by Marion Nestle

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Oct 18 2019

Weekend reading: New York City food activists

This book was especially interesting to me because I know some of the players and reading it told me a lot about their backgrounds and accomplishments.  It deals with several New York City-based organizations, among them United Bronx Parents, the Park Slope Food Coop, God’s Love We Deliver, and, most prominently, the Community Food Resource Center.

Lana Dee Povitz.  Stirrings: How Activist New Yorkers Ignited a Movement for Food Justice.  University of North Carolina Press, 2019. 

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I wrote a blurb for this one.

Stirrings uses the political history of food advocacy organizations in New York City to explain why such groups focus almost exclusively on feeding hungry people rather than on addressing the root cause of that hunger–poverty.  The lessons taught by this history make this book essential reading for anyone interested in ending hunger in America.

And here is a brief paragraph from the Introduction (p. 7):

Aside from its material value as a commodity essential to human life, food acts as a lens through which we can understand dominant social values.  How and by whom food is produced, which foods are government-subsidized, who is deemed eligible for food assistance, who becomes the gatekeepers for providing that food—such arrangements speak volumes about who and what is prioritized, especially by those with decision-making power.  By extension, the history of food activism is important because it tracks how these priorities might be rearranged, how people can work to challenge or temporarily overturn established hierarchies, especially of class and race.  Just as often, the history of food activism sheds light on how inequalities and hierarchies are preserved, defended, and even extended.

Jul 26 2019

Weekend reading: Beef in American life

Joshua Specht.  Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America. Princeton University Press, 2019.

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This is an enlightening, engrossing, and eminently readable cultural history of the beef industry in the United States, from the replacement of bison (and Native Americans) from the Great Plains to Big Meat to consumer concerns about the effects of beef on health and the environment.  What I so admire about this book is how it never loses sight of the big picture—the critical social and political forces that promoted the beef industry and made beef an icon of American society.

Specht summarizes big-picture aspects in his introduction:

The cattle-beef complex was the product of small debates, struggles, and fights over keeping one’s job, protecting a home, or making a dollar.  Ultimately, these were contests over what our food system should look like and how our society should be organized.  Low prices and sanitary meat at the expense of all else won out.  It was a system predicated on land dispossession, low wages, animal abuse, rancher impoverishment, and environmental degradation.  But it also democratized beef; hungry consumers could eat what they want3ed, and it tasted good.  Railroads, refrigeration, and capital made this system possible, but politics and struggle determined its contours (p.20).

Specht describes how the establishment of cattle ranching—e,g,, winning the West— meant the destruction of bison (and, therefore, Native American livelihoods).  Ranchers had to contend with the displaced and understandably angry Indians, of course, but also winter, drought, barbed wire, and theft.  Specht explains the political maneuvering that brought us to today’s highly consolidated, industrialized beef industry, controlled by just four companies, and producing most beef in CAFOs (controlled animal feeding operations) infamous for mistreatment of animals and environmental pollution.  How did this happen?

The refrigerator car and the managerial revolution explains how a small group of firms could dominate a world in which cattle were slaughtered in one place and eaten a continent or n ocean away, but the meatpackers’ victories over labor, the railroads, and local butchers explain how this state of affairs went from one that horrified people—pale grey meat in stuffy railcars—to one that was accepted as not only natural and inevitable, but laudable.  The key to the meatpackers’ success was that they would align their cause, centralized mass production of meat, with the interests of consumers (p. 178).

The interests of consumers?  Cheap meat.  As long as the present system keeps the price of meat affordable, it will be hard to mobilize public support for reforming the system.

This book is a welcome addition to the library of  books on the meaning of meat in America life, of which my favorites are Orville Schell’s Modern Meat (Random House, 1984) and Betty Fussell’s Raising Steaks: The Life and Times of American Beef (Harcourt, 2008).  Schell’s book predated Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, but covered much of the same territory.  Fussell’s is a cultural history.  Specht cites neither.  I commend them to his attention.

Earlier this year, the Lancet published two lengthy treatises arguing that the externalized costs of industrial meat production are unsustainable, and that halving current meat consumption must be a priority for improving human health and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.*  It’s too bad these reports came out too late to be included in Specht’s analysis.  I would love to hear his comments on them.

* The two Lancet reports from January 2019 are:

  • Willett W, Rockström J, Loken B, Springmann M, Lang T, Vermeulen S, et al. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Lancet. 2019;393:447–92. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31788-4.
  • Swinburn BA, Kraak VI, Allender S, Atkins VJ, Baker PI, Bogard JR, et al. The Global syndemic of obesity, undernutrition, and climate change: The Lancet Commission report. Lancet. 2019;393:791–846. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736 (18)32822-8.
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Jun 14 2019

Weekend reading: Canned

Anna Zeide.  Canned: The Rise and Fall of Consumer Confidence in the American Food Industry.  University of California Press, 2018.

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This book uses the history of canned foods—beginning with condensed milk, peas, olives, tomatoes, and tuna, and ending up with BPA (bisphenol A, an endocrine disrupter)—to examine Americans’ changing relationship with industrially produced foods.

Canned foods have had their ups and downs in this country.  As Zeide explains, canning

means that people who have insecure housing without steady access to refrigeration, or who simply to not have the time or materials to prep fresh ingredients, can still eat relatively healthful meals.  Canned fruits, vegetables, and fish would be welcome additions to the food deserts of many low-income areas, which otherwise provide highly processed, sugary, and fatty foods with little nutritional quality.  Relatedly, the rejection of canned food—especially among members of a younger generation who hail from middle-and upper-class backgrounds—has implicit class biases.  Cans were once a symbol of modernity in the United States but now are seen as poverty food.  If we are to expect a fresher, perhaps healthier, way of eating to spread to all people, we must create economic and regulatory systems that make that possible (p. 192).

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May 24 2019

Weekend Spanish lesson: a book about obesity for teenagers

Simón Barquera.  ¿Hasta que los kilos nos alcancen? Una introducción desde la ciencia sobre el aumento de la obesidad y la forma de enfrentar esta epidemia [My and Google’s translation: Until the kilos reach us?  A scientific introduction to the increase in obesity and how to confront this epidemic]. Instituto Nacional de Salud Publica and SPM Ediciones, 2019 (119 pages, hard cover).

I did a blurb for this book (it’s in Spanish on the back cover):

I can’t think of a better target audience for a book about the social, economic, and political causes of obesity than the young people who will be tomorrow’s leaders and policymakers.  Simón Barquera gives them–and readers of any age—the skills to recognize how food and beverage companies promote corporate profits over public health, and to act on this knowledge through advocacy for regulating conflicts of interests.  These skills are essential for preventing obesity and creating healthier food systems.

I’ve wrote about Barquera’s work a couple of years ago; he is one of the Mexican soda-tax advocates who had spyware installed on his phone, and is a researcher at the public health institute in Cuernavaca where I went on a Fulbright in February 2017.

I hadn’t seen the book’s illustrations when I did the blurb.  If I had, it would have been hard to talk about anything else because they are beyond charming.  It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I especially like this one.

This book needs an English translation!  I hope someone is doing one.

If you want a copy, try this link.

May 17 2019

Weekend reading: Bee Wilson’s new book

Bee Wilson.  The Way We Eat Now: How the Food Revolution Has Transformed Our Lives, Our Bodies, and Our World.  Basic Books, 2019.

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I happily did a back-cover blurb for this one:

Bee Wilson’s deep dive into the causes and consequences of today’s unsustainable–but now worldwide–eating patterns is nothing less than a call to action.  We must change today’s Global Standard Diet to one that promotes planetary as well as our own health.

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May 10 2019

Weekend reading: a new book on food safety—Outbreak!

Timothy D.  Lytton.  Outbreak: Foodborne Illness and the Evolving Food Safety System.  University of Chicago Press, 2019.

Outbreak

I did a blurb for this one:

In Outbreak, Lytton gives us a legal scholar’s superb analysis of how government, lawyers, and civil society are struggling to prevent the tragic and unnecessary illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths caused by microbial food contaminants.   Foodborne illness may seem like an intractable problem, but Lytton’s suggestions for dealing with it are well worth attention, as is everything else in this beautifully written, thoughtful, and readable account.  I couldn’t put it down.

Food safety attorney Bill Marler reviewed it for Food Safety News.

Lytton said his goal was to help readers understand the science, practicality, liability, enforcement and self-monitoring measures necessary to achieve higher levels of food safety. Meeting that goal includes helping readers understand the following:

  • Why government spends so much more money justifying food safety regulations than evaluating whether they actually work.
  • The need for greater experimentation in food safety regulation.
  • Improving private third-party food safety auditing through greater liability exposure for negligent auditing.
  • The potential for liability and recall insurance to improve food safety.
  • The history of third-party food safety auditing (which goes back much earlier than AIB in the 1920s).
  • The litigation dynamics of food safety lawsuits.

 

May 6 2019

On book tour this week—in Brazil!

To launch the Portuguese translation of Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat, I am going to Brazil.

I’ve posted details under Appearances.  Other details are here.

And here’s the overall schedule.

Press reports:

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May 3 2019

Weekend reading: Well—a great introduction to public health

Sandro Galea.  Well: What We Need to Talk About When We Talk About Health.  Oxford University Press, 2019.

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I blurbed this one:

A superb account of how money, power, politics, and the luck of the draw affect the health of individuals and populations. It should inspire us all to follow Galea in championing public health as an essential public good, and in treasuring and preserving the core values of public health—fairness, justice, and compassion for all.

Galea is the dean of the school of public health at Boston University and a prolific writer on public health topics, including food on occasion.  I am a big fan of his work.  I like his focus on social, economic, and environmental determinants of health and his consistent promotion of the core values of public health.  If you don’t really get what public health is about, this book is a great place to start.

Here is a brief sample from the chapter titled “Choice.”

We imagine our choices to be, for the most part, beyond the reach of outside influence and that, when we choose, we do so from an unlimited array of options; no one tells us what to eat, whether or not we are permitted to exercise, or who we must embrace as a life partner.  For this reason, much of our conversation about health has to do with “lifestyle”—making the correct choices for ourselves, choices which, we believe, will lead to better health.

…Yes, we can choose the food we eat, but our options are limited by what we can afford and by what kinds of food are available for purchase near our home.  These factors, in turn, depend on the quality of our neighborhood and the size of our income, which depends on larger socioeconomic forces over which we have little control.  Likewise, we can only choose to exercise if we live near parks, walkable streets, or athletic facilities, and we can only choose a person to marry from among the individuals we encounter within our community.  Place, power, money, politics, and people—all the forces we discuss in this book—shape the variables that ultimately influence our health.