Anna Lappé is a bestselling author and food educator, focusing on food systems and sustainability. She has started numerous highly acclaimed food sustainability projects, and her latest book was named one of the best environmental books of the year. As one of TIME magazine’s “Eco” Who’s-Who and a mother of two, Anna is a total #ladyboss.
Tell us about how you got your start as a food author and educator?
Becoming a food author and educator was kind of like going into the family business: My mother, Frances Moore Lappé, wrote her 3.5-million copy bestselling book, Diet for a Small Planet, more than 40 years ago when she was 26 and has been a leading voice in addressing the root causes of hunger ever since. I never thought this would be my career, though. In fact, I had graduated from Brown and was getting a masters at Columbia on a path to work in public education and economic development, when I leapt at the chance to help my mom write a sequel to Diet. The process ultimately led to my first book, Hope’s Edge, and a journey around the world with my mother that sparked a lifelong passion for promoting food justice, sustainable food systems and a world where everyone everywhere has access to life-supporting foods.
How do you define good food?
Good food is healthy; it supports local economies; it’s raised in ways that promote environmental sustainability, biodiversity and animal welfare alongside worker well being. Not so coincidentally these are the five values at the heart of the Good Food Purchasing Policy, which I am working to help expand from the city of Los Angeles… to the rest of the country!
We just launched our second #NoFoodWaste campaign. What are some #NoFoodWaste practices that you incorporate into your daily life?
On a weekly basis, I try to make “dinners from the back of the fridge,” incorporating leftovers or wilting produce into some delicious dish. Luckily, there are countless ways to do so: revive old veggies in a pot of risotto; make a fresh stock with old onions; cook a soup with yesterday’s broccoli. The list goes on. In addition, we try as much as possible to cook from whole foods: packaging is one of the biggest forms of “food” waste we can kick out of our home.
Your book Diet For A Hot Planet addresses the climate crisis in relation to our food system. What’s one aspect of our diet that really needs to change?
By “our” if you mean the average American, the one aspect of our diet that could stand to change—and it would be a boon to both our waistline and the environment—is the amount of meat and dairy we consume. Americans consume three times more meat and dairy than the global average, with over half of that coming from red meat. (Check out this white paper from the Culinary Institute of America and their new project called The Protein Flip.) From the environmental impact of industrial meat production to the inhumane treatment of the workers in the industry, there are countless reasons to reduce our consumption. Thankfully, there is a growing market of sustainably produced meat and dairy, so consumers can choose, should they want to, less but better meat.
Who is your food inspiration?
My kids. It’s cliché, I know, but my two daughters are my inspiration: I see how happy and healthy they are eating nutritious and sustainably grown food and so I fight hard every day to ensure they can have access to food that nourishes them and so that our food system brings more of this kind of food to more kids.
Tell us about the Small Planet Fund.
My mother and I started the Fund in 2002 on the heels of our research for Hope’s Edge. We were so inspired by the groups we met on the ground; we wanted to give back—and more than just a book. We ran the Fund as a project of love for years, hosting an annual party at a friend’s loft in SoHo. For the past six years, we’ve received an annual grant from an anonymous donor to support the most exciting change agents we can find. All told, we’ve given away more than $1 million since our very humble beginnings.
What’s the most challenging moment you’ve had?
There are challenges, sure, to the work I do. My colleagues and I are going up against some of the most ruthless and deep-pocketed corporations out there. (Don’t believe me, check out examples of these companies infiltrating grassroots groups, and pounding farmers and non-profits with lawsuits and attacks—and those are just two of many). But I don’t pretend my job is “difficult” in the truest sense of that word: Difficult are the jobs of the Tyson poultry processors who risk injury and death every day on ever-faster processing lines. Difficult are the jobs of farmworkers who toil in the hot sun, who risk sexual assault and harassment to do their work and are rarely fairly compensated. Those jobs, and the more than 20 million other in the U.S. food industry, are truly difficult.
Food issues have barely made it into the race for President. If you could ask the future President to consider a food issue that needs to be addressed, what would it be?
Yes, the candidates—all of them—have been mostly mute when it comes to food. Though I would argue many of the topics that have gotten some attention—energy, climate change, fracking—are also food issues. There are so many issues that need to be addressed, but if I could have them consider one, it would be to promote across the country—in ever municipality and school district—what’s known as the Good Food Purchasing Policy. The Policy, developed by the LA Food Policy Council, and passed there in 2012, allows vendors for government contracts to be evaluated along five core values: nutrition, local economies, animal welfare, the environment and worker well being. This policy has unleashed millions of dollars for the kind of food we all should be eating and farmers should be producing. Embraced nationwide it would spark the food system changes so desperately needed; from getting antibiotics out of meat production, to boosting the wages of food sector workers and more.
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You launched your annual Real Food Films contest three years ago. What have you learned from the submissions you have received?
Wow. So much. When we launched the Real Food Films competition three years ago for short videos under four minutes, I was honestly afraid we might just get a handful of entries from hipsters in Brooklyn making odes to their artisanal kombucha. What we’ve received has blown us away: more than 400 films from dozens of countries. 260 Pop-Up Film Fests have been hosted from Denmark to New Zealand and across the United States. We’ve discovered countless stories of farmers and communities bringing to life a food system that’s better for our bodies, producers and the planet. Now, we’ve got a library of more than 70 films online that anyone anywhere can watch and get inspired by—and not one of them is about bespoke kombucha.
What’s one of your first (and most memorable) interactions with food?
Hmmm… that one really makes me think. I’m guessing it would to be the boiled cabbage and rugelah my great-grandmother Hench would make for my brother and me. When we would visit her small apartment in New Jersey, the smell of the cabbage would waft down the hall before we even rung the doorbell and would envelop us along with her huge bear hugs. The smells and the tastes connected me to my family and to our great-grandparents who had made their way from the eastern borders of Poland across the continents and the ocean to Ellis Island.
You have a project called Food MythBusters—what are your favorite three myths that you’ve busted?
My favorite big myths pushed by farm chemical giants like Syngenta, agribusiness companies like Cargill and junk food peddlers like Pepsi include: “We need industrial agriculture to feed the world.” “Organic food is no better for you than chemically grown food.” “Junk food marketing to kids is harmless free speech.” We launched Food MythBusters to fight back against these myths.
If you weren’t doing what you’re doing, what would you be doing?
I would be a singer in a rock band. I can’t carry a tune or remember lyrics to songs, so it would not be very successful.
What was your biggest #foodfail?
When I moved to California after 17 years in New York City, I finally had a kitchen and dining room big enough to host family holidays—and we’ve hosted Christmas dinner ever since. There have been a few mishaps. One such #foodfail: I was making my favorite apple pie and just about to throw the apples tossed with cinnamon, lemon zest and sugar onto the awaiting pastry dough, when I sneakily grabbed a slice to enjoy. Luckily, it turns out: the bulk sugar I had pulled from my pantry was actually bulk salt and the entire bowl of apples was ruined. A few phone calls later and a sister saved the day: dessert was on its way and the apple pie was never missed.
What’s always in your fridge? How do you use it?
Sriracha. On everything.
What’s your favorite meal-on-the-go?
Nuts. No recipe required.
Favorite new recipe?
My favorite new recipe is the soba noodle soup from Mark Bittman’s new (wonderful) cookbook, The Kitchen Matrix. When my kids took the first sip, they both looked up wide-eyed and happy. The little one said: “Mom… I love you.”