If you enjoy local, sustainable, & organic whole foods—thank Joan Gussow (This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader), matriarch of the movement.
Her decades of writing have influenced food writers Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, and many others. At a time when most other so-called nutritionists concerned themselves only with what happened to food once it entered your body, Gussow was more interested in where the food came from and how it got to your plate. Now a spry octogenarian, she still farms and travels the country giving lectures—though she’s stopped calling herself a “nutritionist.”
From Edible Manhattan’s profile of Joan Gussow:
Last spring, when hundreds of alums and faculty of the nutrition program of Columbia University Teachers College gathered to commemorate the department’s 100th anniversary, one speaker riveted the audience. Shoulders back, patrician chin jutting forward, Joan Gussow strode toward the stage. A recent octogenarian, she remains in remarkable shape.
“Good morning. I don’t come with slides,” the seasoned speaker quipped to immediate laughter. “But I have to say that if anyone told me 35 years ago that I would be speaking after a Manhattan borough president had talked about New York City’s foodshed, I would have thought they were smoking dope.” More laughter and applause. “So this is a thrilling moment for me.”
Thrilling because for the past 40 years-half her life-Gussow, a longtime occupant of the Mary Swartz Rose chair of the college’s Nutrition Program, the oldest in the nation, has been waging a tireless war against the industrialization of the American food system. Long before mad cow, avian flu, E. coli or the “diabesity” epidemic made headlines, Gussow foretold the impacts of the post-modern diet on public health, ecology and culture, “depressing generations of graduate students,” as she now puts it, with the news that “life as they knew it was not sustainable, and destined to come to an end unless we urgently changed our ways.” And along the way she didn’t just lay the foundation for modern-day locavores. She also challenged nutritionists everywhere to look up from their microscopes to see the cafeteria, the factory farm and beyond.
“In many places we have begun serious dialogues about the corporate malnourishment of our children,” she told the crowd last spring. “We have painfully begun to fix school lunch, and we have a family in the White House that is publicly committed to local, organic food and has begun digging up part of our national lawn for a vegetable garden. It is hard to not yield to a kind of heart-lifting optimism.”
But Gussow’s hopefulness was really just a polite intro, and in typical firebrand form she soon dropped a bomb: To a room of nutritionists, many of whom have long seen her as their matriarch, she announced that she had stopped introducing herself as one. Months earlier, while preparing this much-anticipated talk, she had shared with me a solemn epiphany: “I have concluded that it is highly likely that the science of nutrition is no longer improving things. The public is being influenced. But we’re not part of it. What people feel is not nutrients. It’s eggplants and peaches.”
These days, denouncing the perils of our food supply seems common-and like common sense-but Gussow’s been doing so for decades, and although most food activists today are echoing her ideas, a substantial number of her students and nearly all her peers once considered her certifiably insane for drawing a direct connection between the way we farm and the way we eat.