Our Hero: Melinda Hemmelgarn, the Food Sleuth

A few years ago, a colleague and I drove from Bonaroo in Manchester, TN to the LOHAS conference in Boulder, CO. We'd put a note out through the Sustainable Table mailing list to see if anyone had suggestions of sustainable farms to see or people to meet. A woman we had never met responded with an invitation to brunch at her home in Columbia, MO. “Right on the way,” she said. I remember pulling up to her beautiful home and thinking, “this is a little weird… who is this person again?” My apprehension disappeared the second Melinda answered the door. She served up a delicious breakfast in her backyard and we had never-ending things to talk about.

This week, I reconnected with Melinda on the phone to talk about her work, her life and what inspires her in her mission to educate people about food, health and agriculture.

Melinda Hemmelgarn – registered dietician, writer, inspirational speaker, investigative nutritionist, media expert and advocate of sustainable agriculture – is our hero! She is the host of the Food Sleuth radio show on KOPN 89.5, where she interviews the leading experts on food, health and agriculture, helping listeners decipher the often confusing and conflicting information about the food we eat. Melinda is not only sharing this information with us, but she is teaching people the media literacy/critical thinking skills necessary to “think beyond their plate” and connect the dots between food, health and agriculture.

Be sure to follow Melinda’s work:  Food Sleuth  Radio & Farm Hands Project &  F.A.R.M.  Food, Art, Revolution, Media

And her upcoming events:  TODAY! August 25th in MN – Melinda and Dan will be presenting their F.A.R.M. project at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy & October 18th in WA – Melinda will be presenting the Keynote at the FoodMed conference.

Here is a bit of my talk with Melinda. Click on the audio player under Melinda’s portrait to listen to the entire interview, download the podcast for free from iTunes, or download a transcript here (PDF).

I'm really curious about how you came to the food/health/agriculture connection? Was sustainable agriculture always an influential piece of nutrition for you? Or did the food/health/agriculture connection come around later?

That’s a great question. And it came around much later. So I've been a dietician for over 30 years and I can tell you that back then, we learned about food and its connection to disease prevention and health promotion.

And that’s what really got me excited about dietetics and why I became a clinical dietitian. And it wasn’t until 2004 when I did a Food and Society Policy Fellowship that my eyes were really opened about the connection between agriculture and sustainable agriculture ad how that influences the quality of our food. And since then I have never looked back.So that was a two-year Food and Society Policy Fellowship. And it opened my eyes to the value of school gardens, of getting people involved in food production and understanding the connection between the quality of our soil and the quality of our food and ultimately our health. And once that curtain was raised, that’s when I really saw an opening for more of this kind of work, especially in the health professions. And I think that changes are happening very quickly and I'm very happy to say that there are many people in the health professions who are recognizing this link between how we produce our food and who produces it and under what conditions, to public health. But it’s always been that way and the time has come.

It’s wonderful to see that connection and I was going to ask you about your IATP, the Food and Society Fellowship, and how that influenced you. So obviously that made a big difference in the way that you were approaching nutrition.

Right! And in our class, every class is a little bit different. But our class was focused on childhood obesity and what I brought to the table was an emphasis on media literacy. I became interested in media literacy because for a large part of my profession I looked the roll that media plays or advertising and marketing played in children’s food choice and consumer food choice, largely, but especially children because they are so especially vulnerable. And I was able to bring media literacy then to the table and then blending that media literacy. And when I use that word, what I really mean is critical thinking about the media messages in which we swim, about our food, and now more recently what are the media messages in which we swim about agriculture and how we farm? And propaganda is alive and well, and propaganda can be used for good and evil. But the problem is that we received a lot of propaganda that gives us messages that promote unhealthy forms of farming and misinformation about farming.

For example, a big myth out there and one that we need to blow right out of the water is that, if we farm organically somehow that’s not going to feed the world. That’s a big misconception. And let me make it very clear for our listeners: organic farming can, indeed, feed the world. And, indeed, many agricultural reports coming out of the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization are stating that agro-ecological methods, or organic farming methods that protect our water, our soil, that look at the whole ecological system in food production, is really the only way we're going to win the war against hunger. And this notion that it’s man against nature is very prominent in agricultural media to the mainstream audiences. When we really need to be working with mother nature, she is our ally, not our adversary, and we find that organic farmers, and of course, the Rodale Institute has been a forerunner in this research, but we find that organic farming methods can produce just as much, if not more, or just as great a yield, if not a greater yields, in working with the ecological systems: with our water, with our soil; and getting great yields as well as healthy food for healthy people.