Notes on Mark Bittman’s “Behind the Scenes of What We Eat”

Last week Erik and I went to see well-known food writer Mark Bittman speak on food policy. He spoke in a huge room in The California Endowment–and it was a full house. Afterward, Erik and I compared it to being in church. We were surrounded by people of the same faith, being told things we already know, and being reminded to be good. And I don’t mean that in a bad way! It never hurts to meditate on how to be better, to do more. Bittman is an engaging speaker and it was a great evening. I took notes, and will share a little of what I learned.

He spent a good deal of time describing how our national food system and food policy is depressing and screwed up. We all know this, right? Factory farms, fuel waste, massive environmental degradation, obesity crisis, etc. & etc.

(One quick scary fact from the roll of shame: Did you know that 80% of antibiotics used in the US are fed to farm animals? That number has been shooting up fast for the last 20 years. Why are they used on animals? Not so much for illness, but rather to prevent illness in animals living in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, and to speed growth. They’re prophylactic. Lovely. Antibiotic failure happens to be one of my favorite doomsday scenarios.)

Bittman believes that in 50-100 years we will no longer be shipping food across country or across planet–we’ll be relying on local/regional agriculture systems, based on family farms. Whether this shift is a positive, pleasant transition or made in a state of dreadful calamity, is entirely a matter of how soon we begin working on the shift.

What can we do? Well, we can try to influence policy at the federal level, but it’s hard. Big Food is firmly entrenched in Washington. Sometimes there’s so much outrage and shame around a situation that change actually happens (like the whole pink slime thing) but for the most part, change at that level is slow. Important, but glacially slow. He compared food policy change to other huge struggles, like women’s suffrage or the history of attempts to regulate tobacco. We can’t hope to see change at that level for twenty years–and that’s the best case scenario timeline.

Change at the local level (city, state, school district, etc.) is much easier and is a good place to focus. Erik and I have seen that over and over again around here.  It is possible for us all to take action on the local level to support the sale and distribution of healthy food.

Here’s a few of his recommendations for policy change:

  • Transparency in labeling, in agriculture practice
  • Regulation of damaging foods: basically make it harder to eat poorly and easier to eat well, for instance:
  • Make it illegal to sell soda to kids
  • Tax the crap out of soda
  • Subsidize real food
  • Encourage small family farms
  • De-subsidize companies that make non-foods (junk food)

But as we’re always saying around here, real change starts at home. In your daily choices. Our actions drive policy at the higher levels.

So what can we do?  A lot of it I’m sure you, dear readers, are already doing– just like us. You’re trying to support local farmers. You’re cooking from scratch and eating whole foods. You’re trying to source ethically raised dairy products and meats. You’re growing some of your own food. All of this is important.

Michael Pollan’s advice–Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants— is pretty much the same as Bittman’s recommendations.  (I wonder if Pollan and Bittman hang out? Maybe Bittman crashed on Pollan’s sofa during his west coast tour. You think?).  To whit: eat a ton of vegetables, eat low on the food chain. Cook! Don’t eat processed foods. Be willing to pay more for well-raised animal products–yes, they are more expensive, but really, they shouldn’t be cheap. Cheap animal products=secret horrors that you don’t even want to know about. If you make veggies the foundation of your diet, and you’re saving money by cooking from scratch, you should be able to budget for humanely raised meat and dairy.

Bittman is not dogmatic about organics, by the way. He emphasized you don’t have shop at Whole Foods. It’s more important to eat vegetables in general, however you source them, than to obsess about eating local organic vegetables.

Maybe he’s flexible because things are pretty desperate. Bittman says that in the U.S. only 1 meal in 4 includes an unprocessed vegetable. And that number is actually 1 in 5, because the 1 in 4 number comes about from counting burger toppings as vegetables.

Then think about this– our friends at The Ecology Center just gave us a a booklet on water conservation. In there they recommend you eat one vegetarian meal a week in order to save 450 gallons of water a week. They estimate that it costs about 650 gallons of water to raise, transport and process the meat for a single hamburger. By comparison, a vegetarian meal uses about 200 gallons.

Little changes in our diets can make a huge impact on things we don’t even necessarily think about when eating–like water use. Many vitally important issues spin around the Fulcrum of Food.

At the end of the talk Bittman shared some personal anecdotes about his own diet. A few years ago he was overweight and suffering from the standard set of middle-aged maladies, from high blood pressure to bad knees. His doctor recommended he switch to a vegan diet. His first response was no way! But he worked out a scheme he could live with– he calls it VB6 (Vegan Before Six). Until 6PM every day he is vegan. After 6PM he can eat whatever he wants. Following this simple rule, he lost his excess weight quickly and brought his blood pressure and cholesterol down to healthy levels. It’s a plan he can live with–and that’s the most important thing, I think. Lasting change comes through comfort–and pleasure.

After the talk he signed books in the lobby. A local bookstore was selling his books at a table. As I walked past, I heard a breathless 20-something woman (backed by a few of her friends) ask the bookstore guy, “Which of his books is a vegan recipe book?”

That’s the kind of change I like to see.

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  1. I had to chuckle at what you said about Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan hanging out. Funny story, I bought and read Mr. Bittman’s book Food Matters some time ago, but when I bought it I THOUGHT I was buying the book I’d been hearing about on the radio, which was Mr. Pollan’s In Defense of Food. The covers even look the same – the simplicity of a single green food looking striking against a white background!

  2. The personal IS political. It is not just a feminist phrase. It is the ability to take personal problems/troubles and locate them in the context of public/political issues.

    When I comment on how I raise my four hens without innoculations or antibiotics there is an outcry about the need for antibiotics to be fed to my hens “or they will die.” In a mostly rural and uneducated area, the people who are most in touch with the earth and animals everyday are fully entrenched in the antibiotic and poison business. They believe what they have heard all their lives. All chicken conversation ends with shaking of heads because obviously this too-educated woman with the internet is reading and listening to heresy. Old men shake their heads at my folly, and old women have a fearful look in their eyes as I must ingest eggs that will harm me.

    “We’ve done it that way all our lives.” Gather the little children around, and don’t let them come near her or listen to her.

    I had a bowl of Romaine for breakfast this morning…just a touch of salad dressing.

  3. “-Make it illegal to sell soda to kids
    -Tax the crap out of soda
    -Subsidize real food

    I’m not even a republican, but when people’s first reaction is to tax, spend and regulate it makes me feel funny.

    Here’s another idea: let’s remove all corn subsidies. (no more cheap corn syrup) I think that would have basically the same effect as what he’s suggesting, but without introducing new layers of bureaucracy.

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