A National Eating Plan?

If a foreign power were to do such harm [from the food system], we’d regard it as a threat to national security, if not an act of war, and the government would formulate a comprehensive plan and marshal resources to combat it. … So when hundreds of thousands of annual deaths are preventable — as the deaths from the chronic diseases linked to the modern American way of eating surely are — preventing those needless deaths is a national priority.

A national food policy would do that, by investing resources to guarantee that: All Americans have access to healthful food; Farm policies are designed to support our public health and environmental objectives; Our food supply is free of toxic bacteria, chemicals and drugs; Production and marketing of our food are done transparently; The food industry pays a fair wage to those it employs; Food marketing sets children up for healthful lives by instilling in them a habit of eating real food; Animals are treated with compassion and attention to their well-being; The food system’s carbon footprint is reduced, and the amount of carbon sequestered on farmland is increased; The food system is sufficiently resilient to withstand the effects of climate change.

Elizabeth Nolan Brown is more than a little skeptical:

The good news, they tell us, is that “solutions are within reach”—and it’s here that this piece really start to get amazing. The authors acknowledge that many of the problems with America’s food economy are not market failures at all but “largely a result of government policies.” So the solution surely must be to get government meddling out of food and farm policy as much as possible, no?


“We know that the government has the power to reshape the food system because it has already done so at least once—when President Richard Nixon rejiggered farm policy to boost production of corn and soy to drive down food prices,” they write. And because government can, it should, apparently. The authors are somehow able to see the corrosive effect of previous government overreach on our food system, but they feel confident that this time! they’ll get it right.

“As Obama begins the last two years of his administration facing an obstructionist Republican Congress, this is an area where he can act on his own—and his legacy may depend on him doing so,” they suggest, urging Obama to “announce an executive order establishing a national policy for food, health and well-being.”

The idea that cooking, eating, and enjoying nutritious foods is elitist is a silly and destructive one, and I’ve never been one to mock folks like Bittman and Pollan for their kale chips or food philosophies. But it doesn’t get much more elitist than thinking the U.S. food system as a whole would be better off by circumventing not just markets but also any Congressional debate. Just relax and let the top men take care of it…

Word awaits as to whether the Obama administration will join forces with Vogue in promoting the Pollan family’s quinoa burgers. Update from a reader:

I’m all for improving U.S. food policy, but like Elizabeth Nolan Brown, I’m skeptical. Grocery stores are fairly sensitive to customer demand, and I think if people change their food choices then the foods being sold to them will change. When I’ve wanted particular products at grocery stores, I’ve found managers have been willing to try to get me what I want.

I’d like to see every child take one or two years of nutrition, food safety, sanitation and food preparation instruction in school during the middle school years. It would give students some practical skills and indirectly help them exercise problem-solving skills. They can learn to prepare familiar and unfamiliar foods and learn how to shop and begin to learn menu planning and budgeting skills. Kids don’t need self-esteem as much as they need to know they can feed themselves and cope with daily life.

The other place where I’d like to see government muscle exercised is in the restaurant and fast food industry. I want the salt levels taken down significantly – I can always add salt – so I don’t have to cook a lot and can eat more takeout. Cooking isn’t real thrilling for me now that my spouse has died and I live alone. Being able to go to a restaurant without sending my blood pressure off the charts would be nice. I am eating out less than I was, and I do tell restaurant servers and managers that I’d prefer less salt. The response is often polite commiseration for the sake of being polite (indifference in a socially acceptable guise), but no change. I’m more willing to use government force on restaurants because the managers seem to be less responsive.