“As for food, if we want to be responsible to ourselves and the planet, then the best most of us can do most of the time is to shorten the chain from the farm to our table, get as close to the producer as possible whenever we can…We have forgotten that food comes from the land. If we do not learn it again, we die.”
Born in Alhambra, California and a graduate of Pamona College in Claremont, California.
Former chair of the Nutrition Education Program at Teachers College, Columbia University, from which she earned her doctorate in education.
Author of seven books, including The Feeding Web and Growing, Older: A Chronicle of Death, Life, and Vegetables.
Joan Dye Gussow is a nutritionist, educator, writer, and gardener. She was one of the first experts to advocate, as early as the 1970’s, that we “eat locally, think globally.” She has inspired many prominent figures in the local food movement, including Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, and Barbara Kingsolver, who said of Gussow: “Her writings and creative thought have shaped the history and politics of food in this country.”
Gussow has written books and articles for both academic and mainstream audiences advocating sustainable, healthy agricultures. She teaches a popular course on food and ecology at Columbia University and grows her own food in her backyard garden overlooking the Hudson River. In her book, The Feeding Web, she explains why gardening matters: “Food comes from the land. We have forgotten that. If we do not learn it again, we will die. …Are we not, in fact, more helpless than any people before us, less able to fend for ourselves, more cut off from sources of nourishment? What would we do if we could not get to the supermarket?”
Gussow was born in 1928 in Alhambra, California. Though she grew up in a state known for its rich agricultural output, she didn’t have any interest in growing her own food when she was young. She studied pre-med at Pomona College and, after graduating in 1950, moved to New York City. There she took a job as a researcher for Time magazine; it was the only professional job Time offered women at the time–all the writers were men. In New York, she met artist Alan Gussow and they married. With the birth of their first son, the Gussows moved thirty miles up the Hudson to Congers, New York, where they bought a large Victorian home and started growing their own food to save money. Before long, Gussow was hooked on gardening.
After five years as a suburban wife and mother, Gussow decided to continue her education. She wanted to pursue a path that would allow her to write in her own voice. “I didn’t want to work for any more great men and write their books for them,” she said. She earned an M.Ed. and an Ed. D. in Nutrition Education from Columbia’s Teachers College (she would later became Chair of the department).
Soon she became a leading thinker not just about food, but also about how consumerism damages the planet. By 1971, the year after she published her first book on the relationship between nutrition and children’s performance in school, Gussow was invited to testify before Congress about Saturday morning cereal commercials and the confusing, harmful messages they send to children and families about food.
In her essay, “Can An Organic Twinkie Be Certified?” Gussow clarifies the problems of the US food system: “We are often reminded that we have cheap food; what we are seldom told is that we have cheap raw materials produced at the expense of eroded soils, groundwaters both overused and polluted with chemicals, displaced farmers and destroyed rural communities.” Gussow explains that, hypothetically, even if 95% of a Twinkie’s ingredients were grown organically then the Twinkie could technically be considered organic; however, the highly processed product still would not be a healthy thing for a child to eat. To Gussow this “organic” Twinkie would still be “gut filler,” not food. Food, such as an apple, she says, is “something that points us toward a particular place, a particular time of year, and a set of ongoing global processes.” Twinkies and other gut-fillers are “manufactured” and unhealthy. Consumers who learn how real food is grown are more connected to nature.
Now in her eighties, Gussow still lives the sustainable lifestyle she advocates. In 2010, her garden, where she grows seasonal produce for her own consumption, was flooded by Superstorm Sandy and destroyed. With the help of friends, she rebuilt the garden two feet higher to protect it from future storms.
Gussow’s writing ranges from academic to memoir. Her first book, Disadvantaged Children: Health, Nutrition and School Failure, was published in 1970. She has also written The Feeding Web; Food as a Human Right; The Nutrition Debate; Chicken Little, Tomato Sauce and Agriculture: Who Will Produce Tomorrow’s Food; and This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader. Her most recent book, Growing, Older: A Chronicle of Death, Life, and Vegetables, tells the story of her husband’s death and her experiences with gardening as her body grows older.
In her writing and lectures, Gussow sometimes makes the audience uncomfortable with her honesty. She told members of the Society of Nutrition Education that “Your children’s children will never see an iceberg. They will never see a glacier. There will be no penguins, no polar bears.” It can be discouraging, even frightening, to hear an expert say that the damage we’ve done to planet earth is irreversible. However, Gussow insists that’s no reason to give up. In 2010, Gussow told The New York Times, “You can’t be optimistic about the state of the world — what you can be is open-minded. You’re going to look for solutions, and you’re going to make your own life mean something. You can no longer think that accumulating money or the biggest house is the answer.”
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