by Marion Nestle
Jul 3 2011

Food Matters: How to shape policy: Advocate! Vote!

My monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle is about how you as an individual can influence food policy:

Q: I know you say “vote with your fork,” and I do, as often as possible, but it seems so small a gesture. In what other ways can we, as consumers, speak out or act to change our food system?

A: Vote with your fork and vote with your vote. Today’s food movement gives you plenty of opportunity to do both.

Voting with your fork means buying and eating according to what you believe is right, at least to the extent you can.

When you vote this way, you support farmers, processors, retailers and restaurant chefs who are working to create a food system that is healthier all around – for the public, farmworkers, farm animals and the planet.

You set an example. You help make it socially acceptable to care about food issues. You make it easier for others to shop at farmers’ markets, join CSAs, grow food at home, stop buying junk food and teach kids to cook.

Part of taking personal responsibility for food choices also means taking social responsibility. When you act, you make it easier for everyone else to do what you do. And yes, one person makes a difference.

My favorite current example is the work of an NYU graduate student, Daniel Bowman Simon, who researches – and advocates for – public policies to promote growing vegetables.

By chance, a food stamp (SNAP) recipient told him that she used the funds to buy plants and seeds to grow her own food. Could this be possible?

Simon found the 1973 food stamp legislation and read the fine print. There it was. He joined others and formed a group to publicize this benefit (see

Today, SNAP recipients throughout the country are encouraged to grow food – not bad for what one person can do.

I particularly like school food as a starter issue for advocacy. Improving school food is nothing less than grassroots democracy in action.

Schools matter because kids are in them all day long and they set a lifetime example. If you have children in school, take a look at what they are eating. Could the food use an upgrade? Start organizing.

All schools are supposed to have wellness policies. Find out what they are and talk to the principal, teachers and parents about how to improve access to healthier food and more physical activity.

Another well-kept secret: The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers technical assistance to help schools meet nutritional standards. The USDA encourages advocacy. It says its work is easier when parents push the schools to do better.

Many groups are devoted to school food issues. Some have published guides to getting started or developing strong wellness policies. They range in focus from hands-on local to national policy.

Other groups are gearing up to advocate for changes in one or another provision of the Farm Bill, now up for renewal in 2012. This legislation governs everything having to do with agricultural policy in the United States – farm subsidies, food assistance programs, conservation, water rights and organic production, among others.

In this era of budget cutting, every stakeholder in this legislation – and this also means everyone interested in creating a healthier food system – will be lobbying fiercely to defend existing benefits and to obtain a larger share of what’s available. Let legislators hear your voice.

And now is an excellent time to identify candidates for office who share your views and are willing to fight hard for them.

The ability for individuals, acting singly and together, to exercise democratic rights as citizens holds much hope for achieving a more equitable balance of power in matters pertaining to food and health.

Join the food movement. Use the system to work for what you think is right. Act alone or join others. You will make a difference.


The following are among the many groups advocating for healthier school food or farm policies [I submitted a much longer list but it got edited out.  I will post the rest of it in the next day or two].

Center for Science in the Public Interest

Community Food Security Coalition

Environmental Working Group

Food and Water Watch

Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

E-mail Marion Nestle at

E-mail questions to, with “Marion Nestle” in the subject line.

This article appeared on page H – 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle


  • Caroline Grannan

    A new resource for parents, educators and advocates who want to work to improve school food:

  • Thanks for the direction you’re giving those of us who want to do more, and know that voting with your dollar isn’t enough when you don’t have a variety of choices to select from.

  • Chelsea

    I voted with my dollar today.

    I purchased and ate a Big Mac with fries, a chocolate shake. Later I purchased a bag of potato chips and a Pepsi. Delicious!

    And, believe it or not, it didn’t kill me! It didn’t even make me obese! You all had me scared, terrified, but you couldn’t be more wrong in your senseless categorical fear of food.

    Tomorrow I’m going to purchase and eat a Whopper value meal. Maybe some corn chips and a sports drink. Bet that won’t kill me either.

    And you know what else? Eating without baseless fear, without guilt is FUN. And the fun didn’t kill me either!! So, you’re wrong about that, too.

    I’m pretty sure you’re wrong about everything you ninnies preach. Just a bunch of puckered up old buzzkills.

  • St. Peter

    Is it Chelsea? or Joe Camel knocking at the door?

  • A group I learned about via Dr Campbell’s Certificate of Plant Based Nutrition is – they have an established curriculum for schools where kids get hands on experience with healthy foods.

  • Chelsea, you are a fine example of the perfect consumer.

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  • Cathy Richards

    Exactly Marion!! We need policy to support individual actions, but policy won’t happen if there’s no indication that individuals want it. We need champions at all levels of the continuum of personal responsibility through to policy.

  • Suzanne_Garrett

    Chelsea Mudd … it runs in the family.

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  • G

    I got an error the first time I posted this…sorry if it show up twice.

    “We need policy to support individual actions” There is a policy for that, it’s called freedom and local policy. Individual schools need to be free to choose individual lunch plans for local schools. If I don’t like it, I can march into my school and demand change. Right now the answer I get is “it’s federally mandated, write your senator”. I’d love for my school to serve up some fresh food to students…the problem is that the only food allowed is what the government says is allowed. The food REQUIRED by the government is, well, not great.

    If my school wants to do something better, all they have to do is brush up NSLP guidelines here and then pop on over to the reimbursement tables here and well…

    Nevermind, we’ll just keep serving them government mandated frozen, pre-fried, canned, powdered, nutritious and safe card board box meals. Why, it’s easy, it’s cheap and it’s certified by the NSLP.

    The idea that this is ONLY a school lunch problem is a joke. Being from San Fran, Ya’ll could just ban soda, chips, candy and anything else that is considered “aiding the epidemic”…call it the “no child overweight” program…you guys love that “policy to support individual actions” stuff. I guess that is so long as individual actions are the actions that your elected and non elected officials see as in your best interests.

    This is a perfect example of how government mandates, federal regulations, and government intervention (although well intended)…just ends up being a bigger problem then the original issue being solved. They take the issue away from people that can actually change something, to people that scream, preach and “advocate” for more mandates and laws.

    People will not be fat WHEN THEY CHOOSE NOT TO BE FAT. No sooner. Let we the parents figure out how to do that…but then again, we’re all idiots.

    Good parent that wants my power back.

  • JudyThomas

    Potato chips and a Pepsi delicious? How about gross? Same with a Whopper value meal- yuck! You can eat a few bad foods here and there. Write us in 10 years and tell us how healthy you are on a daily diet like this, “Chelsea.”

  • JudyThomas

    Hi Good Parent,
    I agree to an extent with what you say- the current food guidelines and laws governing school lunches stink, especially mandates that require school cafeterias to be self-supporting (so they chose the cheapest foods). However, can we really say “People will not be fat WHEN THEY CHOOSE NOT TO BE FAT” in regard to children? Something is causing the obesity crisis and do children really have the same level of individual responsibility and control as adults (especially when their parents do not guide them)? Can children, specifically in the absence of parents who have knowledge and resources, make wise food choices? Especially when they are pandered to through advertising? I am not sure of the answers, but I don’t think this is simply a problem of “individual responsibility.”
    Keep up the good work with your kids!

  • Chelsea

    Yes, potato chips & pepsi and a whopper value meal are all “delicious”. Absolutely.

    20 years of all sorts of eating and counting. No problems. No cause for any silly pucker-butt guilt trip.

    You know what’s “yuck”? Hummus . Now that’s yuck.

    Hummus is like something literally scraped out of the corners of a grocer’s dumpster in New Orleans during July and August. Maggots and all.

    Hummus. Yuck! Not even an acquired taste. Just nasty. Humans aren’t evolved to choke down putrid vegan garbage like that.

  • G

    Yes, it is individual responsibility. Parents ARE responsible for their children, what they learn, what they eat, and everything in between. Is it somehow more noble to remove parental choice from the equation for those parents that some lady in some federal department thinks thought were unfit? To whose standards are they unfit?

    In a free country, like it or not, we can’t legislate our way to good health. We can’t legislate our way to good parenting, good weather, good decision making, good anything. We as individuals and parents…have to choose it and work at it. Yep, sometimes it sucks to watch parents you disagree with raise their kids in a poor fashion, but I’d much rather have that then government deciding what we can and can’t eat, what I can and cant teach my child and what I can and can’t think. I think that the federal government needs to get out of this business all together, and people like you and others on this board need to focus your time and energy fixing what you think is wrong with your local community. As do I.

    The fed’s don’t help…they hinder this process. Communities fix these problems. I don’t know why that is so hard to understand. If a community in some rural town in Oklahoma is failing miserably, under-educating their children, feeding them horrible food and causing an epidemic…THEY need to fix it. Or, if an individual so chooses, find somewhere else to live. Vilifying fast food companies, advertisers, blah blah blah is ignorant. Last time I checked I could order oranges and milk with my apple dunkers at McDonalds. Do I? No, because I like fries and ketchup. That is my choice. I also feed them to my healthy, happy, active kids…lord help me.

    My point is, we all need to stop looking to the federal government to legislate away problems that we refuse to deal with, or see other people refuse to deal with. This is tough when it involves kids, but it’s also a package deal. The alternative is much, much, much, much worse. It’s called bondage…and we’re heading there fast.

    As a side note…our entire country is horribly fat. Kids are what we are. No amount of school lunch tinkering is going to fix that. Individuals, need to fix that.

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  • True California Girl

    Chelsea, let us know how you are doing in about 15 years when you develop heart disease, colon cancer and diabeties. Shame on you to be so ignorant. Really come on now girl!

  • T in Illinois

    I find it really interesting that “Chelsea” is posting here. If you are so happy with your poor eating habits, why are you reading about a movement to educate people about healthy eating? Please don’t be fooled, if you continue to eat the way you claim there will be health consequenses down the road. If you would take the time to study how the human body works on a cellular level you might not be so quick to eat a Whopper or fries. There’s an old saying “You are what you eat” I would rather be a vegetable than a nasty, greasy, over processed hamburger that is filled with preservatives.

  • james perry

    Please go easy on Chelsea. I was her about four years ago. Preaching and acting like the food police from a federal “nanny-state” is not going to change hearts and minds. I had a health scare. This prompted me to make changes and inform myself. It was a long road. I am now a vegetarian progressing towards vegan. Times are tough and some people truly enjoy that fast food meal when there is little to be joyful about right now. In one small sense she’s right, the meal didn’t kill her. At least not right away. She needs to be approached with EMPATHY and KINDNESS. EMPATHY. Repeated for affect. If she’s not in a place where she’s willing to LISTEN, don’t waste your time. She’s still ASLEEP, fluff her pillows, tuck her in and move on(metaphorically.) She is entitled to her opinion and entitled to voice it in this forum. There are plenty of others out there who are starting to wake up. You CAN reach these people. You can be a force to help change, even if its one person at a time. If I can make changes for myself, anyone can.

  • G

    This thread is a bit old, but I thought this was also pertinent.

    Scary stuff folks. What’s next, taking my kids away if I home school? If I choose to athiest? If I have guns in my home?

    If anyone things this is ok…they need to spend a few days reading the lessons of history. I’ll summerize. This. Ends. Badly. Very. Badly.

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