Earth Eats recently spoke with Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University, blogger at FoodPolitics.com and author of a number of books on food policy, health and nutrition, including: Food Politics, Safe Food, What To Eat, Pet Food Politics, and, most recently, Feed Your Pet Right.
This is the second part of our interview, read the first part here.
Policy Makers: Too Separated From Where Food Comes From?
Annie Corrigan (Earth Eats): We recently spoke with Nancy Ross, assistant professor at Unity College in Maine. She said that part of the problem with food policy in the U.S. is that policy makers and consumers are too separated from where our food comes from. Do you agree?
MN: I think Americans don’t have a clue where food comes from. Food comes from grocery stores.
And this is beautifully illustrated in Jamie Oliver’s television program “Food Revolution” where he went into a classroom in this West Virginia school and held up some tomatoes and potatoes and the kids had no idea what they were.
They had only seen tomatoes as tomato sauce on pizza and they had only seen potatoes as French fries, and they were just floored.
What was interesting to me – actually I thought it was one of the most moving parts of that television series – is the teacher saw that as a teachable moment. And when he (Jamie Oliver) came back into the classroom a week or so later, the kids knew every single vegetable that they could find anywhere.
So, it’s not that kids aren’t interested or that teachers don’t know how to teach it, it’s that nobody really thought about it. If the family isn’t cooking and if the family is using all processed foods, how are the kids gonna know?
Policy makers used to be able to do very sensible agricultural policy if you go back to the early years of the 20th century. Almost all of the people in Congress were farmers. Now they’re not farmers anymore so they don’t know anything either, but we depend on our agricultural committees in Congress to inform them about how these things are done.
Right now, the Congressional representatives represent big, commercial agribusinesses. They don’t represent small farmers, and we’re seeing that in some of the fights that are going on around food safety legislation for example.
Farm Bill or Food Bill?
AC: The current Farm Bill encourages farmers to grow commodity crops that largely wind up in junk food, soft drinks, animal feed – encouraging consumers to eat more
meat, etc. What would a Farm Bill look like that was more in line with promoting healthier eating habits?
MN: It would be what Michael Pollan calls a food bill, where they look at it from a food stand point, and also linked farm policies – agricultural policies – much more closely to public health.
There was a big push on the Farm Bill the last time around trying to link it public health in a much more serious way and as obesity becomes and bigger and bigger problem in America’s health care system.
There’s hope that Congress will realize that the farm and agricultural policy need to support public health and need top support eating more healthfully in schools and in general, so that the price of fresh fruits and vegetables – which has gone up relatively by 40% since 1980, whereas the relative cost of soft drinks and other processed foods has gone down by about 40% – that we would do something to change our pricing structure so that healthier foods cost less.
On Farmers Pairing Directly With Supermarkets
MN: It depends on how much food they’re producing. If they’re just producing small amounts of specialty crops, then that’s not going to be good enough for chain supermarkets. But I think lots of supermarkets now are looking at local producers for at least some of their food, and I’m impressed.
I go to Wegman’s Supermarket in upstate New York pretty frequently, and when I first started going there they never had local food. And then they began to have a small section devoted to upstate New York food grown within 50 miles of the store. And then a year later, they actually began to source local raspberries and some of the other things you could get locally, and pricing them at a price point that was competitive with the industrial berries that were coming in from California.
We have a very strange food system in this country where it’s cheaper to import berries from California than it is to get them from 10 miles up the road.
Defining "Local Food", Organic vs. Conventional
AC: We spoke with Gary Paul Nabhan, he wondered if you could truly call something local if it needed water piped from 250 miles away to grow. How would you define local?
MN: Very difficult! Wegman’s defines local as any place in New York state. That’s a radius of about 250 miles all the way around. Other people – farmers markets – sometimes define it as 50-100 miles from wherever the farmers market is.
There’s much more effort now to get away from the strict local definition and talk about regional food production and to try to draw on your region and try to cut down on some of the transportation costs. But there’s not an agreed upon definition, it’s just what people want to call it.
AC: When talking about organic vs. conventional, and locally produced foods. In your opinion, should consumers prioritize eating local, or eating organic?
MN: I think this is a matter of personal value, and I can’t really say for other people.
Organic means that it’s grown under conditions that meat the Department of Agriculture’s standards for organic certification. Local means local by whatever that definition is. I’d like to see the foods as both, but it isn’t always both.
Organic doesn’t always mean sustainable – local doesn’t always mean sustainable!
It depends on what your values are. I tend to go with local because I really like having farmers in my vicinity that I know and can talk to and whose farms I can visit. I kind of get a kick out of that. I want to support them so that they will continue to be able to sustain business.
So, I would much rather buy local apples than organic apples from New Zealand.
Changes To Food Labeling
AC: How has food labeling changed over the past 15-20 years?
MN: I would say the main change is the influx of health claims and echo labels of one kind or another to the point where there are so many of them that the FDA has said it’s looking into the whole matter and is going to try to set some standards on it.
When I first started looking at these things – when I was writing “What to Eat” in 2005 – the Consumer Reports website on front-of-package labels had all of them just on one computer screen. Now it’s this big, involved, elaborate website where you’ve got to decide what kind of label you’re looking for because there are hundreds of them literally.
This is very confusing for the public.
AC: Does the “organic” label mean anything to you?
MN: I think most food labels are so misleading and the eco labels are so different and un-interpretable by the average person without doing an enormous amount of research that I don’t think we should have any of them. I’d like to see them all gone. I think they’re all misleading. But I have a very extreme position on this.
AC: What changes would you advocate in food labeling so that consumers can make more informed food choices?
MN: The food industry has argued forever and ever that the First Amendment to the Constitution gives it the right to say anything it wants to advertise its food products. I find that a very odd interpretation of the First Amendment.
To me, the First Amendment is about the right of political and religious speech. I cannot believe that it was the intention of the founding fathers of the United States to do the First Amendment in order to allow food companies to market junk food to children, for example. And yet, that’s how the courts have been interpreting it over the last say 10-15 years.
I think we need to go back to court and do a much more serious job of looking at First Amendment rights. I’m happy to say that I know several people who are working on that.
Read More: Part one of our interview with Marion Nestle