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May 14-20, 2009

Redefining Food
A conversation with food journalist Michael Pollan that will make you question what you eat
By Dana Logan

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy.”

This is how Michael Pollan begins his newest book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. The bestselling author has written five books, including The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, which was named one of the 10 best books of 2006 by the New York Times and the Washington Post. In it, Pollan examines the ethical, political and ecological factors intertwined in the industrial large-scale organic, local and personal food chains. While the book was hugely successful, Pollan explains that after readers had spent a couple hundred pages following him through feed lots and food processing plants, they wrote him asking, “OK, but what should I eat?” In Defense of Food is his answer.

His thoughtful, intensively researched and common-sense perspective on food and its role in our everyday lives, our health and our planet has earned Pollan a loyal following. It’s also landed him squarely in the role of THE person to turn to when it comes to understanding food and its position in our lives and in our culture.

Boulder Weekly had the honor of interviewing Pollan, and we are thrilled to be able to share with you, our readers, his thoughts on food policies, elitism in the organic movement, school lunch programs, the economy’s affect on eating habits, home gardens and more. And if you have a burning question that we didn’t cover, Pollan will be in Boulder on May 21 to speak about In Defense of Food and answer your questions in person. In the meantime, enjoy the interview and remember, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
•   •   •

Boulder Weekly: In your newest book, In Defense of Food, you say that we need to redefine what we call food. Can you explain what you mean by that and how we accomplish this goal within our culture?

Michael Pollan: Well, increasingly, there are products in the store and on restaurant menus that don’t deserve to be called food. I call them edible food-like substances. These are highly processed, novel creations of food science that tend not to be very nutritious — no matter how many health claims are on them or how much fortification might have gone into them. One of the things we know is that a diet of highly processed food contributes to chronic diseases. And I think that these products, some of which are very seductive, confuse people.

When you go through the supermarket today, it’s become a very treacherous landscape full of things that sort of sound like food — but would your grandmother recognize them? I’m talking about Honey Nut Cheerios Cereal Bars with synthetic milk, prepared meals, Lunchables — things that just didn’t exist 20 or 30 years ago and that are made using great amounts of preservatives, lots of refined white flour and lots of refined oils. Processed food tends to be much higher in fat, sugar and salt than food you cook at home.

So, I think, the whole question of food seems very complicated to people, but if you’re eating real food, you really don’t have to worry about nutrition. You don’t have to worry about the latest studies. It’s not that hard. The hard part is knowing, “OK, am I eating food or an edible food-like substance?” So the book is an attempt to help people tell the difference.

BW: Well, I have to admit that, as much as I admire your work and have enjoyed other books of yours, it’s taken me a while to pick up In Defense of Food, in part because I’m afraid that the knowledge that I will gain will force me to change my eating habits, some of which are bad, but really enjoyable. As much as people may struggle with obesity and health issues as a result of their diet, do you have a sense that people are afraid or don’t want to change their eating habits?

MP: Well, some people don’t. Look, for some people, this industrial fast food works just fine. But I think that they need to be aware of the fact that a lot of the effects of this food are long term. And, yeah, nobody ever wants to change. People tend to be set in their ways, and inertia is a very important component in our eating. But the good thing about changing the way you eat is that in most cases, when switching to healthier food and humanely grown meats and organically grown vegetables, you will find that they actually taste better.

There’s a lot of special-occasion food that people really like — I’m talking about everything from Twinkies to French Fries — and I’m not against eating that stuff. I just think we shouldn’t make it an everyday event. I think a lot of our problems have to do with the fact that it’s all or nothing. So, if you can treat treats as treats or, what I suggest is, have all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself. You won’t make it that often, because it’s really hard — if you’ve ever tried to make a Twinkie or even french fries, it takes a lot of work.

So, all I can say is, try it and see if you don’t feel better on many levels, then decide. It’s also not an all or nothing proposition. People aren’t going to get it right 3 meals a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year, but make a start. And if you make a start, you often will find that one choice leads to a cascade of good choices because they’re self reinforcing.

BW: You mentioned that a lot of the things that we eat today aren’t something that your grandmother would recognize from her childhood diet. It reminds me of a story of a friend who had a baby. She and her husband decided to feed her only organic food, and when they went to visit family and tried to explain to her husband’s grandmother that they were only feeding her organic food, the grandmother had a hard time understanding their motivation. They tried to explain to her that they just wanted their child to eat the same foods that she had eaten as a child. We have, obviously, grown really far away from that; how do we start moving back in that direction?

MP: Well, I think your friends had the right idea. Feeding your young babies organic food, I think, is really important. Until you’re 6 months old, you don’t have a blood-brain barrier, so any toxins in your environment go right to your brain. And this goes for nursing mothers, too. So I think that that’s a really good investment in your child’s long-term health.

Many parents and grandparents in particular, think that they are doing well by a child by giving them the treats that they want. And I totally understand that. I think the challenge is to limit it to special occasions. My father is always trying to ply my son with chocolate, but he doesn’t see him everyday. So, I’m not a zealot about it. We need to be somewhat flexible. It’s not evil when someone offers your child a pastry. It really isn’t. They’re expressing love; it’s just an unhealthful way of expressing it.

I’ve actually said, at some point, you’ve got to go back beyond your grandmother, depending on how old your grandmother is. We’re talking about food traditions that are very close to being lost, that need to be preserved. That grandmother may well have eaten organic food but didn’t know it by that label. It’s very important to explain, as your friends were trying to do, that, “Look, we’re trying to make sure that our child has the kind of food, grown without poisons, that you had when you were a baby.” Nowadays, that food has a special designation. It shouldn’t have to. I mean, really, we should just call that food, and call everything else chemical food.

BW: I know, I’ve always been annoyed by the term, “conventional.”

Yeah, it’s really unfair. Somebody sent me a refrigerator magnet that said, “Eat organic food. Or, as your grandparents called it, food.” So maybe we have to get one of those for your friend.

BW: So speaking of children and their eating, Boulder is among a few places that are leading the way in transforming school lunch programs.

MP: Yeah, and you just hired away our (Berkely Unified School District’s) school-lunch director, I was sad to hear.

But Boulder is a fairly affluent town. Are programs like these unrealistic for areas that are less privileged?

MP: Well, it’s harder to do in less privileged areas. Look, I mean, improving school lunch is going to cost a couple bucks per kid. And there are many districts that simply can’t afford it. They’re cutting arts. They’re cutting gym. They’re cutting science. So you can understand why they look at lunch and think, this is something that we can’t afford to spend more money on. I think the challenge is to convince them that teaching lunch — which is to say, teaching kids how to grow food, how to prepare food, and how to eat food, all three things — is a very important life skill. And in fact, kids can learn a lot about science by doing it; they can learn a lot about culture by doing it. And that it really should be woven into the curriculum and not treated as this sideline in the maintenance budget.

But we need a federal commitment. We need the government to step up and say, “Yes, this is very important, how we feed our children.” This will save us on our health-care costs. This will lead to students who are more attentive and able to sit still in the afternoon, if they have a good lunch. That it will reduce disciplinary problems. This cost pays off and we should regard it as an investment and not an added cost. So, I think it’s an argument that has to be made at the national level.

You know, the fact that Boulder is an affluent town doing it, that’s not surprising. But if Boulder proves the value of doing it, it will be easier to make the case for all schools. If Boulder discovers that their students start performing better, have fewer discipline problems, are happier and healthier, that will be a very valuable model to point to for districts that aren’t as wealthy.

BW: You’ve mentioned that there is a perception of elitism surrounding the movement towards fresher, healthier, locally grown and organic food. These things are also associated with leftists and liberals. How do these perceptions serve to alienate people who may not have the resources to buy expensive, organic produce, and how do we depoliticize food so that it’s not so divisive?

MP: You know, eating well costs more. Having a good school-lunch program costs more. So, healthier food tends to be more available to people with more money, and that’s outrageous. It shouldn’t be that way.

And the movement is working very hard to democratize themselves. It works very hard on food deserts and bringing fresh food into urban areas. So the movement itself is aware of the criticism that it is elitist, and it’s working very hard to make the kind of food it’s celebrating more accessible.

Is there a long way to go? Sure there’s a long way to go. Many social movements begin with elites. The same charges could have been leveled at abolition or women’s suffrage or the environmental movement — and they were. But over time, these movements democratize themselves. And I think it’ll be a much more damning charge if it’s still true in 20 years.

And by the way, on the right/left question: I think that’s a misperception. The reason people assume it’s a left issue is because to some extent, the modern conversation about organic food and sustainable food grew out of the counterculture in the ’60s. As did feminism, as did environmentalism — it’s one of those movements with roots in the ’60s. But it has other roots, also, and you will find a very lively conversation on the right going on. George Will has written a column about these issues. There’s a journalist in Dallas named Rod Dreher, who wrote a book called Crunchy Cons. It’s all about conservatives who are passionate about these kind of issues — environmentalist conservatives. There’s a whole community that I talked about in Omnivore’s Dilemma of evangelicals who are really intent on reclaiming their food from corporations. Growing your own food and cooking with your children is a lot like home schooling. Basically, it’s a way to disconnect yourself from institutions that you don’t approve of. So these issues really resonate on the right, as well.

BW: You suggested in your memo to the president-elect (published in the New York Times Magazine on Oct. 9, 2008) that he devote part of the White House lawn to a garden. Now, the First Family is, indeed, doing that. What impact will this action have on Americans, both in perception and culture and in their own practices?

MP: Well, it remains to be seen, but the early signs are that it will have a profound impact. We have seen an explosion in home gardening this spring. Seed companies are running out of seeds. If you go to your garden center, you will find many holes in that rack of seeds where they’re sold out of sugar snaps or whatever. I think the National Gardening Association estimates a 40 or 50 percent increase in home gardening this year. So many more Americans will be growing their own food and that’s a very healthy thing for them and for the soil. And talk about accessible food: that is inexpensive food. The National Garden Association says that if you invest $60 in a home garden, you can yield $200 worth of produce in the first year. So it’s also an answer to this elitism question, assuming you have a place to do this. But there are always community garden plots and check out the waiting list for those — they’ve gotten very long this year.

But she (Michelle Obama) is doing more than planting the garden. She’s talking about real food. She’s talking about the importance of cooking for your children. She’s talking about how delicious fresh seasonal produce is. And all this is teaching Americans in ways that only first ladies can.

Laura Bush did a pretty good job teaching America that part of being a good parent is reading to your children and that our definition of a good parent — that should go under it. Michelle Obama has begun making a similar case about how you feed your children.

That part of being a good parent is giving kids healthy food, not taking them to McDonald’s, not giving them whatever they’re asking for because it’s filled with a toy.

So these are very important teaching opportunities, and first ladies are uniquely positioned to do this because it’s very hard to attack them. It will be very hard for the industry to go after her. Although, they’re trying. The pesticide makers have already written her a letter encouraging her to start buying their “wonderful” products.

BW: You mentioned that there’s an increase in home gardeners. I wonder how the current economy is affecting the way Americans are eating. How much we can put the increase in home gardeners into that category?

Yeah. Well it is part of that. People garden more when they have less money and more time, which is what happens when people are thrown out of work. So there’s no question that it is — it’s one of the healthier responses to a bad economy.

There are conflicting trends going on. McDonald’s and Wal-Mart are doing very well in this economy. On the other hand, so is the Ball Jar Company — the people that make the jars that we can and pickle in — and so are the seed companies. And so are the people who sell ingredients for cooking. Neilsen says — the people who track this kind of thing — the growth items in the supermarket are not processed foods right now, but ingredients that people cook with: bulk food bins, flour, sugar, this kind of stuff.

So the positive trend is Americans are cooking more in a bad economy. And that’s very good for their health, and that’s very good for the farmers because if you buy ingredients, more money reaches farmers than if you buy processed food. But some people are going to McDonald’s. So it’s not an all or nothing proposition. As is usually the case with social trends, it’s a mixed bag. But there’s some very encouraging trends in there, in that more people will be eating real food because of this economy.

BW: What about the food industry and food policies? How does the current economy affect those things? Is it good, bad, a little of both?

MP: Well, you know, the government — there’s pressure on subsidies. They’ve tried to cut subsidies, not with any success yet. And I think you’ll see more money going to nutrition programs, which is to say food stamps and WIC (Women, Infants and Children). And that has a big effect on the food economy. And that money could be spent well and could be spent poorly. In other words, if we give food stamp recipients farmers’ market vouchers — which many people are proposing, and we’re already doing under the WIC program in many places — that has a very positive multiplier effect on local agricultural economies.

BW: Speaking of food policy, I’m not sure if you are aware, although I would assume that you might have some sense, that there was recently a Facebook group as well as an online petition to make you Secretary of Agriculture. If it had been offered to you, would you have accepted the position?

MP: You know, I didn’t get to the point of needing to think through that question because I knew that wasn’t going to happen. I think there are people much better qualified than me to be Secretary of Agriculture. It doesn’t play to my strengths. I think I would have trouble playing well with that industry, which is very intimately involved with the department. Managing a hundred thousand people and $100-billion budget or whatever it is, it’s not what I do well.

You know, I think it was very significant that a lot of people wanted to see this happen. It was a way of voicing their support for change, and I think that that was heard, and I think that we are going to see some reform in agricultural policy. So I think the people who did that — who organized that petition drive — actually accomplished something. And this is how politics works in this country.

But it’s symbolic. I really don’t think I would have been very good at it. And I don’t think I would have enjoyed it either.

What do you think about President Obama’s choice for Secretary of Agriculture (Tom Vilsack), and what is the main piece of advice you would give him?

MP: My initial reaction was tepid. I thought he was a very conventional Iowa politician. But so far, I’ve been pleasantly surprised.

He’s hired a real reformer at number two, who is Kathleen Merrigan. She was very involved in starting the organic program and writing the organic law, and she’s a terrific reformer with a real commitment to sustainable agriculture. So that has really encouraged me.

I guess my advice to him would be to recognize this renaissance of local agriculture and grass-based meat production and do what he can to nourish it because it’s really important to diversify our food system and that we have alternatives. Because the industrial food system, when we say it’s unsustainable, we mean something very specific — that we can’t count on it long term. And there are signs that, indeed, we can’t, whether you look at the collapse of the honeybee population, or you look at swine flu or you look at what happened to food prices when oil ticked up. We don’t want to be overly dependent on one system that depends on fossil fuel, that depends on pharmaceuticals. And so, I think nurturing alternatives is the most valuable thing he can do.

BW: There’s been this kind of explosion in the organic movement and, obviously, in many ways that’s a really great thing. But is there a danger in the marketing around organic that leads people to think that anything with the word “organic” on it is good for them, even if it’s highly processed?

MP: Yes! I do think that’s a danger because I think the word “organic” connotes health to people. And an organic Twinkie is still a Twinkie. And luckily, we don’t have organic Twinkies yet, but we will. Don’t worry. We have organic candy. We have organic soda. And you’re kidding yourself if you think drinking organic soda solves the soda problem — it doesn’t.

There’s a real argument that organic food should not have gone down the path of processing. But there it is. You can argue that organic soda does some good for the world in that the sugar cane or the corn from which the syrup comes are fields not treated with pesticides where the water will be cleaner coming off those fields and where the workers won’t be exposed to poison. And that’s all very positive, but don’t kid yourself in thinking you’re doing anything for your health.

BW: Have you always been interested in food?

MP: I’ve been eating it for a very long time. So, I have a normal human being’s interest in food. But I’ve been interested in it since I began gardening, really. I really come at all this work as a gardener. I started growing food for myself when I was very young, when I was 8 or 10. And I’ve always been fascinated by the process by which a seed turns into something you can eat, something delicious.

So, yeah, it does go back. Writing about it journalistically is a little more recent. It’s only been about 10 years, I guess.

BW: Have your own personal eating habits changed as a result of your research and your writing?

MP: Oh sure, yeah. There’s a lot of food I can’t really enjoy anymore. Feed-lot beef being notable. Once you’ve been on a feed lot and in a slaughterhouse, that corn-fed steak doesn’t taste as good.

I still eat meat. I only eat grass-fed beef. I put more time into sourcing my food because I realize what a difference it makes. I eat less meat than I did before. We used to eat meat almost every night. Now we don’t because it’s harder and more expensive to find meat that you can be happy to eat. And also because the environmental footprint of meat is so big that we should all be eating somewhat less meat.

What else? You know, I shop at the farmers’ market as much as I can. I spend less time in the supermarket. I buy some food directly from farmers I know. Things like that.

BW: What is one food that every Coloradan should plant and raise in his or her garden?

MP: Coloradan… Well… Leaves. We should be eating more leaves. So whether you like kale or chard or spinach or lettuce — leaves are at their best when they’re freshest. You just can’t get good spinach in a bag, but if you grow it yourself it’s kind of incredible. And it’s cool enough in Colorado to give a nice long season for growing, and it doesn’t mind a little frost. So, I would say, leafy greens.

And if you don’t think you like leafy greens, try some very fresh ones that you cut yourself that you sauté in a really good olive oil with garlic — so grow a little garlic for it, too — and you will rediscover leafy greens.

Of course, there’s a million more things to say…

I know! But there isn’t time to say it in. But I’m going to come to Boulder, and I’ll say it all, OK?

BW: OK. And you’ve written the books, so people can read those, too, if they want to know more. But is there anything else that you’d like to add?

MP: Only, come hear me in Boulder and ask your own questions. There’ll be an opportunity. I’m really looking forward to it. And I applaud you on your decision to hire Ann Cooper to cook for your children. I think that’s a visionary decision, much to the regret of someone from Berkely.

For More Info:
Michael Pollan will speak about his newest book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 21, at Unity Church, 2855 Folsom St., Boulder, 303-447-2074. The event is being put on by Boulder Book Store.
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