Joan Gussow - Copy

Joan Dye Gussow




Joan, Thank you for being with us. We are interested in learning about you and your work. Before we get started, it dawned on me that Jane and I have known you for over 30 years. It all started when Jane left the corporate world and entered Columbia University, Teacher College on her way to her Doctorate in Nutrition & Education. You were her dissertation advisor. Prior to our founding KIDS, we learned much through working with you on the Earth Friends program at TC. A lot of water has gone under the bridge and we sit here today to learn more about the imprint Joan Gussow has made on the understanding of food & nutrition in today's world.

LL-Let’s start with where you are from and your background

JG-I think my unusual career in the field of food has a lot to do with the wandering way I got here. Before I came to New York in 1950, I graduated from California’s Pomona College, lacking only classes in German and physics to qualify as a pre-medical student. I liked writing and having concluded in my junior year that one could not be both a doctor and a wife and mother, I came to New York to look for a job in journalism.

I worked at Time Magazine as a researcher (only men were writers) for 6 years before quitting to get married and have a family. And while I was pregnant with my first son, my brother-in-law introduced me to Adele Davis, a renegade nutritionist and serious critic of the food supply. I must have been ready for the lessons in her Let’s Have Healthy Children since I immediately took up her challenge to make my family into healthy eaters and became known among my friends as the person to ask about nutrition—though I knew much less than they thought.

Once both my sons were in school (nursery school from early infancy wasn’t an option in those days) I got some writing work at home and ended up co-writing two books, only one of which acknowledged me as an author. The process convinced me that the only way I could write under my own name was by getting an advanced degree, and since the second book I helped write had a lot to do with nutrition, it didn’t take long for me to decide I needed to get a degree in that field so I could back up my negative view of the food supply with deep professional knowledge. I knew of Columbia’s Institute of Nutrition, and the Program in Nutrition Education at Columbia’s Teachers College. The first required full-time attendance so, still tied to sons at home, I applied to the second and was accepted.

And the first thing I learned when I started classes was that the field was paying almost no attention to the food supply. We were taught about nutrients, not food. Food supply criticism was directed solely at health food stores selling brown rice to “hippies.” When an environmental advocacy group called CAN (Consumer Action Now) called the nutrition program asking for a speaker on food additives, I—then a 41-year-old freshman—was sent to speak as the only person at Teachers College who had paid any attention to that topic.

But despite the clear messages I received about what I was supposed to know, I have spent my time in the field of nutrition education looking at the interface between planetary health and our food supply. Perhaps this was because I was interested in environmental issues before I began studying nutrition; perhaps because I was so old when I began school that no one had the nerve to try to tell me which food problems it was inappropriate to think about so I thought about those that seemed to me most pressing.

My husband was an artist and environmentalist on the board of Friends of the Earth, and among the books, I had read while I was a “non-working” mother was Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb which warned urgently that we were running out of food. So when I was asked in my second year of graduate school to assist in a course called “current issues in nutrition” that focused on nutrients, I managed to drag into it a session on world hunger. And in 1972 when a little volume called Limits to Growth caused a sensation among fans of growth at all costs, I snuck in a second session on the question of whether there actually were limits to growth. When my colleague who was leading the class failed to get tenure and left, the course fell into my hands. I immediately began modifying it into what eventually became Nutritional Ecology, a course that listed itself in the catalog as looking at all the factors from air pollution to economics that affected what we had to eat.

What was emerging in my thinking was an understanding that our food supply, was entirely dependent on a series of material things like-, light, water, minerals—and chlorophyll! But it was also dependent on our protecting a series of free services that Nature provides—managing the hydrologic cycle, maintaining the composition of the atmosphere, recycling of nutrients and the like.

And so was born—and communicated in speeches, articles and my nutritional ecology class—an ever-evolving understanding of what was essential to our future as consuming creatures, including an increasing emphasis on various aspects of sustainability and agriculture and a somewhat recently added session on Information Pollution—the relevance being that if we can’t get hold of the truth, we can’t act wisely.

LL=What are the biggest challenges for the issues you care most about today

JG-I suspect that what I care about most today is not so much whether there will be enough food to keep humanity alive, but whether the complex and beautiful living object that is our planet will survive us with at least some of its abundance, generosity, and beauty intact. So I think the biggest underlying challenge to maintaining planetary stability is the increasing detachment of a growing portion of the human population from the rest of the living world. Clumped in cities, we simply don’t know where we are. We are only now, and still only partly, taking seriously the drastic climate alterations we are producing on this planet by our century-long fossil-carbon party, though these trends have been urgently noted for decades. And despite successive horrifying U.N. reports on the devastating impacts of our lifestyles on the air, the waters and the soils, and the living creatures who depend on them, there is as yet no serious mobilization to even begin the process of re-integrating us with the natural world so as to allow it to recover.

At some point in all this thinking, I became convinced that unless people knew how farming worked, it would be difficult to engage them in reforming our dangerously unsustainable food system; people needed to know a farmer. And the only way people could know a farmer was if there was a farm near where they lived; and nearby farms could only survive if folks would buy food from them which meant they would need to eat more seasonally and locally, depending less on imported food.

But what would they eat where the winters were cold? I didn’t know. I was a native Californian, so I expanded the small vegetable garden I had in my New York state yard and tried to learn what I could eat from my own garden in a northeast winter. Having quickly learned that it wasn’t really so hard to do, I began going out and talking to my colleagues about teaching people how to eat more seasonally and locally. And meanwhile, I became utterly addicted to growing my own food. So I did and still do.

LL-What drives you considering that you are 91 and still an important person in your field with much more to contribute

JG-It’s true that I am 91, but there are a couple of other assumptions in that question—that I am an important person in the field and that I have much more to contribute. If I accept those assumptions then they should certainly be driving me to push harder to provoke serious change.

LL-In conclusion what message do you want to deliver to our readers? What do you think your legacy should be.

JG-I hope I will be remembered as someone who tried always to find the truth and tell it even when it broke the bounds and undercut the standard assumptions of my profession, and even when trying to teach it meant depressing generations of graduate students in the course of enlightening them. And finally, I’ve had a wonderful life—being paid for doing what you believe in is a great privilege.

Joan garden1
Joan garden2
eliminate hunger

About us

Kids Can Make a Difference is a program of iEARN (International Education and Resource Network), the world's largest non-profit global network. iEARN enables teachers and youth to use the Internet and other technologies to collaborate on projects that enhance learning and make a difference in the world.

Finding Solutions to Poverty & Inequality Alliance:

unnamed 1
Powered by Mad Mimi®A GoDaddy® company