Posts Tagged Weighing In

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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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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Julie Guthman on the obesogenic environment thesis

Julie Guthman writes,

In leaving questions of behavior untouched, however, they can easily give the impression that the environment simply acts on people in unmediated ways, as if once you find yourself living in the sprawling suburbs the fat will pile on. Surely, the idea that merely the presence of bad food makes people fat is well circulated. It is fairly explicit in Michael Pollan’s claim, “When food is abundant and cheap, people will eat more of it and get fat.” …Since not everyone is in fact fat, and since [Pollan and others] make great efforts to educate people to the quality of food to encourage informed decisions, they are in effect betraying their healthist sensibilities, suggesting that those who manage to exercise restraint in such environments (or avoid them altogether) must have greater disciplinary powers, taste, and knowledge. (75-76)

The passage comes in a chapter of Weighing In titled “Does your neighborhood make you fat?” which challenges the notion of the “obesogenic environment.” Many researchers and activists have argued that obesity results from lack of access to healthy food and neighborhoods  unconducive to exercise, but Guthman argues that this thesis rests on certain assumptions:

Explicitly, it assumes the energy balance model, which holds that obesity results from an excess of calories in relative to those expended. To the extent to which it black boxes questions about human behavior, specifically how humans negotiate their environments, it implicitly assumes that the environment simply acts on people, so that people are objects, not agents, in these environments. (68)

Guthman devotes a later chapter to challenging the energy balance model. In this chapter, she argues that social class needs to be a part of the conversation. She contrasts obesogenic neighborhoods with neighborhoods that promote thinness, which she terms “leptogenic” neighborhoods. She writes,

The obesogenic environment thesis, with its focus on access and proximity to grocery stores, restaurants, parks, gyms, and public transportation, leads to the conclusion that if these conditions are changed, behaviors will follow. It thus draws forth a set of interventions that are strongly supply-sided…Supply-side interventions are reasonably palatable politically and provide clarity about what to do. Accordingly, public health advocates have put a good deal of effort into soda bans in school or good neighbor agreements that ask corner liquor stores to sell fruits and vegetables, or even creating more walkable public space in new suburbs.

And those who endorse such efforts often do so in the name of combating racial and class inequality. Yet if those obesogenic environments are as inseparable from race and class as I contend they are, picking out particular features of the built environment and making them more leptogenic isn’t likely to cut it as a body-size-altering strategy–and may have unintended consequences. It effaces the problem that the very conditions and amenities that make certain places sites of “the good life” make them unobtainable to most…

Towns and cities with artistic, independent, and healthful restaurants, beautiful outdoor amenities, vibrant public spaces, and unique character are “leptogenic,” to be sure. But they are leptogenic not only because of the food choices and physical activity opportunities they offer. They are leptogenic because wealth has made them into even more pleasant (but costly places). That is because places with wealth both attract businesses to meet the food tastes of residents and generate the taxes to improve and maintain those enjoyable public spaces…

No matter what, to replicate features of the leptogenic environment to make people thin is unlikely to be efficacious…Trying to make environments more like those of the wealthy upholds an economic differentiation of urban landscape that could have perverse social justice ramifications. Already efforts to redress the supply-side problems, such as community gardens, farmers markets, and spruced-up parks, have led to gentrification, which is why people in low-income areas are beginning to reject such projects. (87-89)

In short, whereas Pollan and others see obesity arising from lack of access to good food and other environmental factors, Guthman argues that both obesity and the unhealthy environment arise from deeper problems of social class.

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Julie Guthman on health care

In a chapter of Weighing In titled “Whose problem is obesity?” Julie Guthman objects to the idea that “the costs of dealing with obesity are substantial and that the broader public pays for obesity because medical costs are pooled, so that the healthy pay for the unhealthy.” She writes,

So engrained are these ideas that Michael Pollan has chimed in on this too, with an editorial in the New York Times in which he used the platform of rising health care costs to link obesity and type 2 diabetes to “big food.” Remarkably the piece was expressing skepticism of Obama’s early proposal for health care reform because it focused too much on regulating the insurance industry and not on diet. As Pollan put it,

to listen to President Obama’s speech on Wednesday night, or to just about anyone else in the health care debate, you would think that the biggest problem with health care in America is the system itself–perverse incentives, inefficiencies, unnecessary tests and procedures, lack of competition, and greed….No one disputes that the $2.3 trillion we devote to the health care industry is often spent unwisely, but the fact that the United States spends twice as much per person as most European countries on health care can be substantially explained…by our being fatter.

This came not too long after Pollan defended the natural food supermarket Whole Foods against a proposed boycott. The boycott was initiated in response to the Wall Street Journal editorial by Whole Foods’ CEO, John Mackey, in which he attacked the “public option” under the supposition that “health care is not a right.” On the blog spot New Majority, Pollan wrote that “Mackey is wrong on health care, but Whole Foods is often right about food, and their support for the farmers matters more to me than the political views of their founder.” (49)

To understand this criticism, some context may be helpful. Guthman explains that this notion that obesity presents a sort of free-rider problem is rooted in an ideology called healthism. This term, she explains, “was first coined by the sociologist Robert Crawford in 1980 to ‘describe a striking moralization of health among middle-class Americans,’ so that health became a ‘super value’ that trumps other social concerns.'” In the United Kingdom, this ideology inspired government programs to educate people to make healthier choices, but its consequences have been more problematic in the United States:

In the United States…healthism helped legitimize a much more serious decommitment to state-mandated health services, taking the form of the “managed care” system, which, among other things, can exclude from care those with preexisting conditions, including obesity. The logic of managed care, as has now become evident, is to avoid unprofitable patients and/or shift costs back to patients, and thus to provide health care mainly to the healthy and wealthy, belying the idea that the public pays for obesity.

In any case, seeing care for certain groups as an excessive cost reflects an arguably perverse way of thinking about health care in terms of human need. You can see the moral hazard when you apply the same logic to education–for example, arguing that slow learners are a burden to the education system. It also neglects the role that the health care system plays in economy stability. The health care system provides an enormous number of jobs, particularly in labor-intensive primary care. In other words, care for the sick is an economic burden only in health care systems where profit is the bottom line and public services are underfunded and politically unsupported–that is, systems in which only market logic is considered legitimate. Nevertheless, the internalization of this logic helps explain the broad acceptance of the idea that obesity is the biggest economic health problem facing the United States. (54)

Thus, Guthman sees Pollan’s stances on health care as problematic because they play into this idea that health should be largely a matter of personal responsibility. By justifying a shoulder shrug at John Mackey’s opposition to public health care with the assertion that “Whole Foods is often right about food,” Pollan seems to subscribe to the idea that the problem of health care can be largely solved by individual agency. To Guthman, this reasoning is problematic in large part because it is blind to issues of social justice. I’ll write more about Guthman’s arguments about social justice in a subsequent post.

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