Last week, I had the opportunity to see Michael Pollan speak in New Albany, Ohio. As you may recall, I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma back in September and was completely enamored with it. As a direct result, I changed the way I eat and the way I shop for food. I’ve done a lot of other learning since then. I joined a fall CSA (and am eager for spring!), I’m taking a MOOC on the US food system, my mom even got me a subscription to Organic Gardening for Christmas.
So I was really excited for the event. And, with that much anticipation, Pollan probably could have farted on stage and I would have squeed with delight. He didn’t fart (as far as I noticed, and sitting directly in front of the podium in the second row, mere feet from the stage, I probably would have noticed). His speech was divided into two parts: 1) the problems with our current industrialized food system and 2) the things we can do to break free of it. Near the beginning, he brought out two bags of groceries from Meijer and laughed at all the processed food products. He gave a little history of how we ended up here in a way that made it seem simultaneously head-slappingly stupid and irrecoverably complicated. And he focused a lot on how the science of nutrition, which is actually quite difficult, has degraded our cultural food instincts and our meals.
Really, it was all good stuff. But it wasn’t new. I’ve only read one of his seven books, and even I didn’t get a lot of new information. (After I had most of this post drafted, a friend pointed me to this event summary in the Columbus Dispatch, which I think demonstrates just how little new information there was.) Then I thought about the rest of the audience and wondered what they were getting out of it.
Here are some things to consider. This event was not well advertised–none of the people who came with me heard of it through any other source–so you already had to be “in the know” to make it there.* (Even so, the auditorium was packed.) The event was in a suburb of Columbus called New Albany, the town that Les Wexner bought and rebuilt in the 1980s and ’90s. According to the 2010 census, New Albany is 87.7% white, 80.6% married, and 58.9% families with children. Although it used to be a very rural, relatively poor area, the population increased nearly 300% between 1980 and 1990 (another almost 130% by 2000 and 110% by 2010), and is one of the richest towns in the area. (Wikipedia has some good information, but for a less “consensus” view with some comments on implications, try How Americans Make Race.) Everyone there had to not only find out about it and make their way to New Albany on a frozen-rainy Thursday evening, but we also had to buy tickets for as much as $50, including TicketMaster fees.
Given that, the audience had to have been the converted. Those of us already convinced that we should know where our food and all its ingredients come from. Those of us privileged enough to go out of our way to find this food if it’s not readily available. So why did Pollan just rehash the main points of his books (and flatter the community organization that had hosted him during the earlier part of the day)? Why not take the opportunity to talk about what else we could be doing? For example, how do we address urban food deserts? How can we influence farm policy, local or otherwise, to encourage small, multi-output, sustainable, and resilient farms instead of large industrial monoculture farms? How do we get our local restaurants to serve grass-fed beef instead of beef from CAFOs? How do we figure out where best to address our efforts?
* In November, I happened to be at a crowded restaurant seated awkwardly close to a couple of acquaintances at the next table. I overheard one of them mention that Michael Pollan would be in town. So, instead of acting like a polite adult, I literally grabbed her arm, interrupted her conversation, and made her repeat herself. Once I got home, I looked it up and put the date that tickets went on sale on my personal calendar. I bought them within hours of opening to the public.
Read my reviews on