Dr. Erica Wohldmann holds a joint Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology and Cognitive Science (Philosophy of Mind) from the University of Colorado, Boulder. She is an Associate Professor at California State University, Northridge where she teaches classes about ecopsychology, psychological and social influences on food choices, best practices in sustainability, and cognition.
Erica’s research on food choices has been generously funded by the National Institutes of Health, and has been published in some of the leading peer-reviewed scientific journals as well as featured in Psychology Today and on the National Wildlife Federation website. She has been invited to speak about her research, sustainable agriculture, and best practices across the country in academic institutions and at conferences, to the California Neighborhood and City Council Coalitions, as well as in her community and at popular festivals.
In 2012, Erica traveled through 16 states in the western United States, living in national forests and wild-foraging all of her food and medicine. She is nearing the completion of a book that describes her journey and discusses the importance of reconnecting with nature as a way to mitigate some of the social and environmental dilemmas we face. Erica also teaches workshops on herbal and medicinal beer brewing, wild-food foraging, and other primitive skills in her community. As an educator, food activist and community organizer, Erica works to create the world in which she wants to live—a just world that is socially and environmentally conscious.
Planet Experts: What are some of the most significant ways psychology sheds light on the food choices we make every day and our food system as a society more generally?
Erica Wohldmann: Psychology is the study of human behavior, so at the basic level all psychologists attempt to understand why we do what we do. I decided to study food choices because the idea that “everything is connected” is exemplified by food. Food needs water, land, light, and healthy, living soil. Food needs energy. All too often this energy comes in the form of petroleum-based agricultural chemicals, and farming equipment runs on oil, but it also needs human energy. Farming offers jobs, helping to build a strong economy, and the government pays farmers who grow certain crops—crops that sometimes result in the production of unhealthy cheap (because they’re subsidized) foods that contribute to diet-related diseases, including four of the leading causes of death (heart disease, diabetes, stroke, cancers). So whether you care about health, the environment, social justice, or the economy, food is a starting place for change. Plus, since most of us eat multiple times per day, we have the opportunity to “vote with our forks” frequently.
Psychologists have contributed to the understanding of food choices in a number of important ways. For example, Brian Wansink and colleagues have published numerous studies demonstrating that we are less aware of what, how much, and how often we eat than we tend to believe. We use external cues, such as plate size and quantity of food left on our plates, to determine how full we are instead of internal cues such as hunger. We don’t really understand nutritional claims, and even environmentalists believe organic food is healthier than non-organic food with respect to calories; people falsely believe that food labeled organic has fewer calories than the exact same food without the organic label. Kelly Brownell and his colleagues have shown that we are easily fooled by the media and marketing—we think we know why we choose one brand over another, but in all actuality, commercials we have seen are a terrific predictor of preferences.
Most of us think we eat because we are hungry, but as it turns out, hunger is a pretty poor predictor of food consumption. In my work, I look at the influence of evolution, culture, and point-of-purchase information on eating behaviors. It’s a fascinating line of work, the study of food choices.
PE: You recently spent six months traveling through sixteen states, living off the land and wild-foraging all your food and medicine. What led you to embark on such a remarkable journey? What were some of the most memorable lessons you learned about yourself and our relationship to food?
EW: My former colleague and dear friend Dr. Roger Moss and I were planning to travel across America to visit schools, community centers, churches, and other places where people gather to teach environmental psychology, “ecopsychology,” to the masses—“taking it to the streets,” we used to say about the lessons we wanted to share with a community that extended beyond the University walls. Unfortunately, he became ill and we realized the trip would be impossible. At the time, Roger was the heart of our team and I was the brain, so I knew if I ever wanted to accomplish the mission we built together, a mission to inspire the next generation of leaders, I would have to discover my heart. I was hoping it would be in the forest.
I learned to forage wild mushrooms when I was in graduate school at the University of Colorado, Boulder. In addition to mushrooms, I could identify a few wild greens and berries, but I certainly wasn’t knowledgeable enough to feed myself until I made the decision to go for it. I relied heavily on ancient wisdom passed down through our genes by our ancestors—a visual system attuned to spotting targets among distractors and a nose that, as it turns out, knows—as well as a pile of books and tips from locals who I met along the way.
Perhaps the most important lesson I learned on that journey was that, in addition to reconnecting with food and the land on which it grows, I was out there to reconnect with humanity. The media portrays us as a country divided, and while there are certainly some important differences swirling around in the “melting pot” of our culture, we are a lot more alike than they give us credit for.
We all want clean water and clean air. No one wants to drink toxic water or breathe in smog. We all want a healthy future for our children. We all want to know that our parents and elders will pass feeling cared for. Being somewhat shy, and raised in a culture that discourages talking to strangers (“stranger danger”), connecting with others didn’t come easy for me, but this trip forever changed that. I learned that when we tear down walls and stop building fences, when we end the wars within our families, only then can we work together to turn our shared wants into a shared reality. Plus, talking to strangers often meant being invited home for dinner, which counted as foraging in my book. So, in that way, connecting with humanity also meant connecting with food, good home-cooked food.
Out in the forest, I learned to eat more than 60 species of edible mushrooms, tens of different kinds of berries, and brewed up herbal beer on the fire. I learned how to use acorns and wild seeds for making fire-bread and pancakes and I ate way more greens than I normally do at home. I also fished a couple of times, which was difficult given that it required something I am terrible at, killing, and I even ate the heart of a red fox that had been killed by a car (not mine), all powerful experiences given that I am a vegetarian in my home. I also felt a more literal connection to nature; my emotional experiences shifted with the changes in landscape and weather. I wept at the destruction left behind by loggers, feeling the loss of the trees that provided shelter from the rain and shade from the sun on my long days of hiking, but understanding our need for houses and paper. I felt a deep gratitude and joy for rain that brought mushrooms and life, and suffered in places where the water no longer flowed, states in which several years of continuous droughts had taken its toll. My brain understood the concept of interconnectedness, and after this journey, my heart knew it too.
PE: Of the myriad issues we face with modern food production — factory farming, overuse of pesticides, preventive antibiotics and GMOs to name a few — what, in your opinion, are the most concerning and what can we as individuals do to help?
EW: Human breast milk contains more toxins than any other food consumed by humans, many of which are associated with cancer and are known neurotoxins. In almost all cases, the health benefits of nursing far outweigh the potential problems, but we simply must stop putting toxins into the system. In my opinion, eliminating toxic chemicals from agricultural, from all of the products we consume for that matter, should be our number one concern. Agricultural chemicals are getting into our bodies through food and water. A 2006 U.S. Geological survey found that 97 percent of all rivers and streams tested came back positive for containing agricultural pesticides, and 92 percent of all edible fish, mollusks, and freshwater aquatic life tested positive. These kinds of facts can be overwhelming, but the great thing about a system with so many pervasive problems is there are numerous ways to get involved and find solutions.
Everyone eats (unless you’re a breatharian), which means everyone can be a food activist. Every dollar we spend on food and other consumer goods is a VOTE, so we can start by voting with our forks. But we can’t stop with personal change.
While small steps are important, we all need to be thinking BIGGER to make social change happen. To that end, we can become change-makers by educating ourselves and others, and disseminating information about sustainable food choices (Caveat: No one likes to be judged and we won’t be successful if we don’t speak with love and empathy. So be a teacher, not a preacher by remembering that no human is perfect.). We can volunteer or donate money, organize a local glean in our neighborhood, learn how to forage wild food, start a garden, write letters to CEOs and elected officials, attend our neighborhood or city council meetings, run for office or support a mindful candidate. One bite at a time, we have the power to spark extraordinary changes to our food landscape.
PE: There is a lot of confusion about what actually constitutes a GMO and whether all GMOs pose risks to human health and the environment. Can they hold some value in our society, or should all GMOs be avoided?
EW: According to researchers, when a mother does not gain enough weight during pregnancy she is putting her child at risk to express genes that enable that child to store fat more easily. Her child, therefore, is more likely to be obese than a child born to a mother who gained sufficient weight. This could be viewed as an example of “genetic modification.” When a plant is exposed to a particular light-dark cycle, that plant might express certain traits that would not be present if the cycle were different; for example, that particular cycle might discourage the production of flowers and seeds or encourage the production of oil. This could also be viewed as an example of “genetic modification.” These natural changes in gene expression, natural because they occur in nature with or without manipulation of human activity, are not the type of genetic modifications that most food activists are concerned about. Many of the modifications we are doing to our food-producing plants are highly unnatural. For example, making plants resistant to certain pesticides and herbicides.
I don’t know enough about the potential negative health effects of GMO foods, but it seems our government, which is responsible for looking out for the health and wellness of the American people, is being careless by taking a reactive approach to GMOs rather than a proactive approach. Must we wait for science to demonstrate conclusively that there are negative health and environmental consequences of GMO foods before we provide consumers what they need to make informed choices? If the makers of GMO products are so certain that there are no harmful effects, then why are they spending billions of dollars to fight GMO labeling?
PE: With so many people clustered in urban areas, what are some ways that city dwellers can engage in sustainable agriculture? How evolved are local governments around the country when it comes to promoting such practices?
EW: I am often reminded that the climate in California makes it conducive to eating locally year-round, but there are many ways people all across the nation can engage in sustainable agriculture. If space permits, we can convert our lawns (monocrops) into edible food forests, or if not, we can plant food in pots and in the parkways (that dead space between the sidewalk and the street). We can join the movement to convert empty parking lots and lawns around abandoned houses into edible landscapes, and encourage our park rangers to plant edible fruit trees and plants. We can get involved with our children’s schools, volunteering to help create school gardens. I mapped out all of the trees hanging on public land in my neighborhood, and included trees in my neighbor’s yards. When I go out for a walk, I harvest lemons, peaches, apricots, plums, pomegranates, persimmons, avocados, oranges, and figs – oh, plus I get to meet my neighbors. As it turns out, people love sharing fruit if you ask nicely.
Laws that allow for the production and sale of homegrown and home-prepared foods are being passed nationwide. In California, we have the Food and Flower Freedom Act that allows for the sale of backyard produce and flowers. The California Homemade Food Act allows for the sale of low-risk foods prepared in home kitchens (32 states have some form of “cottage food” act). We can also grow food in our parkways and pick trees hanging on public land. Some cities and states offer tax incentives to promote urban agriculture and plant edibles in their local parks. We can encourage the adoption of such laws by attending neighborhood and city council meetings, or by writing and calling our elected officials. If all else fails, we can always resort to guerilla-style gardening, tossing out seed-bombs (dirt balls loaded with the seeds of edible plants). Farmers were the original rebels, after all.
PE: What positive changes are you seeing that give you hope for a future in which we not only make better choices about the food we consume, but also how we cultivate it?
EW: When I first started developing the curriculum for the minor in sustainability that the CSUN Liberal Studies Department now offers, few if any universities offered a degree in this area. The word “sustainability” wasn’t on the radar for most universities and colleges, much less businesses. In less than a decade, that has changed dramatically. Recognizing the effects of environmental changes and pollutants, feeling the impacts of drought and extreme weather patters, we are starting to feel that the trust we put in companies and our government to supply us with healthy food that is grown with care has not been honored. People are starting to understand the concept of land stewardship, and I can see that a movement to create a better world is on the rise.
Labeling laws, marketing regulations, school lunch and garden programs, to name a few examples, are beginning to shift in ways that promote informed and healthy choices. Putting pressure on corporate executives and government agencies will ensure laws that are “for the people” continue to receive attention and support. At the same time, it is essential that we cultivate that change by cultivating the land—by taking back our food system. We need to support local farmers, and even grow food ourselves. We need “victory gardens” like those planted during WWI and WWII. As Kissinger spelled out so simply, “who controls the food supply controls the people.”
PE: You have been intimately involved with the massive crop art installation in Nebraska and the upcoming Neil Young and Willie Nelson benefit concert, Harvest the Hope, both in opposition to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. For those who are unfamiliar with this exceptional project, please explain more about the effort and its impact.
EW: Just a couple of weeks before we were scheduled to head to Baja for a spring-break surf trip, my partner, an environmental artist and activist, John Quigley, woke up from a dream feeling the urge to do something in the Heartland related to the Keystone XL protests. Within a matter of days, he connected with Jane Kleeb of BOLD Nebraska who was looking for exactly what he wanted to offer. Jane made some calls and quickly introduced us to Art Tanderup. Art and his wife Helen grow soybeans and corn on a small farm that has been in Helen’s family for more than 100 years. Their farm is on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline route, which, if built, would cut right through the Ponca Trail of Tears also on their land. Art and John hit if off right away, and one evening John came home and said, “honey, we’re going to Neligh, Nebraska for spring break.” Despite the fact that I had no idea where that was, it was an easy sell for me.
I could go on for hours about how great my job is, how privileged I am to get paid for what I’d do for free, but John might have me beat for the best job ever. He creates large sculptures on landscapes, usually working with people, and his art serves as a visually beautiful microphone for environmental and social issues that need a louder voice to garner national and international media attention. For the XL – extra large – pipeline, he was inspired to create the largest crop art on record. Having helped John on a handful of installations, I knew that carrying out the mission to create an 80-acre painting on the land would require a lot of work, but I had no idea just how much work until we’d walked more than 60 miles through corn stubble in Midwestern heat.
With a skeleton crew of a few amazing volunteers, Art, Helen, John, and I laid a grid in the field using his tried and true methods, then mapped out all the lines for the image—a cowboy and Indian standing back to back in alliance above the words “Heartland # No KXL.” The hashtag was made to look like arrows adorned with feathers to give it some tribal flair, and curved lines beneath the men symbolized the importance of protecting the Ogallala Aquifer, while a sun over the men represented the need to move towards renewable energy. Art carved the image into the corn stubble, exposing fresh earth with every stroke of his “paintbrush,” a giant tiller, while John and I walked the lines in front of the machine to guide him. When Art told us his machine had headlights, we worked into the night; and like a true farmer, Art got up at the crack of dawn to redraw the lines from previous the day before John and I could even finish our breakfast.
The image was photographed from above and the result was a beautiful and powerful statement to the nation, earning space on the front-pages of newspapers and media outlets all over the world.
I celebrated my birthday that week and was honored with a made-from-scratch cake and an airplane tour of Neligh, both special ordered by John, and a wonderful lunch prepared by Helen. Everyone sang, and being in a small town, word got around so that folks who stopped by the farm even wished me a happy birthday. As if that weren’t enough, I had the audacity to tell John that I wanted Willie Nelson to play in the cornfield while we worked—he had already given me tickets to see Neil Young play an acoustic show back in LA the week beforehand. It was meant as a joke, but since we were already pondering the idea of a benefit concert, he worked to make my birthday wish come true. John was able to secure Neil Young first, who agreed to donate his time to support the pipeline fighters. I was thrilled, but… what about Willie? Thankfully, Neil and his manager were able to contact Willie Nelson, who also generously agreed to donate his time for the fight. Literally within a few weeks, this concert has come together and is nearing fruition—September 27 is the big day.
To me, this is evidence that dreams and wishes do come true.