Growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., Myra Goodman didn’t eat a lot of greens. Just like the typical American household, her family had a diet largely comprised of takeout and microwavable foods.
All that changed later in her life. Goodman and her husband cofounded Earthbound Farm Organic, one of the biggest growers of organic produce. The couple sold the company in 2013. Now Goodman has released her third cookbook, Straight From the Earth, which features vegan recipes she refined while living on her farm in Carmel Valley, Calif. The author and organic pioneer talked to us about TV dinners, forgoing pesticides, food labels, and why eating vegan might be the cheap and easy way to a healthier diet.
TakePart: What did you eat growing up?
Myra Goodman: My parents are both immigrants. My mom’s from Hungary, and she totally bought into the American, convenient processed foods. I was raised on TV dinners most nights, buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and once in a while we had a homemade meal of these things called minute steaks. My mom would season these thin slices of beef with Accent, which was basically a hundred percent MSG. I grew up without any connection to healthy food or where my food was grown. I lived on the 11th floor in Manhattan, and I’d look out my window, and I craved greenery, and I didn’t know how to get it.
TakePart: How did you finally get your fix?
Goodman: I went to college at the University of Vermont. I needed fresh air and trees, and I was just so happy in the country. Then I had this big experience in India and decided that I was going to change the world. I transferred to Berkeley, and I was going to go to school for international relations and get a job at the U.N. and live in the city. I had this year where I had to decide which graduate school I wanted to go to and prepare for the GREs. But me and my boyfriend at the time, Drew, had this opportunity to move onto this little heirloom raspberry farm in Carmel Valley that was pretty dilapidated. We fixed it up in exchange for paying rent.
TakePart: Why did you decide to go the organic route?
Goodman: Drew and I didn’t know much about farming. It was a conventional farm, and we were kind of given a crash course in how to use the chemicals. When it was time to use them, we just really felt like we didn’t want to apply them.... We had no idea that farming uses so many toxic chemicals. It was really an instinct of self-preservation. We didn’t want to handle and apply them in our backyard. We didn’t want to eat food grown with them. We didn’t want to sell this food to our neighbors, and so we taught ourselves to farm organically.
TakePart: When did Earthbound Farm start to really grow?
Goodman: Our first really big customer was Costco, who started buying from us in 1993. In the beginning Costco didn’t want to put “organic” on the package because they thought it was a turnoff to consumers. Back then, organic was just shriveled apples and wilted vegetables in these teeny little dark health food stores. There were no Whole Foods; there were no big natural food markets. So Costco originally didn’t want it to have organic on it. But by the late '90s we started putting “organic” on the label. I think organic has hit the mainstream, and that took a lot of time, for its reputation to change.
TakePart: Why do you think people started embracing organic?
Goodman: When the USDA started regulating organic, which I believe was in 2002, that really changed the industry. Having the USDA-certified label legitimized organic. Before then, different states had different requirements for what was organic. Consumers never really knew what they were getting. Once the USDA regulated it and there was a seal, it gave consumers a lot more confidence. It gave retailers more confidence that what they were selling was organic. For farmers, it gave them an impetus to start transitioning some of their crops to organic. That was a very big step for the organic industry.
TakePart: Any advice for people who can’t afford to go to Whole Foods all the time?
Goodman: I think that part of the way that organic is more affordable is if people eat lower on the food chain. The further up you get on the food chain, the more expensive organic food is. What’s really interesting about Earthbound is, our first product and still our biggest products are these baby lettuce salads that grow really quickly in the ground. So we’re able to sell those salads at a very small premium. But when you’re looking at, say, organic beef, it takes 10 to 20 pounds of grain to yield a pound of beef. It’s wonderful that regulations really ensure humanely raised meat. You can’t use antibiotics or growth hormones, so they grow slower. By the time you look at the price premium for organic meat, it is just so expensive, as well as organic dairy. When you’re eating food that is lower on the food chain—such as organic beans, grains, rice—the price premium is smaller.
TakePart: Why a vegan cookbook?
Goodman: I’m not a vegan, and you don’t have to be a vegan either. But when you start learning how to cook with a lot of these plant-based foods, you realize that a lot of our use of animal products is really habitual, and that you don’t need to use so many.