Pollan disgusted with industry's co-option of 'real food' movement

Food isn't grown on Mars, Michael Pollan muses, which is why the food industry has had no problem with a message to consumers about how "local" their food is. After books by Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Pollan, and Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon became best-sellers by praising the consumption of local food, suddenly, "food miles" is on everyone's lips. Even on the lips of the companies whose products were the most reviled by these authors (say "Monsanto" in a Kingsolver book signing and prepare for screams of horror). Pollan calls their "ingenuity" in transforming "any critique into a new way to sell food" amazing.

Sure, if you look at the letter of the locavore law -- consume foods whose food miles are as low as possible, in other words, the ingredients were grown close to your stomach's place of residence -- most any food could be categorized as "local" for someone. However, the food industry is conveniently skipping over the "minimally processed" and "in season" part of a typical locavore's value system. Most flagrant: PepsiCo's (NYSE: PEP) Lay's chips are marketing the farms where the potatoes are grown; type in a code on the package, and you can find out whether your chips were created in the dirt of Idaho or Colorado.

Food companies, as depicted in the New York Times article, even seem a bit whiney. "The problem is there is absolutely no way we can have local produce within 100 miles of every person in America, so the question is how do we take it to that next level," says ConAgra's hired gun, the "Supermarket Guru," Phil Lempert. He was tasked by the company with helping it sell Hunt's tomato sauce to consumers who may, like me, be considering canning their own tomatoes in season. As Kingsolver readers know, that's a big (and messy) task, so if the locavore-tempted can feel good about the canned version on the grocery store shelves, it's a no-brainer -- right? And Lempert is here to solve the problem of America's food deserts, right?

Here is my criticism: the way the grocery gurus are recasting the issue into a problem for which only corporate food and commercial feedlots has the solution is a perversion of these sustainable eating authors. If Americans can't all find food within 100 miles, at the very least we should be able to find food within 250 or 300. (And perhaps some of us should move?) Local produce can only work if people eat seasonally, and food appropriate for their region; yes, this means no bananas, for most of us.

Knowing most of the food public won't stand for no bananas, or slaving over a hot stove in August canning their own tomatoes, is where they have us. So subtle messages subvert Pollan and Kingsolver's campaign, convincing Americans that junk food is local because the potatoes were grown in a field nearby before they were trucked to a processing plant, unloaded by workers making minimum wage, sliced, conveyor-belted, fried, and laced with a preservative or two before being packed in a not-recycleable bag; that Haagen-Dasz is "simple" because its ice cream has only five ingredients; that Foster Farms chicken is "local" because its birds packed in a crate smaller than a sheet of paper (literally) for the five or six weeks of their life were grown in your state; convincing us that we don't really have to work that hard to figure out the origins of our food. "Trust us," these messages state, "because it's easy."

It'll work for a lot of Americans, but eventually, food companies will actually start having to produce food that's fresher, less processed, packed with fewer chemicals, grown humanely, and less based on corn and soy and their hundreds of byproducts. Perhaps, Frito-Lay, you'll have convinced those who haven't read the books (or not beyond the first chapter or two), who are only hopping on the local/sustainable bandwagon because they've read a USA Today list of five ways to eat better. But you haven't convinced any of the influentials, the Pollans and Kingsolvers and Gilberts; you're not going to have me eating Foster Farms chicken or Lay's potato chips because of the most simplistic, perverse analysis of the food miles message.

The fact is, the same food marketed in a new way does not taste any better, nor is it healthier or better for the planet. You'll have to go there, first, before anyone truly knowledgeable will trust you.


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