Democracy & Government

Interview Transcript: Frances Moore Lappé On Why She’s Reinventing Herself

The author of Diet for a Small Planet is trying to come up with a prescription to heal a big democracy.

Interview Transcript: Frances Moore Lappé on Why She's Reinventing Herself

Frances Moore Lappé addresses a crowd gathered for the Democracy Spring mobilization in Washington, DC. (Photo: Democracy Spring)

Frances Moore Lappé, founder of the Small Planet Institute, has been a leader on questions of food and sustainability since the 1970s, when she published her groundbreaking book, Diet for a Small Planet. But, as she described in a recent interview with, her work in food politics has left her more and more convinced of the need for fundamental reform of democratic institutions. Here’s a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.



Kathy Kiely: Frances Moore Lappé, you have worked most of your career in the politics of food. Tell us how you got into that.

Frances Moore Lappé
Photo: Courtesy of Yes! magazine

Frances Moore Lappé: Well Kathy, I am a child of the 1960s, and my first job was as a covert agent in the war on poverty. What I mean by that — I’m not joking actually. I was hired by the Housing Authority in Philadelphia during the war on poverty years. This was 1966. And my job, however — I was hired as a housing inspector, but I knew that my real assignment was to go door to door to organize a welfare rights organization in northwest Philadelphia. So it was kind of strange, because everybody else in my office was a housing inspector and I used to think at night that they’d go through my trash to see what is this woman doing?

I was 23 at the time. And that was a life-changing experience. I did succeed. This was a time when this little white girl from Texas could go knocking door to door, and it was an all African-American community, and I was just let in and welcomed. And there were about 12 of us ultimately. All the rest were welfare recipients. We created a welfare rights organization that then challenged some of the unfair practices. There was something called a fair hearing then that any welfare recipient could ask for a fair hearing if he or she thought that she wasn’t being treated as she should be under the law. And I loved that time of my life.

And I got a call saying that my closest ally, the woman who gave me the most energy, Lily, had died of a heart attack the night before. And that was a life changing moment. I went to her funeral and I was just so touched to be included in the grieving in the community. But part of me of course knew that Lily in her 40s did not really die of a heart attack. She died of the stress of poverty, because I knew how much stress she had every day just to heat her home and to get food on the table.

I was absolutely terrified because I didn’t have a path.

So it was out of that experience of community organizing, the feeling that I was part of a movement that was really making America better that shaped the entire rest of my life. I then ended up at a graduate program in community organizing at the University of California, Berkeley, but somewhere in that first year the memory of Lily’s death and my knowing that I did not understand why she had to die of this needlessly — because all of what I was seeing seemed so needless, the incredible poverty and stress. So I made the hardest decision of my life, and one of the best. I decided to stop doing anything until I could have an idea of how I was addressing the root causes, the underlying causes. And I really didn’t have a clue. And so I left graduate school. I was absolutely terrified, because I didn’t have a path. And I then sort of — I joke today about how I developed my research technique that has served me ever since. Then still in my 20s, my research technique was following my nose, and so I went into the library and just followed my nose; one question, another question.

There was this awakening around food and food justice and food quality. And I was absorbing that at the same time I was really aware that the newspaper headlines and the experts were all telling us that we faced imminent famine. That scarcity was the reality and that we had to cut back and famine was inevitable. In fact, there was a book called Famine 1975 that came out in that time period, and Paul Ehrlich’s book, the population book, The Population Bomb, exploded, right?

Becoming ‘The Food Lady’

And so I had this intuition — this is all leading up to one intuition that if I could just pull the food thread that that would untangle the incredible complexities of economics and politics that I knew were the root of Lily’s death. If I could just take something that was a universal need, food, that universally people were interested, anywhere you could get an audience, if you talk about food, that it connected with everything in the earth. It connected, of course — communities were built around food. And of course it connected us to our body. So I thought, oh, if I could just figure this out.

So I really just stayed in the UC Berkeley Agricultural Library for about a year with my dad’s slide rule, literally putting numbers together, two and two together kind of thing, to ask the question is it true that we’re running out of food? And when it became clear to me that, no, there was more than enough food for us, I just wanted to shout out. I actually made a handout and gave it to people and wanted to paste it around Berkeley that no, no, no, we can’t blame nature. It’s up to us. And so out of that came Diet for a Small Planet.

Kiely: So you wrote these books and your daughter’s involved in the movement, and when I saw you in Washington, people came up to you and said, “You’ve changed my life.” So how identified to you feel with the food movement? Do you feel like you are Frances Moore Lappé, the food lady? And is it hard to separate yourself from that?

Lappé: Yes. It is. It is for many reasons. One, I still tear up when people say that. And when you quote people saying that. I was just a kid trying to figure things out. And I feel like my life — it was just that my personal quest and the zeitgeist of our culture intersected in this beautiful way. And I just want to give a shout out here for a very special person, and that is Betty Ballantine, who is — she and Ian were among the founders of paperback publishing of America. And she’s what made me the food lady, right? Because she — a friend of my husband, Marc Lappé’s, put my manuscript into her hands with my sort of blessing, but I thought it was crazy. Kathy, I had never published anything, not even a letter to the editor. I made a D on my first English paper in college, so I did not think I was material for a major publisher in New York.

The food movement gave me a voice.

So I’ve always been so touched at the doors that opened to me, because of that and felt like I had a platform that I was obligated to use: a megaphone that I was obligated to speak through. And at the same time, I’ve always — by the early ’80s I was saying hunger is not caused by scarcity of food. It’s caused by scarcity of democracy. And I loved that sound bite, but then I had to — I’d say that, and then I could feel audiences saying, “Okay lady, where is that democracy you’re talking about that could end hunger?” And so really on by the late 1980s, I was already writing a book called Rediscovering America’s Values, which is a book written, all of it, in dialogue between me and an imaginary composite voice of a conservative, so already by the late 1980s I was trying to move into this notion that we needed to go beneath all the issues. And so I’ve always had this just absolute sense of great privilege and honor and joy that the food movement gave me a voice. And also the sense that I had to then take that and it would be too easy just to be there all my life and stay in that. And had to figure out a way to go deeper.

So then I left Food First, which I had cofounded in the ’70s, to create what became the Center for Living Democracy, and that’s where the American News Service then was born in Vermont. But you’ll be amused, maybe. The first name for our organization that became the Center for Living Democracy, it was Center for the Arts of Democracy, the idea that democracy is a culture that we learn, just like we learn to walk or play the piano, but the funders that we approached said, “Sorry, but we don’t fund the arts,” [laughs] and they didn’t get it that democracy was an art. So we changed it to Center for Living Democracy. And so through the 1990s I was really trying to move to be the articulator of this culture of democracy, this idea that democracy is not just a structure of government, but it’s a set of values that we live in every aspect of our lives, from education to economics to government. And so that period then came to a crashing halt in the late ’90s. And it was out of that my children came forward and said, “Mom, you need to go back to your roots in food, and guess what? We’re going to help you.” And they both did.

Personal and professional crises

Kiely: So let me interrupt to ask what caused it to come to a crashing halt?

Lappé: It was a mix of personal and public. My dad was hit by a car. My marriage ended. My brother left. My whole family — my brother, my father — had moved out to Vermont with me, and my husband became mentally ill, and so it was like every — and our news service did not have a good business plan. In other words, as long as we had foundation funding to make our wonderful stories of possibility free to newspapers. This was really before much of the news on the internet. We had a lot of pickup, as you saw those numbers overall, almost 300 and half of the biggest papers we got into. But then when we started trying to sell the solutions news, it was very difficult. And so there was a financial crisis. There was a personal crisis, both my nuclear family and my dad being hit by a car, my stepmother fell — I mean, it was like everything that could go wrong went wrong.

Kiely: A lot of signs saying stop.

Lappé: Yes. Yes. And so that’s when I left Vermont and moved to MIT as a visiting scholar, and that’s when I would just focus with my daughter for a couple of years on this book that changed both of our lives, Kathy. Because writing that book with Anna — she’s a great title creator, and she came up with the title Hope’s Edge. The idea of we were interviewing people around the world who were pushing forward the edge of hope, so we together wrote that book, and what we did is we found people who were embodying the virtues and the practices and the understanding of what I call a living democracy. That this was — I think of two examples in that book that come to mind as the embodiment, even though they’re food related, they’re earth related in any case. One is the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil. The other is the Green Belt Movement in Kenya. So we went on the ground and talked to people who were pulling together the democracy piece, the food piece, the farming piece, and told their stories in that book. And so that was life-changing for both of us, because it got me out of my dark night of the soul, and it launched her. She was a grad student at the time. It launched her on the career that she’s now brilliantly creating. So that was really when I brought it all together, the food and the democracy piece but not the political machinery of democracy, but the practice of it in the field.

Walking 110 miles

Kiely: So it sounded like — when I talked to you in Washington, it sounded like you had come to come kind of an epiphany. Is that right? And can you tell us about that?

Lappé: Well it was more I came to, okay Frankie, you’re — this was last year — well, this was really when — I’m 72 now, so this was really like when I turned 70. Okay, if you’re really serious, if you really do believe that democracy is the root of it all, the solution, the lack of it, the root cause, you don’t have a lot of time to mess around. Yes Frankie — the other voice in me — yes, you’ve done well with your other books, but you’ve got to get serious. And so after World Hunger: 10 Myths — I felt like I had to do one more hunger book, because this book World Hunger: 12 Myths had stayed alive so many decades, but it was out of date. So I just signed up to write that completely in new World Hunger: 10 Myths. And the last chapter is all about, okay, we can’t do this without real democracy. And so then as soon as I finished that book, actually even before it came out in the fall of ’15, just exactly a year ago, I was already — I said okay. And I would literally raise my hand. Universe, this is it. No turning back. Democracy. Democracy. And so I went to the first global conference on money and politics in Mexico City, a year ago September, September 2015, and was exposed to people all over the world, most of them way ahead of the US in terms of democratic practice. And that’s where I met Adam Eichen for the first time. So then I was primed coming out of that. Okay, I’m not going back. I’m going to help create a democracy movement as this movement of movements.

And then I heard about Democracy Spring, and it was that. It was like the universe saying, “Yes, we have the root to democracy for you, Frankie.” All you have to do is walk one 110 miles as it turned out, so —

Kiely: And get arrested, correct?

Lappé: And get arrested. But that wasn’t a big deal. I’ve been arrested before. It was the march that was the big challenge. Because I thought Oh, you know? What if I don’t make it? And I’ll be so humiliated, because I want to prove that I’m this tough 72-year-old. I can do this. What if I can’t? So it was that fear. But the point is though, Kathy, is that that march had all the heart elements, the experience of it, the depth of the conversations that I had with people I would never meet in any other part of my life, like Adam and I wrote about in our piece, “Experiencing the Thrill of Democracy,” and so there was that social bonding that I’ve always felt in the food movement, and that I experienced then in the democracy movement.

There was this sense of real power and voice, there was a sense of the courage that it takes, because I think that as — I don’t know if you’ve ever read any of my things about courage, but I feel like it is the primary virtue and is the central virtue to create a living democracy, because we have to really break with the dominant pack, and really set out on a new understanding; a new/old understanding of democracy. So that was really the turning point for me was the march of really believing that it will be possible to find a home if you will, as I have felt in the democracy movement, and I have to credit Josh Silver at Represent.Us for offering me a wonderful metaphor, because I went out to visit him in North Hampton, even before I started on the World Hunger, my last food book, my final food book.

And he said to me, “Frankie” — I was tearing my heart out about food versus democracy — and he said, “Frankie, you know you can love two children at once.” And since I have two kids and I love them both, it really stuck with me. And so I’ve also been not — with this pledge to the universe to devote my life to the democracy focus, I’ve also been aware that I don’t have to feel like I abandoned one of my soulmates, that I can continue to find a voice in the food movement and find that I can be of use in the democracy movement. I think the more that we say to people, look, this is a movement of movements. You don’t have to abandon your issue in order to be a democracy diehard.

Kiely: At what point — it sounds like this has been sort of an ongoing process for you and that at some point, maybe as early as 10 years ago, you — but before you started the news service, you had this insight that it wasn’t just food issues. It was the issue below that. Do you recall what event or what series of events gave you that insight?

Lappé: I don’t — that hunger is not caused by scarcity of food but scarcity of democracy. I was saying that in the early 1980s. And I don’t know all the reasons, but I think that anyone who really studies the economic roots of that hunger is not — once you realize that we are actively creating the experience of scarcity, not that there is pre-existing scarcity. Once that dawns on one, it’s hard to avoid the obvious point that it is how we govern ourselves, a decision we make about how we use our resources, and that is democracy or not. But that’s governance.

I also knew that it had to go deeper than just throwing one party out and voting another party in.

It’s not about absolute scarcity or even — it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in economics and politics to figure that out. So I knew that. I just didn’t know what to do with it. And because there wasn’t in the early 1980s — I mean I’m sure there was, but I didn’t know how to connect with it. And so I also knew that it had to go deeper than just throwing one party out and voting another party in. That’s what instigated — that’s want triggered this theme of living democracy and founding of the Center for Living Democracy, because the 1990s was a fairly hopeful time relative to the 2000s, and there was more of a sense of organizations like there’s a beautiful organization founded by someone who was there with me in Vermont at the Center for Living Democracy who founded the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation. There was a whole movement that still exists and is growing for more training and more effective dialogue and problem solving, not focused so much on electoral politics. But in the 1990s — community policing I think is part of that. Neighborhood councils in Seattle that we studied. My then-husband and I wrote a book called The Quickening of America, which was the precursor to Democracy’s Edge, my first book with democracy in the title. Actually, my only book with democracy in the title yet. So it wasn’t — Kathy, it wasn’t like there was a moment. It was just so obvious to me.

Certainly I realized that, yes, there were great stakes in the fossil fuel and big — I went to the Philippines to explore the impact of Del Monte, Dole and fruit plantations and the impact of that, so I was really aware that the US government’s policies were very much standing in the way of ending hunger. It wasn’t so clear as it is now how money plays such a gross connect and obvious —

Kiely: You mean the corporate interest?

Lappé: Yes. The corporate interest and big money. It’s just so much deeper. We just interviewed John Sarbanes, as you know, and he used the metaphor “metastasized,” that money, since his father’s time, over his 40 years compared to what John has experienced, Paul versus John Sarbanes, that the money system has just metastasized throughout the governing process, so this was — I wasn’t aware of that direct sort of money link. But I was aware of the mindset that was the corporate US dominant system that was standing in the way of the passion, my central wakeup passion of ending hunger in the world. So I think that clearly was there, and watching what happened — that was the first time I got arrested actually was protesting Reagan’s policies in Central America.

Kiely: So you had — you called it your wakeup passion, ending hunger, and you’ve of course worked many years in it. You made this detour that was not successful in the 1990s and your family brought you back to your wakeup passion. When you decided to detour again, did you have to overcome both voices in your own head and maybe friends who said “No, no, no, don’t. Stick with your knitting, what you know?”

Lappé: No. I — gosh. Not really. I’m trying to think. Because — no. I mean, I —

Kiely: Did you feel like you were stepping outside of your comfort zone?

Lappé: Oh, always. At everything I’ve ever done in my life [laughs]. Clearly being a newspaper — I mean a news service editor. No. But yeah, I definitely — Anna and I — anyway, stepping outside of our comfort zones, when I went from a little town in Vermont, being head of the American News Service and the Center for Living Democracy and then, okay, we’re going to just take on the world, and we’re going to get on a plane, and we’re going to India and see what’s happening. That was really amazingly outside of my comfort zone. And doing it with my then-26-year-old daughter. By the way, Anna was exactly the age, when we got on those planes to write Hope’s Edge, she was exactly the age that I was when I wrote Diet for a Small Planet, which had a certain wonderful family symmetry. And then I decided from there that my life job description was simply learning and sharing, and so I started this little Small Planet Institute, which at first was with both of us here on the East Coast and now she’s in California, but this has been the richest time in my life is that I gave myself permission to basically continue to follow my nose and with this set of values, really. And even with EcoMind, Kathy, I made a detour again when I was at a conference on the environmental crisis and stuff, and I saw people walking out so discouraged. And out of that I wrote EcoMind, but that is about democracy.

And I want to say that the World Hunger book — my book that came out a year ago. One of the most fun things at Democracy Spring is somebody came up to me and said, “I’m here, because I read your World Hunger book and you ended it saying we have to get money out of politics.”

The new kale?

Kiely: So tell us about the book you’re working on right now.

Lappé: Well, this book is coming directly out of the march. As you know, Adam and I started writing together when we were marching, and then we sort of simultaneously had this idea that we had to turn this into a book. And because that we have to name what’s happening, this movement of movements, so that people can recognize it. And so Adam was working in Paris and he agreed that he would move here and work with me on it, and so we are now co-authors and the idea of the book is to really bust apart, totally bust apart, the idea that democracy is something done to us or for us and this, as I often say, the tasteless spinach you have to eat in order to get your juicy, yummy dessert of personal freedom. No, no, no, no. Democracy is a thrilling experience, and so as you know from reading our stuff that we’ve tried to identify, okay, what was life changing for us about Democracy Spring? How do we so articulate that in a book that other people will want that and go for it and help to create experiences in which they can have that, that democracy becomes a heart experience, not just a head experience. And so what we’re —

Kiely: So it’s the kale of the future? Kale was always despised but now it’s getting to be the loved snack.

Lappé: There you go. Exactly, and so we’re having a lot of fun with it. We just finished our proposal and so it’s going to be part storytelling. We start with our journeys. My moment was the war on poverty, and his moment was Occupy. So how over these, almost half-century, that we each in our youth have had this similar ah ha, where we just — democracy grabbed us and we couldn’t let go. And so we want to infect people with that sense of democracy, and also educate, obviously in this book, about the very practical things that people are doing that—the demands that we made, for example, that are now shown to work, begin to work in a state like Maine. We want to show that it’s not just this decades hence structural change we might made, but it’s things we can do right now that enable regular people to engage and —

Kiely: So there’ll be kind of a handbook element to it as well where you’re going to show people what they can do themselves or —

Lappé: Yes. Through stories. Like one of the stories told in Getting a Grip is about one of my personal heroes, Deborah Simpson in Maine, who was a waitress in Auburn, Maine in the year 2000, and her friends saw leadership qualities in her and they said, “Deb, you should run. You should run for the legislature,” and she said, “Oh, you’re crazy.” And they said, “No, you’re not paying attention. We have public financing. All you have to do is get $5 from 50 people,” and she said, “Oh. I’m a waitress. I can do that.” And then she became this absolutely stellar, stellar legislator, appointed to high level committees, and then dark money came in, in 2010 and wiped her out. Racist campaign because her son is African-American. Maine stepped up, as you know, last year with upping its public financing and making it more transparent, so hopefully things that happened to Deb would not happen again. So we want to tell these kinds of — of how this talent, just think of this talent that Deborah presents, that without public financing we, the world, and the state of Maine would not have benefit from, so —

Kiely: Does it feel like a discouraging time for you to get involved in the democracy movement when you see how much anger there is out there, and how much incivility in the public dialogue?

Lappé: Well, I’m terrified and it’s just so painful to watch. Yes. Yes, absolutely. And my other part of my brain is saying, yes Frankie, all of that is true. And people are paying attention now and engaged now and this may be the time, and so this may be just exactly the kind of wakeup call for our culture that we — I think most Americans who are horrified by the response, by Trump and the response to him, never — I mean I couldn’t have imagined either, on both sides. I could never have imagined the response to Bernie Sanders being as strong as it was nor could I ever imagine the response to Trump. And so I think, potentially, if we can get better at articulating a realistic alternative that is responding to people’s legitimate anger. I mean the thing is it’s legitimate. I absolutely understand why people are so angry, and without any other framework to put it in, I guess I can kind of understand. They just want to throw the torch in. So it could be, and this is what keeps me going, it could be just the right time for our book and for messages that are not dismissive and ridiculing Trump supporters but are really helping them see that democracy movement is the only way to address the very real wrongs that are happening.

Kiely: Frankie, we’re doing this interview exactly one week before Election Day and you’re working on an intergenerational project. I just wondered what you would say to voters, particularly millennial voters, who feel like they’re so disgusted with the process that they don’t even want to bother? What would you say — should they vote? And if so why should they vote?

Lappé: Well, I think this could be the most — certainly in my 72 years — the most important vote that I have cast, because I think so much is at stake. I think that whether — I’m obviously hoping that it is Clinton, but either candidate’s victory is just the beginning for the work we have to do to build a real democracy. But it becomes vastly more possible if we have a Clinton whose democratic platform actually has in it the demands that we made in Democracy Spring about reforms to reduce the power the of money in politics to create the kind of small donor matching funds and that sort of thing to enable candidates who aren’t driven by big bucks to run, so I feel so much is at stake, and I would just welcome people. Yes. Vote. And also just discover the incredible satisfaction of feeling part of a movement that doesn’t just say, “Oh yes, I voted and I’m going back into my cocoon.” No. No. No. That there is an exciting and welcoming movement for you after the election. This is only the beginning. And if you do not vote, then it could be much — obviously I think it would be vastly harder to repair the damage if Trump is elected, but with Clinton being elected that we would be able to build on that strong platform on so many issues that our wellbeing and you — speaking to millennials — that your future work, your future families will need to thrive, and so I just hope that people look at it as the beginning of something that could be very exciting, because we came so close to disaster that we really woke up.

Kiely: Frankly, that’s a great place to end, at the beginning. So thanks for taking the time to talk to us.

Lappé: Oh, thank you.

Kathy Kiely

Kathy Kiely, a Washington, DC-based journalist and teacher, has reported and edited national politics for a number of news organizations, including USA TODAY, National Journal, The New York Daily News and The Houston Post. She been involved in the coverage of every presidential campaign since 1980. Follow her on Twitter: @kathykiely.