Natural Foods Merchandiser

Anna Lappé's urban organic vision

Anna Lappé apologizes for the slight slurping noise coming over the phone. "I'm eating the juiciest, most delicious peach from my local farmers' market," she says.

The fact that there even is a farmers' market near Lappé's Brooklyn, N.Y., home is testament to the impact her family has had on worldwide food culture, from villages in Asia to metropolises in America. From 1971, when Anna's mother, Frances Moore Lappé, first published the best-selling Diet for a Small Planet (Ballantine Books) to this spring, when Anna's latest book, Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen (Tarcher/ Penguin), debuted, the Lappés have been persuasive, passionate voices for sustainably grown food, environmentalism, vegetarianism, organics and ending worldwide hunger.

For the 32-year-old Anna, the commitment to organic, locally grown food began early. Her mother and father, medical ethicist Marc Lappé, included Anna and her brother, Anthony, in their work. "I was licking envelopes for nonprofit fundraising before I could walk. When I was 3, my mother took me with her to Guatemala," Lappé says. "It was symbolic of the way we were raised. Our parents didn't just come home from their jobs and not talk about work; it wasn't this discrete part of their life."

But Lappé didn't blindly follow her parents' beliefs. After graduating with honors from Brown University, she earned a master's degree in economic and political development from Columbia University. She traveled extensively and worked in South Africa, England and France, collecting opinions from a wide range of people.

"My mother gave me the room to explore on my own, and eventually I came to share her politics and values," she says. "A friend told me once that there's plenty in the world to rebel against, and he didn't need to rebel against his [parents'] beliefs. I feel the same way."

When Lappé was in her mid-20s, she and her brother convinced their mother that she needed to write a follow-up to Diet for a Small Planet. "Nearly 30 years ago, they reminded me, my book helped shatter the myth that hunger is caused by a scarcity in nature," Moore Lappé recalls. "It showed that the crisis is not a scarcity of food, but of democracy, as more and more people are denied a voice in shaping their own futures. But decades later, we admitted, the myth of scarcity is thriving."

So in 2000, Anna and Frances set out to visit communities in seven countries on five continents, researching social movements that address the root causes of hunger and poverty.

"It was a total leap of faith," Lappé recalls. "Between March and October we did all that travel, and the book was done by February."

What they found, Lappé says, was hope. "Many of the people we met were up against the most brutal conditions, but so many were just hopeful people. I learned that hope is more verb than noun—hope is actually something we can generate in ourselves, and we do that by taking action."

In 2002, Frances and Anna's book, Hope's Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet (Tarcher/Penguin), was published. Lappé embarked on promotion and public speaking tours around the United States, and along the way, she says, "I kept getting more interested in seeing the emergence of communities trying to reclaim their food, seeing people who were outraged, people who had read Fast Food Nation or seen [the film] Super Size Me. I wanted to write a book about tangible steps these people could take."

Lappé envisioned a book that would educate people about food that is organic, sustainable, local and fairly traded. But she realized that each term can have a different meaning to different people. "Organic can tell you some things, fair trade something else, local something else. I don't feel that one seal, one certification process, can do it all." So she created a new term: grub. "I wanted a word that's not elitist," she says.

As defined by Lappé, grub is:
>> Organic and sustainably raised whole and locally grown foods;
>> Produced with fairness from seed to table;
>> Good for our bodies, our communities and our environment.

"Grub should be universal … and it's delicious," she says.

Lappé teamed up with Bryant Terry, a chef and founding director of b-healthy!, a New York-based nonprofit that promotes healthy eating and lifestyles for kids. Together, they wrote Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen, which was published in April. The first half of the book is devoted to facts and figures about healthy, sustainable eating; the second half shows readers how to set up a "grub" kitchen, complete with recipes and seasonal menus.

"It's hard to make informed food choices, so in my book we talk about, 'Here are some things you should look for,'" Lappé says.

"One of the most important choices is where you buy your food. I encourage people to buy from farmers' markets," she adds, confessing, "I find supermarkets overwhelming."

Grub promotes the idea that the path to food sustainability is via strong, diverse, regional economies. "Low-income communities typically can't find good organic food. We need to get out of the mind-set that choosing organic is elitist," Lappé says. But at the same time, she says, "All organics aren't created equal. I'm concerned about Wal-Mart bringing in organic food from China, where there are concerns about water quality and sustainability."

But what about the theory that Wal-Mart and other large corporations will democratize organic food, bringing it to the masses? "I asked farmers, and they said, 'Well, Anna, has Wal-Mart moving into conventional food democratized food in this country?'" she says.

"Wal-Mart is not going to have to save us; we're going to have to save us."

The Lappé family is working toward this goal through two nonprofits they founded: Small Planet Institute and the Small Planet Fund.

SPI is devoted to research and education about "living democracy," a movement to spread values-driven social change. In the last five years, the SPI team, which consists of Frances, Anna and Anthony Lappé along with psychologist Richard Rowe and project manager Jess Wilson, has published four books, delivered hundreds of speeches, made television and radio appearances, and written numerous articles for magazines and newspapers.

SPF, which was founded in 2002, has raised more than $250,000 for democratic social movements around the world. "When I started it, I had no idea if I could raise any money," Lappé says. But her choice to affiliate SPF with the Rudolf Steiner Foundation, which handles tax and administrative duties for nonprofits while still allowing them to donate more than 90 percent of every dollar raised, encouraged her. "Now, one of the things I hope for with [SPF] is to show other people who don't self-identify as philanthropists that it's not that hard to have a nonprofit organization," Lappé says.

Although she believes in the power of nonprofits, Lappé also thinks the government needs to step in and help Americans "fundamentally shift our relationship with food." She would like to see the federal government encourage sustainable, healthy foods in school lunches and through purchases with food stamps, and also approves of coalitions between farmers, organic groups and the health community to make changes to the federal farm bill.

She also encourages local activism, such as a Pennsylvania township's decision to ban corporations from owning family farms. On her recent book tour, she has taken time to meet with sustainable communities in the cities she visits, "getting people more aware of the role they can play in local events," she says.

Natural foods stores can have an important identity in this crusade, Lappé believes. "They're like the front lines—they could play the most profound role as educators and hosts of public events. I think they need to think outside of the box in this day and age as to what it means to be a natural foods store."

Vicky Uhland is a Lafayette, Colo.-based freelance writer.

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