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When Hollywood takes notice…

It was announced earlier this week that Food, Inc, has been nominated for an Oscar for best documentary!  For all of you who have not seen it, the film is a documentary focusing on modern food production and an in-depth look at what it takes to bring food to our tables every day.  It is a sobering look at the realities of industrialized food production that makes one think about moving to a farm and eating sprouts all year-round.  It also has a relatively long featured about the Polyface farm, with which I had been fascinated while reading Omnivore’s Dilemma.  It’s near Charlottesville, where I will be headed next weekend.  Perhaps I will get to indulge in some of their wares.

Contrary to some people, the film did not make me want to give up meat nor did it make me nauseous (similar to how reading The Jungle actually made me have a craving for Chicago hot dogs).  But, it does make you think about changing your ways and what you value as being important.  In my honest opinion, it vilifies big business a bit too much (but you all know my position on that), but directionally I am totally in alignment with what the filmmakers are saying.

In a related note, the midtown farmer’s market is not a sad representation of what it once was.  Apples and potatoes are about all that you get, with the odd head of cabbage here or there.  It makes me feel sad inside.

Ronnybrook still shows up, at least, so that makes me happy.

Is Michael Pollan Sustainable?

In an article today in the Los Angeles Times, it’s been highlighted that Michael Pollan is encoutering some serious pressure from agribusiness about his speaking tour, most recently at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.  The university was basically forced to convert the solo speaking arrangement into a panel discussion because of threats from CA agribusiness companies threatening to pull monetary donations from the school.  Really?  This is what it’s come to?

Now, you all know that I am not the biggest fan of MP (and I say this every time I write about him), but I think that the guy’s message still needs to be heard, and censoring him in his speaking tours is not the way to go.  I understand that it is a sensitive issue, and films such as Food, Inc, have brought to light the amount of sensitivity that exists, all the way up through Washington.  However, I think that there needs to a bit more “holding hands across the water” and on both sides.  MP needs to work with agribusiness to get the changes done, and the big agri-giants need to work like this giant and be a little friendlier to the guys who want to make some meaningful changes in the industry.

MP is not a monster, so don’t treat him like one.  Even Ahmadinejad gets to speak at the UN without censorship.

Hes a nice guy, see?

He's a nice guy, see?

Food for thought

Everyone that knows me well knows that I am not the biggest fan of Michael Pollan.  I don’t DISlike him, but there’s something about him that just gets to me, and it’s really frustrating because I agree with his general arguments, but I just feel like something is missing there.  I find his intents to be good, but I think that his vision is a bit narrow-minded, and, like any good convincing writer does, excludes a multitude of factors in explaining individual phenomena (much like Malcolm Gladwell).

In any event, Mr. Pollan, has been featured in a recent edition of the New York Times, with an article entitled “Big Food vs. Big Insurance.”  Not surprisingly, he attributes a large portion of the health industry’s costs to poor diet and America’s general fatness from eating cheap calories.  He throws a bone to other factors, such as smoking, but fails to mention anything environmental or exercise-related.  That aside, the article is a thoughtful piece (per usual, I will admit), and definitely worth a read.  Also worth a read is this article found on the Huffington Post, by Christopher Gavignan.  Both articles speak to the question of access to healthy, natural food, and how the relative “cheapness” of heavily subsidized and processed food has caused this major dilemma.

As I mentioned above, my major complaint with both authors is a complete avoidance of the word “exercise” and the word “moderation.”  Now, I’m not trying to say that the abundance of cheap fast-food and soda is a good thing (and I will address that a bit later) BUT I think that in large part the obesity problem can be linked to something much more personal than agribusiness and less processed food.  That momofuku bo ssam I devoured was minimally processed, yet I’d have trouble squeezing into my jeans if I ate that a couple of times a week.

For example, one of the fittest people I know drinks a six-pack of Coke a day.  He also works out for 2 hours a day, and has a body fat percentage around 8%.  Now, I understand that there are always statistical anomalies, and that r-squared for obesity and its associated diseases is not 100.  But then riddle me this.  An article published in the American Journal of Medicine (I’m not a doctor, but I trust that doctors contribute to the publication) found through a study of the US population’s diet that fat and caloric intake actually decreased over the period from 1976 to 1991.  Yet, obesity rates grew about 31 percent.  What was this caused by?  60% of the US population lives a “sedentary lifestyle.”  Sixty percent.  That is ridiculous.  And it’s something that is completely unaffected by BIG BUSINESS and GOVERNMENT SUBSIDIES (read those words out loud in your BIG MAN voice).  Living in the spoils of New York City, you forget that it is possible to have a sedentary lifestyle.  As my aunt once said to me, “the official New York City sport is walking.”  And it’s true.  It’s easy for us urban dwellers to say, “well, those people are fat because they eat a bunch of cheap crap at McDonald’s.”  I would argue that’s not entirely true.  You can get fat off of expensive crap.

Now, as a former fat kid, I can attest to the fact that when you don’t exercise, you don’t keep weight off.  I got a Nintendo, I got a spare tire, it was pretty much that simple.  My friends and I ate the same food, yet I was the overweight one.  I think that too much emphasis for these guys is being placed on what is so bad about the food system in the US.  I think that it is certainly important, and I myself eat a minimally processed diet, mostly because I enjoy cooking and the greenmarket and because it impresses burgergal when I pick up cool local food stuffs and cook her dinner.  But, I would like to see equal vigor placed on physical fitness.  Michelle Obama’s got a vegetable garden?  Great.  Let’s have a running track built around it.

I’ve got some other random thoughts related to the same topic:

The big food guys aren’t necessarily bad guys. Like it or not, they need to be involved in order to solve the problem.  They simply have a) too much money and b) too much political leverage for them to not be involved (and no, I do not work at a big food company).  I think that McDonald’s has done a great job at expanding healthy offerings at their locations.  But I don’t think it’s enough, and I don’t think that using local sustainable ingredients is the solution.  I think that McDonald’s and its brethren need to promote moderation and exercise like they do value meals and snack wraps.  This might have an immediate impact on profitability, but I think the longer term trends indicate that profitability might go down anyway, so why not help everyone out?  Make a compelling case for them to help, that makes business sense, and they will help.  Don’t paint a picture of gloom and doom and “down with McD’s.”  It can actually bring in new customers and can help them have a “nice guy” image.  Where has Ronald McDonald been, anyway?

Junk food tastes good. I love Chicken Nuggets.  I think they are among the best foods on the planet.  I also like chips (Doritos Cool Ranch).  And I like KFC fried chicken. And countless other things.  People don’t care if they are eating a locally grown spear of asparagus if they don’t like asparagus.  You can’t make them like it, either.  I think it’s myopic to think that having locally grown food available and cheap will make people buy it.  As I mentioned above, I think it’s about changing the way we think about chicken nuggets.  Don’t make me feel bad because I like them and support the company that makes them.

Don’t mistake a result for the problem. Take, for example, a case mentioned in Food, Inc. An immigrant family must eat fast food because they cannot afford to buy fresh produce for the family the way that they can buy six burgers at a fast food chain.  Now, on the surface, the problem appears to be “wow, if the fresh food were cheaper, they would be able to eat more healthily.”  To that I say, “incorrect.”  The real argument is, “wow, if the income gap weren’t so large, they would be able to afford to buy the fresh produce and eat more healthily.”  As a study in the UK found, “Obesity, diabetes mortality, and calorie consumption were associated with income inequality in developed countries. Increased nutritional problems may be a consequence of the psychosocial impact of living in a more hierarchical society.”  I’m not going to touch the second part of that finding, but I think that is the real root of the problem with cheap calories.  Don’t make them less cheap, make them even cheaper.

And I’m done.