Monday, December 20, 2010

Stimulating dinner conversation: Three discussions about food. (Part Three)

For the past couple of months, I have been co-teaching a course on how to use social media (mainly blogs and Facebook) to report on issues of food, sustainability, and health. The culmination of the course was for each student to research some aspect of these issues and compose a journalistic blog post. You can read their articles at the Naked Bear Blog (they are students from Cal – the Golden Bears – hence, the name).

Although the course was proposed, organized, and taught by Cal students as part of the DeCal program, we were required to have a faculty sponsor. In our case, we had Michael Pollan.

Along with the other student teachers, I met with Michael early in the semester to discuss the details of the course. Since his books were the motivating factor for me adopting an ethical food lifestyle as well as for starting this blog, having a sit-down with the man himself was quite a thrill. He was warm and friendly and lent me two books: The End of Food by Paul Roberts and Stuffed and Starved by Raj Patel (one of the speakers at the Food Movements Unite event I covered in Part 1).

Michael also assured us that he would visit the class sometime during the semester to meet the students and answer their questions. And, as promised, he attended the last lecture of the semester. To prepare for this special visit, we had the students submit questions and then vote; the top questions led our discussion with Michael.

"What role do you see the US health care system playing in the transformation of national food policy? Do you expect a turn towards preventative care and healthy eating as a way to lower overall health care costs?" ~Keli

As Pollan explained to our class (and in The New York Times), the food system and the health care system are inextricably linked. Treating Type 2 diabetes, that’s the kind of diabetes caused by diet, can cost health insurers $400,000 over the lifetime of each diabetic they insure. And with additional government policies making it harder for insurers to deny coverage, there will be an increasing financial incentive for big health care companies to fight for food reform.

Once a rich, powerful corporate interest wants people eating more fresh vegetables and consuming less soda, food reform becomes more politically tenable. As Pollan said to our class “if all the powerful interests are on the same side, nothing happens.

Similar to the way health insurers became invested in getting people to quit smoking or companies that pay for their workers’ coverage started subsidizing gym memberships, the vilified health insurance company may be our best chance at serious change.

"We are told to vote with our dollar but many people do not have access to good food or cannot afford it. How do we solve this discrepancy and what do you suggest for families that cannot afford to eat healthily and sustainably?" ~Emily

Pollan’s first point in response to this question was that the perception that healthy food is expensive or inaccessible may no longer be an accurate one for many people. The astounding increase in the number of farmers markets and CSAs cropping up all over the country has done a lot to bring farmers and consumers closer together, generally resulting in lower prices and easier access. For some, it is just a matter of looking up the nearest farmers market or CSA farm and being willing to put time into planning and cooking healthy meals.

In my personal experience, I found that the produce stand near my house had a much wider variety of organic (not to mention hyper-local) fruits and vegetables for less money than at the grocery store. As I reported in a previous post, my food costs put me in the lowest tier of food spending even though I purchase pasture-raised meat and eggs and organic, local produce.

His second point was that there certainly are places in this country in which access and cost are very real problems. West Oakland, he pointed out, has 53 liquor stores and zero full-service grocery stores. Zero. Recently, there has been work to bring a grocery store to West Oakland, but community organizers are concerned that they will get stuck with a low-quality, budget retailer that won’t improve the type of food available to residents.

Nikki Henderson from People’s Grocery in West Oakland described the type of market system she envisions for the area: one that provides local organic produce and helps the local economy. There are a few new markets cropping up in West Oakland that are owned by local residents and committed to bringing local food to Oakland residents, but the City of Oakland is also pushing hard for a large retail chain to set up shop. The debate as to which option is better for the residents of West Oakland is nicely laid out in an article by Eric Holt Gimenez, the director of Food First: The Institute for Food and Development Policy, which created and runs the Oakland Food Policy Council. Also, one of the students in our class researched food deserts, including Oakland, for her article.

In general, Pollan pointed out, there are measures we could adopt that would enable more poor people to buy healthy food. Accepting food stamps and WIC at farmers markets would be one option, and working to bring farmers markets to urban areas would provide better access to healthy foods.

"You wrote that letter to the next president in the New York Times giving some good ideas about what he can do to really help our food issues. What sorts of little things do you think we can all do to make our food system better from day to day?" ~Keith

The easiest thing we can all do is to be conscious eaters. As Michael Pollan put it, we ought to make choices that we’ve considered. He doesn’t advocate scrutinizing every decision or driving yourself crazy trying to find a certain local vegetable to complete tonight’s dinner recipe. Rather, think about what choices you are making. Already, you are likely to make better ones.

Next up, be aware of the debates and legislation going on in your country, state, or even city council. Pollan recommended the site Food Democracy Now for keeping up with current food-related events; I’ve been following the National Coalition for Sustainable Agriculture’s blog for my policy news. And just as important as knowing what is going on, you need to be willing to weigh in. “Vote with your fork”, says Pollan, but also, vote with your vote!

Michael described working with Senators to help along the Food Safety bill and to promote the Tester-Hagan amendment in an article he wrote with Eric Schlosser (author of Fast Food Nation and Food Inc. producer), which appeared in The New York Times. I took a moment to explain to the class my recent experience of calling Senator Boxer’s office to comment on the Food Safety Bill and the Tester-Hagan amendment. Pollan assured me that these actions really do matter. If you care about an issue, you have to call. And it seems like not very many people take these opportunities to vote on policy even though the big changes come from these votes – more so, one could argue, than votes cast at the ballot box.

“Vote with your fork!” ~Michael Pollan

We had a terrific time with Michael Pollan and were so appreciative that he could attend our class. I even snuck out with him at the end, and yes, he agreed to sign my copy of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. What a guy!

1 comment:

  1. Wow! You took good notes! Well done :) I'm tempted to send him a link to this.