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Nell Newman’s own: actors’ daughter plays lead role in organics

Nell Newman’s own: actors’ daughter plays lead role in organics – Interview

Lotte Mendelsohn

Browsing the sea-scented booths at the Santa Cruz, California, Farmers’ Market, her cerulean gaze gives it away, even before her signature business greeting: “Hi, I’m Nell Newman, Paul Newman’s daughter.” Talk about genetics: There is her dad’s ice-blue “Who and how the hell are you?” look, topped off by her mother, Joanne Woodward’s, ready, equally famous, pixie grin.

Over the course of an afternoon, Newman reveals a much more powerful legacy than just her physiognomy, however. Her famous actor parents have, in the words of a close friend, “seeded the family values of social responsibility, political involvement and philanthropy” in daughters Nell, Melissa and Clea. For Nell, these values led her to found Newman’s Own Organics, the organic-food division of her father’s highly successful philanthropic company, Newman’s Own. Its product line of tasty’ snacks ranges from the popular Fig Newman cookies to pretzels, popcorn and candy.

Newman grew up ill the woods of rural Connecticut. “I can’t live in the East anymore,” she says. “The farmland where Dad and I used to fish is now filled with condominium complexes or mansions. The woods are gone. It’s so gentrified.

“We had a huge garden,” she says. “One summer I dug up the whole front lawn. Mother loved that! I planted 100 big, beautiful snapdragons in a raised bed. I had a friend with a Rototiller. We went crazy and did the whole thing in a week–vegetables, herbs, the works. We even grew collard greens for our housekeeper, Caroline. She’d complained for years that she ‘surely couldn’t buy them in any Westport market.'” Newman slices the air above her head with a short-nailed hand. “Well, we finally had her collard greens!”

While driving north to the Wednesday Santa Cruz Farmers’ Market, Newman talks about her long involvement with the soil. Her awareness of the environment’s fragility is the heart of her passion and the inspiration for Newman’s Own Organics.

“I wanted everyone to know that organic foods didn’t have to mean bruised fruit, wilted veggies and granola,” she says. “That’s why I love our local farmers’ markets. There’s something very special about buying just-harvested food from the grower, taking it home and eating it–it’s a natural sharing.”

Jumping out of the car–and forgetting to feed the meter–she heads toward the heart of the market, most of which features organic produce. Newman moves familiarly from stand to stand, selecting a variety of fragrantly musky organic mushrooms and several handfuls of raw peanuts. “Try these,” she says. “They’re amazing–sweet, delicious, full of protein–irresistible.”

She collects some multi-hued baby lettuces and some odd, Frisbee-shaped red onions. Strolling file market, she is continuously met with “Hi, Nell” and “Hello, Nell.” Recognition is friendly but not intrusive. This is Newman’s milieu.

Newman is taut-bodied under worn jeans with long, straight, sun-bleached hair, and her 40-plus years sit lightly. Most at home in the outdoors, she finds an outlet for her interest in the natural in a range of recreational pursuits. She is a licensed falconer, a lover of fast cars and, daily now, when the tides allow, a competent surfer in the capricious rollers of Santa Cruz. “I bit the bullet in ’95 and took surfing lessons,” she says. “It keeps me fit, but it also clears my head and keeps me balanced. And it’s fun!”

Also fun is giving away money. Parent company Newman’s Own has donated more than $125 million to charitable organizations and causes in the past 2 decades. Since Newman’s Own Organics made its first sale in 1993, the modest company has donated $2 million to more than 200 charities and educational groups. Many of these groups are small and obscure, which makes their fund-raising efforts a daunting task. Newman has great empathy for that problem, having been a fund-raiser herself while working with the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group and the Ventana Wilderness Sanctuary in California’s Big Sur, which worked to re-establish peregrine falcons and the bald eagle and is now involved with endangered condor research.

Why the interest in birds? “I always wanted to fly,” she says. “Never could understand why I couldn’t. It was frustrating. I’ve owned an American kestrel and a Harris hawk, and I exercised the peregrines at the sanctuary. They are so intense, so beautiful.

“My family loves to give money away,” she says. “But I need to see some future in its use. Working with the raptors, fighting to bring them along, then releasing them into a killer, pesticide-filled environment broke my heart. It was so discouraging! When the peregrine was down-listed from ‘endangered’ to ‘threatened,’ a lot of the funds just dried up. We’d released more than 800 birds into the wild, only half of which had survival chances. But to have a successfull program, you need to monitor for 20 years, and that costs money,” she shrugs characteristically. “It has to do with sustainability.”

Newman is an avid student of biology and explains the word “sustainable” in the context of organic farming. “It has to do with the practices you are utilizing,” she says. “The goal is to create a sustainable ecosystem that will be able to continue into the future. Chemical fertilizers have long-term detrimental effects. You can’t continue using them without having to amend with this or that or without killing all the beneficial bacteria in the soil. And, of course, they kill off native species. Organic farming, on the other hand, fosters an environment that not only supports your crop but also doesn’t have detrimental effects on the native animals. It actually builds the soil.”

Newman’s Own Organics uses products from certified organic growers outside California such as Deafsmith County Farms in Muleshoe, Texas. “Honest, they have 7,000 acres of certified organic corn, soy and cattle–7,000 acres! There’s the sustainable system at work: corn to feed the cattle and manure to grow soybeans. We also use organic cacao from Costa Rico and Panama and organic coffee from Peru for flavoring our Espresso Sweet Dark Chocolate Bars.”

So much talk about food triggers a change of direction in the conversation. For lunch, she suggests Carried Away–“a neat place down the road started by Mima Lecocq and Tom McNary, two chefs from Chez Panisse [Alice Waters’ pioneer Berkeley, California, restaurant known for its use of seasonal organic produce]. They have a few tables, and they’re great.”

Waters was Newman’s inspiration for starting Newman’s Own Organics. “When I moved to Berkeley, I almost took a job at Chez Panisse” taking reservations, she says. “Unfortunately, the job that really interested me–that of ‘forager’–wasn’t open, The forager works full-time in the field checking on growers and bringing back samples so that the chefs can experiment with the product. That was the job to have–it sounded so great. Can you imagine getting paid to do that?”

Can you imagine getting paid to do what Newman and partner and CEO, Peter Meehan, do? “Dogooding is a high,” says Meehan. “It keeps you in good spirits.”

Multidisciplined scientist, Nell Newman is a daughter of Neptune: champion of avian wildlife, astute businesswoman and “fair of face.” Nature was on a roll with the creation of this woman.

Guide to a Good Life

“I never expected to write this kind of book. In fact, I seldom read this kind of book,” writes Nell Newman in her just released The Newman’s Own Organics Guide to a Good Life. Newman shares that the kind of book she prefers wasn’t available–so she gathered her interests and experiences in ecology and the environment and transformed them into practical, personal and encouraging ideas and tips to live a more harmonious lifestyle. Written in an intimate and casual tone, the book details how our daily lives and habits are interconnected within the ecosystem. Newman explains, for example, how genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our food supply do more than make our tomatoes bigger or our apples juicier, but are possible dangers to our health and environment. Vegetables that are bio-engineered to kill insects that eat them can also threaten untargeted pollinators such as butterflies. And she quotes the poet and farmer Wendell Berry, “Eating is an agricultural act,” so it matters how and where our food originates.

With understanding comes change. Each chapter is focused on lifestyle elements such as food, transportation and even pet care that can be easily adapted to fit more environmentally conscious standards. You can’t necessarily peddle your bike or walk everywhere, but shifting your car into overdrive or inflating your tires properly are simple measures that allow you to be more fuel-efficient. Or, adding a few household plants to your home decor can help eliminate airborne toxins. Newman also gives tips within tips to help readers gauge what changes are more feasible for their lifestyles and means. And sprinkled into each chapter are personal stories of people who have done fascinating things to better their lives and surroundings.

Newman is always quick to point out that she is not advocating impossible changes. “This book is not without contradictions … it’s fairly obvious that one can’t be a ‘perfect’ environmentalist. But that’s okay. Perfection isn’t the goal. A good life is. And a good life has as much to do with your intent as with the end result.”

–by Marriaine Hak

Lotte Mendelsohn is a veteran travel and food writer and broadcaster living in California.

Article adapted from Living West, Fall 2002.

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