Seeing Michael Pollan speak was on my list of things to do. When it was announced he was coming to Santa Barbara, I marked it on my calendar. But somehow, I got busy. Let’s see, there was a birthday party to plan and a book club dinner to prepare for. By the time I looked up, it was Thursday evening and the event was sold out. If you know me well, you may have heard this sentence come out of my mouth, “things just tend to work out.” Thursday was a prime example of my life philosophy. I decided to take a chance and go down the Granada Theater early to see if anyone was selling a ticket. The end result? I got a FREE orchestra ticket from the director at my daughter’s school after they had a last minute cancellation. The bonus? The parking attendant was no longer at the kiosk, so I got free parking too.
The event was billed, An Evening with Michael Pollan in Conversation with Renee Montagne. The newly remodeled Granada stage featured two oversized, tan leather chairs and a coffee table filled with a mound of whole fruits and vegetables (although from my vantage point, they looked fake). Michael walked onstage with Renee, he in an slim-profile olive suit, her in a black dress ensemble. Renee announced that this would be a casual event; she would ask questions first and then there would be an audience Q&A at the end. The theater has a strict policy against the use of cell phones during any show, so I was forced to take notes on my program in the dark. I did my best to get exact quotes, but some may be slightly off (since I couldn’t read all my own handwriting).
Renee jumped right in with a question on Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Campaign and whether or not it has been effective. After Michael talked about some of the aspects of the campaign that he thinks are working, he brought up the recent press coverage of Walmart’s announcement to make their foods “healthier” over the next 5 years.
“Walmart is feeding 30-40% of the population. They are a big part of the problem and the solution. If I had been advising her [Obama], which I was not asked, I would have told her to do the [Walmart] press release in 5 years. My big question, why does it take 5 years to reduce the salt in food? I can show them how to do it…After the low-carb craze, low carb pasta showed up in a week…Tweaking processed foods doesn’t solve the problem. Healthy foods cost more than the unhealthy food…[Walmart's] their business model and our waistlines are in conflict.”
Renee and Michael discussed the significance of Michelle Obama planting an organic garden at the White House and Renee mentioned that she had dined on special produce from the White House garden while eating there. Michael then laughed and said he’s never been invited to the white house, “you get to dine with these people and I get to hang with the gardener.”
The discussion turned to school “food literacy” programs and whether or not they are effective in changing behavior. “We don’t know yet,” said Michael and then added that relationship between cooking, growing and eating was critical.
“Food literacy is important for children. Alice Waters was the visionary for this…kids develop a taste for junk food…we [Michael and siblings] used to try to get my mom to cook school food like sloppy joes and hamburgers…Teaching food is just as important as math and English for kids.”
As a mother of a 3-year old, I can already see the significance of teaching my child where her food comes from. First, children are naturally curious about everything. They want to know. When my daughter gets to work in the garden whether it be at home or at her preschool, she loves it. There is something so human about seeing her work with dirt in a completely committed and uninhibited manner. The best part is she will actually taste what she’s planted and picked. That is greatly significant for any mother.
I learned that there is currently enough food on this planet to feed everyone. All 11 billion of us. The problem? Much of today’s food production is used to feed farm animals instead of people. “We have to make not eating meat as glamorous as eating meat…can you imagine if China starts eating like us, which they already are.” Michael talked about how energy intensive today’s industrial farming and how it takes 10 calories of fossil fuels to get1 calorie of food. Hmmm, that doesn’t sound very sustainable. Michael pointed to practices such as crop rotation and animal/crop rotation as solutions to this energy usage problem. He reminded us that we just need to look back in time for examples of farming practices that work. He brought up a case study of a farm in Argentina that plants corn or soy for 4-5 years, then cattle for 4 years, and then back to crops. This rotation yields extraordinary results with no need for pesticides or herbicides. The manure feeds the soil and the rotation eliminates most weeds and insects.
Michael briefly discussed the recent food stories related to GMOs (genetically modified organisms/foods) and the issue of farm subsidies on corn and soy. The Obama administration has greenlighted several GM crops within the last year including sugar beets and alfalfa. Who knew alfalfa was the 4th most widely grown crop in the US? It is used for animal feed and because of the way it pollinates, poses a big risk to non-GM crops. The deregulation of genetically modified alfalfa is causing organic ranchers great reason for concern since they must be able to prove their animals are fed organic feed. “We spend $20 billion in crop subsidies.”
Renee’s next question focuses on the many sides of the food movement and how they are often in conflict with one another. I never really looked at it from this perspective, but when you think of the “food movement” you have a whole range of topics including: school food, animal rights, feeding the hungry, nutrition for the poor, food labeling, food safety, protection of small farms/farmers, government subsidies, protecting food stamps, etc. I’ve certainly experienced this phenomenon myself when conversing with passionate food folks. If you pick any one issue, let’s take food labeling for example, on one side food activists want to know what’s in their food and demand labeling. On the other side you have small farmers who say it is too costly to make label changes and then you have artisan wine makers who don’t want a nutritional facts label on their bottles. Another example would be animal rights. Instead of banding together in support of doing away with CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation), we have PETA and vegans shouting “no animal products” and then we have ancient foods proponents (raw dairy activists, Weston A. Price followers, paleo people) saying it’s okay to use animal products if it’s grass fed and humane. Pollan pointed to the Food Safety Bill as an example where for the first time, the food movement made a major change to legislation (exempting small farms from the legislation). He closed his response with this advice, “you have to figure out what matters to you – local, organic, hormones…vote 3 times a day [when you eat]. It’s okay if you don’t always get it right.”
The evening closed with a Q&A session from the audience. My evening with Michel Pollan did not disappoint. He was eloquent, inspiring, humble and open. I highly encourage anyone who cares about food to go see him. Oh, and he gets extra brownie points for signing my book.
This was a blog post I started in February and just now realized I never posted it. An Evening with Michael Pollan was a part of the UCSB Arts & Lectures Food For Thought series held at the Granada Theater in Santa Barbara on February 10, 2011. For more information on Michael Pollan, pick up one of his many excellent books or visit his website at MichaelPollan.com.
photo credit: Alia Malley via michaelpollan.com