Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Food Movement: Let's Grow It

Normally, I'm someone who shies away from lionizing famous people. Notwithstanding a recent infatuation with Jack White, I'm usually uninterested in celebrities, skeptical of political leaders, mistrustful of gurus, and just generally allergic to being any sort of follower.

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four MealsBut Michael Pollan has broken through all that to become one of my heroes. If you haven't yet read his instant classic, The Omnivorve's Dilemma, please run don't walk to your nearest bookstore (or lightning click that handy Amazon button) and check it out.

Because Pollan is an amazingly talented writer, one who can weave an arsenal of facts into a story so absorbing that you don't register how much you're learning until later, when circumstances force you to put the book down. And what he's making so easy to learn is something that this country desperately needs to understandt: that is, the vicious downward spiral that constitutes our mainstream food supply and consumption system.

In case you're not familiar, it goes something like this:
  1. The Federal Government uses our tax dollars to subsidize huge agri-businesses that have turned much of America's farmland into one ginormous cornfield. Huge amounts of petroleum-based fertilizers go into the land. Huge amounts of pesticides are sprayed on it. Smaller family farms get squeezed out.
  2. So much corn is produced that all sorts of inventive means are found to use it all up. Corn is used in a staggering array of fast and processed foods. High fructose corn syrup is poured into as many drinks, crackers, cookies, and other foods as possible. Corn is fed to cows to fatten them up quickly.
  3. Since a corn diet makes cows (who would normally eat grass) sick, they're fed huge amounts of antibiotics. Weird new diseases develop as bacteria mutate to beat the antibiotic onslaught.
  4. Some of these diseases make in to our food supply. People get sick and some more vulnerable people, like small children, die.
  5. The cheap corn used to produce sugary sodas, junk food, fast food, and processed food, keeps all of those junky foods cheap. Millions of people who are strapped for cash buy and eat it regularly.
  6. The food's designed by highly trained scientists to be addictive. You get used to eating it and, even though it's incredibly bad for you, you crave more.
  7. Most of the businesses bound up with the production, distribution, and consumption of this crappy food pay people crappy wages and give them crappy working conditions. People working long hours and making little money buy the cheap food that keeps these businesses going.
  8. Meanwhile eating this food makes us sick. Childhood obesity soars. Adult obesity becomes normalized in less affluent areas. Type II diabetes and heart disease spike. Not to mention the less calculable costs: losing the joy of a strong, healthy body far, far too young.
  9. The sickness caused by all of this bad, cheap food makes our health care costs soar. We pay more in tax dollars and insurance premiums to cover it.
  10. So, basically, we pay big corporations to make us sick and then we pay again for the sickness. And humans and animals suffer. And the land and water become depleted and contaminated. what I love about Michael Pollan is that he can make us understand all this (and much more) without pulling us down into that sinking, depressing, the-world-is-insane-but-what-can-you-do-about-it feeling that most of us are so familiar with today. He shows us what's wrong, but doesn't traffic in hate, fear, or cynicism -- or even simplistic, starry-eyed pseudo-solutions.

This is amazingly refreshing to me. Here's an issue that matters deeply to health on every level: our bodies, our families, our communities, our nation; the labor market, health care system, and economy; the land and water; animals and the environment. And, every time you eat or go grocery shopping, you have the opportunity to do something tangible about it.

You probably know the drill: buy local and organic, when you can. Frequent the farmers' market. Buy from a family farm directly. Shun fast food. Avoid processed food. Plant a garden. Read ingredients and stay away from anything that your grandmother wouldn't easily recognize as "real food."

I know that these do-good lists can feel oppressive. One more thing to worry about. Organic is expensive. Fast food is convenient. You're stressed and exhausted and finding the time to shop and cook healthy food feels like one more item on the never-ending "to do" list. 

But what I love about Michael Pollan is that he's a writer who gives me more than just the bad news and the list of virtuous things to do about it. He inspires me to do those good things because I see how they enhance my quality of life. How they bring new pleasure into the everyday. How a new virtuous cycle can be created, right on the individual level.

I've driven up to a family farm in Wisconsin with a friend and our kids and stocked up the freezer with free range, grass fed beef. It was fun. It was an outing that I'll always remember. We went hiking in a local state park on the way. Stopped at a pizza joint. It was an adventure.

I've gotten weekly boxes of produce from a CSA and wondered what to do with all that kale. And had some unexpected fun figuring that out. Yes, it took some extra time and the next summer, when I was too busy, I let it go. But there's always another opportunity. You do what you can.

In a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, Pollan explains that part of the politics of the food movement is in fact a new affirmation of everyday pleasure. That food can be a source of nourishment to our bodies and our souls. That we can reclaim the value of home cooking and family meals in a new way. That the everyday choices we make are adding up collectively to create a new movement with growing political, economic, and cultural clout. 

I love the fact that one man can communicate so much to so many people simply through writing. It reaffirms the power of ideas. It reaffirms the value of meaningful work. It reaffirms the belief that one person can make a difference. It reaffirms the belief that we can collectively make a difference. 

It gives me hope. And that's why Michael Pollan is my hero.

Read Michael Pollan's latest article on the food movement in the New York Review of Books.

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