The TH Interview: Anna Lappé

As we begin to realize the extent to which personal responsibility and action can make a difference in the world around us, Anna Lappé is an inspiring example of just how much one determined individual can accomplish.

Among the many projects that Anna is involved with, The Small Planet Fund is of particular note. Founded in 2002, The Small Planet Fund is a volunteer-led effort to support courageous movements bringing to life on-the-ground, citizen-led solutions to hunger, poverty, and environmental devastation around the world. As a testament to the Fund's success in the last four years, two of the eight grantees have been honored with Nobel Peace Prizes and the Fund has raised more than a quarter of a million dollars.

For those interested in supporting the Fund's efforts, most of the Fund's money is raised at an annual gala. More information about the Fifth Annual Party and Fundraiser is available at http://www.smallplanetfund.org/events.html
TreeHugger: Many people encounter a sense of powerlessness or paralysis when confronted by a huge problem. How do you manage to tackle as many projects as you do, and do you have any tips for getting out there and making a difference?

Anna Lappé: I think many of us have this sense of powerlessness because we feel our problems are so huge -- melting ice caps! irreversible species loss! recurring genocides! -- that we feel anything we do would just be a drop in the bucket. But I like to remind people that the more apt metaphor for our feelings of futility would be that we feel we're drops in the desert: the water dissipates before even touching ground.If we were really to picture ourselves as drops in a bucket, we'd of course realize that buckets fill up, and can fill up quite fast. (Who knows, your drop may be the one that pushes the water over the edge.)

So in many ways, I feel the work I do through my books and public speaking is to help us see the bucket: to realize we are part of a global movement of courageous people showing that there is another world possible, a world in which we work with nature not against it, in which we all are fed, a world where we, in poet Denise Levertov's words, join our solitudes in the communion of struggle.

What are specific tips for getting out there and making a difference? Start with a personal audit: What most inspires you? What most pisses you off? What resources do you have? What channels of power are you connected to? And then...tap those and throw yourself in.

TH: What kinds of projects are you involved with, and what influenced your decision to pursue them?

AL: I've just finished a nationwide speaking tour and campaign in conjunction with the release of my second book, Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen (co-authored with Bryant Terry). The vision of the tour was to promote work emerging across the country of farmers, eaters, and activists rebuilding and re-strengthening our local, diverse food economies.

Our vision is that "grub" -- local, sustainable, fair food -- should be available for everyone. But in a country in which most people don't have the real choice for grub and the number of food insecure Americans equals the population of Canada, we have our work cut out for us.

I traveled to more than forty cities and participated in more than sixty-five events, from community fundraisers to conferences to farm dinner parties and returned back to Brooklyn with six-figure frequent flier miles and teeming with inspiration from all the people I met.

For five years, I've also been leading the volunteer-driven Small Planet Fund, which is based in the Rudolf Steiner Foundation and raises money for eight core grantees, amazing movements that my mother, Frances Moore Lappé and I met when we researched our book, Hope's Edge. These are all organizations that we felt weren't getting the kind of recognition and attention they deserved. We believe they are all examples of ways to address the root causes of hunger and poverty, not just slap on Band-Aids. Since the 2002 publication of our book, we've been pleased to find these groups garnering international recognition. Two of our grantees, Dr. Wangari Maathai and Dr. Muhammad Yunus, are now Nobel Peace Laureates!

This year I've joined the board of the Center for Media and Democracy. I've always seen a close connection between media—and media reform—and changing our food system. It's as important to be critical consumers of the food we eat, as it is to be critical consumers of the media we consume, particularly about food and farming.

The food industry is the second largest advertiser in the world. Think about it: Why would an industry that's selling us stuff we need to survive (arguably not the case for TVs and toasters) need to spend so much money on advertising? Well, because if we ate what our bodies would naturally crave, and would be healthiest for us, we wouldn't eat the crap they're trying to sell us.

I've long-admired the Center. I've probably bought more gift copies of their books—Trust Us, We're Experts and Toxic Sludge is Good for You!—than any others. (They make good stocking stuffers for the public relations professionals in your life.) The folks at the Center are also the ones who helped expose the United States cover-up of the unsafe conditions in meat production putting us at risk for Mad Cow disease. They also revealed earlier this year the widespread use of corporate Video News Releases masquerading as legitimate news on television. Most recently, they've released The Best War Ever, their follow-up to Weapons of Mass Deception, about the administration's manipulation of the media and messaging about the War on Terror and the war in Iraq.

TH: As a kid, you were no doubt asked: "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Have you grown up yet? And what was your answer back then?

AL: I used to dream about being a teacher. I loved filling in pseudo lesson plans and grading fake tests, but then I taught and realized that growing up with non-disciplinarian parents made tough-as-nails classroom management impossible for me. So, I changed course. I do feel, though, that my work is a form of education. I just walked in the door from guest lecturing at an NYU class on persuasive writing. We discussed the persuasive techniques I used in The Six Illusions section of Grub and the students voted on which illusion was most convincing, and why. My work with undergraduate and high school students has been some of the most fun and rewarding experiences.

You ask, do I feel like I've grown up yet? Certainly not. I'm realizing that I probably won't ever feel that way. Life is a constant process of reinvention and challenging oneself. That makes life interesting, though it cuts into my sleep.

TH: Who and/or what inspires your work?

AL: I'm inspired by the young people I meet who come to the work of social change with fresh eyes, new energy, and unbridled passion.

TH: While we may recognize that our decisions in grocery stores have far-reaching consequences, those consequences aren't immediately obvious, nor is it clear what exactly our choices influence. Given that you've been quoted as saying "food is political", what are some ways that we can make better choices when food shopping, and how do those choices help make for a more TreeHugger-friendly world?

AL: We make a huge difference with the dollars we spend on food. After all, corporations don't use money from the ether when they spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year to lobby against federal safeguards for public health or fight against state-based policies that would cut out junk food in our schools. It's our money that they use for their multi-billion dollar advertising campaigns that target all of us—including pre-verbal kids—to buy into the high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar junk food that is literally killing us. So, first and most easily we can opt out. We don't have to fund the slow killing of the planet through fossil-fuel and toxic-chemical dependent food production and exploitative working conditions.

When people ask whether organic foods are healthier for us, I counter that organics are certainly healthier for us as individuals, but that organics are also better for us because ours is a diet of interdependence: my choice not to provide a market for toxic pesticides is part of a global shift away from man-made chemicals that we know full well harm us, the water, the air, the soil, and the species that cohabit this small planet.

We can also go beyond just what we do with our dollars; we can to speak up. Theoretically, in a democracy, you elect civil servants who then represent you and your interests at the decision making tables of government, but in an era when corporate-funded lobbyists outnumber members of Congress 56 to 1 and when corporations are spending millions to influence policy outcomes on Capitol Hill, we have to step up to the plate to be sure our voices get heard.

TH: Can you describe the last success (large or small) that triggered the thought "You know, if we could do more of that, we might just pull this off"?

AL: The last time I had that thought, the sun was setting over Red Hook, Brooklyn. I was sitting at a long table, covered in white tablecloths and a feast of freshly grown food, in the middle of more than a dozen beds of produce on a 3-acre farm.

Added Value started the Red Hook Community Farm several years ago when the co-founders were working with youth in the community and hearing the same chorus: There are no jobs in the community, no healthy food, no green space. That's when the cofounders had a vision: to transform an asphalt baseball diamond into a thriving organic farm that would employ young people from the community to grow the food and sell it to area restaurants as well as create their own farmers' market.

In just a few short years, their vision has become a reality: 15 youths work 20 hours a week during the school year (and longer during the summer) and harvest an amazing variety of produce, from mustard greens to arugula to ground cherries. These are kids who before this project were eating produce only when they found it sandwiched between hamburger buns from a fast food joint.

TH: What's one thing you wish you could do every day to make the world a better place?

AL: I wish I could get more people with power over our food and farm policy not to drink the Kool-Aid: This industrial farming system we've built is a sinking ship, leading us toward ever greater chemical addiction, contributing to ever worse climate chaos, and fostering ever greater dependence on just a handful of corporations to make the most profound decisions about what we eat.

TH: What's the single most important thing each person in the country/world can do to make it more TreeHugger-friendly?

AL: Think for yourself. Be yourself. Speak up. Don't be afraid.

[Interview conducted by: Dave Chiu]

Tags: TH Interview

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