An über-foodie dishes up people-powered politics
Decades before readers got a taste of Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma , Frances Moore Lappé was sounding off on the politics of food. Her landmark 1971 book, Diet for a Small Planet , combined investigative dirt on industrial agriculture with tasty recipes. Since then, the author has written on such wide-ranging topics as over-population, food policy and corporate conglomeration. In addition to penning 15 other books, Moore Lappé has founded a food-oriented think tank , a progressive news service  and an international social-justice institute .
In her new book, Getting a Grip: Clarity, Creativity and Courage in a World Gone Mad , Lappé puts grassroots democracy on the table. Her premise is that Bush, Cheney and other nefarious powers-that-be have been “thinning” our political system over the past decade. American civic life, she writes, has been “warped” by “free market” systems and an increasingly centralized government. Getting a Grip offers a vision of how average citizens might turn things around.
Moore Lappé calls her vision for the future “Living Democracy” — a “relational” web of civic initiatives and responsibilities. To complement this theory, she offers glowing portraits of inspired, albeit relatively unknown, activists. She also tosses in mini treatises on huge subjects such as human nature and linguistic imperialism. But her informal writing style makes it easy reading — fewer than 200 pages, in fact — and the final work incorporates her personal musings and self-help charts with titles like “Spiral of Empowerment.”
Moore Lappé’s writing voice is undeniably unique — who else delivers Marxist diatribes with the sweet, simplistic logic of a kindergarten teacher? “Rescuing the environment could start with simply requiring the government to . . . stop handing out rewards for destruction,” she notes at one point. “No big price tag there, just the guts to say no to fossil fuel lobbies.”
Moore Lappé used to live in southern Vermont before moving to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and she’s a regular visitor to the state. Chelsea Green  is distributing Getting a Grip, which was self-published. On Friday she speaks at Burlington’s Unitarian Church, as part of a multi-city tour.
A few weeks ago, Moore Lappé visited the Mad River Valley to deliver an impassioned lecture before a packed audience at Knoll Farm in Waitsfield. Her speech was the keynote address at the Center for Whole Communities ’ fifth annual “Harvest and Courage” celebration. Afterward, she caught up with Seven Days over cups of loose-leaf tea.
SEVEN DAYS: Throughout your career, you have resisted theories on “scarcity” — the perception that our world is crunched for resources. In Getting a Grip, for example, you characterize a scarcity-infused worldview as a “shrunken view of our existence.”
FRANCIS MOORE LAPPE: That was the beginning of my adult life, when I was sitting in the U.C. Berkeley library putting these numbers together [while researching Diet for a Small Planet]. The experts were telling us that scarcity was the problem, that we’d met the limits of the finite earth. That’s what people were saying about food. So that was my “aha” moment, when I realized, “No: In fact, there is tremendous abundance in the world, but we’re actively shrinking its capacity to feed us.” That was the big shocker for me . . .
I think the human experience is very much that we create what we fear. Out of this sense of scarcity, we create this world that we experience that way; it keeps reinforcing. That we reduce the abundance of the earth by not aligning with its natural energy flow is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The theme of scarcity comes up over and over in all of my life’s work.
SD: In your new book, you call the federal government a “bugaboo.” Why?
FML: What’s so hard, especially for young people, to recognize is that this extreme market fundamentalism really began around the [early 1980s]. Clearly, coming out of World War II, my parents’ generation understood that minimum wage, social security, the GI bill — these basic, basic things — were necessary to have a decent society. In order to have genuine freedom, then of course we have to make government responsible to all of us and protect rights to unions and all these things.
With the extreme propaganda campaigns that began in the late ’70s and early ’80s, we were robbed of the idea that government can be a tool to realize our values. And in fact, what I argue in Getting a Grip is that we can’t have a fair, competitive open market without effective government to keep it that way. Because the market left to itself will just concentrate into monopoly.
SD: There’s a section in the 20th-anniversary edition of Diet for a Small Planet where you talk about being suspicious of authority. It’s funny to compare that suspicion with what you’ve become today: an authority figure. What does that feel like?
FML: Back when I first started speaking, I tried to shock people with my ordinariness. Part of my agenda was to say, “Any of us who care enough can find out what we need to know in order to make an intelligent statement about it.” If I had had a PhD in development economics and nutrition, I probably would never have written Diet for a Small Planet.
That’s why I say to young people: “Don’t discount the value of coming in with unschooled eyes!” They haven’t been trained by the institutions of power to jump over square one, you know? I didn’t jump over square one, which was, “Why are people hungry?” And it was all there in the library; anybody could’ve written it.
So yeah, I love that people interview me, that I’m an expert who gets to be on the World Future Council . That’s pretty cool: You meet incredible people and feel like you have something important to say. At the same time, though, I never want people to bury the fact that I’m self-taught.
SD: Sounds like you could run for office on that.
FML: Yeah . . .
SD: Maybe you should run for governor of Vermont? Democrats are having trouble coming up with a candidate.
FML: [Laughs.] Yeah, I’d have to move back. You know, it was really cool, when I stepped off the plane this morning, I heard this voice, and it was Patrick Leahy  [standing there]. I know him a tiny bit — he’s not even close to a personal friend. But I had the courage to say [hello], and he said, “Would you send me a signed book?” I said, “Sure.”
I just love Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy. When [former Attorney General] Alberto Gonzales resigned, I wrote a fan letter on Patrick Leahy’s website. I mean, I don’t think my role is running for office, but it is that same spirit.
SD: Interestingly enough, Vermont wasn’t mentioned in Getting a Grip. Were you implying that our state somehow “gets” it?
FML: No, that wasn’t intentional; it was just trying to keep that book short. There are several Vermont pieces in my longer book on living democracy, Democracy’s Edge . Many stories could have fit in easily — it was just a matter of space.
SD: Have you heard of Vermont’s localvore movement ?
FML: Yes. In fact, I spoke at a localvore event in Rutland last spring.
SD: How do the localvores fit into the paradigms of your book?
FML: By definition, the localvore approach — the idea of local provisioning — contributes to the decentralizing and democratizing of power. It also [challenges] anonymity, or non-community. In global supply chains, we don’t ever see those people who are slaving in China to produce our clothes.
With the localvore movement, we have a better chance of seeing the consequences of our choices, and therefore making choices that are human and not inhumane . . .
SD: Over the course of your career, food has been the central “frame” through which you address larger issues. Now, your approach has really caught on in our national literature. What is it like to see your frame proliferating, as it were? Or do you see it that way?
FML: You mean like Barbara Kingsolver ? Oh, I do . . . In my mid-twenties, I felt that [food] would be the great awakening that would bring us back to the best aspects of our humanity. The received wisdom of Diet for a Small Planet was “Oh, if I just eat less meat, hunger can be fed,” and not that the whole grain-fed meat thing was a symbol of a deeper problem in our economic system. So that’s always a double-edged sword. But [contemporary interest in food writing] feels very, very positive and exciting for me.
SD: A silly question: What’s your favorite whole grain?
FML: Well, my new one — of course, this is really trite — is quinoa, ’cause it’s so versatile and quick and packed. I was just reading a Navdanya publication, and I fell in love again reading about all its wonders.
SD: When was the last time you ate a steak?
FML: Oh, a steak! [Laughs.] Probably the last I remember was . . . ’68 — that I remember. That’s a long time ago! But that’s, I mean, when I really stopped eating meat was probably . . . The last time I remember was going to a steak house in Philadelphia in early ’68.
EXCERPT from Getting a Grip: Clarity, Creativity and Courage in a World Gone Mad
We cannot predict outcomes, but some things are coming clear: and that clarity is beginning to rattle us: The shock of melting ice caps and dying penguins, of leveled rainforests and species wiped out daily before we’ve ever met them, of children armed in genocidal war, and children dying of hunger even as we feed over a third of all grain to livestock . . . all of this is sinking in, and more and more of us know the time is now — that we act powerfully now or we see our fate sealed: We risk becoming our species’ most shameful ancestors, passing on to those we love and those they will love a diminished world that we ourselves find heartbreaking.
Such shock may then open us to a surge of energy lying dormant — a pure, protective rage we can transform into exuberant defense of our beautiful earth under siege.
Yes, there is much we do not and perhaps cannot know about our chances of success. But there is much we can know.
Humanity is coming to understand nature’s fundamental laws and the fatal consequences of ignoring them. Rather than triggering panic, our coming to accept nature’s boundaries may bring huge relief. If children need boundaries to feel safe, maybe we’ll find we all do. Nature offers us real, non-arbitrary guidelines, and as we align ourselves with her — because we ourselves are part of nature — we may also move into greater alignment with one another. Could this shift, truly trusting nature’s laws, ultimately release the grip of self-created scarcity, allowing us to experience real abundance for the first time?
Many are also coming to know that just as we need not fight the natural world, we need not fight our own nature. We can trust our deep, in-born needs to “connect and affect.” We can trust our ability to walk with fear. We can even trust our capacity to let go of long-held ways of seeing in order to structure our societies to protect us from the worst in us while releasing the best: for we know in our bones that the real problems facing our planet can only be met by the ingenuity, experience, and buy-in — the contagious engagement — of billions of us. Knowing all this, it is at least possible that we can take the biggest leap, embracing the open and dynamic frame that Living Democracy offers us.