There’s a riot going on in the streets of Foodieville, as some prominent food writers do battle over the role of “Big Food” in the American diet, and it seems to have no end in sight. This is unproductive—albeit entertaining—behavior that is obscuring some thoughtful reporting about practical solutions our nation’s problem with healthy eating.
It all started in the July/August issue of the Atlantic, in a cover story by David Freedman that tried to poke holes in the “wholesome-foods” movement spearheaded by such famous foodies as Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Michael Moss, and Melanie Warner (most of whom are hawking recently published books). He argued that they are immoral elitists, so completely out of touch with the experiences of average people that they immediately dismiss any ideas about obesity control that do not include the elimination of processed foods from the American diet. In contrast, Freedman suggested that the obesity problem demands a “by any means necessary” approach, and that Big Food may be well equipped to tackle it.
Freedman (note: he’s a contributor to CJR) presented a logical case for supporting, rather than demonizing, companies like McDonald’s and Domino Foods, who are combining the use of new technologies in food texture and flavoring with their marketing power to offer their customers slightly healthier versions—less salt, fat, calories—of popular products. Nobody has to agree with him, but he lays out a reasonable argument favoring Big Food reform as one part of—not the—solution to an exceedingly complex problem.
There’s been so much backlash, he’s keeping track of it on his own website. Some responses—like Melanie Warner’s on usnews.com—are fair, represent Freedman’s arguments accurately, and make good points. Some are just silly, such as Todd Essig’s critique at Forbes.com, in which he accused Freedman and the Atlantic of celebrating “shockingly despicable attitudes” and using racism to sell magazines by characterizing non-affluent, non-white consumers (in Essig’s words) as “passive receptacles lacking the intelligence and frustration-tolerance necessary to make smart food choices.”
There’s little doubt that, even from the tag line of Deena Shanker’s response in Salon, her review of Freedman’s piece is over the top:
An Atlantic cover story gets absolutely everything wrong about processed food, Michael Pollan and Americans’ health
Wow. “Absolutely everything?” Shanker’s use of hyperbole is exhausting. She exaggerates many of Freedman’s suggestions, strategically paraphrasing, and sometimes even gerrymandering his ideas to suit her needs. Here’s my favorite:
But to say that more processed food is the answer to our country’s obesity problem is like saying that we should leave it to cigarette companies to cure lung cancer.
I can’t find where Freedman said anything about needing more processed food; he envisions better processed food. Not once does he suggest processed food is the answer to the obesity problem; he suggests it’s an answer. The rest of the sentence is a great example of how black-and-white this debate has become in the media lately.
As entertaining as it is, this media food fight needs a reality check. To help find our way back to some responsibly gray area, I’d like to propose a brief Q&A for some food writers out there who might need a refresher. And, maybe more important, point out that journalists are actually reporting news in this area:
Do you know that there are options in the marketplace between Whole Foods and bodegas?
Of course if those are the only choices, ordinary consumers will have trouble accessing affordable healthy food items. But, there’s a vast middle ground of opportunity for improvement in stores like Key Food and Safeway, which serve communities that may have neither a Whole Foods nor a bodega. These are stores that may not offer Inner Peas, but, well, peas. Costco and Target and the other big-box stores selling groceries may make Big Food opponents wince. But millions of Americans buy their food at those places, and it makes sense for diet-improvement interventions to meet them where they are.