For Americans who have been looking to Congress to reform the food system, these past few weeks have been, well, the best of times and the worst of times. A new politics has sprouted up around the farm bill, traditionally a parochial piece of legislation thrashed out in private between the various agricultural interests (wheat growers versus corn growers; meatpackers versus ranchers) without a whole lot of input or attention from mere eaters.
A few years ago, an obesity researcher at the University of Washington named Adam Drewnowski ventured into the supermarket to solve a mystery. He wanted to figure out why it is that the most reliable predictor of obesity in America today is a person’s wealth. For most of history, after all, the poor have typically suffered from a shortage of calories, not a surfeit. So how is it that today the people with the least amount of money to spend on food are the ones most likely to be overweight?
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
Soon after the news broke last month that nearly 200 Americans in 26 states had been sickened by eating packaged spinach contaminated with E. coli, I received a rather coldblooded e-mail message from a friend in the food business. “I have instructed my broker to purchase a million shares of RadSafe,” he wrote, explaining that RadSafe is a leading manufacturer of food-irradiation technology. It turned out my friend was joking, but even so, his reasoning was impeccable.
Belated thanks for your June 28th letter. I was delighted to hear of the new initiatives you outlined in it, and even more delighted in the weeks since to see so much evidence–as I’ve visited your stores and heard from both your suppliers and employees–that the company appears serious about pursuing these initiatives. So I’m writing primarily to applaud the steps you’ve taken.
Every five years or so the President of the United States signs an obscure piece of legislation that determines what happens on a couple of hundred million acres of private land in America, what sort of food Americans eat (and how much it costs) and, as a result, the health of our population. In a nation consecrated to the idea of private property and free enterprise, you would not think any piece of legislation could have such far-reaching effects, especially one about which so few of us–even the most politically aware–know anything.
Descendants of the Maya living in Mexico still sometimes refer to themselves as “the corn people.” The phrase is not intended as metaphor. Rather, it’s meant to acknowledge their abiding dependence on this miraculous grass, the staple of their diet for almost 9,000 years.
On May 26, John Mackey, the co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods, wrote me a letter (also published on the Whole Foods Web site), taking issue with some of the points I have made about his grocery chain–in my book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” in my column for TimesSelect and in some of my public remarks.
I’ve spent the last two months mostly on the road, talking to audiences around the country about my book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and the questions it raises about how and what we eat. Most of the posts here on TimesSelect represent my thoughts in response to questions put to me by those audiences as well as readers of this site. Complicated as they may seem, many of the questions — Local or organic? Carnivore or vegetarian? — boil down to variations on the most basic question of all: What should we have for dinner?
So who are these “food police” we’re starting to hear so much about? The term has begun showing up in media accounts of campaigns to reform school lunch or in discussions of the food industry’s growing legion of critics in the media. It’s the “food police” who want to get soda out of the schools and who argue that fast food outlets should disclose nutritional information about what they sell. The “food police” supposedly want to take away your constitutional right to a Big Mac — or, at the very least, your right to enjoy a Big Mac with a clear conscience.