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The Long Fight for a Just Food System

Fifty years ago, my mother exposed the damage caused by our energy-intensive, environmentally devastating food production system. The struggle to change it continues.

Anna Lappé and her brother cook with Frances Moore Lappé in their San Francisco home kitchen in the 1980s. “More than the particulars of my mother’s cooking, I remember the details of her political activism,” the author writes. Photo by Nick Allen / Frances Moore Lappé family archives

Originally Published in Earth Island Journal, Winter 2021

Nearly every day since March, I’ve been waking up before the sun rises to get some quiet time before my daughters — third and sixth graders now — stumble out of bed. Another school day filled with Zoom, another weekend in semi-lockdown. In these morning hours, I’ve been thinking a lot about my childhood. I close my eyes and picture our pale blue house on a windy street at the base of San Francisco’s Bernal Heights; the mural of The Beatles on a neighbor’s garage, John Lennon a blur as I whizzed by on roller skates; the glass jars of beans and rice and spices that lined our kitchen shelves.

I’ve been thinking about those early years not just because I’m home so much more with my own kids but because over these past few months I’ve been helping my mother on a project: the 50th anniversary edition of her Diet for a Small Planet, a book she published just before I was born. A book that has shaped my life.

My mother wrote the first edition of Diet for a Small Planet when she was just 26, having recently left a graduate program in social work to “go deeper” — as she has always explained it — to understand the “whys” behind the social problems she saw all around her. Her book went on to be read by millions, shaping our collective consciousness on food and hunger for five decades.

Her beginner’s eye, she would say, was her greatest gift when she started on the book. At the time, the late 1960s, the “experts” (mostly White men) were ringing the alarm bells, claiming we faced imminent global famine. Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb had just dropped. Images of malnourished children in unnamed African countries filled magazines and newspapers. Curious about the why behind these frightening proclamations, my mom dug into the data in the halls of the Giannini agricultural library at the University of California, Berkeley.

What she discovered was, at first, unbelievable: The world was actually producing more than enough food to feed every man, woman, and child on the planet. Indeed, many of the countries hit hard by famine were net exporters of food. The shocking data prompted more inquiry. If there was enough, then the question must change, from Why hunger? to Why hunger in a world of plenty?

That line of thinking would shape the insight that runs through the pages of Diet for a Small Planet: The root cause of hunger isn’t a lack of food production, my mother has long said, the root is a lack of democracy, the lack of power to make a stand for what food is grown, where, and by whom. The result? As she detailed in the book: a food system driven by profit, no matter the cost to people or planet. It’s why the grain-fed beef industry was booming, taking land and resources that could have been used to grow food people eat directly to instead graze livestock and produce feed that together deliver to us, in usable calories, only a tiny fraction of calories relative to the resources used. So along with the political analysis, my mom included 140 plant-centered recipes to show that we could nourish ourselves without having to rely on industrialized meat production.

Fifty years later, her book’s message is more needed than ever, as we see the consequences of an energy-intensive, environmentally devastating food production system on climate, water resources, insect populations, human health — and much more.

Over the years, my mother would feel frustrated at times when, because of all those recipes, the book’s bigger message would sometimes be sidelined. Her proudest media moments were when she could pivot from a question like What did you have for breakfast? to discussing the roots of global hunger. She wanted her readers to tie the very practical questions — What should we put on our plates? — to the broader political ones she was raising. Over the years, as I’ve encountered countless people who have been influenced by my mother’s work, I’ve been happy to report to her that her readers get it.

My mother’s life work was never just about what we wanted our plates to look like, but what we wanted the world to look like.

Shortly after my mom agreed to do an anniversary edition, I was out to lunch with a friend. “Did I ever tell you that your mother’s book changed my life?” she asked. In sixth grade, she told me, her twin sister had gotten a copy of Diet for a Small Planet and devoured it. “Next thing I knew,” my friend said, smiling, “we were standing outside our local grocery store at 6 p.m. handing out leaflets about the United Farm Workers grape boycott! My entire life’s activism sprang from your mom’s work.”

Over the years, I often got asked what it was like growing up with Frances Moore Lappé as a mom. Yes, I do remember the food: no white sugar or white rice. Carob chips instead of chocolate chips. Lots of beans. Froot Loops? Forget about it! But more than the particulars of my mother’s cooking, I remember the details of her political activism. I remember traveling to Guatemala, accompanying her on field investigations into the impact of US foreign policy in Central America; visiting farmworker organizers in rural Ohio where she was researching the injustices embedded in the design of how we produce food; logging long hours preparing fundraiser letters for the nonprofit she co-founded, the Institute for Food and Development Policy. These memories sit alongside, yes, homemade granola and copious rice and beans. For my mother’s life’s work was never just about what we wanted our plates to look like, it was about what we wanted the world to look like.

As I have been helping revise the recipes for her 50th anniversary edition of Diet for a Small Planet — sorry, no more soy grits! — I’ve been separated from my mom by a country and Covid-19. When this is all behind us, it will be the longest we’ve gone without seeing each other. As I prepare another meal from one of the new recipes and sit down with my kids in my own blue house across the bridge from San Francisco, I feel a connection to the ongoing work of busting myths about hunger, exposing the misinformation peddled by those in power, and advocating for the more just and healthy food system that has been my mother’s lifelong project.

THIS IS MY FINAL Digging Deeper column. When Annie Leonard, now leading Greenpeace USA, asked me to take over this space for her in 2015, I was beyond honored. It has been a dream to share my thoughts with all of you over the years under the amazing editorial hand of first Jason Mark and then Maureen Nandini Mitra and Zoe Loftus-Farren. I am excited to pass the torch to give another voice this page to share their ideas.


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