The Empathy of Food at TEDxBerkeley

by Anna Lappé

Fifteen years ago, when I was giving my first public speech—in front of 2,000 people no less—I terrifyingly prodded everyone I knew for advice. One friend offered me simple advice that has stuck with me ever since. “Do you feel like you have something important to say?” she asked. I replied a quick “Yes, but…” Before I could continue, she said, that’s all that matters. It doesn’t matter if you’re nervous, or not. Stumble on your words, or not. If you have something you think people need to hear, just remember that.

When I was asked to speak at TEDxBerkeley on the theme “constellate,” I knew I had something I wanted to share. Was dying to share. For years, I’ve been writing and researching food—what we grow and how we grow it and what impact all of that has on our bodies, our planet and the workers and farmers along the food chain.

Over these years, I’ve come to see the power of food to connect us and unite us. I’ve also seen an explosion in activism to bring justice and sustainability into the food system alongside record-setting consumer food trends, from a three-decade decline in soda consumption, to a boom in organic food sales to the growing demand for humane meat (58% of consumers say they seek out humanely raised meat and dairy, by latest count).

But some of the conversation about food action, I felt, was still stuck in a “me-first” framework. Food choices are often presented as just about you. And the choice for organic food—food raised without toxic chemicals or meat and dairy produced without antibiotics or pharmaceuticals—organic food is often seen as a choice you should make for your health. Or, it’s maligned as the choice for the most out-of-touch foodie: people who care more about the temperature of their goat cheese than the homeless person down the street.

I had come to see this food choice differently—as an expression of our collective empathy. For me, the choice for organic food is a choice for farmworkers who shouldn’t have to face toxic chemicals to do their job. It’s for farmers who shouldn’t experience higher rates of Parkinson’s, certain cancers and other illnesses because of the chemicals they use. It’s a choice for communities that shouldn’t have to live in the shadow of chemical manufacturers.

This and more is what I decided I had to share in my TEDx talk, The Empathy of Food. It’s definitely my most personal talk yet.

A few weeks ago, before I took the stage at the cavernous 1,500-seat Zellerbach Hall, I channeled my friend’s advice. I took a deep breath… and took the stage. See my talk here. I’d love to hear what you think!