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Interview with Food Revolutionary Maria Rodale

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One of my icons in the organic food and green movement is the Rodale family. You don't read about the Rodale family in the press much, but behind the scenes they are a silent multimedia publishing behemoth that quietly publishes mainstream books, magazines, websites and more about advice, health and wellness and the environment (they are the largest independent book publisher in the United States).

Today Rodale publishes books like Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, The South Beach Diet, Eat This, Not That! and many more. Their magazines include Women's Health, Men's Health, Prevention, Organic Gardening and more.

The Rodale family's commitment to organic food, sustainability and the right to healthy living is unparalleled. J. I. Rodale founded the American organic movement in 1942 when he launched Organic Gardening and Farming magazine. In 1947 J. I. launched the U.S. Soil Association, which today is known as the Rodale Institute and is a nonprofit organization.

The institute launched the longest-running scientific study comparing organic and chemical farming methods. Their research found that organic farming is more profitable, more productive and more beneficial for people and the planet. Their Farming Systems Trial also reveals that organic farming is the most vital way we can halt global warming, by eradicating extremely polluting chemicals and the carbon-sequestering abilities of organic soil.

When I got the opportunity to interview Maria Rodale, CEO and Chairman of Rodale Inc., I was thrilled! Read on and get inspired.

Laura Klein: Why is organic living important to you?

Maria Rodale: As a person who cares deeply about the health of our planet and, frankly, myself and my children, I believe that demanding organic is the most important thing we can do to protect ourselves and ensure a healthy, vibrant and safe future.

We have been misled into thinking that adding chemicals is normal and that farming without them is somehow strange or even impossible. Virtually every food in the world has been successfully grown and made organically in modern, productive and regenerative ways.

LK: If a person is new to cooking and wants to cook more at home, can you recommend an easy delicious recipe from your website, MariasFarmCountryKitchen.com?

MR: One of the reasons I started my blog is that I have learned that the most delicious food that pleases the most people (kids and adults) is truly simple and easy to make and doesn't take a lot of time or money. If you start with fresh, organic ingredients, you don't need fancy cooking to make it taste good! Here are three of my family's favorites: Chicken and Gravy, Summer Salad and Summer Gazpacho.

Rodale.com Recipe Finder helps you search by ingredient, meal, dietary need, etc.

LK: What is your favorite thing to cook?

MR: I love comfort food, and to use fresh, simple, wholesome ingredients. But I also seek out new ways to carry on tradition, by cooking recipes passed down from my mother and mother-in-law. As we are also in tomato season, I thought this tomato sauce recipe that I have experimented with over the years would be good to share. I make a big batch and freeze it in wide-mouth mason jars to use through the year, and doctor it to go with whatever I choose to serve it over. Here is my recipe for Maria's Tomato Sauce.

I also love to experiment and try to make things that I have tasted in restaurants and while traveling. I am currently working on learning how to make paella as simply and Spanishly as possible. And next up is panna cotta.

LK: What are your top five things to always eat organic? Why?

MR: 1) All dairy; 2) all vegetables (especially corn and soy); 3) all fruits; 4) all meats; 5) all coffee and tea!

Eating organic is important for multiple reasons. First, selfishly, you can't wash the chemical toxins off, so you are protecting yourself and your family. Those toxins are in the food. Second, eating organically is an altruistic and political act. By choosing organic foods, you are protecting the farmers and their families who grow the food, and making a political and economic statement that gets heard around the world. What's better than that? Oh yeah, it tastes better, too!

LK: How can Americans be more responsible eaters?

MR: Think about the story behind everything you put in your mouth. Where did it come from? Who grew it, made it and brought it to you? Through constant, dynamic education, reading books, reading the news and reading labels, you will learn amazing, shocking stories about your food. Volunteering with or visiting local farms to learn more about where food comes from -- that simple understanding can be enough to drive people to alter their decision-making. And always, always ask questions.

The best thing is to start young with children. A garden is an amazing place to start; it teaches kids to not fear nature and to love vegetables! I also play a game with my daughter in the supermarket where she can't ask me to buy anything unless she can find the green USDA certified organic label on it. It has become a game with her, and people always stop and stare when she shouts, "Look, Mom, it's organic! Can I get it?!" And I almost always say, "Yes!"

LK: What can consumers do to demand non-GMO foods and products?

MR: First, recognize that GMOs are already in almost anything non-organic that includes corn or soy. So your first line of defense is to always buy organic foods. But the only other thing is to be vocal about your right to know! Ask questions. Write letters. Tweet. Facebook. Join a march!

As consumers, we have more power than we think; we vote with our dollars. If we buy factory-farmed meat, they will continue to produce it. Companies and the government count every purchase and make decisions based on those purchasing patterns.

We need to arm ourselves with knowledge, and that means we need to read up on what is happening with the Farm Bill. Our Farm Bill needs to be overhauled in a serious way to support and encourage farmers to make the transition to organic agriculture as quickly as possible. We need to reorient incentives so that the cost of organic foods and fiber are the real cost and an affordable choice.

We also need to keep the organic label pure. Lobbyists are at work to weaken the USDA's organic standards, which means that we need to keep vigilant watch to ensure that the seal is maintained.

LK: What can consumers do to demand safer and more humane ways of raising animals?

MR: Vote with your dollars and read labels carefully. Shop for meat and poultry that are certified organic, and ask your grocer to get it if they currently don't carry certified organic meats and poultry. Certain grocers like Whole Foods Market are taking steps to create animal welfare standards, so don't be afraid to ask your butcher where it came from and how it was raised. If they have no idea what you are talking about, ask why not and consider taking your business elsewhere.

LK: How do you respond to the excuse that organic food is too expensive?

MR: I realize that in these challenging economic times we are forced to make tough choices that often come down to dollars and cents. In Organic Manifesto, I challenge parents to ask themselves, what is the price of your children's health?

On another important note, the Farm Bill helps keep the price of food artificially low, trapping consumers who feel that organics are out of reach. If not for the Farm Bill, organic food would actually cost less than other food. The amount of money the government sets aside for research and support for organic farming is a very small portion of the Farm Bill.

It is very possible to eat an all-organic diet on a budget. Eating less processed food, more local food and growing your own garden are all ways that organic pioneers have been eating frugally for decades.

LK: What can parents do to take action to get schools to serve healthier food?

MR: Band together, get involved and stick with it. These changes won't come overnight, but there are increasingly great tools and resources out there to explain how it all works. I am a fan of Ann Cooper's thelunchbox.org, where parents, teachers and kids can find recipes, tutorials and ideas to push schools to make changes and better choices. And, of course, what Alice Waters has done with the Edible Schoolyard and Jamie Oliver with the Food Revolution are helping tremendously!

LK: Agribusiness claims that we can't feed the world with organic food, that we simply can't produce enough without using chemical fertilizers, pesticides and GMO seeds. Is this really true?

MR: No! "Conventional," chemical-based agriculture actually reduces yields over time, as the microbiology of the soil is destroyed, meaning that in order for crops to grow and resist pests, more and more fertilizers, pesticides, etc. need to be injected into the soil. This also leads to increased flooding and damage from droughts, which we are seeing happening around the world.

Without government subsidies, farmers would not find it cost-effective to increase land cultivation, buy larger machinery and farm more with less labor by using chemicals to artificially increase yields.

At the Rodale Institute, the Farming Systems Trial, the longest-running side-by-side comparison of conventional vs. organic agricultural methods (celebrating its 30th anniversary this fall!), has shown that organic production outputs have met or exceeded chemical production outputs, especially in years of drought and flood. For more on that, read "Why Modern Organic Farming Is the Only Thing That Can Feed the World."

Organic farming does not mean going back to times of horses and buggies (though maybe that would be nice!). Modern organic farming is an opportunity to apply the best of our science and technology resources to constantly improve our methods of growing and producing food.

LK: What can readers do to inspire friends and family to choose organic food?

MR: Cook with them! I find the best way to convince someone is to feed them organically in a way that they enjoy and find non-threatening and explain when they ask questions. Share great recipes that are easy, so that people are not overwhelmed by trying to create elaborate, organic dishes with hard-to-find ingredients.

Keep it light and fun, and don't get too preachy. Educate friends and family on organics when the door is open. Don't force-feed them information and bad news or they'll be turned off by the whole idea.

See documentaries and read books. Sometimes people learn best when they can draw their own conclusions.

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