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Michael Pollan Fixes Dinner (Extended Interview)

America's favorite food intellectual talks about ethanol, the carrot lobby, and secularizing food. With podcast.

| March/April 2009

MJ: One of the criticisms of the food activism community is that, you know, it's easy enough for Clara Jeffery and Michael Pollan to talk about organic and locally grown food because we walk out the door and we trip over a farmers market and we can afford it. How do we democratize better quality food for people? If we want to get toward a more local and organic food system, can the poor afford it?

MP: It is the important question. Much more has to be done to democratize the food movement. One of the reasons that healthy food is more expensive than unhealthy food is that the government supports unhealthy food and does very little to support healthy food, whether you mean organic or grass-fed or whatever. The incentives we have make processed food or fast food or junk food very cheap. I mean we subsidize high fructose corn syrup. We subsidize hydrogenated corn oil. We do not subsidize organic food. We subsidize these four crops—five altogether, but one is cotton—and these are the building blocks of fast food. One of the ways you democratize healthy food is you support healthy food.

I think you have to work on access. I think we have food deserts in our cities. We know that the distance you live from a supplier of fresh produce is one of the best predictors of your health. And in the inner city, people don't have grocery stores. They have to get on a bus and take a long ride to get to a source of fresh produce. So we have to figure out a way of getting supermarkets and farmers markets into the inner cities.

MJ: Do you think it's a matter of drawing them in or somehow mandating that they come in?

MP: I don't know. I don't know how you do it. One way we've seen that works when we've experimented is that when we give people farmers market vouchers on the WIC [Women, Infants, and Children] program or food stamps, lo and behold, the farmers markets show up in those neighborhoods.

You talk to people here at Berkeley who run the ecology center and you say, "West Oakland, the first of the month there will be $15,000 worth of vouchers that can be spent in farmers markets": They'll be there. They'll set up the booths. The farmers will be there. It won't take long, either; it doesn't need a lot of infrastructure to build. That being said, one of the best things that Obama could do would be build 12-month farmers markets, especially in inner cities—that could be your legacy, those beautiful glass buildings you see in Barcelona or Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. This would be a wonderful way to make farmers markets a central part of these communities. It would drive economic development and local agriculture. And what happens around these neighborhoods is that you get all of these businesses sprouting up on the edges selling, you know, all kinds of groceries, or restaurants. Anywhere you go and you see a permanently located farmers market you will find economic redevelopment. You go all over Europe where they have these places—they're real economic engines.

The other way that you democratize the food movement is through the public school system. If you can pay enough for the school lunch system so that it can actually be cooked and not just microwaved, so that these schools can buy local food, fresh food, because right now it's all frozen and processed, you will improve the health of the students, you will improve the health of the local economy, and you will have better performing students. There are so many gains from that one step. Supposedly it would take about a dollar per student per day to really change the food system.

This is the part you don't hear about. I mean, everyone loves to put arugula on the cover of their newsweeklies and talk about organic and elitism, but a big part of this movement is community food security collation, and there are people working very hard on that idea of access. Alice Waters here in Berkeley with the public schools. Michelle Nichon, a chef who's working with these farmers market vouchers for food stamp recipients and WIC recipients and having incredible success with that.

The other more general thing I'd say, as an indictment of the movement, is that the movement is elitist in certain ways. And that's not surprising; a lot of social movements begin that way. I mean, you look at women's suffrage, you look at abolition, and you look at the environmental movement. Movements often begin with people who have the resources and the time to consider social change. The real test comes if it's still elitist in 20 or 30 years and it hasn't democratized itself. I think this movement will.

MJ: Could any of this have been put into the farm bill, or is it about government procurement to WIC and other individual procurement programs?

MP: Well some of it is in the farm bill. The farm bill is a many-headed beast. Commodity subsidies are a part of it. Food stamps are a part of it. The rules for food stamps are set in it. But also there is money for farmers markets. There is money for research on organics. You could argue that the seeds for change are being granted through little grants in the farm bill.

MJ: Does WIC still specify that you buy cheese and dairy?

MP: Yes. We had a huge fight to get a little more produce in the WIC basket. It's basically a basket of food the government will support, and it's heavy on the cheese and milk, not because there's a health benefit to cheese and milk, but because the dairy lobby is very powerful. So they fought and they fought and they fought, and they got a bunch of carrots in there. [Laughs.]

MJ: That's it? Specifically carrots? Who knew: the carrot lobby?

MP: Specifically carrots. The next big lobby. But there is also money in this farm bill for fresh produce in school lunch. There's about $2 billion. See, the price of getting the subsidies was getting the California delegation on board, and their price was a couple billion for what are called specialty crops. Fresh fruit and produce that is produced largely in California. There is money; it's not subsidies; it's kind of demand driven. There's money to put it in schools and there's other money to encourage you to eat your five a day, if California was willing to stand up to Iowa and Illinois and realize that the bigger farm economy is here. If they got organized they could really drive some useful change. A lot of the public health solutions around food would be very beneficial to California farms, because they tend to be growing vegetables and fruit.

MJ: If a consumer can't afford or access all organic, what's the best place to start? Is it organic milk for your kids…?

MP: In terms of buying organic I don't think that's necessarily the most important thing you can do or the only thing you can do. I think there are certain products that it's worth buying organic just because the alternatives have so much pesticide. There's a list of the dirty dozen that you can get off the Web. Strawberries, potatoes. A handful of crops that have very high pesticide residues if you don't buy organic. If you eat that a lot, that's a good place to invest.

But there are other things, like broccoli and maybe asparagus, that have very little pesticide residues and that might not be such a good place to invest. Farmers market food has very little pesticide and it also has the benefit of being very, very fresh and therefore often nutritionally superior. It's picked at the moment of ripeness rather than a week or 10 days before, which often happens with organic food that goes to the supermarket. And there are moments, there are seasons, when food at the farmers market is cheaper than food at the supermarket. And then knowing what to do: "Okay, this week I'm going to buy A LOT of strawberries and then freeze them, can them, make jelly."

That's one of the ways we used to eat economically. One of the things that happened is that we lost the cultural skills that used to allow people to eat well cheaply. For example making three or four meals from a chicken, rather than buying chicken breasts. Every peasant cuisine has incredible ingenious tricks for getting a lot of nutrition out of a small amount of ingredients. There are people who don't have the money to invest in better food, but perhaps they have the time. There's a trade-off: The more time you're willing to put into food preparation, the less money you have to spend. And people have gone out and done studies on "Can you eat locally on a food stamps budget?" And you can, but you've got to put in like all day Sunday cooking meals. And a lot of people feel as pinched for time as they are with money, but you're going to have to invest more time or more money if you want to get off this industrial food chain, and that is a challenge.

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