Catalyst Winter 2016

[INQUIRY]

Everyone Deserves Food That’s Green, Affordable, Fair, and Nutritious

Interview with Mark Bittman


Photo: © Fred Conrad

Mark Bittman is a fellow in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food and Environment Program and a widely read food writer. He is a former columnist for the New York Times, a best-selling author of dozens of books on food and cooking including How to Cook Everything, and a regular guest on NBC’s Today Show.


 

When you left the New York Times to come to UCS, you spoke of "making the leap from writing about a broken food system to trying to do something about it." How does it feel so far?

Mark Bittman: It feels great. I can’t say I’ve done much to fix the broken food system yet! But signs are pointing in the right direction. I’m spending time deeply immersed in strategy sessions with my UCS colleagues, including my good friend Ricardo Salvador [director of the Food and Environment Program]; I’m working on a food literacy project with some brilliant University of California colleagues; and I’ve helped relaunch a vegan food-plan company, The Purple Carrot, which is pretty exciting. Much of this work involves doing as well as writing, and that does feel like a new start.

 

Your writing often looks at the big picture—how the food choices we make relate to the health of the nation or the health of the planet. Was this something you were always interested in?

Mark Bittman: I have been interested in looking at big societal issues since around 1970, when I became an antiwar activist and realized that so many issues—the environment, poverty, justice, racism, sexism, and so on—were part of the same problem: an increasingly undemocratic society.

That food was part of the same system should have been obvious to me, but I was so deeply involved in teaching people how to cook that I didn’t see the writing on the wall until 15 years ago or so. At that point, the decline in the quality of American food—and its resulting negative impact on health—was impossible to miss. I’ve been focused on it ever since.

 

Were food and cooking passions for you early on? If so, what in particular appealed to you?

Mark Bittman: My grandmothers cooked, and well. But frankly, it wasn’t like I’d be dying to go to Grandma’s house to eat her food. In those days, I would rather be with my friends, eating slices of pizza. (I grew up in New York City.) My mother, to her credit, put food on the table—real food—just about every night. And, though I’m grateful to her for that, it was similar: I wasn’t that thrilled about dinner time.

Only when I went to college, in 1967, did I realize just how bad food could be. That’s when I started cooking, and I fell in with a bunch of people who really knew and loved cooking. From that point, it just happened.

 

At UCS we work hard to connect issues such as climate change and nuclear weapons to people’s lives. But food is different: everyone eats, but people don’t always make the connection to broader social issues. Do you agree?

Mark Bittman: Not only do I agree, but I also think that’s a really important distinction. I do find it confounding and frustrating that we haven’t had more success uniting people around food issues. Here’s what I think explains it: People have access to food (however bad it may be) almost everywhere. Most people can afford to eat a lot of food, by historical standards, and much of it is highly seasoned and appealing. Meanwhile, many other things are going wrong: incomes are down, people are working harder at less satisfying jobs, much of the country has been developed in spectacularly unaesthetic fashion. Life is difficult, in other words, and eating is an easy way to get pleasure. So, many people don’t want to hear about what’s wrong with it.

 

The average American diet includes a lot of processed and junk food that has led to near-epidemic rates of obesity and heart disease. You’ve called for a national food policy. How can that help?

Mark Bittman: A national food policy could be an enormous step forward. Suppose we say, from the start, “All Americans are entitled to food that’s green, affordable, fair, and nutritious.” Doesn’t that change everything? Right now, 95 percent of the food we produce isn’t produced in an environmentally sound manner. Much of it is affordable to most people but that’s only because the costs of it not being green are paid elsewhere. Much of today’s food production is not fair: food workers are among the most maltreated in the country, and billions of animals are tortured daily. And malnutrition is rampant among most of our citizens. Not classic, vitamin-poor malnutrition, but the kind of malnutrition that causes chronic disease. (If half the kids growing up today are going to develop type 2 diabetes—a distinct possibility—I’d say they’re malnourished.) A national food policy that sets out the goal of fixing those things could go a long way to making real and lasting change.

 

How optimistic are you that we’re seeing some positive trends in American attitudes toward food matters (with things such as renewed attention to artisanal food production)?

Mark Bittman: It’s important that we’re seeing alternative versions of producing food, and those who can afford to are right to support those. It’s great that many small producers are starting from scratch to try to do things right. But my feeling is that what’s needed most now is to force changes in industrial food production. Big Ag is not going to change in response to a small number of farmers doing things the right way, as appealing as that is. Big Ag is going to respond to consumer demand to do things better, followed by government regulation to make sure that happens. That’s why I’m very excited to be at UCS to focus on bringing about this broader, systemic change.