Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Penguin, 2006), followed by In Defense of Food (Penguin, 2008), broke real ground in educating Americans about how food is grown, produced, and consumed in the United States. This month, Dial Books releases Pollan’s latest contribution to the conversation: The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Secrets Behind What You Eat, Young Reader’s Edition.
Delicious Living: What was the idea behind the young readers edition of the Omnivore’s Dilemma?
Michael Pollan:I think that if were are going to change this food system and get right with our eating in this country its going to involve kids eating in a different way learning more about their food choices, exercising personal responsibility from a position of knowledge rather than all the marketing illusion that’s around. Omnivores Dilemma was a big tough book in some ways, and it’s long. I had trouble imagining a 12-year-old getting through it and that’s a really important audience to reach. Kids have become very interested in these issues.
DL: As a parent, how do you instill healthy food values in your kids without making them totally neurotic or rebellious?
MP: I think the first thing you do is you think long and hard about what you keep in your house. If you have soda around your house you are going to have issues about soda. If you don’t have soda in your house, it’s not going to be an issue; its just going to be a special-occasion treat that happens other places. So, what’s in your pantry is the first thing and, as parents, that is where your power lies. You are up against a very powerful culture that is sending your kids all sorts of messages that they should make all sorts of choices, but you have the final say about what happens in your house.
Where do you personally draw the line?
MP: Soda. There’s no soda in our house. That’s a really simple line and everybody gets that. Soda is liquid candy, it has no nutritional value whatsoever. There is a place for it but if you have it in the house, kids are going to drink too much of it. It is engineered to be very appealing to them and sugar is in its way habit-forming, so why bring that temptation into the house. It’s already widespread enough in the culture.
Do you feel like things have changed since the first Omnivore’s Dilemma came out?
MP: I think a lot has changed since 2006. I think the general consciousness around food is much higher. I think there is a lot of interest in where our food comes from. You have a lot of corporations that are trying to move in positive ways.
Look at the momentum to remove high-fructose corn syrup from products. There’s something near 200 products that have been reformulated in the last year without high fructose corn syrup. Is this progress? Well, I’m not so sure it is progress because they are replacing all of the high-fructose corn syrup with sugar and that’s really no better for you. By boasting about the fact that you have no high fructose corn syrup in your products you are making an implicit health claim for sugar if you think about it. It’s really insidious.
DL: How do you get beyond the cycle of replacing one thing with another?
MP: I think to the extent you can enter into this alternative food economy that’s rising. We are so lucky today, we have so many alternatives that we didn’t used to have. There used to be one way to eat in America when I was growing up. It was the industrial food chain, the supermarket. Now there are these other really vibrant marketplaces. Consumption is not as passive as it sounds. It’s really people making choices that build alternative food chains such as organic. Organic began with no help from the government at all, in fact, with the active opposition from government in many ways. But people created that market and now it’s a $21 billion market. So we have more power than we realize when it comes to food.
We also need reform at the policy level—there’s no doubt about it. Lots has to happen in Congress to give us the healthy food that we need.
DL: I saw someplace that you were coming out in favor of meatless Mondays.
MP: Yes. A huge part of our carbon footprint is meat eating and I don’t think Americans are ready to go vegetarian but even reducing your meat consumption once a week has a very positive effect. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. Imagine one day a week when we didn’t eat meat—even the diehard carnivores amongst us—and that would be a wonderful thing for the environment, it would be a good thing for our health, and we would perhaps rediscover that you can make a meal out of vegetables or grains. If everybody did it, it would be the equivalent of taking 20 million cars off of the road. So it’s not trivial.
DL: Do you have favorite vegetable?
MP: Love fresh peas, and I love tomatoes. I would put those right at the top. In California we get an Early Girl that is not a spectacular variety normally but the way they grow them out here, they grow them under desert conditions, they deliberately stress them. And they are the sweetest most delicious tomatoes you have ever had. They’re not that big but they have really intensified flavor because they get so little water. And there’s a cherry tomato called Sun Gold that I love that is also very sweet. That is how you introduce a child to a tomato is with Sun Gold.
DL: How do you stay positive and energized when facing these big food issues?
MP: I see so much positive change happening. I’ve been putting out this message and sometimes you drop a pebble in a pond and it just kind of sinks. I’ve written books like that, I’ve written articles like that—but not on this issue. People really respond. You see people taking action because of what they are reading and because of what they are learning and you see these alternative food chains growing. So that fills me with hope when I see Michelle Obama planting an organic garden on the White House lawn how can you not be hopeful? I think that we’re just talking about food in a new way. People’s awareness of the issues and the links between the American way of eating and both climate change on one side and the healthcare crisis on the other is really growing. So we have got a long way to go, this movement is very young but it is a movement and I can feel it growing and I see new leaders emerging.
DL: What’s the best way to “make noise,” as you said recently? Where can we have the greatest effect?
MP: Well it depends on the issue. I think there are going to be moments when we all need to be in touch with our representatives and let them see that we are paying attention and if they cave to industry that people are paying attention and are not happy about that. I think that right now we’ve got bills going through congress about climate change that don’t really deal with agriculture in a positive way and we need to make noise about that. We all have different microphones. One thing that people who care about food issues should do is get on a list-serve with one or more of the groups doing work in this area.
DL: Any that you particularly recommend?
MP: I think that Slow Food USA on school lunch is doing good work. On sustainable food and the environment, The National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, Environmental Working Group, or American Farmland Trust. These groups are watching Washington very closely for key moments where a blizzard of letters can really make a difference on a vote. Sign up and you get an alert when there’s an important issue before congress and you can weigh in. From my conversations with legislators, that really does make a difference. If they don’t think citizens are paying attention they will make really bad decisions, they will listen to the lobbyists. But if they have a sense that there is a cost in terms of votes, they’ll think twice and so I think that having that sort of involvement is great. And of course there is voting with your fork, the food choices you make.
DL: I read on a New York Times blog that you are collecting bits of traditional food wisdom.
MP: Yes, I have 2,500 bits of traditional wisdom. For my next project, I’m doing a book called Food Rules which is a compendium of helpful folklore and advice, new and old, about how to eat—on the theory that science hasn’t done a very good job on instructing us on how to eat and that culture is a pretty good repository on these things. It kind of grows out of In Defense of Food. It’ll be out in January.