The actor and singer is reconnecting people with their food—starting by making it simpler for everyone to grow their own produce. It might be her most important work yet.
Rachel B. Levin
When Zooey Deschanel was pregnant with her first child, she began thinking more about the food she ate. A lot more. She wanted her baby (daughter Elsie Otter, who was born in 2015) to be the healthiest she possibly could. So Deschanel started critically examining every meal and morsel. At the time, “I was pretty healthy,” says Deschanel. “I mean, I thought I was. I just didn’t really know where my food came from. I would just go to a restaurant or I’d go to the store and I’d buy stuff. I had no idea who grew it.” Her curiosity about the origins of the ingredients on her plate touched off a journey that ultimately led the Los Angeles-based performer—who’s best known for playing Jess in the long-running TV series New Girl, as well as for memorable roles in films like Elf and (500) Days of Summer—to take on a new role: crusader for local, sustainable food production. Today, through efforts she’s helped spearhead, including The Farm Project and the Lettuce Grow hydroponic planter, the Hollywood star is lighting the way toward a consumer-driven revolution in the way our food is grown and sourced. “It started from that little seed,” she says.
Deschanel, 40, is a consummate multitasker. Not only has she starred on the big and small screens, but she’s also a producer, singer-songwriter, fashion icon, web entrepreneur, piano/guitar/ukulele player … the list goes on. So when she trained her famous bang-framed blue eyes on the food system, you know she meant business.
As she began asking questions about where, how, and by whom her food was grown, the charmingly comedic actor had to get serious about the realities of America’s industrial food system. Crops sprayed with harmful pesticides. Animals raised with hormones and antibiotics. Produce transported from abroad across vast distances. It wasn’t hard to connect the dots between factory farming, climate change, and threats to human health.
The practice of shipping food around the globe struck Deschanel as particularly absurd, since that transport pumps heaps of carbon emissions into the air, and food loses freshness and nutrients along the way. “It’s strange when you’re shipping a head of lettuce, you know, 5,000 miles,” she says with a sardonic laugh of disbelief. “That’s kind of insane if you think about it.”
“When Deschanel trained her famous bang-framed blue eyes on the food system, she meant business.”
>1,500 = number of miles most fresh produce travels to get from the farm to your plate
90 = percent of American adults who do not eat enough fruits and vegetables
14 = percent of America’s carbon dioxide emissions linked to food consumption
50 = percent of the US population that lived on farms and grew their own food in 1850
35 = percent of American households today that grow some of their own food
6.8 million = number of farms in the US in 1935
2 million = number of farms in the US today
Armed with this new awareness, Deschanel knew eating locally and more sustainably had to become a priority. “I started eating a lot more vegetables and going to farmers markets … and meeting the farmers who grew those vegetables,” she says. That put the Los Angeles native in touch with the process that turns soil, sun, and seed into sustenance.
Connecting with the agricultural roots of her food proved nothing short of transformative. The result? “Raising my standards about what I was willing—what I really wanted—to put in my body,” says Deschanel.
Though she’d been vegetarian in earlier years, at the time Deschanel was eating meat and fish. But as she grasped how difficult it was to be sure that these animal proteins were coming from healthy, sustainable sources, she made the decision to return to a vegetarian diet.
While Deschanel’s access to farmers markets gave her a bounty of farm-fresh ingredients, she was well aware that millions of Americans don’t have as many options. In a range of communities across the country, she notes, “There isn’t a lot of easy, affordable access to fresh food.”
Indeed, 61 percent of the groceries Americans buy are highly processed “foods” from factories. Six out of 10 kids don’t eat enough fruit. And about a third of vegetables children eat are potatoes, most of them fried. Deschanel could see the clear link between these dietary trends and the “food-related health problems we’re dealing with as a society,” she says. (FYI, diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer are linked with a less-than-optimal diet.)
Deschanel knew from her own experience that disconnection from one’s food—it’s often grown far away, out of sight, by people you don’t know—can also undermine healthy eating choices, even when fresh options are available. The singer, who is one-half of the indie-pop duo She & Him, saw an opportunity to raise her voice to fight for a better food system—one that prioritizes widespread access to local, sustainably grown, real ingredients.
The idea for The Farm Project was born.
Deschanel founded The Farm Project—an initiative to reconnect people to their food—in 2017 with Jacob Pechenik, a fintech CEO-turned-producer (known for independent films such as Before Midnight and The Skeleton Twins) and her husband at the time. Though the couple amicably split in 2019, she and Pechenik remain dedicated co-parents to their daughter Elsie and three-year-old son Charlie Wolf, as well as business partners who share a passion for transforming our relationship to what’s on our plates.
“We believe that the world will be a better place if you’re curious about your food,” says Deschanel, “because that’s going to drive the changes that [are] going to support a better food system.”
The Farm Project has a motto that says it all: “Know It or Grow It.” The “Know It” part of the mission encourages people to ask tough questions about their food’s origins and connect to farmers in their local communities. “If you know where your food comes from,” says Deschanel, “chances are you are going to make more responsible choices.”
The Farm Project partnered with media company ATTN: to produce the Facebook Watch-based web series Your Food’s Roots with Zooey Deschanel, which premiered in November 2017. Each episode investigates a different aspect of the food production landscape, from the importance of small farmers to the crisis of overfishing and the endangerment of bees.
The series not only packs in eye-opening facts about our global food system, but also demonstrates how delicious food can be in its most natural state, as Deschanel samples her way through just-picked organic produce and minimally processed olive oil, whole-grain bread, and more. The implication is that, while food choices are most certainly a function of our thought processes, they are equally driven by our taste buds.
“Connecting with the agricultural roots of her food proved nothing short of transformative.”
The desire to expose people firsthand to how much better produce tastes when it’s picked fresh, rather than languishing for weeks in refrigerated shipping containers and storage, is partly what motivated Deschanel and Pechenik to launch Lettuce Grow—a business that offers a vertical hydroponic growing system (called the Farmstand), seedling subscription service, and app to make growing non-GMO fruits and veggies at home a snap.*
“I am terrible at gardening,” admits Deschanel. But with Lettuce Grow’s system, she successfully grows a wide variety of produce at home to feed her family. And that’s profoundly changed the way she and her children eat.
“The kids are much more likely to eat something they see growing than if you just put something on their plate,” says Deschanel. “My daughter, she really didn’t want to eat much variety, and as soon as we started growing food, she really got excited about it.”
One of Deschanel’s favorite dishes to prepare with her kids is a salad from various ingredients on the Farmstand. “It’s fun for them to taste the difference between the different lettuces and green leafy vegetables,” she says. “They really can develop their own sense of taste and their palate.”
She particularly loves using kale as a base and mixing it with assorted herbs. “It suddenly changes the flavor of your salad, and you can make something completely different without having to get a whole new pantry of oils and vinegars and stuff like that,” says Deschanel.
Knowing how important it is to establish kids’ healthy eating habits at a young age, Deschanel and Pechenik have also partnered with schools, nonprofits, and community organizations through the Lettuce Give program to donate one Farmstand for every 10 sold.
While more initiatives will likely be launched under The Farm Project umbrella, for now, the focus is squarely on expanding Lettuce Grow. The Farmstand helps realize the “Grow It” part of The Farm Project mission by putting homegrown produce within people’s reach, yet it also offers something more intangible than a harvest at your fingertips.
Each Farmstand serves as its own little ecosystem. Butterflies and grasshoppers dance among the leaves. Hummingbirds and bees visit the flowers. Especially in urban settings, the Farmstand links users not just to their food, but also to echoes of a true farming experience that’s a partnership between people, plants, and beneficial creatures.
That reconnection is what The Farm Project is all about: a reawakening of a life lived in concert with nature that’s etched in our DNA.
Deschanel acknowledges that changing people’s shopping and eating habits isn’t easy. “The idea is always that you want people to make those decisions for themselves,” she says. “I think a lot of people think it’s going to be really hard, and it might be for a little bit.”
But ultimately, Deschanel hopes that experiences like using the Farmstand become their own reward, showing people that eating healthily and sustainably can be “so much easier than you think.”
“The Farm Project is all about reawakening a life lived in concert with nature that’s etched in our DNA.”
Just how big a difference can growing and eating more healthy, whole plant foods make? A recent research review concluded that eating roughly 10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day may reduce the risk of premature death by nearly one-third! Yes, that’s a lot of lettuce. But so worth it!
Rachel B. Levin is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer covering food, health, and sustainability. Follow her on Instagram: @rachelbethlevin