Archive for January, 2012

Do Twinkies make the world a better place?

Last week, after news of the Hostess bankruptcy broke, The Onion published a set of satirical reactions to the story in its “American Voices” feature. One of The Onion‘s fake real Americans responded with, “Are you happy now, Michael Pollan? Oh, that’s right, it’s corn you’re pissed off about.”

As it happens, Steve Ettlinger, author of the book Twinkie, Deconstructed, has talked to Michael Pollan about Twinkies, and it turns out that Pollan sees a bigger role for the pastry than I would have guessed. Ettlinger has a piece at The Daily Beast addressing the question, “Should Twinkies disappear?” As it happens, Hostess has assured customers that the Twinkie won’t be disappearing, and that’s just fine by Michael Pollan. “A world without Twinkies would be a lesser place—we need them, if only to calibrate our scale of badness in food,” he told Ettlinger.

Before I give my thoughts on this, I want to make one thing clear. I’m not writing to take a position on whether Twinkies are good or bad. As it happens, I’ve never eaten a Twinkie, and I hope to keep it that way. I’m not above admitting that they might taste good, but they’re loaded with things I’d rather not eat, like white flour, sugar, and beef tallow. On the other hand, I think that some of the criticisms that Pollan would probably raise against the Twinkie are silly. For instance, I think it’s silly to avoid foods based on the number of ingredients; I’m more interested in thinking about what the ingredients are. Moreover, I don’t have a problem with every ingredient with a chemical-sounding name. In the past I’ve pointed out that some of those are more familiar than one might think. But none of this is relevant to my main purpose in writing. The point of this post is to analyze the internal logic of Pollan’s statement. That is, assuming that Twinkies are very bad, does it make sense to keep them around to “calibrate our scale of badness”? Or, more precisely, what does it say about Michael Pollan’s food politics that he believes that it does?

Pollan’s position on Twinkies exemplifies a characteristic of Pollan’s work that was previously explained by commenter CAW:

There are two conversations that he is always having: (1) what is our relationship with food; and (2) what are the best food policies that we should adopt. Depending on how you conceptualize one or the other, they will at times clash. I think we should, of course, try to create a conception of both that are consistent and mutually reinforcing. But it seems to me that Pollan first asks what food is and then lets everything flow from that first question.

The idea that we should keep something around in order to “calibrate our scale of badness” seems to make sense only if we focus on our relationship with our food. As far as I understand it, Pollan’s point is that keeping some bad food around helps us to better appreciate the good stuff. From a strictly aesthetic (i.e. taste-centric) point of view, that seems plausible. But if our interest is in food politics, I think it ceases to make sense. If we’re concerned about, say, the environmental degradation that results from producing high-fructose corn syrup for Twinkies, the unhappy lives of the cows from which the Twinkies’ beef tallow was made, or the public health implications of Twinkie consumption, why is it better for Twinkies to exist? What’s the worst that would come from ceasing to produce Twinkies? We’d forget how bad they were and start making them again?


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Julie Guthman on Michael Pollan’s letter to Obama

In the concluding chapter of Weighing In, Julie Guthman addresses an open letter that Michael Pollan wrote to the winner of the then-upcoming 2008 presidential election. The letter gave the candidates a long list of suggestions for fixing the American food system. Guthman writes,

 The White House must have been listening. After all, it was one of Pollan’s recommendations to “tear out five prime south-facing acres of the White house lawn and plant in their place an organic fruit and vegetable garden.”

…[T]he garden encountered little resistance and was widely heralded, especially by the alternative-food movement. If nothing else, this demonstrates the huge success of the organic farming and gardening movement in communicating its ideas, which used to sit on the countercultural margins, to a much wider audience. To wit, as Pollan also pointed out in the same letter, there is room for food and farming across the political spectrum. “Reforming the food system is not inherently a right-or-left issue: for every Whole Foods shopper with roots in the counterculture you can find a family of evangelicals intent on taking control of its family dinner and diet back from the fast-food industry–the culinary equivalent of home schooling….There is also a strong libertarian component to the sun-food agenda, which seeks to free small producers from the burden of government regulation in order to stoke rural innovation. And what is a higher ‘family value,’ after all, than making time to sit down every night to a shared meal?” Therein lies the problem: an approach that appeals to all parts of the political spectrum cannot challenge the political economic forces that are producing cheap, toxic, and junky food–and making some people dependent on it. (185-186)

Though Guthman agrees with Pollan that farm policy reform may appeal to the entire political spectrum, she faults him for failing to properly place the broken food system in its political context. Guthman argues that our food system’s problems are at least partly the fault of our broken immigration policy (which provides cheap farm labor) and our extreme economic inequality (which creates a need for cheap food), and the solutions to these and other problems would not be nearly as palatable to conservatives as alternative food. Guthman continues,

Since the Obamas planted their organic garden, the rest of the food and agriculture agenda has remained the same, more or less…There is definitely something to be said for creating a highly visible model. My concern, rather, is the absence in the policy agenda of any move that would begin to undermine a food (and industrial) system that simultaneously brings hunger, danger, and unremittingly undercompensated toil; it’s the absence from public discussions of acknowledgment that our food system is part of a political economy that systematically produces inequality; and it’s the reluctance of much of the alternative-food movement to take on the big fights, instead promulgating the notion that education will change how people eat–and thus transform the food system. Obama’s garden, in other words, throws into sharp relief the limitations of alternative food as a change strategy.

Yet, it is the appeals to obesity to which I draw your attention. Naturally, in his open letter Pollan also discussed the health costs and dangers of type 2 diabetes and obesity, which he said could be avoided with changes to diet and lifestyle…

…[I]n urging people to make better “choices,” those who advocate for fresh, organic, and local produce as a means of weight loss are not wholly unlike those who want to combat global warming by getting consumers to swap their incandescent light bulbs for fluorescent ones….These suggestions are based on a singular hegemonic understanding of the cause of the problem: calories and carbon dioxide emissions, which to some degree forecloses efforts to search for other causes…

This, by the way, concludes my series of posts on Weighing In. I’ll have some new posts based on my own thoughts in the near future.

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Julie Guthman on cheap food and the economy

Julie Guthman explains a key difference between her position and Michael Pollan’s:

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan argues that those crop surpluses end up in our bodies; subsidized crops like corn and soy are most likely to go into the processed foods that have become a mainstay of American diets. In turn, these processed foods may contribute to fatness (although not necessarily in the ways he discusses). But he pretty much leaves it there. My argument is much more expansive. I argue that a much broader set of food and agricultural policies are implicated in fatness–but also thinness, and a host of other health conditions that may not manifest in either direction. The food economy, that is, mirrors the larger economy: it is full of contradictions, some of which are literally embodied. But I take it even a step further, to consider policies not even directly related to food and agriculture, such as taxation, financial regulation, and economic development policies that have created huge disparities between rich and poor. To the extent that socioeconomic status and body size are associated, these policies must somehow be implicated in fatness and thinness. Part of this inverse association between size and class status appears to rest on cheap food and the need that neoliberal policy has created for it. (173)

Whereas Pollan is troubled by our dietary habits and argues that we should eat differently, Guthman believes that the problem lies with the structure of our economy:

The decline in family wages…has pushed many women into the workforce, and many household providers hold multiple jobs to make ends meet. Having to work several jobs has surely increased the need for fast and convenient food and contributed to the decline of the much-lauded (and perhaps overly romanticized) family meal. Snack foods, heat ‘n serve meals, supermarket takeout, and eating on the run are not just “lifestyle choices” or, for that matter, signs of the failure of women to fulfill their familial duty. For many, managing jobs, children, and elderly parents and taking time for the most minimal self-care are real challenges that no amount of cajoling about how we should cook our own meals is likely to solve.

The point, though, is not only to defend those who cannot follow the food gurus. It is to note that these ways of eating are central to the current economy. If anything, fast and convenient food has been a triply good fix for American capitalism. It entails the super-exploitation of the labor force in its production, it provides cheap food to support the low wages of the food and other industries by feeding their low-wage workers, and it absorbs the surpluses of the agricultural economy, soaking up, as it were, the excesses of overproduction to keep the farm sector marginally viable. (174)

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If you eat the Pollan diet, will it make you thin?

In Weighing In, Julie Guthman questions whether Michael Pollan really persuades people:

Yet, like most missionary work, the message [of alternative food] speaks mainly to the almost or already converted. Just as the audience for the obesity statistics is those who are most invested in upholding bodily norms (the already thin or just slightly “overweight”), the audience for organic local food is those who already have a stake in good eating and status. Although I have no ultimate proof of Michael Pollan’s audience, I have come across many of his fans in classrooms, speaking engagements, and public forums. Without an obvious exception, I’ve noticed that they are white, educated, urbane, and thin–and already quite convinced of alternative food’s goodness. It may be that Pollan’s iconic power has less to do with changing minds than with animating something latent. In a funny way, even Michael Pollan knows this. In Defense of Food is full of appeals to “us.” In other words, it’s not so much that the discourse of good food convinces its subjects; rather, the discourse chooses subjects who are ready to believe it. Think about it: If you eat the Pollan diet, will it make you thin? (It hasn’t worked for me.) Or is it that because you are thin, you are more likely to read about and eat the Pollan diet? (158-159)

To be fair, I can think of a number of Pollan’s fans who are not white, but I’m not sure I’d be able to think of counterexamples to the other three adjectives (educated, urbane, and thin). But in any case, Guthman’s question seems like an important one.

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Julie Guthman on the affordability of alternative food

Julie Guthman writes,

[T]hrough its abiding support of producers who employ more sustainable methods, the alternative-food movement creates a problem of affordability–by design. Among food writers there is some shame about this. Pollan writes in In Defense of Food, “Not everyone can afford to eat high-quality food in America, and this is shameful; however, those of us who can, should.” James McWilliams, the author of Just Food, makes a similar appeal to the choices of conscientious eaters in his assessment of which claims of alternative agriculture should be heeded (coming remarkably close to a defense of industrial agriculture at times). But if the Malthusian specter about which he writes–the specter of not enough food, depleted soil, and poisoned air and water–looms so near, it’s unclear that the problem can be rectified by the action of conscientious consumers. Are their actions supposed to make up for all of the actions of nonconscientious consumers? Analogously, if only those who can afford to buy high-quality food–an increasingly small group, given the dynamics of neoliberal capitalism (see chapter 8)–do so, what will it add up to? On its own terms, that is, the theory of change cannot amount to a huge shift in market demand. It is doubly problematic hat the theory of food system change neglects the millions of low-wage earners who work in the food system. Asking people to pay more for food gets it really wrong when it asks people who have paid with their lives, land, and labor to pay even more. Farmers and agricultural and food workers have to eat too, and yet, the incomes they receive are barely adequate to pay for cheap food, much less the more extolled variety. (151)

Here it’s important to understand what Guthman means when she refers to “alternative food.” She explains,

The alternative-food movement, as I discuss it here, first evolved to support farms with sustainable farming practices. As such, it created a set of institutions that link producers and consumers in close relationships, such as farmers markets, community-supported agricultural programs (CSAs), and farm-to-restaurant sales. I see these institution as distinct from those that date back to the late 1960s, when the New Left began to organize various food provisioning activities. Taking cues from earlier socialist and communal experiments, those various “co” institutions were explicitly noncapitalist in their organization and ownership, and sometimes were intended to model social forms of organization (source). They included communes where residents grew their own food; cooperative groceries where members pooled their money for food purchasing; and community gardens where neighbors farmed small plots of land together or in allotments. In contrast, the alternative-food movement, as I characterize it here, is less concerned with using food practices in the service of social change than with changing the food itself. The movement is not now nor was it ever radically transformative, although certain segments were most definitely anticorporate, and particular individuals in the movement may have such inclinations or may have participated in earlier more radical permutations (c.f.). (148)

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Julie Guthman on “In Defense of Food”

In a chapter titled, “Will local, organic food make you thin?” Julie Guthman takes aim at the dietary advice in Pollan’s work, particularly In Defense of Food:

Through better farming and better cooking, the movement has in an important sense redefined good food from “healthy” to “real.” These ideas have been promulgated by food writers, of course. The tagline of Pollan’s In Defense of Food reads: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” In the book, he contrasts “food” (that is, “real” food) with “edible foodlike substances.”

The alternative-food movement has attempted to influence the way we eat in addition to what we eat. Rejecting the idea of food as simply functional, to be ingested solely to fueld the bodily machine (the approach many diets take), much of alternative food discourse emphasizes conviviality and the social context of the meal. Food should be eaten at the table, not gobbled down in the car or at a desk, with plenty of time given over to civil discussion…

And yet, with all this emphasis on the pleasure of eating, subtle references to and preferences for thinness, akin to healthism, appear in the alternative food movement. Whereas more mainstream healthism promotes counting calories and standing on the scale, alternative food merely hints at this kinder gentler way to manage weight. Michael Pollan has been explicit in positioning alternative food against the food qualities and practices that make you fat. In a widely circulated New York Times piece about the movie Julie and Julia, he correlated the rise of obesity and the decline of home cooking (another potentially spurious correlation) and concluded that you can eat anything you want as long as you cook it from scratch. Some sections of In Defense of Food read like a masculine version of Why French Women Don’t Get Fat…At times In Defense of Food even reads like a diet book, when, for example, Pollan suggests using smaller plates to trick yourself into eating less, or when he says that “another important benefit of paying more for better-quality food is that you’re apt to eat less of it” (184)…To be sure, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, along with Pollan’s newest Food Rules, developed by eliciting rules from readers in the New York Times, all seem to suggest that if you act like him, by spending more money and time procuring, preparing, and eating food, you’ll be thin.

It is easy to take issue with Pollan on these points, especially since he appeals to a European aesthetic that is unlikely to resonate with the lower-to-middle-income rural and suburban white Europhobes who are some of the prime targets of current-day nutritional advice…Nonetheless, the implicit promise of alternative food is that if you have a more natural, sensuous relationship with your food, you will also have one with your body–which will somehow manifest in being not too fat. Is this “natural” relationship easy to find? in her important book Unbearable Weight, the feminist theorist Susan Bordo discusses how, in the face of a tyranny of slenderness that makes the vast majority of women extraordinarily weight conscious, the goal of having a more natural relationship with food can be doubly oppressive for women. Not only must they watch their weight, they must also watch themselves to make sure they appear to eat what and all they want…

To the extent that eating alternative food is discussed, if not explicitly promoted, as a weight-loss strategy, it is reminiscent of what Skrabenek called lifestylism in which disease prevention morphs into moral prescriptions as to how one should live, an issue to which I will return. In any case, there are many other ways that alternative food is a weak antidote to obesity. These lie with change strategies that do not address the political-economic foundations of the larger food system. (145-147)

Setting aside questions of the efficacy of alternative food for personal weight-loss, the criticism for failure to address political issues seems like one that requires some qualification. Perhaps In Defense of Food sometimes reads like a diet book, but I wonder if Guthman would argue that diet books shouldn’t exist. I think what’s most important to take away from the criticism is an understanding that alternative food doesn’t solve the problem. Yet it seems that there’s still value to supporting the development of alternative food systems, so that when political change comes, these will no longer be merely an alternative. Nonetheless, it is fair for Guthman to point out the incompleteness of that “solution.”

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Julie Guthman on agricultural subsidies

Julie Guthman writes in Weighing In:

Although the role of subsidies in overproduction is debatable, it is patently false that subsidies make junk food more affordable than fresh fruits and vegetables, a claim that Michael Pollan has promoted. He based this on a finding by obesity researchers Adam Drewnowski and S. E. Specter (2004) that a dollar could buy 1,200 calories of cookies or potato chips but only 250 calories of carrots. Although the latter may be true, the reason that processed food is cheaper than fresh fruits and vegetables has little to do with subsidies. It is in small part due to market structure; it is in much larger part due to the cost of growing. Simply put, many processing ingredients, such as potatoes, corn, and wheat, are far less costly to produce on a mass scale than fresh fruits and vegetables. Potatoes, corn, and wheat, all primary ingredients in snack food, can be tilled and harvested by machine, whereas fresh peaches, strawberries, and lettuce require a great deal of hand labor in weeding and harvesting. This is not to say that fruit and vegetable production has not been intensified; intensification through breeding, postproduction practices, and sped up crop rotations make crops such as tomatoes and iceberg lettuce, for example, cheaper than they would be, but not nearly as cheap as grains. (122)

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