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.
Here’s a case in point—public-private collaborations in Chicago aimed at eliminating the city’s food deserts, according to a story by a Sun-Times city hall reporter, Fran Speilman. Along with the proliferation of produce carts and mobile markets, three new Walmarts and nine upgraded Walgreens stores in Chicago expanded access to fresh produce in several neighborhoods.
NPR’s “The Salt” featured a (likely press-release-inspired) story about VFRx, a program developed and implemented by an Connecticut-based organization Wholesome Wave in multiple states, and, in this case, New York City. Courtesy of Katharine O’Marra of New York’s NPR affiliate, WFUV, the piece describes how the program works to increase participants’ consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. They are assessed by their primary care provider and a nutritionist, and then get a “prescription” for specific amounts of produce they should eat to improve their health. The prescription acts in combination with a voucher system at local farmer’s markets to subsidize participants’ purchases. And these farmer’s markets operate on participating hospital grounds—right at the point of care, some of them, five days a week.
Are you familiar with the phenomenon of frozen foods?
A growing body of research is pointing to the establishment of frozen vegetables and fruits as nutritionally equivalent to fresh. And that might be the second most compelling argument. The first, summarized nicely in a Q&A with Andrew Weil, the wellness guru, on his own website might be its affordability and accessibility during times of the year when it’s impossible to get farm-fresh items, or if you live nowhere near a farm. For those reasons, he begins his answer with the word “ideally,” as foodies might note:
Ideally, we would all be better off if we always ate organic, fresh vegetables at the peak of ripeness, when their nutrient levels are highest. That may be possible during harvest season if you grow your own vegetables or live near a farm stand that sells fresh, seasonal produce, but most of us have to make compromises. Frozen vegetables are a good alternative and may be superior to the off-season fresh vegetables sold in supermarkets.
Can we all agree that some vegetables are better than none, and that if the only way a family can afford to get them is if they’re frozen, it’s not ideal, but acceptable? That would be a responsible, helpful message, and would go a long way to stripping foodies of their “elitist” reputations.
Did you know that many people do not have the money, time, or resources to cook healthy meals on a regular basis?
There are many Americans who cannot afford the high price of fresh food—this is an understanding fundamentally lacking in so much of what is debated within foodie circles. And it’s why so many writers are labeled elitist: They don’t get it.
In her recent brief food desert update for CNN Money, Iris Mansour reminds her audience of this, which appears to be necessary.
Nurses, police officers, truck drivers, transit officers, and a host of other professionals get home when most people are starting their workday. The impact of nocturnal wakefulness—not to mention the demand for heightened alertness and productivity—takes a huge toll on human health. The Huffington Post did a quick review of the mountain of scientific evidence demonstrating the negative affects of night shift work on, among other things, breast cancer, diabetes, and workplace safety recently—with a nice slide show, too.
It also takes a toll on schedules: There’s simply less time for everything when you work at night and sleep (or not, which is often the case) during the day. And I’m just talking about people working one job. There are, dear foodies, people who work two and sometimes three jobs. But let’s stick with the slackers, who only have one. Imagine working 12-13 hours for three nights in a row and, at some point during that period, picking over fiddlehead ferns at the local farmer’s market, selecting the ripest tomato at a roadside farm stand, and then going home to crack open a few free-range eggs for a wholesome omelet. I can’t speak for everyone, but I can tell you from experience that this is not how it goes. And I live within walking distance of a MacArthur Genius Award-Winning organic farmer’s farm. As much as I keep to a plant-based diet 90 percent of the time, nothing in the world looks more alluring than the Burger King Drive-Thru at 8 a.m. when you’re leaving work, dead on your feet but hungry, because, well, it’s breakfast time.
This is reality for millions of Americans, whether the denizens of Foodieville acknowledge it or not. There is no one-size-fits-all, silver-bullet, magic-pill approach to solving the challenges of the American diet, and it doesn’t help to have well-respected journalists dismissing each others’ ideas out of hand and calling each other names. All ideas should be up for reasonable debate when so much is at stake.
And by the way, David Freedman is not an innocent in all this. He, too, could bend a little and accept that Big Food has a lot of work to do to develop trust among most of us—both those in the trenches and in the ivory towers—who are working to fix the problems their industry has caused.