The Big Idea: The Politics Of Eating Well

by Rebecca Shapiro Published Spring 2018
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Can you talk a little about how environmental regulations affect food production?
Food production and the environment are inextricably linked. Our current agriculture system is responsible for more greenhouse-gas emissions than any other sector of our economy, aside from energy. Sixty percent of government-subsidized agriculture is going to fund crops like corn and soy, which are mostly used to feed animals or fuel cars. The fewer regulations we have, of course, the easier it is for industrial agriculture companies to continue these damaging practices. It also makes it easier for them to make money and encourages their dominance in American food production.


Photograph by Joshua Roper / Alamy Stock Photo

In your first New York Times column, you issued a food manifesto, outlining your priorities for the future. One of the focal points was promoting small farmers.
Right. Small farmers are crucial for the environment and for our health. We need the kinds of farmers that are growing nourishing food for people, instead of commodity crops that are intended for animals or cars or processed junk that makes us sick.

So, first of all, we need to get land into the right hands. Are there people who want to farm and grow good food? I think there are, but many can’t afford land. There are credible solutions — land trusts for preserving farmland, farm business incubators, and federal and state programs — but the barriers remain high. There’s also been a shift in the farming population — a recent survey by the National Young Farmers Coalition found that a majority of new farmers don’t come from farming families, and have college educations. But onerous student-loan obligations often prohibit people from going into or staying in agriculture. We need legislation that adds farmers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

Finally, small farmers need better access to markets. The majority of our produce is purchased in huge quantities and plugged into a system geared to them. Someone that has three acres might have trouble breaking into that system and finding a market for their products. So they need to be near cities that have policies for buying from small farmers — that can figure out how to aggregate enough broccoli from local farms, for example, that it equals a shipment from California.

“It’s a happy coincidence that eating what’s better for your body is also better for our collective body.”

What other countries should we look to as models for food policy?
I’m spending the next six months traveling in the hopes of figuring out exactly that. It’s a tough question, because governments are constantly changing, and that can curtail progress. Brazil has really been a front-runner in terms of progressive food policy — it adopted a national food policy in 2003, which proved to dramatically reduce poverty and child mortality. Some of the policies there, like mandating that a percentage of school lunches be sourced from local farmers, are things I’d like to see here. But the government changed hands in 2016, and a number of the policies stalled or were reversed.


Photograph by Leon Werdinger / Alamy Stock Photo

You’ve written extensively on obesity and how the American diet has declined. How do you think the government should legislate these kinds of issues?
The obesity epidemic is dire and is single-handedly reversing a hundred years of progress in public health. For the first time in generations, today’s children have shorter life expectancies than their parents, largely because a third of them are likely to develop type 2 diabetes.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) was a step in the direction of an integrated national health-care system, which I think is our only hope for combating problems like obesity and diabetes. But we need national dietary standards that are easy for people to understand and follow. Our current dietary standards are hundreds of pages long, and they focus on minutiae — how much of individual nutrients people should be getting. Instead, we need to prioritize some big-picture messages: a plant-based diet, reduced calorie consumption in general, less sugar, and real, unprocessed foods.


Photograph by Carol Dembinsky / Dembinsky Photo Associates / Alamy Stock Photo

What about things like food labeling?
Under the Obama administration, we made a little progress on getting national label enhancements. As a part of the ACA, every chain restaurant nationwide is now required to post nutrition content and calorie counts. We’ve had a similar policy in New York for several years, and while there’s no hard science yet on whether it has had an impact on people’s choices, I continue to think that it’s a step in the right direction.

What do you think is the most important thing people can do to improve their diets?
They can cook more. Home cooking was the foundation of most of my career, and it’s something about which I remain passionate. It’s an important way forward. The way you control what you put in your mouth and in your body is by cooking. You try to buy real food, and you prepare it yourself, and lo and behold, it’s healthy. It takes practice, but it’s fun.

There are, of course, things we can do policy-wise to make it easier for everyone to have access to good, real food. But we also need to encourage the kind of culture that values cooking and making good food decisions. Even if you live in what people call a food desert, with a limited budget and no access to a fancy farmers’ market, you can make better choices. Rice and canned beans, with onions and peppers or carrots, is cheaper and much more nutritious for a family than getting McDonald’s. We just need to make that the norm. If you spend a lot of time around public-health people, you start to hear the mantra, “We have to make the healthy choice the easy choice.”


You’re known as a fierce advocate for a plant-based diet, though you’re not a vegetarian yourself.
The personal decisions we make are important, and this is an area where we can encourage people to make reasonable changes. Our current diet is killing us individually, and it’s environmentally unsustainable. It’s a happy coincidence that eating what’s better for your body is also better for our collective body. I wanted to help people see that there’s a very manageable way to do that. For many years I’ve adopted what I call the “vegan before six” diet — I avoid meat and dairy products during the day (before 6 p.m.) and relax about it at night. But that’s only one way to address the issues, and it might not be the most practical one for a lot of people.


What else can people do to be responsible food consumers?
Well, what I’ve tried to do with my lecture series and my columns is to help people understand how all these issues are connected. This is about every aspect of democracy, and I believe that we need to be a more engaged citizenry. I don’t care whether you organize around labor or the environment or race. Almost every issue affects food, and vice versa. It’s all the same struggle.

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