Centennial celebrations are on the airwaves at Rootstock Radio, and you heard it here first. That’s right, this week’s show marks 2 years and 100 episodes of amplifying honest, inspirational, and compassionate voices from all corners of the good food movement. Hosts Theresa Marquez and Anne O’Connor honor the occasion by sitting down together to talk about what Rootstock Radio, sustainability, social justice, agriculture and plain old lip-smacking good food, mean to them.
“The awareness of this broken food system that we inherited, it’s just so much deeper than it was when I first started talking to people,” says Theresa of the revolution she’s seen within the good food movement. But she recognizes there are constants too, adding, “Food is community. It’s culture, it’s family, and that hasn’t changed.”
In fact, Theresa and Anne speak gratefully of the way their mothers, in particular, modeled a thoughtful and engaged relationship with food. Both women remember shared meals as the norm, eating out as a rare treat, fruits and veggies for snacks, and a total ban on soda. And whether guests on Rootstock Radio had similar gastronomic cultures in their own families, when asked about their inspiration, Anne says that most of their interviewees arrive at more or less the same conclusion: “Over and over again you have people say, ‘I do this work because food is was connects people.’ It is the common denominator for all of us.”
There’s no denying it: everyone has to eat.
Theresa and Anne look back over 100 conversations with visionaries like Wendell Berry, Frances Moore-Lappé, Malik Yakini, and Erika Allen—to name just a handful—and draw from their own experiences to celebrate 100 episodes of Rootstock Radio.
If you’re new to the podcast, welcome! If you’re a devoted listener, thanks for giving us your ears and continued support. Either way, you can listen to this episode at the link above, on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts. And don’t forget to subscribe!
Want to hear more from Theresa and Anne? They sat down together once before to chat about the beginnings of food and farming appreciation project Theresa dreamed up called the Earth Dinner.
Transcript: Rootstock Radio 100th Show with Theresa Marquez and Anne O’Connor
Air date: June 12, 2017
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. My name is Theresa Marquez.
ANNE O’CONNOR: And I’m Anne O’Connor, and we are both here today on Rootstock Radio because—
TM: Can you believe, this Anne? It’s our 100th show!
AOC: Hundredth show, woohoo!
TM: Yeah, so what a wonderful feat it’s been for the last few years, doing Rootstock Radio. It’s been such a pleasure and so much fun.
AOC: It has. We’ve had the opportunity to bring some really incredible voices to our show and talk about the solutions that we know exist out there in the food system that really needs solutions.
TM: And you know, it’s just like every show, I’ve started out with, I’ve always wondered, what the heck? Why are you doing what you do? And you know, I realize I’ve never really said that to you, Anne. Why are you interested in food and farming?
AOC: Well, I live in a town in a rural community. And you know, that experience is one that many years ago most people in our country have had. It’s not so true anymore. But I really love living in a farming community. And it’s given me an insight that I didn’t have as a city dweller, which I’ve been most of my life, to look at how food is produced and the ways that it gets on my plate. And when I serve to my children in my home, I have a really different understanding of that now than I did many years ago. So once you know a little bit about how things happen, it’s really interesting and kind of imperative to talk about it and to try to find the ways that we can do it better.
TM: You know, it’s so funny, while I was asking you that question, I was answering it in my own mind. And I was thinking, you know, I would have answered that so much differently two or three years ago, before I started doing these interviews. And I’ve learned so much about what has driven people, but over and over again the kind of passion that people have for changing the food system is probably deeper now than what I experienced when I grew up, than what my mother had or my grandmother had. They didn’t have that same drive to change the food system then. What they did have was the kind of thing that all we women, I think, have, and probably a lot of men too, and that is wanting to make sure that our children are healthy and that they have the full potential of developing their brains and their bodies so that they could be the people that they wanted to be.
And so, wow, we have like a lot of other layers now, because I think that the awareness of this broken food system that we inherited is just so deep, and so much deeper than it was when I first started talking to people, now more so than ever. And I see that what you just said drives you. Gee, once you know that something is broken and you don’t do something about it, you know, you just can’t help it—you have to. And so I think that that certainly is so different than our parents. I mean, I’m always intrigued with what was in my grandma’s pantry and what we did learn from our parents that helped us today. You know, I just wondered if you had any of those kinds of reflections as you start looking at, well gee, what is it we’re learning today? How is it we’re building on what we learned from our parents? And how did we get to this place of a broken food system?
AOC: Yeah, you bring up so many good points there. I mean, for me personally, you know, I have grandparents on my father’s side who came from Ireland. And both sides, my mom’s side and my dad’s side both, had real cooking families, you know. They really, we sat down, we had dinner together, and that’s what we did. We had meals together. And so I have a good, solid tradition of that, cooking and special foods for special occasions, and I really have carried that on through my life.
But the other thing that I’ve learned in doing these interviews for Rootstock Radio is like how many people connect their current work and the solutions that they’re doing back to the most intimate relationships in their lives—their families, their communities, the things that really matter. And over and over again, you have people say, “I do this work because food is what connects people.” It is the common denominator for all of us.
TM: Well, you know, that’s what hasn’t changed, I think, because… It’s so interesting to hear you start talking about “we always ate together as a family.” Well, how many people can say that today? I read a statistic about how a third of meals are eaten in cars now! So the new dinner table is the front seat, back seat, or something like that. If I wasn’t there for dinner when my mom was putting it on the table, my dad—I’m sorry to say it, but we could get the strap.
AOC: (laughing) Right! And you know the other thing at my table is that we stayed at the table until the food was gone—which often meant for me that I was sitting at the table like an hour longer than everybody else, because I was really slow. And so it was just, that was the norm in our house, you know: like you’re given food, you’re going to eat that food.
These stories of families is sort of where it starts for everyone, right? This is where we learn about food. This is where we learn how food comes to be for us.
TM: Food is community. It’s culture, it’s family. And that hasn’t changed. The thing that I think has changed—and I kind of am thinking of Joan Gussow right now, who is my favorite octogenarian and one of my favorite people to interview any time of the day or night. She wrote a book called The Feeding Web, and she brought a new concept to the Columbia School of Food and Nutrition. And at that point everyone said, “Listen, nutrition starts at the plate to your stomach, and that’s it.” And she said nutrition starts with the soil. She brought this idea that I think we’re trying to bring to life here at Rootstock Radio, and that is food isn’t just from the plate to your stomach anymore. We have to think about everything that goes into it, all the way from what the billions of life-forms in the soil are. And I’ve always appreciated Joan for that. She’s been just a gift to learning so much about this wheel of life.
But you know, I would have to say that on our 100th show, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least think about my mother and thank her for all the goodness that she gave me with regards to how I look at food. Once again, I don’t think many people out there probably will believe this, but when I grew up, we almost never ate out. Once a year was eating out. And I think that was relatively common in my neighborhood. No one ate out. There wasn’t a McDonald’s—imagine that! But you know, she always cooked from scratch. And the other thing she did was she composted. And—
AOC: That’s incredible.
TM: Yeah, so I’m kind of like so grateful for her, because I’ve heard so many stories of others whose parents had gone through that convenience and “Oh no, I’m not cooking anymore. I don’t want to cook. Cooking is drudgery.” And I’ve met so many people who grew up on frozen food. I don’t know—Anne, what was your experience like?
AOC: Well, I too was very lucky. I had a mother who grew up on a farm in northern Minnesota, and she knew how to cook, she knew how to make meals. You know, she had five kids, and she was making meals from scratch three times a day, making us lunches for school. And I feel very grateful. I know this was true in your household too, Theresa, but my mom didn’t allow soda pop. Snacks were things like fruits and vegetables, you know. She wasn’t crazy strict about it or anything. We did occasionally, very, very occasionally go to McDonald’s as a huge treat. And you know, we would have… She wasn’t into forbidding things. I think she knew that wasn’t a really good idea.
But she made… I remember her making these charts that she would put up on the wall with the amounts of proteins and different elements that she wanted to make sure she had in each meal. So she was very conscious about it. She did a lot of reading. And so yeah, I grew up with a real awareness.
TM: Well, you know, I had that similar experience of that. Soda? Oh no! So a lot of kids, like a huge percentage of them, have three 20-ounce soda pops with high fructose corn syrup in it, and now we have an obesity problem and we have a terrible diabetes problem. And of course I’ve learned a lot of that from the people that we’ve interviewed. And like Frances Lappé, who is one of my favorite people who I’ve been so honored to interview as well, you know, talks about how we’re worried about food scarcity, but one of the other things that we absolutely should be terribly worried about is the absolute nutritional deprivation that so many people in the world… We might have as many as a third of the people in the world who aren’t getting the kind of nutrition they need to develop their brains. And we wonder why we’re making probably wrong decisions or that we have some of the crazy stuff that we have around us when so many people probably aren’t reaching their full ability to use their brains and their bodies.
AOC: Yeah, I mean it makes a lot of sense: if you’re sitting in school and you’re hungry and you’re not well fed, you’re not going to be able to concentrate very well. And with all that life demands of us, having the proper nutrition is really important. And we know that there are communities where that doesn’t happen and people aren’t getting what they need. And there are some amazing people doing incredible things out there. And we’ve been really, really lucky to bring some of them on the show for the past three years. I think our first interview was way back in 2015, in April, Nina Teicholz. And you interviewed her, Theresa. What was that like?
TM: Yeah, The Big Fat Surprise. That was an exciting time, I think, because the world had already decided that anything fat is bad. We realized that maybe some fats were better than other fats, and there are some good fats out there.
AOC: Hear, hear!
TM: And you know, I’ve really enjoyed interviewing some of our dietitians that we’ve interviewed, like Melinda Hemmelgarn, like Ashley Koff, who have such sophisticated understanding of the idea of good fat, bad fat, and also this idea that the goodness of our food has to come from good soil and good farming, all the way up.
AOC: I remember my interview with Malik Yakini, and this was earlier this year, in fact, where Malik is the executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. And we had a great show around, you know, him and the people he works with, working in the community to try to help people understand how to grow their own food, how to grow nutritious food, how to learn again how to cook, how to take back the community and give themselves the food that they need. So that was very inspiring. And I think people like Malik, who—well, I don’t know if there are other people like Malik, he’s a pretty extraordinary guy! But there’s a lot of really impressive things happening out there in communities where people are saying, “Hey, this is our community—we can do things, we can make this better for ourselves.” And they’re spearheading these incredible initiatives where they are helping people understand like okay, there’s not a lot of great food options here. What can we do for ourselves to improve this?
TM: You know, I just am so inspired by so many people like Malik who are out there saying, “We’re going to change.”
AOC: Yeah, I think the other piece of it that’s so important is just this idea of, you know, building community around food. This is not a single endeavor, right? It’s not a lone person’s endeavor. Food is, as always, is an endeavor that we undertake with people and with community. And when you have community support—and you know, we’ve just seen this in every topic that we talk about, from pesticides to antibiotics to improving the soil—whatever you’re talking about, there’s a whole community of people out there who are learning new things and taking that up in their communities and making that real for them. And so that learning from the people before us and standing on the shoulders, you know, it’s an interesting thing. Like we have so much to learn, and there’s still so much knowledge that we can gain from people who are around us in our communities.
So that’s one of the things I’ve really loved about this show is to see, like, all these little pockets where things are progressing and people are really hopeful and making things happen for themselves and their communities, you know?
TM: Yeah, while you were talking, I was thinking about Will and Erika Allen, who I so enjoyed interviewing them at different times. And Erika, you know, talk about a chip-off-the-old-block kind of thing, the work that she’s doing in Chicago. And the really inspiration—which is kind of what I love about the Rootstock Radio, I’m so inspired by so many people—and Erika combining her love of art with food. There’s a lot of things we don’t know, but I think when we get inspired we go out and we want to learn more, and we want to try something different. My current inspiration was John Ikerd, who retires and spends fifteen years working in Iowa to reform farming. Blessed be!
AOC: People are passionate! And this is not easy work, right? I mean, most of what people are doing out there is not easy. There’s a lot of people throwing mud, saying it’s not real, it’s not true, it doesn’t work. And the interesting thing is we do have a lot of the solutions, like people are making things work. And so I think it’s pretty courageous of people to step forward in a climate, at a time when you know to step forward and say some of these things is really going to…it’s not going to go over well in a lot of places.
TM: Yeah, and you know, you’re bringing up something that I’m always worried about with regards to our show. I really love farmers, you know, whether they’re conventional farmers or organic farmers or sustainable farmers or livestock farmers or squash farmers. You know, they are doing something pretty creative and also very tough to do today. And I know that sometimes our show comes across like maybe we are against conventional farmers. But I’m worried about them. Sometimes I’m worried about them poisoning themselves, and sometimes I’m worried about their economics. And I just am wondering, you know, how can we be inspired to being more inclusive? To speak our truth without disparaging anyone has been always a difficulty that I’m kind of wrestling with. And I haven’t actually ever even talked with you about that, but what do we do to open our hearts in ways that we could be inclusive?
AOC: Ah, it’s such a great question. And I know we have talked about, because we talk about this a lot in our everyday lives, of not wanting to disparage anyone. And yet it feels disparaging when you say, hey, pesticides cause all kinds of problems for workers and for the planet. That can feel like a very personal attack on people. And yet, you know, there are these consequences that are real. There are these consequences that, where the planet is suffering.
And so, you know, I think that maybe you hit on one key part of it when you were talking, which is to say we have to speak our truth and we don’t want to disparage someone. Just helping people to understand that this is the way that we see things. Obviously we see them this way or we wouldn’t be having these people on our shows, right? And people see things differently. So you know, organic at this point is one of the fastest-growing segments of the food industry—the fastest growing. It does offer some solutions. It’s not going to be for everybody, but it is something that, of course, we hope people have the ability to look at and say, “Hmm, well, is there a different way?”
I wonder, Theresa, when you’ve spoken to people who’ve had really hard things to say about conventional farming, how do you come to that in the show? You know, because it’s a tough moment, right?
TM: Right. And by the way, some of those people are often our farmers who have been conventional. I’m not sure I ever told you this story, but I’m not wanting to disparage my grandfather, my mother’s father, but he used paraquat and 2,4-D, and it was very, very common in even as early as 1929 and before World War II. And you know, of course, that 2,4-D—which is being brought back now, so there are very big lessons from the past that we should take a look at right now—got put together with 2,4,5-T and became Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Anyway, my mother passed probably before her time from Parkinson’s, which is now very much associated with paraquat and 2,4-D. That doesn’t make me mad at my grandfather, because he just didn’t know.
And then the other connection for me was my first boyfriend in high school died early, and his obituary was he died of complications of being sprayed on in the Vietnam War of Agent Orange. And just all of these things, I can’t not just turn my head and say there’s something wrong with that. We shouldn’t be dying before our time from the way we produce our food. And I actually, truly believe we don’t have to.
AOC: Theresa, I think you nailed the very thing that prompts both you and I to keep saying out loud, “There is another way.” And it’s, you know, your mother, your first boyfriend from high school—there’s very personal things at stake here. And when I hear farmers who have switched from conventional farming to organic farming say things like “Wow, now I don’t have to take off all my clothes and put them in a separate pile to wash, before I hug my kids when I come home,” or “I used to have cows that had twisted stomach all the time in my barn, and some mornings I’d walk out and they’d be dead, and that just doesn’t happen anymore as an organic farmer.” Personal stories that we’ve seen, when we see that birds return to fields, and worms return to the soil. And it’s very hard to hear all those stories and then not say anything—to not bring it back and say, “Okay, wait, let’s do something differently.”
TM: Yeah, there’s that, and then of course there’s just talking to people about their stories. That’s so much fun. I was just thinking about Wendell Berry, which I’m so grateful that I had that opportunity, a real privilege of meeting him, actually quite a few years ago, and then have seen him, talked with him, and interacted with him several times since then, and then recently his daughter. And the last time, during the interview, for those of you who remember it, he says that those of us who care so deeply about food and farming must learn to be patient in a crisis.
AOC: I think there’s something really important about that combination of building community, of being patient, of not thinking “We have the solution and we know how this should be”—and also saying out loud the things that are true, the things that are real. You know, one of the great interviews that I did was with Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, and she is the senior scientist and director of the grassroots science program Pesticide Action Network. Brilliant woman, brilliant scientist. So one of the things that Marcia says is that this hazardous pesticides use has been growing, and she says:
“It’s been pushed aggressively by a small number of mega corporations, the likes of Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta, Dow, and DuPont, and so on. They’ve been pushing these pesticides, really, as a means of shoring up, of maintaining corporate profits…. And as a result of this, we have seen contamination of air, water, and soil; we’ve seen rising rates of childhood cancers; we’ve seen plummeting bee populations and other unraveling of ecosystem functions that are necessary for survival on the planet. And so what ordinary people, as you say, need to understand is that while these pesticides have been marketed as a necessity to growing food and supposedly feeding the world, what they have actually done is unravel our communities’ capacity to provide healthy, nourishing food the world over.”
TM: For those of you just joining us, you are listening to Anne O’Connor and Theresa Marquez from Rootstock Radio. And we’re having the most delightful time of thinking about our 100th show, which is today. So Anne, it’s so lovely to be speaking with you, and so unusual.
We would be remiss with, you know, yes, there’s some very tragic things going on in our food system. What has happened because of that has been this wonderful, tremendous outpouring of CSAs and farmers markets and hundreds and hundreds of them now springing up like little dandelions all over the country, and this whole local food movement, which has been pretty exciting. And of course, Will Allen and Growing Power, et cetera, and others who we’ve had the wonderful treasure of getting to know. I’m thinking of the [organic seed] breeders, like Bill Tracy and Lane Selman and the Seed Savers [Exchange] and the Xerces [Society for Invertebrate Conservation]. And those people have just been doing so much wonderful work, trying to bring new breeds, new organic breeds; Xerces, saving pollinators. So with every action, reaction, we’re seeing some very exciting and hopeful projects all over the country right now that are bringing good food to people. And I even, on my best day, am hoping that people actually are learning even how to cook again.
AOC: Well, I love that. You know, I think that there are programs and there are people who are understanding that, okay, you can help people grow their own food, but if they don’t know how to cook it, what are you going to do then? So it is kind of a revival, right? There’s a revival and an awareness that the Internet has helped us with, and people are beginning to understand that there is power in creating your own strength and your own food system.
TM: And how about those millennials? I think that we have a couple of them, don’t we?
AOC: I’d say we do.
TM: And you know, I’m actually quite thrilled—you know, I understand they’re a very snacking kind of group, but I also know that one of the things that many of the millennials like to do is they get together and they cook! And they like to try things, and they’re experimental, and they’re more cosmopolitan, and very, very much concerned, even if they are snackers, about where their food comes from.
AOC: So Theresa, that reminds me of my interview with Navina Khanna. She’s the director of HEAL Food Alliance, and she is so on this point about look, we have to know where our food comes from, and it has to be integrated into our lives, right? She’s a millennial and she’s brilliant. And she says:
“[I]t’s sometimes really hard to envision and to articulate what it is that we really want. And I think it’s really important for us to be able to name at least some of those things that we really want—what it means for us to live in communities that are thriving, so that we can actually have a strategy to move there. I think some of the elements are really around community control of our systems, and that includes our government systems, it includes how we relate to the land that we’re on. Really stewarding our land and our water and our air in ways that are about life as the thing that we value, right? Life as the thing that we hold sacred.”
TM: Beautiful! Well, you know, I think, as we are winding down our conversation, it’s spring! And I am thinking, you listeners out there, if you haven’t planted a garden, well maybe that’s okay, but remember, there is this thing out there someone identified—in fact, I’d love to interview Richard Louv at some point in time, who coined the term “nature deficit disorder.” But he recommends, hey, plant something, even if it’s a flower in a pot or a piece of parsley or some basil. But don’t have nature deficit disorder. Remember that we all come from the earth and that it’s a great way to be connected. And as we look at spring—and I always get itchy as can be—it is not just fun to know where your food comes from, but boy, is it ever wonderful when you grow something and then eat it!
AOC: Absolutely. And Rootstock Radio is our way to connect with you, our listeners. And we’re so appreciative of you, and thank you for 100 shows!
TM: Hear, hear, Anne!
AOC: And she’s Theresa Marquez, and I’m Anne O’Connor, and we will see you next week on Rootstock Radio.
You can listen to Rootstock Radio on the go at iTunes and Stitcher, and find us online at rootstock.coop/radio. Rootstock Radio is brought to you by Organic Valley Family of Farms.