For me, the revolution started in January of 2007 when I read a feature article in The New York Times Magazine called “Unhappy Meals.”
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” the article began, before launching into a staggering evaluation of how the question “What should I eat?” got so incredibly complicated. Ten pages later, I was hooked. I needed to know more, and there was a lot more to know. By the time I had finished reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, the author, Michael Pollan, was my new ultimate food guru. Forget diet books and celebrity chefs; here was someone who had looked past the fads and the fast food to the roots of what we eat and why. He had linked the industrialization of our food supply directly to the degradation of our health and the health of our environment. Little did I know at the time, I was joining a revolution already in progress.
Two years later, Pollan has a companion book to his name: In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, which picks up where Omnivore’s Dilemma left off, as well as another high-profile article in The New York Times Magazine, this time an open letter to then-President-Elect Barack Obama, our “Farmer in Chief.”
“The new president was surprisingly receptive to it,” Pollan said in a recent phone interview, during his In Defense of Food book tour. “(Obama) gave an interview to Time magazine where he spoke about the article and summarized it in very sympathetic terms. And since then, he has instructed his new secretary of agriculture to try to enlist farm policy in dealing with the crisis of health care and the crisis of climate change. And, of course, Michelle (Obama) has planted a garden.”
Pollan is encouraged by what he’s seeing from the new administration so far and is hopeful that they will take the steps necessary to unravel the tangled web of policy and politics that has ensnared our food system. But he understands that it’s no small project.
“We have to look at the way we subsidize agriculture. We have to look at the kinds of calories we support and we don’t support,” he said. “I think the challenge is whenever a decision is made in this area that we assess its impact on the health of Americans, children in particular, and on climate change, and that we bring that lens to our agricultural and food policy.”
It’s a daunting task, and one Pollan hopes will be assigned to some sort of food-policy czar in the White House. But in the meantime, I wanted to know what we can do, individually and as a community, to promote the kind of local food renaissance that Pollan and other advocates of the movement believe is the key to solving a host of America’s problems—from health care and food safety to the environment and the economy.
“I think the single most important thing people can do is to begin cooking,” Pollan said. “It’s very hard to support local food if you’re a restaurant eater or a processed-food eater, because you’re not going to find that kind of food at the farmers market, obviously.”
And supporting local farmers is the single best and simplest way to ensure you’re eating real food and not “edible food-like products,” as Pollan likes to say. Real food doesn’t need health claims or fancy packaging; it doesn’t have more than about five ingredients; and it never contains unpronounceable chemicals and additives.
“Get in the habit of cooking from scratch, even if you can only do it a few days a week,” he said, “but if you religiously do it two, three, four days a week, you will then be in a position to support farmers selling real food.”
It seems like a simple thing to say, “Eat food,” but the reality is that it’s a very complex statement. Generations since the advent of fast food have lost a lot of the skills necessary to eat real food, and the result can be daunting, if not flat-out terrifying.
“A lot of us don’t have a lot of confidence in the kitchen,” Pollan admitted. “We’ve been mystified and intimidated by looking at cooking shows on television—which don’t actually encourage you to cook, I’m convinced, because they make it look way too hard and complex.”
But our fears go even deeper than wondering what to do in the kitchen: We’ve forgotten even how to eat. Recognizing real food in a supermarket can be nearly impossible for some. Knowing how to choose produce and meat is a dying art.
“Packaged food trains you to think everything’s the same. We assume that if food comes in a package, it’s perfect,” Pollan said. “Of course, we’re learning from all these food safety scandals that’s not always true.”
The idea that we have to go all the way back and re-learn how to eat might seem ridiculous—especially in America, where knowing how to put food into our mouths seems the least of our problems.
“It sounds funny until you realize that we are already teaching kids how to eat food,” Pollan said. “If you give kids chicken nuggets and tater tots and you give them 10 minutes to eat, you’re teaching them how to become a fast food consumer. We need to teach them how to become a different kind of consumer.”
It all starts at our own dining room tables, but in the local food vision, the table extends out into our community.
“It’s really the beginning of connecting the cities to their foodsheds and helping people conceive of what a foodshed is,” Pollan said. “Strange idea—we all know what a watershed is, but we live in a foodshed as well.”
The most important thing to remember is that this kind of change, perhaps more than any other, starts at home. Pollan recognizes that not everyone is an activist. Not everyone can even afford to shop at a farmers market every week.
“We need to work harder to make good, healthy, fresh food more available,” he said. “We erect a lot of barriers to farmers selling local food at a reasonable price.”
Yet real food is never truly out of reach; it’s all in how you approach it.
“The thing to do is look at your ancestors and how they dealt with this, because people have dealt with money scarcity and food before,” he said. “You know, we talk so much about fresh local food, but frozen vegetables are one of the great deals in the supermarket. That’s not expensive at all. Anybody can do that, and those are very simple, real foods.”
Eat food. Can something that simple really change the world?
Michael Pollan will appear at Unity Church in Boulder, courtesy of Boulder Bookstore, on May 21
at 7:30pm to discuss his books. As of this writing, tickets to the event were sold out.