To commemorate Women’s History Month, we’re interviewing women at the Center for Progressive Reform about how they’re building a more just America, whether by pursuing a just transition to clean energy, protections for food workers, or legal support for Native Americans.
This week, we spoke with Board Member Laurie Ristino, a policy and law expert on food security, climate change, ecosystem services, and land stewardship. Her work concerns developing new policy and civil society innovations to address climate change and social injustice while improving environmental and economic sustainability.
CPR: What motivated you to become an expert in food security policy and a voice for equal justice in America? Is there historical context to this or a moment in history that stood out to you as motivation or inspiration?
LR: I don’t consider myself a food security expert as much as I consider myself a policy expert working at the nexus of environment, food systems, and social-economic equity. Since I was a teenager, I’ve been interested in social justice and advocacy. Being gay, I have experienced discrimination and fear — and also the potential of law and policy to make great change. But, I’m also painfully aware that social justice gains in the law are radically uneven — especially for people of color and Native Americans.
My experience as a college student in the ‘80s, when the gay and lesbian movement was accelerating, in part because of HIV/AIDS, was a turning point for me. This was a time of great energy and promise, but also fear and sadness given the virus and laws that criminalized being gay or lesbian.
CPR: What do you see as the highest priority in this field and what are the barriers to change? How does your work affect women in particular? Are there inequities you’ve witnessed that you’re working to change?
LR: In terms of the food system, the pandemic laid bare food inequities and weaknesses. It’s not acceptable for people to go hungry in this country and for farmers to have to throw away perfectly good dairy and produce. Yet, that is what we saw happen during the pandemic — visions of the Great Depression.
We have an opportunity to learn from the pandemic. We need to support diversification of our food supply, reward stewardship, strengthen the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and invite a new, diverse generation of farmers and food producers [to help grow the industry]. Policy is a linchpin to make this happen.
CPR: If you could have Congress or President Biden’s ear for an afternoon, what would you recommend?
LR: The Biden administration is transformational. Climate change, social equality, and competence are being prioritized. The embracing of the first two is significant when compared to other administrations. My advice would be to push forward on the stated goals to finally deal with climate change and the racial injustice that has plagued our food system. Laying the groundwork for a new resilient and equitable food system now is essential for our future.
CPR: Who inspires you?
LR: My mother. She’s a force of nature. Even now in my 50s, I look to her for wisdom.
CPR: Who in particular would benefit from the policy reform you seek?
LR: Most women in America.