The Food Gods Speak: Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser Dish About Walmart, National Security, and Chicken Nuggets The Food Gods Speak: Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser Dish About Walmart, National Security, and Chicken Nuggets
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The Food Gods Speak: Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser Dish About Walmart, National Security, and Chicken Nuggets

by Nicola Twilley

February 21, 2011

Last year saw some of the biggest recalls in America's history, followed by the "will they or won't they" drama of the Food Safety Modernization Act's passage. The bill revealed deep schisms in the food movement, with several advocates of organic farming joining with libertarians to argue that the bill would unfairly penalize small producers and encroach on individual states' food security. Last November, Pollan and Schlosser co-authored an op-ed in The New York Times calling on the Senate to pass the bill. Last week, Pollan seemed the more hesitant of the two, explaining that the bill was the merely best that could be hoped for, given our schizophrenic foodscape:

We have two food systems, one less accessible than the other. The bill had to negotiate the tensions between the regulation required to deal with the industrial food system and the small farmers that can't afford regulation.

Both Pollan and Schlosser were both lukewarm on the subject of Walmart's recent Michelle Obama-endorsed announcement that it would provide healthier foods in store. Pollan pointed to Walmart's history of "crushing their growers" by encouraging them to scale up and then demanding cuts of up to 20 percent when it comes time to renegotiate contracts. He added that it's "a waste of energy" to focus on "making better cookies and crackers," and that he is more interested in Walmart's commitment to re-regionalize their supply chain—if they follow through on it.

With Walmart's groceries feeding 40 percent of America, according to Pollan, their impact can be enormous—but "the fact that a company can make a bigger difference than the government is sad."

Schlosser picked up Pollan's point and took it further, arguing that the real issue is that we live in a situation where one single company can be both the problem and the solution:

I'm not a socialist, but there shouldn't be any company in the country that is that powerful. This sort of unchecked corporate power is counter to democracy.

Educate yourself, eat responsibly—and share what you know with others! At one point, Evan Kleiman asked Pollan and Schlosser why on earth people don't rise up and demand change when they see images of the pink slime that goes into most burgers and headlines about meat from spent hens being rejected by fast food companies but bought by the USDA for the federal school lunch program. Pollan and Schlosser answered simultaneously: Most people just don't know the first thing about the food system. Pollan added that there are even "a great many people in Congress who don't know," and for most political leaders, "cheap food is a blessing," although that equation is beginning to be upset by the rising costs associated with "the public health catastrophe called the American Diet." 

The biggest impediment to change, according to Schlosser, is ignorance and apathy. There are 300 million Americans and only four meat-packing companies, so change should be possible—after all, "far more powerful and abusive regimes have been overturned in the past." Pollan was aware of the potential dangers of sweeping legislative changes—after all, "policy brought fast food into the cities in the first place, through well-intentioned Small Business Administration loans"—but also stressed its importance: "Without an active and engaged electorate demanding reform, we'll never get the radical change that we need."

In other words, you should find out which food companies fund your Senator and Congressperson, and which way they voted on, for example, last year's Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill—and then let them know how you feel. You should also pay attention to where your representative stands on the 2012 Farm Bill*—"it should be renamed the Food Bill," said Schlosser, because its subsidies go a long way toward determining what ends up on your plate. At the moment, it is decided by farm state senators, because urban legislators assume (with reason) that their constituents don't care. (*Expect to see a lot more coverage of the Farm Bill negotiations here at GOOD over the coming year.)

Cook! "Over the past decade, we've somehow found 2 extra hours each day to be online, but we say we don't have time to cook," said Pollan. "The food movement can only go so far without cooking." That said, Schlosser sheepishly admitted that he is "better at systems analysis and doing the dishes" than cooking, and is limited to oatmeal and grilled cheese if he's on his own in the kitchen. Pollan added that the McDonald's chicken nugget his daughter made him eat last year did taste good. Knowing the story behind the food on your plate is, he admitted, in some ways, "a burden" that puts fast-food and junk food off-limits, but in other ways "it is an enormous pleasure."

Midway through my processed food challenge, I couldn't agree more: Thinking about food is a pain, but it is also thought-provoking and rewarding enough to more than make up for the hassle. Indeed, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the evening for me was learning that Eric Schlosser arrived at food as part of his ongoing research into political and economic systems, while Michael Pollan came at it through an interest in nature, and a realization that humans exercise the greatest impact on the natural world through their food choices. It was a perfect example of the idea that motivates my own writing: that food offers one of, if not the, most powerful lens through which to examine almost every aspect of our physical and cultural environment.

For additional notes from the evening, check out these summaries at LA Weekly and LAist, and if you were there (or not!), please add your own thoughts in the comments.

Images: Evan Kleiman, Michael Pollan, and Eric Schlosser at USC's Bovard Auditorium, photo via LA Weekly; Food recall infographic designed by Vanessa Dennis via PBS NewsHour; Photo of Wal-Mart distribution center by Flickr user (cc) Mr. Wright; Soybeans growing in an automated greenhouse, photo by Monsanto, via Popular Science; Political NASCAR, a GOOD infographic by Serifcan Ozcan.

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The Food Gods Speak: Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser Dish About Walmart, National Security, and Chicken Nuggets