Michael Pollan's visit to the CDC
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Food for Thought: Michael Pollan’s Visit
Pulitzer-Prize winner Michael Pollan suggested CDC humbly leave behind nutritionist ideologies that reduce food into bundles of good or evil nutrients. Photo by Greg Knobloch
A cross-agency planning committee recently hosted Pulitzer Prize winning science writer and activist Michael Pollanto spend a day with CDC talking about the food system. Currently the Knight Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at UC Berkeley, Pollan has authored numerous articles and books on how we produce and think about food, most recently In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. The goal of bringing Pollan to CDC was to highlight how food issues are addressed throughout CDC and catalyze recognition about the interconnectedness of our health to the sustainability of our food system. The cross-agency discussions explored many facets of the food system and identified actions to enhance involvement of public health professionals in efforts to improve the food system. The event was organized in partnership with Slow Food, Georgia Organics, and Emory University.
The highlight was Pollan’s presentation, Beyond Nutritionism: The Food System and Public Health, followed by a panel discussion with CDC leaders. The event drew an energized, enthusiastic audience, including CDC staff, state and federal partners, food activists, chefs, farmers, teachers, students, and academics.
Ann Schuchat, interim deputy director for Science and Public Health Programs, introduced Pollan, emphasizing food as a personal and political matter: “Food is deeply connected to family, friends, and heritage. Food is also connected to life, liberty and happiness, that is political economics, the environment and health.” She added, “CDC cares about food policy.”
Ann Schuchat warmly introduced Pollan with an amusing conflict of interest disclaimer: “I love food,” confessing her name means “ritual killer of chickens.” Photo by Greg Knobloch
The American Paradox
Pollan began by challenging our understanding of the simplistic relationship of diet and health, encouraging the audience to consider cultural aspects of food as well as the impact of agricultural systems.
“We Americans suffer from a national eating disorder,” said Pollan. The problematic way we talk about food and our dysfunctional relationship to food has made us into a population of “orthorexics.” We have an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating and calories. Yet, we are the world’s most unhealthy people, spending more than $1.5 trillion on preventable chronic diseases linked to diet.
“The French paradox is that they have better health than we do, despite being a cheese-eating, wine-swilling, frois-gras-chomping people…Meanwhile, the American paradox is that we are a people who worry unreasonably about nutritional benefits and are sold food based on our nutrition consciousness. Yet, we have invented the worst diet in the world for ourselves – the Western diet.”
Pollan said that the unhealthy relationship we have developed with food stems from “nutritionism,” a faulty ideology dependent on reductionist nutrition science that the food industry also promotes. He said nutritionism has led Americans to believe in four myths:
Food is the sum of its nutrient parts; the key to understanding food is merely as a delivery vehicle of nutrients.
We must rely on experts of all stripes to tell us how to eat, since we can neither taste nor smell the nutrients we are supposed to have in our diet.
The whole point of eating is to maintain and promote bodily health, a transaction reduced to improving or ruining your health.
The world can be neatly divided into good and evil nutrients.
Pollan concluded with several tips:
Pollan suggested we should eat food and for reasons less directly connected to health than nutrition science usually appreciates, including the pleasure of tasting, breaking bread with friends or enemies, or ritual affirmations of individual and group identity. He concluded with several tips:
Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. Don’t eat food-like substances with more than five ingredients or ingredients you can’t recognize.
Buy food on the perimeter, not the middle, of the supermarket: avoid processed foods.
Don’t eat anything that won’t eventually rot.
Sit and eat at meal times.
Don’t eat in your car.
Stop eating before you get full; leave the table a little bit hungry.
Don’t buy food where you buy your fuel.
The cross-agency planning committee that was instrumental in organizing Pollan’s March 20 visit. Shown here (left to right, back row) are: Laird Ruth, Greta Massetti, Mia Hemmes, Joel Kimmons, Robin Hamre (front row): Sonia Kim, Katherine Thomas, Christa Essig, Julie Fishman, Lauren Green, Annelen Archbold. Photo provided by Christa Essig. Photo by Christa Essig
Chief Policy Officer Anne Haddix shares thoughts on interagency food system approaches, as Pollan and NCEH/ATSDR director Howard Frumkin listen intently.
CDC Leaders Respond
A lively panel discussion followed Pollan’s presentation.
CDC Chief Policy Officer, Anne Haddix said Pollan invites thinking across the agency with an ecologic and policy-oriented approach. Haddix suggested that CDC position its resources and talent towards bringing a solid science base and a broad network of public health partners to “examine the environmental, economic, and health impacts of how we produce and consume food.”
Arthur Liang, director, Food Safety Initiative, called for more research to understand and improve the safety of our food supply. He pointed out that little is known about how the microbiologic safely of food is effected by way food is produced, transported, and sold.
Janet Collins, director of the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, welcomed the opportunity to take a fresh look at CDC’s responsibilities pertaining to food environments and improve communications about healthy eating. She noted that “upstream issues are acute,” including the problem of “food deserts,” inner-city communities that lack affordable access to healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables.
Howard Frumkin, director of the National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH) and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ASTDR), noted: “You can’t have a healthy population without a healthy diet, and you can’t have a healthy diet without a healthy agricultural system and healthy ecosystems.” He also warned of looming climate change and petroleum scarcity projected for the next 20 to 30 years. This will severely impact food production and will require different approaches to address the intensive natural resource and energy requirements of our current agricultural system.
Planning and Partnerships
It was thanks to a CDC planning committee and partners Slow Food USA, Georgia Organics, and Emory University that Pollan’s visit materialized into a day-long dialogue about the food system and public health. In addition to the lecture and panel discussion, organizers planned a meet and greet breakfast with leadership, as well as morning and afternoon working sessions between CDC leaders, partners, Pollan and another special guest, Dan Imhoff, the author of Food Fight: A Citizen’s Guide to the Farm Bill.
Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity (DNPAO) nutritional epidemiologist Joel Kimmons, recalled: “My former Nutrition Branch Chief, Mary Serdula, first proposed Pollan come to CDC nearly four years ago. She appreciated his ability to connect the dots between food and everything, as well, as his mastery at science reporting.” Kimmons continues, “Pollan provided a timely, positively digestible engagement with food as a solution. His artful storytelling reawakens deep connections, affirming food as more than calories or health. By describing gastronomic experiences, he connects the ecology of food to our diverse cultural expressions. Culture becomes the critical way to influence dietary behavior—probably more influential than the promotion of dietary change through recommendations and requirements.”
Christa Essig, a public health analyst who serves as a liaison on food system issues for NCEH and DNPAO, was similarly pleased about the event. Essig sees the co-benefits of sustainable food systems for environmental and nutritional health as opportunities CDC can seize upon right now. For example, “the agency could support improved nutrition and activity environments by linking local food initiatives to healthy built environments. CDC could also research the health effects of agriculture in relation to microbial resistance, pesticides, and climate change.”
According to Robin Hamre, DNPAO senior partnership analyst, CDC has been thinking strategically about partner organizations and social movements for some time. “We partner with various grassroots networks that take action on the social, political, economic, environmental, and public health issues facing contemporary food and agriculture systems. Of note are pilot efforts to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables. These initiatives support farmer’s markets, gardens, and regional food systems that reduce food miles travelled and remove market barriers to poor families as well as small- to mid-sized local farmers.”
Julie Shaffer, Slow Food Atlanta leader agreed: “CDC’s credibility can catalyze change within American culture by providing research and influencing policy for food and health, with a focus on engaging children to make healthy food choices.” Alice Rolls, executive director of Georgia Organics—the nonprofit that hosted Pollan as keynote for its Pollinating the Good Food Movement Conference on March 21st—remarked, “As with tobacco, CDC could assess the true health and environmental costs of our industrialized food system. The Centers’ robust history in research could provide a positive public health outlook on what an energy-independent, regionalized food system can be.”
CDC Must Walk the Talk
Julie Fishman, associate director for program development at NCEH/ASTDR, found Pollan’s visit energizing. “It challenged the CDC community to consider how public health can take on food systems issues more holistically and encouraged us to think of the profound implications of moving from a petroleum-based to a sun-based food system.” She also emphasized that “CDC must begin to walk the talk” in regards to the food that we make available to our own employees.
Fishman leads the Food Systems Workgroup—one of the nine Go Green, Get Healthy Sustainability Workgroups. The workgroup’s mission is to support a food system that will provide fair, healthy, sustainable food to the CDC community, minimize environmental impacts, and serve as a model for the broader public health and healthcare communities. The Food Systems Workgroup also encourages CDC employees to make healthy and environmentally responsible food choices.
What You Can Do
Michael Pollan’s visit was an inspirational event that highlighted CDC efforts to improve the health of our nation, efforts that often have food as an integral component. There are a number of ways to learn more about food systems issues and engage with this work at CDC.
Attend the special pre-release screening of Food, Inc. a movie about our food system, Wednesday, May 20th at 2:30 p.m. Auditorium A, Building 19, Roybal campus, with a moderated discussion to follow.
If you are interested in the provision of healthy, sustainable food at CDC or digging up dirt to craft a new CDC garden, join the Food Systems Workgroup by contacting Christa Essig at email@example.com Julie Fishman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Perhaps you want to learn more about gardening in Georgia? Then join the new Garden Interest Group, which is open to all CDC/ASTDR employees and contractors, by contacting CDC Gardening Interest@cdc.gov and visiting the CDC Garden Wiki.
If you crave debate and would like to read about food, how it is produced, where and why we consume it, get in touch with book club organizers: Stephanie Ramsey email@example.com or Lauren Green atCVJ3@cdc.gov.
For those who can offer strategic thinking about CDC’s roadmap for sustainable food systems policy, programs, and partnerships, please contact Annie Archbold of the Office of Strategy and Innovation at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information
To view Michael Pollan’s presentation and CDC panelists on IPTV, click on Obesity Prevention, Nutrition and Food System Policy Presentation 2009-03-20.
Read Michael Pollan’s major articles: Unhappy Meals; The Food Issue: An Open Letter to the Farmer-in-Chief; and A Food Revolution in the Making, from Victory Gardens to the White House Lawn.
Review the Plan for Atlanta’s Local Food Future.
This Inside Story by Nabiha Megateli-Das and Members of the Go Green Get Healthy Food Systems Workgroup.