The actress Meryl Streep melted audiences everywhere (like chocolate in a bain marie) for her Oscar-nominated performance in Julie & Julia, the quirky and wonderful movie about Julia Child and a young woman who seeks to replicate her cooking success.

I’m certainly not a film critic but I believe that no one can transform herself into a character like Meryl. I am an environmentalist, though, and I can testify to another role that Meryl has held with great passion - environmental health activist. Meryl Streep and I first met in September 1988. That summer, the ozone hole had been discovered over Australia, where she was filming A Cry in the Dark, and she was moved to act. Upon her return to the states, she offered to help NRDC raise awareness about environmental issues. At that time, NRDC scientists were working on a report about weaknesses in the regulation of pesticides used in food production. The report release in March 1989 became known as the Alar report (for the growth regulator used on apples), and Alar in turn the symbol for lax regulations of toxic pesticides that could be found in and on common fruits and vegetables. Meryl and I worked together to create Mothers & Others, a group of concerned citizens that rallied to support NRDC in the fight for tougher pesticide residue standards, standards that thanks to a law passed 10 years later would protect particularly vulnerable sub-populations such as infants and young children.

We went on to turn the Mothers & Others campaign into an organization by the same name. The organization's mission was to arm consumers with information that they could take into the marketplace and into the halls of government to demand safer products and smarter, more sustainable production practices on the part of industry. We encouraged stores to stock organic products, shoppers to support farmers’ markets and CSAs. We distributed lists of rBGH-free milk and safer food and beverage storage containers. We published dozens of product reports on everything from paints and wood finishes to personal care products, home furnishings and children's toys. Mothers & Others was transformational, using the power of the concerned consumer to change the marketplace, everything from the way we grow our food to the way we make our stuff. And Meryl was a transformative leader in the environmental health and green consumer movements. She connected the dots for people, brought it home, made it personal.

It's been 21 years since NRDC's pesticide report was released and Mothers & Others was launched. Now back at NRDC, working on Simple Steps, a consumer-oriented news-you-can-use site, I wanted to take stock of all that has happened, and catch up with Meryl to recall what really mattered to her most back then and what still matters today. I had that chance recently, over breakfast in a quiet tea room in New York City. I've shared some of our conversation here (her words have been edited and condensed):

WG: Thinking back, what first drew you in to environmental health issues?

MS: Humans are very self-interested, I became interested in all these things when I was consciously feeding a baby and had a sense that everything you do is going to have an outcome further down the road. So I was very conscious to try to do the right thing and do well by our kids. Being naturally sort of slovenly, I had to sit up and pay attention, because I really think about my work most of the time, and I love that. When kids come into the picture, everything I read made me think "yes, you are right, you are right," and everything we know now about the developing brain, young children, the first things even in utero that you introduce into their little fragile developing systems will bear an outcome later on.

Photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe

WG: I remember you once saying that consumers need to be like chemists or toxicologists when they go shopping. What did you mean by that?

MS: I was being facetious to make a point. There are so many thousands of chemicals used to make and that are in our everyday products. Most of these have not been adequately tested for their effects on health. That's what I meant. If I were a young mother now, had an infant, and trying to figure out what nipple to put on a bottle, I would be reading all these things, finding out what BPA is, I'd be reading about endocrine mimickers and reading all those things. I do lament the fact that I didn't know anything about the problems with plastics when my oldest was born. I have such a wide range of kids; my oldest is 12 years older than the youngest. When Henry was little I was throwing these bottles in the microwaves, the way we all were. I don't think you ever stop being worried. So I did all those things, and then stopped by the time the last one came along. I think I weened her from the breast to the cup pretty much and she didn't really have a lot of bottles. But she had those plastic suckies, the pacifiers, with the phthalates.

WG: That's why we created Mothers & Others, to inform and engage concerned consumers.

MS: Yes, and that's why we called it Mothers & Others, because frankly it is the mother with her child, that's the most invested relationship. I guess it's probably the great balance of life, we are there to go "wait a minute," to look deeply into these things. The other side rushes head long into the new technology and then they go "oh woops," 10 years later. We are the brakes on the car, a good thing to have, not just the accelerator. And that's why it has to be non-profit media bringing this information to people, because with for-profits this is never going to be the sexy story. They will always go after Brangelina. This is what we care about.

WG: That was the value proposition of Mothers & Others, and now 21 years later with Simple Steps.

MS: Absolutely. It's hilarious, because in a way it's like the mass, they say the same thing every week, but you have to go back and remember, and hear it over and over again. It's for each successive generation.

WG: Speaking of media, the profit motive and the need for non-profits to sound the alarm on threats to our health and the environment, I wanted to ask you about the counter-campaign, led by Elizabeth Whelan and the American Council for Science and Health, that sought to de-legitimize the science behind NRDC's report on pesticides in the diet of infants and children. It's complicated to be sure, but can you explain to me why the media seemed to fix on the propaganda story of the "Alar Scare" and mostly miss the much bigger and more exciting stories brought about by the events of that year. As you know, it was established by independent bodies that NRDC's science was sound. And a few years later, Congress did act to change the way we regulate pesticides in order to protect kids. Meanwhile, the impact on the marketplace was profound. Consumers began to think differently about their food and to ask where it is from, and how it's grown. And the organic industry responded to consumer concern by going mainstream.

MS: I think the press coverage may refer to the alar thing as the alar scare. But the truth that rolled out, the residual perception in people's mind just opened the door to all these other things. It was an incredible turning point. The actions [of that year] did change how pesticides are regulated, how tolerances are set. And we still have Delicious apples, right? They just are grown without alar. It [alar] is only used on flowers now. It's interesting. Elizabeth Whelan resurfaced when I did a lot of the press for Julie & Julia. You may recall in the film, Julie (played by Amy Adams) approached Julia Child and she was so cranky, didn't like her. It reminded of the time when we [Mothers & Others] approached Julia to join our campaign, back in 1989. I never met her, but enlisted her aide in this whole sustainable ag question, and pesticide residues, and everything else, and she was extremely dismissive. She actually was a mouthpiece for Elizabeth Whelan's group. I said that ACSH was a front for industry, agrichemical industries, everybody not necessarily looking out for America's health and welfare. She [Julia] went nuts. She was mad, she said "well buh buh buh, this is not a front for industry, we have many reputable scientists on our board,” and blah, blah blah, you know saying the same old thing that isn't true.

WG: I'd forgotten about that. I do recall the info-mercial you made in 1989 for NRDC, in which you were scrubbing broccoli to show how one could wash pesticides off of vegetables. Would you advise people to do that today?

MS: That was sort of a show and tell. It was the most visible way of making the statement about pesticide residues - that you can't wash them off, they permeate the entire thing. It was sort of saying “this is the thing I am doing but you can't really do it."

WG: What would you advise people to be mindful of today?

MS: The shopping. Before you take your food home, you need to consider where it comes from. It's about being a careful consumer, the thoughtfulness applied to every decision. The idea that your food budget is a really important thing, maybe as important as your cable budget. Maybe you don't need 20 channels of ESPN. Maybe you spend less over here so you can spend more on healthier, safer foods. Some foods may be more expensive, but they're cheaper in the long run. It's all about the long run, in my view.

WG: You can save money by cooking more at home, buying less take out, making meals from scratch with whole ingredients, not processed. Do you cook, a lot? Does Don cook, is he an evolved man? I'll be even more jealous if he is.

MS: Don doesn't cook. He's an evolved dishwasher. We cook a lot. I don't cook really well, but I do like it, especially like it now that I'm not cooking for little kids anymore. Mamie for like 8 years, would only eat white food, which makes it really, really hard. What is that?

WG: Do you buy mostly organic? Local?

MS: Yes. I buy organic, though not everything. I buy local mostly. I live in the city. I go to the farmers' market. I do shop at Whole Foods, but I shop at my local Food Emporium which carries a lot of things which they didn't used to, which is sort of wonderful. I remember back in the olden days when I had to drive 45 minutes for just apples which were not sprayed.

WG: Didn't you help set up a CSA when you were living in Connecticut?

MS: We set up a CSA, and a food co-op and all those things. We still have a food co-op up there, but the food that we want is pretty much available. The farmers are growing it, they've been encouraged by the market, there's been more attention paid.

WG: Do you pay attention to meat issues? Do you eat meat? Does it matter whether it's organic or grass-fed?

MS: I still pay attention to everything, Wendy. I do. I eat meat. I really like meat. I eat much less of it, no doubt. I try to get grass-fed, organic beef, the bison burgers I like…some of those are good. All the sourcing questions that I've been trained by Mothers & Others back in the ‘90s to pay attention to, I pay attention to all that.

WG: We asked NRDC's Facebook fans for for questions. Donna Edwards wrote: "I loved her in the movie Julie & Julia She would be great to help those fighting GMO's and the impact they have on children's health and the soil." Do you buy organic to avoid GMOs?

MS: I try to [pay attention to GMOs] but I'm unresolved about the science. I am still reading about it. But while they fight it out amongst themselves, the scientists, I do just try to not buy stuff that is genetically modified as much as I can. You kind of can avoid GMO products, but as we know there is drift, from field to field. We have relatives in Indiana, there's an organic farm and

Photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe

right next to it a farm that is not organic...it's hard to imagine how they can keep it pristine. But we all do as best as we can.

WG: Is there a takeaway from Julie & Julia that relates to our concerns about food, environment and health?

MS: The idea of real food - if it makes your mouth water, generally you know it's probably ok. I guess a Big Mac makes your mouth water...Her [Julia's] message was you can eat butter and all these things we've been taught to fear, but as long as it's a little bit. Moderation and portion size, portion size, portion size - that's the difference, that's the whole thing. It's all about moderation, and real food, you know food that is recognizable.

WG: Switching gears for a moment, another Facebook friend, Aimee Lynn Fahey, asks: “I would like to know how she lives eco in her own life. Does she have a giant mansion like most Hollywood folks who drive Priuses yet live in huge energy suckers, or...? How does she live green and what has she taught her children about respecting the earth?”

MS: I think I live in a big house. I live in a much smaller house than most movie stars. I now live in an apartment in the city. But we still have a house in Connecticut, which we've had for 23 years, and lived in full time while raising our kids. We just put in a geothermal heating system up there, which is fantastic. In a nutshell, we have a pond, and the [geothermal piping] goes into the part of the pond that is deep enough it is not freezing, and it takes water from that deep part and brings it up to where it is freezing, and the differential is what creates energy and pumps it into the house. It's an amazing thing. We have supplemental propane to get it going because we keep the temperature very very low when we are not there. And then when we come up there, the propane will kick it into a temperature that people are not complaining about...

The house was not thoughtfully designed. It's up in the north and it was designed by a southern architect who really didn't understand how cold it gets. And so one whole side is glass and the other whole side, which is the eastern and southern side, is closed off. It's sort of reversed. But now we have the geothermal, it's really great. We don't pay for heat.

As for what I taught my children: Mothering is full of boring things, full of things that you say that they remember only 20 years later. You see it now with my own kids, all they wanted was Fruit Loops and crap, but they don't want that now. Information went in somehow, even though on their face in the moment they were going "I hate you." It comes back later, you just have to have faith that it will.

You know for me, it was like keeping them home if they were sick. It's about the simple stuff, the basics: teaching them to use their imagination rather than play a video game, teaching them to go outside, showing them where the door is.

WG: Thinking about the basics, our values, we've invited our readers to join in a discussion about the throwaway society, American habits and values, the ways of our parents and grandparents and the wisdom we can learn from them. Are you reminded these days of the wiser ways of your parents or grandparents, of the things they would say, or how they would do things? Is there any story/bit of wisdom you would like to share?

MS: My parents were children of the depression. My grandparents really suffered during the depression and had a hard, hard time. My grandmother saved every single piece of aluminum foil and she'd make a ball that would grow and grow and grow, and each time she needed some she'd pull off the outer skin and use it again, as if it were an onion. I don't do this, but it is a mindset and it went into my little brain. And I sort of think like that. I think what the problem might be for people now, is that they, we grew up in a time of plenty, the throwaway, built in obsolescence. How to get rid of all these electronics devices, computers and TV screens that are just proliferating, that's our main thing that we consume and they are piling up and being picked apart by children in Africa, who are getting cadmium poisoning and everything from it. We have to be more responsible, and we have to hold all these so-called good guys who make all these things, the evolved Californians from Silicon Valley, responsible for the things they make.

WG: Are you a label reader? Do you look at the ingredients on shampoos and such?

MS: Yes, but I try not to buy plastic bottles anymore. When I do, I look at the bottom to see if it's recyclable. But, I just think a faster way and the way the market really responds is to name the brand that is good. If you draw people to a brand, the other brands get the picture. To tell people to turn the product over, there's all that small print, which by the way, now, forget it. The short cut is to say "You know what, this brand is good" and draw traffic to it.

WG: How about on the set? A Facebook friend, Mel Croy writes: “I've worked on movie sets and photo shoots and tried to encourage recycling and being aware of excess food and beverages that are wasted. They generally don’t even have a blue bin in the building. Being a bigger voice- maybe she can help to institute this habit on set?”

MS: Sets I've worked on have been pretty good about it. Though there is a lot of waste; waste makes me crazy. I am not really clear about how food is recycled, but I do know that on Julie & Julia, there was no food left over, at the end of the day, there was just nothing. The food was fantastic. If we had a scene with a tarte tatin, poor Susan Spungen, our chef, would cook about 15 of them, because each one you do, you cut a hole and then you've got to do a take two and you need a wonderful new pristine tarte tatin. And so we'd have 15, 20, 23 of these things, that at the end of day, the crew would devour them. The crew was the recycling engine...the crew and the actresses.

WG: One final question - in your view, what truly motivates individuals to action?

MS: I think it is always personal. It’s a combination of what you have been taught, in my own case my parents carefulness with their resources, so that translates to me. Even though I have the ability to buy a vast amount of stuff that I want, I don't really want a vast amount of stuff, and the stuff that I want, I want it to be really good and for my kids. I think altruism is lovely, but I think self- interest is what motivates people.

Photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe

Comments

Aside from the fact that I'm NOT a famous and talented actress (or an actress at all for that matter), Meryl Streep might be my doppleganger. Loved this - - try to think all the time, try to make choices that matter all the time but accept that we all make bad choices, unwittingly, and move on. I too lament choices I made out of ignorance when my first born was a baby (17 years ago). I must labor on and do the best I can with the information available to me at the time. It all fits so well with the Simple Steps messages. Thanks Ms. Streep. Thanks NRDC. Simple, better choices made one by one.
Hi Mimi, There was a mistake in the YouTube settings yesterday, which we've changed. Please try the audio clip again and if you continue to have problems let us know. Thanks, Paul McRandle
Wonderful interview, love the fact that a Hollywood STAR like her tries to live green and you really feel that she believes in what she is saying. I would love the see the clips as well, but unfortunately I'm not able to. Any help?

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