Can we change the Food System?

November 11, 2010

It was a beautiful drive down to Princeton yesterday, the sun illuminating the bright yellow trees lining the road along the way.

And it was a beautiful hall, all carved antique wood, where Marion Nestle, David Kessler and I sat down to discuss the politics of food and health care.

But it was not a beautiful discussion. Interesting, yes. But ultimately depressing. They each began by addressing what they consider the major problem with the current food system. For Marion it is that the government encourages farmers to produce too much food – and then encourages us to eat it. That is the basis of our obesity problem.

David does not dispute that. He agrees with it. But for him the basic problem is that we are literally being addicted to food; that the food companies are creating combinations of fat, sugar and salt that are driving us to overeat. We cannot help ourselves. And so we continue to eat to excess, even when we know we shouldn’t. Even when we don’t want to. As he says, “Everybody in America’s on a diet; everybody’s living in inner torment.”

We are all agreed on these basic facts. The question is, what do we do about it? And that’s where the most depressing part comes in. Because these politically connected people (David, after all, was the FDA commissioner who took on cigarettes), both believe that there are only two paths to political change. Campaign laws must be rewritten to prevent large corporate contributions. And the first amendment must no longer be interpreted as protecting advertising as free speech. Until that happens, political change is not possible.

In other words, change is up to us. They both believe that it is going to take grassroots efforts to change the current system. The upside? They both believe it’s possible. But it’s going to require a lot of work.

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  • I wish I had been able to attend this panel, but alas, I was stuck in Boston. So very interesting. David and Marion are doing some amazing work, and thank you for sharing the details!
    PS We are reading Tender at the Bone for a book club. I just finished it, and you have inspired me to begin my own culinary memoir!

  • Regine Ibold says:

    Dear Ruth –
    Thanksgiving input, PLEASE. Especially make-ahead dishes. Your” incinerated” brussel sprouts – right off the stalk -are a tradition.

  • You 3 are people I think we could stand behind for change. Grassroots still takes powerful and recognized influence to take hold.

  • When a person says, “We can’t help ourselves” it’s like saying, “We’re all victims and there’s nothing we can do as individuals and so we need someone else like the government to step in and tell us what to do. I just don’t necessarily agree with that.
    In my regular business I am a marketing mentor and I help very small business owners get the word out on their products and services. I know that marketing is such a powerful thing that it results in some people changing their behaviors. It’s okay, when it makes your life easier and better – think of how cell phones have made life better (and worse sometimes – but I digress). The point is that we all have a choice whether we buy in to the advertising for junk food and fast food – a lot of the culprits for the obesity problems we face.
    I’ve dealt with weight issues my whole life and I know how tempting all this stuff can be. What’s helped me be successful in losing and keeping off 50 pounds for seven years now is to keep in mind that the purpose of all this junk food isn’t to nourish my body. It’s all about quarterly profits. My mindset is that if these companies want to do that – it’s their business. But they won’t get rich off me on the stuff. And if enough Americans get smart and vote with their dollars – businesses will have no choice but to adapt to what consumers want. Foods that are healthier, less processed and with less unpronounceable ingredients.
    Now as for that new Supreme Court ruling letting corporations donate unlimited funds to campaigns – I’m not happy about that one.

  • You know, those changes will require a huge amount of very directly political work – something the food movement has so far avoided, I think partly on the grounds that it alienates people and doesn’t seem to be directly relevant. The result of the food movement’s focus on consumption choices has been a very elite-driven kind of activism (at least on the customer side – small farmers still often live pretty hand to mouth) and I think the next step in working for better food is going to have to involve tackling poverty and politics head on. That’s a lot more divisive, and requires making a lot more connections for people, but I hope people like you can really push it. David and Marion too, but especially people like you whose public presence is thus far more linked to the consumption side than the political side. I think it gives you a kind of credibility that people with a more political history don’t have.