Marion Nestle, whom Michael Pollan ranked as the #2 most powerful foodie in America (after Michelle Obama) in Forbes, has always used cartoons in her public presentations to communicate how politics—shaped by government, corporate marketing, economics, and geography—influences food choice. Cartoons do more than entertain; the best get right to the core of complicated concepts and powerfully convey what might otherwise take pages to explain.
In Eat Drink Vote, Nestle teams up with The Cartoonist Group syndicate to present more than 250 of her favorite cartoons on issues ranging from dietary advice to genetic engineering to childhood obesity. Using the cartoons as illustration and commentary, she engagingly summarizes some of today's most pressing issues in food politics. While encouraging readers to vote with their forks for healthier diets, this book insists that it's also necessary to vote with votes to make it easier for everyone to make healthier dietary choices.
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About the Author
The Cartoonist Group licenses the work of more 50 leading cartoonists to Web sites, newsletters, magazines, and books, including nine Pulitzer Prize winners.
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The American Food System: From Farm to Table
FOOD IS POLITICAL BECAUSE PEOPLE HAVE WIDELY varying interests in its production and consumption. As an eater, you might be concerned about the health effects of food, its cost, and whether you have adequate access to foods that you like and are good for you. If you are in the food business, your primary concern has to be about how to sell as much of your products as you possibly can at a profit. If you are a member of Congress, you might want to enact policies that please the majority of your constituents, but circumstances might require you to please somecontributors to your campaign funds, for examplemore than others. And if you work for a government agency, even your best ideas about how to improve the food system will be constrained by the political considerations of the party in power.
The food industry is vast. It encompasses everyone who owns or works in agriculture (animal and plant), product manufacture, restaurants, institutional food service, retail stores, and factories that make farm machines and fertilizers, as well as people engaged in the transportation, storage, and insurance businesses that support such enterprises.
This means that any labor, safety, advertising, or labeling regulation; any program of farm support or food assistance; any law governing taxes, food aid, immigration, or international trade; and any federal dietary recommendation has the potential to affect the sales, income, and livelihoods of anyone involved. inv
THE US AGRICULTURAL SYSTEM
THE CURRENT FOOD SYSTEM in the United States is largely based on industrial agricultureCAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) and enormous farms and supermarket aisles overflowing with snacks, candies, cookies, sodas, and sugary foods that bear little resemblance to the plants, crops, or animals from which they were derived. This system is highly efficient and provides an abundance of foods from which to choose at relatively low cost, but with unfortunate consequences for health and the environment, especially when companies cut corners on labor and safety practices. Pressures to keep wages low, for example, mean that only immigrants are willing to do farm labor. Immigrants have always done work that nobody else wants to do, and farm labor is the most recent example. One unintended consequence of policies that restrict immigration is to reduce the supply of agricultural workers.
Federal dietary guidelines may encourage consumption of fruits and vegetables, but federal subsidies go almost exclusively to the growers of food commodities such as corn and soybeans. These crops are grown mainly for animal feed. In contrast, the USDA has historically considered fruits and vegetables to be "specialty" crops, undeserving of much in the way of federal support. Although this support system began in the 1930s as a means to ensure enough food for Americans and a reasonable living for small farmers, farms got bigger over the years. The invention of new machines led to greater efficiency and meant that fewer workers were needed.
Consolidation of agricultural production also led to greater efficiency. These changes resulted in federal subsidies going to larger and richer farms.
Congress determines subsidies and other forms of agricultural support through long, complicated, and expensive farm bills, renegotiated about every five years. The 2008 farm bill, for example, cost taxpayers about $20 billion a year for direct payments, conservation, and insurance support programs. Direct payments were by far the most contentious form of agricultural support. The bill authorized payments to the owners of the largest farms, many of them wealthy landowners who live in cities, rent out the land, never set foot on the farms, and simply collect the checks.
In 2005 and 2007, Congress passed energy policy acts that required increasing percentages of ethanol to be mixed with gasoline. Farmers quickly began diverting corn crops from animal feed to ethanol production. By 2012, more than 40 percent of US corn was used to produce ethanol. Given the oil and gas used to produce fertilizer and to plant and harvest crops, it is debatable whether ethanol actually adds to our energy supply. But one result of the diversion is not debatable: Using corn to produce biofuels drives up food prices. This happened in the United States and also, as I explain in the next chapter, throughout the world.
FOOD SYSTEM POLITICS
THE HISTORY OF AGRICULTURE policy in the United States is one of increasing concentration and consolidation, with big driving out small in the name of efficiency. It is also one of cozy relations between corporate agriculture, Congress, and the USDA. For decades, representatives from farm states ran congressional agriculture and agricultural appropriations committees, and the USDA worked closely with agribusiness to promote larger and more efficient production. Food product manufacturers also benefited from this system, especially at the state level. In the wake of antiobesity lawsuits against McDonald's in the early 2000s, states began to introduce laws to protect food companies from such "frivolous" suits. More than 20 states passed "cheeseburger" bills protecting restaurants and food product companies from obesity lawsuits, and Congress introduced legislation to limit such lawsuits in state courts. Such actions conveyed the impression that Congress, the USDA, and agribusiness had the same pro-business goals.
In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment to the US Constitutionfreedom of speechallowed corporations and private groups to donate as much money as they liked to candidates for election. Corporations, however, have far greater resources than most food advocacy groups.
This case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, opened the floodgates to unlimited campaign contributions through super PACs, political action committees able to accept anonymous contributions from food and agriculture corporations through a new loophole: money funneled through nonprofit groups. The influx of this anonymous "dark money" reinforced the suspicion that congressional candidates are for sale to the highest bidders.
What seem to be simple decisions about food issues that affect public health are instead influenced by the need for candidates to raise money to run for office. That money influences federal policy seems self-evident but turns out to be difficult to prove, thereby leaving the question open to speculation and opinion. Opinions, as always, depend on point of view. But one unarguable result of unlimited campaign spending is that Congress often appears to be more concerned with the health of corporations than with the health of the public.
TODAY'S FOOD MARKETING ENVIRONMENT
THE PREVALENCE OF OBESITY in the United States began to rise sharply starting in the early 1980s. Since then, our food environment has changed in ways that encourage eating in more places, with greater frequency, and in much larger portions. In part, these changes in society happened as a result of the increasingly frantic pace of modern life.
But they also occurred as a result of changes in agricultural and investment policies that forced food companies to become more competitive. Through the 1960s, federal agricultural policy aimed to keep prices high by reducing the supply of commodities. The USDA paid growers of commodity crops to let land lie fallow. But beginning in the 1970s, Congress removed such restrictions and began rewarding farmers for growing as much food as they could fit onto their land. The number of calories available in the food supplyavailable but not necessarily consumedrose from about 3,200 per day per capita in 1980 to 3,900 by the year 2000. Calorie availability is calculated on the basis of all food produced in the United States, plus food that is imported, minus food exports. Per capita includes men, women, children, and tiny babies. Overall, 3,900 calories a day is roughly twice the average need of the population. Even if a great deal of food is wasted, calories are still available in great excess.
The overabundance of calories forces the food industry to be highly competitive, but other changes in the early 1980s required even more competition. Shareholders began to pressure corporations to reward them with higher immediate returns on investment. Food companies not only had to compete for sales against 3,900 calories a day, but now had to increase sales and report growth in profits to Wall Street every 90 days. Competitive pressures forced food companies to consolidate, to become larger and more efficient, to seek new markets, and to expand existing markets. Fast-food places proliferated. The mere presence of fast-food places selling cheap, high-calorie foods, backed up by enormous amounts of advertising, is all it takes to induce customers to buy products and eat more than they should.
Vending machines were installed in schools. Companies began to market foods in places where food had never been sold in the past: bookstores, libraries, and stores selling clothing, business supplies, cosmetics, or drugs. And restaurants began serving foods in larger and larger portions.
Today, it has become socially acceptable to eat in more places, more frequently, and in much larger amounts. Fast food and sodas have become ubiquitous parts of the American landscape. Eating more is good for business. Eating less is not. The result: Overeating is not nearly so much a problem of weak character as an unavoidable response to today's "eat more" food environment.
Former FDA Commissioner David Kessler, MD, argues in The End of Overeating (Rodale, 2009) that constant exposure to this kind of food environment has driven people to desire high-calorie fast foods, snacks, and beverages, and to become "conditioned overeaters." The current food environment induces people to eat more food than they need or necessarily want, not least because "eat more" stimuli are largely invisible or not consciously perceived. But wait. Before blaming the food industry and government, shouldn't individuals bear the ultimate responsibility for making healthier choices regardless of the environment?
Should educators focus on teaching people to make healthier choices? Or would they do better if they taught coping strategies for dealing with the not-so-obvious marketing efforts of food companies, supermarkets, and restaurants?
I sometimes like to ask: What industries benefit if people make healthier dietary choices? Not the food industry, which needs people to eat more, not less. Not the health care industry, which gets paid for treatment procedures and drugs. Not the diet or drug industries. What all this means is that dealing with the "eat more" food environment is a challengenot only for individuals, but also for society.
Q&A for Eat Drink Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics. Kerry Trueman—an environmental advocate—interviews public health nutritionist Marion Nestle.
KT: Has politics always had such a huge impact on the way we eat?
MN: Of course it has. As long as we have had inequities between rich and poor, politics has made some people fat while others starved. Think, for example, of the sugar trade and slavery, the Boston tea party, or the role of stolen bread in Les Misérables. Bread riots and food fights are about politics.
But those events seem simple compared to what we deal with now, when no food issue seems too small to generate arguments about who wins or loses. Congressional insistence that the tomato paste on pizza counts as a vegetable serving is only the most recent case in point.
KT: How do you reconcile the fact that what's good for us as individuals--namely, eating less junk food--is bad for business?
MN: I don't think these facts are easily reconciled. They can only be observed and commented and acted upon. The job of the food industry is to produce products that will not only sell well, but will sell increasingly well over time, in order to produce growing returns to investors.
Reconciliation requires companies either to sell less (impossible from a business standpoint) or make up the difference with sales of healthier products. Unfortunately, the so-called healthier products—and whether they really are is debatable—rarely sell as well. In practice, companies touch all bases at once: they put most marketing efforts into their core products, they proliferate new "better-for-you" products, and they seek new customers for their products among the vast populations of the developing world—where, no surprise, the prevalence of obesity is increasing, along with its related diseases.
KT: Why did you want to do a book of food politics cartoons?
MN: If truth be told, I've been wanting to do one for years. Cartoons are such a great way to engage audiences. Politics can be dreary. Cartoons make it fun. I've collected cartoons for years on everything about food and nutrition. I would have loved to do a book on nutrition in cartoons but getting permission to reprint them was too difficult and expensive.
For the cartoons in my last book, Why Calories Count, I contacted the copyright holder, Sara Thaves, who represents the work of about 50 cartoonists. During our negotiations about how much they would cost, Sara asked if I might be interested in doing a book using Cartoonist Group cartoons. Would I ever!
Sara ended up sending me more than 1,100 cartoons—all on food politics. I put them in categories and started writing. The only hard part was winnowing the drawings to a publishable number. But what a gorgeous book this turned out to be! The cartoons are in full color.
KT: In Eat Drink Vote, you note that, "it ought to be possible to enjoy the pleasures of food and eat healthfully at the same time." Why does that ideal meal elude so many of us?
MN: Because our food choices are so strongly influenced by the food environment. Given a large plate of food, for example, practically everyone will eat more from it than from a smaller portion.
And then there's the cooking problem. For decades, Americans have been told that cooking is too much trouble and takes too much time. As a result, many people would rather order in and wait for it to arrive and get heated up again than to start from scratch. And healthy foods cost more than highly processed junk foods, and not only on the basis of calories. The government supports the production of corn and soybeans, for example, but not that of broccoli or carrots.
I should also mention that food companies get to deduct the cost of marketing, even marketing to children, from their taxes as legitimate business expenses.
KT: On the subject of food and pleasure, you enjoy the occasional slice of pizza or scoop of ice cream, just as Michelle Obama loves her french fries. Do you subscribe to the "all things in moderation" philosophy, or are there some things you simply won't eat, ever?
MN: The only food I can think of that I won't ever eat is brains, and that's rarely a problem. And yes, I do subscribe to "everything in moderation" although it's hard to admit it without irony. The phrase has been so misused by food companies and some of my fellow nutritionists to defend sales of junk foods and drinks.
There is no question that some foods are healthier to eat than others and we all would be better off eating more of the healthier ones and fewer of the less healthful foods. But "fewer" does not and should not mean "none." And what's wrong with pizza, pray tell? In my view, life is too short not to leave plenty of room for freshly baked pizza, toffee candy, real vanilla ice cream, and a crusty, yeasty white bread—all in moderation, of course.