Somehow, the point of consciousness-raising efforts like Morgan Spurlock's documentary Super Size Me and Eric Schlosser's investigatory book Fast Food Nation got lost when the organic-loving locavores took over food discussions. The early-aught pieces highlighted problems with companies: how you would find their practices distasteful if you knew about them, and how they were marketing their food as better for you than it really was.
Now, we have Michael Pollan, a journalist I greatly admire, giving us new rules to follow when we eat and Jonathan Safran Foer sneaking onto butchering facilities to convince us all to be vegetarians. The dialogue has morphed from one in which eaters are victims of bad or lax policy to one in which the eaters are at fault.
While I'm all for reminding people that leafy greens are great, this approach to nutrition tends to overlook the problems of the poorest Americans. Many urban areas lack grocery stores, and many low-wage workers can't afford to spend the time or the money it takes to prepare fresh food. Even knowing what's actually good for you requires a kind of educational access -- you need a certain cultural literacy to learn about Pollan's ideas, or to be able to navigate the ever-shifting and over-simplified television segments on nutritional studies.
Which is why New York City's policies are so appealing. At the same time Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the City Council banned trans-fats and required chain restaurants to post calorie information beside every choice on their menus, he proposed policies meant to tempt grocery stores to neighborhoods missing them. Now, his administration wants to lower the amount of salt in pre-packaged foods.
This is a far more straightforward way of reducing the dangerously high amounts of sodium Americans now consume than launching a massive public education campaign. It also highlights the real problem: People aren't consuming too much salt because they're lazy or stupid, but because there's too much salt in the food available. And sodium's not just in potato chips or other obvious villains -- it's in cans of soup or broth and seasoning packets and tomato sauces that are marketed as healthy components of semi-home cooked diets. Lowering the amount of salt in foods that have made life wonderfully convenient is a much better answer than encouraging each of us to grow our own organic tomatoes in the backyards we don't have and to slave over a hot stove to cook our own tomato sauces, as good as the results of the latter might prove.
Bloomberg's proposal is also incredibly bold: One city's actions can affect food policy across the country. As the story in the New York Times points out, it's not as though food-packaging companies are going to make separate recipes for New York and the rest of the country. And it also has the potential to be more effective than yelling at us for what we eat.
-- Monica Potts