Nell Newman Comes Into Her Own

Discover the green habits of one of Hollywood's famous daughters.

| July/August 1999

  • The great life is going to the farmer’s market and buying the freshest produce. “It’s my Saturday morning ritual.”
  • Whether strolling through her own verdant back yard in Santa Cruz, California, opposite, or picking the pick of the organic oranges in a nearby orchard, above Nell Newman relishes her ties to the earth and its bounty.
    Photography by Thomas Burke
  • Nell’s work in organic foods was inspired by her childhood in rural Connecticut, where she ate vegetables from her mother’s garden and made pies of apples picked from their trees.
  • Nell and her partner have donated $400,000 in after-tax dollars to charities like Habitat for Humanity.

If Nell Newman, daughter of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, could have her way, she would help people understand the connection between themselves and what they eat as a way toward creating a healthier planet. “I’d love to see people go to the farmer’s market,” she says, “buy food that has just been fresh picked, and then sit down as a family and eat.”

Her connection to the earth and to her family has led Nell on a journey that spans over twenty years, and crosses the country. The journey also has combined her two seemingly disparate passions—birds and food. Once a crusader for endangered species, she today runs the organics division of Newman’s Own, a line of healthy snack foods that includes pretzels, chocolate bars, cookies, and tortilla chips. Nell is the first to say that her work in organic foods was inspired by her childhood in rural Connecticut, where she ate vegetables from her mother’s garden and made pies of apples picked from their trees. When the gardeners came and sprayed the yard, Nell cringed. “If my mom wasn’t home,” she says, “I’d tell them to go away.”

At the age of thirteen, she became interested in birds, particularly in falcons, a species near extinction from DDT. Unbeknownst to her, her love of this endangered species was setting the stage for her future as a proponent of organic foods. On a more immediate level, she kept wondering how man could be killing off a unique creature that once graced the skies. Finding the answer to that question eventually led her to attend the College of the Atlantic, in Bar Harbor, Maine, a school devoted to human ecology. The school’s mission: to spark the study of the interrelationship between humans and the natural, social, and technological environment.

Armed with her B.A., Nell headed to New York to take a job with the Environmental Defense Fund, but city living ruffled her country soul. She wanted to be closer to nature; so she headed west to Cali­fornia where she worked for the Ventana Wilder­ness Sanctuary. It was during this time that she developed a friendship with Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame. “I ate there whenever I could,” she says, “and I loved how Alice believed in using only seasonal food that had been organically grown. To me, she is proof that organic food doesn’t have to taste like ‘health food.’”

Two and a half years later, Nell landed in Santa Cruz at the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group, where she raised funds to help reintroduce endangered birds into the environment. In the midst of this nonprofit work, Nell had an epiphany. “While I was in favor of reintroducing endangered birds,” she says, “I kept wondering why we were putting them back into an environment filled with pesticides.” She also decided she no longer wanted to raise money to help the environment; she wanted, instead, to develop a career that would allow her to give money away for the same cause. The leap from bird protector to food manufacturer followed a logical path. Growing food in a pesticide-free environment was not only healthier for humans, but for birds, too.

Pass the Pretzels

The idea of an organic food division of New­man’s Own had been tumbling around in Nell’s head for several years, but convincing her dad took more than just words. “He didn’t exactly know what organic meant,” she says. So she decided to show rather than tell. “I flew home for Thanks­giving with a suitcase of organic produce,” Nell says, and then she created a dinner of range-fed turkey, organic mashed Yellow Finn potatoes, organic mixed green salad, and organic pumpkin pie. When her father sat back, full and satisfied, she said, “So, how’d you like your organic Thanks­giving dinner?” He smiled, and she knew she had a convert.

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