I begin this article in full disclosure: I had no intention of hearing Michael Pollen speak last Tuesday. My Gmail calendar had one lone appointment on Tuesday, May 12th, and it involved me and the television. That appointment was going to be my last drink before AA, the last cigarette before inhaling a pack of Nicorette, the "closure" phone call to the jerk I broke up with six months ago. That appointment was The Biggest Loser finale. My obsession with the NBC reality show began innocently enough. Mark had class on Tuesday nights and I couldn't stand the silence of an empty apartment. I tuned in to the Biggest Loser in January, and found myself blocking off an entire night in May to celebrate the end of the season, and my subsequent freedom on Tuesday evenings.
But one day before the finale my aunt emailed me, adding as an afterthought, "Have you ever heard of Michael Pollen? I'm going to hear him speak at the West Roxbury library tomorrow night." Have I ever heard of Michael Pollen? Pollen, the author of several books including The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, is the Michael Jackson of food writing. I considered my date with Tara, Mike, and Helen for about two seconds, and quickly changed the Gmail event to "MICHAEL POLLEN!" If only a sugar addiction were as easy to kick as The Biggest Loser.
The atmosphere in the auditorium of the Lyndon Elementary School was thick with sweat and anticipation in a space not designed for so many adult bodies. It felt like a strange mix between rock concert and church service, featuring Michael Pollen as the lead-singing preacher. And yes, he delivered. Pollen was Bono-esque, complete with trendy glasses and exuding confidence. His voice traveled through the audience with such an intimate cadence, I think we each felt as though he was talking only to us, over a locally grown green salad.
Pollen opened by addressing the eager crowd with praise for their civic involvement, and a quick but respectful reference to West Roxbury’s Brook Farm, a nineteenth century Utopian experiment based on the popular views of Transcendentalism. He quipped about this speaking engagement, quoting several people who questioned his stop to West Roxbury, Massachusetts, but his tone turned solemn when reminding us that the six-week West Roxbury Reads program that culminated in his visit was incredibly important to the health and future of our society.
Pollen began by sharing four common ideologies around food, which he collectively calls "nutritionism." They include the ideas that nutrients are more important than food; if what matters about food is invisible, we must need experts to tell us how to eat; there are good nutrients and foods and bad ones; and the whole point of eating is for health.
He also offered his thoughts on the proliferation of nutritionism at all levels of society. This ideology has crept into our society unnoticed, in the form of the low-fat campaign and products such as Snackwells brand snacks. You'd think we'd be getting healthier now that we've cut out fat, right? But between 1920 and 1960, the butter consumption of the average person fell from eighteen pounds, to four. And during that same span, heart disease skyrocketed to become the nation's number one killer.
Pollen asserted that our nutritionism demands that we compartmentalize eating, but the sum of the parts is left far behind the sum of the whole. We're following a science that began in the 1830s. To put that in perspective, nutritional science today is where surgery was in 1650 - promising, but not there yet. I don't think anyone in the audience would sign up to go under the knife of a doctor with seventeenth century medical knowledge.
We know the Western diet leads to chronic diseases; forty percent of cancers are linked to diet; and $1.5 of the $2 trillion spent on health care goes to treating food related chronic illnesses.
So where do we go if we throw out the tenets of nutritionism?
First, we must get off the SAD - the standard American diet. That means we need to start eating food, not food products. Pollen suggests eating foods that don't need to carry health claims on their packaging - in fact, most real food doesn't even have packaging. You'll find this real food around the perimeter of the supermarket, at farmer's markets, and in your backyard garden.
Pollen also advocates following cultural wisdom regarding food. He's currently compiling a list of food rules that include the smirk-inducing, "It’s not food if it comes to you through the window of a car," and the more thought-provoking, "The only food you should eat grows out of the ground or had a mother." Yet, the food industry doesn't agree with Grandma. They don't want us to see public service announcements about real food; ninety-four percent of food marketing goes to processed foods.
After the thirty-minute boot-camp session, which was based on the premise of his book, "In Defense of Food," Pollen answered questions handed to him via little notecards we'd all furiously scribbled on while waiting for him to take center stage. The first question asked Pollen to share what he would say if he had five minutes with President Obama. With a disarming smile, Pollen looked down at his notes, took a sip of water, and answered as if he'd been thinking about this question all week.
"We have a highly centralized food supply, and that provides greater risk for contamination - both accidental and intentional," Pollen started. He went on to suggest that the government could begin to practically implement this by mandating a 5% local food procurement for all nationally and state run facilities, from schools to jails. This would bring farmers back into business and decrease our risk for potential contaminants. We applauded furiously, as if he had just nailed the final point of his sermon.
There were questions about preserving soil and water, to which Pollen directed us to Wendell Berry's Op-Ed piece, “A 50-year Farm Bill.” Others wanted to know if Pollen ever felt threatened by the industry he's exposing. He assured us he does not fear for his safety, but told us about the campaign to take down investigative journalist Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, when he attempted to visit schools to speak about the industry-threatening ideas in his book. The crowd was quiet with the understanding that fighting food giants is not just a euphemism for sporadically buying organic food at Whole Foods. If it's done with conviction, it can put careers, reputations, and personal security in jeopardy.
The final question was perfectly placed by the librarian in charge of filtering the over zealous (and verbose) questions. "What will your next book be about?"
That smile again.
"Well, I'm doing something a bit different," and you could tell he was excited about it. The answer to this question outlasted all the others, but it seemed appropriate, almost like an encore. "We've lost the culture of cooking." Considering half of our food dollars are spent outside the home, he may be right. So Michael Pollen will be writing a book about cooking, not to be confused with a cookbook.
In addition to his upcoming book, Pollen and Schlosser will be featured in the movie “Food, Inc.” They're hoping to reach a wide audience with the film, and educate the public about where our food really comes from. I want the endeavor to be a success, but I wonder at what cost? Pollen the preacher may need to get on his knees to pray for protection, because he has too much momentum to stay under the food industry's radar for long.