by Marion Nestle

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Dec 13 2019

Weekend reading: Food (of course)

Fabio Parasecoli.  Food.  MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series. 2019.

This is the latest work of my NYU Food Studies colleague, Fabio Parasecoli, a prolific scholar and writer.  The book is explained as:

A consumer’s guide to the food system, from local to global: our part as citizens in the interconnected networks, institutions, and organizations that enable our food choices.

The book is a short (200 pages or so), small-format set of seven chapters on food systems, health and nutrition, the environment, technology, hunger, and what’s next.

Here’s an quick excerpt from a section in the Health/Nutrition chapter subtitled “Looking for easy solutions.”

Superfoods offer simple–and lucrative–answers to very complex problems: rather than dealing with changes of habits or diets or trying to understand intricate metabolic functions, their consumption assuages the concerns connected with ingestion.  The attractiveness of superfoods and exotic or traditional remedies is also related to the diffusion of an approach to eating and health that has been described as nutritonism, characterized by “a reductive focus on the nutrient composition of foods as the means for understanding their healthfulness, as well as by a reductive interpretation of the focus of these nutrients in bodily health,” with little concern for the level or processing or quality.  Consumers attuned to such approaches shift their attention from foods to individual nutrients: polyphenols in red wine are good antioxidants; lycopene in tomatoes can prevent certain kinds of cancer….Why worry about a balanced diet when you can make up for any deficiencies by consuming vitamins, fiber, or fortified foods? (pages 68-69).

A man after my own heart, obviously.  This is a short, easy introduction to most of the major food system issues under discussion today.  It also comes with a useful glossary.

Full disclosure: I read and commented on an earlier draft of the nutrition chapter and like the way it—and the other chapters—came out.

Nov 29 2019

Weekend reading: history of American cuisine

Paul Freedman.  American Cuisine: And How it Got that Way.  Liveright Publishing, 2019.

Paul Freedman is an historian at Yale who in recent years has taken on food history.  His previous book, Ten Restaurants that Changed America, was on my weekend reading list in 2016.

This one covers the history of cuisine in America, addressing basic questions such as “is there such a thing as American cuisine?,” “What happened to it?,” and “What is likely to happen to it?”

The chapters cover such things as culinary nostalgia, community cookbooks, industrial food, ethnic restaurants, and the food revolution.  My favorite chapter title: “Have your cake, choose from our fifteen fabulous flavors, and eat it too.”

It’s a good read.  Here is a sample from page 367:

Americans have been enthusiastic consumers of modern products.  It is not just that historically the United States was technologically precocious or that its citizens value convenience, although these are true.  The key factor is a peculiar attitude toward food.  Americans have attempted to apply ideas about health and efficiency to diet.  Obsessed with technological progress, anxious about time-saving, and worried about physical well-being, Americans for well over a hundred years have embraced scientific nutrition, industrial food, and convenience.  They have been willing to sacrifice tradition and regional variation in favor of standard brands and their array of flavor and style.  Infatuation with science, convenience, and variety require giving up the natural taste of food in favor of texture, color, multiplicity, and simplicity of preparation.  Quick, easy, and healthful have been more important than flavor.

This is also a beautiful book, printed on high-quality paper, in an attractive easy-to-read font, and lavishly illustrated with menus, recipes, and pictures of advertisements, book covers, places, and people, many of them in color.

Reading it made me want to re-read Laura Shapiro’s Perfection Salad and Something From the Oven, both cited by Freedman in his chapter titled “women and food in the twentieth century.”

Nov 22 2019

Weekend Reading: Labor of Lunch

Jennifer Gaddis.  The Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools.  University of California Press, 2019.

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This book is a welcome addition to the growing library of works focusing on labor in the food system.  This topic deserves attention and Gaddis is looking at the plight of an especially neglected group, the people who make and serve food to kids in schools.   Unlike any other school program, the USDA-managed National School Lunch—and Breakfast—Programs are expected to be self-supporting through payments by parents and federal reimbursements.  They are chronically underfunded and issues of cost matter far more than food quality.

Gaddis lays out the issues in her introduction:

The NSLP [National School Lunch Program] operates largely as a social welfare program for low-income families and a public subsidy for large-scale factory farms and processed-food companies.  Since the 1970s and the widespread embrace of neoliberal political and economic projects, the pursuit of cheap food, cheap labor, and cheap care has pushed millions of middle- and upper-middle-class families out of the NSLP.  They pursue seemingly “better” algternatives for their own children, but in so doing they fail to hold Congress, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), and Bg Food companies accountable for the quality of the NSLP…[This] inadvertently reduces political will to invest in an NSLP that provides high-quality food and care for all children and families. [p. 4]

The story she tells here is not pretty—it is one of contempt for the poor coupled with protection of big business, along with lack of political will and weak civil society demand.

Her advice: organize, mobilize, advocate!

One of the great ironies of this advice is that the School Nutrition Association, which represents food service workers, opposes advocacy for better quality food, in part as Gaddis explains, because it has been captured by the processed food industry.

Let grass-roots advocacy begin!

 

The book comes with resources.

Nov 15 2019

Weekend reading: Meat, Cultured and Not

I’ve been seeing lots of books about meat lately.  Here are two recent ones.

Josh Berson.  The Meat Question: Animals, Humans, and the Deep History of Food.  MIT Press, 2019.

The author is an Australian social scientist, a vegan, who has produced a deep dive into the history of the use of meat as food and as cultural symbol.  As he puts it,

The aim of this book is to unpack what I’ve come to call the Meat Question–Should humans be eating meat, and if so who, and what kinds, and how much?–in the most comprehensive way possible.  The perspective…is deep deep in that it encompasses the history of human meat eating and human relationships with other gregarious vertebrates over a span of more than 2 million years.  (p. 2)

This [book’s] perspective is centered on my conviction that the economic violence of meat has less to do with who can and cannot afford it than with how meat serves to prop up a system of asymmetric benefits from all forms of human activity, not just that related to food.  Growing demand for meat is not simply an outcome of growing affluence.  It is a symptom of the inequality and oppression that have accompanied that affluence. (p. 294)

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft.  Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food.  University of California Press, 2019.

This book examines the brand-new industry creating lab-based meat.  These products are not yet on the market but are of such enormous public and economic interest that they are well worth book-length treatment.

This book tells the story of what I found, and what I did not find, in the course of my time in the small, strange world of cultured meat, during what seemed to be the early years of an emerging technology.  I expected to spend time in laboratories…This did happen in some measure, but for the most part I found myself with very little laboratory science to observe and a great many public conversations about cultured meat to participate in and sort through.  (p. 15)

But cultured meat, too, raises moral questions.  Not questions about our moral regard for harvested cells, but questions about the implications cultured meat may hold for our moral regard for animals….It is relatively easy to see how cultured meat would or would not suit different philosophical arguments for animal protection….But assuming that cultured meat leads to abolition of animal agriculture, it will change our sense of what these creatures, these nonhuman animals, are doing in the world. (p. 133)

Both of these books deal with the moral, philosophical, cultural, historical, and socioeconomic implications of meat-eating, although from quite different perspectives.

Oct 25 2019

Weekend reading: Kid Food (!)

Bettina Elias Siegel.  Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World.  Oxford University Press, 2019.

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I did a blurb for this book but it is so good, so well written, and so important that nothing I can say can do it justice.

Everyone who cares about what kids eat must read Bettina Siegel’s fabulous Kid Food.  This is a gorgeously written, heartfelt, and deeply compelling manifesto arguing why and how we must do better at feeding our kids more healthfully at home, in schools, and on the soccer field.  Kid Food provides the evidence and the resources; it should inspire all of us to get busy and start advocating for better kid-food policies—right now.

The book is a treasure for what it says about feeding kids in America today—an instant classic.  Its Appendix alone makes the book a must-have: it lists resources for how to feed kids but also for how to advocate for them.

I could have picked excerpts from anywhere in the book but I’m taking the easy route and quoting from the book’s ending as an example of why this book is so worth reading.

Right now, American children are being shortchanged daily by a diet that feeds but doesn’t nourish, that staves off immediate hunger but opens the door to later disease.  The factors leading to this tragic outcome are all too human: naked corporate greed; parental ignorance, confusion, and fatigue; practical necessity, for those who can’t afford healthier food; and, in the case of “treats,” even simple love and affection.   Improving the current paradigm will require not just pushing back against powerful corporate interests, but also shifting a deeply entrenched food culture.  That’s a very heavy lift, but the difficulty of the task doesn’t make it any less urgent or critical.  And the good news is, there is no shortage of opportunities to pitch in.

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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