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Joan Dye Gussow: Why the Local Food Movement Matters

Posted Feb 18 2011 8:52am

Joan Gussow, author of the new book, Growing, Older: A Chronicle of Death, Life, and Vegetables , will be the keynote speaker at the sold-out Ohio Ecological Food & Farm Association Conference this weekend. She was interviewed earlier this week by the Cleveland Plain Dealer in anticipation of her visit. Check out the interview and Joan’s comments on the local food movement, below.

Joan Dye Gussow talks about why the local-food movement matters
by Debbi Snook

Joan Dye Gussow says she has found the secret to getting a 12-hour day of vegetable gardening out of her 82-year-old body. She has breakfast, works for four hours, comes in for lunch and lies down to get her spine straightened out. Then she gets up and does it two more times before the day ends.

Gussow, a nutritionist by trade, applies this dogged behavior to her 35-year campaign to get the public to think more about what happens to food before they eat it.

Since 1970, she has brought lessons of local and organic food to the nutritional ecology course she teaches at Columbia University. She made it the core of her 1996 book, “This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader,” and part of her newest work, “Growing, Older,” (Chelsea Green, $17.95).

Michael Pollan, best-selling author and the reigning guru of local food, has said that a lot of what he preaches, Gussow said first.

She remembers appearing at the Ohio Ecological Farm & Food Association conference 10 years ago. This weekend, she’s back with the group in Granville near Columbus for another keynote speech.

Gussow talked by phone from her home in Piermont, N.Y., where her garden stretches to the Hudson River a river that rose and flooded her out in 2009, an act she attributes to global warming.

You’re not bored with teaching nutritional ecology?

It changes every year. And it’s life-changing for the students. This year I gave them Bill McKibben’s “Eaarth” to read. He says your children will never see glacial ice caps at the poles. It’s so clear and brilliantly written. We live on a different planet that requires us to have to live quietly and locally.

Making food more local is no longer what my graduate students of years ago thought was a nutty idea. Still, we just elected five people to Congress who don’t believe global warming is happening. My real impulse is to stake them on a beach at the present high tide mark and wait until they drown. Because they will.

Part of your new book is about becoming widowed. How is that part of your life going?

I was married for 40 years. But I was stunned to realize I didn’t miss him. I spent, really, a lot of years figuring out why.

I deeply believe we are in serious trouble on our planet, so serious that we could cut off the capacity to support human life. I was in grief about that.

Whenever something broke, I’d want to fix it. He’d say, ‘We can get a new one.’ Finally I’d scream, ‘It’s not the money. Somebody’s out there mining that chrome and in a terrible environment.’ It was a puzzle to me after 40 years that he didn’t understand what drove me.

I wasn’t unhappy. The real secret to happiness, and the reason I wanted to write about it, is to be a person who is happy with themselves and the world around them. Somebody else is not going to make you happy.

What’s different since your last Ohio visit?

A lot more people are aware of the local food movement, at least for reasons of freshness and transportation costs. From when I started out in the ’70s to now, it’s stunning how much has changed. It’s very rewarding.

What will you talk about?

I’ll probably give them a history of the movement, and look at the future and how we have to be very conscious of the traps along the way.

What traps?

We have a very, very, very powerful food industry, from seed to table. It’s the biggest industry in the United States. They argue that nothing is wrong with the way we typically raise and slaughter animals. And they have a lot of money to put that message out there in large type.

We just lost a major battle when the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved genetically modified alfalfa, which was fought passionately by a huge number of people. They [the USDA] just took all boundaries off and approved it .

I think it’s extraordinarily dangerous. If you get genetically modified alfalfa pollen spreading around and contaminating all the organic alfalfa crops, organic farmers will either not be able to feed alfalfa to their animals or they’ll have to give up the organic label.

What do you say to people who don’t follow this point of view?

I would think that nutritional and taste benefits were obvious to people. There are people who think this means you can’t have an orange in winter. I get a box of grapefruit every year from Texas. It ships once and I use it for two months. It’s a wonderful winter treat.

It’s about what you do about dinner normally. Two thirds of people don’t understand how well-fed you can be with local food in Ohio in the winter. Or how dysfunctional and dangerous our present food system is. It’s dangerous in terms of toxic things such as E. coli scares of lettuce and in the way our standard meat system handles and slaughters animals.

Or to the degree to which we depend on people who make less than they can live on, all the way down the chain, from growers to shippers to some restaurant workers. These are all minimally paid people whom we really exploit through the system.

The hope is that with a local-food system, you can watch what’s going on. You can be aware where food comes from and be responsible for it.

How do you talk about eating locally and organically to seniors and others on a limited budget?

I sense that the right to eat really well is very upscale at this point. You can go to a store and get lot more calories of junk food for the dollar than you can with fruit and vegetables. So yes, it’s very difficult.

The only thing I can say is that in summers sometimes farmers markets have produce at the peak of season that is cheaper than at the supermarket. The food is fresh and the farmers get the whole benefit. Now there are food stamps given out for seniors, programs for poor seniors, for poor mothers. In some cases you can even double the value of those coupons.

In my view, local is more important than organic. And I think local is not inherently more expensive, as organic sometimes is. It shouldn’t be if we had subsidies for fruits and vegetables as we have for things that go into junk food: corn, soy and wheat. We would not have this disparity in price. It’s something people have to think about politically and push for.

The other thing I’d like to mention is the degree to which people think they need meat all time. If you really study how much protein we need, it’s a little over 50 grams a day. It’s not hard to get to that. People should not spend so much of their budgets on meat. It’s better for them anyway.

Read this article at Cleveland.com .

Growing, Older is available now in our bookstore.

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