by Hilary Oliver
Food prices skyrocket. Millions suffer from hunger. Food companies’ profits soar. And still, this woman has hope. Instead of feeling powerless, depressed or overwhelmed, Frances Moore Lappé sees possibility and she’s ready to go for it. And she wants you to join her.
Since her bestselling, evergreen book Diet for a Small Planet (Ballantine Books, 1971) first questioned the sources of world hunger nearly four decades ago, Lappé hasn’t stopped looking for answers—and finding them. She founded the Small Planet Institute in 2001 with her daughter Anna Lappé to explore and define international conceptions of democracy and social change. She has traveled around the world, searching out stories of hope and courage where communities have come together to influence policy and help each other in times of need. Her countless books, articles and blogs are full of promise—of new ways to look at agriculture, food and democracy itself.
In her latest offering, Getting a Grip: Clarity, Creativity and Courage in a World Gone Mad (Small Planet Media, 2007), Lappé gives a fresh perspective on the notion of power, and presents a new mindset to readers who want to change the world but get discouraged with power imbalances or feel trapped by right-versus-left rhetoric.
Scarcity vs. abundance
"The dominant conception of reality is grounded in a premise of scarcity," Lappé writes. "There just isn’t enough of anything—from love to jobs to parking spots." And it’s exactly that sense of deficiency that Lappé wants to dispel. Since the release of Diet for a Small Planet, her gospel has been that there is plenty of everything on Earth, including food. It’s just poorly distributed.
"We’re creating scarcity with rising food prices," she says. "It’s predictable and preventable." But instead of picking out a politician or regime to pin blame on, Lappé has a completely positive outlook—one she would like to be contagious.
"A study of 286 farming projects across 57 countries looked at almost 13 million farmers who were moving toward sustainable, agroecological practices on almost 100 million acres. After four years, it found an average 79 percent increase in yields. And we can feel confident that those higher yields are actually filling the stomachs of the communities that produced them," she writes on news blog The Huffington Post.
A new set of glasses
Lappé believes one key to surviving the spiral into a feeling of powerlessness is to change perspective. In Getting a Grip, she lays out an alternative spiral of empowerment that starts with acknowledging that humans are capable problem-solvers with deep needs for fairness and the ability to cooperate. She outlines a manifesto for democracy in which humans feel empowered and the rights of corporations can’t trump those of the individual.
Once people quit pointing fingers and begin working for solutions, Lappé offers fresh ideas about how to handle fear and a new vocabulary for democracy—one that helps change-makers communicate more accurately and powerfully. One important change she encourages in the battle for hope is the shift from focusing on issues to looking for entry points.
"Issues overwhelm," she says. "They hit us as distinct problems—piles and piles of them." Entry points, instead, are deliberate actions that "strengthen the flow of causation, putting in motion the spiral of empowerment."
"For example, take the food-pantry approach that has grown so enormously, but is not something in and of itself that can alter the system, unless one is coupling it with active advocacy, a point that’s interrupting the spiral of powerlessness," she says.
While Lappé is all about shifting individuals’ mindsets regarding power and responsibility, she also calls for changing the rules. "The mindset might be, ‘Of course I can pay employees a living wage,’" but that’s not enough, she says. "I know people who have started companies with venture capital, but then had to sell out to people who don’t share their values in order to survive. That’s the way our economy is structured. But what we need is both—to go in with all your values and also change the rules."
Lappé is positive about values-driven companies in the natural and organics industry, but warns, "We can’t trust the goodness of even the best companies—if they hold too much power, it’s a problem. … It’s clearly not enough to make a good product anymore. People are facing hunger at the current prices."
Lappé has found shining examples of the food industry working within communities for fairness, health of residents and health of the environment. She points to community-supported agriculture programs, Seattle’s local food initiative and the efforts of The Onion River Co-op, in Burlington, Vt., to make healthy food accessible to all.
So how can an idealist stay chin-up in the push for fairness, environmental respect and healthy values? "I think it’s the company we keep," Lappé says. "We’re co-creating ourselves." That’s why she seeks out stories of possibility and fills her writing with examples. "These stories are not in the corporate media," she says. "Make sure your news diet is as good as your food diet.
"Joyful living, I’m convinced, happens when we hit that spot where a potent entry point that touches root causes fires in our own deep passions," she writes in Getting a Grip. "I know that when I first discovered that spot—my mid-20s’ ‘aha’ that our daily eating habits make huge ecological and fairness ripples—it set off a personal revolution, and I’ve been forever grateful."
Frances Moore Lappé will give the keynote address at Natural Products Expo East at 9 a.m. Friday, Oct. 17, in the Grand Ballroom of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 10/p. 30,32