Michael Pollan for U.S. Food Czar


I just recently read journalist Michael Pollan’s memo to the next President (it’s really long but worth the read).  After reading it, I think there needs to be a food czar– just like the drug czar– only this position would likely be a lot more effective.  This person would help direct food policy and oversee both the compromised and castrated FDA and USDA.

Michael Pollan probably knows more about food policy than any other American after researching his two excellent books The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, so he is the obvious choice for food czar. I’d like to hear what others think and who they would like to see as food czar or members of the food czar’s staff.

That said, I have a couple of quibbles about his memo in the NY Times magazine.

1. His idea for an “oil calorie count” on packaged food, while well-intentioned, would only add to the confusion already presented by nutrition labels and bold nutritional claims plastered on the packaging. If consumers have to wade through any more information to try and decide what’s good and ethical to eat, they could just say “Screw it” and eat what they want, labels be damned.

2. His proposal to require institutions like schools, prisons and universities to source a certain amount of food from within 100 miles could also pose a problem. Small producers may not be able to meet the demand and would have to expand in order to do so, which would lead to not necessarily Big Food, but bigger food, which is exactly what we’re trying to move away from.

3. Pollan’s memo stops short at a very critical point in the food chain. Sure, it’s a great idea to grow more food locally and for more people to have gardens, but what happens when the harvest comes in? Some of it can be sold at Farmer’s Markets and in CSA boxes, but we’ll need food for winter, so someone’s got to preserve the excess.

Back when we were a more agrarian society, most women were still at home and could spend their days in late summer pickling, canning and preserving the bounty of home gardens for winter. It’s no small task to to tackle a few bushels of tomatoes or corn or cucumbers (not to mention the work that goes into tending a large garden), so in order to revert to a more localized food system, some people are going to have to leave the work force, and more likely, because this is kitchen work, it will be women who leave the work force, which presents two pressing questions: Can our economy withstand a large part of the population leaving the workforce to stay home to garden and preserve food and is this really what women want after decades of fighting for equal rights at work?

I’m not saying a more localized food economy is a pipe dream, but there are some serious issues to consider before we turn our backs on food processing done by corporate giants.

4. Pollan talks about regaining our food culture, which I think needs to be done regardless. Believe it or not, there are still people alive who remember what it was like to gather wild greens, can tomatoes, and butcher your own hog. We need to learn from these people NOW before it’s too late. They have a vast store of food wisdom based upon generations of traditions that’s not necessarily found in cookbooks. What’s more, this would be a way to engage our older citizens who are frequently marginalized in our youth-obsessed culture.

So, this is just some food for thought for Mr. Pollan and those of us who share many of his sensibilities about food. There are no easy answers to reforming our food system, but change is definitely in the air.

7 responses to “Michael Pollan for U.S. Food Czar

  1. I am busy fulfilling your answer to number 4: I’m learning from the old-timers how to butcher animals, how to hunt, and gather wild foods. I’m also teaching myself how to raise my own food and preserve it and, let me tell you that you are correct in the fact that it is ‘no small task’ to deal with a bushel of tomatoes! After canning my own spaghetti sauce and salsa last month, I was exhausted.
    See my how to page for a list of posts on many topics about food preservation and butchering, and food sovereignty and security skills in general: http://howlingduckranch.wordpress.com/how-to/

    On point three, don’t you think that if we are buying locally, and our dollars are staying local (as in going straight into our neighbour’s hands), that the result will be twofold: this increased need for food will mean more ‘jobs’ will be created vis-a-vis on the farm and as farmers (and will include processing), and the money will stay in the community and cycle itself several times (the marker of a healthy economy) rather than head straight out of the community into some anonymous corporation via a supermarket chain?

    Not only that, if we are to have a local food system, then farmers will get a more reasonable share of the dollars spent on food as distinct from the present system.

    If some of us have to leave the work force in order to earn a decent wage at home on the farm or home processing, is this a bad thing? Of course, the legislation will have to make changes in order to support this. Personally, I think the legislation is one of the biggest barriers to the movement.

  2. Howling Duck, I totally agree with your comments about number three. Local food economies are good for local communities. I’ve heard stats that for every dollar spent on local food, it generates at least triple that much spending in the community as a whole (I think it could even be six times as much).
    I guess my point was that we don’t want to put the cart before the horse and try to jump into a totally local food economy before enough people are ready to leave the “conventional” workforce, or to be plucking people from the workforce to work the food industry leaving those businesses struggling to find workers. Certainly the job creation would be great, but I just wonder how many people would be willing to move to rural areas to fill in those jobs that have been vacated for farm jobs.

  3. Hey Jen,

    I agree this has to be developed in keeping with people’s skills development. But, I do suspect that there are more people than we realize who would be willing to return to farming, or go into farming (if new to agriculture like I am/was), if the wage-return made it ‘worth while’. The present system simply is unsustainable for the workers, let alone the environment. I have interviewed many, many people on this subject, many of them from farming backgrounds who simply know they cannot make a go of it on the farm anymore. They reluctantly go to cities where there are jobs that offer a ‘living wage’. How many people do we know who are in dead-end jobs, or unhappy in their jobs?

    I’d like to know how many people would leave their present day job and move to a rural location IF there was a financially viable option such as running their own farm. I recently read a book written by a dairy farmer (sorry, can’t remember the name of it) who said that if Americans were willing to pay ten cents more per liter of milk, then a lot of the dairy-farms of the US would be viable–instead, many are being forced out of business because the percent of each dollar spent on milk has shifted from the farmer’s pockets to the distributers’ coffers.

    A local food system would shift the money back to the farmer–as it should be. After all, shouldn’t the person making the product get the biggest cut of the dollar after all? We have seen the ‘Fair Trade’ movement work to fight for this issue overseas. I often wonder why the same people are not concerned about their own farmers back home! Our present system is not only unsustainable, but it also doesn’t make sense, morally, ethically or logically. We seem to be able to see this point when looking outside our borders, but not within. I don’t know why.

    As for the rural-city shift: One of the biggest problems in our time are cities and their growth. If we want to seriously address environmental issues and sustainability we are GOING TO HAVE TO HAVE people move from the cities and back into rural areas. It is as simple as that (though no one wants to address this politically).

    If the local food movement actually got some teeth to it and was able to make legislative changes to remove the barriers to small farms and/or farm gate sales, I think we’d see a big shift: in farming practices, the city-urban shift, community cohesion and development–and all for the better.

  4. I’ve decided you and I are totally on the same page– only you’re an optimist and I’m a bit more cynical! 🙂
    It is amazing how spending just a few pennies more on local, ethical food can make such a difference.
    Interestingly, here in Australia, I have started buying milk from local dairy cooperatives and it is actually LESS expensive than milk from the big companies. I interviewed the head of one of the local co-ops and she told me they paid their farmers more than the bigger national companies. So I know the big companies are definitely skimming lots of money off the top (pun intended) and lining their pockets with it, and that’s why I won’t support them. The only time I do is when I’m forced to– and that’s when the local milk is sold out in the market.
    You’ve also got me curious about farm door sales in the U.S. and what regulations there are.
    Australia seems to have pretty much none, which is actually very nice. And I never worry about whether the food I buy is safe. Somehow, I inherently know it is because it’s grown by an individual who also eats the same produce– and they certainly wouldn’t eat something that they knew would harm them.

  5. I think the farm gate sales vary State to State, but I’m not American and am not living in the US, so I don’t know for sure.

    Here in Canada, it varies province to province (yes, that is stupid and unfair and makes me want to move to Saskatchewan where things are a bit more sane on this front). As far as British Columbia is concerned, we are going in the wrong direction entirely. If it gets too stupid, you’ll find me back in Australasia in no time (maybe at your place, yogurt in hand, hungry for enchiladas or chilaquiles–a personal fav).

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