Michael Pollan: The food culture
Michael Pollan was the keynote speaker at the Georgia Organics Conference March 21, 2009. The event was held at Agnes Scott College. He addressed the audience after they enjoyed a farmers feast (made from local food) about his thoughts on the "state of the movement." The address is available for viewing in its entirety or in separate parts.
Michael: Last level I wanna talk about. The food culture. You know, I recently came across a couple of statistics that made me realize that as much as we need to change what happens on the farm, the farm in a way is the least of it. You know, we spend $818 billion retail on food. Of that amount, farmers clear $69 billion. Out of eight hundred -- I’m sorry, $881 billion. Okay? It’s a tiny portion. This is after their expense, I mean, their input costs. Just to give you some idea. The people who make the packages in which our food comes to us, the cellophane makers, the box makers, they make $10 billion more than the farmers in that economy. They’re making $79 billion. So, we have to work on all that, that whole part, which largely consists of processing, marketing, distribution. So, we can't expect farmers who have become very small players and not -- not powerful decision-makers in this food economy, to drive all the change. It’s remarkable how much they have managed to drive. It will have to come from us, from the eaters, from changing the way we eat.
And that’s why we need to enlist eaters in this movement in much greater numbers, to join the farmers, to join all the rest of us. So, how do we do this? Just, I’ll run off a few ideas. Obviously, we need to begin with our children, we need to begin with the school lunch program. This is -- [applause] -- this is probably the big fight for this year, the school lunch reauthorization happens. And we need to get involved in that fight. You know, Alice Waters really has it right on this score. She looked at the model of President Kennedy, who looked and saw that the health of American children in the early 60’s was poor and he started a program of mandatory physical education. And all of us grew up with that. Well, we need mandatory edible education.
We need to teach all primary school students the basics of growing food, cooking food, and eating food. Now, that sounds funny to teach kids how to eat, doesn’t it? But, we are teaching them how to eat. We’re teaching them how to eat fast food. We serve them tater tots and chicken nuggets at school and we give them ten minutes to eat. We’re creating another generation of fast food eaters. So, we have to work on that. But we need to teach adults too. We need to teach people about the carbon footprint of their food. I wanna see a second calorie count on every food package that lists the fossil fuel calories, not just the fat calories.
And then of course, we have the model of the White House. Now, of all the items on this list of proposals in that article back in October, we can check one of them off. We now have this White House garden. I think that this is actually a very important development. I know it’s all -- it’s warmed our hearts. But I think that since it’s happened, since the story got out, the, you know, if you haven't bought your Burpee stock yet, it might be time to call your broker on Monday morning. Americans are going to be gardening in great numbers. I don't even know if it’s publicly traded. But, I had a call after the journalists started hearing about this the middle of last week, and I had a call from one of the big cable channels, Discovery Channel or something, saying, “We wanna do a big series on that food Michelle’s talking about.” So, she’s about to mainstream the kind of food we’re talking about. It is gonna be the stuff of Good Housekeeping, not Gourmet.
And you know when people start gardening, all sorts of things happen. It is not just about that, you know, incredibly smart investment of time and energy to get fresh fruit and vegetables at a time of economic hardship. The National Gardening Association just came out with a study saying a $70.00 investment in a vegetable garden could yield $600.00 in fresh produce. Pretty impressive. But, you know, those of you who work the land, I bet there are a lot of gardeners in here, you know the habits of mind that gardening teaches. You know that it does reconnect you with the fact that food comes from the sun and the soil and it doesn’t come from fossil fuel and it doesn’t come from the store. It teaches habits of independence and interdependence at the same time. ‘Cause what are you gonna do with all those zucchini?
It teaches you that there is a free lunch and that free lunch is solar energy and that there still is abundance and that our presence on the land is not always about just diminishing the world. That in fact we can get what we need from the earth and actually improve the earth. It is non-zero sum, an gardening will teach us that. And the other thing it always teaches me, those of you who think all these home gardeners are going to take, you know, take business away from you, is it makes me really appreciate farmers. It makes me appreciate the skill, the intelligence, the creativity that goes into growing really good quality food. So, I think it’s a real plus for all of us.