Environmental Fellow Frances Moore Lappé Focuses on Solutions

October 17, 2013

Someone who has spent her life studying the world’s food resources might be the last person you’d expect to be an optimist.

But bestselling author Frances Moore Lappé, Colby’s 2013 Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Fellow in Environmental Studies, is just that. There is plenty of food in the world, she says. The problem is how it’s distributed.

Lappé comes to Colby as part of a three-year Mellon grant to bring environmentalists of note to campus. Each year the Environmental Studies Program chooses a theme that highlights pressing issues and faculty research interests. This year, because of students’ growing interest in organic farming, the local foods movement, and events such as the Common Ground Country Fair, faculty and staff chose food security as the theme.

Lappé focuses on solutions to world food problems. Her first book, Diet for a Small Planet, was published in 1971 and was part of a revolution in the way Americans think about food, population, and dietary habits. Since then Lappé has published 18 books, received countless honors, and cofounded the think tank Food First and the Small Planet Institute, a collaborative network for research and popular education seeking to bring democracy to life.

Her fall visit to Colby set the stage for an academic year focused on food issues. Lappé will return to campus March 4-7 with programming to build public conversations in a deeper, yearlong debate. The goal of the Mellon ES fellows program is “to delve into a topic area, expand upon it, and provide opportunities for students to look at it from different angles,” said Lia Morris, Colby’s environmental studies coordinator.

Lappé did just that as her career was unfolding. “I was a young woman with a big question,” she said. “I figured that if I could just understand why people were hungry, that it would unlock some of the mysteries of economics and politics.”

By the 1980s she had reoriented her work to focus on political solutions. Issues surrounding food, she says, are directly related to the ability of the people to come together and collaborate. Today she takes a step back, focusing on the way we perceive the world on an individual and a social level, and she explored those issues with Colby students and faculty.

“Frankie,” as Lappé asked to be called, encouraged questions and facilitated lively mealtime discussions, interjecting her own anecdotes and experiences.

And Colby students could relate. “It’s relevant no matter what [era] you’re in,” said AJ Schweitzer ’14.

In a packed Ostrove Auditorium, Lappé addressed food security issues in a talk titled Food as Teacher: Four Decades Later, What Have We Learned?—a highlight of her fall residency. Rather than share a bleak outlook, Lappé emphasized solutions and cooperation. “Solutions to virtually every big problem on the planet are either known or they’re just right around the corner,” Lappé said. “So what’s missing, I think, is that feeling of empowerment that we can actually manifest what’s known.”

In her latest book, EcoMind, she focuses on preconceived notions of scarcity and the mistrust they engender. Discussing “the scarcity mind,” she said many people view global interactions as zero-sum games: what someone else gains, I lose. This worldview creates mistrust, stress, openings for special interests, and a negative spiral that reinforces inequity. In contrast, the “ecomind” focuses on the collaborative capacity of humans and stresses the power of positive thinking about issues of food.

How do we change ourselves? “What we have a hard time doing is separating from the pack, of being different, of saying something controversial,” she said. She urged students to connect with the brave, the risk-taking, and the gutsy—and to become more like them. “If we’re going to step up,” Lappé said, “then we have to experience fear.”

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