Viewpoint: The New Food Police Are Out of Touch

The agenda of Michael Pollan and his ilk is far removed from the needs and concerns of everyday Americans

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Correction Appended: May 6, 2013

Many people who do not work in the food industry get their information about agriculture, directly or indirectly, from a small handful of food-culture movers and shakers like the journalists Michael Pollan and Michael Moss, the restaurateur Alice Waters or the cookbook author and food writer Mark Bittman. Their writings have graced the pages of the New York Times and topped the charts of the best-seller lists, they’ve made appearances on Oprah and Dr. Oz, and increasingly they have the ears of politicians.

We can be thankful that these folks have reminded us of the joys of cooking, of fresh food, and the long-term health of our families and the environment. The resurgence of farmers’ markets and the availability of heirloom tomatoes, free-range eggs and organics owe at least some of their success to the food movement they’ve backed.

(MORE: The Hypocrisy of Foodies: Restaurant-Worker Abuse)

But somewhere along the way, the values of convenience and thrift took a backseat. In his new book, Cooked, Pollan says that we should head back to the kitchen and reclaim “cooking as an act of enjoyment and self-reliance, learning to perform the magic of these everyday transformations.” Yes, cooking can be virtuous and fun. But, it can also be drudgery for a mother and father working full-time with hungry mouths to feed. The data reveal that in the 1960s, a housewife spent more than two hours each day in meal-related cooking and cleaning, but by the 1990s, the time spent on these chores was cut in half. Innovations in food technology and processing have made life much easier, and it is one of the reasons many women today can seek work and fulfillment outside the home.

Then there is the cost of food. In 2011, Bittman wrote that the prices of many foods are “unjustifiably low.” But almost 15% of U.S. households are food insecure, which means many households have trouble affording enough food to eat. At the same time, a near record number of Americans are today on food stamps — more than 1 in 7 — and enrollment in the program has increased 70% since 2008. It is all fine and good if you can pay more for local, organic asparagus, but we shouldn’t forget that there are those who face more pressing matters in life. (This is especially true considering the fact that food consumers are already paying much more for food; over the past decade, in the U.S., the food and beverage component of the Consumer Price Index has risen more than 29%, and the U.N. world food-price index has increased more than 200%.) Since the U.S. is the world’s largest exporter of agricultural commodities, the food choices we make have direct implications for the prices paid by some of the world’s hungriest.

(MORE: What’s Your Wheat Problem?)

In just one example of how the agenda of the new food police is out of touch with the needs and concerns of everyday Americans, the New York Times recently ran a story following Pollan and Moss into a supermarket to buy the ingredients to make “a tasty, reasonably healthy lunch.” The irony of asking two members of the food elite to do what most of us do on a daily basis was apparently lost on the article’s author. The historian and food writer Rachel Laudan remarked on her blog, “Making a simple trip to the grocery store and the preparation of a meal for two seem so difficult and dangerous hardly seems the way to persuade people that home cooking is the way to get healthy, tasty, virtuous food. If this is the food movement, it appears to be in reverse.”

It’s not just our own kitchens that they want to transform. Pollan wants to force schools and hospitals to source a portion of their food locally, and he supported New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ban on large-size sodas. Waters wants to mandate labels for genetically modified foods and to turn school yards into gardens (but only if they’re organic). Bittman wants to tax foods he considers “unhealthy” and subsidize “staple foods like seasonal greens, vegetables, whole grains, dried legumes and fruit.” Moss claims, “Everyone is convinced that the government subsidies that support processed food need to be shifted over in some way to fresh fruits and vegetables.”

However, the best economic research reveals these policies to be costly and ineffectual. Fat taxes will have only small effects on weight but will suck money out of the wallets of those who can least afford to pay. GMO restrictions will likely make farmers less profitable, increase the price of food for consumers and increase insecticide use. One recent study published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics found that vegetable subsidies will have minuscule effects on the obesity problem and will, if anything, increase average body weight.

If one is looking for good advice on how to eat and cook well, the food elite have a lot to offer. The trouble comes when their pronouncements take the form of dictates and regulation that we all must heed regardless of our tastes, incomes or time constraints, and when they deviate from telling good stories and divining tasty recipes to projecting the medical and economic consequences of federal food policy that impacts us all.

An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of chef Alice Waters.

14 comments
SMW
SMW

uh, I believe a lot of the "food elite" also suggest you grow your own crops -- and you can whether you have a lot of land or no land!!

MLG
MLG

Obviously if one is on a tight budget, one is not browsing the aisle for organic asparagus. There are other greens, after all. Choosing real and minimally processed food is always less expensive. It simply is. All that packaging and chemistry costs dearly. Since cutting the vast majority of processed food from the pantry, our monthly grocery bill has dropped about 40% even while adding more organic products to the cart, and we all lost weight, too, for bonus points.

And we don't spend hours in the kitchen. At the most we spend 10 to 15 minutes preparing each meal (including clean-up), hardly a time buster. The writer of this story is being as extreme as the writers he's whining about.

Shlg2
Shlg2

I would add that it is much easier to get articles commissioned if they are about using fresh seasonal produce from farmers' markets etc - this is redolent of Julia Childs and constitutes the new food porn. Extolling the nutritional merits of basic processed and convenience foods is infinitely less sexy to an editor. Hence the rise of the food police, or 'nutritionati'.

Shlg2
Shlg2

Dewey, I have, over here in the UK. I set up a blog called Austerity Housekeeping with free menus and recipes, including a 'crisis diet' where people can feed a family for something around $50 a week with practical and cheap food that's easy to buy. The problem is so many have lost the art of cheap and quick family cooking that there is a serious need for home management reskilling, which is something schools could help with. We all need to spread the word about this.

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

What I see as the "problem" here is that people are inherently stupid.  Who CARES what the "food police" demand?  Who gives a rip about "successful professionals" when their advice applies to so few?

Stupid, easily impressed, and impressionable people, that's who.  People who have a clue will easily figure out that most of what the food fanatics talk and write about are for the pretentious and financially advantaged.  I've yet to find one of them who can write about well balanced meals combined with gustatory delights while on a budget that isn't somewhere north of $500.00 a month per person.

Not one.

When these folks start writing about meals that don't take a million years (or hours) to prepare, that are nutritious, taste good and fit the budget of someone on food stamps, let me know.  Until then, I'm not going to pay enough attention to them to care.

roknsteve
roknsteve

The "Food Police" need to be arrested for reckless lip flapping.

MissPriss1948
MissPriss1948

Just as "several of the links ..."  is proper usage, so by the same token  "a couple things..." is not proper English usage.  You still need a preposition, in this case 'of,' as in "a couple of things."  We should never rely on television weathermen for our grammar instruction. Also, some proofreading before the article goes to print, rather than after, would be good.

On a more substantive note,  the people you describe as "the food police" are professionals who have been quite successful in their respective fields, each over a period of many years.  They offer opinions and suggestions based on their professional educations and experience, and they are qualified to do that.  They are offering their own viewpoints and opinions, but  no one is obliged to follow their advice or to agree with what they have to say;  they aren't carrying guns, after all.  The reader is perfectly at liberty to ignore their opinions, right?

MissPriss1948
MissPriss1948

I didn't bother to read beyond the second paragraph of this article because of the misspelled name  (It's Alice Waters-- look it up), and the misapplied words:  "Their writings have donned the pages of the New York Times" means that the writings have put on the pages of the Times, in the manner that one would 'don,' or put on a coat.  And what on earth does this apparently random collection of words mean:  "...when they deviate telling good stories and divining  tasty recipes..."  Good grief man, put down that thesaurus, and get some prepositions!

 Ignorant writing is useful only to reveal the writer's ignorance of his or her craft, and renders the content as untrustworthy as the article's grammar.  Also makes me wonder what is going on at Time-- Are all the editors and proofreaders on vacation somewhere far away?

johnwilliamlowe1
johnwilliamlowe1

From my point of view, Dr. Lusk ought to avoid name calling.  The use of the phrase "food Police" to describe highly intelligent journalists who have clearly done their research is simply ignorant and dishonest.  More likely it is the case that the FDA, Department of Agriculture, and esteemed members of academia have sold out to Big Business. 

dank111
dank111

@MissPriss1948 

I am fine with them expressing opinions.  I start having issues when they try and get legislation passed to increase the price of food. 


The Government does carry guns and will use them to enforce laws.




Beautifulfarms
Beautifulfarms

The term "food police" ain't nuthin' compared to the names I have been called as a farmer when I have commented on some food types of blogs. I have also been threatened, mocked and put down when I have attempted to give my view as a rural NY dairy farmer. Mark Bittman has gone full tilt against dairy farmers telling consumers our products are no good. Rural NY is a land of thousands of beautiful dairy farms.