When people think of climate change, their minds frequently first go to solar energy and EVs. But what we eat is also vital to saving people and our shared planet. Climate hero Lianna Levine Reisner, MSOD, is building a multicultural movement for health as President and Network Director of Plant Powered Metro New York , an organization she co-founded in 2019 to empower local communities to address their health concerns through evidence-based, plant-based nutrition.
An active leader in the Jewish community and beyond, previously Lianna provided organizational change support to Jewish nonprofit organizations. Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center honored Lianna as a 40 Under 40 Rising Star in Food Policy. She has a Master’s degree from Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management in Positive Organization Development and Change, and she holds a certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies. She lives with her husband and three children in the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
I was delighted to get to interview Lianna about her journey, impact and how you too can make a big difference through the healthy food you eat.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi: How did you get connected to working on environmentalism, climate issues and food?
Lianna Levine Reisner: My path to environmentalism started in childhood, inspired by participating in a chapter of Kids FACE (Kids For A Clean Environment) and by my parents’ love of nature. Then it was influenced in adulthood by my mother-in-law, Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, who has been a voice for Jewish environmentalism for many years.
My husband and I became interested in food in our 20’s — I read Fast Food Nation and Marion Nestle’s Food Politics and watched documentaries like “King Corn.” We were members of a CSA, amazed at all the plant foods we had never encountered before. But my drive to action emerged only recently, when I encountered another inconvenient truth: eating animals, especially at the scale that we do, is responsible both for widespread environmental destruction and for most chronic diseases in Western societies.
Globally, animal agriculture accounts for a shameful amount of land use — roughly equivalent to the Asian continent — as we grow crops to feed the 90+ billion land animals that are slaughtered in a single year. This is a gross inefficiency in which we divert calories, water, and land to animals, instead of feeding people directly. Animal excrement (which doesn’t go through waste treatment as ours does) contributes to land and air pollution, and the eutrophication of water. The most potent greenhouse gases — methane and nitrous oxide — are significant byproducts of industrial animal production. According to some estimates, animal agriculture may account for approximately 50% of total greenhouse gas emissions on earth.
Moving away from land animals to fish doesn’t solve the problem because our oceans are in distress. We trawl and pollute faster than fish can replenish, and 40% of farmed fish die from disease before they can become part of our food system. The vast majority of fish are now filled with mercury, plastics, and toxins that contribute to diseases such as Parkinson’s. Moving away from industrial meat to pasture-raised won’t keep up with current and future rates of consumption, nor does it promote good health. Project Drawdown has identified “eating a plant-rich diet” as fourth on the list of actions we can collectively take that will contribute to climate healing.
Why did you decide to focus on food and health?
Many people are working on high-tech, high-investment projects to capture carbon, change over vehicle fleets, build cleaner energy generation systems, and more. These are important pieces of the climate puzzle, but they won’t change the fact that we are taking more than the earth can give, especially as the human population continues to grow exponentially. In my view, food is the most obvious and the easiest answer, and it’s much lower-tech; we generally have all the technology we need right now to provide a nutritionally sound plant-based diet to all people on the planet.
I am moved by the scope and urgency of the climate problem and decided to direct my activism to a different angle. Most people will not (yet) make dietary change for the sake of the planet. We have seen much of the Jewish world focusing its activism on challenging big polluters and the institutions that finance them, and working on energy efficiency in buildings, with no major organizations publicly espousing plant-based diets. However, people do (and will increasingly) make change out of a more selfish desire to be healthy.
It should be no surprise that the very dietary pattern that can heal our planet will also heal our bodies; our interdependence goes deeper than we know. The diversity of our gut microbiome, which mediates health and disease, is fostered by eating a diversity of fiber-rich plants — whereas animal foods are devoid of fiber. The diversity of our soil microbiome is fostered by growing diverse plants in a single area, not monocropping as we do on large industrial farms.
Has this impacted your health?
When my children were younger, I set out to explore what constitutes a healthy diet. After many months of digging and tremendous confusion about the finer details, I made personal changes that allowed me to reverse the symptoms of endometriosis and many other health complaints. I felt like I was living in a new, liberated body. What was the answer? Eat predominantly unprocessed plant foods. The field of whole food, plant-based nutrition is not only compelling but evidence-rich. This approach centers fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds in our diet while eschewing animal-based foods and most processed foods. This eating pattern alone can prevent, treat, and even reverse cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, gastrointestinal disorders, autoimmune diseases, and more — while also deeply reducing our cancer risk.
Did this lead you to starting Plant Powered Metro New York (PPMNY)?
I was so inspired by this alternate paradigm and worldview — and why in the world no one knew about it — that I dove headfirst into building an organization that could catalyze a local movement for health through plants, Plant Powered Metro New York (PPMNY), which I co-founded in 2019 and continue to lead as President and Network Director. PPMNY doesn’t promote the processed vegan alternatives that now abound on grocery store shelves, but instead we support people from all walks of life in replacing meat, dairy, eggs, and fish with nutrient-dense plant foods like sweet potatoes, beans, lentils, cruciferous vegetables, and leafy greens.
Can you tell us more about PPMNY and its focus on health?
PPMNY is one of few community-led organizations across the country that is raising awareness in a nonjudgmental way about the power of eating plants for healing. In less than five years, we have built a network of over 120 educators and volunteers who are teaching the New York metro area’s diverse communities why and how to embrace plant-based nutrition. While our work touches anyone — because we are all victims of a troubling food system and a healthcare system that equates early detection with prevention — we have built meaningful partnerships with organizations serving older adults (who suffer most from chronic disease), communities of color (who experience deep health disparities), and healthcare patients and employees.
Our 30+ medical advisors hail from the top healthcare institutions in the region and contribute to our community education efforts. Especially through our signature dietary change program, the Plant Powered Jumpstart, we have supported many people in putting their diseases into remission, coming off of their medications, feeling happier and more vibrant, and one who even dramatically improved long COVID symptoms.
Awareness of plant-based nutrition is growing in leaps and bounds thanks in part to many pioneering doctors and researchers, key documentaries like “Forks Over Knives” and “The Game Changers,” popular books like The China Study and Fiber Fueled, and the professional network called the American College of Lifestyle Medicine which is giving voice to plant-based nutrition in mainstream healthcare.
How is this connected to the Jewish community, of which you are an active participant?
There have been many Jewish sages and thought leaders throughout history who have written about the deleterious effects of meat on health and behavior, including Maimonides over 800 years ago. The miracle of the body’s self-healing capacity in the presence of our most natural diet has helped me to reestablish my personal relationship with a divine force because it astounds me how complex is our interdependence with the natural world.
While plant-based nutrition has had limited exposure in the Jewish community thus far, PPMNY has been collaborating with the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan since 2019 to educate the community, and I am thrilled that we now have a small group of ultra-Orthodox laypeople and clinicians who are working to raise awareness in Borough Park and Flatbush. My goal is that PPMNY’s local faith-based efforts alongside many other courageous actors across the Jewish world will start a wave of heightened consciousness about plant-based diets for health.
What are some of your key successes and what is next?
One of the most exciting aspects of my work is enabling and witnessing healing among people with advanced chronic disease, and helping those with run-of-the-mill health issues find relief. A few times each year, PPMNY runs our 21-Day Plant Powered Jumpstart, a virtual health empowerment program that walks people through the change process and provides peer-to-peer support through mentorship. We culminate each jumpstart by learning about the ripple effects of eating plants, zooming out from our personal need to be healthy to the role of plant-based eating in environmental repair. We recently ran a national jumpstart with Jewish Veg, bringing Jewish themes and values into an otherwise secular experience. The next virtual jumpstart program will begin after the High Holidays and is open to anyone who would like to join from across the country.
Another key success is working closely with healthcare organizations. PPMNY is partnering with NYC Health + Hospitals, the largest public healthcare system in the country, to teach its employees about plant-based nutrition for their personal wellness and for patient health. In the coming year, we are conducting a pilot study with SUNY Downstate Medical Center on plant-based nutrition’s impact on patients who have received a kidney transplant.
We will also teach nutrition and meal preparation to Montefiore Medical Center’s geriatric patients and their caregivers, to give them tools to improve day-to-day quality of life in aging. These are all projects for human health, but what emerges is regular people with authentic experiences, growing confidence, and new awareness and tools to make a difference for the climate, too.
No meaningful work is free from challenges. What are some of the biggest ones you face – and how do you handle them?
Our largest obstacle in society, and definitely in the Jewish community, is how normalized we all are to eating animals.
Our entire Jewish civilization is built on stories of shepherds and hunters in the days of our exile from Eden, and animal sacrifice in the days of the priests and the Beit HaMikdash. We idolize dairy foods on Shavuot, brisket on Passover, and meat consumption year-round. One could say that the Jewish people’s success was made possible in part due to domestication of animals. That way of life may have been reasonable long ago, but it is no longer sustainable.
We are also highly influenced by our beloved doctors and the advanced medicine they practice, yet many lack grounding in nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine. Most of us have grown up learning and believing that animal protein is essential for health during childhood, old age, and every age in between, but the evidence no longer supports this claim. Just as we as a people have evolved with the staggering challenges around us, this is another moment in which we must learn anew and adapt our behaviors to survive.
What can others do to help?
The simplest message I can offer is to find the will to believe in food’s role in climate change. Even if you know that eating plants may be healthy for you and good for the earth, it is not enough just to know, as Jonathan Safran Foer writes in his book, We Are the Weather. We must believe it, try it, make friends with others who are doing the same, choose real nourishing foods, feel the health impact, eat simply, re-read our texts and relive our rituals with this new understanding, and suspend judgment and suspicion for this and other ideas that feel threatening.
Many people who are living a plant-powered lifestyle are ready to give back through time, treasure, storytelling, and more, because the world depends on our food choices — a vital part of our contribution to God’s creation. The imperative to change what we eat may be daunting, but it is completely possible, satisfying, and essential to the future of life on earth.