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Deconstructing Dinner: Reconstructing Our Food System
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Weekly Column

February 12, 2008


Deconstructing Dinner


Ending Hunger, Feeding Hope

Frances Moore Lappé at the University of Alberta's International Week


Jon Steinman


For the past twenty-two years, the University of Alberta has hosted International Week - a globally-focused series of lectures, workshops, music and activities.


This year's theme was Hungry for Change: Transcending Feast, Famine and Frenzy. Deconstructing Dinner was part of this comprehensive and inspiring event.


To launch the event, it was certainly appropriate to invite one of the world's leading thinkers on the topic of hunger - Frances Moore Lappé, author of the book Diet for a Small Planet.


When it was first released in 1971, Diet for a Small Planet completely changed how the Western world viewed food and agriculture. Lappé has since founded a number of institutes and authored many more books. Her latest focus has been seeking out examples of ‘hope' and how people and communities across the globe are responding to growing inequality, democratic injustices and increasing rates of hunger.


Hunger remains as a focus for Lappé's work, as it's through hunger, she suggests, that humanity can best identify the worst in us and by extension, discover how we can bring out the best in us. "Here we are, this brainy species, and we haven't yet figured out what every other species has - how to feed ourselves and our offspring," said Lappé to the Edmonton audience.


Collectively, however, we have not quite arrived at this important intersection.


While it's clear that the global economic systems of today have only increased hunger, we continue to evolve along the same path, which sees the dominant Western culture continuing to believe in the idea of producing more and more in order to ‘progress'.


So how did we get here?


As Lappé pointed out, our market-driven system of economics was designed to work if it's allowed to be run by a single rule and a highest return to existing wealth (CEOs, stockholders, etc.).


In the case of the global food system, this economic theory has resulted in just a handful of companies now controlling seeds, the trade of grain, and increasingly, the manufacturing of food itself.


Such a model flies in the face of democracy suggested Lappé. "Once economic power is that tightly concentrated, it begins to distort our political systems."


What happens when we allow this market to concentrate its power outside of democratic accountability? Lappé answered this question with the words of former American President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, in April 1938, suggested "liberty and democracy is not safe if a people tolerate the growth of private power to the point that it is stronger than the democratic state itself; that in its essence is fascism."


Powerful words.


Hunger, as Lappé suggested, flows from this concentration of power


While it has long been thought that the response to hunger must be one of producing more, "the scarcity frame lacks credibility", said Lappé. "If you take the world food supply, and the last period, production of food has kept well ahead of population growth."


While Lappé acknowledged that it's certain that "human beings will do very bad things to one another", she does nevertheless remain hopeful. "We also know that we are also hardwired for profoundly pro-social capacities that enable us to get to the routes of hunger and create communities where we can all eat."


Lappé believes that to move beyond the horrible things that we are capable of doing to one another, our ‘social capacities' must be allowed to thrive. Instead, she believes that our society denies these pro-social capacities, and in turn, we get depressed. "Depression is the fourth leading cause of productive life in the world," said Lappé.


So where do we find hope?


Lappé suggested that hope can be futile it it's not visibly connecting to underlying causal patterns. "The work of hope means peeling away the layers of causation, until we can actually see a pattern and know that our actions are actually interrupting the downward spiral that is pulling us into more and more hunger and deprivation."


Her comments reaffirmed how important it is that Deconstructing Dinner continue to document the many food security projects happening across the country.


"You often hear from people, oh, I'm just a drop in the bucket, what do my individual acts matter. But the problem isn't being a drop in the bucket, the problem is most of us can't see the bucket," said Lappé


Luckily for Canadians, those ‘buckets' are beginning to emerge and are encouraging community-wide participation. Whether it be the community supported agriculture (CSA) project for grain in British Columbia, or the growing interest by communities in Canada to create regions that are free of genetically engineered plants and trees, there are many actions that can assist all of us to become proud of being a ‘drop'.


As Lappé suggested, "Hope is not what we seek in evidence, it's only what we become in action."


Deconstructing Dinner is heard on radio stations across Canada and is available as a Podcast. Frances Moore Lappé's keynote address can be heard at (




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