Joan Dye Gussow: Matriarch of Sustainability

by Bruce E. Boyers

The New York Times has called Joan Dye Gussow the “matriarch of the eat-locally-think-globally food movement.” Long before current stars of our sustainability firmament, like Michael Pollan, were even off the ground, Joan Gussow was squarely addressing the nutritional and ecological crises stemming from industrial agriculture and pointing to the solution of local farming—in spite of her peers at the time calling her “crazy.” For over forty years she has taught the acclaimed Nutrition Education Program at the Teachers College of Columbia University. Although now retired from the chair position, she still teaches and insists she will do so “until I drop dead.”


In addition to her teaching, Gussow has authored many breakthrough books, papers and articles, including her landmark title The Feeding Web: Issues in Nutritional Ecology (Bull Publishing Company, 1978). She has chaired the boards of the National Gardening Association, the Society for Nutrition Education, the Jesse Smith Noyes Foundation, and Just Food. She served two terms on the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences, a term on the FDA’s Food Advisory Committee, and a term on the National Organic Standards Board.

Beyond all that, she has spent plentiful time in her favorite place in the universe: her own garden alongside the Hudson River.

In the last decade, the world has finally started to take notice of vital factors Joan Gussow has been pointing out since the 1970s. And the story starts well before that.

The Spark: Her Children

Gussow’s initial interest in nutrition came about in a way common to many seeking nutritional answers: she was raising children.

“I really didn’t get interested in nutrition and health and food until I was pregnant with my first child,” Gussow told Calmful Living. “My brother-in-law sent me a copy of the book Let’s Have Healthy Children by Adelle Davis. A lot of it was wrong, but that was irrelevant; she certainly made the point of how you had to eat well to be healthy.

“After my children got a little older I took a job writing, and in 1970 I worked on a book called Disadvantaged Children: Health, Nutrition, and School Failure with a physician, Herbert G. Birch. The whole book was about whether it was important for pregnant moms and kids to be well nourished for children’s intellectual development; there was a lot of talk about malnutrition leading to poor intellectual development. As I read the literature, I realized that I didn’t really know enough. I was skating right on top of what I knew.”

This lack of knowledge was the causal point of a change in career direction for Gussow. “I finally realized that what I should do is go back to school in nutrition. I didn’t want to write any more books with great men, which was what I was doing; I had written one already and was working on another. The only way I could avoid doing that was to become an expert in my own right, and so I decided to go back to school.”

She enrolled at Teachers College, now part of Columbia University, from whence she eventually graduated and became a teacher herself.

“Before the Swallow”

Because she was already a published author, Gussow was asked to co-teach a nutrition class even before she completed her degree. That co-teaching position eventually developed into a full teaching position in which she was determining the curriculum. She never looked back.

“I pushed in the direction of the things that I was interested in, and it evolved over time,” Gussow related. “It changed constantly. Even though I’m retired, I’m still teaching the nutrition class. It’s a very, very rewarding class to teach because the students are so grateful for it. I’ve tried to find the truth and I’ve tried to teach the truth.

“I think I got tenure at Teachers College because the president decided I had invented a field. Nutrition was the field that looked at ‘after the swallow.’ I was looking at what happened before the swallow. At that time nobody looked at agriculture; nobody looked at the food supply and what affected the food supply.”

The Food System Comes into Focus

A primary motivation for Gussow’s choice of career path was her observation of our food system. “I was very upset about the quality of the food that had come into the supermarket after the war,” she recalled. “This great burst of stuff was appalling to me. The shelves were full of things like Screaming Yellow Zonkers, Grins & Smiles & Giggles & Laughs breakfast cereal, and just all kinds of crap.

“So I thought, ‘Well, obviously the nutrition profession has a lot of work to do.’ Then when I went back to school and entered the profession, I discovered that nobody was concerned about any of those things.”

While still a student, Gussow took a sharp deviation from the norm for her field. “I testified to Congress in 1972 about the stuff that was advertised to children on television,” she continued. “And I was terrified, because I was actually naming the names of things that were terrible. I knew that you were not supposed to name any products in the field; it was not considered the right thing to do.

“[pullquote]The nutrition profession really was not in any way battling the food industry. The general idea was to work with the food industry, and maybe you could help them make things better. But there was no notion that the food industry was the problem[/pullquote].”

Global to Local

In 1978, Gussow’s research led her to write her classic work The Feeding Web. Several decades before it became a major talking point, the book argued for relocalizing the food supply.

“I came to local rather indirectly; I came to local by way of global,” Gussow explained. “I was very concerned about what was happening around the world with agriculture. We were exporting our high-chemical-input agriculture to the world. There were so many things wrong with that model: chemical pollution, water pollution, our terrible hog farms and much more. All these things we were exporting, and they were really not sustainable—we could not continue to grow food in this way. The food system was very fragile and extremely energy intensive.

“I knew we were not going to change the ones who were doing it, because they were making money from it. So, how could we attract the public’s attention to what was going on in agriculture? I thought the only way was if everybody understood how farming and agriculture worked. People didn’t anymore because it had been two generations since farmers left the land.

“People have to know farmers, and the only way they can know a farmer is if there are farmers where they live. The only way you can have farmers where they live is if you keep local farms in business. And if you’re going to keep local farmers in business, then you have to buy what they produce in season. That led me to say, ‘We have to eat more seasonally and locally in order to keep local farms in business,’ so people could get to know what farmers do.”

Challenging the “Progress”

When Gussow first began promoting these concepts, she was met with a great deal of skepticism. “It used to be that when I would go out and talk about local eating and why people need to eat locally, I would have to do a half-hour explanation of how everything was going to hell around us and that we had damned well better keep our local farmers in business,” she recounted. “It seemed such a bizarre idea when I first came up with it; people were just stunned by the notion that you would go against this huge progress we’d made in having ‘everything all the time.’

“Interestingly, I still run into this. I was just interviewed the other day by somebody from NPR asking my opinion on the fact that since NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement, adopted in 1994] the imports of produce from Mexico had tripled.

“I said, ‘I think it would be good if Mexico were producing food for itself, which it’s not. We’ve driven all the Mexican corn farmers out of business by sending them subsidized corn and undercutting them, so they can’t continue to stay in the business. Then we have multinationals going in and setting up export agriculture in Mexico and sending it to us. So if you ask me what I think of it politically, I think it sucks.

“‘What do I think of it personally? I’m a person who eats locally year-round. I don’t eat very much that I don’t grow, and what I don’t grow I purchase locally. I don’t eat much fruit in the winter because it isn’t in season, and I don’t eat things imported from great distances away.’

“But then I said to the NPR reporter, ‘I know you’re not going to get most of the people to eat the way I do, so you’re asking me if NAFTA is a good thing for the people in general. Well, how would you know that? What would be your measurement? The measurement would obviously be that everybody had increased their fruit and vegetable consumption, right? Actually, we have tripled our import of fruits and vegetables from Mexico, and fruit and vegetable consumption hasn’t gone up at all. So, who’s benefited? We now have forty thousand items in the supermarket, so I guess we have a larger choice in what to reject.’”

The Grassroots Movement in Local

Given news such as the above, Gussow is encouraged to see that today there is a movement for local food that is consistently gaining momentum. “I know there’s a grassroots movement to begin to change things,” she said. “I know that there’s a great interest in my books. I hear from people all over the country, and so I’m very heartened. Somebody once said, ‘If you expect to see change in your own lifetime, you’re going to be disappointed.’ Well, I have to say I have seen change in my own lifetime. And I’m not the person who started it, but I am one of the people who helped push it in the right direction.

“I am very pleased, because when I first went out and started talking to my colleagues about how they had to eat locally, and that they should encourage people to do that, they thought I was totally out of my mind. It was just a very, very far-out idea. It’s hard for people to realize that now, because even the Dietetic Association will talk about eating in season. All over the country there are people looking at making their own food supplies more local. There are all these farm-to-school programs, farm restaurants, and even a healthy farm-food movement in hospitals. So there’s been a huge change.”

Gussow believes that public perception of the subject began changing when people started learning the truth about their food supply. “I think what first pushed it were films like Food, Inc., which showed people how the pork and other foods they were eating were being raised. That really had a major effect. Hearing that so many ingredients were coming in from China—then there were the scares in China about poisons in infant formula—people began to get scared and to look around and say, ‘Good God! Where’s my food coming from?’

“I consider the CSA movement has been a very positive thing. I’m part of a group that was established about fifteen years ago in New York City. When we opened, there was one CSA in New York—one group that was connected with a farm and got its produce from the farmer. There are now 130, all of which we helped set up. We helped get the whole thing going. It means a lot of farmers are being kept in business by being CSA farms.

“There’s a greater awareness of the need for farmland, the need for farmers, the fact that they’re vulnerable to the weather—all those things.

“One of the most encouraging pieces of news I’ve heard recently is that there are places out in the Midwest where farmers have actually realized that the price they’re getting for corn is not even enough to keep them alive, and they’re beginning to devote small acreage to fruits and vegetables. They’re discovering they can do it and discovering they can make money from it. So that would be a very big change.

“I’m seeing an increased general awareness of how crappy much of what’s in the food system is, how good it is to be able to get food from farmers and how good it tastes. [pullquote]I think flavor has been a huge motive in changing people; when they finally taste actual food, they really understand, and there’s a difference for them and they don’t want to go back[/pullquote].”

School Lunches

Another positive direction Gussow has observed is the trend toward healthier food in schools. “I have a good friend and former student, Toni Liquori, who’s running a nonprofit called School Food FOCUS,” Gussow said. “She’s not a person who goes in, fixes the school and leaves. She’s working with one of the largest school districts in the country. They pick a food, and then they all work on it and find ways of sourcing it so that they’re getting clean food. She got several tons of antibiotic-free chicken on the bone into the Chicago school system.

“I was at their conference last year, and thehead of the Chicago schools got up and said, ‘Well, I was here two years ago, and I said you’re never going to get raw meat into the Chicago schools.’ They had been buying chicken tenders and chicken nuggets and that kind of thing. Getting wholesome fresh food that would then be cooked at the school, and you would smell it when you walked into the school, is a very big thing. If kids learn to eat well, their parents are affected; so school lunch can be a great place for change.”

Present and Future

Now an octogenarian, Gussow is not giving up anytime soon.

“I’m working on another book, though I’m not at all sure that I’ll see it to completion,” she said. “I have mixed feelings about whether the world’s ready for a third memoir from a woman in her eighties, but I work on it. We started a farm here in Rockland County that’s part of the Rockland Farm Alliance, of which I am a member. I still teach; I will probably teach until I drop dead, although my plan is to drop dead in my garden—I don’t want it to happen in the classroom. I’ve told all my friends that if they find me unconscious out in the garden, they are to leave me there.”

And therein lies the core of Gussow’s existence: life does indeed begin and end in her garden. “I have a quote at the bottom of my e-mails from Frances Hodgson Burnett, an English author and gardener, that says, ‘To have a garden is to have a future. And to have a future is to be alive.’ And that’s how I feel. I’m getting pretty old at this point, and having a garden is a reason to look forward into the spring and wait for it to start. I don’t know otherwise what I would do. I like writing and I have lots of friends and I do lots of things, but the garden is really the center of my life.”


For many more thoughts, writings and advice from Joan Gussow, please visit www.joansgarden.org