Marion Nestle’s last name rhymes with “vessel” and doesn’t get pronounced like “the world’s largest food company.” It’s almost a bitter (and no, not chocolate) irony that the two share the same name spelling, for while the multinational corporation asserts on its Web site it’s about “nutrition, health, and wellness,” Ms. Nestle says things about the food industry like, “Their job is to sell more; they don’t care how they do it. If [it comes down to] saying the product will make people healthier, they’ll say that.”
As an author of groundbreaking books like Food Politics and What to Eat, and as Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, Nestle has spent her career demystifying the supermarket and raising the ire of food companies and those who shill for them. Nestle will be in town to hold a conversation with Morgan Spurlock of Super Size Me fame on Wednesday, March 5, in an event sponsored by the Orfalea Fund as part of its s’Cool Food Initiative that aims to create a community of healthy children across Santa Barbara County who make educated food choices throughout their lives. It’s an evening sure to provide plenty of food for thought and thought about food.
In a recent phone interview, Nestle expressed her own guidelines for helping children develop good eating habits. “Teach them how to cook. Teach them where food comes from,” she began. “Teach them critical thinking about TV commercials and marketing. If you don’t want kids eating junk food, don’t have it in the house. You should also feed kids adult food-one big purpose of marketing is to convince kids they have to eat their own foods.”
Even though her book What to Eat catalogs numerous striking examples of marketing gone mad (Ore-Ida/Heinz makes blue-colored French fries?), Nestle remains hopeful, asserting, “Food is a social movement. I think it’s huge,” she said. “We’re already seeing changes; whether they’re meaningful changes remains to be seen. Coca-Cola is promoting itself as a wellness company. It might sound like an oxymoron, but they’re taking it seriously.”
Given the meticulousness of her research-both through academic journals and down the aisles of numerous supermarkets, notebook and calculator in tow-it’s striking she can maintain the reasonable tone she does throughout What to Eat. She admitted, “I don’t know if it’s a strength or weakness, but I can see both sides of a story. I’ve met people in the food industry and they don’t think they’re bad. They get pretty angry about being slammed. It’s more of a system business than a person business, and they’re caught up in it. Their companies don’t just have to make money; they have to make a lot of money, and more every quarter. That’s the root of the problem. It doesn’t matter what they’re selling, it has to sell.”
Fortunately for us, What to Eat masterfully answers pretty much any questions one might have about food purchases, from “how safe is organic produce?” to “is it possible to make low-carb pasta?” The book also offers a guiding precept: “Eat less, move more, eat lots of fruits and vegetables,” which echoes the one Michael Pollan offered in his best-selling In Defense of Food (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”). About that, Nestle laughed, “He wrote a better haiku than I did. I love that he took a similar message and ran with it. He says exactly the same thing I do, but he’s a journalist so he has a much broader reach.”
Oddly enough, Spurlock’s Oscar-nominated Super Size Me, which made more than $11 million in the U.S.-a fine sum for its original cost of about $300,000-includes a scene with Nestle, but she said, “I don’t even remember being interviewed by him. I heard I was in the movie and it won at Sundance, and it was clearly me :” Since 2004, Nestle has met Spurlock several times, but she said they hadn’t discussed the Santa Barbara event yet, although it will be their first joint public appearance.
It’s certainly possible they’ll talk about the presidential campaign, despite the fact “[the candidates are] not talking about food, none of them,” Nestle said. “I think they’ll have to because of what’s happening with food prices. We haven’t had a rise like this since the early 1970s. Someone described it as a perfect storm, with the oil crisis, the increasing food demands of the middle class in India and China, and the increased corn use for ethanol,” Nestle said. “We’ve already had food scares in countries all over the world. We’ll start seeing the end of cheap fast food.”
Perhaps those in line at McDonald’s today will be just like some brontosaurus munching, not bothering to look up and see the Chicxulub meteor bearing down.
Bringing Ideas to the Table: An Evening with Morgan Spurlock and Marion Nestle takes place Wednesday, March 5, with a reception and complimentary meal at 5:30 p.m. and the presentation at 6:30 p.m. at the Marjorie Luke Theatre (721 E. Cota St.). The event is free, but you must RSVP to sCoolFood.org or 565-7550 x110.