UM’s Sustainable Food Systems Initiative welcomed Frances Moore Lappé for the Second Session of Food Literacy for All

Written by Katherine Hoffman
February 9, 2017


Photographs by Lilly Fink Shapiro

On January 17, 2017 the University of Michigan’s Sustainable Food Systems Initiative held its second session of Food Literacy for All. As a community academic partnership, the thirteen-session course is structured as an evening lecture series, featuring a diverse group of guest speakers each week to address diverse challenges and opportunities of both domestic and global food systems.

Students, educators, local activists, and community members came together to welcome Frances Moore Lappé back to U-M’s campus. The session reached capacity with about 300 people in attendance—half of which were students and the other half, community members.

Lappé is the author of 18 books about world hunger, living democracy, and the environment. Her 1971 book titled Diet for a Small Planet, which she wrote at the age of 26, is regarded as “one of the most influential political tracts of the times” by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

In addition, she has earned 18 honorary degrees, including one from U-M and has been a recipient of many awards, including the 2013 “Feisty Woman Award.”

“It is both intentional and energizing to have Frances Moore Lappé here as our leadoff guest speaker for the Food Literacy for All class,” said Sustainable Food Systems Program Manager, Lilly Fink Shapiro.

FullSizeRender (7)

“In 1971, Frankie was one of the first people to meaningfully connect the dots between agriculture, diet, equity, and environmental impact.” said Fink Shapiro. More than four decades later, the Food Literacy for All course provides the opportunity to analyze and understand these issues.

She can use a conversation about food consumption to explain the political and economic roots of world hunger. These ideas, that were once considered radical, are now required coursework in the study of sustainable food systems at U-M.

“Frankie continues to agitate, educate, and strive for change,” said Fink Shapiro.

“I feel that I’m coming home,” said Lappé in her opening statement, explaining that 42 years ago, on U-M’s campus, she was introduced to Joseph Collins, who became her partner in the founding of Food First. More recently, the two went on to co-author World Hunger: 10 Myths.

The “Big Picture”

According to Lappé, worldwide food production has grown more than 40% per capita, per person in the last 40 years. In fact, the world produces about 60% more protein per capita, per day than the average American should consume. She believes that the problem is not scarcity of land or food, but a scarcity of democracy.

For every person, every day, the world produces 2,900 calories, 3-4 pounds of food, and 80 grams of protein, said Lappé. Based on these numbers, the notion of food scarcity is rather bizarre, she said.

Q and AHowever, such challenges remain, as one in every four children are stunted by malnutrition, two billion people are deficient in at least one nutrient essential for health, and 795 million people lack minimum calories needed for over a year (FAQ 2013).

“What is to be learned is that we are actively creating scarcity from plenty, because all that food is only what is leftover, after half of all grain goes to produce animal feed, fuel, and other industrial purposes,” said Lappé. “In addition, three-fourths of all agricultural land is used for livestock, providing only 17% of our calories.”

The U.S. feeds fewer people per acre than both Indian and Chinese agricultures because of our society’s heavy focus on livestock, she said. We have plenty, however, we are actively creating the inevitability of scarcity in the future. Further examples of this includes the following:

  • CLIMATE IMPACTS: Producing a pound of lamb or beef averages from about 20 to 50 times greater climate impact compared to high protein plant foods
  • WATER WASTE: Irrigation claims nearly 70% of freshwater that humans use. Producing a pound of beef uses almost 50 times more water than a pound of vegetables, and about 9 times more than grain.

“What our system of agriculture is doing is an absolute dead end in terms of climate impact” said Lappé,

Furthermore, scientists suggest that we have disrupted the nitrogen cycle even more so than the carbon cycle and that agriculture’s destruction of natural capital is the equivalent of about $2 trillion annually.

The ultimate question: why are we, together, creating a world that we, as individuals, would never choose?

Her answer to this question: we are creatures of the mind and see the world by way of personal perceptions that have been normalized in our society.

“You and I are living in a culture… based on a mental map that is killing us, said Lappé, explaining the concept of “scarcity mind”—a mind that sees scarcity everywhere.

There are three pieces to this concept: separateness, stasis, and scarcity, she said, which begins a spiral of powerlessness.


“This is the spiral that continues to quicken,” said Lappé, as she explained that, as concentrated wealth infuses itself into our political system, it leads to lack of trust in the government and we’re left with privately held government.

Concentrated power, lack of transparency, and cultures of blame are conditions that are created by a premise of scarcity, all of which deny three essential human needs: connection, meaning, and power.

Moving forward

“Humanity is at a point where we can begin to shift from ‘scarcity mind’ to an ecological world view (‘the ecomind’) …We are all co-creating, moment to moment.”

This shift, from separateness, stasis, and scarcity to connection, continuous change, and co-creation, is much more grounded in science, suggested Lappé. We can now take a deep breath and shift from this scary frame of limits of nature and instead, start aligning with the laws of nature.

With these human capacities in mind, we can begin a spiral of empowerment and the idea of a living democracy.


“Now that we know what conditions bring out the best in us, we have a definition of what democracy could really look like… it involves food democracy and agricultural democracy in a very real way.”

Lappé concluded her discussion with global examples of living democracy that she has witnessed—women from 75 villages in Andhra Pradesh, India and their fight for pesticide-free food sources, farmers in Niger escaping desert-like conditions by re-planting forests, co-operatives helping cocoa farmers in Ghana, and many more.

Bringing her message full circle, Lappé asked the audience to find people who are asking the hardest questions and together, do something that you didn’t think you could do. It is hard to be an optimist in America right now, but we can be “possibilists”, she said.

“The opposite of evil is not good—it’s courage,” said Lappé. “Find the courage, the bold humility, to break away from the pack.”

To learn more, please visit