Yale Bulletin and Calendar

February 7, 2003|Volume 31, Number 17














During her talk with students at a Berkeley College master's tea, alumna Meryl Streep praised the residential college's recent move to serve mostly organically grown crops.

Actress Meryl Streep discusses her role
as proponent of organically grown food

Once she became an actress, Meryl Streep never had any intention of working as anything but that, she told an audience of students at a Berkeley College master's tea on Jan. 31.

A concern about the health of her children, however, forced her to take on another role for which she has also earned public attention: as a committed activist for organic food and the preservation of Connecticut farms.

At the tea, the award-winning actress and Yale School of Drama alumna lauded the recent Berkeley College initiative to serve mostly organically grown food, with a focus on buying from local farmers, and discussed why she reluctantly became a public spokesperson for the same cause.

In the late 1980s, Streep formed the environmental and consumer advocacy group Mothers and Others for Pesticide Limits, which brought national attention to the health risks to children of the pesticide Alar, then commonly used on U.S.-grown apples and other fruit. Streep spoke out about the dangers of the controversial pesticide on a "60 Minutes" program and before the U.S. Congress.

At the time, her own children "were guzzling apple juice," and she had concluded from studies she read that Alar, when heated, "turns into something akin to rocket fuel," she said. In Connecticut, where Streep lives, there were then few outlets to buy organic food, she noted.

"I didn't want to re-invent the whole food distribution system to not feed my children rocket fuel," she said, so she became an advocate for locally grown, organic food.

Streep recalled that she took on her new role as an activist with trepidation.

"I'd much rather go into a hole than go on television and bark at things I insufficiently understand," she said, adding that her cause so rankled some people who opposed her views that her house was broken into. Nevertheless, she explained, "my own children's future ... was more important to me than whether I was going to get another movie or whether someone would be mad at me."

Streep spoke informally at the tea, apologizing at the outset for not having a prepared speech, but then demonstrated that her interest in the organic food movement is based on her own extensive research -- akin to the in-depth studies which she has been known to conduct for many of her film roles.

She credited the Natural Resources Defense Council, environmental journalist Michael Pollen and a friend who wrote a book about the dangers of pesticides for helping to inform her of the risks of eating chemically treated foods.

A steep rise in childhood cancers, autism and asthma is "the price we're paying for cheap food," claimed Streep, noting that locally grown food doesn't require the pesticides used to preserve foods that "travel a long way." While acknowledging that organic food is more expensive to purchase, Streep said an even greater cost results from the diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses to which Americans' unhealthy diets contribute.

"By the way," she quipped, "I notice that everyone seems able to afford cable [television]. That's about $30 a month."

Streep also decried the demise of small farms in Connecticut and across the nation, noting that in Connecticut alone, "we're loosing 9,000 acres of working farmland every year." However, she also said that citizens in the state are "lucky" because there are still some local farms they can easily travel to to buy produce.

Before she had children, Streep said, she paid scant attention to some of the environmental issues with which she is now concerned. She recounted how she moved from New York City to Connecticut after noticing that her baby son was breathing in diesel fuel from car exhausts at nose level when he was in his stroller.

"I didn't care when it was just myself; it was cool to be in Soho," she commented. "But when you have kids, [your concerns] shift."

Streep noted that juggling a career as an actress, her activism and motherhood hasn't been easy. She said she became so immersed in her fight against Alar that it consumed all of her time.

"My husband was mad at me, my children were mad at me," she recalled.

Her lack of "business acumen" proved to be another difficulty while she led her advocacy group, she commented.

"In forming a nonprofit organization, I thought I was forming something for the good of the world, but I learned it is a business," she said. The organization eventually folded because of its debts, Streep stated, but she continues to provide financial backing to other organizations that work for causes she believes in.

When asked after her talk if there were any parallels between acting and activism, Streep commented, "What engages me in each thing is the opportunity to be as truthful as I possibly can."

She encouraged the Yale students in her audience to take advantage of opportunities to fight for their own causes, saying, "It's better to [be an activist] when you are young and unfettered."

The actress also reminded the students that they are making important choices with every product they buy, including their food choices, and said that they can have an impact on the availability of organic foods and help save local farms.

"You vote with your dollars, your credit card," she told the students. "You're voting for what is going to be available. The voice of consumers is so much more eloquent than any legislation."

-- By Susan Gonzalez


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