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.


1 Comment »

  1. Speaking of the potential appeal of “alternative” lifestyle choices, including alternative food, to political conservatives, there’s apparently a whole book on it: http://www.amazon.com/Crunchy-Cons-Birkenstocked-evangelical-homeschooling/dp/1400050642

    I find this phenomenon intriguing. And in some ways heartening. You shouldn’t have to be strongly left-wing to see at least some of the benefits of environmentally-friendly and healthier food.

    At the same time, Guthman is right when she says that the actual solutions to food justice issues may not be as appealing to conservatives.

    Though I do question whether all conservatives should be lumped together. Economic conservatives would definitely fight tooth and nail against the kinds of structural reforms that Guthman advocates. But I see no reason why some religious conservatives, for example, couldn’t be persuaded to get on board. Environmentalism is becoming an increasingly hot issue among evangelical Christians (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hgAK4zo79TU&feature=related). Food justice should and can be, if the food movement plays its cards right.

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