Thursday, October 13, 2011

Michael Pollan and the Food Movement

Who: VegNews Editorial Assistant Joni Sweet 
What: Edible Education 101 class with Michael Pollan 
Where: Wheeler Auditorium, UC Berkeley, California 
When: October 4, 2011 
Why: To hear how corporations are affecting the food movement

Author of The Omnivore's Dilemma Michael Pollan
The Scoop: The world is growing, Western diets are poorer than ever, and many people have become dependant on big box stores for their groceries. As part of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program, national grocers like Wal-Mart agreed this past summer to open new stores or remodel existing ones to help bring more fresh food to food deserts—primarily low-income neighborhoods with little or no access to fresh, healthy food. I was interested in learning more about how corporations are affecting the food movement, so I decided to go a panel discussion on the issue as part of the Chez Panisse Foundation’s Edible Education 101 series of classes at UC Berkeley open to the public. While the classes are continuing every Tuesday throughout the fall semester, this particular panel was made of Jack Sinclair, the executive vice president of Wal-Mart’s food division in the US; Jib Ellison, founder of Blu Skye Strategy Consulting which transforms markets using principles of sustainability; and Michael Pollan, a noted author and professor.

Since Sinclair is responsible for developing Wal-Mart’s overall food and grocery strategy, he was able to tell the audience a lot about how Wal-Mart is working to improve the food crisis. He presented information that shows Wal-Mart’s effort to build relationships with small farmers, offer more organic produce at an affordable price, and how it's working towards its goal of nine percent of all produce sold to be sustainably sourced. Additionally, Sinclair said that Wal-Mart is working on revamping its food nutrition labels to make them more readable. I don’t think many people could argue with the hard numbers Sinclair presented to the audience that backed his claims.

However, what the audience did question was Wal-Mart’s controversial ethical practices regarding workers' compensation and salaries, sourcing standards for products, and extensive stocking of processed foods. Sinclair seemed to respond with stock public relations answers to tough questions, which included asking how Wal-Mart employees are supposed to afford organic food, whether Wal-Mart will put a limit on how profitable it will become, and how it could claim to be providing healthy food, while still stocking the shelves with processed junk food. Sinclair would often reference Wal-Mart’s ethical code and its dependence on its “valued” employees, rather than providing direct answers to such questions. Sinclair also reminded the audience of Wal-Mart’s policy of giving the customer freedom of choice, versus urging them to buy more healthful produce.

Overall, I found the talk quite interesting and engaging. As a big-business skeptic, I have to admit I was impressed with Wal-Mart’s current efforts in improving sustainability measures, healthful food options, and relationships with small, organic farmers. Sinclair said what many have known for some time—that people prefer local food because, in addition to not requiring lots of resources to transport it, the produce also tastes fresher and lasts longer—and that Wal-Mart has been improving relations with local farmers in communities across the US. On the other hand, I feel the audience brought up some very important points that still remain unanswered in a direct way. While Pollan didn’t actually speak much, he did suggest that perhaps labeling chemically laden food should be a requirement, versus the extensive, costly process organic farmers must go through to get the organic certification. Sinclair said the responsibility of that should lay with the government, and not with Wal-Mart.

If you’re interested in these issues, I would recommend watching a video of the lecture or going to one of the upcoming lectures if you’re in the Bay Area. Additionally, if you want to know more about how organizations across the US are working to increase food security, check out Combatting Food Insecurity in the US.

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