Frances-Moore-LappeWhen I heard that Frances Moore Lappé was coming to town to receive the Santa Monica Public Library Green Prize for Sustainable Literature, I immediately arranged an interview. Ms. Lappé would be speaking about her most recent book EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want , which she posits that perceptions are our greatest barrier to change. We are caught in “thought traps” at global, industrial, and governmental levels that prevent our having positive “mind frames” that could change the world.

But there was more. You see, back in the day–1975 to be precise–I used the longtime activist’s first book, Diet for a Small Planet, as the backbone of the nutrition component of the childbirth classes I started teaching that year. I’d never met Frankie, as she is known, and was eager to meet the woman who’s sold three million copies of that first book, penned 17 more, established several foundations, and maintained an upbeat enthusiasm for more than 40 years about her daunting life’s work. How does she do it?

Red Pot

In your talk, you shared a personal example we can all relate to, about how “thought traps” prevent us from seeing the possibilities. Wanting to cook a stew, you searched everywhere for your favorite red pot, but couldn’t find it. As we see in the photo above, it was right there in plain sight, but because a plant was sitting in it, you just couldn’t see the pot.

You use this notion at a global level about issues that leave us feeling powerless to effect planetary change. Yet like your hunt for the red pot, we all face thought traps on a daily basis. For instance, if we think we don’t have time to cook, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We worry about soil quality and food safety, but we often ignore the obvious solutions of shopping for unprocessed foods from local, small, sustainable-practices farms. How do we break through thought traps to create new, possibility-filled “mind frames,” small or big?

The premise of the book is “how do we see the unexpected so that we can create the world we want?” It’s something I struggle with every day. It’s important to engage with ideas you don’t agree with and then listen to how our bodies are really reacting to those ideas. Are we feeling demoralized, or empowered to make change? The concept came to me after I attended a big conference on the global environmental crisis. I anticipated learning a lot, and I did, but I also came away feeling numb after hearing all the scary data. If I’m feeling unmotivated on the topic, I thought, what might others be feeling? The answer lies in questioning conventional truths. Keep the beginner’s eye, as the Buddhists teach. Be like the two-year-old and keep asking “Why?” each step of the way. The best gift I got from my parents is the gift of curiosity; don’t assume anything and stay in an explorer mode.

So in order to become more highly evolved, we have to revert to being inquisitive toddlers? Good to know. I’ll use that next time I teach! You call yourself a “possibilist.” I love this term. Please explain.

Being a possibilist is very different from being an optimist. I believe it is possible to make big changes, but only on one condition: that we dig in and do the work required to break free from a set of dominant but misleading ideas that are taking us down.

EcoMind Frances Moore Lappe

You are speaking at the World Food Prize in Des Moines, Iowa, next month, an award considered the Nobel Prize for food and agriculture. You’re pretty riled up about one of this year’s recipients.

The 2013 prize has gone to three chemical company executives, including Monsanto executive vice president and chief technology officer Robert Fraley, who is responsible for the development of GMOs. The very idea of GMOs is “productionist”—that greater production controlled by the very few is the answer to world hunger—and betrays the awards’ mandate of a “nutritious and sustainable food supply for all people.” World hunger is not a quantitative lack of food, it’s a disease of concentrated power. There isn’t so much a shortage of food as there is a need for a better relationship between our food production and nature. My daughter Anna Lappé and I drafted a petition on the Huffington Post in response to the selection. My panel, “Sustainability, Agro-ecology and Food Justice”

[at the World Food Prize], offers an opposing view, but I’m worried the next speakers will wipe out any memory of my ten minutes! I’m practicing my mind frames in preparation.

I’m not a vegetarian, but on meatless days I still think about Diet for a Small Planet’s “complementary proteins” when putting together my meal. Care to comment?

In the more than four decades since the book came out, science has shown that we don’t have to consume certain non-animal foods at the same meal to get complete proteins, but generally in the same diet. Many traditional diets that combine legumes and grains, for instance, show the innate logic of this approach, so there must be something to it. It’s still my preferred way to eat—low on the food chain. Hmmm, I need to find another word for “low”; it sounds too negative for something so good.

Diet For a Small PlanetIs there a place for carefully raised meat in today’s diet? What about meat that comes from closed-loop farming where animals feed on field leftovers and nourish the soil as they graze?

I’ve been a vegetarian for forty years, in part to take a stand against animal cruelty. For a while I used to eat fish, but when overfishing became a problem, I didn’t want to be a part of that so I stopped. But I don’t want to judge. In many parts of the world, animal integration into the farming system makes sense. It’s a matter of scale and farming practice. I haven’t studied the issue, but there is a rationale to using animals to recycle nutrients. What I want to do is to emphasize the bad effects of industrial meats…all that grain. There is a new study by the UN out today that states that the rate of growth for feed grain for animals (versus food grain for human consumption) is increasing in the next year!

You tell riveting stories, such as the one about mostly illiterate, low-caste women in India banding together to farm more ecologically using local seeds and traditional farming practices. Do such stories about poverty and hunger reduction in far-off places ever produce a backlash of feelings in your audiences—either of complacence (no problem on our soil) or despair (too big an issue to fix)?

My goal is to inspire activism by illustrating that there are changes happening in more places than just little [upscale American] enclaves. I want to show that these small shifts are a global phenomenon to create hope about what is possible. My goal is to create a cognitive dissonance between what we assume and what is really happening; that there is a living democracy, and it is not just a corrupted system.

Let’s end with something closer to home. Where do you get your food?

I try to go to the food co-op when I can, but Whole Foods is closer to my house. I look for locally produced and organic foods there. We also have a summer share in a CSA. I don’t grow a lot at home because I travel so much and unfortunately, the farmers’ market in my town is in the afternoon, so it’s not easy for me to get there.

It’s comforting to know that even food pioneers struggle through the everyday challenges of shopping and getting meals on the table. That may be the most empowering, possibilist mind frame you can give a home cook. Thank you.