The Big Idea: The Politics Of Eating Well

by Rebecca Shapiro Published Spring 2018
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Photograph by Nemanja Otic / Alamy Stock Photo

Former New York Times columnist and best-selling cookbook author Mark Bittman is a lecturer in health policy and management at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. A leader in the progressive food movement, Bittman examines the intersection between food, public health, and social justice. We asked him to explain why he thinks our food system is flawed and how he recommends fixing it.


Columbia Magazine: For most of your career, you were primarily a cookbook author. When did you become interested in food as a public-health issue?
Mark Bittman:
It was gradual. In the 1990s, I saw that there were big problems with the ways we produced and consumed food, and that those problems were getting worse. I saw the decline of small farming, the beginning of the obesity epidemic, and the surge in cases of diabetes that followed. I saw the increased reliance on hyper-processed food. And more. So I started gradually incorporating environmental and social issues into my food writing. As a first step, I started working on a comprehensive vegetarian cookbook, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, and I began to encourage people to incorporate more plants into their diets.

Then a couple of critically important books came out — Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser, and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan ’81GSAS — and I realized — rather late, upon reflection — that I, too, could be tackling these issues more aggressively. I had been writing for the New York Times for over a decade at that point, so I began with periodic pieces in the Sunday Review. Eventually I went to the Opinion section and became the first food opinion writer for a major paper.


You joined the Mailman School in 2016. What drew you to academia?
I felt I had accomplished all that I could as a columnist. I wanted to work collaboratively on these issues with like-minded people who shared my concerns. For the most part, it’s been an inspiring and productive environment.


Your first major initiative at Columbia was hosting a free weekly lecture series. Why did you choose that public format?
Just before I started teaching at Columbia, I lived in Berkeley for a year. In California there’s a near constant public conversation about how to remake the food-production system. I wanted to continue that conversation on the East Coast, while shifting the focus away from agriculture. There’s more agriculture on the West Coast, and so there’s more opportunity for agricultural change there, but there was definitely still room for a broader conversation here.

We have a public-health crisis related to food production, and while much of that has to do with agriculture, it also has to do with labor and immigration and race and environmental policy. I wanted to focus on the ways these issues are interconnected.


Photograph by Erin Patrice O'Brien / Corbis via Getty Images

Let’s start with labor.
Well, the plight of most food workers today resembles that of industrial workers a hundred years ago. Eight of the ten worst paying jobs in America are in food production or are related to food. That means that the people who are bringing us food, who arguably have the most important jobs in the United States, often can’t afford to feed themselves.


How can we address that problem? 
The fast answer is with organization and, well, rabble-rousing. But on a basic level it starts with empathy. Most people in the United States could afford to pay more for food as a percentage of their income, and a small increase in food costs could make a big difference in the lives of food workers. The best example of a program putting this principle into practice comes from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an advocacy group in Florida that launched the penny-a-pound tomato campaign. They used protests and boycotts to basically shame fast-food companies and retailers — including Walmart — into paying a penny per pound more for tomatoes at the wholesale level. The cost passed on to consumers was minuscule, but it translated into higher wages for pickers.


Many low-wage food workers are immigrants. How have recent changes to immigration policy affected food production?
The more President Trump limits immigration, the harder it is for American agriculture to function; we don’t yet have enough data to know for sure, but it can’t help but have an impact. These are jobs that are almost universally taken by immigrants, both legal and undocumented. And it’s not just the policies but also the rhetoric, which has been racist and anti-poor and generally discouraging to immigrant workers.


What other proposed policies could impact the food landscape?
Trump made a number of promises on the campaign trail that could drastically affect how we produce and consume food. Luckily, he hasn’t gotten around to many of them yet, but most of us are concerned about environmental deregulation, school food, health care, and of course continued unqualified support for industrial agriculture with continued ignorance of the better alternatives. One very concrete threat is to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — commonly called food stamps — which will come up for a vote in 2018 as a part of the farm bill. SNAP is an entitlement program. If we make qualifying for it more difficult, and knowledge about it harder to come by, it will fundamentally limit access to food for millions of Americans.

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