We need to fix the food system. But how?

“Today’s food system is unfair, ineffective and operates beyond ecological limits,” Mark Lee says, via email.

“Unfair in that some 925 million are malnourished…

“Ineffective in that there are enough calories out there to feed everyone, but we fail to do so (and if we fail to do so for 7 billion, how will we cope with 9-10 by mid-century?)…

“Beyond ecological limits in too many ways too count – freshwater use, soil degradation, climate impacts, you name it.”

Mark is not an environmental activist. He’s the executive director of SustainAbility, a think tank and strategy consultancy that has worked with such food industry clients as Chiquita, Coca-Cola Kellogg’s, Mars and McDonald’s, Nestle, Starbucks and Unilever. He approached me because Sustainability recently released a report called Appetite for Change, about the food industry and how to fix it.

I’ve been writing a lot about food lately because it interests me, because food and agriculture matter a great deal if you care about climate or global poverty or health, and because there’s so much debate about what the path forward should be. Organics? Farmers markets? Genetically engineered crops? Vegetarianism? Local? [click to continue…]

Mmm…mmm…who’s to blame for obesity?

My mornings often begin with a run along the Capital Crescent Trail in Bethesda, Md., and a visit to Quartermaine’s, a neighborhood hangout where the coffee’s great, the baristas are friendly and the pastries are tempting. Often, I yield to temptation. If Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest had his way, they’d serve nothing but oatmeal with skim milk, no salt.

Last week, Jacobson assailed the Campbell Soup Co. after its new CEO, Denise Morrison, told investment analysts that the company “plans to bring back some higher-sodium soups after several years of working to reduce sodium, sometimes at the expense of taste,” according to the AP. Sales of the low-sodium soup were disappointing.

Jacobson wrote:

If Campbell has reason to believe consumers don’t like the taste of their products, why resort to salt? Why not improve their soups with more and better-quality vegetables and chicken, or with herbs and spices? I suppose that’s a question that answers itself, and the answer is money. Campbell enjoys a huge profit margin selling what are often basically overpriced disease-promoting cans of salt and water.

Yikes! This “public interest” advocate doesn’t think much of the public, does he, since, in his view, they are wasting their money on “overpriced disease-promoting cans of salt and water.”

His blast made news, as CSPI often does. More than 300 stories, according to Google News, like this one from ABC News.

So what’s wrong with this picture? A couple of things.

First, it reflects an unfortunate blurring of the lines between “corporate responsibility” and personal responsibility. Is Quartermaine’s responsible for my pastry consumption? Should Campbell limit its offerings to low-sodium soups if consumers don’t want them? What about Ben & Jerry’s? This isn’t to suggest that corporations don’t bear some responsibility for the obesity crisis–they do, as I’ll explain below–but as a society, we’ll never get people to take responsibility for their own health and well-being if we point the finger at others.

Second, it misunderstands the power of business. Assume Campbell decided to sell only low-sodium soups. (No more Chicken Noodle, with its whopping 890mg per serving. The FDA currently recommends no more than 2,300 mg — roughly a teaspoon — of salt per day.) Shoppers would simply turn to other brands–or buy a frozen pizza instead.

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Where’s the beef? Sodexo’s Meatless Mondays

Have it your way, said Burger King, in a long-running ad campaign and paean to individualism.

No, have it our way, says Sodexo, the food service giant that is rolling out a program called—gasp!—Meatless Mondays to about 3,000 corporate cafeterias and hospitals across America.

“We make it very attractive, compelling and much easier than anything else to eat vegetarian,” says Arlin Wasserman, Sodexo’s vice president for sustainability.

The goal is simple: To promote healthy food choices that are also good for the planet. Raising beef, in particular, requires lots of land and water and produces more global warming pollution than growing the equivalent amount of calories from vegetables. [See my blogpost: How to “green” a hamburger] Eating less meat is one of the simplest things any of us can do for the environment.

The American Meat Institute won’t like this idea, and unkind critics may note that Sodexo, a $8-billion-a-year global company, is based in France. But Meatless Monday is an American idea. It was developed in 2003 by a nonprofit group called The Monday Campaigns (“the day all health breaks loose!) with help from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. More recently, a government report called Healthy People 2010 called upon Americans to reduce their saturated fat intake by 15 percent. Most saturated fat comes from meat and high-fat dairy foods.

Sodexo first introduced Meatless Monday at about 900 hospitals, and recently extended the initiative to more than 2,000 corporate and government cafeterias, including those at Toyota, Northern Trust Bank and the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The response has been “overwhelmingly positive” so far, Arlin says, but it’s not without challenges. Some of the company’s chefs are being asked to go beyond their comfort zone because Sodoexo needs to come up with a variety of tasty, appealing, nutritious and filling vegetarian entrees. It’s sponsoring a cookoff with the James Beard Foundation to generate new recipes. [click to continue…]