In it for the long haul: On food, democracy, and courageous action

Frances Moore Lappé’s ‘Diet For a Small Planet’ was first published in 1971, but to anyone steeped in the world of food – be it farming, policy, equity, or other such work – it could have been written yesterday. I myself am no food expert, but am fascinated by food systems. Lappé’s book got me thinking: why does it always feel like history is repeating itself with these big, pressing issues?

As long as I have been alive (or more to the point, as long as I’ve been aware of the myriad issues surrounding what we eat) food has always been a bit contentious. This in and of itself is a bit ironic given that we all require food to sustain ourselves: it should be straightforward, no? And yet, there is so much stress around food. Some populations don’t have enough, while some have an excess. On another level, in some places (like North America), we’re given many conflicting messages: we eat too much processed food; we don’t eat enough fat; we eat too much protein; and on and on it goes.

This book started a movement: it fundamentally changed the way people eat, illuminating the fact that perhaps we didn’t need so much animal-based protein in our diets and that in fact, doing so would have a net positive impact on our small planet.

It simplified food, too: eating more plants does not have to be complicated and “is easier than I thought!” (Lappé exclaims). It also reminded us that in order to understand what the human body needs for nourishment, we must cultivate our own ‘body wisdom:’

“Instead of following a recommended allowance blindly, we should become better observers of our own body’s well-being, developing what protein researcher [R.J.] Williams calls ‘body wisdom.’ Part of body wisdom is being aware of how you feel – your energy level, general health, and temperament.”

Similarly, instead of unthinkingly following the corporate policies that govern this world, and thoughtlessly consuming industrial agricultural products, Lappé empowers readers to take courageous action in our own communities. “…we must work towards more democratic decision-making structures, governing all aspects of our food resource use.”

This notion, of the need for everyday citizens to work towards a more equitable food system through democractic action, is where the heart of the matter lies. And, I think we have made great strides in this arena since Diet For a Small Planet was first published 50 years ago. Communities around the world continue to mobilize around food security and resiliency. Think about this last year alone, with so much more emphasis on eating and supporting local food, thanks to a worldwide pandemic throwing a wrench in global supply chains.

When I came to the final chapter of the book (“Lessons For the Long Haul”), I had a second thought: maybe it’s not all history repeating. Perhaps it only feels like history repeating because food issues are ever-present, and complex. Issues of this magnitude and complexity are slow to change (as with all things) and much of this change takes place over long time scales. More and more, I believe we must adopt a long-haul mentality and come to grips with the fact that the work we do today to change a system might not be realized in our lifetimes. I was comforted then, by Lappé’s encouragement for us to take action anyway, in spite of this fact. The world changes when we choose to change it. In order to stand up and be that change, we have to believe we are capable of change. To get there, we must have courage – and good nourishment for the long road ahead.

“And remember: we don’t have to start the train moving. It is moving! Our struggle is to figure out how to board that train, bringing on board all the creative energy we can muster.”

Frances Moore Lappé

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