I am not sure who you would say is the father of the food movement. Wendell Berry, perhaps, for long being a voice for sustainable agriculture, as well as a poet who eloquently links agriculture to our culture at large. Or perhaps Michael Pollan for introducing so many to the questions of what’s on our table and what kind of food system are we supporting by buying, cooking and eating certain foods. No doubt Omnivore’s Dilemma captured the attention of many young intellectuals as well as the nation when it came out ten years ago.
Mark Bittman should also stand as one of the founding fathers of the modern food movement. From 1997 to 2011 he wrote The Minimalist, a column in the New York Times sharing a wide variety of recipes all made easy for the home cook. In 2003 he published How to Cook Everything, a wide breadth of recipes and techniques empowering home cooks to branch out and make new foods—from homemade pasta to multifruit soup to crispy skin salmon, to name just a few.
After spending so much time writing about the preparation of food, Mark Bittman then shifted gears and wrote a column about food and agriculture in the New York Times opinion pages for four years—one of the only of columns of its kind. During that tenure he helped change the way many of us think about food by candidly writing about issues in the food system both big and small and capturing our attention with his humor, sarcasm and wit. I was already thinking about how to influence public policy regarding our food system, but reading his article Let’s Make Food Issues Real galvanized me into creating this organization.
As this election comes to a close and we realize, unfortunately, food was not the big topic we had hoped for despite the efforts of Plate of the Union and others, I grow even more committed to growing Eat the Vote into a collection of engaged citizens so vocal that their elected officials cannot ignore good food policy. As a fellow at the Union of Concerned Scientists, one of the key partners of Plate of the Union, Mark Bittman has continued to be a big voice in this effort. However I was dismayed to hear his comments on Mother Jone’s Bite podcast. His comments, I believe, are indicative of why the food movement has not gained the momentum needed to bring about change.
He argues the point recently raised by Michael Pollan that the Obama Administration failed to take on Big Food. Pollan was right in many ways, but he does argue that the administration had a few small victories. Mark Bittman is decidedly more pessimistic. He harps on one example in particular to support this stance:
Removing antibiotics from the routine use and production of animals is something that there's precedent for. It's happened in other countries. It's something the FDA could have done by mandate; it didn't need to go through Congress. And it wasn't done. And I think that was the lowest-hanging fruit imaginable.
To Bittman this wasn’t due to the food movement being weak or disparate, but in his words this was a failure of the Obama administration not doing the right thing. “Do you want to do the right thing, or do you not want to do the right thing? That's the question," He goes on to say food policy under Hillary Clinton would largely be dictated by “where her soul is at”.
I have to completely and utterly disagree with Mr. Bittman here, despite my endless respect for him. Progressives of all stripes, but especially food activists, have to realize just because something is right does not mean it is politically obvious. If we are judging by where someone’s soul is at, then I think it would be hard to argue that the Obamas’ souls were not firmly aligned with the food movement. After all, one of the earliest Barack Obama gaffes was trying (and failing) to connect with everyday Americans by bemoaning the cost of arugula.
So I would argue the “the failure to pass good food policy is not based on where a politician’s soul is”. When I was involved with anti-genocide advocacy, plenty of politicians postured that they cared about mass atrocities against civilians while they legislatively stood idly by. There is plenty of nuance, but there are a few clear examples that doing something like better supporting UN peacekeepers or disinvesting from companies who prop up a genocidal regime would be the right thing over inaction. Unfortunately doing the right thing depended on much more than where a politician’s soul was. Whether or not the right thing was in their souls, it took some nudging from activists to get anything and everything accomplished on genocide prevention and intervention.
Learning from that example, the food movement needs to internalize the need and actualize the practice of building political will. Why would political will be so necessary for politicians to do “the right thing”? I would argue that politics follows the same basic laws that Newton applied to motion:
Politicians trade on political capital. Sometimes that takes the form of political will—the support of a lawmaker’s constituency for a certain position or policy—and other times it takes the form of backscratching. For example if politician A votes for politician B’s bill then B will support A’s amendment. Likewise, if a politician eases off of regulations around antibiotics or corn subsidies, perhaps other programs will receive more support from other politicians, lobbyists and donors.
So how do we, food activists, counteract this backscratching by other politicians and donors? Through greater political will. If in response to Obama citing Michael Pollan the food movement roared with so much excitement that the objections of agribusinesses-funded senators like Charles Grassley were drowned out, then the administration would likely have felt more confident that if they took on Big Ag they could win. In other words, we need to show enough political will (or force) to overcome inertia and ensure good food policies are put in motion and bad food policies are slowed to a halt.
Michael Pollan’s New York Times Magazine is filled with such examples of fights that could have been fought harder and possibly won. The EPA tried for four years to simply count the number of CAFOs, but Big Ag was successful in ending those efforts. Without a strong and vocal food movement there was not nearly enough friction to prevent Big Ag from getting its way. Or take Mark Bittman’s example of antibiotics. With the plague of human antibiotic resistance already festering, public health advocates, organic farmers and good food activists could have mounted a deafening campaign in support of FDA regulations on antibiotic use. Instead of strong regulations, in 2013, the FDA introduced a voluntary program.
So, as much as I respect Mark Bittman, relying on politicians who have good food in their souls is a little too blasé for my taste. I would much rather rally good food activists and allies to ensure politicians know we care about food policy and we will not sit idly by while Big Food continues to corrupt our system. As Ricardo Salvador from Union Concern Scientists puts it: “current food policy: exploit people and nature for agribusiness profit.” We as good food activists have to change that by using our political will to overcome the status quo.
When a politician speaks about the need for policies that support extensive or organic farming, humane treatment of animals or an increase in nutrition programs like SNAP, we, the food movement need to be ready to provide cover for the inevitable onslaught by Big Food and its allies.
If Big Food cronies try to promote laws that support or strengthen the status quo, we need not only to stop those efforts, but vote those cronies out of office.
We are a long way off from having a “food president” where “Stronger Together” is replaced by “Healthier Together” or “Make America Great Again” is replaced by “Make America Food Secure”, but by leveraging political will we can create the momentum that will ensure food is a campaign conversation every politician engages in. Even when lightning strikes and we have politicians with good food in their soul, they can only do the work necessary to changing the food system if we have their backs.
Let’s make sure the next president has a little good food in his or her soul. We need to stop waiting for the right thing happen and instead MAKE the right thing happen.
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