Michael Pollan makes a number of important points about the failures of our global food system, but continues to gloss over the harsh realities faced by tens of millions of low-income, food insecure Americans.
In the October 9, 2008 New York Times Magazine, author Michael Pollan called on the next President to dramatically overhaul U.S. agriculture and food policy.
While I agree with many of Pollan’s continuing criticisms of a world food system dominated by just a handful of corporate agribusinesses, I am troubled by his continuing insensitivity to the realities faced by low-income Americans.
My reply, to be printed in the October 26, 2008 magazine, speaks for itself:
"Even though 35.5 million Americans live in households that can’t afford enough food and 25 million are forced to use food pantries and soup kitchens, Michael Pollan insists that food scarcity is no longer a problem in America and that rising food prices can be a positive development. He glosses over the reality that the nation’s rising obesity is directly tied to the inability of low-income Americans to physically obtain and economically afford less fattening, more nutritious foods.
Pollan’s suggestion that the federal government start preventing low-income families from using food-stamp benefits to purchase what he deems to be junk food is as class-biased as it is unworkable. In his book "The Omnivore’s Dilemma," he admits that he and his son occasionally enjoy junk food and supersize Cokes. Who is he to decide that low-income American families could never again enjoy that same guilty pleasure?
I, too, would like to live in a nation in which everyone is able to buy nourishing food year-round at "four-season farmers’ markets." But just as the reality is that most Americans don’t live in regions with year-round growing seasons, tens of millions of people on limited incomes simply can’t afford to buy the healthiest foods.
The answer is not, as Pollan suggests, to reduce their already meager choices but rather to ensure that they have wages high enough and a government safety net robust enough to give them the real-life ability to eat more nutritious foods."
You can see my published letter, as well as an excellent letter from a previous boss of mine, former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, here:
Are few other related points:
• Pollan is wrong to claim that the WIC and School Lunch Programs value raw calorie counts over nutritional content. The foods purchased through the WIC program were recently re-calibrated to conform with nutritional guidelines established by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, offering fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, soymilk, and tofu as options for the first time.
• Under federal law, school lunches must be served in accordance with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, ensuring that less than 10 percent of calories come from saturated fat and requiring that each lunch provides at least one-third of the recommended levels of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, and calcium. Yes, school lunches are still far from perfect, and yes parents and activists need to be vigilant in continuing to improve their nutritional quality, but we should at least acknowledge the nutritional advances. And we should remember how much worse off low-income children were before they had access to school lunches at all.
• With billions of dollars at stake, the battle to define junk food in the Food Stamp Program would be epic, with nutrition experts pitted against food-industry lobbyists, slugging it out one food item at a time. Are Raisinets junk food or fruit? Junk food, you say? Then how about a caramel apple? What about a Fig Newton? Wouldn’t it be better to let parents decide for themselves?
• It is also wrong to imply that the Food Stamp Program increases obesity. A major USDA study published in 2007 found no significant difference between the body mass index of people who received food stamps and people who were equally poor who did not.
• Micromanaging the lives of poor people—or anybody, for that matter—is patronizing and usually backfires. A far better strategy than limiting food choice with food stamps, banning fast food, or passing a "fat tax" is to increase the average benefit amount of food stamps so people can afford to buy the healthiest foods—which most food stamp recipients desperately want to do.