In Conversation with Joan Gussow
by Paul Crossfield, January 12, 2011
I think its fair to call Joan Dye Gussow the mother of the sustainable food movement. For over thirty years, she has been writing, teaching (she is emeritus chair of the Teachers College nutrition program at Columbia University), and speaking about our unsustainable food system and how to fix it. Now more than ever, her ideas have wings. Michael Pollan, for example, has said “Once in awhile, when I have an original thought, I look around and realize Joan said it first.” In addition, she has been living what she teaches, growing most of her own food year-round in her backyard.
To learn more about Gussow’s work, I suggest reading this excellent article by journalist Brian Halweil. The New York Times also profiled her last spring as she was rebuilding her garden after it was destroyed by a flood. When I asked her about her newly rebuilt garden, she said, “It’s given me ten additional years of life, at least!” I spoke to her recently about how far we’ve come, the future of the food system, and her new book, Growing, Older: A Chronicle of Death, Life, and Vegetables. Your have been talking about food, energy and the environment for decades. Do you think there is real potential now for a big change in the food system? I must say that compared to the reception my ideas got thirty years ago, its quite astonishing the reception they’re getting now. I am excited to see the kinds of things that are going on in Brooklyn, for example. People are butchering meat, raising chickens, and its become the sort of “heartland” of the food movement. But whether or not there’s going to be sea change in the whole system is so hard to judge. I am politically very discouraged, because of what happened in the [last] election and what has happened with our president whom we elected with such hope. He seems completely unable to get really really passionate about anything. Do I have hope? Yes, I have hope because, as Michael Pollan wrote in the Omnivore’s Dilemma, what it means to say that something is unsustainable is that it will stop. And we have an unsustainable food supply. I believe the short-sightedness of both national and international leaders and their inability to do anything useful politically is so stunning that we’re going to come to a crisis period much sooner than anyone expects. But what I really believe is hopeful is that there are so many experiments going on on the ground now all over the country, everything from [Growing Power’s] Will Allen to what’s going on in Hardwick Vermont, and the Slow Money movement putting money into agriculture and the food system. There’s going to be models out there when we need them. What do you think went wrong the first time around with the “Back to the Land” movement? and how can this generation get things right this time around? Seeing young people in agriculture is so promising. However, I also know people who’ve hung in there who are in their 40s or 50s who have no retirement and no health insurance, and don’t know how long they can continue to farm. We’re only set up right now for those people to make a living in a situation where there are enough rich people to buy their food at a decent price. I know there are all kinds of groups working to make good food accessible to poor people, but the reality is that you can’t go into a supermarket for the most part and get anything good for someone in that situation to eat. And there is still a class divide, an economic divide between the foodie movement, if you like, and the reality of the world. In 1980, they had just brought out a report at the USDA that studied organic foods. There was so much hope. There was an alternative energy center in the upper Midwest, and I remember getting a newsletter from them that was dated January 1980, and showed all of the things they were trying, and I wrote at the top, “The End.” Because it was clear that Reagan would just kill it all, and he did. He took the solar panels off the White House roof, he fired the one person at USDA focused on organic agriculture and he sent us back twenty years. And it was very hard at that point to keep the momentum going because there was no money in it. At least now there is money around the fringes. The thing that is different now is that it’s got publicity, it’s caught the eye of the press, which is of course dangerous too. How so? We’re such a faddish country. And of course you’ve noticed there is a real blow back. These attacks on “local” saying how naïve it is, how its better to import your lamb from New Zealand. And then you have the corporations gathering together to do a publicity campaign. The last one I saw was that the meat industry is getting together to push back against this notion that this way that we’re raising animals is not healthy. Do you think this is the last gasp of industry, or do you think they have the ability to mobilize that other 80 percent against this growing movement? [Laughs] Oh they have many more gasps left. I believe that is the reason that you have to keep hope alive, you have to keep moving along the way you believe in and keep telling the truth and trying to get the word out there. Because the reality is that the pressure is on the other side. There is a lot of money at stake, and they’re not giving up their livelihoods. Continue reading this article at Civil Eats. Joan Gussow’s Growing, Older is available now.