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Food icon coming to St. Louis

May 14th 05:05pm, 2009

Michael Pollan, the copiously laureled journalist and food pundit, will be speaking at the St. Louis County Library headquarters on May 22 at 7 p.m. (Doors open at 6.) Pollan will also be signing copies of his 2006 blockbuster The Omnivore’s Dilemma and last year’s In Defense of Food. We got up to speed with Pollan on hot topics including food revolution, four-season farmers’ markets and Michelle Obama.

The subtitle of In Defense of Food is An Eater’s Manifesto, which seems fitting because a lot of people consider you a revolutionary. Do you consider yourself a revolutionary?

I am trying to bring about change. I think it’s more likely that we’ll have a reformation than a revolution of the food system. I don’t imagine the supermarket or the industrial food system going away; I can imagine it getting a lot better. I don’t know that we’re going to move to an entirely local system of organic food production — but I think we should get as close as we can because there will be so many advantages for our health and for the health of our environment.

It’s impressive you were able to crystallize the message of a 244-page book in seven words: “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

That was kind of scary. I owed my publisher about 50,000 words and it all came down to seven words. I was a little alarmed that they’d have to publish an index card.

At what point did you formulate the book’s maxim?
It was at the end of the research and the beginning of the writing. I had done a lot of research and I kept coming back to these very simple ideas. First, I thought I could just say, “Eat food.” But then I decided that that was a little too short – and that I had to deal with the quantity issue. You need to somehow navigate this landscape of food abundance.

In Defense of Food often echoes its predecessor The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Which ideas seem to be sinking in?
I think that the emphasis on local food has sunk in quite a bit. Since Omnivore came out, I also think there’s been a lot of interest and growth in the grass-fed beef business. Changes in agricultural policy have not been forthcoming yet, but we’re working on that. We have a more receptive government than we’ve had in a very long time. We have a president who really understands the links between the way we’re eating and the health care crisis on one hand and the climate change crisis and the energy crisis on the other. It’s a big deal that the president gets it. There’s a lot that has to happen between getting it and actually changing it, but I feel very encouraged by the noise coming out of the Department of Agriculture, in particular – and also by what Michelle Obama has been doing. She’s really putting a focus on real food, the importance of cooking for your family and gardening.

In Defense of Food also champions home gardens. What are you and your family growing this season?
We got a late start because we had to build some new raised beds. We’ve planted a few kinds of tomatoes (mostly cherry tomatoes), cucumbers, a couple different kinds of squashes, lettuce, arugula, spinach, kale, onions, leeks and a lot of herbs. It’s amazing how much food you can get out of a tiny garden.

How can consumers encourage commercial food producers to operate in their communities – or is this a task for city, state and federal governments?
Right now the [federal] government is standing in the way of the whole renaissance of local meat production. The USDA does not do a lot to support local slaughterhouses, for example. In a sense, they’ve driven a lot of them out of business by not supporting them with inspectors and things like that. I think the government can do a lot to encourage this, but it’s really up to local consumers who reach out to local producers to support the work they’re doing. So there’s a place for farmers’ markets all year long – that’s very important for local meat producers. They can’t deal with just a four-month long farmers’ market. And city governments can build four-season farmers’ markets. I think that would be a really important contribution. Local governments buy a lot of food, whether it be for city workers, for prisons, for schools – and if they could resolve to use 1 or 2 percent of that spending on food produced within 100 miles, I think that would have a dramatic effect on rebuilding local food economies.

Is there a possibility that large-scale organic produce operations will stamp out small organic farms?

I used to worry about that. There was a big conflict between big organic producers and small organic farms, but as time has gone on they’ve gravitated into different markets so that they’re not competing with each other directly.

St. Louis, like many other American cities, has broad socioeconomic diversity. How high a priority is it to give a wider demographic access to good food – or real food, as you call it?

It’s vitally important. The challenge before the food movement today is to democratize access to the kinds of food that we’re celebrating. We need to deal with the fact that in the inner city there’s no source of fresh produce. Forget organic – there’s no fresh produce. And so we need to work on that, and people are working on that. There’s a lot of interesting work going on with urban agriculture. Farmers’ markets vouchers are being attached to the food stamps program and the [Women, Infants and Children] program. We find that when you offer these farmers’ market vouchers as part of your food assistance, the demand is tremendous. What happens is it lures farmers’ markets into the inner city because people have that purchasing power.

Photo courtesy of Alia Malley

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3 Responses to “Food icon coming to St. Louis”

  1. Nic romano Says:
    May 19th, 2009 at 9:07 am

    Michael Pollan’s two books inspired me to start our all Italian farm here in California. I hope to meet him someday and thank him personally. Both books are brilliant!

  2. Sauce Magazine Blog » Blog Archive » Eating locally Says:
    May 26th, 2009 at 6:29 pm

    [...] award-winning journalist Michael Pollan came to town last Friday to promote his latest book, In Defense of Food, he dined at The Crossing in Clayton. Chef and owner [...]

  3. Sauce Magazine Blog » Blog Archive » Let’s discuss this over lunch Says:
    August 12th, 2009 at 10:10 am

    [...] there’s a rush to get down and kiss Michael Pollan’s environmentally friendly loafers, let me join the herd and pucker [...]

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