by Marion Nestle
Jun 15 2012

The food politics of…broccoli !

I have a soft spot in my nutritionist’s heart for broccoli. It’s a lovely vegetable when fresh and lightly cooked, and is loaded with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, and all those other good things that nutritionists like me encourage everyone to eat and enjoy.

I expressed some of this fondness for broccoli in a 1997 Commentary in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences with this prescient title: “Broccoli sprouts as inducers of carcinogen-detoxifying enzyme systems: Clinical, dietary, and policy implications.”



In it, I quoted President (#41) Bush’s now famous statement:

I do not like broccoli…And I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I’m President of the United States, and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli!’

Even in the 1990s, broccoli had policy implications.

And now the New York Times has come up with a lengthy front-page investigative report on how broccoli came to be used by conservatives as a metaphor for the role of government in health care reform.

The story begins with a question asked by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.  If the government can require people to buy health insurance, maybe it could force people to buy broccoli: “Everybody has to buy food sooner or later,” he said. “Therefore, you can make people buy broccoli.”

It turns out that broccoli did not spring from the mind of Justice Scalia. The vegetable trail leads backward through conservative media and pundits. Before reaching the Supreme Court, vegetables were cited by a federal judge in Florida with a libertarian streak; in an Internet video financed by libertarian and ultraconservative backers; at a Congressional hearing by a Republican senator; and an op-ed column by David B. Rivkin Jr., a libertarian lawyer whose family emigrated from the former Soviet Union when he was 10.

The Times report is well worth reading, not least as a case study in how conservatives frame issues.  My favorite part is the sidebar on “the broccoli trail.”  Here’s the example from April 2012:

Rush Limbaugh, on his radio program:

“You’re telling me that you want the Supreme Court to decide that the government can tell you that you have to buy health insurance and broccoli?”

In late March, New York Times columnist (and Nobel-prize winning economist) Paul Krugman wrote of “Broccoli and Bad Faith.”

Let’s start with the already famous exchange in which Justice Antonin Scalia compared the purchase of health insurance to the purchase of broccoli, with the implication that if the government can compel you to do the former, it can also compel you to do the latter. That comparison horrified health care experts all across America because health insurance is nothing like broccoli.

Why? When people choose not to buy broccoli, they don’t make broccoli unavailable to those who want it. But when people don’t buy health insurance until they get sick — which is what happens in the absence of a mandate — the resulting worsening of the risk pool makes insurance more expensive, and often unaffordable, for those who remain. As a result, unregulated health insurance basically doesn’t work, and never has.

Maybe the best we can do with all this is to eat our broccoli and hope that it keeps us out of the health care system.

  • Thanks to broccoli and other foods that taste great and have health benefits your closing statement is a truism for me.

    After watching Loudon Wainright (now 65) sing the hysterical song “My Meds”, I decided to obtain the website:

    The song is available at No Aches, No Pains, No Meds, No Docs.

    Ken Leebow

    P.S. Enjoyed reading your latest book! Thanks.

  • Aaron

    I like that broccoli is being vilified while its popularity is increasing amongst Americans, as highlighted in this piece by Sarah Kliff of the Washington Post.

  • Who knew broccoli had such a stigma? I’ve never heard the quote from President Bush, but not surprised.

    Fortunately my kids & husband all love broccoli, so with some deliberate behavior on our part & lots of cruciferous veggies on our side, me & my family will do our best to, stay out of the health care system 🙂

  • In Sept. 1995, TX Gov. Geo. W. Bush ushered in a Law saying: It is illegal to “disparage” a perishable food product in TX. Erroneously aka, “Veggie Disparagement” Act. His Dad would’ve been in violation! It wasn’t just about veggies like broccoli! Oprah was sued in TX under that Law! On my radio talkshow in Dallas, callers were letting me know they hated the new Stealth Law. Our program listeners alone generated over 6,000 calls to Austin. An unphased Geo. W. liked it – so it’s now the new law-of-the-land in TX and a few other states. Check it out. We love you, Marion Nestle! Keep reporting injustice as you see it. Respectfully — Mary Nash Stoddard/author toxicology sourcebook, Deadly Deception Story of Aspartame

  • Emma

    I really want some of my specialty, roasted broccoli now. I’m a little sad for the broc-haters out there.

  • So don’t force people to do something they don’t want to do unless we can justify in our minds why we we should be allowed to force someone to do what they don’t want to do?

    What ever happened to individual liberty?

  • brad

    The government requires you to stop your car at a red light even though nobody likes to stop at red lights because it means it’ll take them longer to get to their destination. Nobody seems to complain about it, though. Maybe we should just do away with all the traffic lights in America so people can exercise their right to individual liberty. Sure, millions of people will suffer horrible injuries, and millions of people will die, but at least we’ll all have the freedom to choose whether to slow down at intersections instead of being told to do so by the government.

  • karel

    I like broccoli *and* health care reform so I must be a hippie *and* a communist. But, come to think of it — Why should I pay for the person who doesn’t eat their broccoli — they’re just driving up my health care costs !!!!

  • Joe

    Mayor Bloomberg being interviewed recently said if it isn’t the role of government to keep its citizens healthy then I I don’t know what the role of government is. That statement demonstrates a stunning lack of understanding of the role of government.

    Sure government is necessary for certain things and no one is advocating anarchy. What is at the heart of the healthcare issue has become freedom rather than health.

    Our government through its various health related agencies has become the clearing house for all things health. Government can declare that a problem exists then it is able to prescribe what is the solution to the problem is. The problem with this is that too often this process is never properly questioned and as such erroneous ideas catch hold in the mainstream.

    The latest example is the Affordable Healthcare Act. It is implied that just because everyone will have insurance they will majically be healthier, will happily eat fruits and vegetables and the world will be in harmony. But good intentions do not ensure good outcomes.

    In the end people are going to be as healthy as they want to be and no amount of government spending or meddling will change that.

  • sarah

    Joe, you seem to claim to have some knowledge of ‘govment’ that regular folks like me aren’t allowed to have. You are an elitist. What I know is that in order for our country, and for insurance for that matter, to work, is that everyone has gotta do their part, that means paying into the pool. When one person is sick, another is healthy and and when you’re healthy, another is sick. That’s how we drive down costs. There’s no magic bullet there — Good intentions, Joe? — No, just good common sense. Thanks for listening.

  • FarmerJane

    At this point, living in the Northeast, I avoid store bought broccoli since most of it is produced by large scale growers in Arizona and California. About $700,000,000 of broccoli is hauled in by the national supply chain to the east, arriving on our mega stores shelves 10 days later. I’m looking forward to progress on Eastern grown broccoli. USDA is investing $3.2 million in developing field trials, growing technologies for eastern farmers from Florida to Maine. This will be coupled with $1.7 million in private sector investment, working with a variety of sizes of growers and growth/storage/transport/marketing technologies. Regional growing differences from mountain grown areas (hill country) to flatlands growing will be looked at and hopefully new broccoli hubs and transport techniques appropriate for the easts smaller scale growers will be developed. Also, the store bought broccoli tastes nothing like what I can get at farmers markets or the heritage types of broccolis. Power to the future of Eastern Broccoli and the family farmers who would like to grow it for you in New York.

  • Broccoli is undoubtedly getting fame in US. I can say that it’s a precious gift of nature which is serving good health to the people.

  • FarmerJane

    Online Expert, yes, if you like the food miles involved to haul it across the nation to to NYC, eat up!

  • Michael Bulger

    When Dr. Nestle first posted this piece, I went to my kitchen and retrieved something to eat while I read. That something was delicious, locally-grown broccoli that I had bought at a farmers’ market here in NYC.

  • FarmerJane

    I would like to see the politics of broccoli encompass a multi-disciplinary approach that includes all of the stakeholders. So often, nutritionists speak about food as if it simply materializes from “somewhere”. The politics of every single food product involves us, the farmers, our regional resources, infrastructure available, research, etc. The Eastern Broccoli Project is a collaborative approach between several universities, including South Carolina’s Clemsen, NY’s Cornell and NC State in addition to some private sector companies and numerous farmers eager to participate in feeding the east coast and making some money to support their farms. If east coast consumers are ready to look for broccoli grown in their region for the sake of food security, fresher food grown closer, lower food miles, more money into farms of the east, then the stars of broccoli may just be coming into perfect alignment.

  • Localfoods

    Suburban lawns are such a waste of water and resource. Why not use these spaces to grow gardens. Why not harvest broccoli in your front lawn or rooftop?

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  • Timmo

    Actually your logic is faulty if you look at what statistics show, they show that uncontrolled intersections can actually prevent accidents because they change the way people drive and respond to them. I believe what Joe is trying to point out is the government role isn’t to dictate how you should live your life but allow people to enjoy the maximum amount of freedom by ensuring that one persons freedom isn’t usurped by another person.

  • Timmo

    In your analogy you seem to miss the important fact of supply and demand. If most people didn’t want to eat broccoli it would also get more expensive as more broccoli farmers switched to other crops that were in demand. So by your analogy not only broccoli get more expensive it would also be harder to find and purchase. Which is contrary to what you were trying to point out.