The daughter of actor and food entrepreneur Paul Newman, Nell Newman is a vocal proponent of organic foods. In 1992, Newman convinced her father to start and fund an organic division of his food company, Newman’s Own, by cooking him an entirely organic Thanksgiving dinner. She’s manned the company helm ever since, mastering the organic-snack market and moving beyond the food business as the co-author of the book The Newman's Own Organics Guide to a Good Life.
Not so long ago, purchasing and eating organic foods was a foreign concept for many Americans. Even your father was a skeptic. What do you think changed our attitudes about organic foods?
Even in the case of my father, he didn’t know what it was. To him, “organic” meant a little wrinkled organic apple or the nut loaf with yeast gravy my mother used to make him.
The change [in opinion] has come from there being some form of a standard and from the quality of product increasing. There were things you couldn’t find organic then, but now there isn’t anything you can’t find an organic equivalent of, and a very good equivalent at that.
What shaped your decision to start eating organic foods?
When I was about 10, or eight even, I discovered that the peregrine falcon was extinct east of the Mississippi, and it was such an extreme wake-up call. All of a sudden I realized what an effect mankind can have on the environment, including the extinction of what has to be my favorite bird of prey. That was the catalyst for my early interest in organic.
When did you start eating organic foods?
When I could find it. There wasn’t such a thing when I was young. There was just the knowledge that, wow, we were spraying this pesticide on our food, and the wondering, what did it do? It didn’t just kill the bugs, but also this great bird of prey. Ever since that moment, it had always been, what’s the alternative to this pesticide-laden stuff?
The more educated I became, the more I learned about what organic food was. I think the earliest I ever found it was in college in my 20s, and it was little wrinkled apples and lettuce. Then, when I moved to California in 1989, there was a much broader scope. There was a farmers’ market in downtown Santa Cruz every Wednesday and there was so much more of an example of what organic produce looked like. I began to realize this was sort of an option.
Has founding an organic-food company further changed the way you eat?
I think it’s the availability [that changed my eating habits], and certainly I became more educated about the effects of organic versus conventional. In 15 years, there’s been a tremendous growth of organic agriculture. It went from where there were no organic cookies to eat on the market to where there are tons of them. It’s a different world now.
You’ve said before that many conventional beliefs about organics are false. How can we dispel these remaining myths?
Education. I haven’t seen a shriveled apple in a long time, so I think it’s a matter of education and availability. Thank God, Wal-Mart is selling organics, because it’s really a matter of availability that changes people’s minds.
It is hard to change people’s minds, because we pay a low price for food in the U.S. Organics are much closer to the actual cost of food because it reflects a clean environment and they are not subsidized.
Your slogan — “Great-tasting foods that happen to be organic” — has been called consciousness-raising. Was that intentional?
We just figured a seven-grain pretzel may be better for you, but I wasn’t going to con Dad into eating one. So I figured maybe we should create good organic foods that don’t have to taste like heavy-duty, whole-wheat organic ones.
You’ve said it’s more important to know where and how foods are grown than to worry about the calories they contain. Why?
It really is a matter of the freshness and the quality of your food. Eating a balanced diet is certainly more important than calorie counting. I’d certainly rather eat organic than eat diet food. I’d rather make it homemade and know what’s in it because I put it there rather than buying something pre-made that is diet food.
How has having your own organic garden at home changed your lifestyle?
I’ve got salad greens, carrots, parsnips, and peach trees in my back yard. It’s just sort of a smattering of things and I spend most of my time trying to battle the urban critters who want to eat them. It’s so nice to go out and pick your salad greens in your back yard, but I probably buy 95 percent of my organic products in Santa Cruz.
I will frequently forgo something if it is only available conventionally. I took a course called “Focused Agriculture” put on by the Farm Bureau in Santa Cruz; it was all about organic and conventional agriculture. It was really eye-opening, because this one Brussels sprouts farmer basically treated us like farmers; he [recited] a whole litany of things he sprayed on his crops. And you know that you don’t get to see everything they spray on Brussels sprouts. So if I can’t find organic Brussels sprouts now, I’m not eating them.
Organic farmers have to be certified, but conventional farmers don’t have to disclose what they put on their crops. It seems to be a consumer’s right to know, but it is certainly not offered.
What motivates you to continue introducing new organic products to your line — particularly those, like peanut-butter cups, that aren’t immediately associated with organics?
The food industry is sort of a “grow or die” kind of thing, so you have to keep introducing new products. I figure if you’re going to eat a peanut-butter cup, why not eat an organic one? That’s part of our theory of making familiar foods for people.
Let’s talk about your dad. A recent Natural Food Network article suggests that your dad is trying to use his position to garner attention for the issues of locally grown food and humanely raised animals. Is this true?
This is because of the restaurant [The Dressing Room]. I helped him find Michel Nischan, the chef, and he is committed to organics and local foods. That has really grown Dad’s interest in it in that his local restaurant supports these issues. He’s got somebody else preaching to him other than me.
What advice would you offer to people trying to incorporate organic foods into their lives?
It depends on where you live. If you don’t have a farmers’ market or a natural-food store or Wal-Mart next to you, then maybe the thing to do is see if you have a little spot to plant tomatoes and use your green thumb. Or plant a pot of strawberries. And give it [organic products] a try and see what you can afford.
Ashley Griffin Gartland is a Portland-based food writer and the executive director of the Portland Culinary Alliance.
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