Environmental Hero: Frances Moore Lappé

Frances at the Democracy Spring rally near the steps of the capitol in Washington DC on April 11, 2016,after marching from Philadelphia to the capital, where she was arrested along with over 1,300 others in the largest American civil disobedience action of the 21st century, calling for democracy reforms to remove the power of big money and to protect the right to vote for all citizens. Image credit: Courtesy of Frances Moore Lappé

Environmental Hero: Frances Moore Lappé

As a social worker in the mid-1960s, it was Frances’ job to get the community involved with welfare rights in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Philadelphia. But what she ended up finding were mothers desperate to feed their children. When one of the women she worked closely with died from a heart attack at 40 years old, it compelled her to take a hiatus from doing social work to find out why this happened to someone at such a young age.

After she moved west with her husband, who was teaching at the University of California at Berkeley, she decided that if she could get to the heart of hunger, it would unlock the mystery of economics and politics.

This was the birth of her best-selling book, Diet for a Small Planet. From a DIY pamphlet to a book that sold millions of copies, this year is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Diet for a Small Planet and its relevance is even more important today as we look towards more sustainable and regenerative ways of growing and eating food in order to mitigate the worst effects of the climate crisis.

Hunger is often not caused by food insufficiency but by the scarcity of democracy. Access to healthy food is a human right, and Frances has long believed that her role is to empower people to develop decision-making skills that allow them to feed themselves. While the original diet and this 50th-anniversary special edition includes plant-centered recipes, Diet for a Small Planet isn’t just a cookbook. It teaches us that people can have universal access to a sustainable diet while contributing to a healthy environment, democracies for the people, and a robust economy.

Frances Moore Lappé in 2000 with the person she calls her “lodestar of courage” and personal hero, Wangari Maathai, 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Winner, taken in Kenya during Frankie’s book research tour for Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet, with Anna Lappé. 

Dubbed the “Movement Mother” by New York Magazine and Diet for a Small Planet named “one of the most influential political tracts of the times” by the Smithsonian, Frances is the author of 20 books, the recipient of 20 honorary degrees, and a famous public speaker. 

She is a co-founder of the Oakland-based Food First, the Center for Living Democracy (1991-2000), and the Cambridge-based Small Planet Institute, which was founded with her daughter, Anna Lappé. She is also the founding member of the World Future Council and serves on the National Advisory Board of the Union of Concerned Scientists. 

In 1987, Lappé received the Right Livelihood Award, often called the “Alternative Nobel,” and in 2008, the James Beard Foundation honored her as the Humanitarian of the Year.

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