Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jun 1 2017

Tenth anniversary: Why I keep doing foodpolitics.com

This is foodpolitics.com’s tenth anniversary week.  Welcome to post #3189.

Today, some reflections, in the form of a self-interview:

What do you do on foodpolitics.com?

My current habit is to post just once a day during the week (with occasional lapses).  On Fridays I usually post something about a recent book or report under the heading of weekend reading.  I also use the site to post information about my books, upcoming presentations, and media interviews.

How did you get started?

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, the publisher Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (FSG) established the site to see if it would help publicize What to Eat.  I had promised to use the site for a few months before deciding whether to continue.  In the beginning, blogging felt awkward and it took a few months for me to find my voice and get comfortable with it.

What does it do for you?

I could see right away that the site would be really useful, in these ways:

  • An online file cabinet:  I could link to sources for whatever I was writing about, a process much easier than downloading things to paper and letting them pile up to file.
  • Links to original documents and sources: It lets me put my hands on key documents right away.  Sometimes it’s the only place to find certain documents online.
  • Tracing back history: WordPress has an excellent search engine, so it is easy to find posts on specific topics, which it gathers one right after another.
  • Information for reporters: They can see what I say and don’t have to call me.
  • Incentive to keep up: If something interesting is happening and I want to blog about it, I am going to have to dig into it right away.
  • Part of my university’s community service requirement: As faculty, I am supposed to teach, do research, and perform community service.  This goes under that heading.
  • A gift to students: If students are writing papers about food politics topics and need help getting started, I can refer them to the site.
  • My private rant: It’s a platform to say what I think about current events.

You must have to spend a lot of time on it?

Not nearly as much as I worried it might.  I work on it in at odd moments.  Just within the last year, I discovered that posts can be scheduled.  If I know I have a busy week coming up, I can do them in advance; sometimes I do the whole week over a weekend.

How do you know what to write about?

Food politics is a full-employment act.  There is always something.  I subscribe to a dozen or so daily newsfeeds.  Choice is a bigger problem.  Because I only post once a day, I pick the topic I find most interesting, outrageous, or funny.

How do you handle comments?

When I started the blog, I thought I would be engaging in ongoing conversations with readers.  I liked that until the “trolling” started.  One (or possibly more) anonymous writers, using false email addresses and IP addresses traced to a spam site, posted highly unpleasant personal comments about my age, looks, ethnicity, and opinions—several times a day—and tried to organize a campaign to get NYU to fire me.

Readers complained about the nastiness, and I finally asked my New Zealand web managers for help.  Now if you want to post a comment, you have to register with a real email address.  That put a stop to the trolling (good) but also to most of the comments (alas).  If I say something about GMOs, readers argue endlessly with each other, but that’s about it for comments.

Is the blog useful to anyone else?

I certainly hope so.  I tried hard to talk about issues in a way that is clear to readers—especially students—who want short summaries of current topics, an opinion about them, and might want to look at older posts as background.

Who reads it?

I don’t really know.  the statistics say it has a small readership of just a couple of thousand a day, but the posts go out over Twitter (@marionnestle) and Facebook too.

I do hear from some of you when I make mistakes or say something you don’t like, and I occasionally meet readers at conferences, which is always a pleasure.  People actually read it!

How long will you keep doing this?

I haven’t really thought about it.  It’s become a habit, an easy one follow, and one I enjoy.  And I’ve been inspired by the appreciative comments I’ve been getting this week.

Thanks to all of you who sent them in, whoever and wherever you are.

And now,  back to food politics.

May 31 2017

This blog’s 10th anniversary week: how it started

I’m celebrating this blog’s 10th anniversary this week.  I started it on May 29, 2007.

I thought this would be a good time to look back on how I got into all this.

When Food Politics first came out in 2002, I started a Website—not a blog—called foodpolitics.com.   It had information about the book and a few other things but it was hard to use and I mostly ignored it.

Then in 2006, Farrar Strauss & Giroux (FSG) published my book What to Eat.  While FSG was getting ready to issue the paperback, its marketing people asked if I would be willing to be a social media guinea pig.  They were interested in using the Web to connect with customers.  They asked me to start a blog to help publicize the book.

I was dubious.  For one thing, I am electronically challenged.  For another, I was really worried about the amount of time something like this might eat up.

But FSG offered to pay for building the Website, and asked only that I try it for a few months.  That seemed like too generous a deal to pass up, so I said OK.

The Web designers—Cre8d in Auckland, New Zealand of all places—finished the site in April 2007.

Foodpolitics.com was already taken as a domain name, and so was whattoeat.com.  That left us with the awkward domain name: whattoeatbook.com.  But I thought it looked great.  Here’s a June 2007 screen capture from the Web archive.

I did some beta-testing that April, mostly posting excerpts from What to Eat, and launched the site officially with the post I reproduced yesterday.  

For a year and half, from May 29, 2007 through January 20, 2009 I posted more or less regularly on whattoeatbook.com.

But by then I had another book in the works (Pet Food Politics) and could barely keep up with one website, let alone two.

In January 2009, the Cre8d folks, Rachel Cunliffe and Stephen Merriman, moved the domain name, foodpolitics.com, into WordPress, and merged the content of the former foodpolitics.com site with everything that was now on whattoeatbook.com onto the new foodpolitics.com site.

I’ve used foodpolitics.com ever since.  This is post #3188.

Tomorrow: why I’ve stuck with this so long.

May 30 2017

FoodPolitics.com’s Tenth Anniversary week: a reprise

Yesterday marked the tenth anniversary of this blog.I officially launched it on May 29, 2007 with a post about the food movement.

Here is a reprise of that first post:

At last, this site begins

I have been on sabbatical from NYU this semester and am just back from weeks of travel on the west coast to give talks about any number of the food issues I discuss in What to Eat. Everywhere I go, I see how the issues are converging on food as a new social movement. This movement is not organized in any visible way and is composed of many separate movements that have developed independently, among them:

  • The good, clean, fair food movement
  • The Slow Food movement
  • The farm animal welfare movement
  • The community food security movement
  • The organic foods movement
  • The locally grown food movement
  • The anti-marketing-foods-to kids movement, and
  • The school food movement

Separately and together, these movements aim to make all aspects of our food system—from production to consumption–healthier for people and the planet. They derive from the best aspects of the long tradition of American grassroots democracy–of the people, by the people, for the people.

I always try to leave time for questions after my talks, and people often ask me what they could read to learn more about the food movement(s). As it happens, I recently wrote an answer to that question for Publishers Weekly, but the folks there chose not to use it. So here it is.

Three Books That Made a (Food) Revolution*

Once upon a time, most people considered food too common—too quotidian–to be taken seriously as a field of study, let alone as an agent of social change. University departments routinely dissuaded doctoral students and untenured colleagues from wasting time on anything that seemed so trivial as the role of food in culture or commerce. Yes, The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s muckraking account of the horrors of the Chicago stockyards, spurred the U.S. government to pass food safety laws, but that book was published in 1906 and even though it has been in print ever since, seems like ancient history. A century later, hardly anyone could imagine that books about food would spark a social movement.

But they have. Three books from quite separate genres—cookery, scholarship, and journalism—created a revolution in the way Americans consume, think about, and produce food. These books catapulted food into the mainstream of modern culture and advocacy for social change, and opened doors for scholars as well as journalists to write about the political, commercial, and health aspects of food in modern society. All three of these books were best sellers in their respective fields, still do well, and are widely read and used.

My vote for book #1 goes to Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Knopf, 1961). This book thoroughly overturned my generation’s ideas about food. My own treasured copy is yellowed and spattered from early experiments with bouillabaisse (pretty terrific), soufflés (tricky but worth it) and Hollandaise (never mind). As Laura Shapiro makes clear in her splendid new Julia Child (Penguin Lives series, Viking, 2007), Mastering was a monumental work of research that transformed the entire cookbook genre from being considered “mere” to taking its place as a respected cultural indicator worthy of scholarly investigation and careful preservation. My institution, New York University, now houses more than 20,000 cookbooks and other books about food in its Fales Special Collections Library, where any researcher can peruse them by appointment.

But Mastering was revolutionary in another way. It made American cooks realize how disadvantaged they were when it came to obtaining foods of the quality available in France. Enter, Alice Waters. Her insistence on using nothing but fresh, seasonal ingredients in her Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse exposed the inability of our industrialized agricultural system to provide food of the quality she demanded. That how food is produced determines how food tastes on the table is the central theme of the Chez Panisse cookbooks. It also is the rationale for contemporary accounts of the Alice Waters phenomenon such as David Kamp’sThe United States of Arugula (Broadway, 2006) and Thomas McNamee’s Alice Waters and Chez Panisse (Penguin, 2007).

Book #2 is Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (Viking, 1985). This book laid the groundwork for the new academic field of Food Studies. Mintz, an anthropologist, used the cultural history of sugar as an entry point into the analysis of social problems such as the plight of the working classes during the industrial revolution and the development of slavery as an institution. By linking something you might put in tea to the development of major political institutions, Sweetness and Power proved that food was not only a suitable topic for research in the humanities and social sciences, but could make social issues accessible to a wider range of readers. This made it possible to construct academic programs focused on food such as those at Boston University (Gastronomy) and New York University (Food Studies), and at the University of Gastronomy in Bra, Italy.

Book #3 has to be the remarkable best seller, Fast Food Nation (Houghton Mifflin, 2001), the journalist Eric Schlosser’s exposé of the “dark side” of hamburgers and French fries—how the way we produce fast food not only is bad for our health but also damages our economy, workforce, and environment. This book—now a classic–reached a huge audience, continues to be widely assigned on college campuses, and turned masses of readers into food advocates eager to change the current food system into one that is better for everyone, producers as well as eaters.

These three encouraged a new generation of books that have done wonders to promote food advocacy. Michael Pollan’s riveting and engaging Omnivore’s Dilemma (Penguin, 2006) presents a compelling case for transforming our food system into one that is a lot more rational and healthier. Peter Singer and Jim Mason’s The Way We Eat (Rodale, 2006), argues that raising farm animals more humanely will be better for us as well as for cows, chickens, and pigs. That our government’s agricultural policies need a serious overhaul is the point of Dan Imhoff’s Food Fight (University of California Press, 2007). Michele Simon’s Appetite for Profit (Nation Books, 2006) is a how-to manual for opposing the marketing of junk food to children, and Ann Cooper and Lisa Holmes’ Lunch Lessons (Collins, 2006) calls for a revolution in the school lunchroom. Such books provide much cause for optimism that the food system will change, much for the better, and soon.

I would like to think that my own books—Food Politics (University of California Press, 2002), Safe Food (University of California Press, 2003), and now What to Eat (North Point Press, 2006) have contributed to this movement, although I must leave the assessment of their impact to others. But I am proud to be part of this food revolution, which holds so much promise for making our world a better place as well as for improving what we eat for dinner. Pick the issue you most care about and join the movement!

___
*I borrowed the title of this piece from Bertram Wolfe’sThree Who Made a Revolution, a political biography of the founders of the 1917 Russian Revolution–Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin. First published in 1948, the book is still in print (Cooper Square, 2001). I list other books I especially like at “10 Books to Read on Food” on Amazon’s Grownup School** site.

And note that Barbara Jo’s Books to Cooks (Vancouver) website lists food books for the socially conscious.

**The site is no longer active, alas, and I can’t find the list.  Try this.

Tomorrow: how it started.

May 29 2017

Today is this blog’s tenth anniversary!

I can hardly believe that I have been writing this blog for ten yers, but this is indeed the tenth anniversary of its official beginning.  I will be writing about the blog this week, reflecting on its origins and why I keep doing it.

Stay tuned.

In the meantime, have a thoughtful and generous Memorial Day! 

May 26 2017

Weekend reading: Food & Society

Amy E. Guptill, Denise A. Copelton and Betsy Lucal.  Food & Society: Principles and Paradoxes, 2nd ed.  Polity, 2016.  

Image result for Food & Society: Principles and Paradoxes

I did a blurb for this one:

Food & Society gives us a fascinating introduction to the issues in food studies of greatest current concern.  From identity to health, marketing, and the externalized costs of food, this exceptionally well researched and written book explains why food matters so much and why it generates such intense controversy.  The book may be aimed at students, but anyone interested in food issues will have much to learn from the paradoxes it presents.

May 25 2017

IFIC’s annual food-and-health survey: always intersting

The industry-funded International Food Information Council has just announced the release of it 12th annual Food and Health Survey.  This asks people what they think about a wide range of consumer issues related to food and nutrition.

The report is full of interesting tidbits about how Americans think about food issues.

Or this one:

This one is impressive:

And here’s my favorite:

Lots of interesting material here, all to be taken with some degree of caution since the data come from an online survey taking 22 minutes to complete.

May 24 2017

What does the administration’s FY2018 budget mean for food politics?

In two words: nothing good.

For starters, it begins with an Orwellian title: A New Foundation for American Greatness–President’s Budget FY 2018

It continues with Orwellian explanations: “Major Savings and Reforms,” and “America First–A budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again.”

How?

  • It cuts spending for the safety net for the poor and for farmers.
  • It increases spending for the military and the wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
  • It uses voodoo economics to pay for matters like food safety (a little more money but also more responsibilities)

Ordinarily, I would do a deep dive into this but why bother?  The New York Times says the budget is wishful thinking; it hasn’t got a chance of passing.

But see for yourself.  The best place to begin is with the Associated Press’s adorable interactive charts.  Type in your favorite agency, hover over the bubbles, and check out the historical sets that follow.  Might as well have some fun with this (thanks AP).

May 23 2017

What ag schools really need to teach: a report

The Association of Public Land-Grant Universities has just released a report titled “Challenge of Change” about how the USDA can do a better job of funding research to solve important problems in food and agriculture.

The challenge:

 

Traditionally, the effort to achieve food security has been largely focused on the need to increase yields in order to produce more food. There is now broad recognition that production alone will not solve the grand challenge. All aspects of our food systems must be considered: nutrition, food safety, food loss, economic costs, individual behaviors, incentive structures, and societal factors affect not only production, but also access and utilization. There is also now an understanding that production increases must be achieved in the context of water availability, energy limitations, and environmental impact.

The report concludes that universities will need to change, so as to:

  • Elevate Food and Nutrition Security to a Top Priority
  • Align University Resources and Structures for Transdisciplinary Approaches
  • Enhance and Build University-Community Partnerships
  • Educate a New Generation of Students to be Transdisciplinary Problem Solvers

To achieve food security, food and agriculture will need to change to:

  • Broaden the Focus Beyond Yields
  • Change the Food System’s Incentive Structure
  • Develop the Capacity of Universities in Low-Income Countries
  • Leverage Technology, Big Data, and Information Science Information

This is an important report because it comes from land-grant universities .  These are currently responsible for supporting industrial agricultural systems and virtually ignoring—or firmly opposing—sustainable agricultural production methods.

A challenge for change indeed.  I hope land-grant universities listen hard.

 

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