Shutterstock

At the start of the Obama administration, the newly minted president, the same one who quoted Michael Pollan, immediately and disappointingly set about enforcing the food and farm policy status quo. To some political analysts, this came as absolutely no surprise. Ezra Klein, who now writes for the Washington Post but was blogging for the American Prospect at the time, explained the dynamics of the situation:

The broader community of folks who eat food — all of us, more or less — don’t clearly see the connection between policy and plate and so pay little attention to federal action. Our interests are largely lost because there’s little in the way of political reward for serving the silent. Expecting Obama to change that because he read a magazine article is a sucker’s bet. Obama’s picks are traditional because he’s a rational politician, and he’s subject to the same incentives all politicians are subject to. The answer isn’t in better, or more enlightened, politicians. It’s in changing the surrounding political incentives. People who want farm policy to become food policy need to find ways to become louder.

This has been the great challenge for the “food movement” ever since. In last week’s food issue of the New York Times Magazine, Michael Pollan himself points to the greatest opportunity yet for the movement to raise its voice — passage of California’s GMO labeling referendum, or Prop 37. For the movement, says Pollan, the ballot measure is “something capable of frightening politicians and propelling its concerns onto the national agenda.”

The food companies understand the importance of this moment as well as, if not better than, the proposition’s supporters, and Big Food is flooding the airwaves with a torrent of advertising in hopes of drowning out the activists. Led by Monsanto’s $7 million donation, opponents of Prop 37 have spent over $34 million in an ad blitz that has been effective, if not exactly accurate. According to one survey, support for the proposition has dropped from 61-25 in favor of the measure a few weeks ago, to a mere 48-40 in favor now.

And for those tracking the similarities between Big Food and Big Tobacco’s tactics, note that the spokesperson in a high-profile “No on 37” ad is the right-wing Hoover Institute’s Henry I. Miller. According to the Digital Journal, Miller is:

… a founding member of a now-defunct tobacco front group who attempted to discredit the links between cigarettes and cancer. He has repeatedly called for the reintroduction of the toxic pesticide DDT. He fronted for an oil industry-funded climate change denial group. He even claimed that people exposed to radiation from the Fukushima nuclear power plant “may have benefited from it.”

You’d think Big Food might have been able to come up with a slightly more reputable front man.

The point, as Pollan puts it, is to get voters to vote not just with their forks — which they are currently doing in large numbers by purchasing more and more organic and local food every year — but “with their votes.”

Pollan lists a number of the other successes of the food movement so far, including the rise in farmers markets and regional agriculture and the collapse of the company that made pink slime. But real and enduring change won’t happen until there are electoral consequences for acting against the food movement’s interests.

Bridget Huber makes a complementary argument in a recent Nation investigation into the successes and shortcomings of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign*. In short, Michelle Obama started strong with a surprisingly aggressive speech to food companies about the need to make significant changes to tackle the problems of childhood obesity. She followed that up with what advocates and insiders agree was a game-changing role in helping pass the biggest reform to the school lunch program in decades.

But when she and Let’s Move turned to limiting junk food marketing to kids, a policy area with a huge body of research behind it, she faced a withering assault from food companies. Huber writes:

The industry saw the guidelines as a precursor to regulation. After the first draft was released for public comment in April 2011, the industry released a report that said the guidelines would kill 75,000 jobs. The US Chamber of Commerce said the standards reflected “an unhealthy federal intention and impulse to ban free speech.” Food companies began a lobbying and spending frenzy that convinced nearly a third of the Senate and 40 percent of the House to write letters to federal agencies criticizing the proposed rules, according to an analysis of congressional correspondence by the Sunlight Foundation. Food and media companies also pleaded their case at the White House: logs examined by Reuters showed that top executives from Nestlé, Kellogg, General Mills and the media companies Walt Disney, Time Warner and Viacom (which owns Nickelodeon) visited the White House together in July 2011.

In response, the first lady blinked. As one advocate said to Huber, “The White House was silent.”

And who can blame them? The food industry believes in “shock and awe” when it comes to lobbying — as Reuters detailed in its investigation into food lobbying spending back in the spring. The news agency found that the industry had spent $175 million since 2009 lobbying federal officials against marketing restrictions. Outgunned doesn’t begin to describe the status of advocacy groups in that fight.

And when industry turns its attention to “lobbying” the general public, as is currently the case with Prop 37 in California — and will likely soon be the case with New York City’s large-size soda ban — it can clearly be just as effective.

That’s why turning the food movement into a political movement is so important. If they speak loudly enough, but more importantly, carry a big stick, activists and eaters can go head-to-head with even the most powerful of industries. Just ask Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who managed to pass financial reform in 2010 — despite an army of bank lobbyists working feverishly against it — due in large part to the fury of voters.

But what, to date, has been the upside for politicians interested in opposing the food industry? Nada.

In his New York Times Magazine article, Pollan summed up Obama’s position on all this with an anecdote:

Over the last four years I’ve had occasion to speak to several people who have personally lobbied the president on various food issues, including G.M. labeling, and from what I can gather, Obama’s attitude toward the food movement has always been: What movement? I don’t see it. Show me.

The same sentiment has been ascribed to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who is rumored to be generally supportive of reform. Become a true electoral movement and the USDA will be there to support it, Vilsack has more or less told advocates in the past.

Public health advocate Kelly Brownell of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity says that what’s missing in food politics is “a public that demands these [reforms] and that gives politicians cover to take these actions.”

Huber and Pollan come to the same conclusion: Without proven political power, i.e. the literal or figurative “people taking to the streets” phenomenon a political movement needs to flex its muscles, real reform will fizzle out.

That’s why Prop 37 matters so much. As with many a California referendum, it has the potential to provide a much-needed jolt to those who want to change what we eat nationwide. And just like the presidential campaign, it will be up to a relatively small group of voters to decide. So, California: What’s it going to be?

* Full disclosure: The Nation article was produced by the Food & Environment Reporting Network, the nonprofit news project where I am the executive director.