Finding the Food Movement’s Path to Progress

by Jane Black

Jane Black is an award-winning New York food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. Her work appears in The Washington Post (where she was a staff writer), The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, New York magazine and other publications. She is currently at work on a book about one West Virginia community's struggle to change the way it eats.

Stone Barns Center invited Jane to be our guest columnist, taking on complex, timely issues in food and agriculture that are important to our mission. We welcome her perspective; the views and opinions expressed here are hers and not necessarily those of Stone Barns Center.

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On Sunday Nov. 7, the Washington Post published an op-ed calling for a national policy for food, health and well-being. “How we produce and consume food has a bigger impact on Americans’ health and well-being than any other human activity,” wrote its authors, journalists Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan, agronomist Ricardo Salvador and the former U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to food Oliver De Schutter. “Yet the United States has no food policy.”

The quartet criticized the Obama administration for lacking coordination. “As Michelle Obama raises awareness of healthy eating and tries to reform school lunch, she is struggling to undo the damage caused by outmoded agricultural policies that her husband has left largely undisturbed.” A cohesive food policy, they argue, would guarantee that all Americans have access to healthful food, farm policies support the nation’s public health and environmental objectives, the food industry pays a fair wage to its workers, and food marketing encourages children to live healthful lives.

The ideas were broad and ambitious. It was hard to imagine that anyone who cares about food would argue with them.

But there was one person who did. A pretty important person: Sam Kass, the executive director of Let's Move! and the White House’s senior policy advisor for nutrition policy. Five days later, in a speech at the New York Times Food for Tomorrow conference, held at Stone Barns Center, Kass forcefully made a case for the administration’s work, listing off a roster of accomplishments: the first organic garden at the White House; the first overhaul of school lunch regulations in more than 30 years; the first standards for vending machines in federal buildings; a nutrition facts panel that includes added sugars; steps to reduce the use of antibiotics in livestock, and more.

To move further, though, Kass told the 200-plus attendees that food advocates must be more sophisticated and strategic. “We must move from these lofty theories that set unrealistic expectations about what change should look like to pragmatic, meaningful steps that reflect the political reality that we have to operate in.”

In other words: It’s time for the food movement to grow up. A set of principles won’t change Washington’s approach to food. Bills that can pass the new Republican-held Congress will.

Kass laid out five principles that he said were essential to continued progress. First, he said, the food movement must know who its allies are and be open to new ones—a none-too-subtle dig at the op-ed’s authors. “If a leader has taken on one of our issues, even when things don’t land where we want,” he said, discrediting them simply does not help him to win the next round. “If you hack away at their legs, it makes it harder for them to walk.”

Second, Kass warned advocates to communicate more strategically. School districts are more likely to be open to new food policies when healthy food is positioned as a way to raise test scores, rather than something that is as important as education; health insurers care about lowering costs, not the flavor of a local carrot. Third, he said it is important to celebrate policy wins. Harsh criticism, when the game is not over, makes progress a political liability.

Food reformers have vilified food manufacturers. But Kass insisted the food industry will play a role in changing the food we eat. “We have to move beyond the bait about whether industry has a role to play. It does, full stop,” he said. “No world leader will take serious the notion that you can change the food system without engaging the industry that is feeding everybody.” While there are some products that have no place in schools or on television ads aimed at children, Kass encouraged advocates to support the change companies are making and pressure them to do more.

Finally, Kass said, “the ballot box is as important as the lunchbox.” He applauded Chef Tom Colicchio and Food Policy Action, a nonprofit that works to raise the political profile of food issues in Washington. (In the mid-term elections, the group worked successfully to help defeat Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.) “This work will only go so far if no votes depend on it,” Kass warned. 

Kass’s message resonated with me because six years ago, in the heady days after President Obama was first elected, I wrote my own op-ed in the Washington Post that made a similar point.  Now that we finally had a president who knew the price of arugula, I argued, it was important to talk about slashing obesity rates, helping small farmers and teaching kids about food. But to be successful, the movement needed specific policy asks that a broad range of constituencies could rally behind.

Kass outlined five issues he’d like to see food reformers get to work on: immigration, raising the minimum wage, climate change, linking good food to chronic-disease prevention (which is covered by the Affordable Care Act), and growing demand for healthful foods. And perhaps he will get his wish. In his own keynote address, Michael Pollan talked about soil’s potential to recapture carbon and mitigate climate change. “What if we did what we did in the 1930s? If we reordered the various incentives we present to farmers to encourage farmers to take care of the soil once again, but this time not just to combat erosion but specifically sequester carbon,” Pollan asked. “This idea which solves so many problems at once… needs to be at the center of any national food policy.”

Sounds like a good place to start.

Header photo courtesy of Getty Images for New York Times