Real food: Not just for fancy people
In a recent cover story in the Atlantic, David Freedman scolds writers Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman for their misguided, faddish, foodie ways. Grist food writer Nathanael Johnson has already pointed out some of the weaknesses in Freedman’s argument that better junk food is the key to solving the obesity epidemic, but I wanted to spend some time focusing on this notion, forwarded by Freedman and others, that real food is just the latest yuppie health fad.
There’s no question that the food movement (which isn’t simply made up of “foodies”) encompasses many fads. But Freedman and other critics tend to conflate Pollan and Bittman the recipe writers with Pollan and Bittman the policy crusaders. Just because they offer cooking suggestions does not mean that the core idea they write about is just a passing bubble.
Here’s Slate columnnist Daniel Engber, in a reaction to the Atlantic piece, summing up this view of the food movement as yuppified:
The rich decide what’s healthy and what isn’t, then pass their habits down the line. Since the rules on healthy eating drift from one fixation to the next, the habits of the leisure class are in a state of constant flux: Old ideas of what to eat — low-fat ice cream, diet soda, whatever — are shunted from the bobos to the masses, and new ones take their place. The intelligentsia tend to eat according to the latest fashions, so we say (as Freedman does) that they’re “increasingly health-conscious,” as if that quality would ever ebb from one generation to the next. With each new wellness fad — from buttermilk to baby vegetables, corn flakes to kale — we feel as if we’ve ascended to a higher circle of enlightenment. We’re increasingly health-conscious these days … just like always.
And that’s true if you look at eating patterns as described in the style sections of even Very Serious News Outlets, i.e. through the lens of media hype. “Along with midriff-baring tops and all things Gatsby, another trend has swept the spring social circuit: kale salads,” declared a story this spring in The New York Times.
Food fads are not good things, generally speaking. They tend to hinge on weak or poorly conducted research and focus on newly discovered “superfoods” (Hello, kale, meet quinoa!). These often-fleeting obsessions can cause hardships in communities where the superfood may be part of a traditional diet (quinoa is a recent case in point). And even the Western taste for non-faddish foods like asparagus is large enough to create environmental problems in the countries where they are grown when they’re out of season here at home.
But evaluating the food movement based on what yuppies are demanding of their gourmet grocers misses the big picture — that there are many and sundry benefits to be had from a move away from industrially manufactured food products and back to whole foods.
Pollan and Bittman — the policy crusaders, not the recipe writers — have helped to move skepticism of processed foods to the mainstream, and deserve some credit for the significant drop in soda consumption that beverage companies are currently reporting. Avoidance of soda can’t be dismissed in the same way as an infatuation with kale: Moving people away from empty calories is a key part of preventing obesity.
Or is solving the obesity epidemic just a fad, too? If so, it becomes hard to distinguish between helpful public health initiatives like New York City’s anti-soda campaign and superfood-hyping marketing nonsense from food companies.
In some ways, this all flows from the food movement’s own efforts to offer up eating advice in small, easily digested bites. Witness the now-famous Pollan mantra “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” It’s a perfectly good rule to live by. But it doesn’t address the depth of his critique of American society and the way we eat. It’s like saying all there is to Marxism is the slogan, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” But wait. There’s more!
Pollan’s critique is really about the post-war corporate takeover of the food system, both production and processing, and the attendant shifts in power and government regulation. The best expression of Pollan’s political argument is probably his New York Times magazine opus “Farmer in Chief.”
That said, the food movement as a political force, such as it is, has mostly thrown its lot in with the fight against obesity. This makes sense: Food system reform often coincides with anti-obesity efforts. Pollan discussed the power of this alliance when he speculated a few years ago that health insurance companies might become the most powerful advocates for the food movement since they have an interest in keeping their subscribers healthy.*
But while the rise of obesity is the most obvious outgrowth of the corporate remaking of the food system, it is not the only one, and tying the food movement so closely to the fight against fat is proving problematic. Among other things, it allows writers like Freedman and Engber, not to mention politicians, to dismiss the whole kit and kaboodle as a fanciful notion that will be here today, gone tomorrow, with little if any lasting effect.
Getting beyond the food fad debate is, in part, the goal of groups such as Food Democracy Now, which focuses on changing government food policies that concern such things as GMO labeling, toxic chemicals in food, corporate consolidation, and monopoly power. Indeed, “voting with your fork,” another favorite Pollan phrase, feels like the best option given that consumer outrage gets far swifter results than government regulation. (See also: moms vs. bovine growth hormone.)
And for his part, Freedman agrees that we should vote with our forks, or at least our hands: He argues that we should all stick with fast food restaurants, but pressure them to come up with healthier offerings. But the food movement is about so much more than just creating a better Big Mac or what we put in our shopping cart. It’s about transforming the entire food system — how we farm, what we farm, how it is processed, and the role the government must play in all of it.
The distillation of a burgeoning political movement to a fad is a testament not really to the failures of a movement, which is still in its early phases, but to the magnitude of the challenges we face. The change reformers are pushing for is radical enough that it’s easier to indulge in drawing caricatures of superfood-eating yuppies than to face the broader reality: that the food system we’ve created over the last 30 years is failing us.
*I expressed deep skepticism at the time and, so far at least, there hasn’t been much to that theory. In fact, the American Medical Association’s recent declaration that obesity is a disease probably undercuts any potential this alliance might have had, since medicalization of a health condition tends to lead insurance companies to compensate doctors more for treatment, not less.