By Julian Hattem - 07/23/13 09:00 AM EDT
Food has been on Elizabeth Kucinich’s mind for a long time — and not only around mealtime.
When she was just an 8- or 9-year-old girl, Kucinich began lobbying in her native Britain for sustainable food production, and as a teenager, she skipped school to persuade members of Parliament to oppose factory farming.
“So that would be what I would go up to Parliament and lobby on. And I was doing my A levels, so that was around sort of 17 years old. I used to skip school quite a bit so that I could just go and lobby,” she said with a chuckle.
“You could only put through one letter without a stamp every day,” she continued, “and I would print out letters for the entire body of the houses of Parliament, and in a couple of days, managed to get them all through because I used to just sweet talk them into taking it for me.”
That dogged persistence has stuck with her throughout her 35 years, in advocating for social justice in the U.S., fighting for sustainable development across the globe and traveling with her husband on the presidential campaign trail.
Since May, Kucinich has been the policy director of the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit that pushes for environmentally friendly agriculture and fights the proliferation of genetically modified food and plants.
The debates at the center of the group’s work have been steadily gaining public attention.
For years, the Obama administration has been reviewing a proposal to approve for human consumption a genetically modified salmon that grows at twice the normal rate. More recently, lawmakers in Congress and state legislatures have sparred over whether labels should be required on food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
For Kucinich, it’s proof that the time to handle the big questions is now.
“It really is an issue whose time has come,” she said.
Kucinich said “the threat to biodiversity that GMOs are” includes our lack of knowledge of “the long-term effects, not only of a GMO seed or a genetically engineered animal that may make its way into the food chain, but also all of the chemical applications that are put on the land in consort with that.”
She was also the executive producer of a recent documentary on the subject, “GMO OMG,” which explores the growing role of genetic engineering in foods.
A vegan for many years, Kucinich opposes factory farming and believes that cutting out meat and dairy have a health benefit in addition to being better for the environment.
As proof, she points to her husband.
“From about the age of 5 to mid-40s, he had really debilitating Crohn’s disease and reversed that by going vegan,” she said. “My mother’s the same.”
Published studies support the idea of cutting back on meat to improve health, including fighting Crohn’s disease, an intestinal condition that affects about 500,000 people in America.
The Center for Food Safety is the latest iteration of Kucinich’s efforts to create a sustainable world.
Before her current post, she was the public affairs director with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, where she worked on efforts to end the use of animals for invasive research and improve childhood nutrition, among other issues.
Earlier in her life, she also spent time working with subsistence farmers in Tanzania — “no running water, no electricity, no borehole in the village, so just very basic” — as well as in India and with the American Monetary Institute, an egalitarian pressure group.
It was through that group that she met her husband, a former congressman and mayor of Cleveland.
When she first met him in his Longworth Building office in 2005 as a representative of the money institute, Elizabeth, who stands a full head taller than Dennis and is 31 years his junior, fell in love at once.
“I saw him and immediately I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, you’re my husband,’” she said. “I obviously didn’t articulate that. It may have scared him a little bit. But that was what I felt. I thought, ‘may have come a bit taller, but OK.’ “
The two agreed to get married just the second time they met, at the New Mexico home of actress Shirley MacLaine.
Being a politician’s wife didn’t come naturally to Kucinich. She had always imagined herself in front of a crowd but at the same time always had a difficult time speaking up.
“I remember when I was in school, I couldn’t even raise my hand to ask a question because I was so embarrassed to speak,” she said.
“When we first got married and I was sort of parked in Cleveland while Dennis was here, I would go out to all the district events that I could and just practice standing in front of the room saying, ‘I’m very sorry the congressman cannot be here because he’s voting.’ If I could make my way through that sentence without going bright red and stopping halfway three or four times, it was miraculous.”
Dennis Kucinich has been out of Congress since the beginning of the year, a change in status that Elizabeth has found liberating.
“It’s been extraordinary to have weekends,” she said.
And while the couple may be out of electoral politics for now, she’s not closing the door on having two politicians in the family.
“Not right now,” she said.
Though perhaps some day that time spent shaking hands at campaign events in Cleveland will prove a useful experience.