Western Today recently sat down with Huxley Professor Gigi Berardi to chat about her new book, "FoodWISE," discussing the origins of the project and how it came about to the response it has garnered and what her plans are to support the book. FoodWISE will be released by its publisher, North Atlantic Books, on Jan. 14, with a launch party set for the downtown Bellingham Community Food Co-op at 6:30 p.m. that night.
Western Today: What prompted you to write Food WISE?
Gigi: My main motivation (or, should I say, inspiration) for writing FoodWISE was students! For decades, I’ve been watching students struggle with questions around what’s the “right” food to eat? What’s the best choice for “sustainability,” for “food justice?” What’s the deal with quinoa — it’s high in protein, but what about the land grabs associated with its production? And, if we care about honeybee populations, do we really want to eat almonds? So, I wanted to write a book that presented a systematic way of looking at food choices—the choices piece is important. The book is not so much about food as it is about food choices. And then, from the production and processing side, how do we get everybody talking to each other? Literally, at the same table.
WT: Your research interests blend environmental studies and the arts … how did you get into food as a point of study?
Gigi: I grew up in what I would call a “food-centered household.” Food was key to everything we did—socially. Even now, a meeting (even a course, dare I say it) without food is just an email! Food was almost a language in my Italian-oriented family, and we did speak it well! So, every Sunday night, we’d have huge Italian dinners, representing days of cooking and hours of eating—all with family and friends. That was my normal.
Professionally, my interests in food started with a year abroad at the University of Sussex right outside London, in Brighton England in the 1970s. I was studying Biology during very heady times in world food and oil circles, and food activism was big. From there, I went to study at Cornell University (graduate school) and co-founded the Coalition for the Right to Eat, and focused my research on energy inputs in food systems. I lived with old-order Amish farmers and researched something that was just starting to be called “organic agriculture’ (as an academic study), then I studied soils and did my doctorate on dairy farmers struggling economically with poor soils and low prices. I then had an “environmental Fulbright”—there were only two in Europe that year: one in France and one in Italy. I chose Italy, and as a result my Italian got a lot better, which is what I need to teach my global-learning-programs there each summer. I published on pesticide contamination and energy use in Italian foods (in BioScience, and elsewhere), and then continued to work on food and food systems throughout my academic career.
WT: As the world’s population continues to grow and climate change alters established growing areas and patterns of agriculture, how does HOW our food is grown become more and more important?
Gigi: How our food is grown is utterly critical to leading a wise and rich life in a socially- and economically-just world. Don’t we want to be informed? Yes, knowledge is power and experience is wisdom — and we need both, which is why they are connected to the acronym which we will be discussing below. I don’t want to trivialize all world environmental problems by describing a solution in one word, but I’m going to try: Whole. What we need is whole food systems, where ingredients are whole, fertility is integrated and pegged to plant needs. “The ”Whole” farm, as I discuss in Part 1 of the book, produces crops and livestock, recycles wastes, regenerates resources, and connects to consumers.” (quote from book). “Whole” gives us sustainability and, importantly, resilience. Resilient food systems are able to withstand threats (political, economic) from outside by building adaptive capacity. Until that happens, there is little hope for an economically-just world in which nutritious food choices are possible.
As I write in FoodWISE, “Maybe if we can figure out the right choices for ourselves, we’ll gain the power to change our whole lives just through our food.” Climate change adaptation is part of that. But really, the “recipe” for whole farming — more integrated farming (plants, animals) and on a nonindustrial scale, gets us there.
WT: So much of what we eat tends to be sort of compartmentalized into whatever diet, formal or informal, we are currently on … how important is it to break out of that line of thinking?
Gigi: It's the fierce food beliefs we cling to that guide our food choices into what could be construed as a diet. This is what gives us, in part, a plethora of low-fat, processed foods that seem like "healthy" food options. Breaking "free" from this line of thinking is tantamount to embracing the FoodWISE approach. Whole, informed, sustainable, experience—little of that is possible with most of the "diets" that are being touted as "healthy" and "good for you." I would suggest that "diet" more broadly speaking, means "way of life." I'm all for ways of life that promote whole foods in whole farming systems. If we value and prioritize that, then FoodWISE thinking is possible.
WT: The “WISE” in the book’s title is actually an acronym for Whole, Informed, Sustainable, and Experienced … why are these four points so important?
Gigi: Literally, experience is wisdom, according to Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe who wrote Practical Wisdom—wisdom (and Schwartz’s and Sharpe’s thinking) is one of the main themes in my book. WISE is both an approach and a product. Here, we're talking about the wisdom to do the right thing in producing food, processing it, and consuming it. Experience gives us a basis for choice—we practice doing the right thing. Being informed gives us the information we need about whole food systems and whole foods, which are efficient in use of resources, and, necessarily sustainable.
WT: The reaction to your book has been incredible, from foodies to developmental sociologists to psychologists and more. How does it feel to have worked so hard one something that is being so universally applauded?
Gigi : It's quite surprising — and overwhelming and heartwarming all at the same time. I can remember when I first was aware of the publicity. I was giving a departmental seminar on my sabbatical and book project. That spring quarter, I was working 15-18 hours a day editing, when I wasn't teaching or milking sheep. It was an all-consuming process, which I wanted to explain to the Department. During the talk, my department chair interrupted to say that the book was for sale on the Target website. Target? Target’s selling it? Even given my strong critical-of-industry stance, with the book in the editing stage, and at a discounted price? This is all certainly beyond what I've experienced as an academic. I'm glad the book is getting such notice--it's a tribute to Western students (who I acknowledge throughout the book) and to Pacific Northwest food and farming—all made possible with some financial support from Western. So, in a word, I'm happy. Pleasantly surprised, let's say.