A Bone Left Unpicked

Weekly Article
June 18, 2015

Though he first entered the public consciousness through his cookbooks, Mark Bittman has become a thought leader with his New York Times columns on food politics. These days, he’s widely regarded in the food movement as an expert in food policy and nutrition, with his column serving as a benchmark - and catalyst - for the central issues of the movement.

With A Bone to Pick, an anthology of columns from his four years at the Times, Bittman provides a survey of his food policy analysis. The book’s wide array of topics includes corn subsidies, federal nutrition programs, soda tax policy, dietary recommendations, and more. These short essays range from quippy advice on how much butter to consume to an explanation of how the FDA regulates the use of antibiotics in livestock.

A single theme unites these distinct issues: Bittman’s belief that with better policy and less processed food, we can reform what he calls the “Standard American Diet” (an intentional, if unsubtle, acronym). Read together, his articles are a strong indictment of the way our food is regulated, grown, processed, and distributed. But the collection also reveals Bittman’s disheartening lack of analysis about how, exactly, the American public came to find itself in the midst of such a widespread – and growing – agricultural and dietary crisis. Bittman’s proclivity to position the eater as a powerful decision-maker and federal food policy reform as the most effective path forward obscures much of the reality of who holds the power in today’s international food system.

Read a Bittman column without a background in food policy, and you’ll likely conclude there are only two major actors determining how our food system operates: the eater and the government. To be sure, both parties play essential roles. The Farm Bill, a package of federal food and farming laws renewed every 5 years by Congress, shapes agricultural activity from subsidies to nutrition programs. What an eater chooses to consume, meanwhile, can encourage better farming practices, or sanction the latest in Doritos innovation. But this simple worldview is dangerously incomplete and fails to acknowledge the power players lurking between the eater and the government.

For a growing number of food activists and scholars, those power players are easy to spot: they’re monopolistic, multinational corporations. There are moments when A Bone to Pick considers the broad ramifications of such corporate power. For instance, Bittman’s piece on Shuanghui’s purchase of Smithfield, “On Becoming China’s Farm Team,” highlights how international corporate control of American resources is a growing danger in our agricultural landscape. He rightly identifies the Smithfield deal as “a land and water grab,” that “transfers the environmental damage of the large-scale pork production from China to the United States.” That strong language is warranted, given the size and scope of Shuanghui’s control over the international pork market. The effects of Shuanghui’s influence will be felt by American pork producers, employees of Smithfield and its subsidiaries, pig grain farmers, bacon enthusiasts, and many others along the food chain. Bittman’s concern is well-placed.

Such analysis indicates that Bittman understands the dangers inherent in our incredibly consolidated food industry, where companies like Smithfield, Nestle, Monsanto, and Dean Foods, just to name a few, have outsize influence on what appears on our television screens, in our cupboards, and within the USDA’s dietary guidelines. But it also reveals little awareness that such unrestrained corporate power was not always a hallmark of our food system, and that our current reality has an enormous impact on the eater’s control over her own diet. And though Bittman on occasion acknowledges the existence of these behemoths, he rarely discusses their influence on the contents of our kitchen cupboards. Worse, when Bittman does address corporate power, his tone edges toward resignation. “You can’t blame corporations for trying to profit by any means necessary, even immoral ones: It’s their nature,” he writes in “Parasites, Killing Their Host.” That’s not exactly a rallying cry for reform.

In the absence of a critical evaluation of corporate power in our food system, Bittman must look elsewhere to understand how corn subsidies and crappy school lunches became the status quo. And in searching for culprits for why our national waistline is growing and food quality deteriorating, he all too often points his finger at the eater. “The power lies within you” to “fix the food system in your world today,” he writes in “(Only) Two Rules for a Good Diet.” If consumers only bought more antibiotic-free meat and avoided the soda machine, he implies, they would, all on their own, begin to reverse many of today’s worst health and environmental crises.

In Bittman’s framing, the eater’s decisions at the grocery store affect our food system as a whole, as well as society as a whole. If she chooses Whole Foods or sources directly from farmers, she is opting into a better future for our environment, citizenry, and collective health - “voting with her fork,” as Michael Pollan has put it. If she eats junk food and drinks soda, her inevitable weight gain will be a burden on well-meaning taxpayers.

Thinkers like Bittman and others in his cohort – which include Marion Nestle and Robert Lustig in addition to Pollan (all of whom are quoted extensively in the pages of A Bone to Pick) – position eating as a moral decision. The morality of this group is binary - there are good foods and bad foods; good eaters and bad eaters. This binary creates a high-stakes shopping and eating environment for consumers. Opting for a bag of Doritos over an apple isn’t just a lapse in willpower or a choice of convenience - it means you’re siding with the bad guys.

But our lives aren’t as simple as Bittman would have them seem. Among the many factors that complicate our decisions about what to eat, money is perhaps the most decisive. Though his nods to food justice have increased in recent years, Bittman’s analysis is still steeped in the notion that we all ultimately can afford to choose every day between Whole Foods and 7-11, between kale salad and a Big Mac. While they may hold true for most of Bittman’s readers in the Times, assertions like “for most people, eating better is mostly about will and skill,” as he claims in “Leave ‘Organic’ Out of It,” are alienating to anyone who knows from personal experience that eating better is mostly about whether or not you can afford it.

Bittman’s frequent advocacy for junk food taxes is a case in point. Once an issue most closely associated with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, sugar and soda taxes are gaining momentum in the food movement. Bittman and his colleagues believe that a per-ounce tax on such items would drive consumers towards healthier options. When pressed on the regressive nature of such taxes, those writers often fall back on the idea of earmarking the income from the tax for obesity prevention programs, or subsidizing vegetables. In “Bad Food? Tax It, and Subsidize Vegetables” Bittman says:

Some advocates for the poor say taxes like these are unfair because low-income people pay a higher percentage of their income for food and would find it more difficult to buy soda or junk. But since poor people suffer disproportionately from the cost of high-quality, fresh foods, subsidizing those foods would be particularly beneficial to them.

Besides its condescension and lack of empathy, this suggestion is also weak policy. As we’ve seen with cigarettes, earmarking income from “sin taxes” is notoriously unsuccessful. And while vegetable subsidies are an easy recommendation, Bittman doesn’t accompany that recommendation with any concrete plan. Rather, he appears content simply to shame consumers, without equipping them with a viable alternative.

This same attitude extends to Bittman’s discussion of that favorite topic of food pundits, the “obesity epidemic.” It’s hard to turn a page in this book and avoid an implicit or explicit discussion of the supposed economic toll that obese Americans are taking on our national healthcare system. These discussions are imbued with moral superiority, and rife with the pathologized language often utilized to discuss the bodies of fat Americans. As Julie Guthman wrote in her 2008 essay “The Food Police: Why Michael Pollan Makes Me Want to Eat Cheetos,” research around the public health consequences of poor diet and obesity has become “entangled with moral discourses and aesthetic values.” Bittman’s concern with the ways bad eaters are morally culpable for our national health crises represent just this type of entanglement. A stronger corporate power analysis would more accurately reflect who dictates what and how we eat; it would not eliminate the eater’s role in determining her health outcomes, but would make evident the reduction in choice that consolidation in the food industry has wrought. But Bittman has no need to investigate further for the source of today’s shameful state of agriculture and eating - he’s found the source, and it’s us.

Bittman’s analysis matters because his influence has been felt widely in the food movement and beyond. As an agenda-setter, Bittman has accomplished much for the many noble causes of the food movement. His coverage of issues like the minimum wage, antibiotic regulation, and GMO labeling has helped to bring those topics into the mainstream. In his more recent columns, he’s championed racial and economic justice as pillars of the food movement. He’s pushed movement activists to work toward specific, attainable goals, and to make their issues translatable and understandable to the public.

But in A Bone to Pick, his scapegoating of average Americans and lack of investigation into the massive consolidation of our food system results in an analysis that comes off as elitist, exclusive, condescending, and naïve. The food movement should take Bittman’s advice and “make food issues real.” But in drawing our roadmap towards change, we must move away from implicating the eater, and take aim at the greater ills in our food system.