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AUTHOR: 20 Years Later, Book's Teachings Find Renewed Favor : Still Tirelessly Teaching After All These Years : Profile: With the environment making headlines, Frances Moore Lappe, author of "Diet for a Small Planet," finds her old ideas are new again.

May 24, 1990|SUSAN FIGLIULO

It's the final session of a long convention day, and members of the American Dietetic Assn. are drooping as they await a lecture on the politics of hunger.

Soon, however, they're sitting up straight for a tiny woman who speaks with passion, poise and an impressive grasp of her subject. She inspires a standing ovation, patiently answers questions, then chats graciously amid a throng of admirers.

And when the crowd has cleared at last, Frances Moore Lappe scrounges a quarter and goes looking for a pay telephone to find out what the children are doing about dinner.

Which is pretty much how the author of "Diet for a Small Planet" has spent nearly 20 years. A leading expert on world hunger, she has traveled the globe, written extensively and addressed by the thousands the admirers whose lives were changed by the 1971 manifesto-cum-cookbook that sold a generation on the politics and practice of vegetarianism.

At the same time, as single mother to two teen-agers, she has avoided celebrity even as her ideas on responsible world citizenship have steadily gained greater acceptance.

"Diet for a Small Planet" supported its call to vegetarianism by detailing the drain on resources--land, water, grain production--required to keep the developed world in hamburgers. Neatly tying the political to the personal, the book provided alternatives in dozens of recipes combining grains with legumes, dairy products and other foods to create a meatless yet protein-rich diet.

Lappe's first book was that publishing rarity--an instant hit with staying power. Three million copies and two decades later, Lappe calls its impact "a case where one's personal trajectory hits a historic moment."

Today, no one appreciates better than Lappe the irony of her ideas' coming full circle. The nation's current obsession with reducing dietary fat may damage the hamburger habit more than Lappe's writings did. And the environmental concerns that fueled her arguments, which fell far out of fashion during the Reagan era, have returned even more urgently to the public view.

It's nice to be back in fashion, but Frankie Lappe always knew real change would take more than attaining a higher consciousness and a lower place on the food chain. "As a teen-ager, I was an incurable globalist," she laughed during a recent interview. "I was always frustrated by looking at anything but the big picture."

For Lappe, "the big picture" can be stated simply: "You don't have to be a genius to realize that if people aren't eating, little else matters."

Her explanation for "hunger in a world of plenty" is equally straightforward: If there is enough food to feed the world--and there is--the problem lies in how it's used and distributed. Feeding grain to cattle deprives needy humans the world over; what's worse, however, is that feeding the hungry is routinely subordinated to political goals, as much in the United States as in the world's underdeveloped countries.

"An acre of cereals can produce five times more protein than an acre devoted to meat production," Lappe wrote in a 1975 edition of "Diet for a Small Planet." "Spinach, for example, can produce up to 26 times more protein per acre than can beef."

And that was before Americans began worrying about the destruction of rain forests to clear land for grazing. "Beef is such a wasteful way to get protein," Lappe said. "It's like driving a Cadillac when you could be taking public transportation."

But how to bridge the enormous gap between an individual's cutting down on hamburgers and a worldwide commitment to social justice? Lappe maintains that when people understand what's right, they will do it. "First, it's very liberating to realize that you can choose good food, that you don't have to be led around by advertising," she said.

Acting from that realization fosters an independence that's also nurtured by education and democracy, Lappe said. "We need citizens taking more responsibility, which is really a very grass-roots approach to social change. We need to go beyond just reacting to formative influences."

Some socially responsible measures--car pooling, recycling, serving in community organizations--have become commonplace during recent years, Lappe noted. To show people how to make the leap to a broader political impact, she's now working on Project Public Life, an educational program that's enlisting groups as diverse as the American Library Assn., the 4-H Clubs and the YMCAs in its goal of teaching Americans "the arts of public life."

"Voting every four years is an inadequate concept of citizenship," Lappe said. "Most people can't be full-time activists, yet there's a great fear that the basic work of society isn't getting done: Our infrastructure is falling apart, our schools are a mess.

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