On Personal Efforts Towards Sustainability: Inspired by the 40th Anniversary of the Publication of Diet For a Small Planet

I was sitting in the same auditorium in Cooper Union where presidents had spoken and the NAACP had been founded, listening to Anna Lappe introduce her mother Francis Moore Lappe and activist Vandana Shiva on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the publication of Frankie Lappe’s Diet For A Small Planet. To great applause Anna asked the audience who had bought vegetables from a farmer’s market in the last month. Many hands were raised. Who was part of a CSA? Again, most hands in the audience went up. She asked who knew what a kohlrabi was – once again, most in the audience raised their hands. She then asked, jokingly, who knew how to cook kohlrabi. I briefly thought back to the first time I saw a kohlrabi – in my adulthood, just a few years prior during one of the first pick-ups after joining my CSA. It looked alien, with few qualities to indicate what kind of vegetable it might be: spherical, but not grown underground or on a vine; purple skin, too tough at the size I received to be edible. I took it home, peeled it and roasted it: my solution to all of the more familiar vegetables with which I was becoming reacquainted that first CSA season. I wonder how many of my fellow audience members had a similar experience.

Then Anna asked who had grown up, like she and her brother had, with Diet For A Small Planet as their parent’s guidebook. While many people around me raised their hands, again laughing, knowingly, I kept mine down for the first time amidst the half-dozen questions meant to build community among the large crowd. The truth is, despite my CSA membership and compost bucket and urban gardening cred, I am relatively new to the politics of growing my own food. Sure, I keep up with the latest news in GMO regulations and can spout statistics about both urban and rural food deserts, but I came to local eating via taste and cost and nostalgia. Maybe a decade ago now, I had a locally-grown vine-ripe tomato for perhaps the first time in my adulthood, realized its vast superiority and knew I needed access to what had instantly become my favorite food. I also found that cooking dishes from my childhood – food my Italian Nani had cooked until her early death that I wanted to explore as a means to get to know her – required fresh herbs. And fresh herbs were expensive. So I started to grow my own. And then, once I became addicted to the fresh flavors of seasonal produce, I saw an advertisement for a local CSA. I did the math: it would be cheaper and easier to pay my farmer up front for a (hopefully) steady weekly pick-up of organic local, seasonal fruits and vegetables. So I joined, and slowly learned more about the politics surrounding my decision. But, while I knew a great deal about the national and global issues surrounding the fight for environmentally and physically healthy sustainable food sources, I had still thought about my choices through a very personal lens. I was choosing a way of life, and I believed that others should as well. Sure, sometimes it was hard, I preached, but it was worth it in the end.

Throughout the evening’s addresses by Francis Moore Lappe and Vandana Shiva, I was welcomed to an important, more global view. I know the evils of Monsanto and genetically manipulated seeds, but I began to see them through a new lens. Large agri-business has long said that they are working to create better seeds to help feed the world’s growing population; the existing structure, they argue, can’t work on its own. But Frankie and Vandana assert that the world has always been able to feed itself; that the altered seeds and increased cost and monoculture is harming the soil, stressing the farmers and creating super-weeds and –pests that cause more damage than what they were trying to breed out. Further, Monsanto’s manipulation of the system to disallow the saving of seeds (read work by Vandana Shiva and Francis Moore Lappe, watch Food, Inc. or otherwise search a myriad of sources to learn more) has made farming on difficult or prohibitive for many people across the world. “Seeds should be free,” Vandana Shiva said more than once. “They are the first link in the food chain, and if seeds are not free then people cannot be free.”

And it was in that moment when everything the two women were saying began to make sense. I wasn’t hearing anything new, per se, but I was understanding it differently. People are flocking to urban farming (some assert that it is a trend that will fade as quickly as it took root, pardon the pun, however I – and many others – believe it is a lasting social change) because that is the most basic way that they can protest the increasing corporatization of daily life. By linking themselves to the very first action needed to sustain life, they are taking control of their own. My act of farming was more than a search for flavor, but a search for control over my options. I didn’t like what my local grocery store was offering, or at what prices, so I decided to change it at a personal level. And when dozens and hundreds and thousands of people decide to do the same thing, small stores that support sustainable practices are built and organic farms are tilled and heritage plants are grown. I was – am – a part of a revolution.

But then, as soon as I felt a vital part of something bigger, I just as quickly worried that I wasn’t doing enough. All three women who shared the stage were working on systemic change – global change. It seemed almost quaint that I touted canning and freezing and composting in my tiny urban kitchen. Maybe I was just one more of the million thirty-something hipsters who decided that it would be cool to spend hours making fancy pickles for holiday gifts. I was musing this while I walked the ten blocks to meet a friend for dinner afterwards, quickly forgetting my dilemma when he bought us a bottle of French wine to go with the house-made bread and butter. Later I thought: wasn’t this meal symbolic of my lukewarm commitment to the cause that I was so fired up about just hours earlier?

Since the event, I have come to see that the reality is somewhere in the middle. I love that Frankie and Anna Lappe and Vandana Shiva inspired me to become more involved in the larger fight for sustainable food. As activists, that is their job and they have done it well. I am in awe of their incredible work around the world and will continued to look to their writing for guidance and inspiration. And when I have kids they will likely be raised with the same consciousness that so many of the folks in the audience of their talk were.

But I also have come to realize that any effort is valuable – and that my personal efforts are still commendable. I can always do better; we all can. But in the end I grow or buy locally more than 90% of the produce, meat and dairy that I consume. Further, I add green space to the world, and inspire people to do the same. I’ve had friends say that they thought composting or canning was hard and inaccessible to them until I explained it in person or in writing, a compliment that makes me very proud. And I have worked long hours on a book, coming within a year, with which I hope to inspire even more people to do the same. I am proud of my efforts and also energized to do more. But like the single person planting a single seed, all systematic changes must start with the personal. Not everyone can be on the front lines of policy-making and activism; some of us must work in the garden and make a difference seedling by seedling. Thus, I will remember that I am changing the world with every planted seed.