Over 40-year career, Holy Cross brother learned necessity of education about food, water

This story appears in the Q&As with Vinnie Rotondaro feature series. View the full series.

by Vinnie Rotondaro

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Dave Andrews "grew up rural," but when it comes to food and water policy, the 70-year-old Holy Cross brother has practically seen it all. Andrews cut his teeth working at the local political level in 1970s upstate New York. He directed the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, an advocacy group dedicated to "the rural church, rural people and their communities." He was a senior adviser to the 63rd General Assembly of the United Nations under the presidency of Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann. For the past six years, he has served as a senior representative to Food & Water Watch, an influential Washington, D.C., consumer rights group that "works to ensure the food, water and fish we consume is safe, accessible and sustainable." All this from a man who "grew up rural."

Earlier this month, Andrews announced his retirement. NCR spoke with him about his life and career, what he's seen and learned over the years, and where he sees the fight for clean, accessible water and healthy food heading today. 

NCR: Tell me about yourself. Where are you from?

Andrews: I'm from Massachusetts. Southeastern Massachusetts, near Providence, R.I. I'm from an unincorporated village. I grew up in Myricks. I grew up rural. We weren't farmers, but we had neighbors who were farmers, so I knew about rural landscapes, and I knew about the demographics and the tradition of rural life in America growing up in that setting.

When did you enter into religious life?

I entered the Congregation of Holy Cross right after high school in 1953. I'm a Holy Cross brother.

And when did you become the director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference?

I was director of NCRLC from 19...what? Well, for 13 years, up until 2008. But I started my rural life career in agricultural food policy right here where I live now, in a small town in upstate New York outside Albany. I started my rural life work with the North East Task Force for Food, Farm and Consumer Policy, which was operated under the New York State Assembly.

My mentor and co-worker at that time -- this was 1974 or '75 -- was Mabel Gil. She's the blood sister of Eileen Egan. I don't know if you know that name, Eileen Egan? She was a worker for Catholic Relief Services, and they give out an award every year, the Eileen Egan Award. She's pretty well known in church circles -- she's now deceased. But Mabel is 91 years old, and Mabel is still active. We keep in touch.

You also worked with the United Nations.

Yes, the United Nations was 2008-09. It was after the National Catholic Rural Life Conference and right when I first started working for Food & Water Watch. I was contacted by Miguel d'Escoto. He asked me to be a senior adviser on food policy and sustainability.

Was that the first time you started working on food and water issues at a global level?

No, with National Catholic Rural Life Conference I worked internationally.

So what do people need to know about food and water at a global level?

They need to know that our water resources are in peril. They're in danger internationally. We waste a lot of water. Increasingly, communities need water because of things like droughts, which are significant here in the U.S., in the Southwest particularly. They need to know that the food that we consume needs to be healthier and that we need to rely less on pesticides and herbicides and more on sustainable systems of production.

We need to make sure to find ways to get sustainable production of food so that more rather than fewer can eat. The food has to be healthy and nourishing. We have to spend more time looking at nutrition. Those are some of the facts of the food system that the public should be aware of globally.

What does the food and water situation look like in America?

The good news in America is that there's an increase in the consumption of organic production, of non-pesticide-use production methods. There's a growth in that, 20 percent every year. So that's good. But you still have the growth of rural demographics, people wanting to move to the countryside -- what we call "amenities seekers" -- people who are looking for a nice landscape, but in doing so use up good productive land for housing. We need to produce good food sustainably in a way that preserves rather than hurts our countryside.

Are the root causes of food and water problems the same in countries like America as they are in more impoverished nations?

They are. They're the same. It's population, migration; it's weather issues, climate change, climate adaptation, the impact of human activity on the climate. We need to look globally at these issues.

Have the issues changed at all over the years?

The issues haven't changed dramatically, but the language and the discussion about them has. In those early days, we talked about "alternative agriculture." We didn't talk about sustainable agriculture. We talked about organic as "alternative." So it was a different nomenclature.

And the language matters.

The language does matter because there are lots of people who want to co-opt the language of sustainability, and they want to call things sustainable that are not. So it does matter, and the nuance matters, and the context matters significantly.

What have you learned about politics over the past 40 years?

Well, that it's easy to be co-opted. There are lots of people who want to take the language of sustainability and use it for things that are not sustainable. Even within the halls of USDA, for example, you have these policies developed that claim to be sustainable -- in terms of the ingredients that go into products or how they're produced -- but they're much more willing to let industrialized systems of agriculture claim the mantle of sustainability when they're not sustainable. From the policy perspective, you have to know your issue and how to nuance it correctly. You have to be willing to help the public see the differences in the methods.

One of the things I've always been happy with is that I taught high school. That helped me shape my language so that I was understandable to a broader public. And that's important in this work because otherwise, people can people fooled. Especially by official organs of the government.

What have you learned about people?

I have learned that people really want to do the right thing. And if you tell them honestly and approach them directly, you'll find that people are basically good-hearted. They want to have healthy, nutritional food. They want to know the right things to eat and how to prepare them for their families. This is why the president's wife [Michelle Obama] has been so popular in her food policy focus, because she's helping educate the broader public. You see, the proliferation of more organic production around the country is because people want to do the right thing.

What can conscientious people do to help support a healthier system?

They can promote healthy food wherever they are, in whatever system they're in: in their schools, in their place of work, in their businesses. Increasingly, food service can become healthier and communities can become healthier if the consumer will foster that kind of system. And I believe that we can do a better job of talking to our leaders about what it is we really want. It gets down to people calling for a positive and healthy change and doing that wherever they are, including their local communities and their churches. If they do so, the change will come. And I see it increasingly coming, quite honestly.

[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. His email address is vrotondaro@ncronline.org.]

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