A Star In Her Own Right: Nell Newman Directs Organics To Center Stage
By Catherine Monahan
Photos by Sandra Johnson
Restaurant gossip, cooking advice and recipes pepper Nell Newman's conversations. Fervent about food, she's a regular at the Santa Cruz farmer's market each Wednesday, yet something deeper than devotion to good cuisine drew her to the family food business.
"My involvement with organics is born of frustration," says the daughter of actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. An avid surfer by choice, a wildlife ecologist by training and a fundraiser by default, Newman, 42, spent years helping reestablish threatened peregrine falcons and bald eagles in California. Releasing the birds into pesticide-polluted environments, and all the while pleading for cash to do it, eventually turned the experience sour. "That was when this thought—this naïve thought—of starting a business like Dad's, in which all of the profits would go to charity, came to be," she says.
Today, Newman's Own Organics, the company she co-founded with business partner Peter Meehan in 1993, supports chemical-free farming and a long list of charities including Habitat for Humanity, the Organic Farming Research Foundation, Rainforest Action Network and the Predatory Bird Research Group. Together with its parent company, Newman's Own, started by Paul Newman in 1982, the business has generated more than $100 million for charity.
It's clear Newman enjoys giving away money. In addition to funding causes dear to her heart, she sets aside one-third of the company's after-tax profits each year for business associates to donate to charities of their choice. These associates include everyone from Pennsylvania pretzel bakers to industry brokers and bankers.
"That's really satisfying," says Newman. "They choose organizations we may not have known about—small, regional organizations."
Fresher Is Better
Although she'll settle for nothing less than fresh, Newman insists she's not a food snob. "I'll really eat anything," she says, but seconds later adds, "I'm not bragging, but I don't necessarily want to go out and eat pasta, because I make my own. And it's good."
Newman's cooking is the stuff of company lore. Her all-organic Thanksgiving dinner convinced her famous dad of the merits of food grown without pesticides. When he finished dessert, he gave the nod to the organics division of his all-natural foods company. This family-food circle makes sense. Growing up in rural Connecticut, Newman spent time fishing with her father in the river behind their house and cooking in the kitchen with her mother.
While she still prefers her own kitchen to restaurants, one of the few places Newman will consent to dine out is the legendary all-organic restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley. She mentions, a bit ruefully, that she might have taken a front desk job there at one time long ago. "I think my life would have taken a different turn," she says. "It paid some minimum wage, but you got free dinner."
Now content to pay for her meals at Chez Panisse, Newman points out that the restaurant's success is rooted in its commitment to fresh ingredients. "You walk by the open kitchen and they have bowls of produce out—and it's the most beautiful produce you've ever seen," she says.
In her crammed quarter-acre yard, Newman manages to raise organic lettuce, radishes, rhubarb, wild strawberries, roses, peaches, pears and apples. What she doesn't grow, she gleans from the farmer's market and local natural foods stores.
"I don't have to eat anything that is not organic if I don't want to," she says, cheerfully describing locally grown Brussels sprouts, fantastically sweet peaches, and strawberries and baby greens so fresh they won't last overnight. "You have to eat strawberries within a day, because otherwise, they will grow mold—they're not treated with any fungicide," she says.
"Organic farmers grow their crops to be picked when they are ripe," she adds. "They are not breeding strange genetic varieties that are meant to be picked hard, that will turn red later and not taste good."
Newman has strong opinions about the strange genetic varieties of corn, soy and other staples making their way into farm fields and onto tables. Such foods, termed genetically modified organisms (GMOs), contain foreign genes to ward off crop damage or prolong shelf life. This is disturbing territory to a woman who refuses to eat tomatoes out of season and prefers catching salmon to buying it in the store. Organics, by definition, do not include GMOs (see "The New Organics").
"The biggest challenge facing the natural foods industry is how to maintain our integrity in the face of growing GMO agriculture," she says. "It's jeopardizing organic farmers and that can't be tolerated."
GMOs may also pose an ecological risk by spreading their engineered traits to other crops and wild plants. "It's bad science," says Newman, her frustration evident. "Anything that contaminates on this scale is not beneficial. These guys believe very strongly that corn pollen only blows 50 feet." She frets that the odds are against organic farmers who lack the advertising muscle to sway public opinion. It's a foregone conclusion that Newman will be lending her famous name to the fight.
"I hope I can have an effect," she says. "I try and be outspoken about it, but it's pretty David-and-Goliath when you think about it." She sighs. "I don't see that it's going to work out. I see nothing less than a full-out moratorium on GMOs."
Rooster For Rent?
Newman never wanted to be in the spotlight. In fact, she has a fear of public speaking. Outside of narrating a PBS environmental documentary when she was 12, Newman has avoided conventional stardom and, by default and passion, ended up promoting organics.
Her next challenge after battling GMOs lies closer to home and, not surprisingly, also has to do with food. "I think I'm getting chickens," she says. "There's nothing like your own fresh eggs." The only snag in raising the chickens themselves, Newman explains, is a town ban on roosters and their 4 a.m. wake-up call. "You could rent a rooster," she muses and starts laughing. "I never thought of that! Who do I know who has a rooster?" The funny thing is, she'll probably find someone.
Catherine Monahan is a health and science writer, and a frequent contributor to Delicious Living.