May 24 2013

Weekend viewing: A food politics story for kids—Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory

I’ve been waiting for the weekend to write about the kids’ story by Bettina Elias Siegel, the school food advocate who writes The Lunch Tray blog  (and who put “pink slime” on the map).

Her video story—in rhyme yet—is titled Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory: A Tale of Processed Food and is worth the 12 minutes it takes to watch it (try it out on your kids!).

I wondered about the back story: how did she come to write it, who did the illustrations, how did she put it together?    Fortunately, Dana Woldow, also a long time food advocate, has just posted an interview with Ms. Siegel on just those points (the interview starts about half way down the post).  Ms. Siegel says:

If kids could see more clearly how the processed food, fast food and soda industries are earning profits at the expense of their health, I do think they might grow resistant to those industries’ marketing tactics. That was the idea behind Mr. Zee and his apples.

The interview explains the details of how the story got written, illustrated, and posted.

Ms. Woldow’s column concludes:

Of course, not everyone has the equipment, the confidence, or the patience to make their own video, but anyone can use social media. Watch Bettina’s video (with your children, if you have any), and if you like it, share it with your friends. It won’t undo all the marketing that Big Food does to kids, but it’s a start.

Try it out on your kids.  What do they think of it?

Apr 29 2013

Happy 5th Birthday: Pew Commission

Five years ago today, The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production released its report: Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America.

I was a member of the commission, put together by Pew  Charitable Trusts in partnership with the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, and chaired by John Carlin, a former governor of Kansas.

The commission met for two years to investigate the effects of the current system of intensive animal production on public health, the environment, the communities housing confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and on the welfare of farm animals.

As a member, I had the opportunity to visit huge dairy farms, feedlots, pig farms, and facilities housing 1.2 million chickens.  This was, to say the least, quite an education.

The big issues? Overuse of antibiotics and the shocking environmental impact of vast amounts of animal waste.

The big surprise? Plenty of adequate laws exist to protect the environment and communities; they just aren’t being enforced.

A New York Times editorial noted that farm policies have turned “animal husbandry…into animal abuse,” and need rethinking and revision.

Indeed they did and do. 

As with all such reports, this one made too many recommendations but the most important ones had to do with the inappropriate use of antibiotics in farm animal production:

Restrict the use of antimicrobials in food animal production to reduce the risk of antimicrobial resistance to medically important antibiotics.

Another key recommendation:

Fully enforce current federal and state environmental exposure regulations and legislation, and increase monitoring  of the possible public health effects of IFAP [industrial farm animal production] on people who live and work in or near these operations.

And my sentimental favorite:

Create a Food Safety Administration that combines the food inspection and safety responsibilities of the federal government, USDA, FDA, EPA, and other federal agencies into one agency to improve the safety of the US food supply.

What good do reports like this do?

The report established a strong research basis for the need for policies to clean up industrial farm animal production and better protect the health and welfare of everyone and everything involved: workers, communities, the environment, and the animals themselves.

This is a good time to take another look at the report and consider how its basic—and absolutely necessary—recommendations can be put in place, and the sooner the better.

Apr 17 2013

Michael Pollan’s “Cooked” and Appraisals by food academics

Michael Pollan’s Cooked comes out April 23 but the New York Times jumped the gun and reviewed it yesterday.   I can’t wait for the copy I ordered to arrive so I can read it for myself.

cooked-cover

Whenever the book comes, this seems like a good time to post Geoffrey Cannon’s interviews with some of Pollan’s academic foodie fans (including me) about how we assess his work.  These appraisals are now posted in World Nutrition, the online journal of the World Public Health Nutrition Association.

cover april 2013

Geoffrey Cannon: When did you come across Michael Pollan?

I had been reading Michael Pollan’s articles in the New York Times Magazine with admiration, to say the least, so when he invited me to participate in a food conference he was running at Berkeley in the fall of 2002, soon after he arrived to teach there, I was looking forward to meeting him. The conference was splendid. It brought together a huge number of journalists, academics, filmmakers, and government and industry officials. The speakers were glittery. Alice Waters did the catering. The side trips were to a farm in Bolinas and an olive orchard in Sonoma run by the owners of the San Francisco Chronicle (they had sketches by Wayne Thibaud tacked to the bathroom walls). Sometime after that, I spoke in one of his classes. But the first meeting I remember in detail must have been in about 2004. I asked for his advice about the book I was working on at the time, which later became What to Eat.

What impressed you at that time?

We met for lunch at Chez Panisse, where he was clearly a regular (I was still having trouble getting a reservation). I wanted his advice about how to write for a general audience. He said he wasn’t the right person to ask, because he didn’t write as an expert. His starting point in developing books was from lack of expertise. As he learned, he brought readers along with him. This turned out to be hugely helpful.

I got to know him better in the spring of 2006 when I taught at Berkeley in a complicated arrangement between three schools. I was paid by public policy, had an office in public health, but journalism – meaning Michael – ran the life support. The following spring I went back to Berkeley to teach a course in science journalism in his program. We did some speaking gigs together.

Rate his work and impact

Obviously, I think he is terrific but I have to do full disclosure. He just wrote the splendid foreword to the tenth anniversary edition of Food Politics. I’ll just say this: lots of people in the US have been working on the food movement for decades, but his work reaches so large and so passionate an audience that he has to be given much of the credit for its expansion.

Quote one of his sayings that stays with you

In What to Eat, I said dietary principles were simple: eat less, move more, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, don’t eat too much junk food. Pollan says: Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much. Oh to be able to write like that.

 Give an example of where he has made a difference

Students read his work and want to act. Our NYU programs in food studies are filled with people who read Pollan and want to do something to make the food system healthier and better for the planet.

Has his work changed your thinking and if so, how?

I don’t think I ever understood the importance of meat animals in balanced ecological systems to the extent that I now do. The idea of the omnivore’s dilemma is mind-changing on its own. I like it because it is so inclusive of different ways of eating and enjoying food. And I can’t wait to read Cooked.

Does his work have relevance outside the USA?

People outside the US are going to have to answer this one but of course it does. Food systems are global. How we in America eat affects the food systems of countries everywhere else and, to some extent, vice versa.

In what ways if any do you think he is mistaken?

I’m of the belief that although health very much depends on what you eat, body weight depends on how much you eat no matter where the calories come from (one of the theses of my new book Why Calories Count). We argue about this all the time. Eventually, the science will get to the point where this gets resolved one way or the other. In the meantime, it’s fun to debate.

Reference: Gussow J, Kirschenmann F, Uauy R, Schell O, Nestle M, Popkin B, Cannon G, Monteiro C. The American genius. [Appraisals].  World Nutrition 2013;4:150-170.  My answers to Geoffrey Cannon’s questions start on page 161.

Addition, May 1.  World Nutrition has published a second set of Appraisals, with some commentary.

Apr 16 2013

Happy publication day: Farmacology

At your local bookstore now:

Daphne Miller, MD.  Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing.  William Morrow, 2013

 

I blurbed it:

Farmacology is an eloquent call for better systems of sustainable agriculture and humanistic health care.  In linking the two, Dr. Miller brings a physician’s critical eye and understanding to this lovely, touching, and sometimes quite funny account of what she learned about taking care of patients from visits to farmers who view growing food as part of an self-sustaining, integrated, natural cycle.  Her insight: both soil and people do better when treated as complex systems, not fragments.  This is a fresh, original, and utterly charming book that belongs on the shelves of everyone who loves food or thinks about health care.

Dr. Miller provides a link to a page on her website with more information on the book, reviews and her “official” Farmacology slide show.

Enjoy!

Mar 14 2013

Food safety problems can happen anywhere, even Noma

I was interested to read in Food Safety News last week that Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant ranked as the world’s best, was the site of a norovirus outbreak that affected a large proportion of its customers.  

I tweeted something about this and was contacted immediately by Lisa Abend to correct errors in the story.  Her careful, highly detailed account in Time describes what happened and why. 

Noma immediately issued its own explanation, notable for providing much information beyond the usual “we regret.”

Since receiving the news, we have been working closely with The Danish Veterinary and Food Administration to find the source of the problem. As a result of our collaboration, we have determined the most likely cause of illness was Norovirus, which may have been brought in by a member of staff, who was symptom-free.

Noma even made the health inspector’s report easily available.

Did it lose customers over this incident?  Hardly.

I’ve not been to Noma, but I would love the chance to eat there.

The short-term lessons here are worth noting:

  • Transparency helps.
  • Cooperating with health authorities helps.
  • Fixing the problem helps. 

The long-term lessons are also worth pondering:

  • Food safety problems can happen anywhere.
  • Food safety has to be a priority for any place that makes or serves food.
  • Make sure employees wash hands frequently.
  • Pay employees to stay home while sick.
  • Make sure employees have health care coverage.

Without these actions, even people eating at expensive restaurants are at risk of norovirus and worse.

Mar 8 2013

Happy Birthday, Food Politics!

Food Politics is celebrating a birthday this year with the publication of a tenth anniversary edition in May.  Today is actually its eleventh birthday.  My department celebrated the occasion with a birthday cake!

Aug 15 2012

Happy 100th birthday Julia Child

Julia Child did not like nutritionists.

She thought our interest in nutritional values (“nutritionism”) had ruined the pleasure and cultural meaning of food.

In 1991, the food writer and cookbook author Nancy Harmon Jenkins, had the thrilling (if overly optimistic) idea that if Julia met me, she would change her mind about nutritionists.  Nancy arranged to host a dinner party to introduce us.

But woe.  Nancy fell and broke her foot.

Julia would do the dinner.  In her Cambridge kitchen!

I wish I could say that the evening was a great success but it did not go well.  Julia did sign my copy of Mastering, but grudgingly (even though it had been so well used that it was falling apart).

Later, after my NYU department introduced our academic programs in Food Studies—so clearly inspired by her work—she relented.

I have a handful of treasured cards and letters from her.  Here’s one:

I miss her.

As does everyone else:

Jul 20 2012

SNAP to Health: A Fresh Approach to Strengthening SNAP

I’m on the advisory committee for SNAP to Health, a project of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, chaired by Dr. Susan Blumenthal.

The Commission released its report on Wednesday in Washington DC at a congressional briefing at which I (and several others) spoke.

The report, Snap to Health, is online at this link.  Its recommendations are here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The major points made at the briefing:

  • SNAP funding must be preserved; the program is a lifeline for 46 million Americans, half of them children.
  • SNAP, as Rep. Ron Wyden (Dem-OR) put it, “is a conveyor belt for calories.”  It would be better if the calories came from healthier foods.
  • The prevalence of obesity is high among low-income Americans and some evidence suggests that rates may be higher among SNAP participants.
  • Buying healthier foods with SNAP benefits is not easy.  There are problems with access, cost, and relentless marketing of junk foods to low-income groups in general and to EBT users in particular.

As I discussed in my remarks (which are also supposed to be posted on SnapToHealth.org soon), food companies and retailers specifically target marketing efforts to low-income groups and to SNAP participants.  No such efforts market healthier foods to EBT users.

Michele Simon’s recent report documents the extensive lobbying efforts of food companies to make sure that SNAP recipients can use EBT cards to buy their products.

The Snap to Health report is meant to start a national conversation about helping this program to address twenty-first century health challenges.

Let the conversation begin!

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