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.
"So this project is working on a new vision of what democracy means in a modern, technological society. It's reconstructing democratic theory for the modern age, which is a huge undertaking. And it's begun to force me to go beyond the outsider-critic role."
It's also a big break from Lappe's niche on "the soybean circuit," a loose network of "alternative" institutions that has supported her research and writing on world hunger. "I never wanted to be marginalized," she said. "It's very comfortable to wear your little label, but what I want is to have the broadest possible impact."
That kind of ambition has always driven the woman who decided as a high school student in Fort Worth, Texas, "to save the world through the U.S. Foreign Service. To my credit," she laughed, "it only took me six weeks at American University to realize this was not the appropriate route."
Finishing college at a small Quaker school, Lappe emerged in 1966 full of enthusiasm. "I ended up doing community organizing in Philadelphia during the War on Poverty, but I couldn't figure out how my work related to the underlying causes of poverty," she said. "I would help people get their food stamps, but I never felt that anything I was doing was more than a Band-Aid."
She began graduate school at the University of California's Berkeley campus but soon "decided to stop studying until I knew what I was working toward." Casting food as a political issue was a unique focus that made her something of a celebrity.
"Once 'Diet' was published, I had a platform, but I felt compelled to learn more," Lappe recalled. "In 1974, I went to the World Food Conference and was amazed to find real world leaders still trapped in incredibly unproductive ways of thinking. That led me to found the institute."
That's shorthand for the Institute for Food and Development Policy, a not-for-profit organization that sponsors research and public education on world hunger. Among its supporters are such influential people as trend-setting restaurateur Alice Waters and cookbook author Mollie Katzen.
Under the institute's auspices, Lappe has written extensively and traveled the globe to become a leading expert on the causes of hunger. With co-founder Joseph Collins and other institute collaborators, she has produced books including "Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity," "World Hunger: Twelve Myths" and last year's "Rediscovering America's Values," an intriguing dialogue in which a free-market conservative debates a democrat.
With a public life that looks like one crusade after another, it's easy to see Lappe as a larger-than-life voice of the national conscience. Privately, however, she's a down-to-earth working mother with a home (in the San Francisco Bay area), two children (18-year-old Anthony and 16-year-old Anna), and even a sense of humor. "There's a family joke about my being the last American never to set foot in McDonald's," she said, "When I die, that's it."
She's also quick to laugh about her children, who split between vegetarian and not--Anthony, she sighed, "is a die-hard meat-eater, but then his father is too." She and Marc Lappe divorced when the children were 5 and 3, though both parents stayed geographically close out of concern for their children.
Lappe's relationship with her children led to another book, "What To Do When You Turn Off the TV." "That book promoted the family as a source of pleasure and comfort, instead of just another responsibility to deal with," she said. "We put in all these things we did together when they were little. Even now, just hanging out with them is a great release for me, a great relaxation.
"One thing I always knew was that I would not sacrifice my children to my work," she added. "I always felt that if I wanted my children to believe in my values, the worst thing would be to make them bear the brunt of my work."
A couple of years ago, Lappe traded single motherhood for membership in a different contemporary state: commuter marriage. As the wife of University of Wisconsin philosopher J. Baird Callicott, she's now a part-time Midwesterner. "For writing, it's fantastic," she said. "When I'm (in San Francisco), I can really focus on work."
Doing that frequently requires Lappe to call on the fame of "Diet"--the work of 20 years ago, a book that in many ways she has long since left behind. She says she doesn't resent the persistent association, though it sometimes means she's "relegated to the cookbook section."
"But I'm glad that book keeps me grounded in very earthy concerns," she said. "I enjoy weaving that food metaphor, as well as the very practical point that what we put in our mouths each day is connected with a vision of health and wholesomeness. There's the spiritual dimension; breaking bread is so uplifting. And after all, food is the great common denominator."