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The New Agtivist: Joan Gussow, Mother of the Sustainable Food Movement

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Few would argue that Joan Dye Gussow is the mother of the sustainable food movement. For more than 30 years, she's been writing, teaching (she is emeritus chair of the Teachers College nutrition program at Columbia University), and speaking about our unsustainable food system and how to fix it. (This excellent article by journalist Brian Halweil showcases her work in detail.) Now more than ever, her ideas have wings. Michael Pollan, for example, has said, "Once in a while, when I have an original thought, I look around and realize Joan said it first."

Gussow lives what she teaches, growing most of her own food year-round in her backyard. The New York Timesprofiled her last spring as she was rebuilding her garden after it was destroyed by a flood. When I asked her about her newly rebuilt garden, she said, "It's given me 10 additional years of life, at least!"

I spoke to her recently about how far we've come, the future of the food system, and her new book, Growing, Older: A Chronicle of Death, Life, and Vegetables.

Q: You've been talking about food, energy, and the environment for decades. Do you have hope we might finally see big change in the food system?

A: I must say that compared to the reception my ideas got 30 years ago, it's quite astonishing the reception they're getting now. I am excited to see the kinds of things that are going on in Brooklyn, for example. People are butchering meat and raising chickens -- it's become the sort of "heartland" of the food movement. But whether or not there's going to be sea change in the whole system is so hard to judge. I am politically very discouraged, because of what happened in the [last] election and what's happened with our president, whom we elected with such hope. He seems completely unable to get really, really passionate about anything.

Do I have hope? Yes, I have hope because, as Michael Pollan wrote in The Omnivore's Dilemma, what it means to say that something is "unsustainable" is that it will stop. And we have an unsustainable food supply. I believe the short-sightedness of both national and international leaders and their inability to do anything useful politically is so stunning that we're going to come to a crisis period much sooner than anyone expects. But what I really believe is hopeful is that there are so many experiments going on on the ground now all over the country, everything from [Growing Power's] Will Allen to what's going on in Hardwick, Vermont, and the Slow Money movement putting money into agriculture and the food system. There's going to be models out there when we need them.


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