A woman approaches my table in Rebar, the reclaimed Brooklyn factory (now a bar and restaurant) where Anna Lappé and I have agreed to meet. “I’m Anna’s assistant,” she says, shaking my hand. “She’ll be right out.”
Right out? From where? The assistant disappears through glass doors into a hallway. Moments later, Lappé enters from the same doors, looking very much like her photos — dark, pulled-back hair, lively brown eyes that seem to fill her face.
“Sorry,” she says, “I had to nurse the baby.” Turns out Lappé’s office is in the same building, and her 6-month-old daughter, Ida, comes regularly to work with her here in Brooklyn’s up-and-coming DUMBO neighborhood (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), just two subway stops from Lappé’s apartment.
I haven’t met Ida, but I feel I know her a little from Lappé’s soon-to-be-published book Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It, much of it written during the pregnancy. In fact, Lappé finished on Ida’s due date — writing between contractions — and ends on that note.
I also feel I kind of know Lappé’s mom, Frances Moore Lappé, though I’ve never met her either. Her book — the 1971 mega-bestseller Diet for a Small Planet about the social and personal implications of eating non-meat protein — held a prominent place in my own mother’s kitchen when I was growing up (and, incidentally, now sits in mine).
Like mother, like daughter, on both accounts, and especially in the Lappés’ case. Just as Diet for a Small Planet broke ground spotlighting the waste, inefficiency and eco-implications of meat production, Diet for a Hot Planet explores an equally urgent and often overlooked problem — food production’s colossal contribution to climate change — producing one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions.
Not that Lappé intended to follow so closely in her mother’s footsteps. Originally, she aspired to be an educator (and still considers herself one, just not the classroom kind). Frustrated with her graduate program at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, she began seeking ways to make a real difference. “My mother and I started talking about doing a book together, which eventually became Hope’s Edge (published in 2002),” she says. “I was so inspired and energized, I wrote Grub.”
Along the way, Lappé (pictured right) also became a public speaker, TV host, co-founder of the Small Planet Institute with her mom, and founder of Take a Bite, which addresses issues raised in Diet for a Hot Planet.
“Historically, when we’ve looked at climate change, instantly our eyes have turned to main CO2 emitters — like the energy sector,” says Lappé. “But if you start looking at top greenhouse gases (CO2, methane and nitrous oxide), agriculture immediately jumps into the forefront.”
But don’t think Lappé wants mealtime to become a joyless, guilt-ridden affair. “Food choices are really these intimate, personal choices,” she says. “Certainly, I’m not perfect.” Sustainable-food purists, take note: Lappe acknowledges it’s harder in New York City to do things like compost (no municipal composting program), and she has occasionally turned to meat (sustainably raised, of course) during stints abroad when other protein sources were scarce. Her message is really about savoring delicious foods as low on the carbon chain as possible (e.g., unprocessed, lightly packaged, organic, local, plant-centered).
A tall order, yes, but Lappé considers herself a “possibilist.”
“I’m neither optimistic nor pessimistic,” she explains. “Both require a certain hubris that you know what the future will bring. But we don’t know the future, so we can hold onto a sense of possibility and help shape it.”
Which may explain some of Lappé’s affinity for this gritty former manufacturing district — old warehouses and cobblestone streets just brimming with possibility. It may also explain why baby Ida — herself brimming with possibility — is already influencing her mother’s thinking.
As Lappé notes, “I’ve always known to varying degrees that food choices affect the environment and other people — it’s the diet of interdependence. But after having a kid, there’s nothing theoretical about it. What I eat directly affects the other person.”
Could Ida be far behind with her own installment in the “Diet for a” series?
Additional credit: Lappé photo by KalaLea.