nothing more than greed, are making the decisions that rule our lives.

"Food is a powerful entry point to understand the disaster we're creating for our planet," said Lappé. "It's easy to measure the degradation of our food system and it's increasing exclusion of hungry people — all of it unnecessary and avoidable.

"I'm saying that hunger is a reflection of a misunderstanding of our nature that leads to our turning over our power to this economic mythology that concentrates power. In my lifetime we've seen a continued narrowing of who owns the land and who makes the decisions.

"In our food system for example, there are fewer than 130 people who sit on the boards of corporations that control more than half of the foods you see in a 30,000 item supermarket."

When it comes time to wheel that cart into the market, she suggests there are simple things one can do to bring about small-scale change.

"The choice we don't have is whether to change the world," she said, plunging into the subject with a convoluted pronouncement. "It's a question of whether we're going around the supermarket in a trance, totally unconscious and uninformed or whether we do what I call 'power shopping,' and that is going about it with a great deal of information so that we're not victims.

"When I wrote Diet for a Small Planet, I was in my late 20s, that was the first sense of change inside me. Knowledge meant I could choose what's best for myself and for my planet. I felt incredibly liberated from being a victim of advertising falling for the glitz or the latest pitch. Personally that makes me feel like a victim of someone else's manipulation."

In Lappé's view what we put in our cart sends a message: "One way says 'Yes! I want more pesticides in the world. I want more people to die of pesticide poisoning. I want more food that comes from long distance travel and [brings] more global climate change emissions.'"

(Um, like my Chilean peach.) And the alternative?

"Just think of celebrating what's good for yourself and good for the planet. That means staying pretty much on the periphery in the supermarket. As Jack LaLanne said, 'If man made it; don't buy it.' That's rule one of good eating, experiment and have fun with whole foods.

"If you're shopping in a supermarket, stay in the periphery. Shop at a co-op or something like it if you can, because you'll have a lot more whole food choices.

"Choose the plant world over the animal world wherever possible. It's healthier for our bodies and it's more and more important because that's where we have less impact on climate change, less impact on our resources. That's where I began with Diet for a Small Planet. If we choose plants for our diet we have a vastly smaller footprint.

"To me the food question is this fabulous confluence, because what's best for our bodies — and what's incredibly delicious — is best for the Earth and best for the people. There are not many things in life where that many things come together all at once. It's pretty cool."

Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County hosts a talk and booksigning by Frances Moore Lappé on Sunday, March 9, from 6:30-8:30 p.m. in the Plaza View Room in Jacoby's Storehouse at the corner of 8th and H sts. in Arcata. Lappé's book,Getting a Grip: Clarity, Creativity, and Courage in a World Gone Mad, will be available for sale. For more information call 269-0984 or e-mail

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