Voting With Their Forks

SUMMER is supposed to be the mindless season, with nothing deeper to contemplate than the instant gratification of barbecues and ice cream. But something is different this year. America is getting serious about eating.

In the last couple of months a choir of disparate voices has been sending the same message through books, magazines and the Internet that advocates of farmers markets and eating locally have been preaching for years: The cost of industrialized food is too high, both literally and environmentally. And the thought is sinking in.

At least four ambitious books connecting the dots between what we eat and how it affects the world have been published recently, and the most insightful of them, Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” has been a bestseller. Time magazine has devoted an issue to getting right with food, and the Nation (of all publications) is about to do so. Activist author Eric Schlosser (“Fast Food Nation”) has returned for round two in his fight against fast food, with not just a children’s book but also a movie. All this reflects the fact that the national mind-set is changing. Farmers markets are not just continuing to expand in every state but also have come to be perceived less as precincts of the privileged and more as the future as they evolve for a new generation of consumers. Wal-Mart is taking baby steps toward organics, while Whole Foods has jumped on the next new buzzword: local. “Locavore” is even replacing “gourmet” as the badge of an informed eater.

The reasons behind this sudden consciousness-raising are myriad, but Pollan summarizes them most succinctly. In an e-mail, he says Americans are starting to understand “just how important the food issue is “” how it is linked to energy and global warming (17% of our fossil fuel use goes to feeding ourselves); to environmental pollution (farming is the single biggest source of water pollution); health (obesity and diabetes turned attention to the way we produce food); world trade, the federal budget and the welfare of animals.”

“Increasingly,” Pollan adds, “people recognize that the industrial food system is failing us “” it is not keeping us or our world healthy. And there are alternatives.”

Rethinking the quick fix

AMERICANS are becoming more proactive (you can’t buy a congressman the way the high-fructose corn syrup lobby can, but you can say yes to locally grown berries). They are no longer putting faith in the quick cure, in vitamin-enhanced food and low-carb anything, but instead are looking for the real deal.

On top of all that, the Internet makes it quicker and easier to spread a message and win converts. Pollan’s debate with the cofounder and chief executive of Whole Foods Markets, John P. Mackey, played out in real-time, online. The New Age grocer took the writer to task over how the company was treated in the book for selling out-of-season asparagus imported from half a world away, even if it was organic. By the end of the duel by blog, Mackey had agreed to start working more with local farmers.

The result communicated two concepts: Americans can now vote with their grocery dollars. And buying locally offers a relatively simple solution to specific and immediate problems: small farms forestall suburban sprawl; eating food grown nearby takes less of a toll on the environment.

Pollan is the leading proponent of that message, particularly in his latest book, subtitled “A Natural History of Four Meals,” which looks at the ramifications of the American way of eating and offers countless suggestions for changing it for the radically better. Researched as well as a rocket science manual but written as seductively as a beach novel, it could be considered a written version of the Al Gore film documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.” Message: What we eat has consequences.

During the five years of research into what he calls “our national eating disorder,” Pollan does a fair amount of enlightened shopping but also goes so far as to kill his own chicken and pig. Of all food experts, he has a sharp sense of why the country is waking up, and why now.

“My hunch is that, at a time when world problems seem so dire and intractable, food represents one area where people feel they can actually make a difference, here and now,” he said. “As I tell audiences, if you feel your tax dollars are going to support practices you find deplorable, you can’t withdraw your support for those practices without going to jail. But if you feel that your food dollars are supporting morally or ethically objectionable practices “” brutal factory farms or environmental pollution “” you can withhold your support, and vote with your fork for a better alternative.”

Nina Planck, who has written the second most compelling culinary bible published this summer, “Real Food: What to Eat and Why,” sees another phenomenon at work. To her, what is happening is nothing less than a second revolution in food, following very belatedly on the heels of the breakthrough of Alice Waters at Chez Panisse. (And of an era marked by food co-ops and macrobiotic food and “Diet for a Small Planet.”)

For 35 years, Planck notes, the emphasis was on local fruits and vegetables. Now, for the first time, locally grown meat and dairy are becoming prize ingredients. “Insofar as it was a vegetarian revolution,” she said, “it’s over.”

Eating well expands

PLANCK, who was raised by small farmers, remembers a world when health food, local food and vegetarianism “were all the same.” Now, she said, eating well can encompass local lamb, local beef, local cheese “” even the much-touted Mediterranean diet, American style, is expanding to include meat.

Planck believes in eating as her grandparents did, which means avoiding all those better-living-through-chemistry advances Americans have been conditioned to worship. Better butter than margarine, better local tomatoes than organic, even.

Other advocates’ new books throw more hardwood on the grill. Marion Nestle guides shoppers through the real world of the supermarket in “What to Eat,” giving back stories on everyday foods and offering advice on what to avoid and embrace. Her view is more toward personal than planetary health, but the overlap keeps overlapping. And she has received so much publicity that mothers across the country should have shaking hands as they reach for the drinkable yogurt, which she documents is more dessert than dairy.

Peter Singer and Jim Mason trudge down the same aisles in “The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter,” an earnest book that makes generally the same points as Nestle and Pollan in a more pedestrian manner.

All these have hit bookstores almost exactly five years after Schlosser’s powerful “Fast Food Nation,” which has now been made into a movie by Richard Linklater with a preview rated four stars on Shown at the Cannes Film Festival last spring and due in theaters in October, it is being described as a “fictionalized exposé” of the real issues involved in industrial beef and fast food, including the danger to teenagers employed as burger jockeys and the chemical wizardry that puts the flavor into industrial food.

Schlosser and a coauthor, Charles Wilson, have also written what is essentially the same book for children: “Chew on This: Everything You Didn’t Want to Know About Fast Food.” Many of the problems that were making front-page news when his first book was published, particularly mad cow disease and outbreaks of E. coli food poisoning, have faded from public awareness. But now there are more worries, such as how animals are raised and what they eat and whether they are drugged.

Time magazine tackled the issue of grass-fed beef in June, along with other topics not normally on the front burner at a news magazine: the importance of family meals, better food for babies, improving school lunches, six tips for eating better from Pollan and, of course, locavores (by one definition, people who eat primarily food grown within 100 miles of their tables). Later this month the Nation will publish its own food issue, featuring Pollan and Schlosser along with Waters, devoted to “the way we eat and what it means for the world.”

Anyone who puts down these new books and magazines determined to eat smarter has increasing choices this summer. Farmers markets have now become as commonplace as Wal-Marts in most cities across the U.S.; the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service estimates there are more than 3,800 nationwide, more than double the number there were in 1994. In California nearly 500 farmers markets are operating, with about 80 in Los Angeles County.

No wonder Whole Foods is acceding to Pollan’s prodding. At a time when a gallon of gas sells for almost as much as a Frappuccino, more Americans are starting to understand viscerally the real cost of shipping in ingredients from everywhere in the world. Not to mention the freshness factor.

Critics worry that Wal-Mart’s decision to hitch a ride on the organic bandwagon will force growers to take shortcuts, and cynics say Wal-Mart is merely targeting higher-income shoppers. But Planck voices a more practical attitude: Anything that makes industrial food better is a good thing. “We used to have two kinds of food: industrial and ecological,” she said. “Now we have three: industrial, ecological and commercial organic.”

In the end, the mainstreaming of “ecological” may be the biggest advance in the American food supply. This summer the USDA has been taking public comment on a new standard for grass-fed beef, with a proposal that the meat must be from animals that have eaten grass 99% of the time, from weaning to the slaughterhouse. To most Americans, accustomed to corn-fed cows and oblivious to context, this once would have sounded revolutionary. Now it is simply part of a greater awareness. Grass-feeding steers not only affords them a more natural life but also could produce safer meat.

Unlike the last revolution in food, in the ’70s, the movement toward change is not coming from the fringe and cannot be easily written off as the pipe dreams of a bunch of vegetarian hippies. The right stuff is no longer segregated in health food stores and co-ops; it’s gone mainstream.

And that may explain one more sea change in the Summer of Food: Priorities have shifted. Americans concerned about how their food is raised now know they can make a difference. Hence the scandale over lobsters (Whole Foods promised to stop selling them live to give them a finer quality of life) and the growing movement to outlaw foie gras on the grounds that it represents cruelty to ducks.

A year ago those tempests at the table would have dominated headlines. This summer, conscientious eaters seem to have started moving onward and upward on the food chain, informed all the way.