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For her latest incursion into the dizzying world of food politics, award-winning author and public health advocate Marion Nestle didn’t so much have to choose her words wisely as draw from the flood of animated commentary already flowing through the daily news cycle.
In “Eat Drink Vote,” Nestle does just that, shining a light on the ink-stained satirists who so cleverly skewer society’s obsession with our most basic of needs: food.
“Because food is such an intense focus of public discussion and connects to some of the most important issues facing societies today — and because the food industry acts in its own self-interest and government agencies act inconsistently — political cartoonists have plenty of material to work with,” Nestle writes of the wealth of material human consumption habits present to trained observers.
Nestle firmly believes that cartoonists get it. And she loves that they so succinctly, and often quite beautifully, make their points and — in the book — help her make her own.
Assembling the most poignant pencil drawings, however, took quite some doing. Nestle said her discussions about teaming up with ’toon scion Sara Thaves, daughter of the creator of the ongoing “Frank and Ernest” strip and head of The Cartoonist Group, went so swimmingly that she found herself with more than 1,000 insightful artworks to choose from.
She whittled it down to the 250-plus illustrations sprinkled about her case study on the way, and why, Americans feed their faces. Nestle breaks up the assault on our alimentary inclinations into easy-to-digest chapters ranging from general history (“The American Food System: From Farm to Table”) to nutritional doublespeak (“Food Labels Versus Marketing”).
Along the way, Nestle attempts to respect everyone’s opinion — “Because everyone eats, everyone has a vested interest — a stake — in how food is produced, sold, and consumed, and, therefore, in how food issues are interpreted,” she counsels — but she doesn’t shy away from pulling out her soapbox on topics she is particularly passionate about.
She cannot, for instance, hold her tongue, when it comes to the rise of obesity of America.
Nestle lays the corpulent carcasses of frighteningly unfit Americans squarely on the doorstep of profit-chasing corporations.
“From my public health point of view, obesity is fostered by a food environment that encourages people to eat more often, in more places, and in larger amounts than is good for maintaining a healthy weight. As I explain in ‘Food Politics,’ this environment evolved from the need of food companies to increase sales and to report quarterly growth to Wall Street in an enormously overabundant and competitive food marketplace,” she writes.
She also explores how the Supreme Court empowered corporate food giants via the polarizing Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision (“One inarguable result of unlimited campaign spending is that Congress often appears to be more concerned with the health of corporations than with the health of the public,” she warns.) She also takes a look at the target Michelle Obama strapped to her back by launching the “Let’s Move!” campaign.
“I found it thrilling that no less than the First Lady of the United States had become interested in my kind of public health issues,” Nestle writes of her initial jubilation. “Others, who believe that the government should stay out of matters involving personal dietary choices, were less delighted, putting obesity in the same controversial category as climate change.”
The problem with FLOTUS’s plan, which is the same thing New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg encountered when he attempted to clamp down on oversized sugary beverages, Nestle says, is that normally law-abiding citizens naturally rebel when elected officials wade into legislating their waistlines.
“Many citizens believe that as long as their personal decisions do not directly harm others, the government should not interfere in what they choose to eat — even if those choices eventually make them ill and generate health care costs that must be borne by society,” Nestle writes.
She points out, however, that Uncle Sam routinely spoon-feeds the public all kinds of food cues — whether they realize it or not.
“Federal policies support the current food environment, for example, by subsidizing the ingredients in processed foods, permitting corporations to deduct the cost of marketing from taxes as business expenses, and allowing junk foods to be marketed during children’s television programs,” she argues.
The most obvious example, she notes, happened just a few years ago.
Nestle chides President George W. Bush for replacing the portion-specific food pyramid adopted in the 1990s with a rainbow-hued graphic stripped of easily decipherable food standards, while promoting increased movement in lieu of disciplined consumption.
“In 2005, the Bush-era [Department of Agriculture] released a new version of the pyramid cleansed of its ‘eat less’ messages. ... Why would the USDA produce something so difficult to understand? Years of food industry lobbying had convinced USDA officials that nutritional judgments were controversial and good for neither business nor the USDA’s mission to promote American agricultural products,” she says.
Of course, what’s done is done. And it makes more sense to worry about the future than the past.
The pressing issues on Nestle’s personal radar include genetically modified organisms and biotech-led foodstuffs. “Critics of the technology and how it is used argue that the main benefits of GMOs do not accrue to the public, but instead are created for the benefit of biotechnology corporations,” she warns.
The dead giveaway?
“Instead of focusing on the food needs of the developing world, food biotechnology companies engage almost exclusively in research on first-world agriculture: genetically modified corn, soybeans, and cotton bioengineered to resist weed killers made by those very same corporations.”
Still, for all the bellyaching, Nestle seems optimistic that at least some people refuse to swallow the pabulum the agro-industrial complex is dishing out.
“Today’s food movement is expressed through advocacy for farmers’ markets, local, seasonal, and sustainably produced food, and through resistance to corporate control of the food supply,” she says.
“Eat Drink Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics” by Marion Nestle and The Cartoonist Group, Rodale Inc., 224 pages, $18.99.