A Chat with Joan Gussow

January 28, 2011

Joan Dye Gussow has been called the “matriarch of the eat-locally-think-globally food movement.” The octogenarian is a professor emerita and former chair of the Nutrition Education Program at Columbia University and is perhaps best known for her early writing linking the field of nutrition with hunger, food policy and environmental issues. Lately she has written about gardening in New York’s Hudson Valley in her books This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader and Growing, Older. This week Gussow appeared at the Commonwealth Club in conversation with the Bay Area’s own Novella Carpenter, urban farmer and author of the book Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. What follows is an edited excerpt of their conversation.

Novella Carpenter: I read your essay from 1985 called “A Modest Proposal” (based on the Jonathan Swift satire of the same name) and you proposed that — gasp! — upwardly mobile people start eating local food. You’ve said this is one of your favorite essays; I’m wondering how you feel about being able to predict the future.

Joan Gussow: I’m not sure I predicted the future. I wrote a book called The Feeding Web: Issues in Nutritional Ecology in 1978 which was based on a class I was teaching through the early 70s. It was about population, hunger, pollution, the global food supply, advertising…a whole host of issues. And I don’t think I can even look at that now. It makes me very upset because it could have been published yesterday. Nothing’s happened. When it came out one of the reviewers said, “Many of the problems she identifies have already been solved.” And I said, “What planet are you living on, sir? None of those problems have been solved!”

NC:  What you think about the idea that only the “upwardly mobile” can afford to eat good, local food?

JG: We have a lot of work to do [as a movement]. I’m part of a group in New York called Just Food. We helped start a number of CSAs. There were all these people gong hungry and all these farmers right around the city who were going broke and it didn’t make any sense, so we wondered: how can we somehow bring them together?  We’ve now helped start 100 CSAs. And after we started the first 15 or 20, the woman who started the group said “I’m not going to do any more until we can serve people who are poor.” So we were the ones who got the Department of Agriculture to approve food stamps for CSAs. And we came up with all kinds of ways to get community groups involved so that some people who could get the boxes but pay less.

NC: My thing is if you can afford [local, organic food], you should buy it. If you’re a person like me — a scrounger — you can grow your own. And you’ve been growing your own for years. These days everyone in San Francisco and the East Bay is growing some kind of food in their backyards. I can remember just a few years ago it was tacky. Like, “Oh god, what is she doing, she must be hungry!” Now it’s like you take the moral high ground when you grow a little kale in your front yard. So I’m just thinking you must have lived through a time when what you were doing was considered tacky.

JG: I’ve never had that problem. When I started gardening, the neighbors were just happy to see us taking care of the place.

The people who thought badly of me were the nutritionists. I was thought of as a very strange person because I wanted people to know about their food and where it came from. Nutrition is defined as what happens after the swallow, and anything that happened before the swallow didn’t exist. And that’s the only reason I became a leader. I said, “No, that’s not right.” I came into this profession concerned about world hunger and nobody else was all that concerned. 
NC: So people like you and I grow food, and we can and preserve a lot of it. Sometimes when I’m on my 50th jar of tomatoes and Bill wanders in from fixing a car and says, “We need more tomatoes!” I can get kind of cranky. I’m just wondering if you ever felt that gender divide and what you’ve thought of it.

JG: Oh my husband loved being in the garden! He’d point out everything that needed doing! Seriously, though — my theory is that men are more controlling. And to grow food you have to let nature be in charge. You can’t say, “Oh, I’m not feeling like picking those tomatoes today. I’ll do it tomorrow,” because they might be rotten by then. My husband didn’t want to be controlled by anything, including nature. But I believe we have to be willing to be controlled by nature; as someone once said: “Once we have full control over nature, it’s over.”

Hear an interview with Joan Gussow on Edible Radio.


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