Food Rules for the Rest of Us

Michael Pollan's real food message is important, but it's also a question of access.

Posted by Berit Anderson at Feb 18, 2010 05:46 PM |
Food Rules for the Rest of Us

Berit Anderson with Michael Pollan. Photo by Beth Breisnes

I admit it. When it comes to food, I am spoiled rotten. I grew up on a diet of produce plucked from my mother’s garden, eggs I gathered from our henhouse in a wicker basket lined with straw, steaks carved from the cow that once spent its days trimming the neighbor’s field, and more fresh fruit than I knew what to do with. That all changed when I moved into the real world, became an unpaid intern and was forced to find my own means of sustenance at the grocery store. Despite the sexy brown sheen of the free-range antibiotic-free egg, I simply couldn’t afford to spend $5 on twelve of them.

So when Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, visited Bainbridge Island to promote his new book, Food Rules, I was a bit nonplussed by his message: “Eat real food, not too much, mostly vegetables." Personally I found Pollan’s mantra at once obvious and too simplistic. I was fairly certain I’d gotten the same advice from my grandmother recently, which did nothing to change the price of eggs.

Still, the message is a valuable one. At times I take for granted the knowledge and awareness that comes with having a grandmother so hip to the value of real food. Not everyone is so lucky. This was driven home when I overheard a pair of high school girls discussing the validity of Michael Pollan’s suggestion that they need not eat each meal with the express purpose of stuffing themselves.

“I’ve got to try that,” one commented enthusiastically.

These girls are a perfect example of what makes Pollan’s work so influential. It is brilliant in its simplicity. Pollan has taken an expansively complicated political topic (the role of big agriculture in American food theology) and broken it down to an unprecedented level of accessibility that doesn’t force anyone to point fingers. “Avoid food products that contain more than five ingredients.” “Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.” “You are what you eat, but you are also what what you eat eats.”

Pollan is also a persuasive and engaging speaker, full of interesting facts and dry wit. Faced with a crowd of rapt Bainbridge liberals holding wine glasses, he first taunts them with Twinkies and chocolate cereal from the local Safeway, then launches into a detailed history of Big Agriculture’s role in the bastardization of American food theology. By the end of the evening, his audience is so enthralled with his account of "nutritionism," the fallacy that the way to good health is the consumption of certain buzzworthy nutrients, that Pollan is the recipient of a standing ovation.

Still, this group of enthusiastic local produce consumers is not the audience who most needs to hear his message. And Pollan knows it. In an effort to spread the benefits of real food beyond the well-to-do, he is selling Food Rules, a simplistic guide for healthy eating, for a mere $5 on Amazon (other retailers, $11).

While keeping his price low is a good step, it is only the first in spreading awareness about the value of real food. What I didn’t ask, and should have, is what kind of educational outreach Pollan has undertaken outside of liberal, food-secure communities like Bainbridge Island.

After all, if two Bainbridge Island girls don’t understand the importance of eating real food, in moderation, how many young people living in the inner-city do? How many youth in small, rural towns without easy, affordable access to fresh produce do? What about those who live in neighborhoods rife with fast-food joints? Those whose household incomes make eating in these joints the easiest, most economically viable option for overworked parents?

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Food Rules certainly serves as a helpful tool in this fight, but it is just the beginning. We must continue to educate others and ourselves about the role that income and race play in the American corporate food saga.

Most importantly, we must educate children about real food from an early, formative age. They, in turn, will share their newfound knowledge at home, affecting household food consumption choices.

There are growing movements in this direction. Farm to School programs, which bring fresh, healthy, real food from local farms to school cafeterias are becoming more and more prevalent. College campuses across the country are choosing to take part in the Real Food Challenge, committing to obtaining an increased percentage of cafeteria food from local and socially just sources. Environmentally geared independent and charter secondary schools are popping up across the country. More and more farmers markets are accepting food stamps, making fresh produce more accessible than ever to those who qualify for federal assistance programs.

As I look ahead, to my future beyond Yes! Magazine, I see myself working toward this goal of increased understanding of food, environment, and health in communities across the United States. Meanwhile, I look forward to a day when I can once again afford the alluringly smooth brown of the free-range, antibiotic-free egg.

Berit Anderson is a YES! Magazine editorial intern. 

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