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Pollan's latest

(article, Caroline Cummins)

Michael Pollan may have started out as a gardening writer, but these days he's best known as the figurehead for the food-reform movement in America. His latest broadside, a multi-book review in the New York Review of Books, rounds up a batch of recent food-reform books and calls for food activists to take reform to the next level. The article also provides a neat summary of the history of recent food-activist journalism:

bq. Beginning in 2001 with the publication of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, a surprise best-seller, and, the following year, Marion Nestle’s Food Politics, the food journalism of the last decade has succeeded in making clear and telling connections between the methods of industrial food production, agricultural policy, food-borne illness, childhood obesity, the decline of the family meal as an institution, and, notably, the decline of family income beginning in the 1970s. 

Pollan also provides several suggestions for how the food-reform movement — "or perhaps I should say 'movements,' since it is unified as yet by little more than the recognition that industrial food production is in need of reform because its social/environmental/public health/animal welfare/gastronomic costs are too high" — can get beyond the frequent accusations levied at it of elitism. 

Unfortunately, as Janani Balasubramanian's recent anti-Pollan diatribe on the blog Racialicious indicated, elitism (and racism, and sexism, and much else, according to Balasubramanian) is still a problem for the movement:

bq. The food-reform movement is predicated on rather shaky foundations with regards to how it deals with race and other issues of identity, with its focus on a largely white and privileged American dream.

Writing on Salon recently, Anna Clark also upbraided Pollan for his lack of feminist sympathy:

bq. If we're going to talk about who's to blame for our current culture of processed food, why not blame untold generations of men for not getting into the kitchen, especially given Pollan's characterization of the family meal as having a meaningful role in cultivating democracy? If it's so important, why is their absence excusable?

Clark, along with Jezebel's Sadie Stein, also brought up Pollan's controversial New York Times article last summer, which exhorted Americans to get back into the kitchen. But as Stein noted, blaming sexism may be little more than a distraction:

bq. To lump "second-wave feminism" in with the scourge of fast-food and obesity seems not just wrong-headed but serves to distract attention from the actual root causes of these serious issues.

And, as Pollan noted in his books review, the gender-politics picture is always more subtle and complicated than we might assume:

bq. Besides drawing women into the work force, falling wages \[in the 1970s\] made fast food both cheap to produce and a welcome, if not indispensable, option for pinched and harried families. The picture of the food economy Schlosser painted resembles an upside-down version of the social compact sometimes referred to as “Fordism”: instead of paying workers well enough to allow them to buy things like cars, as Henry Ford proposed to do, companies like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s pay their workers so poorly that they can afford only the cheap, low-quality food these companies sell, creating a kind of nonvirtuous circle driving down both wages and the quality of food. The advent of fast food (and cheap food in general) has, in effect, subsidized the decline of family incomes in America.