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Joan Dye Gussow on the Politics of Food


  This Organic Life by Joan Dye Gussow

Joan Dye Gussow, an alumna of the College and the former Mary Swartz Rose Professor of Nutrition and Education, invented a course called "Nutritional Ecology." She shares the information developed in that course with the rest of the world in her latest book, This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader (Chelsea Green, 2001).

In many ways the book is something of an Under the Tuscan Sun story set on the Hudson River, with anecdotes of refurbishing an old house, growing lots of fresh vegetables, and finding recipes that make good use of what is grown. The book also includes a lesson in the political and environmental issues involved in food production and distribution. "At one point in the book I say it's all about food," Gussow said. "The important issue of our time is learning how to grow food for everyone in a way that's sustainable, and we are not doing that."

What we are doing, the book explains, is increasing food production globally while destroying the environment and destroying our capacity for future food production. Supermarkets fool us. Food is brought in from around the world so supermarkets can provide summer vegetables in the winter or strawberries in January. Because we are willing to pay for this luxury, Gussow explained, "people will send us food, even if they don't have it themselves." This is what many are calling "progress."

Gussow has written other books on the topic, including The Feeding Web: Issues in Nutritional Ecology (Bull, 1978) and Chicken Little, Tomato Sauce and Agriculture: Who Will Produce Tomorrow's Food? (Bootstrap Press, 1991).

Her newest book takes readers home with her to the life she and her husband began after the children moved out. It relates the story of how she came to be committed to the notion that we should all be eating locally. Gussow and her husband decided to grow as much as possible of their food, keeping garden records of when crops came in and when they were finished to determine what they could eat during that time. What they did not grow, they bought locally, including grains and meats.

"It's probably easier to live almost totally locally in New York than anywhere," Gussow said, "because there are a number of farmers markets that will not sell anything that isn't grown by the farmer who is there." The Green Market in Union Square is one market she cited.

There are also community supported agricultural organizations (CSAs) that invest in a farmer's maintenance costs. The investors then get free produce all summer, from June through November or December. "The whole issue is really one of trying to support local farmers," she explained.

"I guess one of the things that interests me is the degree to which people take food for granted in this country," she said. "We don't think about the factors affecting food-like food processing and advertising and energy use."

She also wanted to get people to be aware of how food is produced and where. "When I would tell people things like the fact that we were importing beef and pork from Haiti, they would think I was nuts," she said. "You know, how could we be importing food from the poorest country in the world?"

The California cheese industry is one that Gussow points to as another enigma in the food producing business. Wisconsin, she writes, is struggling to remain the cheese state while facing competition from California. "Cheese is a very water-intensive product, and they're going to run out," she said. "Do you have any idea how much water is wasted growing alfalfa in California so they can have a dairy industry?"

With most of California's water coming from snow melt from the Sierra Nevadas and the amount of snow being reduced by global warming, there is less water stored for the winter. "And there's nothing in the market that tells us this," Gussow said. "We just walk in and we buy our cheese."

The rate at which farmers are going out of business concerns her because it will mean that four or five major companies will hire farmers as contract workers. "Farmers are all going to be working as serfs," she added.

By producing food on such a large scale, the possibility of disease increases. "I don't think it's an accident that we have so many more food scares," she said. "We've had many more cases of toxic bacteria and things because of the concentration of animals in one place."

Gussow said she knows how to reach students, but hopes the book will reach people on a much larger scale. "If people don't know how the food system works, there's nothing they can do about it," she said. She'd like to change that.

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