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Meet the Woman Who Gave Michael Pollan His "Eat Food" Line

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"I've been talking about this since 1978," Joan Gussow told me. She was talking about our need to really look at what we're eating and to change how we think about it; she was talking about the food movement.

But "it wasn't a movement back then," she said. "It was just me against my profession—and, I guess, the world." That's because Joan (along with a few others, like Francis Moore Lappé, who published Diet for a Small Planet in 1971) was really paving the way for nutritionists, like her, and laypeople alike to talk about what we eat, where it comes from, and how it impacts our bodies. The New York Times once called her the "matriarch of the eat-locally-think-globally food movement." Michael Pollan has said that everything he says, Joan has said first, years before.

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Joan herself.
Joan herself. Photo by Susan Freiman/NatureWaltzPhotos

But Joan credits Michael Pollan with spreading that gospel, even if she was saying it years—decades—before he was. ("He has a tremendous trumpet—the New York Times," she said of him. "I'm quite grateful that he did it.") Michael's "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants" line, for example? That first clause is all Joan: Eat food. It took inspiration from a speech she first gave at Dartmouth University in the early 2000s, when a former student who had invited her to speak asked her to speak about diet and health. But Joan, even as a nutrition educator, wasn’t interested in speaking about individual nutrients and health; she thought we had to just eat food. Her speech explained that we didn't know enough about nutrients to be basing our diets around collections of vitamins and minerals, that food was much more than its chemical breakdown.

Michael heard about her speech, emailed asking for a copy, and, after reading it, asked her what she was going to do with it—where she was going to publish it. But at the time, it was an "absolutely unpublishable article in my field," she said; Joan had been called crazy by her fellow nutritionists before. It's hard to imagine now, but even in the 2000s, nutrition was considered unrelated to agriculture, and nutritionists definitely weren't interested in challenging the idea that getting the right amounts of the known nutrients was the key to keeping the body healthy. "There was no sense that we needed to know anything about the food before it hit the grocery store, or that we should bring agriculture into the study of nutrition."

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So Joan told Michael to go ahead and use her ideas on putting a new emphasis on real food—and he credits her in In Defense of Food, his manifesto. "I'm a great fan of Michael's," she told me. "He's a great person. He always gives people credit. And he's a wonderful researcher and writer. He knows that he has an extraordinary privilege to make his voice widely heard. I think he deserves all the acclaim for all the work he's done."

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But Joan had a manifesto, too.

It's called The Feeding Web: Issues in Nutritional Ecology—"really a collection of articles and clippings and things I'd pulled together for a class," one she still teaches each fall at Columbia University's Teachers College. The Feeding Web, published in 1978, doesn't tackle the just eat food idea—the idea that would become a sort of battle cry for the food movement—nor demand attention to the relationship between agriculture and nutrition, as Joan would 25 years later in her Dartmouth speech. But the book does address issues like the limits to growth on a finite planet, the strain global food production puts on the environment, the increasing ubiquity of over-processed food and the advertising that goes with it, and the energy costs of our food system. It's a book very ahead of its time; there had been nothing of the sort before it nor, arguably, after it, until Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma (celebrating its tenth birthday this year).

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Joan was thrilled by the experience of pulling together the ideas in The Feeding Web, and still is. (She told me that she's never so inspired as when she realizes she's had a totally original thought.) It was not a "scholarly book," she said, and it was pulled from many different corners of study: from nutrition, ecology, agriculture, common sense, Joan's own imagination. She thought it was going to be revolutionary—that it would inspire the sort of fanfare that The Omnivore's Dilemma did when it came out in 2006. Instead, Joan's manifesto was released while the New York Times was on strike, so its coverage consisted of a short, very late review by Mimi Sheraton and that was about it.

Joan's since authored other books and numerous articles (her most recent is Growing, Older: A Chronicle of Death, Life, and Vegetables), and she continues to think a lot about how humans should be fed. She's consumed by the prospect of where we, a world of often-thoughtless eaters, are headed. It's a perilous question as far as Joan is concerned. Thinking about it troubles her, and she speaks urgently about it.

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"I am deeply aroused by the world," she said, because for Joan, the world is a feeding web: No one eats without affecting someone else and impacting the environment, and she can't consider one part of the system (access to good food, big ag, what's for lunch, pop culture) without considering every other part (poverty, advertising to children, the endless rise and fall of trends, school lunches). She can't stand to be in grocery stores ("A whole aisle of juice!") and fears that innovations like boxed meal kits could kill CSAs. She's skeptical of the food-tech movement, an area where so many others see potential: "What we need is a more direct contact between people and the earth," she said. "Computers can't move physical things. They move x's and y's, 1s and 0s around. Food is a material object that needs to be moved around by people so it can get to your mouth." And her heroes are the ones who connect the dots: Woody Tasch's Slow Money, which is helping to save farms and farmland and scale small businesses; Dan Barber; Bill McKibben, who's "sacrificing his life to fight this fight for us on global warming."

Almost all of her concerns come back to climate change, which Joan feels no one takes seriously enough. Joan is not someone who waves it off with the security of not having to be around to see the worst of it—it really pains her that we haven't rallied together to do much about it. "The overuse of fossil fuel is only a tiny piece of it. Everything's running out," she said, exasperated. "It requires a new way of looking at the world—not that we'll constantly have new things. The globe is finite. We can't have infinite growth on a finite planet."

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Joan believes that our constant desire for new things means that our current obsession with where our food comes from could be superficial, or at least temporary. "We don't stick to things," she said. "How would any market survive if we only wanted to eat the same things?" And furthermore, could we ever truly transition to eating an ecologically-friendly diet? We might be banging down the doors of the closest Whole Foods and singing the farmers market's praises, but why aren't we growing at least some of our food, making it a bigger part of our daily lives?

That's what Joan has been doing, in the garden at her home on the Hudson River, outside New York City. She eats almost exclusively what she grows, even in winter, and does the gardening by herself, even at 87. And towards the end of our conversation, the topic shifted to what she's been eating, what's happening in her garden now, and her whole demeanor changed.

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"Someone gave me a bluefish her husband had caught and I grilled it one night," she told me. "Last night I made a fish salad. Tonight I'll have that again, with the end of my spinach. It's delicious. It's good food."

Before that, Joan had been telling me, joking but grave, "I'm fundamentally an optimist. But I'm a realist, too. I could be denounced for depressing students for 40 years about something that hasn't come true yet!" (Something being a sort of environmental end-of-times.) And she admitted that, at her age, she feels like she "can't forecast the future," particularly a future that seems to evolve constantly and quickly. But there's lots to do to effect change, even small change, starting with engaging more with what we eat, as Joan has been telling us all along: to just eat food, to garden, and for those who don't have access to a garden—like me, I told her on the phone—well, join a CSA, she said, shop the farmers market, find a community garden. It's important.

Tags: joan gussow, food movement, michael pollan