Sustainable Food, Politics, & the Obamas

With November 8th dominating everyone’s thoughts, let’s step away from the anxiety of the presidential election for a moment and, instead, turn to food in politics. Today, I’m summing up the important food and politics news of the last month.

First of all, I admit I’m not a politics person. I get frustrated by how slowly things move and by my feelings of helplessness. Last year, I read Foodopoloy and it convinced me that top-down government regulation is going to be a major part of enacting food system changes. Yes, our individual purchasing decisions are important but for some improvements, lawmakers are the only ones who can make a substantial difference. Therefore, it's not surprising that leaders in the food movement address politicians to get their message out. And that is exactly what happened last month...


Pollan’s Reproach

In early October, Michael Pollan published a scathing analysis of how the Obama administration failed in pushing the food movement forward. From President Obama’s ignored campaign promises to a large antitrust initiative against big food later abandoned, Pollan’s got a lot to say. His criticism of First Lady, Michelle Obama is much less harsh. He even praises her (slightly) for the garden she planted at the White House in 2009 and her Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Yes, she backed off through the years when big food came after the administration, he writes, but she took the conversation in a new direction.

The main takeaway? This quote which pretty much sums up Pollan’s opinion: “Whenever the Obamas seriously poked at Big Food, they were quickly outlobbied and outgunned; the food movement still barely exists as a political force.”

You can read the full piece here in the NY Times Magazine.

Mark Bittman echoed Pollan’s sentiments in Mother Jones’ food podcast a few weeks later.


Is this justified?

So did the Obamas do a crappy job for sustainable food? Like most things, it’s complicated. Yes, they could have done more. A lot more. But that doesn’t mean the things they did do should be discounted.

What do we have now that we didn’t before they took office? 

I agree with food writer Nancy Fink Huehnergarth in her Forbes review of Pollan’s article. She writes (I’m paraphrasing): the realists know how hard it is to get things done and so they celebrate small victories; the idealists want to throw out the whole system and create only a utopia. She puts Pollan in the idealist camp and criticizes him for being so negative and ignoring the steps the Obamas did make happen during the past eight years.


You guys, let’s be real

As usual, my moderate and logical perspective is coming out here (which indicates I’d be a terrible political advocate for food).

We need people in both camps: idealists and realists. And they need to work together. We need journalists, politicians, farmers, chefs, educators, and everyone else. This is a big movement and there’s room for people to come at it from all ideologies. It’s only going to succeed, however, if everyone works together. If the food movement rallies around one or two issues, we would have enough power to make systemic change.

Here’s to hoping that the next four or eight years under a new president will improve our food system.