Michael Pollan considers himself first and foremost a writer, but with the success of his four recently published books on the subject of food — that, amongst other things, address how the country’s penchant for cheap, processed food is taking a toll on our economy and waist lines — he also finds himself the de facto lead advocate in a movement to reform America’s poor eating habits.
Pollan spoke to a packed Granada Theatre Thursday night, answering questions delivered by NPR’s Renee Montagne and offering handfuls of takeaway sound bites that — in the informative yet easy-to-digest manner of speech he’s known for — dripped with sensible perspectives on a misdirected food industry and the plight of its unwitting consumers. The event was put on by UCSB Arts & Lectures and the healthy school lunch program s’Cool Food, and attended by a mix of Granada regulars and college-age kids.
Montagne began things by asking Pollan what he thought about Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, an initiative launched in February 2010 to get kids off their butts and eating healthier with the hope of curbing childhood obesity levels. While Pollan said he doesn’t think the campaign has made kids in general any less fat, it’s at least generating conversations about the problem. He instead commended the First Lady for planting an organic garden at the White House, joking that the plot’s bee hive needs to be strapped down so it doesn’t blow away when the president’s helicopter drops in.
Not questioning Michelle Obama’s intent or resolve, Pollan nevertheless lamented that she — like many legislators before her — has seemingly been taken advantage of by a food industry that is concerned not with the public’s health but with its corporations’ bottom lines. Pollan pointed to her recent partnership with Walmart, which promised to bring cheaper, healthier food to urban areas throughout the United States. Walmart, noted Pollan, currently feeds around 30-40 percent of the country. He wondered aloud why the retail giant said it would take five years to reduce trans fats, sugars, and sodium in its food. “I could tell you how to do it tomorrow,” Pollan said. “Maybe they’re just making promises that everyone will eventually forget.”
Tweaking processed foods doesn’t fix the issue that they’re inherently unhealthy and lacking in nutrients, he said, and doing so — or planning to do so — isn’t a sound goal for companies or the government. Simply lowering the price of produce would be more effective in getting people to buy more healthful meals, he went on. “The sad thing is we have to rely on the benevolence of corporations to drive change,” Pollan lamented, “when [the change] should be legislative.”
President Obama hasn’t evidenced a desire to take on big business, Pollan said, so we shouldn’t look to him alone for that kind of intervention. Instead, the consumer must prove — on a day-to-day basis — that he or she is serious about food reform. Only then will lawmakers take notice, Pollan said — borrowing a page from author, farmer, and conservationist Wendell Berry — and effect a shift on the political level that encourages buying locally, eating more greens and less meat, cutting back on chemical-laden ingredients, and so on.
The conversation then shifted to how newly enacted health-care laws will likely have a direct impact on the way providers look at the food industry strategies that aim to get people to eat more and become hooked on fatty, sugary products. Whereas health insurers were previously able to deny coverage to those with preexisting conditions — oftentimes heavy people with poor diet-induced type 2 diabetes, Pollan noted — the same providers now have a harder time blocking such patients from their plans. “They’re now stuck with that population,” he said.
A typical type 2 diabetes patient spends around $400,000 on treatment over the course of his or her lifetime, which, if they’re insured, directly affects his or her provider’s bottom line. Health insurance companies, Pollan predicted, will begin to push against laws that allow corporations to peddle unnatural, unhealthy foodstuffs with the sole intention of making a buck.
One of the most central changes the country can and should make in order to move away from the poor eating habits so many of us adopt, Pollan explained, is better educating children to the importance of healthy food and, basically, feeding them better meals. “School lunch programs can be an agent of change,” he said, elaborating that any kind of “food movement” is fruitless unless kids learn food literacy early on — where their meals come from, how they’re cooked, and what they do to their bodies. More emphasis should be placed on educating children about nutrition, Pollan said. “Teaching kids about food is just as important as teaching them about science and math,” he stated.
Touching on the relationship between the energy crises and what some have called the “food crisis,” Pollan explained how 20 percent of the fossil fuel used by Americans is burned to feed ourselves. Not only is it used to transport loads and products over long distances but, more importantly, tons of it is pumped into crop fertilizers. Additionally, he went on, the country would grow enough food to feed 11 billion people if so much of it wasn’t used to feed animals that are later slaughtered. “We have to make not eating meat as glamorous as eating it,” Pollan said. We also waste about a third to half of the food we produce, he said.
While it takes American farmers around 10 calories of energy to produce just one calorie worth of food energy, other countries have employed ingenious farming techniques that don’t rape the earth of its nutrients but instead harness natural biological cycles and systems. In Argentina, for instance, farmers will harvest corn or soy on a plot for three-four years, then switch to grazing cattle on the same land for five years, before again switching back. That way, Pollan said, farmers don’t need to use fertilizer (nitrogen from cow manure feeds the crops) or weed killers (switching from perennial to annual plantings keeps the pesky plants at bay).