Fresh out of college, Jill Richardson found herself broke and carless faced with two options -- eating poorly or not eating much at all. Fed up with her food choices she became a vegetarian with a vengeance. Richardson decided to take ownership of her own eating habits and her own words. Rising to prominence as a Daily Kos blogger and founder and publisher of LaVidalocavore.org, she’s taking on the U.S. industrial food complex.
This summer she published her first book, Recipe for America: Why Our Food System is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It. MNN contributor Enrique Gili sat down with her to discuss the difficult process of morphing from a popular blogger into a published author. The sometime diarist, software-nerd-turned-food-activist dishes on how the sausage gets made in Washington and why consumers are made to suffer the consequences.
MNN: How did you make the transition from blogging to becoming an author?
Richardson: Blog writing prepared me for the book in the sense that anytime I read a new book or found an interesting article, I would blog on it. It was essentially a catalogue of all my research. So when it was time to write the book, the research was done.
So what’s your really big idea?
I wanted to fill the gap in all the books that exist out there. When they say we need political reform. What does that mean?
So what’s the problem that Recipe for America seeks to address?
The core problem is the lack of democracy in our food system. It’s a small group of influential players who have most of the power. We need to take our power back.
How would you address that problem?
Essentially when our government goes to make decisions they’re not looking at all the stakeholders. They’re not looking at all the evidence. Honestly, in this country money talks. We have a system that’s biased towards those with the most money and influence. I think a first step involves getting all the stakeholders at the table -- farmers, environmentalists, health care advocates. Being open to what they have to say is a precursor to any solution.
Do you think there’s any greater transparency in government now that Obama is in office?
I see the beginning of that. I use the USDA’s data extensively. You can track how much food is produced in a year. Every five years they do an agricultural census that checks everything from the ethnicity of farmers to the crops they grow. There’s a lot out there in terms of information; you have to have the willingness and the knowledge to go sift through it.
In terms of reforming the food system, doesn’t the sheer number of agencies administering food production -- or even defining what food is -- complicate matters?
It’s very confusing. There’s a controversy as to who regulates organic wine. The department of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms or the USDA? They’ve settled upon the USDA, I think.
What is the consumer to gain from the “truthiness” of food labeling when it comes to smart food purchases?
Oh my God! They’re not intended to help you make intelligent decisions at all. They’re all for marketing. At least with “organic,” it means specific things that you can look up.
What’s a good first step for the average consumer?
Write your Congressman. There are a million hot issues. You need to know how to jump on them.
Isn’t that naively optimistic?
I think it will work, because I’ve seen it work. Of course you need to get some other folks with you. Be polite. Do you homework. Get your facts lined up. It does make a difference.
So do you think Michelle Obama’s organic garden is of symbolic value or intrinsic worth when it comes to shaping food policy?
At first I was quietly calling the idea of a White House garden stupid. But then someone forwarded a letter to me that was sent to Michelle Obama from a pesticide and biotech industry group. I published the letter, which made the news internationally. They were very threatened by it. Seeing how much the garden bothered them made me see the real value.
Are you growing anything right now?
Mold in my fridge. I live in a small apartment. And to be honest, I don’t know how to garden.