Frances Moore Lappé: The Movement Mother

Lappé and family.Photo: Courtesy of Frances Moore Lappé (portrait); Hannah Whitaker/New York Magazine (book)

Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet, published in 1971 when its author was barely out of grad school, contained revolutionary ideas about food, its production and consumption, how the earth’s resources were being wasted, and the health benefits of a vegetarian diet. It became a best seller, and today’s raised-consciousness eating is a direct result. New York–based journalist and TV producer Anthony Lappé interviewed his mother.

I was born the year Diet for a Small Planet came out. I’ve always wondered how you were able to do both.
Must have been all those rice and beans.

Gourmet picked you as one of 25 Americans who’ve changed the way we eat. Did you ever imagine such impact?
No way. I’d never published anything, not even a letter to the editor. But when I discovered mind-blowing facts digging through UC Berkeley’s agriculture library, I had to tell somebody. My initial plan was to do a one-pager and post it in cafés.

What impact has the book had on you?
Realizing I wasn’t alone—that there were millions of people like me, wanting to find meaning in their daily acts. I learned how exasperating it can be trying to get the message out. On one early-seventies Pittsburgh late-night TV talk show, the only other guest was a UFO expert, and I got one question: “Ms. Lappé, what do you think they eat on UFOs?”

What’s been your biggest disappointment?
That many hear my message as “less” when I see it as “more”—eating more of what’s best for our bodies, the Earth, other animals, other people.

It must be gratifying that organic food and eating healthy is so in vogue.
Very. It feels like we’ve come full circle. From Super Size Me to Food, Inc., it’s even in your local theater. But what’s crazy and heartbreaking is that, while “healthy” is in, the American diet has also degraded so fast since I was your age [38] that treating diet-related diseases now costs Americans roughly as much treating tobacco-related diseases.

Were you upset that I ate meat?
I was consoled that you proved I was a mom who didn’t guilt-trip her kids. And, you know, I’ve noticed even you’ve forsworn red meat.

More or less forsworn. I’m still a sucker for grass-fed steak or lamb. I guess that makes Anna [my sister, author of Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen] the golden child.
Well, I’d love you if you ate Big Macs, honey. That’s the definition of unconditional love.

Frances Moore Lappé lives in Boston. With daughter Anna, she leads the Small Planet Institute.

Frances Moore Lappé: The Movement Mother