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 all, and especially in retrospect, the evening felt like a missed opportunity. Pollan was charming and funny and convincing during his speech, but he didn’t do anything to challenge or inspire the audience. And I think that’s what many of us were hoping for.
(But, to be clear, I’m still enamored.)