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.  

 

 

DON'T FORGET TO VOTE ON TUESDAY!

Food as Pleasure

NOTE: I added a Resources page to this website to get you started on learning about sustainable food. Check it out here!

Some food for thought this week…

There’s a short scene in the movie “Chocolat” (featuring Johnny Depp with long hair!) in which every major character attends a birthday dinner for Judi Dench’s town matriarch. The standout star of the scene is the delicious food the characters eat, and in just a few seconds, it’s obvious how much pleasure every bite gives.

homemade chocolate chip cookies

The characters smile through half-closed eyes as they fully immerse themselves in every mouthful. They take in the smell, the texture, and the taste as they chew and swallow. They look at each other knowing they are all sharing the same experience.

This scene goes out of its way to remind the viewer of how pleasurable food can be. What a delight.

But in real life, sometimes we forget this pleasure.

When was the last time you sat down to a meal and immersed yourself in it? You probably ate breakfast on the go this morning, talked through lunch, and are thinking about grocery shopping for dinner, not the physical experience of eating it. And I’m in that same boat.  

I hear people say “food is fuel,” “I wish I didn’t have to spend time eating 3 times a day,” and drinking Soylent to avoid real meals. I hate everything about this! BUT, I do it too. Ok not the Soylent thing, that’s too far removed from actual food for me, but the rest of it.

I live in a busy world. Our society prizes productivity and efficiency above all else; busyness is a point of pride.

And if eating is cast to the sidelines, it’s not important anyway. It’s a to-do-list item during the week when I’m on the go. I can drink a protein shake and get back to work, to the errands, to the phone calls. And in doing this I can free up my time for better things.

Like…what exactly?

Ignoring the experience and joy of eating misses out on a big part of living. Food can be so grounding. It is physical, it gets me out of my head and into something tangible in that moment and that's really valuable to me.

The other reason this is important, of course, is how much WORK and ENERGY goes into growing food, transporting it, and preparing it. It’s a disservice to all the people, plants, and animals in that system to scarf it down in bites between emails while standing at my desk. But, I’m ashamed to admit, I do it.

How can I balance this interest in what I’ll call “pleasurable eating” with the current demands of my life? I put those demands on myself, so it’s up to me to set limits and change them. The major goals of the food system in America over the past few decades have been more, faster, cheaper, easier. To break away from that and get back to the pleasure of eating (Slow Food has it right), it takes awareness, intent, and commitment.

Last week, I decided to spend ONE DAY actually paying attention to my food in order to enjoy it. It was hard and it took time. I was so easily distracted! After one bite of enjoying my sandwich at work, my eye caught a flutter of leaves outside my office window and off my mind went in a different direction thinking about shades of green as wedding colors (!). It helped to close my eyes for a few bites after that.

mindfully eating lunch

This isn’t feasible most of the time. When I’m eating with others, it’s a social activity and I’m not going to sit in silence focusing on the food the entire meal. Instead, I’ve been trying to slyly work the conversation toward food to draw attention to what we’re eating, at least for a moment. After all, even in Chocolat, after paying monumental respect to the pleasures of the food, the characters return to conversation.

So next time you and I sit down to eat, let’s have a moment of recognition for the pleasure of the food we’re putting in our mouths.

How Does High-End Dining Fit with Sustainable Food?

Sushi at O Ya in Boston

This week: some questions I’m still trying to answer...

Earlier this month, while visiting family in Boston, I ate dinner at a well-regarded high-end sushi restaurant called O Ya.

Whoa. You guys, this dinner was AMAZING. Really, truly a masterpiece of food. Each dish was carefully prepared to highlight every delicate flavor and was obviously assembled by tiny elves. Everything was a beautiful array of colors, textures, and tastes. And the price reflected that.

A sampling of our dishes:

Dinner at O Ya - raw fish
  • Salmon Tartare, cucumber yogurt coulis, argon oil, dill
  • Dayboat scallop, sage tempura, olive oil bubbles, meyer lemon
  • Warm braised shiitake mushroom, anise hyssop, truffle honey sauce
  • Suzuki sea bass, spicy cucumber vinaigrette, avocado, cilantro
  • House smoked wagyu, yuzu soy

So look, I’ll post some of the pictures here and on Instagram and you’ll definitely be impressed. That’s what the internet is all about, right?

Raw Oysters at O Ya in Boston

Let's go deeper....

Back at the house, after eating at O Ya, I sprawled out on the couch, too satiated to move. Visions of fish, savory sauces, and sake danced in my mind and I started thinking about the resources that went into the meal. The raw materials were of the highest quality. Sushi fish like that definitely doesn’t meet any definition of the word local, in fact, it was probably flown in from Japan earlier that day. The Wagyu beef was supremely delicious, but the cow it came from was massaged regularly! How many hours of labor went into getting one cow ready to be eaten?

Delicious short rib at O Ya in Boston

Questions swirled in my head: Is eating this way detrimental? But how could anything that delectable be bad? Was this meal worse for the environment than my usual meals? Can high-end dining play a role in changing the food landscape? Are employees working in the high-end food chain treated any better than other food chain employees? Is it inappropriately extravagant to eat this way when there are so many people who can’t afford even cheap food?

 

Yes and no and everything in between.

Ultimately, although I thought about it intensely that night, and am still thinking about it, I don’t know the answers here.

Beautiful and delicious sushi at O Ya in Boston

I make food choices for myself 3 times a day every day and it is HARD to know what the “best” options are for sustainability. Even for me, and I read about this stuff A LOT. I feel pretty sure that I’m not choosing what’s best, whatever that may be. And even if I was picking the best options, would I know? How could I measure that? Unless I REALLY look for it, the information on where much of my food comes from isn't there. How far outside of my current lifestyle am I willing to go to choose better food options? What will I pay for that?

 

I strongly believe we need a system that makes eating clearer and easier. We need more transparency and better labor practices. We need high-quality animal welfare and more environmental regulation. 

On the road to that system, I will continue to be aware of my food choices. I will be conscientious and ask myself hard, uncomfortable questions about eating. I’ll bring them up here on my blog, a forum for what it means to eat sustainably and how that fits with my life. I’ll even solicit some responses from you all (got thoughts on this? Let me know).

Salmon Sushi at O Ya in Boston

So although my dinner at O Ya was memorable and delightful and I'm drooling while I think back to it, I can’t shake the feeling that for a sustainable food advocate, it might have been hypocritical.

 

How do YOU make choices about what to eat in YOUR life? Let me know in the comments below.