Have you noticed? A food revolution has begun—with the goal of making our food and agriculture systems better for us, better for the environment, maybe even better for workers and democracy.
So, at least, says Marion Nestle, the author, activist, NYU professor and corporate critic, who gave a rousing closing speech at Cooking for Solutions, a mind-stretching, belly-expanding conference and foodfest organized by the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
The revolution will be inspired, in part, from the top—symbolized by the White House organic garden, First Lady Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign and some encouraging legislation, including a requirement in the health-care law that fast food restaurants put calorie labeling on menus.
“I can’t remember every having a First Family that was interested in the issues that I’m interested in,” said Nestle, a veteran of the food wars and author of six books, including a new volume about pet food.
More important, the energy for a food revolution is being generated by diverse, decentralized grass roots (pun intended). Signs include the robust growth of organic food, albeit from a small base; the slow food movement; the rapidly increasing number of farmers markets across America; strong interest in local agriculture; Jamie Oliver’s broadcast TV prime time anti-obesity crusade; other celebrity chefs who tout “green” practices; the battle to reform school lunch programs; the campaign against bottled water; the animal welfare movement; and the obsession with food issues in so much of the media, ranging from Michael Pollan’s bestsellers to indie movies like Food Inc. to the legions of food bloggers, many of whom came to Monterey.
When you look at it that way, there’s a lot going on.
Says Nestle: “The food revolution is about is democracy by the people, of the people for the people. It’s very bottom up.”
I think she’s onto something. The obesity crisis, in particular, implicates our industrial food system and its overproduction of cheap calories as a cause of big, expensive and worrisome social problem, with terrible human costs. No longer is food a concern only to the white wine and argula crowd; it’s everybody’s problem.
Since this blog is focused on business, I asked Nestle after her talk how she would advise a big food company like Kraft, PepsiCo or Coca Cola to get on the right side of the debate.
“They have to be willing to take less profits,” she replied, without a pause. “That’s the answer.”
Of course, she’s smart enough to know it isn’t. But her view is that shareholder capitalism, with its demand for steady growth in revenues and profits, is one cause of the obesity crisis. She traces the problem back to the 1980s when farm subsidies and productivity gains led to huge harvests of corn and soy, more than Americans wanted or needed. At the same time, short-termism reigned on Wall Street.
“There’s still a great surplus of food in this country, and food companies have to sell it,” she said. “Obesity is the Achilles heel of the food industry. It’s something they have to deal with every day. If you want to do something about obesity, you have to either eat less or move more. And eating less is very bad for business.”
Do companies really want to make us fat? Certainly not deliberately, but it is in their interest to make portion sizes bigger and bigger. It’s in their interests to sell food not just in grocery stores and restaurants but in gas stations, liquor stores and drug stores, too.
“When did it become OK to eat in bookstores?” Nestle asked.
Like cheap credit drove the mortgage crisis, cheap food drove the obesity crisis.
While we’ve all seen outrageous examples of how food is marketed, Nestle can still come up with examples that are shocking. Kellogg’s, she says, spent $66 million one year selling Frosted Flakes. PepsiCo and Coke distribute soda in small villages miles from the nearest city (and dentist) in Latin America, rotting kids’ teeth. South of the border, Cocoa Puffs become “Choco Zucaritas.” Peanut butter, mayonnaise and cookies are promoted as healthful because they contain Omega-3 fish oils.
My favorite example is Enfagrow PREMIUM Chocolate, a chocolate flavored infant formula for toddlers 12-36 months. Mead Johnson, the manufacturer, says on its website that Enfamil, introduced in 1959, “has undergone several significant formulations – each one designed to bring it nutritionally closer to breast milk.” How adding chocolate brings it closer to breast milk is unclear.
The company has the nerve to promote this as a health food:
As your child grows from an infant to a toddler, he’s probably becoming pickier about what he eats. Now more than ever, ensuring that he gets complete nutrition can be a challenge.
That’s why we created new Enfagrow PREMIUM Chocolate with Triple Health Guard™. With over 25 nutrients, Omega-3 DHA, prebiotics, and a great tasting chocolate flavor he’ll love, you can help be sure he’s getting the nutrition he still needs even after he outgrows infant formula.
No wonder Nestle is a cynic about big business.
If, indeed, there is a food revolution, it’s will have to make itself felt in Washington. Right now, U.S. food policy is designed to subsidize cheap calories from corn–with direct farm payments, by promoting ethanol, by erecting trade barriers against sugar cane. This is why burgers and soda, both derived from corn are cheap. Fruits and vegetables don’t get as much of a helping hand from Uncle Sam.
“If you go into McDonald’s with $5, you can buy five burgers or one salad,” Nestle noted.
“What you really want are fruits and vegetables to be cheaper—what the Department of Agriculture refers to as ‘specialty foods,’ ” she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
I’m leaving Monterey more hopeful about the possibility of change in the food system. Lots of people — organic farmers, chefs, activists, the people here at the Aqaurium whose Seafood Watch iPhone app has been downloaded by 200,000 people — are working to make it happen. I’ll tell you about more of them in the days ahead.