La Vida Locavore

Food revolutionary Joan Dye Gussow

By Matthew Benson

Photography by Matthew Benson


La Vida Locavore: Food revolutionary Joan Dye GussowStanding against the vast, intemperate sweep of the Hudson River—like an Old Testament prophet—Joan Gussow can't escape the metaphors her storm-tossed garden invokes. "I guess I've been going against the current for ages," she says. Her advocacy in support of local-food systems predates today's green movement by decades, for while the rest of the culture was idling at the drive-through of food consciousness, Gussow was a fist-in-the-air campaigner for nutritional standards. As a writer (This Organic Life: Confessions of a Surburban Homesteader, Chelsea Green, 2001), educator, and visionary antagonist of the industrial food system, she has helped mobilize the farm-crawling locavore in all of us.

"I used to be considered totally insane," Gussow says, recalling how her ideas were once thought of as far-fetched. "I was one of those people who'd ruin dinner parties by talking about the planet's future." But now that the level of food literacy is up, Gussow is on everyone's Evite list. "There's so much more out there about food, so much talk and action; more farmers' markets, more CSAs," she observes. "Now local is a tag word people love."

The decentralized 19th-century agricultural model, in which farms and food production were integrated into communities, may be one ironically progressive solution to righting the wobbly petroleum-wheeled food cart. And if the peak-oil scenarios are right, and $300-a-barrel oil is in our imminent future, a 2,000-mile salad from the Salinas Valley of California will be considered a luxury food item, right up there with Perigord black truffles and foie gras. The environmental awakening of the past decade has been encouraging, Gussow admits, but we'll surely need a concerted Darwinian adaptation as a culture in order to prepare ourselves for a sustainable future. "We're all going to have to make other arrangements," she says wryly.

Gussow's expertise as an educator has been in nutrition: She is professor emeritus of nutrition and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and has served on the Diet, Nutrition, and Cancer Panel of the National Academy of Sciences, as well as on the FDA's Food Advisory Panel and most recently on the National Organic Standards Board. Her work from the beginning has focused on shaping the argument over what America eats and drinks; in a culture that has been suckled on the subsidized teat of processed fat and sugar, that's no mean feat. The locavore movement really began as an effort to educate consumers about food: In order to understand what you're eating, know the source.