WWU Professor of Environmental Studies Gigi Berardi recently received the silver medal from the Living Now Book Awards for “FoodWISE,” a guide to sustainable food choices. Berardi has described the book as tackling political economy, food psychology and sustainability in a world of constantly changing information.
The Living Now Book Awards were established in late 2008 by IndependentPublisher.com to recognize lifestyle books and highlight their creators. Books considered for the awards handle topics that are meant to improve the quality of living, like fitness, travel and in this case, cooking.
Western Today: You've said before that students prompted you to take on this project. Are students your target demographic?
Berardi: “Originally, yes! It started out as a textbook, to guide students in examining their own food beliefs.
The book is written for a general North American audience that enjoys reading about food and is increasingly sophisticated about sustainable cooking and farming. So, they are the same readers that pick up books by popular food writers, but want to look more deeply into where food comes from and how to appreciate it more.
I think that’s why you can find the book in general bookstores, food specialty shops, and local stores and farmers’ markets in the Pacific Northwest. But, it also, as I say, is written for a broad audience: no Le Cordon Bleu schooling, no green thumb needed.
The book also is for all those who want to be more closely connected to their food – whether to eat better food, to know more about where it comes from and possibly grow some of it themselves, or to build stronger family and social ties around cooking and dining. It’s about returning to the kitchen (if only to open a can of pinto beans) – and maybe the garden – to recapture some kitchen literacy. For those interested in 'Slow Food.' Also interested: Foodies – artisan producers and restaurateurs, nutritious-school-lunch wonks. So, people who have planted a garden, started herb pots – and still want more.”
Western Today: You said that you watched students struggle with questions about making the “right” food choice for decades before writing this book. At what point did you have enough and formally decide to sit down and get to work? In other words, was there a specific catalyst that prompted you to write this book?
Berardi: “Such a terrific question! The idea for this book came from an article on happiness in an issue of ‘Real Simple’ magazine. That article referenced an amazingly insightful book by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe called ‘Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing.’ I originally started out working my material into a food psychology and food economics framework (the result of a 2013 sabbatical), but it didn’t quite fit! Then, I coupled the sociology of food choice with the primacy of experience (experience, begets wisdom) and came up with the acronym, WISE: Whole, Informed, Sustainable, Experienced. That simple acronym embodies all we need to know to make food choices, to interpret conflicting information, to make good health decisions, even to vote! So, I’ve been teaching similar courses for over 40 years, and then, with the acronym—the book seemed to naturally follow. Hence, the subtitle: A Whole Systems Guide to Delicious Food Choices. Those food choices have to be tasty!”
Western Today: Your trajectory from food lover to food academic is quite interesting and seems to have involved a great deal of travel. Do you think that you would have developed an academic interest in food if you stayed in the United States?
Berardi: “Hmmmm … That is a tricky question. Of course I was a food lover, committed to the conviviality of eating—cooking food for and eating with others, from my Italian upbringing. But my sensibilities were completely questioned by my incredible privilege around being able to travel to Italy to dine with my Sardinian friends eating the maggot cheese of Casa Marzu as part of a Fulbright scholarship; to live with an Old-order Mennonite family to enjoy sorghum molasses and the flavorful tomatoes I talk about in the book, to experience true coconut milk production in villages near Mombasa, Kenya; the spiciest fish ever in Managua, Nicaragua; seal-blubber stew in the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta; crab cakes in Maryland; or spoon bread in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania!”
Western Today: You have 30 years of work in farm and food studies. How did this interest start? How did it develop to what it is today?
Berardi: “Well, I just happened to latch onto Cornell for graduate school—and the result has been in a lifetime in food! I had not even been to a farm before, and I found myself taking Farm 101 (which included milking a cow), and farm business management and dairy cow nutrition courses. I devoured all that the ag school could teach me, and, of course, developed a fairly strong critique of what they were offering. Those were amazing times, and I co-founded an advocacy organization, Coalition for the Right to Eat—and we meant it. I was very active in activism around food and hunger. It stuck. I’ve edited other books—all on food. On new agricultural technologies. On soils. On world food, population, and development. All this, from the fortuitous choice to attend Cornell—and be aghast at the 50,000 egg-laying hen operations, and more, and want to do something about it.
My political activism also included work with key food figures, including Frances Moore Lappe, author of “Diet for a Small Planet,” who wrote the forward to my book, “World Food, Population, and Development.” I also researched tobacco farming in North Carolina (representing a last bastion of the family farm) and the human ecology of isolated populations in Alaska, as part of my work on vulnerabilities and cultural ecology. At Cornell, I was one of the early researchers to explore the energy efficiencies of organic farming. I have a forever interest in food and the right to food.”
Gigi Berardi received her doctorate from Cornell University in 1979, and has taught at Western for 25 years. She makes a video/vlog for every night during the pandemic and has completed more than 200 vlogs. Find out more about Berardi’s work at her campus website at https://wp.wwu.edu/gigiberardi/.