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.
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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.
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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.