Seven Questions with Anna Lappé, Incoming Head of the Global Alliance for the Future of Food

Photo Credit: Paige Green

When Anna Lappé was in her mid-20s, she published a book with her mother, the celebrated cookbook author, researcher and activist Frances Moore Lappé.

Called “Hope’s Edge,” it was based on trips to places around the globe where people were joining together to create food systems rooted in local culture and biodiversity, both within the United States and in countries like Bangladesh, Poland, Kenya, France, Brazil and India. 

When the book came out in 2002, Lappé decided she wanted to do more than simply send copies to those groups. So she held her first-ever fundraiser in New York City, starting what would become a decade-long tradition, and launching the Small Planet Fund. “That was truly my first foray into grantmaking,” said Lappé, who is now a three-time author, well-known speaker, food movement leader and philanthropic veteran.

To this day, the fund gives out “really small grants,” thanks to an anonymous donor. Lappé, meanwhile, has moved on to even bigger things. After seven years leading the food sovereignty fund at Panta Rhea Foundation, she will soon open a new chapter in her career at the intersection of food and philanthropy: leading the 27-member Global Alliance for the Future of Food.

With a start date of July 17, she begins the new role at a time of surging philanthropic interest in food systems. While still a niche cause, regenerative agriculture and aligned approaches have attracted some of the biggest and oldest names in philanthropy in recent years, and climate change is pushing further into the field. With agriculture and related systems responsible for somewhere between a quarter and a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, there’s no time to lose.

The alliance brings together a diverse group of funders. Members span legacy institutions like the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, living billionaire donor philanthropies such as Eric and Wendy Schmidt’s 11th Hour Project and the Walton Family Foundation, and smaller family operations such as the Clarence E. Heller Foundation. Reflective of its global span, there are also several international members, including Brazil’s Instituto Ibirapitanga, India’s Azim Premji Foundation, Germany’s Robert Bosch Stiftung, and the U.K.’s Tudor Trust.

To take on this new role, Lappé will remove some of the many hats that she wears, reflective of her wide-ranging presence in the food world. Aside from leaving Panta Rhea, she will cease being a part-time advisor to Real Food Media, a communications nonprofit she founded, leaving it in the hands of its three current codirectors. Lappé said over time, she may also end some of her board roles, which currently include the Rainforest Action Network, the Food and Farm Communications Fund and the Castanea Fellowship, which has helped support many food justice leaders.

Her time at Panta Rhea, a small progressive funder that is also an alliance member, has helped show her the positive possibilities of philanthropy. She’s been inspired by a long list of groups, such as Thousand Currents and Grassroots International, as well as her work with the Agroecology Fund. But she arrived at the foundation with plenty of wariness.

“I was very aware that foundations, by design, had been created by some of the wealthiest industrialists in our country to evade their responsibility to support the public sector through their taxes, and to have control how those dollars would be deployed, often to serve their interests,” she said. “And I'd seen from much of my work — over 15 years in the field at that point — how philanthropy, particularly food philanthropy, had created impacts in communities and environments that I had a lot of concerns about.”

When the alliance’s founding executive director, Ruth Richardson, departed the group last year, Lappé decided to apply for the role. She praised its “really principled and really committed team.” Her goal is to stay mindful of some of the worst tendencies in philanthropy as they work to make the most of this moment’s opportunities, inspired by her time at Panta Rhea.

“We have helped leaders and organizations go from a dream on paper to fully operational successful organizations — and that's been a total joy,” she said. “I'm still very clear eyed about how a lack of accountability and lack of transparency runs throughout institutional philanthropy, but I have been witness to when philanthropy is done in partnership, how catalytic it can be.”

Here’s our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Why did you want to lead the Global Alliance for the Future of Food?

I wasn't looking to leave either Real Food Media or Panta Rhea. But it felt to me like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take the next step in what I see as my life's mission: to work on food systems transformation in alignment with social justice, environmental justice, health, climate and biodiversity. 

I see in the Global Alliance such huge potential for its next chapter — to build on the work that it has done in the past and take it to the next level. To scale up our work to draw these connections between food and climate and to galvanize philanthropy to engage more deeply in food systems. Food is still a deeply underfunded sector among philanthropy. Like a lot of us, I feel the incredible urgency of this moment, whether we're looking at the crisis of climate change, the crisis of biodiversity collapse, or unprecedented, completely preventable diet-related illnesses. For me, all come back to a food system that isn't aligned with our values. I'm really excited.

Tell me more about that potential. What are you most excited about doing in this new role?

Well, I haven't started the job yet. But part of what I love about the alliance is that it is an alliance. How do we take these members and be greater than the sum of our parts? My first order of business will be doing that strategic visioning. 

I wouldn't take this job if I didn't know that there is a shared commitment and sense of urgency on acting on these interlocking crises. Last year, the Alliance produced a powerful report that showed that, though food systems emissions are responsible for about 33% of climate impact globally, only 3% of climate finance is going to food systems transformation. How do you actually align public and private investment into this fundamental, necessary shift? There's incredible unlocked potential there. And philanthropy can be one of these catalytic forces. 

What was your involvement with the group prior to taking this position?

I've been connected with the alliance for a number of years through many of its funders, but Panta Rhea became an official foundation member last year. Initially, I was drawn in because it was one of the few food philanthropic spaces that were connecting the dots between food and climate change. A little more than 10 years ago, I wrote my last book, “Diet for a Hot Planet.” It was sparked by my alarm at how much the food system is a contributor to the climate crisis, and how much possibility food systems transformation has to create greater climate resilience, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to protect biodiversity. All that good stuff. 

I wrote the book because I didn't feel like awareness of those connections was mainstream, I wasn't hearing policymakers draw those connections, or seeing that in the philanthropic space. But I was seeing that within the alliance. That's what initially drew me in. Many of its founding members are funders who have been really close partners of mine. And so I've really been learning a lot from it as I stepped into this role as a funder.

You mentioned philanthropy’s history as a place for the extremely wealthy to protect their interests. The Global Alliance includes many foundations who both have dedicated staff doing important work, but also come out of that history. How does that perspective influence the role you would like to play? 

I can’t speak for all of the foundations. Some I've worked with for decades, some since I started at Panta Rhea, and others will be new relationships for me. Of those that I have worked with, I have been really inspired by the changes I’m seeing. One is a foundational understanding of the importance of food systems grounded in a suite of principles. Some of these foundations historically were pushing a food system model grounded in agrochemicals, i.e., pesticides and synthetic fertilizers that are themselves petrochemicals. We're seeing those foundations understand that there is a need for transformation grounded in these principles of understanding how ecological systems work. 

The other shift I'm seeing is understanding how important it is to talk about power and shifting power. Just like in every other economic sector, the global food system has a concentration of power that ultimately means greater consolidation, and in the case of agriculture, greater monocultures, greater reliance on petrochemicals. To move toward transformation, we need to talk about how we diversify power and bring more democracy into our food systems. 

Another trend I've seen is a deepening understanding of the need to talk about systems. Yes, we individually consume food. But the food system includes so many different areas of our society — policy, governance, so many issues. I've witnessed, in the less than a decade I've been in philanthropy, a sophistication in understanding that systems story. We've moved a long way from food philanthropy being dominated by funders who think that if we could just give away enough food, that would fix the problem. And that's certainly a conversation that I want to be part of continuing to lead on.

My experience with funder affinity groups and collaboratives is that everyone has similar goals, but it's hard to get everyone moving in unison, particularly with greater diversity of organizations. What do you make of that part of the role?

What I've seen the alliance do well, and what I hope to continue as a new leader, is looking at places where members see clear alignment and urgency. Where are those places where we can join together? As a member, the alliance is very different from the other funder affinity groups that I'm part of. It takes a lead on important work as a researcher, as a significant convener, across philanthropy and beyond. It uses its communications muscle to uplift big storylines and solutions. 

We've spun off projects that have grown on their own. For instance, we have historically done a lot of work on true-cost accounting, showing how much a food system that is founded on extractive practices and reliant on fossil fuels is producing food that isn't healthy for our bodies. That work has spawned an organization called the True Cost Accounting Accelerator

We've also had some funders within the alliance that are really interested in impact investing. Another initiative that was connected with us is Transformational Investing in Food Systems. Not every single one of our members has impact investing as a strategy or works on mission-related investments. But some did, and came together for that work. Those are just two examples of work that the alliance has done and that we can do in the future. 

What do you think of philanthropy’s recipe on food systems transformation so far? How are things going?

Again, I see a lot of potential. There's still a lot of big philanthropy focused on what I and civil society partners would call “false solutions” — unproven technological fixes. We know agroecological practices can work right now. We are not waiting to have that evidence. There's a real opportunity to shift more toward systems solutions. 

We also continue to see so many resources parked in donor-advised funds that could be deployed, and really should be, given the urgency of the moment. Biodiversity collapse is just as existential a crisis as climate change. Powerful new studies have connected the dots between industrial agriculture and biodiversity collapse. We don't have any time to waste, and yet so many resources are still not being deployed. 

We've also seen some great analysis about what a tiny percentage of funding is still going to support front-line communities and Black, Indigenous, and people-of-color-led organizations. This is true of food systems, but beyond that, as well. I'm seeing these opportunities within the broader philanthropic space, and they're showing up in food philanthropy, as well.

Your mother wrote this seminal book in 1971, “Diet for a Small Planet.” So you were literally raised on a climate-friendly diet. How does that history inform your work today?

When people learn who my mother is, they have these ideas: “Oh, your childhood must have been filled with dinners of broccoli and brown rice, breakfasts of granola and homemade yogurt,” and all of that. The diet part is true. But the deeper truth for me is that, from the earliest age, I understood that food is political. 

One of my earliest childhood memories is going with my mother and brother to Guatemala, where she was doing research on land inequality and land reform. I can still picture going hiking with her and my brother up this hillside and looking down and seeing vast, plantation-style farms, and many, many more tinier plots of land and smaller houses — seeing the visual of that inequality. And hearing her, in most layman's terms, talk about inequality, land inequality, and the work she was doing with the organization Food First

As I got older and could understand more about how the world works, I started understanding how our U.S. food, trade and aid policies were having an incredible impact on what people ate halfway around the world. People who had maybe never met an American before were being impacted by U.S. companies pushing their products, their marketing, pushing their story that this is modern food. For me, that's a legacy of growing up with my mother.