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Moving From Powerlessness to Empowerment

Author of "Diet for a Small Planet" keynotes Stanford's Food Summit

Frances Moore Lappe brought her enthusiasm as a keynote speaker to Stanford’s second annual Food Summit Tuesday evening. Forty years ago with the publication of her best-seller, Diet for a Small Planet, she brought up the idea of living well and preserving the planet by not eating meat. In her talk, “Cultivating the EcoMind to Transform Our Food System” she reflected on lessons learned since then.

Lappe described a viscous cycle of powerlessness in which people perceive a lack of food and other goods. They think people are inherently selfish and incapable of coming together for the common good. This leads to distrust of government, reliance on the market in which wealth concentrates and ultimately dominates the government, resulting in inequities of power and a climate of fear among the impoverished.

By contrast, she showed a virtuous cycle of empowerment based on a premise of possibility and the availability of more than enough goods. She believes that humans have the need and capacity for fairness, cooperation and effectiveness. This makes us capable of deliberative problem-solving, and democracy becomes an evolving values-driven way of life with rules that keep wealth dispersed. Citizens then enjoy problem-solving power, connection and hope.

Lappe said we’re producing 20-30 percent more food per person today than in 1970, but only half of the grain produced is used to feed people. The other half is for livestock and fuel. Furthermore, “40% of what our children eat are empty calories,” she said.

One success story cited by Lappe included that of Niger, which has encouraged agricultural growth and planting of trees over the past twenty years to prevent the continued encroachment of desert. Another is Brazil that has a right to food in its constitution and requires that 30% of all food served in schools must come from local farms.

She eulogized Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Maathai who died six weeks ago as her role model. Maathai started the Green Belt Movement in Kenya by planting seven trees on Earth Day in 1977. Ultimately 45 million trees were planted throughout Kenya and inspired the Billion Tree Campaign of the UN Environment Program (UNEP).

In closing, Lappe urged people to “find people more courageous than you and hang out with them.”

A panel discussion led by Stanford professor Debra Dunn followed Lappe’s talk. Dru Rivers, one of the founders of Full Belly Farm, said her farm was started 28 years in response to Diet for a Small Planet and a desire to bring food as directly to the customer as possible. She said there were only six farmers’ markets in her vicinity at that time; now there are 300. “As a farmer I like to talk to customers and find out what they want,” she said.

Cook and restaurateur Jesse Cool extolled the virtues of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and said, “I wish big high-tech companies would offer a CSA to their employees and let them have fresh outrageous food”.

Stanford professor Christopher Gardner described how the medical community evolved in its attitude to food. Initially it was concern about deficiencies. Then in 1996 the American Heart Association published punitive guidelines about what to avoid. Most recently, in 2006, they have put forth more positive lifestyle recommendations.

He’s concerned about overweight children who are developing Type-2 diabetes and resorting to bariatric surgery.

A member of the audience brought up a Palo Alto parents initiative called Tasting Week (October 17-26) that will introduce children to the taste and flavor of healthy food its importance in our lives.

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