Michael Pollan & Slow Food Alameda

by Tanya

I’ve simply not had a moment to write about a benefit J. and I attended a few weeks ago. The fundraiser supporting the Alameda Free Library was generously hosted by several local restaurants and members of Slow Food Alameda (places like Kroll’s Pizza, Acquacotta and C’era Una Volta.) A delicious fest of organic veggies, roasted pizzas, tasty snacks and local wine was spread out over several tables outside the Auctions by the Bay building located at the Alameda Navy base. The day was extremely windy and cold, but the free food and wine certainly warmed us up a bit. (I should mention that we were able to attend the event due to the two tickets generously given to us by J.’s boss at the library).

As we stood in line, waiting for the mass of people to snake their way through the food stands, a chef from Kroll’s Pizza walked down the line, handing out warm slices of roasted vegetable pizza:


Delicious tomato, basil and mozzarella skewers.

Best bread ever! From Feel Good Bakery.

Eggplant and garlic tapenade, from Poppo’s.

Saffron risotto balls – TO DIE FOR! Again, supporting my consistent theory that ball-shaped appetizers are far superior to any other appetizers.

Representing the selection from C’era Una Volta

My happy plate

The inside of the building is a gorgeous Deco theater which used to host classic film screenings, but is currently used for antique auctions. The edutainment portion of the evening was a conversation with Michael Pollan.

Michael Pollan signing copies of his books. Sorry for the blurry.

Pollan, for those of you who may not be familiar, is a published author of The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and, most recently, In Defense of Food. A contributor to several notable publications, Pollan currently teachers courses with the UC Berkeley department of journalism. He does not consider himself a “food journalist,” but rather a journalist interested in the relationship food has to a variety of other social topics. The dialogue was hosted by Sedge Thompson, the Berkeley-based host of a Saturday morning variety radio show, West Coast Live. Pollan, a poised but animated man, was a riveting and inspirational speaker. Both of the men donated their time to the fundraiser.

In a letter recently published in the New York Times magazine, Pollan addresses the President elect about the current approach in thinking about agriculture in the country. The letter was published long before the election, but holds water regardless of which candidate would have won, since neither Obama nor McCain discussed their viewpoints on food and agriculture in America. (Note: in a recent interview with TIME magazine, Barack Obama actually mentioned reading the article.) The three major points in Pollan’s letter are the need for a solar-powered farming system, the decentralization of the current farming network, and a necessary change in America’s food culture. In his discussion with Thompson, Pollan spoke to the fact that the food system is at the heart of such important issues as climate change and health care. Consider the fact that massive amounts of fuel are required to operate farming equipment and to transport crops across the country. Or, as Pollan pointed out, note the drastic rise in diet related chronic diseases that are much more prevalent in the last fifty years. A lot of the points addressed in his letter and books were also reiterated in his discussion in Alameda. I scribbled several pages worth of notes, knowing full well that a lot of the points he brought up would be things I would wish to investigate later.

The average age of an American farmer is 55 years old. It is an industry that needs young blood and progressive thinking, especially since we only have between 1-2 million farmers in the country. Considering our current population, that means about 1 farmer for every 250-300 thousand citizens.

The current food system, Pollan feels, needs to be decentralized to make it more resilient. The current emphasis in the agri-industry is on efficiency and quantity, not long-term resilience.

“Governments love cheap food,” Pollan said. The business models of feed lot agriculture depend on cheap corn and soy. Pollan feels that now that both corn and soy are becoming a bit more expensive, it’s actually advantageous to the farmer who has continuously utilized the organic, grass-fed approach.

This reminds me of the other point – the word “sustainable.” It’s become a buzz word and quite devoid of its original meaning. The original meaning of sustainability is a process that can go on indefinitely without destroying the means on which it depends. A “rectification of the names,” as Pollan called it, needs to take place, since everyone touts their processes as “sustainable,” without much backing.

Pollan also mentioned a very valid point of the elitism of the current food movement. Pollan said that the food revolution, like any other cultural revolution starts out elitist but becomes democratized. This is still a very young wave of thinking and requires time. If it is still not more widely accepted down the line, then it needs to be reexamined. The ultimate goal is that everyone will have a better approach to growing produce and preparing food. I agree with Pollan to an extent. I feel that the mindset needs to change from family to family, and individual to individual. However, if the actual industry of food and agriculture does not change, the prohibitive costs of shopping locally and organic will still limit a lot of people from being part of the “revolution.” The biggest impact depends on our government focusing on revamping the current food system, on supporting farmers, on promoting community-supported agriculture.

Thompson asked Pollan if he would consider a political post as a consultant on agriculture. To that, Pollan shook his head. And I can understand why he wouldn’t. I feel that his investigative journalism and probing questions do so much more for people’s way of thinking than any government official or crop report could do. He is planting seeds (pardon the pun) in our minds with approachable language and facts. While he may not wish to be part of the government, I can only hope that the government officials who are involved in the decisions affecting America’s food system are on the same page as him. When asked for what he thinks should be the first thing the new President should do upon taking the post, Pollan said – “Rip out several acres of the South Lawn and plant a vegetable garden.” Amen, Mr. Pollan.

One of the key things that I gleaned from reading the article, as well as listening to the discussion, is that shopping locally should take precedent over shopping organically. Ideally, we would do both, but if we are really interested in helping play our part in the ecological and economic issues affecting not just the US, but the world, we should shop locally. Food purchased from a nearby farmer will require less fuel for delivery; it will be more fresh, and thus better for us; and it will support the local economy. The other point is that, ultimately, we all need to think in terms of quality, not quantity. Growing smaller amounts, but better crops, as well as purchasing less at a time, so that no food will ever go to waste. Both of those are things I intend to implement into my daily life. My housemate and I are going to sign up for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) produce box. This nifty site can help you locate nearby farmers and contact them for produce deliveries. Shopping at the local farmer’s market is something I’ve been doing, and there are ways to buy a good amount of groceries smartly without complaining about it being expensive. None of this is a new concept to me – I just feel more inspired and incited to commit to it more.

Links: People contacting Obama with their suggestions of what he should do about food policy
1. http://civileats.com/2008/11/07/tell-president-elect-obama-about-the-change-you-want-to-see/
2. http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2008/11/6/17569/4677