Michael Pollan’s been running around the country scribbling “Vote With Your Fork!” at book signings for his bestseller The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The idea is to boycott the industrial food chain by, say, shopping at farmers’ markets or joining a CSA.

But as Eric Schlosser, Marion Nestle and Pollan himself noted at the Princeton conference last week, we can’t just shop our way out of the problems plaguing our food system. We have to change our nation’s agricultural policies.

A slide in Nestle’s power point presentation summed the problem up nicely; for $5, McDonald’s will sell you five burgers or one salad. While the FDA dutifully chants the “more fruits and vegetables” mantra, our government manages to make beef cost less than lettuce thanks to the agricultural subsidies that make fast food so “cheap.”

Fresh produce, by contrast, is for the privileged, or at least that’s the perception. A faint aura of elitism hangs over the stalls at the Greenmarket, with its artisanal cheeses and biodynamic purple broccoli. Foodies find all kinds of exotic--and expensive--epicurean oddities and delights.

But farmers’ markets are actually a pretty egalitarian enterprise; where else do shoppers rub shoulders with world-class chefs vying for the finest and freshest from our local farmers? And most of the produce isn’t pricey at all—there’s no middleman, so your dollar goes farther, and it all goes to the farmer.

The problem is that farmers’ markets are generally located in more affluent neighborhoods, while many poor communities are a virtual wasteland of bodegas and fast food joints. This sad phenomenon even has a name, now; such neighborhoods are known as “food deserts,” i.e., “areas of relative exclusion where people experience physical and economic barriers to accessing healthy food.”

We’ve come a long way since that historic day on February 1st, 1960, when four young black men launched a sit-in at a “whites only” lunch counter in a Woolworth in Greensboro, North Carolina.

“I wanted a cheeseburger with french fries,” recalled Jibreel Khazan, whose name at the time was Ezell Blair Jr. Woolworth’s refused to serve him.

Now, of course, there’s no shortage of fast food joints flooding the inner cities with all the cheeseburgers and fries they can stomach—and then some. What’s lacking is access to healthy foods. The end result has been an explosion of obesity and diabetes among the poor; it’s a terrible cost to pay for all those cheap calories.

There’s a movement to fight the food deserts, with programs to bring more farmers’ markets to poor communities and school cafeterias that serve food from local farms. We need to encourage these efforts, but we’ve also got to lean on our government to scale back the subsidies that promote agribusiness monoculture, and ramp up support for the small and medium-sized farms that grow all those fruits and vegetables the FDA keeps telling us we need to eat more of.

Let’s see them put their money where their mouth is, because this “eat what we say, not what we subsidize” routine is getting really old. The message from Marion Nestle and her “food cop” colleagues? Get political. Fight the food system that makes beets cost more than beef.


From my lips to God’s ears: Mayor Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn have just announced that New York City will name a food policy czar who will be charged with raising the amount of healthy food sold in low-income neighborhoods. Here’s hoping other cities will follow suit.

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