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Pollan and Schlosser on the Food Landscape, Walmart, School Lunch, the Farm Bill, Food Fights and More

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(l-r) Kleiman, Pollan, Schlosser (Photo by Nick Wilson/LAist)
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By Nick Wilson/Special to LAist

For anyone who has seen the critically-acclaimed documentary Food Inc., the faces of Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan are undoubtedly familiar. In a rare joint appearance, the two authors were joined Wednesday at USC’s Bovard Auditorium by Chef Evan Kleiman in a candid conversation about the current state of our industrialized food system.

Kleiman expertly led the authors through a myriad of topics, covering considerable ground in less than two hours. Here are my notes from the event, representing a mixture of quoting and paraphrasing, without editorial.

How the Food Landscape Has Changed in Past 10 Years

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MP: We now have two different food systems. It is encouraging but troubling. One is less accessible than the other.

ES: Agrees that there are two systems. Well-to-do and well-educated eating good food, fit with personal trainers. The rest are unhealthy. Can trace obesity by income and education

New Dietary Guidelines

MP: Encouraged that government guidelines finally say that Americans should eat less. But usual compromises have been made. Marion Nestle points out that the guidelines use the recognizable terms “fruits and veggies” when describing what we should eat more of. When it comes to what to eat less of, uses unrecognizable terms like "SoFAS" (solid fats and added sugars).

Food Safety Nutritional Act

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MP: The measure will take safe and contaminated food off market place for first time. Protections built in the bill will let small farmers go about their business. Admits there is tension and it is harder for small farmers to deal with regulations. Small farmers “have responsibilities too to keep food clean." Not sure if could have supported without Tester amendment which created some exemptions for small farms.

Recent Walmart initiative & Big Business (read about it here)

MP: Walmart’s history suggests that it will crush growers. Why will it take Walmart five years to remove salt from processed food? Walmart has a lot of power and claims it will use the power to mitigate problems.

The most hopeful initiative is to re-regionalize the supply chain for food. That’s the interesting one to watch. Marginally improving processed foods doesn’t make much of a difference. It’s a waste of energy to negotiate improved cookies and crackers

Part of me thinks that when I invest any hope in companies like Wal-Mart solving problems, "isn't it sad that this is what it takes.” Other side of me: when McDonalds decides to make changes such as stopping GMO potatoes and slaughterhouse reforms, one company can change the whole landscape. Walmart can change the whole landscape.

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ES: Walmart taking leadership on sustainable initiatives may be sincere. The problem is that there shouldn't be any corporation in America that powerful. Walmart would have been broken up under Eisenhower administration under antitrust laws. Would like to see Walmart allow unions, pay living wage to workers, offer a good health care plan. Willing to give credit for some things, but need to see how this plays out. “I'm not a socialist” but see an entity like Walmart or Exxon Mobil, only counterweight is the government.

Pollan: Not having politicians talk about power of corporations b/c corporations can buy politicians. Since mid 1970s, both political parties closely allied w/ big business. Politicians fail to talk about corporate power. Obscure to me why Obama didn't have this conversation during financial crisis.

Antitrust

ES: Not a simple anti-corporate issue. About unchecked power and how corrupting it can be. Not good for Democratic society. Teddy Roosevelt understood well, and led antitrust movement. If you believe in the free market and capitalism, you need competing forces and corporations. Monsanto and DuPont takeover of US seed stock is completely antithetical to competition. Hundreds of seed companies are going out of business. Companies that created some of most toxic substances (such as Agent Orange) now have control over our food.

MP: Rules for antitrust rewritten in Reagan’s Justice Dept. Companies could merge as long as you couldn’t prove that the combination would lead to higher prices. The rules were rewritten to protect consumers from rising prices, but did not protect from problem of increased political influence that comes with consolidation. Prices have lowered, but there are increased costs to public health and the environment

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School Lunches

MP: New legislation passed to improve school lunches. Obama worked hard to get through congress. Underfunded, but does have higher nutritional standards than seen. "Will get sodas out of school, will get lots of junk food out. Whether it will stop spent hens from getting into chicken nuggets, I don't know. But I'm hopeful."

Recent News of USDA Approval of GMO Alfalfa

MP: I tried to get TV news shows interested, but they said, why do we care? We don't eat alfalfa. Alfalfa is an important feed for cattle, dairy and meat. GMO alfalfa is a threat to organic industry because organic meat and dairy farmers have to show that they only use organic feed. It will be hard to find GMO-free hay.

ES: Alfalfa is a perennial. Once it's out there, it is out there, and will be hard to control.

MP: Over 90% of alfalfa is grown w/o herbicide. It's robust. Few weeds once get a strand. "It's a lousy solution to a nonexistent problem." It’s lousy because Roundup is not working well. Resistance is growing to Roundup. Not sure if anyone will buy it but Monsanto is selling hard. Rumor has it that Vilsack tried to come up with a compromise but was overruled by White House. Monsanto has people in government through revolving door. Would have been a precedent if passed." Not a proud moment for the Obama administration to let it pass." This will be in court for a long time.

Feeding the World

MP: We are not feeding the world with the system we have. There are a billion people who don't have enough to eat. Many countries have gone down the industrial path. The issue is food access, not yield. Worldwide this year, there is enough food to feed 10 to 11 billion people worldwide. The problem is that we are feeding half of it to animals. We can't feed the world on American meat-based diet. Argument "to feed the world" has convinced American farmers to overproduce for decades and decades. There are a billion hungry and a billion obese in the world. Could we feed the world on sustainable food? "Honest answer is we don't know."

ES: Monsanto, GMO companies and chemical companies say: if you support organic, you support poor people starving around world. Over 75% of food produced is going to livestock. Half of the food that is for human consumption is being thrown away. Only 12-14% of the food produced is being eaten by people. If we feed people instead of livestock and go on a plant-based diet, the US could feed a billion to billion and a half more people. It is absurd to suggest that the sustainable system Pollan advocates isn't achievable.

MP: When we dump grain on Africans, we are bankrupting African farmers.

MP: 20% of corn is used for ethanol. One of main factors of spike in food prices.

MP: Monsanto "maybe" will come up with a product that will help feed world. But they haven't done it yet.

Food Fights

MP: If we ban antibiotics in livestock, farmers will have to do other things to clean up the system. They would have to give animals more space, daylight, grass, cleaner animal raising facilities. A lot would change with that one change and it can be justified currently with public health evidence.

ES: Would like to see increased access to healthy food. Focus on school lunches and poor areas. Also, fighting apathy. Far more oppressive systems than our food system were overturned in the past. There is no reason we should tolerate the current system and no reason it should have to continue. We are talking about four meat packing companies, three or four seed companies, and 300 million Americans. There is so much more freedom of expression, organization, etc… now than there has been in last 20 years.

ES: We have a culture of apathy and cynicism. This can be changed if want to spend time and actively do it. Corporations are vulnerable to regulation, or people not buying products.

Farm Bill

MP: Next year we will have a discussion about the farm bill. The farm bill sets the rules of the game for the entire system. It is decided by a very few farm state legislatures. The bill codifies things like tremendous subsidies for precisely the wrong kind of products.

EK: The last round of the food bill saw more activism expressed than ever before.

MP: Pelosi was surprised the last time by activism. There will be more this time. In Pelosi’s hometown, the San Francisco Chronicle ran farm bill stories on the cover twice. Will we get radical change this time around? Probably not, but hopefully incremental change. We need people interested in health and environment on committees, not people interested in sending pork back to districts. We all have a stake in the farm bill. "Every claim in bill must be subjected to litmus test: does this contribute to public health of Americans or detract? If brought this lens to bear on the legislation, it would fail.”

Cooking

ES: I don’t cook, I boil. I eat, I occasionally shop.

MP: Food movement is only going to get so far unless people cook. Cooking is the solution to the problem of how do you eat well if u don't have a lot of money. We have a filet culture. If we only have 20 minutes, we throw a filet on the grill. But that’s rich people cooking. There is a peasant tradition of unique cuts of meat, technique to make up for it. People say they don’t have time and panic around the idea of time. This bears scrutiny. Somehow we’ve found two hours in the day to be online. We’ve decided that being online is important, but cooking isn't important. Need to start cooking for our health, our families’ health, and to build a new renaissance in local food.

What Can You Do

ES: It needs to be made easier to get food stamps in the state. CA has some of toughest rules in terms of getting the food stamps people are entitled to. Fingerprinting requirement adds a criminal stigma to suffering from recession.

MP: Best thing students can do is to pressure food service in school. Look at the Real Food Challenge. Change sourcing to local and organic. Food service represents half of food money and schools make up a big part of that.

MP: I’ve lost my appetite for fast food, and that is partly because of Eric’s work. "Knowing the story behind your food is to enjoy it in a completely different way."

ES: Being conscious and aware is empowering. I want to give my money to people trying to do the right thing. I don't want to give money to the others.

MP: Food dollars are votes. This is empowering. If you have the money to spend, it's a powerful vote. A responsibility comes with it.

EK: Compared to 15 years ago, the world of what is delicious out there is much bigger.

ES: There is an attack on the sustainability and organic movement by people like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. They say the movements are elitist. Actually, current industrial food system is elitist. The people suffering the most harm are poor and working people.

MP: Another thing we can do is to write zoning rules that encourage supermarkets to come into underserved areas. Manhattan is doing it. Well-intentioned policy actually got fast food business into inner cities. There was a policy to give loans so inner cities could create small businesses. The easiest business to start was fast food.

MP: Health insurers are an important ally moving future. It is expensive to treat chronic diseases. Now they can't disqualify people and kick them off of their health insurance plans. They have an incentive to prevent Type 2 diabetes. For the first time, there are powerful players whose interests align with the food movement in some areas. If we can reduce soda consumption by 30%, we can save billions in health care costs. People are only just now waking up to importance of issue

ES: Politicians are vote-seeking. "If a strong social movement demands certain changes, it is amazing how quickly politicians want those changes made.” Most politicians will do or say whatever you want to get your votes. Need to tell them what we want.

Jamie Oliver and LAUSD

MP: He is well intentioned, but is making a commercial reality show. Public institutions like LAUSD have responsibility to let journalists in. Is Oliver a journalist? I’m not sure.

Pollan is the best-selling author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food Rules. Schlosser is the best-selling author of Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness. Kleiman is the Chef at Angeli Café and host of KCRW’s Good Food. The event was organized by Visions and Voices.