Q & A with Maria Rodale: On Eating Organic & Practicing Yoga

Maria Rodale takes organic food pretty seriously. In fact, Maria grew up on the first organic farm in America. She's chairman and CEO of Rodale Inc., mom to three girls, and author of the book, Organic Manifesto. She also finds time to blog about organic food and recipes at Maria's Farm Country Kitchen. So how does she do all of this? Well, she has a healthy perspective on food and she of course practices yoga!

MBG: How did the idea for your book come about?

MR: It was baffling to me that people who were smart and thoughtful didn’t understand why organic was so important. People who were so concerned about their health didn’t understand what organic meant. I live in Pennsylvania and I work often in NYC, so I see the whole spectrum of everyday moms who try to do the right things for their kids, but don’t understand why they’re kids are getting allergic reactions and asthma, and what they can do about it. Then I see Brooklynites who want to go on to the next new thing and not realizing how much work actually went into organic in the first place. They don’t realize that that it may not be perfect, but its up to us to make it better. It’s like democracy-ultimately, it’s about the people making organic better.  

Also, I just wanted to understand organic myself. I learned so much in writing the book. I’ve always found that the best way to learn something is to write about it.

How long did it take you write 'Organic Manifesto'?

About two years. I had the first draft done after about a year and my editor told me that I need more sources. And that was where the really good stuff came from. As I went back to original sources and multiple sources, I was like “Oh my God.” That extra year really paid off.

Jamie Oliver talks a lot about childhood obesity and has written for your blog. What’s your perspective on that issue and how it relates to eating organic, especially as a mom?

It’s a major issue and it’s got a lot of complicated issues surrounding it. The number one issue is that if you’re not feeding your kids organic, they’re getting so many chemicals in sugars like high fructose syrup. These chemicals are endocrine and hormone disrupters. In America, we tend to think that if you’re fat, it’s your fault, and you’re eating too much, so you need to cut back and exercise more. But what I strongly believe is that we are putting things into our own diet that are causing our body to react. We even eat more because we’re desperate for nutrition that isn’t in that food. If the only way you’re getting it is with white bread and chemicals in salads, you’re not going to feel satisfied because the amount of nutrition in that food since the onset of using chemicals has declined dramatically. So, organic food should be the basis of our diet, and then it’s okay to splurge every once in a while. We had Peeps for Easter.

How would you describe your philosophy on food?

I grew up around health fanatics, so I’ve seen all the trends come and go. Eat as closely to nature as possible. Always choose what comes from nature over what comes from something else. I think people like the word “natural,” but “natural” in the marketplace doesn’t mean anything. I use food that come from real things and then eliminate the chemicals by choosing organic. That’s what has worked for me. For example, I’ve never eaten margarine; I’ve always eaten butter. I’ve never eaten Crisco, but I’ll use lard.

Currently, I’m working on eliminating everything processed white: rice, pasta, flour-that’s made a huge difference in my own body. It’s hard to do everything right. What’s right for me might not be right for anyone else. Organic is a very doable, inclusive solution. When in doubt, always choose nature over chemicals, and that means organic. Most important thing: Whatever you buy, whether it’s local or coffee from Peru, make sure that you’re not leaving a trail of destruction behind you by choosing the cheap, chemical solution.

What’s your view on the vegan/vegetarianism movement?

Whether you’re a vegetarian, vegan, or locavore -- that’s like a religion. You’re choosing based on a belief system, and we need to respect that. We know what insisting on everyone becoming Christian has done to the world. The point is that we all strive to be good people and be respectful of the earth and of each other. That’s not religion; it’s just human decency We need to extend that human decency to how we treat, raise, and eat animals. I took a permaculture course with Bill Mollison and learned that everything eats, we all have to eat- that’s just part of being alive on this planet.

Let’s talk about yoga. Can you talk about your practice and what yoga means to you?

I started yoga about 15 yrs ago when I was pregnant. I wanted to find somebody who could be careful with me, which is what led me to Iyengar yoga. I felt more grounded and careful in physical healing. Because of where I live, it was literally impossible to find a class, so I hired a woman to teach me privately for about 10 years. Then she moved, so I found another teacher. I had 1-2 years where I wasn’t doing yoga and it was horrible. Yoga is such a gentle infiltration of your senses that you don’t realize until you stop doing it how much it changes you. I do it once a week. Those two hours keep me sane in my life and enable me to do everything I do. I’ve finally succeeded in convincing my husband and 14-yr old daughter to do it with me. They had all these aches and pains, and I said, “Just do yoga.” It’s hard not to be one of those preachy people.

We love more men doing yoga so we’re glad your husband is practicing!

My new yoga teacher is a guy, which made my husband feel threatened because I’d be taking yoga with some guy! But also, the teacher is someone my husband can relate to. To me, yoga is taking responsibility for your own body and not just saying, “Something else is going to fix it.” You have to be in it. It helps you be strong and relaxed at the same time.

You’re a mom, you’re a wife, and you run a company. How do you relax?

Yoga has really enabled me to do a lot. It’s hard for me to relax. Just yesterday, my first class with my new instructor, I did a 10 minute savasana and my teacher didn’t talk at all. I got into such a deep meditation that I had to spend the next 3 hours on the couch, and I never would’ve allowed myself to do that because there are bills to pay and dinner to be made, so that was fun.

Do you ever take classes when you’re in NYC?

I just bought an apartment about 2 months ago, and one of the reasons I picked the location is because it’s near the Iyengar Institute. But I have an inconsistent schedule with my New York travel. And I like working with a private teacher and just focus on myself. I’m just with me. To me, yoga is spirituality.

What are you excited and concerned about as far as the mindbodygreen philosophy goes, the connection between our minds, bodies, and the planet?

I’m excited about how many choices there are in the marketplace for people who want to eat organic or buy green things. It’s certainly a lot better than when I started a long time ago. And I feel like we’re at a tipping point with the readiness of the marketplace to embrace even more great products that taste great, that are well-designed and that are beautiful; not just beige, fat-free, salt-free products that are scary to most people. People need to start where they’re comfortable and they can be more courageous from there.

What concerns me right now is the fractioning of our whole movement in our community. There’s still young people who thing “organic” is just a government corrupted thing when in fact, w/the budget deficit and the next farm bill, we’ve never been more at risk of losing everything we’ve worked for due to budget cuts. The only way to protect that is to speak with one voice and to unite. All the scientific and medical research is out there to show that these chemicals are destroying our health and society-they’re the things we should be cutting to save the budget and to reduce our taxes! But that kind of action requires more of an intellectual, not an emotional response. I think a lot of people live in more of an emotional place, rather than a fully rounded mind and body place.

Those people are very loud and disruptive. They’re the Brooklyn version of the Tea Party. And that’s America, and everyone should have a voice. But we have work to do, we have to get things done, which requires not just talking, but doing. We’re at the place where we have potential like never before in history to really make a difference. My fear is that we’re going to squander that with bickering among ourselves.

For more on Maria:

Maria'sFarmCountryKitchen.com and Facebook

Maria on Twitter

Organic Manifesto on Amazon.

Sarah Greenberg contributed to this interview

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