Voting with their forks

If 1967 was the Summer of Love, then this is the Summer of Food. Why are so many great minds thinking alike?

August 16, 2006|Regina Schrambling | Special to The Times

SUMMER is supposed to be the mindless season, with nothing deeper to contemplate than the instant gratification of barbecues and ice cream. But something is different this year. America is getting serious about eating.

In the last couple of months a choir of disparate voices has been sending the same message through books, magazines and the Internet that advocates of farmers markets and eating locally have been preaching for years: The cost of industrialized food is too high, both literally and environmentally. And the thought is sinking in.

At least four ambitious books connecting the dots between what we eat and how it affects the world have been published recently, and the most insightful of them, Michael Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma," has been a bestseller. Time magazine has devoted an issue to getting right with food, and the Nation (of all publications) is about to do so. Activist author Eric Schlosser ("Fast Food Nation") has returned for round two in his fight against fast food, with not just a children's book but also a movie. All this reflects the fact that the national mind-set is changing. Farmers markets are not just continuing to expand in every state but also have come to be perceived less as precincts of the privileged and more as the future as they evolve for a new generation of consumers. Wal-Mart is taking baby steps toward organics, while Whole Foods has jumped on the next new buzzword: local. "Locavore" is even replacing "gourmet" as the badge of an informed eater.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday August 19, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Media dish column: A headline in some editions of Wednesday's Food referred to 1968 as the Summer of Love. 1967 was known as the Summer of Love.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 23, 2006 Home Edition Food Part F Page 3 Features Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Media dish column -- A headline in some editions of last week's Food section incorrectly referred to 1968 as the Summer of Love. 1967 was known as the Summer of Love.

The reasons behind this sudden consciousness-raising are myriad, but Pollan summarizes them most succinctly. In an e-mail, he says Americans are starting to understand "just how important the food issue is -- how it is linked to energy and global warming (17% of our fossil fuel use goes to feeding ourselves); to environmental pollution (farming is the single biggest source of water pollution); health (obesity and diabetes turned attention to the way we produce food); world trade, the federal budget and the welfare of animals."

"Increasingly," Pollan adds, "people recognize that the industrial food system is failing us -- it is not keeping us or our world healthy. And there are alternatives."

Rethinking the quick fix

AMERICANS are becoming more proactive (you can't buy a congressman the way the high-fructose corn syrup lobby can, but you can say yes to locally grown berries). They are no longer putting faith in the quick cure, in vitamin-enhanced food and low-carb anything, but instead are looking for the real deal.

On top of all that, the Internet makes it quicker and easier to spread a message and win converts. Pollan's debate with the cofounder and chief executive of Whole Foods Markets, John P. Mackey, played out in real-time, online. The New Age grocer took the writer to task over how the company was treated in the book for selling out-of-season asparagus imported from half a world away, even if it was organic. By the end of the duel by blog, Mackey had agreed to start working more with local farmers.

The result communicated two concepts: Americans can now vote with their grocery dollars. And buying locally offers a relatively simple solution to specific and immediate problems: small farms forestall suburban sprawl; eating food grown nearby takes less of a toll on the environment.

Pollan is the leading proponent of that message, particularly in his latest book, subtitled "A Natural History of Four Meals," which looks at the ramifications of the American way of eating and offers countless suggestions for changing it for the radically better. Researched as well as a rocket science manual but written as seductively as a beach novel, it could be considered a written version of the Al Gore film documentary "An Inconvenient Truth." Message: What we eat has consequences.

During the five years of research into what he calls "our national eating disorder," Pollan does a fair amount of enlightened shopping but also goes so far as to kill his own chicken and pig. Of all food experts, he has a sharp sense of why the country is waking up, and why now.

"My hunch is that, at a time when world problems seem so dire and intractable, food represents one area where people feel they can actually make a difference, here and now," he said. "As I tell audiences, if you feel your tax dollars are going to support practices you find deplorable, you can't withdraw your support for those practices without going to jail. But if you feel that your food dollars are supporting morally or ethically objectionable practices -- brutal factory farms or environmental pollution -- you can withhold your support, and vote with your fork for a better alternative."

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