Trying to decide what’s for dinner is a noble debate and the topic for the 46th Nobel Conference at Gustavus College - Making Food Good. Sold out at over 4,000 attendees, you’d think the headliner was Springsteen, but to the congregation, Marion Nestle, dished up some pretty compelling stuff. “Food Politics: Personal Responsibility vs. Social Responsibility,” the title of her talk, boiled a stew of issues into one rich question. Where does individual choice end and public policy begin? Is what I eat my business or of public concern? Shouldn’t I have the right to consume whatever I want even if I end up obese with Type II diabetes and require extensive and expensive care?
Weaving together scientific data, sociological data, and common sense, Nestle presented the factors impacting our food and health since the 1980s. We’re eating more calories than ever and we seldom cook. We eat all the time (in book stores, libraries, our cars). Bad food is more convenient and cheaper than good. Consider that in fast food restaurants burgers go for a buck; salads for $5 a serving.
Some 40 percent of American children are overweight. One in eight American adults has Type II diabetes. The health care costs for this are staggering, estimated to be about $770 per household. Healthy folks who eat well are paying for those who do not. We all know the irony of abundance. Close to one billion people throughout the world are suffering from starvation while we’re getting fat. Too much food and a dire lack is the global paradox killing people.
The relative price of fresh fruits and vegetables has risen about 40 percent since the 1980s, yet the price of soda, butter, and beer has gone up a mere 15 percent. Something is clearly out of whack. Consider that the beverage industry is pouring $40 million into fighting a soda tax and that Michelle Obama’s healthy kids campaign, “Let’s Move Outside” is funded with a mere $400,000.
“I want laws to protect me from other people’s mistakes,” Mark Bittman noted at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum’s Food Summit. “I like traffic lights, public schools, good roads,” he said. The issue of individual rights verses public good is front and center plate.
“Until we have elected officials involved in public health issues, we will continue to have a two-class food system. Those who can afford to buy nutritious food and those who make decisions based on price,” Nestle said. There seems little doubt that cheap, sugar-fat-salt laden processed food is undermining American health.
There’s time to take our food back, Nestle said, striking a finishing and optimistic note. Food literacy—knowledge of basic nutrition and culinary competence—are key. There’s no doubt we’re in the midst of an edible revolution. Look at New York City. Its programs to support neighborhood farmers markets in the city’s food deserts, nutrition requirements for institutional meals, and public service ad campaigns are beacons of hope.
Gustavus Adolphus’ yearly Nobel Conference is a two day multi-disciplinary event with musical concerts, films and, of course, dinners devoted to the theme dujour. St. Peter, located in the nexus of farm country seemed especially apt. Nestle and the six other lecturers raised more questions than answers. There was plenty to chew on as we attendees filed onto the pretty campus green seeking lunch—sandwiches, salads, plus all manner of chips, sodas, and cookies. It was hard not to notice the students lined up at the vending machine. Talk is easy, food is cheap. I couldn’t help but wonder when all of the “food for thought” would inspire a change towards truly thoughtful food.