“When did it become okay to eat in bookstores?” That’s what Marion Nestle, author of "Food Politics" and New York University professor, asked at a keynote speech she gave last weekend at Monterey Bay Aquarium’s annual Sustainable Foods Institute/Cooking For Solutions event. Pointing at the growing obesity problem in the U.S., Marion railed against the big food corporations that are making fattening foods ubiquitous, putting nutritionally poor snacks everywhere, including  school vending machines.

We got her point. After all, the audience itself was trying to hold itself back from this spread at the back of the room:

cookies at Marion Nestle's talk

Yes, those would be giant, M&M-studded cookies and chemical-filled, too-sweet soft drinks.

To be fair, the foods served at the Cooking For Solutions events were, overall, much healthier and more sustainable than the traditional American fare. Earlier that day, for example the crowd had enjoyed a fresh, fruity breakfast in which juicy strawberries dominated the buffet table, then an organic, salad-heavy lunch buffet at Earthbound Farms. But the afternoon snacks made available at the hotel where the event was held made for an unusual — yet telling — juxtaposition, illustrating in the back of the room exactly what Marion was expounding about in the front.

At the podium, Marion readily pointed to the constant availability of junk food as a big part of the problem. After all, self-control doesn’t come in an unlimited supply. “Individuals can’t do this on their own,” Marion explained. “It’s too hard.” The food has to be stopped at the source, so smaller portions are served in fewer places — including smaller portions even of organic desserts, which Marion said were “undermining the spirit of organics.” She says, “If you’re going to buy junk food, I’d rather buy organic versus non organic — but that’s about as far as it goes.”

What Marion’s talk really brought into focus for me was how much our expectations as individuals about food have been shaped by the forces that have made cheap junk food ubiquitous. Most people I know aren’t railing against baked goods in bookstores. In fact, bookstore cafes have become practically de rigeur; people expect them.

And even at a sustainable food conference, we expect to see food at every break, at every turn. Most of us (me included) had probably eaten way too much lunch at Earthbound Farms  that day — because those eight different kinds of organic mini desserts, ranging from chocolate cookies to jammy tarts, were really, really tough to resist. Yet just a few hours later — and just hours before a gala event when 75 restaurants were going to be offering tastes of gourmet dishes — the audience was nibbling on gigantic afternoon snacks.

We’ve come to expect afternoon snacks — and morning and evening snacks, too. On Thursday, when no afternoon nibbles tray came around, my friend Tracy Hepler of Your Daily Thread said, “Are they not feeding us anymore?” She said this jokingly — but her comment is one that I think crossed the minds of many of the attendees, who craned their necks looking around for the snack cart during the 45-minute break.

How do we take away junk food from a society that expects and demands it all the time? Do we simply serve organic-certified junk food? Limit the snack tray to fruit and crudite? Get rid of the snacks altogether?

And what do you do when the snack tray comes around at conferences and other big events? Do you welcome it, rail against it — or find yourself nibbling from it despite efforts to keep yourself away from it?

Snacking and its discontents
'Food Politics' author Marion Nestle argues junk food's too cheap and readily available -- while her audience nibbles on free M&M-studded cookies.