What does a food activist do?
To answer the question, look no further than Anna Lappé. She is the founder and director of Real Food Media, a collaborative initiative that catalyzes creative storytelling and media about food, farming, and sustainability. “We work with partners across the country to really elevate the solutions that we find out there that are transforming the food system toward greater sustainability and equity, and then we help people understand what are the real impacts that we have to worry about it, about our current foods just don’t why we need such transformation,” she says.
In this episode, she discusses why the food choices that are good for your body are also good for the planet, why excessive consumer demand for meat is constructed and manipulated by media and marketing, and why cooking a good meal at home is a good idea.
Some of the food activists we are interviewing on this podcast are looking to tech and apps for solutions to hunger and food insecurity. Anna is looking to education and policy changes – but in ways that may surprise you.
Click on the play buttons to hear that part of the podcast.
Lee: It’s the “Future of Food.” I’m Lee Schneider. Anna Lappé runs Real Food Media. She’s also a national bestselling author. Her latest book is “Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do about It.” She’s a recipient of the James Beard Leadership Award. And Anna was named one of TIME’s “Eco” Who’s Who. She’s the founder or co-founder of three national organizations including The Small Planet Institute and The Small Planet Fund, which she launched with her mother, Frances Moore Lappé. Anna, welcome to the podcast.
Anna: Thanks for having me on.
Lee: So may we examine food activism in the digital age? In your view, what’s the best way to be effective?
Anna: Well, I’m not so sure that food activism in the digital age is that much different than food activism at any other time. You know, I think we know how to make transformative change. And one of the best ways to do that is through organizing and through working in one’s own community and scaling that up. So that doesn’t really change that much in the digital age. I would say one of the ways in which activism is influenced by the digital age is unfortunately how this new era has really unleashed a phenomenon of evermore fake news of the proliferation of misinformation, and of the challenges of getting our story out.
So I’ve been talking about these issues for more than 15 years, and I think about the contrast between my first book tour more than 15 years ago and the media I do today. Many of the newspapers that covered that first book tour, or the radio stations that had us on the air, or the other local media institutions that were in place back then are simply gone today. And we’re increasingly relying on a consolidation of information on platforms like Facebook or even Twitter. And I think that raises a lot of concerns about how do you get the real story out there. And that’s something that I think really affects activism of all stripes including a food transformation.
Lee: Absolutely. The challenges these days of getting the story out there aren’t the sound of crickets, it’s not silence, it’s too much noise.
Anna: That’s right. That’s the din of, you know, whatever is much louder than crickets.
Lee: And it’s also…the misinformation issues are pretty huge. And these are not simple issues, you know, when you…there’s a lot of interlocking parts to this. So maybe I can break that down and maybe we can break that down a little bit. If someone wants to help, they’re already thinking, “Okay, there’s a problem here,” should we be supporting small farms, eating local? What are some of the first steps you think someone should take?
Anna: Well, here’s the good part of the story. I mean, you mentioned the complexity and that’s certainly true. And it’s complex because food touches everything. The food system is connected to environmental crisis, to animal welfare crisis, and worker well-being. But the good news piece is that the solutions in many ways are at the individual level, fairly simple. They’re about making choices around what you eat, what you drink. That’s actually the choices that are really good for your body as well. So those are choices like trying to reduce the packaged food you consume, trying to reduce the sodas you drink, trying to seek out in the marketplace, organic-certified, or sustainably raised foods.
Now, as soon as I mention that to folks, of course, we all know it’s not always easy to find those foods. And so that instantly takes us kind of up a level beyond just what we do as individuals to what we can do within our institutions that are purchasing food like schools, and city governments, and hospitals. What can we do on the level of policy to make those very simple choices that are good for your body and good for the planet, make those very simple choices available to more people. And that’s how that connects back to your first question about activism. That’s where organizing and activism comes in.
Lee: Yeah. This is a good place to jump into that more thoroughly because sometimes, when people hear the word policy, they go, “Ugh, policy. I don’t even know where to begin, you know, I’m not a politician, I’m not a, you know, senator. What do I do?” So how could you guide people because yes, policy is very important especially when you’re talking on the institutional level, but I think a lot of my listeners might be just paralyzed at the notion of, “Well, what about policy?”
Anna: Sure, and that is totally understandable. And how I like to reframe this question of policy because I will be honest, often my eyes used to glaze over when I would hear people talk about policy, and going deep into the weeds of policy can be overwhelming to many of us. I think the way we need to think about policy as the choices that are made really with our dollars, right? So we all pay into this public sector and into the comments with our taxes. And a lot of the policies that are set are using our dollars and directing them either toward the things that we think are going to help us or away from those things.
And so I have been really interested over the last few years of looking at where are the ways that everyday people can influence that policy toward a kind of food system that more reflects our values, those values of health, the values of worker well-being, of animal welfare, local economies, environmental sustainability, you know, these five core values that I think a lot of us really share. And what I’ve been really excited about is one policy in particular, it’s called the Good Food Purchasing Program. And it’s a policy that influences how city governments and school districts purchase their food, how they make those choices.
So without this policy in place, probably most people are aware that city government, school districts when they’re purchasing food, they get bids in and they choose the cheapest. They don’t necessarily put it through a lens of values. And what this Good Food Purchasing Program says is, “Well, wait a second, you know, these are public dollars and we should be thinking about what are the values behind the food that we’re purchasing with these public dollars.” And this program helps really incentivize schools and city governments to change how they think about food purchasing.
So the first of these policies passed in 2012 in Los Angeles School District, which is not a small school district, it’s one of the three biggest. And we just celebrated this last month the policy passing in Chicago, which is the second of the three biggest school districts in the country. So we’re talking about shifting hundreds of millions of dollars of public dollars toward food that’s begun better for our bodies and better for the planet. And we have been really excited to see a lot of other cities exploring this program. It’s been passed in San Francisco, California, and Oakland, and a bunch of other cities are also looking at it.
So to me, and I hope for your listeners, this kind of demystifies a policy solution. You know, it seems…when I hear it, when I see it, its impact on the ground, we’ve already seen incredible impact, it’s this very direct way that your community can benefit from a policy change.
Globally, the production of meat, dairy, and eggs is one of the single largest impacts on air and water pollution.
// Anna Lappé
Lee: Now, things are so driven by tech, and it’s somewhat intoxicating. I think people look for solutions in tech first and maybe that’s a mistake, I’m not sure yet. One of the things that comes to mind here in the whole tech solution is meat like substances, and lab meat, and all of that. It’s a new area, there’s a lot of questions. What are some of your questions, and what have you found out about these things?
Anna: As you said it, is definitely a new era. There’s hundreds of millions of dollars and investor money going into some of these new enterprises. And to me, there’s two things that I think about when I hear and see the stories about these new technologies. The first is that to me, it is a signal, a really positive signal that the alarm bells are ringing loud enough around the environmental, and social, and health impacts of meat production on the planet that there’s intrigue and interest in Silicon Valley for alternatives.
So the fact that more and more people understand that globally the production of meat, dairy, and eggs is one of the single largest impacts on air and water pollution, that meat production is a huge driver of greenhouse gas emissions associated with climate change and so on. The fact that there is kind of a fad around these technologies to me, is a positive sign that people are waking up to these impacts.
But the second thing that I think about when I when I have dug into these new efforts is that a lot of them are really untested solutions. There is very little, if not, no regulation at the moment on these new products. Many of them have not done any public facing transparent life cycle assessments of, you know, what’s the real environmental impact of these lab raised meat alternatives. Some of them are using synthetic biology, genetic engineering. So there’s a huge number of questions that to me remain unanswered.
And to me, this feels like one of these solutions that is really being driven by investors seeking where they can put their dollars to get profit and not from what would be the best, quickest, and easiest thing for us to do to really see systems change around food and meat production, which is that we, especially in the United States, could simply choose to be eating a lot less meat, eggs, and dairy.
At the moment in the U.S. where per capita, one of the single largest consumers of those products in the world, we eat about twice as much meat, dairy, and eggs as the average other eater in another country, and we’re consuming about 66% more than our bodies can use in protein. And when you over consume protein, your body doesn’t store that as protein, it’s essentially wasted. So I think that this is to me a sign of, you know, investors really looking to make profit off of these technologies because it’s really hard to make profit off behavior change.
Lee: I, by the way, looked up those numbers recently, and I was just astounded. I was amazed that how much more meat Americans consume versus China, versus India, versus the rest of the world really.
Anna: It is really shocking actually to look at the numbers. And I was just looking at them again recently because I was looking at some notes and it seemed so extreme to me. I had to reverify them with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization facts. And yes, it is. And one of the things you hear from the investors behind these alternatives to meat is they are kind of saying that, “Well, we’re just got to throw up our hands, you know. This is what consumers want. They wanna eat all of this meat, you know, we’re just responding to consumer demand.”
And to me, that really seems like missing the mark because, you know, you talk to anybody in the world of marketing and advertising. And they know it’s why they make…you know, their millions every year. They know that consumer demand is constructed. Why do you think Coca-Cola spends $4 billion a year marketing soda? It’s to maintain the consumer demand for their products. And so it sort of rings false to me that it’s simply impossible to get consumers to change their diet desires. We know it’s possible. We’ve seen it throughout the course of history that, you know, marketing advertising totally changes what we eat.
I was just interviewing the author, Maryn McKenna of a new amazing book called Big Chicken. And she talks about the history of chicken in this country. And it was really only after World War II that Americans started really putting chicken on their plate with great frequency. You know, before World War II and before antibiotics, we’re introduced in meat production, chicken grew very slowly, you would maybe have chicken at your Sunday dinner, it would be a special meal, you weren’t eating chicken nuggets, you weren’t eating a processed chicken, you weren’t really eating much chicken. And it was really the industry that marketed these new chicken products that created this new demand.
And today actually chicken consumption out pieces beef consumption, and we have a whole different relationship with chicken. Again, not because of some innate American passion for eating chicken, but because an industry has marketed it to us and created products to make it ubiquitous in our diet.
Lee: Absolutely. One thing we’re talking about here is capitalism.
Lee: Capitalism as an engine of change is driving a lot of these things. And I think that a lot of the new technologies, look, they have investors, they have startups, they have funding rounds, they’re looking to make money somehow. And so industrial agriculture looking to make money, farming in general for most of large farms looking to make money. So when you have that into the equation, and I don’t know how you get that out of the equation, but when you have capitalism in the equation, it’s gonna get pushed in these directions.
This is why we need a strong public voice for everything from protecting young people from marketing junk food to them, why we need regulations around environmental impacts of food production.
// Anna Lappé
Anna: Well, this is why we need the public sector. This is why we need a strong public voice for everything from protecting young people from marketing junk food to them, why we need regulations around environmental impacts of food production. And why there is a role for government is precisely because capitalism can do a lot of things really well, but self-regulation is not one of them. And one of my heroes in this work is Professor Marion Nestle who wrote the book called Food Politics. And, you know, she talks a lot about how…you know, food is different than say selling the new iPhone or, you know, a toaster, or some other consumer product.
There’s a limit to, first of all, how much we, human beings, should consume. There is a set of foods that are really healthy for us and then a set of foods that are highly profitable that aren’t healthy for us. And so we should treat food differently in the marketplace. But instead what we have in the marketplace for food is a lot of publicly traded companies like other publicly traded companies and other industries that are really driven by quarterly returns to their shareholders. And so they have this need to continually grow their markets.
So as we’ve seen demand for packaged food and soda decline in the United States, I think…thanks largely to social movements here that have raised concern about their environmental and public health impacts. While we’ve seen those numbers decline here, we’ve seen them increase in other parts of the world as those companies have looked for other markets.
So in the past five years or so in Latin America for instance, the demand for sugary drinks and soda has gone up 25%. We’ve seen incredible growth of packaged foods demands in places like Latin America and Africa as we’ve seen that demand slow down here in the U.S. So to me, I think you’re absolutely right around the role of the of the demand for profit in the sector. And I think that to me is why we need elected officials to stand up for the public good and why we need strong regulations.
Lee: Agree, yeah. So interesting to… And really we’re thinking about that food should be considered separately, that it’s just not another commodity. Of course, it is just another commodity, but for us humans, it’s more meaningful than a mere commodity.
Anna: And that’s why, you know, internationally, there really is a global conversation about the human right to food that, again, why is food different and unique.
Lee: Since we’re going wide angle, let’s go to the climate crisis and how it affects agriculture. For so many people I think climate change is a rather abstract concept, they know it’s bad, but it’s hard to get your arms around it. How do you explain how the climate crisis is, as you put it in your book, at the end of your fork?
Anna: Well, when I started doing this research way back in 2009, you know, I felt like making the argument for this connection to climate change and how it would impact our food supply was actually frankly quite abstract. I also in that book, “Diet for a Hot Planet,” try to emphasize how much the food system itself is a driver of the climate crisis.
But I feel like today, with all of the extreme weather events that we’re seeing, whether you’re talking about all 13,000 farmers in Puerto Rico being essentially 100% wiped out by the hurricane, whether you look at the vintners in Northern California where I’m talking to you from have been impacted by these incredible wildfires, the worst in the state’s history.
You know, these extreme weather events that, of course, one cannot say are caused by climate change, but are undoubtedly made more extreme and made worse by warmer temperatures, by warmer ocean waters, by greater precipitation in the atmosphere because of warmer temperatures, you know, we know that these weather events have been made more extreme from climate change. And we can see with our own eyes, this is not some, you know, future we have to imagine. We can see how farmers today in these places have been so impacted.
Lee: You wrote Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen with Bryant Terry, who’s a Food Justice Advocate. Is that book, and what he does another way to inspire activism? Is it a way to help people eat, as you say, outside of the food system? And is that another way to go about this?
Anna: Absolutely. So Bryant Terry is an incredibly creative wonderful chef. And after we wrote “Grub,” he’s gone on to write really wonderful cookbooks. And I really put him in the same vein as the Alice Waters of the world that they’re really about helping exposed people to the deliciousness of good healthy food and to the creativity that it unleashes, and really getting people hooked on this food through pleasure, through taste, and through culture. And that is definitely another way in. And that’s why when he and I wrote that book together that, you know, we always thought as this, you know, great…we were a great team.
You know, I came in with the first half of the book that really helps people tap into these issues through their head. And then he included these incredible really fun recipes that got people to tap into these issues with their taste buds, and encourage people to cook with their friends. And we have soundtracks for every meal to connect food to the culture of music. So I think definitely bringing in the joyfulness of this work is also really essential.
Lee: If we’re gonna leave our listeners today with one big idea from this episode, I think it might be something around that. This idea of food culture, and especially bringing food culture into the life of your kid or any kid, whether it’s through a community garden or whether just exposure to healthy food, that’s something that…you can’t unlearn that. It’s a very powerful thing that lasts pretty much your whole life.
Anna: And, you know, I think especially you open with this question about this digital era, this digital age, and I think especially at a moment where things are coming at us, information’s coming at us with fast and furiously, and so many of us are on our devices, you know, I also think food and mealtime becomes a way for us to actually be present together. One of my heroes in this work is a doctor who works out of UCSF named Dr. Robert Lustig, and he just wrote a new book called “The Hacking of the American Mind.”
And in it, he talks about the addictive properties of sugar and the addictive properties of social media and these new technologies. And he emphasizes how important it is to have at least one meal together as a family every single day. And, you know, turn off your devices, put down your screens, and really have that time together. And, you know, I do think it is a huge part of bringing back that culture of food and that culture of cooking.
It is so exciting to see that in every single city I have been to, in small towns, and in big cities, I have seen incredible examples of local innovation of communities thinking about creative ways to connect with local farmers and ranchers, or creative policies to put in place to make sure more people have access to good food, or really creative education programs, or urban farms, or school gardens.
// Anna Lappé
Lee: Is there anything that you’re excited about that should be part of this conversation?
Anna: Well, I guess what really excites me is the kind of energy that I see around the country. So I spend a good part of every year doing public events in places all across the United States. And it is so exciting to see that in every single city I have been to, in small towns, and in big cities, I have seen incredible examples of local innovation of communities thinking about creative ways to connect with local farmers and ranchers, or creative policies to put in place to make sure more people have access to good food, or really creative education programs, or urban farms, or school gardens.
And that energy I’ve seen is what gives me hope and is really inspiring because I’ve seen what’s happening on the ground. And to me, you know, that’s where I get my excitement, you know, not from the latest app to be released with all their bells and whistles.
Lee: Yes, absolutely. Anna, thanks so much for joining me today on the podcast.
Anna: Well, thanks so much for having me on. I enjoyed it.
Lee: This has been the “Future of Food.” Go to futurefood.fm and you’ll find transcripts of all shows, articles that build on what we talked about in the shows. And you can subscribe to the mailing list, and never miss a podcast. That’s futurefood.fm. I’m Lee Schneider.