Michael Pollan, author of five books including The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, came to speak in Seattle last week, courtesy of Bastyr Center for Natural Health.
I had the pleasure of attending the event and was captivated the entire time. I could have sat there for several more hours listening and soaking up all that he had to offer. He is such a knowledgeable and articulate speaker and was very thought-provoking to the audience, inspiring countless questions that finally had to be cut off because they had to wrap it up. Sadly. I was busy scratching away notes the entire night so I could come home and share with my husband all that I had learned.
He spent a lot of time addressing the health of our nation's food system and it's impact on the health care crisis, energy independence and climate change. Read his thoughts on these subjects in an article he wrote for the New York Times last month, written as an open letter to the next President about how it is imperative that you take the nation's food system into consideration when addressing these matters. Interesting stuff.
One fascinating statistic he addressed both in the NYT's article and at the Bastyr event ...
If all Americans observed one meatless day a week, it would be the equivalent, in carbon saved, of taking 20 million midsize sedans off the road for a year.
Think about that for a minute! That is no small impact. That is huge. He is not saying to give up meat for a lifetime, or a year, or even a month - just one day a week. If you are a meat-eater who is also concerned about the environment, I'm sure your eyes widened when you read that. That's something we could all do so easily.
With that said, I'm going to kick off the month with the Over Cocktails/Michael Pollan Challenge. If you are a meat-eater, I challenge you to institute one meatless day per week. If you already do this, I challenge you to drop one more day of eating meat and have two meatless days. And if you are a vegetarian, then I challenge you to find one friend who does eat meat and convince them to institute this into their lives. Change? Yes we can!
Then give us all feedback on how it's going. Think of all the pastas you could try each week on your meatless night. What a perfect excuse to gorge yourself with carbs. Ha. Just kidding. Not really his point of course. Michael Pollan advises that we should "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." He says "eat food" because he refers to a lot of what is sold in the grocery store as "food-like substances". Have you ever read the list of ingredients on some of the junk you eat? Scary when you don't recognize much on that long list of ingredients, isn't it?
More suggestions from Michael Pollan about how to feed yourself and your families. There are lots of versions of this list. This version is from ABC News.
- Eat food. Don't eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food. "It's one way to distinguish between the food and foodlike substances. If [your great-great-grandmother] picked up a pack of portable yogurt tubes, would she recognize this? I don't think she would," Pollan told "Nightline's" John Donvan.
- Avoid even those food products that come bearing health claims. Especially avoid food products containing ingredients that are (a) unfamiliar, (b) unpronounceable, (c) more than five in number -- or that contain high-fructose corn syrup. Get out of the supermarket whenever possible. "You know your dentist, you know your doctor, you know your mailman. Don't you think you should meet the guy/gal who is providing your sustenance?" Pollan said.
- Pay more, eat less. "Real food costs more than edible foodlike substances, by and large. You can do it but & if you don't have the money you're going to have to put more time in. I think we need to begin to spend more on food, both in terms of money and in time," said Pollan.
"On the price issue, real healthy food, food that you get at the farmers' market, organic food, it does cost more. There's no question. And that there are people who can't afford to eat well in this country, and that's really a shameful situation. And I think it has to be addressed at the level of politics. There is a reason that the processed food is so cheap and that reason has a lot to do with our agricultural policies in this country. We subsidize soy and corn. We don't subsidize fresh produce."
- Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.
- Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks. People who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally healthier than we are. "I'm arguing we don't, that the experts have not been guiding us very well and that people ate very well long before they had nutrition science, long before they knew what an anti-oxidant was, and that we would do well to go back to that time where culture instructed us in how to eat."
- Cook. And if you can, plant a garden. "We think it's too difficult," Pollan said. "And I don't know what that's about, but I think it has something to do with watching cooking shows on television. We see all this heroic cooking going on & and we see these brilliant cooks making these dazzling meals that look really hard. And they are really hard. But that's not normal food. That's special occasion food. So we're kind of pinned to our couch with something the experts do, cook, and how could we possibly do it ourselves? But, you know, it's really simple. It really is simple. I'm not a great cook, but I know if you have a pan and you have some olive oil and you have some garlic, that's all you need. You can go to the market, you can get a piece of fish, a piece of meat, vegetables and with those things you can make a really good meal in 15 minutes."
- Eat like an omnivore.
"We used to eat a greater diversity of plants and animals," Pollan said. "But over time, as we've industrialized agriculture, a process that really begins around World War II, after World War II, we start narrowing the number of crops we're growing. We kind of focus in on a couple of big ones. Corn and soybeans, two of the biggest, and turning corn and soy into the appearance of diversity we find in the supermarket. And all those different things, you know, they look really different. If you, if you go down the middle aisles in the supermarket, you see so many different brands and so many different products, but most of them are processed corn and soy. So we're eating those two species and we used to eat dozens more species."
And for all you Obama fans ... In the last few weeks of campaigning, during an NPR interview, Obama cited the New York Times letter from Michael Pollan.
"There is no better potential driver that pervades all aspects of our economy than a new energy economy. I was just reading an article in the New York Times by Michael Pollen about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the mean time, it's creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs because they're contributing to type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity, all the things that are driving our huge explosion in healthcare costs. That's just one sector of the economy. You think about the same thing is true on transportation. The same thing is true on how we construct our buildings. The same is true across the board."
Now go out and get some friends to join you on the Over Cocktails / Michael Pollan challenge!