Last weekend CEFS was honored to host ethnobiologist, nature writer, and agrarian activist Gary Nabhan to Raleigh.  Gary – a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, W.K. Kellogg Endowed Chair in Sustainable Food Systems at the University of Arizona Southwest Center, and founding Director of the Center for Regional Food Systems – has been a leader of the sustainable agriculture movement for decades, and an inspiration to many!  Learn more about Gary here.

What shaped your interest and passion in food and culture?

My grandfather was an orchardist and sheep herder in Lebanon, and then he became a fruit peddler on the Lake Michigan shoreline of Indiana during the depression.  He worked with fisherman and would barter fish for fruit.  So I ate Great Lakes region fish and fruit growing up.  Then I went to school, and the food was so bad that I lost 15 pounds my first year as an undergrad at Cornell College in Iowa.  My extended Lebanese family had such a connection with food, so as a student I began looking for connections between ecology and food – and it all unfolded from there.

What is your favorite book?

I’ve got two – the first is Unprejudiced Palate.  The author, Angelo Pellegrini, has a really interesting perspective.  He came to America from Italy at age 15 after surviving poverty and food scarcity in the old country.  He looked around at the abundance of native plants and fungi in America and was surprised to realize that people here didn’t know how to use wild foods, didn’t have backyard gardens.  It’s a loving critique of the American food system from the point of view of an immigrant.

The other book is The Fly-Truffler by Gustov Sobin, a French author.  It’s about an old man, a truffle hunter, who meets a young graduate student and they document the dying agrarian lexicon of Provence together.  All the images in the book are flavors and fragrances.

How do conversations about race and privilege intersect with the local food movement?  

Resolving long-standing race and privilege issues has everything to do with food systems change. If the U.S is the country in the world with the greatest assets of soil, water, crop biodiversity and agricultural technology, but cannot feed healthy food to a third of its population, our food system has failed them and the rest of us as well for that matter. The poorest of the poor and the hungry need to be the priority for food systems change, or our foodsheds will remain broken and dysfunctional.

The needs of the poor are not an “add-on” – they should be the primary goal of land grant college programs, not an afterthought. And every one of us in a land grant college must abdicate our privileges and stand humbly as equal partners with peoples of all races, faiths, ethnicities, genders and political persuasions.  Just food is the only thing than can unite us, and bring us together at an open table.

What is the single most important thing that someone who really cares about these issues should do?

This might sound surprising, but the most important thing is to be really good listeners to all the voices and their needs in our community, and avoid imposing our own personal agendas on others.  Cultivating receptivity to these many voices representing different perspectives is critical for developing lasting solutions.

Knowing that you are going to be stranded on a desert island for the rest of your life, what three food (plant or animal) items do you bring with you?

Knowing I’d be stranded on a desert island would delight me, because I love the harvest of desert plants and occasionally the taste of desert reptiles. Just give me a swiss army knife, matches, a bowl or cutting board and a cooking pot; that’s all I’d need. Oh and maybe some hot sauce or chile seeds to grow some peppers…the spice of life.