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Marion Nestle: Food Politics on the Lighter Side

by Bruce E. Boyers

The name Marion Nestle is certainly on the short list of pioneers and champions chipping away at the stranglehold that industrialized agriculture has on our food system, while also building a food system based on sustainability and nutrition. Nestle is Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the best-selling author of the seminal work Food Politics as well as nine other books, and she has been featured in key documentaries on our food system, including Super Size Me, Food, Inc., A Place at the Table and several more.

With her new book, Eat, Drink, Vote, Nestle has taken a bit of a lighter approach to what can often be a grim and sober subject. While the book covers substantial and highly informative ground on food politics, along with the blatant nutritional lies forwarded by profit-hungry food corporations and what we can do to address these issues, it is liberally illustrated with satirical and highly entertaining cartoons.

“If you pay close attention to food politics, it’s easy to get depressed about corporate control of the food supply and congressional concerns over corporate rather than public health,” Nestle told Calmful Living. “Cartoonists can cut right to the heart of an issue with just a few strokes of a pen, and make you laugh at the same time. I’m hoping the book will appeal to young people who might find my other books—Food Politics, Safe Food, and What to Eat, for example—a bit daunting (even though I do try to make them readable and accessible).”

Eat, Drink, Vote

In Eat, Drink, Vote Nestle continues to dispel the media-created myths about our food system and offers practical advice, applicable both individually and as a culture, on helping restore it to its rightful sustainable place.

But as was Nestle’s intent, the facts of the matter are made considerably more palatable by the short satirical comics found on nearly every page. For example, on the first page of the chapter “Today’s Food Marketing Environment,” in which the connection between overall declining American health and food marketing is explored, a cartoon appears showing a close-up of a man solemnly saying, “Even with the hectic pace of modern’s important for a family to share a meal occasionally....” The next frame is “pulled back” a bit and it can be seen that the man is driving his car with his family, and they are eating fast food together. He says, “Just don't spill anything on the seats!”

Another shows a group of tourists at the National Mall in Washington, DC, saying, “Wow, isn’t this amazing?! I mean, look! From here you can see a dozen famous American monuments!” Another in the same group is saying, “There’s McDonald’s!” while another points out, “I see a Starbucks!”

The cartoons and comic strips were provided by the Cartoonist Group, which licenses cartoons from over 50 leading cartoonists—many of them editorial cartoonists from nationally recognized newspapers, magazines and websites—with impressive credentials, including Pulitzer Prizewinners.

“The cartoons fell in my lap and I couldn’t think of anything that would be more fun to do,” Nestle said. “I’ve always used cartoons in my books, and doing this requires buying permission from the copyright holder, in this case the Cartoonist Group. In negotiating with its owner, Sara Thaves, about how much she was going to charge me for two cartoons in my last book, she mentioned that she had a lot of food cartoons that might work as a book. I jumped at the chance. She sent me 1,100 cartoons to pick from; that was the hardest part.”

Are We Making Progress?

In that Nestle has had her finger on the pulse of our food system for several decades, she is highly qualified to give us an overall view of how far we’ve come.

“In some ways we’ve made great progress; in others, not so much,” Nestle opined. “Go into any supermarket in America and you can find a variety of fruits and vegetables impossible to imagine 25 years ago. You can count the phenomenal increase in number of farmers’ markets and in sales of organic foods. When we started our food studies programs at NYU in 1996, ours included the only undergraduate and doctoral programs in the country and only Boston University had another master’s program. Now universities everywhere are offering courses that use food as an entry point into biology, sociology, language, art, and the full range of academic subjects. Yes, corporations are still marketing junk foods to kids, and plenty of Americans need to eat less and eat better, but more and more people recognize the value—for health, the environment, and society as a whole—of eating outside the corporate mainstream.”

Battling the Marketing Hype

In Eat, Drink, Vote Nestle examines the subject of food marketing in some detail, and even offers suggestions on proofing oneself and one’s family—specifically the children—against the blatantly false advertising of patently harmful food. In the end, however, her eating and nutritional advice is rather simple.

“My somewhat facetious advice has always been to shop the periphery of supermarkets where the real foods are, and never set foot in a center aisle,” Nestle said. “If you must buy a food in a package, never buy one with more than five ingredients, with an ingredient you can’t pronounce, with a cartoon on the front (it’s marketed to your kid), or with a health claim (invariably misleading). If you eat a wide variety of unprocessed or lightly processed foods and don’t eat too much junk food, you really don’t have to worry about nutrition. It takes care of itself.”

Nestle additionally urges people to become involved with a real food system in multiple ways. “Changing a food system means taking individual action to buy foods that are healthier for people and the planet—what I summarize as ‘vote with your fork,’” said Nestle. “But it also means voting with your vote—getting involved in local politics to create systems that make it easier to make healthier choices.”

A Brighter Future?

“Perhaps because I get to spend much of my time with young people, I am ever an optimist,” Nestle concluded. “I see so much clear thinking about food issues, and deep understanding of the political forces that create and maintain unhealthy food systems. The trick is to unite all the individuals and groups working on food issues so they can achieve real political power. Never mind Democrats and Republicans; they are old hat. A food party, anyone? I’m hoping Eat, Drink, Vote will inspire people to become active in the food movement, and have fun while doing that.”

Eat, Drink, Vote is available from the Calmful Living bookstore.

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