Real Food Mama

Musings about cooking, eating and everything in between.

In Defense of Food- Book Review July 3, 2009

Filed under: Fight Back Fridays,Food Activism,Home Economics,Politics — realfoodmama @ 10:08 am
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In Defense of Food

In Defense of Food

I just finished Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food” this week. This is his third book – following “The Botany of Desire” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, and is a self admitted quest to find a few simple rules for eating following the success of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”.

All in all I would have to say that the book provides some very interesting, if not entirely new, information about food and nutrition and the modern American relationship with all things edible. The author also discusses the more philosophical aspects of eating, including our cultural unwillingness to devote time and money to our eating, as well as the relationship between grower and eating when it comes to gardening. He doesn’t go so much into animal husbandry in this book, but he does encourage individuals to speak frankly with farmers and ranchers about their methods.

The information provided in the book also includes some hard numbers about how the food culture of this country changed in the 1960’s under the Nixon administration and the then newly subsidized crops. He also shares with us the fact that American’s as a general rule spend less than 10% of their income on food, compared to the 15-20% spent by our European counterparts. This doesn’t seem like a significant difference, but if one crunches the numbers, you can see that it is actually a huge gap.

For example, an American making $52,000 a year will spend, approximately, $5200 a year on food. This comes out to $100 a week. If a Frenchman (France spends approximately 15% of it’s income on food) made $52,000 a year, their yearly food expenditure would come out to $7800 a year, which comes out to $150 a week on food. This is a 50% increase. This is huge.

The one issue which I did have with this book was the lack of discussion about food costs in this country and the impact this has on the poor. The economical issues around food in the United States are substantial. It could be argued that the reason the Europeans spend more than Americans on food is because as a general rule the US has some of the highest relative poverty rates of any industrialized nation. The reasons for this are varied and I will refrain from sharing my opinions regarding this issue for the time being. While the high relative poverty levels do offer an explanation as to why we are spending two-thirds what other Western nations are on our food, the real issue is much more complex.

The problem is that it isn’t just America’s poor who spend less on food. All Americans spend less on food, and this is the crux of the issue. We are obsessed with quantity over quality and that is the problem – a problem which is perpetuated by the government’s continued support for and subsidization of mono-culture crops. Corn and Soy are no longer affected by supply and demand, a basic economic theory, because the food industry creates the demand based on the supply; they process and repackage and generally flooding the food market with all manner of bastardized products made from these basic building blocks.

Michael Pollan does discuss this issue throughout the book, however I feel as though he fails to go into detail regarding the heart of the dilemma. He states that the fact is in this country it is cheaper to buy highly processed fake foods, made with the subsidized corn and soy, than it is to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, which have no subsidies. Additionally, the hoops that organic farmers have to jump through in order to gain the ability to label their products as such makes organic and sustainable meat, dairy, and plant foods significantly more expensive than their conventional counterparts. (While organic farming does have a higher overhead and therefor a lower profit margin than conventional products, the difference in cost to the buyer is made even more significant by the expenses incurred to obtain the organic label.) Unfortunately he doesn’t offer any thoughts about how this could be addressed, almost as though he feared what his readers might think.

In general I did enjoy this book, but I felt like it was a soft pitch. I couldn’t help but thinking as I read it that the book was aimed towards the middle class in an effort to reassure the average American that Real Food wasn’t a totally radical way of living in the world. That in fact it made us more Continental and like the Italians. The information he imparted was excellent, don’t get me wrong, but the book left me unsatisfied, much like the processed food he was trying to defend us from.

This post is my weekly contribution to Food Renegade’s Fight Back Fridays blog carnival. Happy Eating – and reading!


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