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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.

Originally posted to Joel Berg on Tue Oct 21, 2008 at 06:15 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Powell or Pollan? (5+ / 0-)

    Didn't I tell you to call me Ernie...or Big Ern? It's for my morning coffee.

    by als10 on Tue Oct 21, 2008 at 06:18:49 PM PDT

    •  I received WIC checks for the first time in my (8+ / 0-)

      life yesterday.  No fresh or canned fruit allowed, but I got approval for SEVEN CANS OF JUICY JUICE?????  That sure is good for their teeth.  And the cereal choices were totally prescribed down to the company and brand.  To me it looks like corporate welfare to benefit a few megafood companies.  I couldn't buy the healthy no sugar cereal my kids have always eaten before now.  No natural peanut butter allowed, had to get the stuff with added sweetners.  Canned tuna for a woman nursing a baby?  Hello? Ever heard of mercury in tuna?  I was thoroughly disgusted and saddened.  I applied for WIC out of fear because my husband lost his job last month.  Seeing what "help" I could get I am really grateful that he has secured a new job starting next month so I can go back to feeding my children the healthy food I always have and really sad for families who really do rely on the WIC program.

      •  I hear you (5+ / 0-)

        I was a WIC recipient 10 years ago. Sounds like nothing has changed.

        There are too many of us who have withdrawn into our private lives because we think public life has nothing to offer. That has to change. -- BHO, 2004

        by LBK on Tue Oct 21, 2008 at 06:39:31 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  They will pay for dried beans, carrots (0+ / 0-)

        and, in some states, produce at Farmers' Markets.

        The WIC tuna thing kills me as does the Juicy Juice but no fruit from the supermarket.

        The diarist's arguments are specious. He should really read the copy of "Food Politics" by Marion Nestle that he never got around to reading so he understands that the Dietary Guidelines were essentially dictated by agribusiness.

        "And tell me how does god choose whose prayers does he refuse?" Tom Waits

        by madaprn on Tue Oct 21, 2008 at 07:03:53 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  I think we can agree sodas are junk food. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    madaprn, 1864 House, HGM MA, BirderWitch

    There are a few other pretty clear cut empty calories out there.  Go with the flagrant stuff and get it out of the subsidized menu.

    Yes, it's nice to indulge in crap sometimes, but it's also nice to have a glass of wine or a beer with dinner and we don't allow food stamps to pay for alcohol.

    Now, go spread some peace, love and understanding. Use force if necessary. - Phil N DeBlanc

    by lineatus on Tue Oct 21, 2008 at 06:20:26 PM PDT

  •  Thank you (5+ / 0-)

    Why does everyone think that an act of charity (individual or communal) entitles the giver or taxpayer to be condescending and self-righteous? Why must people meet conditions to be worthy of our help? The food restriction thing "for their own good" is no different from a church-based charity's demand that recipients of their aid attend church services "for their own good." It's insulting, demeaning, and offensive.

    During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act. - George Orwell

    by kyril on Tue Oct 21, 2008 at 06:23:41 PM PDT

    •  It's All the Difference in the World (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      greenskeeper, madaprn

      The religion is incorrect much of the time and anti-fact-based all of the time. And promoting it in the course of public-sponsored charity is unconstitutional.

      Nutrition is based on science and is to some degree a matter of public health. We require people to get vaccinations for example, and to maintain various hygiene standards in their dwellings almost everywhere. If we feed masses of people in ways that are unhealthy, society one way or another bears the costs of their diseases, lost labor etc.

      While any particular approach is eminently worth debating, the idea that the public must be completely hands-off with food charity is wrong and dangerous.

      We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

      by Gooserock on Tue Oct 21, 2008 at 06:34:32 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Excellent diary. (9+ / 0-)

    I really like some of Michael Pollan's work, but he is virtually a caricature of the latte-sipping liberal who is utterly clueless about the realities of being poor in America.

    Many of my poor patients literally are out of money by the end of the third week of every month. They've paid the rent and the utility bills, but they can't afford their medications. They can't afford the gas to drive to the "good" supermarket 25 miles away- the one with the great produce section- instead they're stuck shopping at the local 'sleazymart' with its wilting week-old lettuce and acres of cheap chips & soda. Their kids are hungry, so they buy the most "value" they can see. That means jumbo bottles of soda, cheap bread, macaroni & cheese, pounds of pasta and hot dogs.
    That's all they can afford.

    I like some of Pollan's work, but he can be a horse's ass.

    •  Ya know, Ralphdog, my current suburban patients (2+ / 0-)

      eat almost as poorly as my former inner city clinic patients did.

      I don't think Pollan is unaware of the reality of "eating poor"; in fact, he rails about the very points you make, RD, in recounting the history, politics, and economics of our current food production and distribution system.

      "And tell me how does god choose whose prayers does he refuse?" Tom Waits

      by madaprn on Tue Oct 21, 2008 at 07:15:07 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  When I was in grad school (0+ / 0-)

      I was on food stamps for three months.  I was pretty amazed as I watched what other food stampers bought.  I remember thinking it might help them if there were a requirement to take a "nutrition for cheap" class.

      In '73, I was getting $90/month for a family of three.  I usually used about $45 of them: about what I'd been paying before.  The stamps lasted three more months after graduation.

      "The world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love." ~~ William Sloane Coffin

      by puddleriver on Tue Oct 21, 2008 at 10:19:50 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Give farmer's markets the ability to accept EBT (3+ / 0-)


    You can't deny that obesity is more prevalent among low income families for a host of different reasons.  I don't see a problem with limiting what people can purchase with food stamps to food with high nutritional value.  States spend millions in smoking cessation programs usually targeted at the poor because they have recognized that it will save money with in Medicaid programs.  The same could be said about averting risk factors associated with poor diets that result in diabetes and heart disease.        

    "I'm a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will" - Antonio Gramsci

    by HGM MA on Tue Oct 21, 2008 at 06:28:15 PM PDT

  •  I noticed the specific (8+ / 0-)

    manufacturers named on the grocery store's posted food stamp guidelines.  Users of food stamps and other programs can buy Kellogg's Corn Flakes but not the store brand, can buy Tropicana Orange Juice but not Florida's Natural, and on and on.

    There's some heavy corruption there.

    "Republicans are poor losers and worse winners." - My grandmother, sometime in the early 1960s

    by escapee on Tue Oct 21, 2008 at 06:29:47 PM PDT

  •  Some Choices Need No Public Support (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Some choices need a great deal of public support.

    As it stands right now, agribusiness is getting subsidies at every stage from the extraction of the oil to the consumer purchases of food stamp recipients.

    Pollan's suggestion is comprehensive and sound: remove the hidden subsidies for petro-junk food.

    Your suggestion is that we privilege the "sense of free choice" among those who are the most consistently victimized by a constrained choice that amounts to nothing more than a decision about the form in which they will consume #2 corn.

    A better answer than yours is to subsidize honest greengrocers in all neighborhoods and restrict junkfood outlets through zoning regulation.

    Because, truth be told, your solution is not only more condescending than anything Pollan has proposed, it's also calculated to have no positive effect.

    That's just feel-good bullshit. And I do mean "bullshit" in the philosophical sense.

  •  The reality (5+ / 0-)

    is that many times, poor people will buy what will provide the most for the least cost.  Most of us would agree that Ramen noodles are far from nutrition heaven - but they're cheap and filling.  Take a walk down the produce section sometime, and take a look at the cost of fresh (or whatever passed for that) fruits and vegetables these days.   It's pretty high-cost.   Beans, lentils, rice, barley are still relatively cheap, but they aren't nutritionally complete either.  

    People receiving food stamps are already struggling to feed themselves and their families on what they get.  Proposals to ban "junk" foods - which are often cheap, and substitute "healthy" foods - which can be more expensive -  without a concomitant increase in the amount of benefits is going to put even more strain on the poor.  

    I prefer better education into nutritional choices, but getting into the "ban this" "ban that" mode is ridiculous.

    I think that I have had enough of you telling me how things will be. Today I choose a new way to go ... and it goes through you!

    by Norbrook on Tue Oct 21, 2008 at 06:34:41 PM PDT

  •  Having once been poor enough (6+ / 0-)

    that the only place I could shop at the end of the month was the mini-mart at the gas station where I had a gas credit card, I understand the desperation of being a parent with two hungry kids and no money.

    These days I dine on organic, locally produced food... back then, it was bread and pre-packaged lunch meat from the mini-mart.

    Inner city families often do not have a real grocery store, much less a farmers market or food coop in their neighborhood. They also do not have transportation to get to these places.

    I read Omnivore's Dilemma and thought it was a little too precious. Driving around gathering food from dozens of different local growers and suppliers is a rich person's hobby.

    I have also been known to say that once WalMart started carrying organic food, and it became mainstream, something else would be the new craze... so now it's local. I understand the merits, but the reality is that not having enough food to stave off hunger is a world away from that debate.

    They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself. - Andy Warhol

    by 1864 House on Tue Oct 21, 2008 at 06:37:49 PM PDT

    •  Exactly! (6+ / 0-)

      There's a "farmers market" here in town once a week.  On average, the fruits and vegetables offered are at least 50% more expensive than the same ones in the local grocery store.  Yes, the quality is better, and overall I prefer it - but a lot of people here simply can't afford it.   It's the same choice across a spectrum. Yes, whole-grain pasta may be better for you - but the store brand cheap pasta will cost 25% of that.  That's a real example - A one pound box of whole grain pasta goes for $3.19 at the local store.  A pound of store brand pasta goes for $0.79.  

      I think that I have had enough of you telling me how things will be. Today I choose a new way to go ... and it goes through you!

      by Norbrook on Tue Oct 21, 2008 at 06:45:59 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  And it doesn't act or taste the same (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        Never waste money on whole grain "spaghetti" - you can never, ever get it to act like proper spaghetti. It remains too stiff and too "gritty" no matter how long you cook it.

        (Artichoke spaghetti WILL cook up properly, so if you want "healthy" spaghetti - and can afford it - get that.)

        Whole grain is OK for noodles and all the odd sizes and shapes of macaronis, though.

    •  There is work being done! (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      salvador dalai llama, 1864 House

      There are municipalities across the country (Oakland, CA and Austin, TX jump to mind) that are working on these issues of physical and financial access. It can be done, but it requires a massive amount of buy-in from the city in question and extreme dedication on the part of City Councils, City staffs, and non-profits. I absolutely agree that farmers' markets should be equipped with the technology to accept EBT cards. The technology is expensive and there doesn't seem to be a single comprehensive way of getting it done. I loved Pollan's idea of the EBT cards doubling in value when used at a farmers' market.

      Speaking as a former welfare mom/food stamp recipient (16 and 10 years ago) and regional food bank employee (and now a farmers' market manager and a tireless advocate of access to clean and fair food for everyone on the economic spectrum), everyone should have access to food that's clean and healthy. FOOD should be clean and healthy. The price we all pay environmentally and with our health by supporting corporate agribusiness is entirely too high. How do we make these changes?

      The food system didn't break overnight. It won't be fixed overnight, either.

      There are too many of us who have withdrawn into our private lives because we think public life has nothing to offer. That has to change. -- BHO, 2004

      by LBK on Tue Oct 21, 2008 at 06:46:58 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  it's a rich person's hobby only because (5+ / 0-)

      local distribution and growers have been destroyed along with gardening/farming knowledge. I spent the last three years trying to revive our farmer's market and get people interested in growing their own food There is no shortage of land, just a shortage of interest in growing food for personal and neighborhood use. For example our farmer;s market during the 70s had over 70 members. Now there are about a dozen.  Perhaps large cities like NYC and Chicago do not have enough space for local gardeners, but most cities in the US do. Most cities have an inner circle of abandoned land that could be converted to gardens. There just has to be the will to do it.

      •  Agreed (6+ / 0-)

        but to get started, the inner city soil would have to be decontaminated (most has excessive lead) or more likely, dug up and replaced with decent soil. Then someone would have to provide start up costs and some wages to whoever is going to tend the gardens.

        It's possible, but it requires more than just some plucky people deeciding to put in a garden.

        I am heartened by mobile green grocers that take refrigerated trucks into poor neighborhoods. And education in community centers; my daughter did her dietician internship in Kansas City and taught classes at WIC centers. The emphasis was on healthier versions of traditional ethnic foods.

        I am lucky to live in a small city surrounded by some of the richest farm land in America, and we have four different farmers markets in the area (for the 8 months when it's not below zero), plus one of the top food coops in the nation. But my daughters live in Chicago and there are only farmers markets in the trendy neighborhoods. The best bet in the poor areas are the Latino and Asian green grocers - but not every neighborhood has those.

        They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself. - Andy Warhol

        by 1864 House on Tue Oct 21, 2008 at 07:01:47 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  a difference in priorities, rather than land/will (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        LBK, 1864 House

        Will is seldom sufficient of course, one has to incentivize these things to really make them work.

        Private gardens aren't necessarily an answer - they are impractical in large urban setting for all the reasons detailed here and many others. But current production could be made to work better in both feeding the poor and making healthy choices available.

        There are tools now that can help. There's a tremendous amount of food media which could have a segment devoted to this rather than the luxury market (priced pine nuts recently?). Food education could not only inform people of all income brackets of the health implications of their dietary choices, but also open people's minds to a wider choice of cuisine including those icky vegetables.

        Second, is that your city (I say this confidently), has an organic food cooperative.  And it probably delivers.  And it's probably cheaper than fast food. It's certainly cheaper than the mini-mart.  We have allowed slum stores to dominate the shopping choices of the poor. And these stores tend to be more expensive, not less. If we devoted more of our existing agricultural production to healthy foodstuffs, instead of corn for fructose and fake fuel for the fossil fuel denier crowd. We could easily feed everyone (not just the poor) a ruicher and more healthy diet without any major infrastructural changes.  And as England has proven, organic production is NOT less productive than industrial farming in any real way once it has reached a sufficient scale of production.

        "you have the right to your own opinion. You do not have the right to your own facts" -Daniel Patrick Moynihan

        by SteveP on Tue Oct 21, 2008 at 07:16:55 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  A Few Points in Response (6+ / 0-)

    I agree we should stop subsidizing agribusiness corn.  Also, the nonprofit organization that I head does a great deal to promote farmers’ markets, and to increase use of food stamp and WIC benefits at them. We also aid community gardens and sponsor CSAs to bring organic food directly from small farmers into low-income neighborhoods.

    All of that being said, if we don’t do more to make food affordable for low-income Americans (by raising their wages and bolstering their safety net), all the self-righteous talk about their need to eat better won’t enable low-income Americans to  actually so.

    Plus, since this is the Daily Kos, I can’t help but note that only other people who want to restrict what people can buy with food stamps other than so-called progressive food activists happen to be far Right-wingers who want to use this argument as yet another excuse to try to slash funding for federal nutrition assistance programs.  It is truly curious when parts of the Left start sounding a whole lot like parts of the Right.

    •  one of the things (5+ / 0-)

      That, and I apologize for generalizing here, new progressives tend to do is to take the general idea that Government can be a force for the good, and let it get paternalistic.  We not only give them food stamps, but "we" use the food stamps as an anti-obesity/health program for those ne'er do well inner city people who don;t know any better..meanwhile we sip our supersize cokes.

      When I first started beocming politically aware I wanted to make everything 'right' and so fell into that trap.

      Most of these people will grow out of it.  It's the difference between giving people opportunity and forcing end results.

      "you have the right to your own opinion. You do not have the right to your own facts" -Daniel Patrick Moynihan

      by SteveP on Tue Oct 21, 2008 at 07:07:42 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  agreed (5+ / 0-)

        It's a fact that eating healthy costs more--so the focus on raising wages as a way of cutting obesity makes a lot of sense.

        Because for Zen surrealism, you can't beat living in the Bible Belt...

        by salvador dalai llama on Tue Oct 21, 2008 at 07:13:12 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  It does cost more (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          1864 House, Norbrook

          but it need not. Fair wages are good for a million reasons and an economy that was based on full employment at real wages would solve all kinds of problems. James Galbraith argues convincingly that the major root cause of the current economic crisis of which deregulation and the ensuing speculatory drive were the mechanics, was the draining of income and wealth from the middle and lower classes. While we continue to do this, the only way the super rich can maintain a growth economy is not through the traditional ways - actually making more stuff - but to create bubbles.  By raising the proportion of wealth held by the people you drive demand for people to start making and growing things again.

          Including healthy food.

          "you have the right to your own opinion. You do not have the right to your own facts" -Daniel Patrick Moynihan

          by SteveP on Tue Oct 21, 2008 at 07:21:13 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  I'd just like to point out (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    kyril, Norbrook

    that not everyone that needs food stamps to feed their family lives in the inner city and we may not "grow out of it."

    I'm a 54 year old single mother that ended up totally disabled four years ago. My mental health disabilities are due to severe childhood abuse. I have severe depression, anxiety, panic attacks and when things really get bad - agoraphobia. The worst part is that it's so unpredictable. I can be fine when I go to bed and then wake up the next morning too terrified to even leave my bedroom. Most employers tend to get tired of that sort of thing.

    So, at least for the time being, it's food stamps or starvation. With all the other things I have to cope with, the last thing I need is someone telling me I can only buy expensive fresh fruits and vegetables, whole wheat bread, etc. unless they also triple the amount of food stamps I get each month. As it is now, I usually only eat every other day so my son has enough to eat.

    Being poor is not fun. Going to a food bank is not fun. Getting food stamps is not fun. Having mental health issues and trying to get treatment when you're on medicaid is a nightmare. So for anyone who thinks they know better than I do how I should live my life, perhaps you would like to trade places for a month?

    I'm sorry to sound so unpleasant, it's just that some of the comments written here are so unfeeling and it's the time of the month when the food stamps have run out and I'm pinching every penny I can.

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