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Family, Food, and Climate: An Interview with Activist and Producer Laurie David

This week, New Dream caught up with producer and environmental activist Laurie David (who produced An Inconvenient Truth) to talk about her recent projects including her popular book The Family Dinner.

The Family Dinner is a wonderfully designed and well-written book that is full of great ideas for connecting with your children over good food. This is a book that you will keep nearby and refer to often. I have already tried four recipes out of the book, which were all big hits with my family—including a six-year-old and an eight-year-old!

I have tested out: Thai Chicken Wraps, Asian Shrimp Cakes, Vietnamese Soup (Pho), and Chicken Piccata. But my favorite parts of the book speak to the comfort and wonderful healing power of family rituals. It gives concrete and creative ideas for "table talk" and family games, and ways to spark conversation with your children. I was also intrigued by the facts the book provides about the importance of family dinner (see the excerpt below, "A Feast of Facts," to learn more), and it renewed my commitment to this simple daily act of being a family together. 

Enjoy the interview!

—Wendy Philleo, New Dream Executive Director

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How did you initially get interested in environmental issues, particularly global warming?  

When you become a parent, all of a sudden things that never bothered you before begin to alarm you. As a mom I was often out in the streets in my neighborhood with my stroller and seeing the proliferation of SUVs—if we are all driving these, if all my friends are driving these, what are we doing to the environment? And I began to get concerned and to read up about it, and once I knew more, once I began to connect the dots, I felt compelled to share the information.

Every bone in my body is of an advocate, that is why I produced An Inconvenient Truth, the HBO documentary Too Hot Not to Handle, and the Fox News one-hour special The Heat Is On, to reach popular culture about global warming. And long before that, I remember being an eight-year-old and getting upset about litter, so that was likely my first step.

What keeps you energized and productive on climate when sometimes it's difficult to see progress and we are often confronting very sobering news? What keeps you optimistic?

That is a good question. It is an upsetting time with all the heat waves, wildfires, and intense storms, all which have been predicted—and really this is just the beginning. So what I do to stay productive is to burrow down to what an individual can do, what every single one of us can do every day that I can feel good about. Think about all the choices you can make in a day. We all need to be more conscious, and so it's about figuring out what you can do every day. It's not about being perfect, I'm not, but it's about every one of us contributing in some way because we have to, because what we are doing now is unsustainable.  

Every environmentalist I know is an optimist—you have to be, even when it feels like we are getting nowhere. I hope the weather and heat waves will shake things up. And we have to take action at the political level—we must demand more, we have to vote for people who will put global warming at the top of the list.

Can you talk a little bit about how/why you became interested in the topics of food, obesity, and family dinners? Where did the idea for the family dinner book come from?

I had an epiphany at the dinner table: that food touches all the issues. The how, why, and where we grow our food and how we eat it impacts the environment, and it impacts our health every single day. It's just fundamental. The idea for the book came up at the kitchen table—my daughters are teenagers and we were sitting around one day after dinner was over, after dessert had been finished, drinking tea together and talking. With teenagers! And I felt I must have done something right. It felt really powerful. This is something you can control. It's a small step but has enormous impact.

I see now all the benefits I'm reaping from having prioritized family dinner; the benefits are astonishing. I just wanted happy family times, to purposely be a family once a day. So I prioritized dinner. I'm a producer and I look at dinner as a production. I would bring topics for discussion and ideas for games to the table every day. You feed your family food every day so it's perfect opportunity to reach your kids, and to have them participate and take ownership. 

I'll give you an example: my daughter added the finishing touches to the meal the other day, to each plate, and then she announced that, "She made dinner." Which is what you want them to do! You want them to be a part of making and serving the meal.

Honestly, my happiest family times were not on vacation but around the kitchen table. And everyone should take the pressure off and enjoy the time, dinner doesn't have to be a three-meal course, you can make the black bean soup in this book in 18 minutes, and when you make larger amounts and have leftovers, that brings you more time.  

In addition, the kitchen has the potential to be the greenest room in the house and the best place to teach these values to your family. To be greener, to consume less, to connect to what is grown, to use less toxins, there are some great ideas in our chapter "Your Green Table" about ways to have a green kitchen and teach those values to your kids.

And The Big Picture documentary on obesity that you are working on with Katie Couric? Can you tell us about it and what you hope comes out of it? What issues will you tackle? When is it due out?

It should be due out in a year. I became involved after Katie Couric wrote me an e-mail asking if I would get involved in producing an "Inconvenient Truth" for child obesity, and I said yes immediately. People need to know about the problem and have the information. Yes, let people make choices, but they need to know that if they're sending their child to school every day with CapriSuns in their lunches, that is seven teaspoons of sugar; it's not soda, but it's not good for you.

I wanted to get involved because the amount of advertising and marketing aimed at us everyday is staggering, and we are so far removed from where our food grows. The statistics are truly alarming: 1 out of 3 children is obese. It's heartbreaking and unnecessary. We are advertised and supermarketed to death, and our children think that food comes wrapped in plastic.

I want to make a film to empower us to take back our food system, our health—a film that parents and children can watch together and take action afterward. Because children deserve a better shot. And I also find that water is a very iconic issue—who would have predicted that we would pay for something that is free to everyone once it was marketed to us in plastic bottles? 

Sometimes we just have to look back in time for the models of future, and this is true about food. Remember when all farms were organic, when we didn't use tons of chemicals and pesticides on everything? And sometimes it's just criminal: should American Idol be embedding Coca-Cola into its programming when children can't decipher between content and advertising? And why is it that, in Europe, the same food manufacturers are willing to make mac and cheese without all the chemical food dyes yet still sell the same old chemical food-dyed mac and cheese to us in America?

And will the film be focused on solutions?

That is an important question, and, yes, the documentary will focus on solutions, solutions, and then more solutions.  

Do you see opportunities to bring communities together around food? What excites you most about the food movement that seems to be taking hold in this country?

There is so much opportunity to bring people together around food—the potluck is the perfect example. We as a people are not talking enough, not having enough real conversations, and food is a great way to bring people together around the kitchen table and begin to connect as a community. We can revive the lost art of conversation; we are too starved for meaningful social interaction because we are so occupied by all the technology in our lives. One fun thing we have been doing is posting on The Huffington Post every Friday a synopsis of a topic and questions for discussion at the dinner table. It's free and you can subscribe to it.

I get excited about sharing the experience of growing something; it's really a phenomenal experience to grow your own food. You have renewed appreciation for what food is supposed to taste like, how empowering it is to feed yourself, and how much money you can save. Grow something yourself or with others in your community! Even if it's just a windowsill garden, grow some lettuce, kale, parsley, and rosemary, and your food will taste better immediately. And there are also lots of ways to create swaps so that you cut down on the work you have to do to make dinner—so coordinate with friends and neighbors to swap dishes or have a neighborhood potluck.  

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