In the first installment of my interview with Michael Pollan, I pointed out the author’s ability to balance entertainment with serious-minded discussions of food policy. But Pollan also balances something equally as tricky: his background in journalism with his role as a healthy-food advocate.
In the Q&A below, Pollan often chooses his words carefully, always watchful of not passing along unverified information — all while supporting his mission to change the way our food system works. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a healthy respect for Pollan’s work and how he moves between the worlds of advocacy and journalism. His may be the right model for the convoluted times we inhabit.
In some sense, I get the feeling Pollan’s journalistic integrity prevents him from placing himself in potentially compromising positions, such as those by Michelle Obama. Find out what I mean in the edited conversation below.
All We Can Eat: Rule No. 11 in your latest edition of “Food Rules” says, “Avoid Foods You See Advertised on Television.” The Interagency Working Group is drafting a set of guidelines for marketing to kids. Seems like on the surface of it, it should be a no brainer. But companies are fighting tooth and nail, even though it’s a voluntary agreement.
Michael Pollan: They’ve already tossed out 12 and up, I hear. Did you hear this?
AWCE: I haven’t heard this. [Note: The working group did indeed scale back the guidelines to children under 12.]
MP: Yeah, you see where [industry’s] heart really is. They’re engaged in a two-pronged counter-offensive now. One is to fight any kind of regulations that might be in the offing — any kind of taxation policies that might be in the offing, and they’re spending a fortune. I mean, the money spent to defeat soda taxes in the last year, I forget, was $40 million. It was a tremendous number of lobbying dollars to fight soda taxes.
On the other hand, they’re going to Michelle Obama and saying, “We want to be part of the solution. How can we help?” I think they’ve…very cleverly drawn her into a conversation about tweaking processed food in a way that, I think, has muddied what was an incredibly clear and important message: about eating real food out of the garden, going to the farmers market, this really sharp distinction. I completely understand why she went there. She didn’t have any choice. If the food industry of America comes to you and says they want to help you with your campaign and solve a problem, you can’t tell them to get lost.
AWCE: What can’t you, if you know what their agenda is to use your good name to benefit their bottom line? Maybe that’s a cynical interpretation…
MP: They’re calculating, though, that if Walmart really reduces salt in their food by 20 percent, that is a public health gain. If they get the trans fats out, that’s a public health gain. They feel these are real achievements, and from one point of view, they are. But the history of better-for-you processed foods is that it doesn’t work....That’s the SnackWell’s lesson. When you come up with no-fat processed food, people binge on it. You’re basically creating a new marketing angle: that this food has been blessed by Michelle Obama or that this food has been blessed by the food police, so therefore it’s not just incrementally better, but I can eat a lot of it. That’s part of what the industry is up to. Very, very clever.
On the other side, they’re funding all-out attacks and more conventional PR strategies. The U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance is really an agri-business lobby hiding behind farmers to have this dialogue about the future of food. So that’s another part of it. And, you know, beating up on food reformers, however they can.
AWCE: Is there a way to bring in industry and get them to actually reform or will it generally be a way just to get a stamp of approval from people like yourself or Michelle Obama?
MP: Generally, it will be that. That’s what they want. They want to change as little as possible and keep selling food. Look, their fundamental interest is to get us to eat as much as they can, and that’s baked into their business model. In general, processed foods are the problem. People are not getting obese on fresh food and home-cooked food. That’s not where the problem is. It’s soda and other processed foods.
But I think you can separate the manufacturers from the retailers. The retailers are sort of like common carriers. As I said, they can make money selling many different kinds of things. We can do various things to help them sell more produce. They can do more. They can get much more sophisticated about selling produce. Even though they put the produce right at the entrance to the store, which seems like a nice idea psychologically...it’s actually the worst place to put it, in terms of your cart, because things get crushed. [Laughs.] You’re putting the most delicate food at the bottom of your cart. I’ve never understood this.
Well, there was an experiment done at I think Arizona State, where they designed a new shopping cart that had a divider across the center, with a sign that said, “All produce to this side of this line.” Now it did two things: One is that it made it easier to shop for produce without crushing your peaches and your strawberries, but the other thing it did…it sent this normative message that half your cart should be full of produce. And produce sales went up 20 or 30 percent.
AWCE: Has the economy slowed the healthy food movement? And where has it slowed?
MP: I told this story in Cleveland, and I think it was quoted in the piece you saw. When the economy crashed in 2008, Sept. 24, that weekend that Lehman was going down, things looked really bleak. I was crossing the street in front of my journalism school with Lowell Bergman , a real crusty investigative reporter and a very smart guy. And he turned to me in his inimitable way, and said, ‘Well, that’s it for your food [expletive]. This is going to bring it down. No one’s going to care about organic and local when the economy tanks.”
I thought to myself, “You know, he could well be right.” If this is indeed a fad, this is what will kill it off. The fact that it hasn’t, the fact that organic is still growing — you have to check the numbers with the OTA; it’s between 5 and 10 percent; it was 20, so it’s slowing. [Note: According to the Organic Trade Association, the organics market grew by 7.7 percent in 2010; it was 21.1 percent in 2006.] The fact that the number of farmers markets in this period has gone from something like 5,000 up to 7,000 now. The fact that pastured meat is a booming market right now, pastured eggs, suggests that this movement has legs, that people want to eat in a different way, if they can afford it.
And even if they can’t, they’re digging down. Mothers are digging down for organic milk, and it’s not cheap; they just think it’s really important. I’ve been surprised and heartened by the resilience of both organic and other kinds of sustainable foods in the face of a really difficult economy.
AWCE: I saw that answer in the Cleveland story. At the same time, McDonald’s…
MP: Is thriving.
AWCE: A 14 percent increase in revenues to $7.1 billion in sales, with a profit of $1.5 billion in the third quarter alone. Clearly more people are eating at McDonald’s. Whether that’s a function of the economy…
MP: People are trading down from more expensive restaurants when they go out to cheaper restaurants, and that always benefits the low-end. I don’t know what’s happening with Applebee’s and those kind of somewhat higher chains. But, yeah, they’re definitely trading down. They’re also staying home more. There is more home cooking going on. The bulk food bins are doing pretty well in the supermarkets now, I hear. So it’s a mixed bag, but no question, as people feel squeezed on money, they’re going to resort to more cheap food. Yeah, the McRib is back, too.
AWCE: It is back, and apparently…
MP: People are thrilled.
AWCE: Yes, and horrified.
MP: Yeah. It’s important for us to remember that it’s still a fast food nation. We talk a lot about food reform and the food movement, but it’s a very young movement. We have a long way to go. A peculiarity of this movement is that it kind of won the media before it won anything else. I think there’s a lot of growth to happen, and it’s very interesting to watch the mainstream food industry feel as threatened as it does, given the fact that we’re talking about a flea on the back of an elephant. It gets them very nervous, and that’s a curious phenomenon.
I think the food industry is terrified of its consumers, terrified that they could switch at any moment. Because they’ve seen it. We have a history of food fads and food scares. Alar is a great example; people stopped eating apples. This is happening right now in China. There’s a rumor about milk, and people stop drinking milk. These food safety concerns: The cantaloupe market tanks, the spinach market tanks. I think that they know that their margins are small and that a movement of 2 or 3 percent of the public can have a devastating effect on them. And that’s why they will do everything they can to blunt this movement.
AWCE: Given Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, food is on the bottom of the pyramid. It is part of what every human being needs to start thinking about higher aspirations, but it seems like the food movement isn’t just asking to feed people. It’s asking them to think about food…
MP: In a different way.
AWCE: A couple of rungs up higher. If you’re just on a subsistence level and struggling, do you even care to think about whether food is organic, whether the animal husbandry is good, whether it’s good for the environment? It’s just like, “You know what, I’ve got X amount of money, and I’m going to buy this because it’s going to feed my family.”
MP: But that assumes that food is fuel. That’s taking a very reductive biological view of what food is. Food is an enormous source of pleasure. Compared to some other pleasures that involve spending large amounts of money on consumer electronics or going to the theater, movies or whatever — cooking a meal and sitting down with your friends is a very accessible pleasure. Food is the most democratic pleasure that we have. Well, sex is in there, too, even more democratic, I guess you could say.
So Maslow, that’s a very simplistic way of looking at food. And if you go through most of history and most other cultures, food, even in subsistence cultures, has been surrounded with ritual and ceremony. There’s the feeding of other people and expressing love. You can’t just pull it out, and I think that’s a message of the food movement that sometimes gets lost.
That’s part of what drives people to fast food, too, you know: that sense that you don’t have a lot of money, you can’t give your kid an iPod. There’s a lot you can’t give you kid. But you can give them a Happy Meal, and your kid is going to be really happy for a little while.
I totally understand that. There’s so little that you can do, but there is something — and it’s there and it’s wrapped up like little presents. Every burger is a present. You get to unwrap it. They’ve been brilliant at kind of stoking those desires. Our challenge is to offer pleasures that aren’t much more expensive, but that involve food that isn’t going to hurt that child.
Coming Tuesday: Building a new food culture, preaching to the choir in the food movement and the impact of MyPlate.