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Michael Pollan: How Change Is Going to Come in the Food System

As the food movement has discovered, winning over the media, or even the president, is not enough.

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So what is to be done? The food movement has discovered that persuading the media, and even the president, that you are right on the merits does not necessarily translate into change, not when the forces arrayed against change are so strong. If change comes, it will come from other places: from the grassroots and, paradoxically, from powerful interests that stand to gain from it.

The most promising food activism is taking place at the grassroots: local policy initiatives are popping up in municipalities across the country, alongside urban agriculture ventures in underserved areas and farm-to-school programs. Changing the way America feeds itself has become the galvanizing issue for a generation now coming of age. (A new FoodCorps, launched in August as part of AmeriCorps, received nearly 1,300 applications for fifty slots.) Out of these local efforts will come local leaders who will recognize the power of food politics. Some of these leaders will run for office on these issues, and some of them will win.

It's worth remembering that it took decades before the campaign against the tobacco industry could point to any concrete accomplishments. By the 1930s, the scientific case against smoking had been made, yet it wasn't until 1964 that the surgeon general was willing to declare smoking a threat to health, and another two decades after that before the industry's seemingly unshakable hold on Congress finally crumbled. By this standard, the food movement is making swift progress.

But there is a second lesson the food movement can take away from the antismoking campaign. When change depends on overcoming the influence of an entrenched power, it helps to have another powerful interest in your corner--an interest that stands to gain from reform. In the case of the tobacco industry, that turned out to be the states, which found themselves on the hook (largely because of Medicaid) for the soaring costs of smoking-related illnesses. So, under economic duress, states and territories joined to file suit against the tobacco companies to recover some of those costs, and eventually they prevailed.

The food movement will find such allies, especially now that Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has put the government on the hook for the soaring costs of treating chronic illnesses--most of which are preventable and linked to diet. No longer allowed to cherry-pick the patients they're willing to cover, or to toss overboard people with chronic diseases, the insurance industry will soon find itself on the hook for the cost of the American diet too. It's no accident that support for measures such as taxing soda is strongest in places like Massachusetts, where the solvency of the state and its insurance industry depends on figuring out how to reduce the rates of Type 2 diabetes and obesity.

The food movement is about to gain a powerful new partner, an industry that is beginning to recognize that it, too, has a compelling interest in issues like taxing soda, school lunch reform and even the farm bill. Indeed, as soon as the healthcare industry begins to focus on the fact that the government is subsidizing precisely the sort of meal for which the industry (and the government) will have to pick up the long-term tab, eloquent advocates of food system reform will suddenly appear in the unlikeliest places--like the agriculture committees of Congress.

None of this should surprise us. For the past forty years, food reform activists like Frances Moore Lappé have been saying that the American way of growing and eating food is "unsustainable." That objection is not rooted in mere preference or aesthetics, but rather in the inescapable realities of biology. Continuing to eat in a way that undermines health, soil, energy resources and social justice cannot be sustained without eventually leading to a breakdown. Back in the 1970s it was impossible to say exactly where that breakdown would first be felt. Would it be the environment or the healthcare system that would buckle first? Now we know. We simply can't afford the healthcare costs incurred by the current system of cheap food--which is why, sooner or later, we will find the political will to change it.

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