by Marion Nestle
Dec 10 2010

Food is political? Indeed it is.

Every now and then, I enjoy answering questions posed by Eating Liberally’s Kerry Trueman.  Here’s one for today.

Let’s Ask Marion: How Did Junk Food and Obesity Become a Red State/Blue State Debate?

(With a click of her mouse, Kerry Trueman, aka kat, corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Feed Your Pet Right, Pet Food Politics, What to Eat, Food Politics, and Safe Food):

kat: The “agri-culture war” that’s long been simmering is coming to a boil now, as recently noted in The Washington Post, The Daily Dish, and elsewhere in the blogosphere.

The Palin/Beck/Limbaugh axis of egos is vigorously defending junk food, lamenting the passage of the food safety bill, and decrying all efforts to address our obesity epidemic, even as David Frum, a rare voice of reason (sometimes) on the right, tells CNN that obesity poses a greater threat to our national security than, say, openly gay soldiers.

You yourself are under fire yet again (sigh) from those uber-astroturfers at the Center For Consumer Freedom for having the audacity to question whether our cherished principle of free speech entitles Big Food to emblazon the labels of its edible food-like substances with Big Lies (i.e. dubious, unproven health claims).

Why do you think that the issues of junk food and obesity have become so incredibly politicized?

Dr. Nestle: Politicized? Of course they are politicized. Junk food and obesity are key indicators of political divisions in our society. For starters, junk food is cheap and obesity is more common among low-income populations. So right away we are into divisive issues of income inequality and class and, therefore, who pays for what and which sectors of society get government handouts.

The minute we start talking about small farms, organic production, local food, and sustainable agriculture, we are really talking about changing our food system to accommodate a broader range of players and to become more democratic. Just think of who wins and who loses if $20 billion in annual agricultural subsidies go to small, organic vegetable producers who are part of their communities rather than to large agricultural producers who do not live anywhere near their corn and soybeans.

The issue at stake is who gets to decide how food is grown and what people eat. For as long as I can remember, big agriculture and big food were in control, in close partnership with congressional agricultural committees and the USDA. Today, the food movement–democracy in action, if you will–is challenging their authority and power. No wonder defenders of the status quo don’t like the challenge. It is only to be expected that they are fighting back.

I see the intensity of the debate (and, alas, the personal attacks) as a clear sign that the movement is making headway. The system is clearly changing. It has to change if we are to address obesity, climate change, and the other unsustainable aspects of our present ways of doing food business.

Anyone who is working to reduce income inequity and to make healthier food available to every American has to expect to encounter the methods corporations always use to fight critics: personal attacks, claims of junk science, invocation of personal responsibility, cooptation, and plenty of behind-the-scenes lobbying.

Telling truth to power has never been popular. But I’m convinced it’s worth doing.

  • I never thought that basketball could be appropriately included on this blog, until now.

    As LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal once famously said: “You go girl!”

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  • Frankie Frantoio

    Yes!You go girl!!! I’m running a Boot Camp with a Health,Exercise, Nutrition and Gardening program for Teenagers with Eating disordered behaviour. I feel like Don Quixote tilting at windmills some days.Two weeks with us and that gun totin”moose shootin’Alaskan Mad Hatter will soon see what she is made of when forced to take the lonliest and hardest trip of a lifetime. We literally save lives and all without a big budget.Some of that 20 billion in ‘Big’ farm subsidy needs to be spent repairing the damage the ‘Fast Food Nation” has inflicted on it’s children .Perhaps we can convince Ms Palin and her cohorts that not everyone is able to go out kill their own food or even have the vaguest idea where food is “made”

  • Suzanne

    Hi Frankie,

    Do you have a website you can hyperlink your name to? What a fascinating concept for a business! Thanks for doing what you do.


  • Anthro

    YES! It is worth doing–and thank you for your role in inspiring the rest of us.

    I love the idea that the movement is making headway for the reasons you state. I am encouraged for the first time in a long time.

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  • Jon

    Yeah, actually, the best examples of this red state/blue state crap re: food are as follows:

    Sarah Palin Yeah, go after Michelle Obama, who has a better approval rating than her husband, let alone you, for trying to make it so we don’t have seven-year-olds with type 2. Of course, given Palin’s tendency toward ridiculous levels of political correctness while at the same time even more ridiculous levels of misandry disguised as feminism, that would probably be something about how it says alot (Her native language is Twit, in which “alot” is a mass noun and not a verb, “refudiate” is a real word, and l33t l1ng0 is proper spelling.), about the men and sellout women giving into (more Twit) the fashion industry’s (note subtle gay-baiting) ideals for the female body. Or something.

    Jonah Goldberg If you don’t drink soda, you’re a Nazi! If you support indigenous rights, you’re a Nazi! Et cetera ad nauseam.

    Glenn Beck I’d like to introduce you to Too Spicy For Yog-Sothoth. Glenn Beck’s citations were too wacko for the John Birch Society.

    There’s also a political trend in dieting: Leftists, genuine leftists (not the faux-leftists of the animal rights movement) tend to be low-carbers (at least since Michael Moore lost 50 pounds by refusing to eat anything labeled “low-fat”) and rightists tend to be low-fatters (possibly because the South contains the soft drink industry). Just a general trend I’ve noticed.

  • Excellent post. I’ll be citing + linking from my blog just to keep the pot stirred. I, personally, am apolitical … but I eat food and I am deeply disturbed at the role politics (the language of power and influence) has on my dinner plate.

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  • interesting idea. Pleased to be here and see this. soybean oil press