I was at a small gathering of food professionals a few days ago and asked how many had read Pollan’s article in The New York Times magazine the week before, a memo to Washington about what people and this country should do to halt our reliance on oil-based food production. Out of 50 only a few had. What’s worse, beyond his general premise—that we need to revert to sun-fed system from an oil-fed one—and the practical notion that we need to support small farmers and learn to grow our own food I couldn’t remember what practical advice he was suggesting.
So I went back for a second look: while some may argue that his suggestions are simplistic, that they may fail to acknowledge the huge global issue of population growth (the fact that in 40 years the earth will carry 10 billion people, 80% of whom will live in urban areas), and some are giddily futuristic (bar codes on food that allow us through our hand-helds to see how the food was produced, how the meat was slaughtered, etc), they’re all of them worth considering. Here’s a quick list for those who missed his excellent memo but are curious how Pollan, who has vigorously condemned our food production system, for the first time offers potential solutions:
—Train a new generation of farmers, spread them throughout the land, and make farming a revered profession.
—Preserve every acre of farmland we have and make it accessible to these farmers.
—Build an infrastructure for a regional food economy—one that can encourage and support the farms and distribute what they grow (rebuild or create regional distribution systems).
—Provide cities grants with which to build structures for year-round farmers markets.
—Ease federal production regulations, designed to control multi-national food companies but that hog tie small producers.
—Create local meat-inspection corps so that we can create more regional slaughter facilities, perhaps the biggest impediment to our being able to find local hand raised meat. (This is huge.)
—Establish a grain reserve to prevent huge swings in commodity markets.
—Require federal institutions that prepare food (school lunches, prisons, military bases, etc.) to buy a minimum percentage of that food locally.
—Create a Federal definition of food, to encourage people to think about what is food and what is not, stuff we consume that has no caloric value (“junk food” should not be considered food).
—Food stamp debit cards should double in value when swiped at a framers’ market; give farmers’ market vouchers to low-income women and children (why does he exclude men, I wonder; a different subject perhaps).
—Make changes in our daily lives: teach children how to cook; plant gardens in every primary school and equip them with kitchens; pay for culinary tuitions (or forgive loans) by requiring culinary graduates to give some service back to such undertakings such as teaching kids how to cook; increase school lunch spending by $1 a day; grow more of our own food and prepare and eat our food together at a table; accept the fact that food may be more expensive and eat less of it.
—Make our food production system as transparent as possible: have a second calorie listing how many fossil fuel calories went into its production so that consumers could discourage production of fuel expensive food by not buying it.
—Finally, there should be a White House vegetable garden and our President should set the first example. Our founding fathers were largely farmers. This would be a good symbolic return.
It’s one thing to rail against what is wrong; another to offer realistic solutions to the problems you decry. I’m grateful to Pollan for what he’s set out to do and hope that our legislators acknowledge the sad state of food in America, recognize that how we produce and consume our food may be the biggest determiner of the quality of life in America generally, and put it at the head of their agendas with whatever administration we elect next month.