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Radcliffe Day 2019 Panel Speech

2019 Radcliffe Medalist Dolores Huerta. Photo by Tony Rinaldo

Photo from Radcliffe Institute. 2019 Radcliffe Medalist Dolores Huerta. Photo by Tony Rinaldo

Below is the speech Frances Moore Lappé gave on May 31, 2019 when participating in a discussion panel at Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University during Radcliffe Day 2019 which honored Dolores Huerta by awarding her their highest honor, the Radcliffe Medal, which they give annually to an individual who embodies their commitment to excellence, inclusion, and social impact.


Soon after Diet for a Small Planet, I summed up my message this way: Hunger isn’t caused by a scarcity of food but a scarcity of democracy.

hmm… I could hear my audiences thinking: Nice sound bite, lady; But what is this democracy that can end hunger?

Over decades of searching for answers, I’ve been grateful for our founders’ insight that democracy requires citizens to have an independent voice, and therefore an economic stake, so we’re not dependent and vulnerable to tyranny.

Alexander Hamilton warned “Power over a man’s subsistence [food] amounts to power over his will,” And John Adams? “Monopolized” property is a “curse to mankind.” “Equal liberty” requires every “member of society” to own land.

And not that long ago--from the 40s to the early 70s--we were moving toward “equal liberty” where everyone has a stake--as real family income doubled for every class, and the poor gained most.

Then, tragically it changed as wealth began gushing to the top. Now 3 people at the top control more wealth than the bottom half, as most of us live paycheck to paycheck.

And in food and farming?

  • One in 8 Americans is “food insecure.” And even those with enough are harmed by a diet implicated in most noncommunicable diseases.

  • The world’s largest seed and pesticide company now Bayer/Monsanto can for 2 decades suppress information about the health risks of its products.

  • Farmland moves into ever fewer hands. Five white men, for example, control more farmland than 33,000 African-American landowners.

  • And, even farmers with title to land lack independence. Three corporate chicken giants, for example, control 90 percent of the market. They dictate the terms.

  • And climate change? U.S. agriculture is a significant contributor. Just since 1990 U.S. agriculture’s carbon emissions have increased 16 percent.

At the same time, every day we know more about climate-friendly, regenerative farming methods for healthy eating.

So why aren’t they taking off? Because our democracy is broken.

So here are my takeaways: All of us passionate about food justice and sustainability can enlarge our identity still further…Years ago, finishing World Hunger 10 Myths and struggling to dig to the root democracy crisis --a friend told me: “Frankie you know you can love 2 children at once.”

Photo from Radcliffe Institute. Sara Bleich, Daniel A. Sumner, Frances Moore Lappé, Jennifer Gordon, and Alice Waters. Photo by Tony Rinaldo.

Yes! Food AND democracy…I don’t have to choose! (Of course it helps that real-life daughter Anna Lappé is leading Real Food Media.)

Only with accountable democracy, will we have a shot at sane policies.

And great news?

A citizen-led Democracy Movement is emerging, so whatever our primary passion, we can join those going to the root of the democracy crisis: fighting against voter suppression, gerrymandering and money’s grip on politics. In last fall’s midterms this movement passed 18 democracy reform measures across the country. Exciting!

AND in the coming presidential election there are candidates backing these democracy reforms AND economic/food reforms. Warren calls for trust busting in agriculture and end to “abusive contract farming.” And Sanders’ plans would target subsidies to farmers who most need them and hold Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) accountable for pollution.

Yes, we CAN love 2 children at once--knowing that in advancing the Democracy Movement we are advancing the food-justice and sustainability movement. To help all Americans join in, we at Small Planet are partnering with the Democracy Initiative, a collaborative of 70+ groups from Common Cause to NAAP to Food & Water Watch--to soon launch an online .

We can make connections we’ve never made before… because in this do-or-die moment for life on Earth, we must be more effective than we’ve ever been before.

A Final note: We don’t have to be optimists. That might be too hard. But we can become possibilists. I mean simply that in our connected world of continuous change, it is not possible to know what’s possible.

Who in 1955--when you, Dolores Huerta began organizing--could have predicted you would go on to co-found the United Farm Workers (UFW), endure almost multiple arrests, police brutality, wake America up to the plight of farmworkers & improve the lives of millions?

You, Dolores Huerta, enable me to be a hardcore possibilist. I am forever grateful.

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