Among those who care about food, particularly the intersection of food and politics, Marion Nestle, New York University’s Paulette Goddard professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health and a professor of sociology (and whose last name is not pronounced like the crunchy candy bar), is something of a patron saint. An outspoken rabble-rouser who has followed the money from the grocery store to the White House, Nestle is a straight shooter with a taste for writing and speaking truth to power. She’s appeared in nearly every film in the modern food–exposé canon, is currently anticipating the release of the 10-year-anniversary edition of her seminal book Food Politics, and is at work on a multimedia (book, movie, app) endeavor focused on the soda industry. She’ll be on hand to deliver the keynote at this weekend’s Edible Institute event, and I recently had a chance to talk with her. Here are some excerpts:
On the obstacles to changing the food environment: Congress, election campaign laws just sort of leaped to mind. I’m impressed that Michelle Obama started her Let’s Move campaign with high hopes that she’d be able to make progress in changing the food environment, to make it easier for parents to feed their kids more healthfully, [but] she greatly underestimated the pushback. They did get the school food rules changed, practically over the dead body of Congress, which fought back every way it could, and is still fighting, along with opposition from the food industry, business interests, and all these other corporate concerns.
They’re at a point where they’re doing other things that really aren’t changing the landscape the way it needs to be changed. The best example was the failure to do anything about marketing to children. … The political attempt to do something about food marketing, which was actually spearheaded by Congress — kind of incredible — Congress asked four federal agencies to come up with a plan. It was this mild, voluntary plan that hardly did anything, and it was completely blown out of the water! So making progress in this area must come from the people themselves, grassroots efforts. You can’t expect government to fix these problems because … they’re handicapped. And not for lack of good intentions; [but] the pushback is so severe, they can’t budge. So something has to be done on a populist level.
On her new book and the soda industry: I’m early in the process, but my immediate impression is there is no stone the industry leaves unturned in protecting its interests. It’s willing to put a truly breathtaking amount of money into that. … So many current attempts to improve the food environment are looking at sodas, the most obvious being the 16-ounce soda cap that goes into effect in New York City [this] week. The pushback on that has been absolutely amazing to watch. The amount of money trying to defeat it, and they’re now in court. … You would think people were having something really important taken away from them. … Most shocking is how many community organizations the soda industry funds. It’s just staggering. Community and health organizations … any group that is willing to take money from them, it will give money to. Lots of minority groups, who suffer most from obesity and its consequences, so this is classic technique for buying off critics.
On then and now: Ten years ago, Food Politics seemed to be breaking new ground trying to get people to think about the environmental influences on food choice and obesity … how food marketing influences what people eat and that, if you change the food environment, you’ve got a much better chance of helping people eat more healthfully. [Today] lots of people are looking at ways to make environmental changes that might do some good. The movement to make food healthier in schools, urban gardens, the emphasis on fresh local ingredients, all of these are part of that.
Marion Nestle will deliver the keynote speech at the Edible Institute on Saturday, March 16, at 9 a.m. For info, visit ediblecommunities.com.