When Frances Moore Lappé first published Diet for a Small Planet in 1971, she began a revolution that connects our personal food choices to the rest of the world. In this adapted excerpt from the book’s 50th updated anniversary edition, she reveals how it all began.
Having made a D on my first college English paper, never did I imagine becoming a writer. No, never. But somewhere along the way I felt I had no choice.
Twenty books later, here’s how it happened.
As a child of the 1960s, I graduated from college not long after Kennedy’s assassination, and Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, and during intense conflict over the Vietnam War. At the same time, Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights legislation, as well as his Great Society and war on poverty, triggered new hope and big dreams for many.
I was one of those many. In my first job I became a “covert agent” in Johnson’s war. Hired officially by the city of Philadelphia as a housing inspector, my real job assigned by radicals in the housing authority was to go door-to-door in a North Philadelphia neighborhood. My goal was to help single mothers trying to survive on meager welfare payments to connect with each other to realize their united power.
My savvy bosses understood that their city program to transform renters—victimized by slumlords and racist redlining—into homeowners could succeed only as renters knew their rights and felt strength through their common bonds.
Within months, the women had formed a chapter of the brand-new National Welfare Rights Organization to address the indignities and inadequacies of our welfare system. In the process, we all became close friends. I did have a favorite friend, though, Lilly. Despite her daily struggle to keep her young kids fed, clothed, and warm, her plucky spirit warmed and inspired me.
Then one day the phone rang. “Lilly has died of a heart attack,” her dear friend told me. “Would you come to the funeral and wake?”
Lilly’s death hit me hard, but I always knew what really killed my young friend: the stress of poverty and racism combined. This truth stayed with me the following year, as I moved across the country to begin a graduate program in social work at University of California, Berkeley.
But soon came the moment—for me, the “Lilly’s truth moment.”
My graduate program at the University of California involved working on fair housing in racially segregated Oakland, but one morning I woke up with this “ah ha”: I can’t actually help our troubled world until I understand how my action contributes to tackling the root causes of the injustices that killed my friend.
But where do I start? I knew the roots of racism, poverty, and powerlessness lay deep in economic and political relationships; but how could I even begin to untangle all that?
At the time, our culture was being hit with a scary message: Experts were predicting imminent famine, as we humans were overwhelming the Earth’s limits. Paul Ehrlich’s book, The Population Bomb, had just exploded, and another book with the ominous title Famine 1975! (including the exclamation point) had also hit the stands.
Food! The first thing every species does is feed itself and its offspring. But we, the brightest species, are failing at this most basic task. What does that tell us? My hunch was that, if I could answer this question, I could untangle the mysteries of economics and politics—and find my path.
In 1969, burrowing in at UC’s agricultural library—with the help of a great librarian leading me from source to source—I kept adding up the numbers. To my great surprise, I discovered the experts were wrong. There was enough food for all. Even more shocking, I learned that what we counted (and still count) as available food was what was left over after we devoted vast crop and grazing land to feeding livestock that return to us only a tiny fraction of what they eat.
I found then that for every 21 protein calories going into cattle we got back only one calorie in the meat we eat. (Now, years later, an academic study confirms the estimate.)
Wow, I thought. We cannot blame nature’s skimpiness. We are not bumping up against natural limits. We humans are creating the experience of hunger, and that means we can end it. What fabulous news. So, I circulated a one-pager proclaiming my discovery.
Looking back now, I’ve come to appreciate the advantage of “fresh eyes,” as I had then— meaning that I arrived at my question without preformed assumptions limiting what I could see. Hmm, I thought, maybe it was precisely because I was untrained—and thus had no blinders—that I saw what “experts” had missed.
Very soon after the release of Diet for a Small Planet in 1971, I began to summarize my message this way: Hunger is not caused by a scarcity of food but by a scarcity of democracy, as people are denied power even over life’s essentials. I wanted to focus my readers on power.
I could see that Lilly’s early, needless death resulted from the economic and political assumptions and rules and racism that keep power tightly held—here in my own country as in all other countries experiencing hunger. So, over the decades I’ve worked to redefine democracy itself from “elections plus a market” to what I call “living democracy”—an ongoing journey to realize three conditions. They are: First, a culture of inclusive power in which we each have a voice. Second, transparency essential to accountability in public affairs; and third, mutual accountability. By that third point, I mean that because we’re all connected, we’re all implicated. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel puts it: “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Simply blaming is not enough to sustain democracy. We citizens must be solution-builders.
Diet for a Small Planet launched me on a lifelong journey pursuing root-cause questions and enabled me to keep striving for a systemic vision in which bottom-up citizen engagement fosters transformative, democratic progress.
I hope Diet for a Small Planet helps each of us to realize the power that is ours—to know we can make food choices based, not on what’s most advertised, but on what is best for our bodies, the Earth, and those who work to bring us food. And that taste of power can embolden us to work ever harder for democracy strong enough to transform public policies to guarantee all eaters real, nutritious choices.
How liberating this learning has been in my life.
Adapted from the book Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé. Copyright © 2021 by Frances Moore Lappé. Published by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved.
Frances Moore Lappé is the author or co-author of 20 books about world hunger, living democracy, and the environment, beginning with Diet for a Small Planet in 1971. She has been featured on numerous media and news outlets. Frances is the cofounder of three organizations including Food First and the Small Planet Institute, which she leads with her daughter, Anna Lappé. The pair also co-founded the Small Planet Fund, which channels resources to democratic social movements worldwide. For more information visit www.smallplanet.org and www.democracymovement.us