On Monday, Writer’s Center Stage and Cuyahoga Public Library brought Michael Pollan to Cleveland to speak. He happened to be free for lunch and seemed delighted to be taken to The Greenhouse Tavern (above, photos by Donna Turner Ruhlman), for a taste of fall.

Pollan, who lives, teaches and writes in Berkeley, CA, is tall and lanky, bobs his head a lot, smiles easily, and is engaging in conversation. He was for years a magazine editor in New York, and left full-time employment with no small amount of anxiety to complete his first book. His second book had mediocre sales, he noted (I read it long ago, excellent book). The Botony of Desire faired better, but it was The Omnivore’s Dilemma that transformed him from non-fiction author and journalism teacher into a national spokesman for the urgent food issues we face today.

When I asked if he was surprised at the position he’s in, he simply shook his head, smiling, and stared down at the table, as if to say, “To put it mildly.”  A lot can change in five years.

What makes Pollan so effective and what has allowed his writing and reporting to reach such a broad audience is that he is able to take very complex ideas and situations and simplify them, without making them simplistic, and to convey them in clear compelling prose.

I asked him where are we now in our national food debate, points he would clarify the next day by email. They were two, points of warning of how big business is attempting to frame our national food dialogue. Spin.

The first, he said, is that big business is turning the conversation toward “better for you” foods, rather than emphasing natural foods cooked at home. He used, by way of example, Wal-Mart’s coopting Michelle Obama.

“They’ve drawn Michelle Obama into negotiations on improving the nutritional quality of processed foods,” he explained, “which is better than nothing, but her original, and to my mind, much more effective focus was simply on real food—fresh produce, cooking for your family etc. There is reason to doubt that ‘better for you’ processed foods will do us any good. Think about Snackwell’s—the same idea, during the low-fat campaign.  It was ‘better for you’ yet we binged on better for you products and got fat on low-fat. The same thing could happen again.”

Don’t get me started on Snackwell’s, an emblem of American idiocy (and our own damn fault—I don’t blame Nabisco; if we’re not smart enough to think for ourselves, well, that’s why they have Darwin Awards. (See my Rant: America’s Fat Problem.)

Pollan’s second point of note was to say that the food giants have begun to fight back, against him, against the makers of Food, Inc., against anyone calling attention to the fact that our industrial food production system is horrible for us on almost every level. They are manipulating the national dialogue in a deviously clever way by creating the US Farmers & Ranchers Alliance, which is, in effect, a $30 million PR campaign to take the country’s gaze off CAFOs and processed food and focus it on agriculture itself and its farmers. SPIN!

“Their ads—‘How did Agriculture ever get to be a dirty word?’—imply that our target has been farmers and ranchers,” Pollan said, “rather than meat packers, feedlots, and manufacturers. Very clever, and perhaps convinces some farmers that their interests and agribusiness’s are identical.”

The USFRA is a group lead by Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau, farmers’ main lobbying group in DC, with partners that include DuPont and Monsanto. The first line of their mission announces their goal: “Enhance consumer trust in the U.S. food production system.”

Julia Moskin, in an article in the NYTimes on the USFARA “dialogues” late last month concludes her story by quoting Myra Goodman, a founder of the organic collective Earthbound Farms, one of the large-scale growers that have so far declined to join the Alliance.

“If in practice it turns out to be a forum for honest, inclusive, productive discussions about the state of our food system, it could be good,” she told Moskin. “If it turns out to be all about protecting the status quo, then it won’t be so productive.”

A good reminder to pay attention to the messenger as well as the message, whether it’s from a lobbiest or the inviting Snackwell package at your local grocery store.

Think for yourself.

Civil Eats addresses the USFRA head on.

American opinions on the farming industry, from Environmental Working Group.


If you liked this post on Michael Pollan, check out these other links:

© 2011 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2011 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved.





31 Wonderful responses to “Lunch with Michael Pollan:
Two Words of Warning”

  • Dave Smith

    Hey there … Two Words of Warning? Which two would those be?(Food Rules?) I found that by going to Amazon and looking to see what kind of great book he’s releasing now.

    I think I like the last three words best.

    Think for yourself.

  • Marilyn Noble

    Thank you, Michael, for this excellent post, and for shining a light on the USFRA. I watched a good portion of their dialogues and was both impressed and appalled at how they attempted to co-opt the sustainable food movement and dismiss it at the same time. The bad news is that spin is killing us. The good news is that for Big Ag to be spending this kind of money on marketing, they’re starting to hear us and they’re getting worried that the people who eat are too. We all have to keep speaking up.

  • bob del Grosso

    “Their ads—‘How did Agriculture ever get to be a dirty word?’—imply that our target has been farmers and ranchers,” Pollan said, “rather than meat packers, feedlots, and manufacturers. Very clever, and perhaps convinces some farmers that their interests and agribusiness’s are identical.”

    Opponents of “industrial agriculture” are themselves partially to blame for the success of this campaign. By their unblinking use of the term “factory farms” without bothering to point out that they were really referring to food processing factories, they misidentified farmers and ranchers as their target.

    • Chris K.

      Ranchers and farmers who engage in unsustainable, industrialized agricultural practices ARE the target, as they damn well deserve to be. They are just as culpable as the scumbags that pay them.

      Do you bemoan the fate of the noble tobacco farmer? How about opium farmers? Or the tweeker cooking methamphetamines in his double-wide trailer?

      Big agriculture is no different. It defends a food production system that’s bad for everybody except their shareholders, and the only way they can do that is with misinformation and misdirection. It’s the exact same strategy taken by the tobacco industry decades ago – except big agriculture has bought even more power and influence in Washington than their predecessors.

      For that reason, nothing is likely to change for the better until citizens force our government to legislate two incredibly significant ideas: 1. corporations are NOT people; and 2. money is NOT free speech.

  • Eric Salinas

    Great post! This is so true and pretty damn scary when you think about it. Most people have no idea where their food comes from or even give a thought about it. Unfortunately our culture today is about fast and convinient, instead of taking the time to prepare a fresh meal at home. I’ve noticed how families today are losing connection with “family time”, sitting down together for dinner and sharing each others time, so to compensate they buy fast foods and just sit on the couch like zombies. If people would just educate themselves in the slightest bit to understand the sourcing of their food, they would be more inclined to come home, cook a fresh meal and enjoy it with the family.

  • brandon A

    Great post. I think Pollan’s popularity come from his writing technique. Many food books come up overly pretentious and condescending. His books make you feel liking you are going through a learning journey with him, and in the end, he wont hate you if you disagree with him.

  • Paul Kobulnicky

    I am less concerned about corporate food’s marketing campaigns than I am about their manipulation of Federal agencies for their own benefits. I watch as very good local food is threatened in the marketplace by very bad food that meets corporate-friendly and local-unfriendly “organic” designation. I worry about the manipulation of FDA regulations on artisinal cheeses and processed meats. I worry about the manipulation of meat processing centers that keep artisinal ranchers and farmers from local places of slaughter and butchering. These are the real threats to those of us who do know better.

  • Kanani

    I think to an extent grabbing for the fast, convenient, and less nutritious foods is a stress response. It’s not that people don’t want family time, but one of the outcomes of constant stress is a disassociation with one’s body. So it’s filling up, using food as a comfort component or something to mindlessly do, moreso than for fuel. The result is they don’t even taste it. It’s simply bulk. What cooking does for us is slow us down, makes us consider, actually countering the stress response.

    Anyway, I loved Michael Pollan’s books –the first one was a wonderful read during a time when we had an avocado farm. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Arminda

    Ah Michael Pollan. His very name conjures up heated discussion among the ag circles I run in. While his book has done wonders for my new business (small but growing pastured hog and poultry farm), I know that many other farmers, some commercial, feel that Pollan’s book and films like Food, Inc. denigrate their life’s work.

    At the heart of many commercial operations are small family operations. People take it personally when it seems as though Pollan and others like him criticize the way they choose to make a living. All would say that they always provide their animals with the care and attention they need and deserve. I know this is not true of all commercial operations – Smithfield Farms definitely comes to mind – but there are often real people, real families behind these farms and most are not the evil overlords that the local food movement can make them out to be. I hate to sound like an ad for U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance but I gotta stick up for friends in bigger agriculture than me.

    • Lorraine Lewandrowski

      So true. There are so few ways in which we, the regular family farmers who produce a product that goes into the commodity system can communicate with the public. We are regular sized dairy farmers, milking 65 cows. Our cows graze extensively, we only use antibiotics for an ill cow under vet supervision. We have taken care of the same herd since the 1920’s, some 40 generations of cows, 4 generations of people.
      Maybe you know about the Milk Price Crash of 2009. Farmers in Upstate NY were committing suicide, the FarmNet Hotline for farmer counseling was ringing off the wall as farmers faced $9 to $10 pay for 100 pounds of milk a price so low, that it matched the 1970’s pay price. I personally called numerous food-interested organizations in NYC. To a group, they all said they were not interested in saying anything on behalf of the “conventional” dairy farmers and cut the conversation short. The farmers went to the dairy hearings alone, they later went to the antitrust hearings alone.
      So where is this place that average mid- sized farmers, you know, the hundreds of thousands of farms you see when you look down as you fly over America, can communicate with consumers? Some of us have tried to work through USFRA, hoping they will include more of our voices. Some of us have been trying to reach out alone. I was just interviewed on http://www.HeritageRadioNetwork.com on “Cutting the Curd” Episode 78. I got a wonderful reaction from consumers. I hope the food-writers will reach out to talk with us regular commodity farmers.

  • subhorup dasgupta

    Pollan has been a long time hero for me, and his philosophy (all seven words) have been life-changing for me. For many decades, so called developing nations were safe from the food industry’s brainwashing, but with economies opening up, the indigenous food cultures are being destroyed everywhere. In cities like Hyderabad, where I stay, locally grown produce shops are giving way to supermarket chains where real food is just on a few shelves. Marketing and advertisements play on the “added nutrition” aspect and guilt people who are too busy to cook for their families into buying packaged processed whatever-it-is. Fortunately, real food and real produce is still available in plenty for those who are willing to take the trouble.

  • Natalie Luffer Sztern

    I look at this post in this way: America has been brainwashed that a person of value has to be thin, athletic, muscular and paired these visions with low-fat, fat free. For goodness sakes, when WeightWatchers uses a point system to balance your daily intake for people trying to attain the physicalities we are told to strive – I am allowed to eat 6 points today…that is one end of the food dynasty. Another is Vegan or Vegetarian – although I don’t understand either but I suppose it came about because the meat families could afford was so distasteful it created a whole other being who will digest again, specific foods. Unfortunately we all have to be cognisant of the cost of food and especially meat and unfortunately in these times and earlier; the affordable way is in your mass market grocer. We are all guilty of it. In a way people like me, Diabetics, have a foot ahead of everyone else even though we suffer a disease because, we are taught that we must eat foods very low in sugar. That is all we are taught. Low Glycemic is also a diet and in fact I think one that is espoused by Suzanne Somers (at least that is where I have gotten the best information on this idea). Forget who she is and what else she sells. People now have to be re-trained to eat Meat, Fish, Vegetable and stay away from Sugar Products. What is the cheapest food at the store to buy especially when it goes on sale – yes high sugar products because producing products containing sugar is so damn cheap. Fat Free-Low Fat= Mega Sugar because the taste has to come from somewhere.

    It is a difficult mindset to re-learn how to eat. Thankfully I learned it, now I wish other people would too. However and on the other hand: pushing cured products (high in sodium), Pork products like bacon, Foie-gras, these foods too are unhealthy in quantity yet most recipes on the net today seem to be only and all about that kind of food and pastry. In that vein, Chefs and recipe mongers have to take responsibility because that is not a healthy way to eat either. That being said, and on a sarcastic note, how does Top Chef Just Dessert and Recipes to Riches justify their existence with such high profiles, in our lives today? Meat, Fish, Vegetables is how we are supposed to eat with little saved for Carbs…so why aren’t these foods pushed harder and how about Top Chef Vegetables? It is easy to throw blame and harder to make the financial changes, which are actually financial losses, which is why change will never happen and we will continue fighting until this decade is over, too.

    Food is taking the place of good television and creating stars in Chefs – how often do they say to the public: Warning this food I am cooking may be bad for your health?

  • Natalie Luffer Sztern

    Update: left out the most important point of the Low Glycemic and that is sugar creates fat. Fat people eat a lot of carbs (sugar) and sweet foods…When people can be re-trained with the mantra “Sugar makes me fat” and low fat has not taste so why bother chewing it, then we all win.

    • Vicki

      Carbs are more than just sugar. As the glycemic index points out, anything made with grain — cereals and breads, as well as rice, are high on the glycemic index scale and are a major contributor to diabetes. Indeed, one can gain good control of diabetes by merely eliminating grains and sweets from your meals. This excludes fast food, of course.

  • Nancy@acommunaltable

    I honestly don’t know where to start on this. It frustrates me and yes, even angers me. From Pollan’s perspective it seems the “solution” is to get rid of big Ag, cook unprocessed foods and viola, our dietary health issues will disappear. Perhaps from the perspective of the ivory tower Pollan inhabits it’s a viable solution – and in a perfect world, I might even agree with him. But to those of us who actually work in the real work with real people Pollan’s “solution” is about as relevant as Marie Antoinette’s. Telling a 75 year old widower that the solution to managing his diabetes and hypertension is to cook for himself from scratch may represent solving” the problem from Pollan’s POV but it only illustrates how truly myopic Pollan’s views are.
    Mr. Pollan might be shocked to learn that despite “our horrible industrial food system” many patients successfully manage their diabetes and hypertension because of that system and yes, “processed foods” play a role. Now, is it a perfect solution? I don’t know – but what I do know is that it is working and I will take that over ideological purity any day of the week.
    There is an old saying “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” – words perhaps Mr. Pollan should consider.

    • Matthew

      Nancy@acommunaltable, it is clear you are frustrated.

      You make a fair point that there are a lot of people to feed and not all of them are capable of feeding themselves as Mr. Pollan advocates. I cannot begin to imagine the response we would have if he were to say, “It’s okay for some the poor and infirm to eat poorly.” Wanting better diets for everyone is not something I find objectionable, but it would be nice if there was more advice for those of us with limited means.

      I imagine Mr Pollan’s publisher’s lawyers would be up in arms if he were giving medical advice to diabetics.

      • Nancy@acommunaltable

        But that is just it Matthew – some of these people are NOT eating poorly! Secondly, Pollan is most definitely making dietary recommendations! According to him, most of our health issues (heart disease, diabetes, hypertension) would disappear if we all at the “diet” he is promoting! This demonstrates an overly simplistic and “myopic” view of the problem and provides little to nothing in the way of solutions.
        What truly annoys me is that Pollan has decided that “processed = unhealthy” which is simply not the case! Now, I’m not arguing that Doritos are nutritious – clearly they aren’t. But to suggest that because a food is “processed” it cannot be part of a healthy diet is nonsense.

  • Tags

    That an organization created to stall beneficial legislation chose a guy named Stallman to lead it is a sign from God that they’re up to no good.

  • Laena

    I am a fan of Michael Pollan, the responsible eating movement, local farmers, and you, Ruhlman. I take big issue, however, with the elitist tone that often accompanies the admonition to eat a whole foods diet. Buying quality ingredients and cooking for yourself is expensive, and it does take a lot of time. Many people do not have accessible supplies of local foods they can purchase, and may not be able to afford to do so. If you are working two jobs to support your family, preparing quality meals is an arduous task when you factor in planning, shopping, and prep before you even start cooking, not to mention that it is more difficult when you don’t have a nice kitchen or adequate tools. Implying that people who are subsisting off of cheap filler food do so because they are lazy and don’t have their priorities straight is a very condescending viewpoint. When the system is so flawed, many people do not have the wherewithal to think for themselves enough to break out of the vicious cycle of unhealthy, processed eating. I agree that “better for you” processed foods are not the ideal solution, but the problems that push people into poor eating habits are not going to be addressed by simply telling people to make better choices. I believe this ties directly into what the Occupy Wall Street protestors are trying to address. The disparity between the 99% and the 1% is based in economics, but the adverse effects of financial stress are directly related to unhealthy eating. If people are in a position to afford and implement better choices, many will make them, but this issue is not as simple as you often pose it to be. I certainly don’t think you are alone in this- several commenters have already asked questions like “Why don’t people just educate themselves?” I am guessing the people saying that are often highly educated, middle to upper-middle class, and have no idea what life in poverty is like.

    • Smct1

      Please don’t equate poor with stupid. That is condescending and those two words are not mutually synonymous.

  • Kristine

    Your Snackwell reference reminded me of a time my roomates, back when I had some, decided to go on a “diet” and went grocery shopping. They came back with all kinds of cupcakes, potato chips, pizza – everthing bad for you, but with “diet,” “fat-free” or “low-fat” on the labels. Needless to say there was no weight loss happening.

  • mark tirado

    Michael I am suprized that you suggest that the Goverment should and could stick its unrully nose in to our food. Obama is one of the bigest hypocrites out there. I beleive the same thing as your friend does ” COOK FREE OR DIE”. Keep the goverment out of the food business. If I want to cook the fries in my restaurant in duck fat I sould be able to do just that. If I was to go on a diet I should already know, by the age of 15 what is good for me or no good for me. Our problems stem from the fact that we eat processed foods and we stoped making thing for ourselves. Eat more local foods and stop relying on fat-free or diet labels.

  • YOD

    I fear we’re going to start seeing “don’t hate the [big] farmer” TV commericals similar to the misleading ones the HFCS industry aired in the past few years.

    p.s. I love Pollan! The Ominivore’s Dilemma is one of the best books I’ve ever read.

  • KPeach

    Interesting read. I want to know what you guys ordered / enjoyed at the Greenhouse Tavern. My husband and I ate there after a Browns game last year. A very memorable dinner that included a pig’s face. Unnerving on the plate but so stinking delicious!

  • DiggingDogFarm

    As I see it, the majority of people don’t want to eat or drink differently…..big ag and big food is only giving them exactly what they want.

  • Logan

    Just wanted to tell you the link for “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” links to “The Botany of Desire”

  • Jessica / Green Skies and Sugar Trips

    Ruhlman, thank you for posting this and continually trying to spread the word and fight the good fight. You, as always, fucking rock.
    Americans are quite possibly the laziest creatures EVER. God forbid people get up off their asses and actually COOK for themselves!!! We have become a nation of complacency, with people who can barely think for themselves let alone COOK! And everyone wants everything “bigger better faster cheaper”, in the words of Joel Salatin. I would LOVE for this country to change, for society to change….but that is a tough struggle…. all I can to do is make the best possible choices for myself my family, and the people I cook for or invite into my home. And of course still get up on the soap box and try to educate friends and family and people around me that don’t “see” things for what they are. If they listen, that’s GREAT (it may have taken 28 but finally my sister’s eye’s were opened) and the people that don’t listen or see things for what they are, see the change they NEED to make in their lives, then there’s nothing we can do. People want to be lazy; they want to do as little as possible, and get the most they possibly can in return. (I won’t even get started on the state of society’s work ethic!) It’s a sick and detrimental cycle people are stuck in, and I don’t know what could wake them up if looking around (or in the mirror) hasn’t already.
    – Jess

  • Lyndsay ~ The Kitchen Witch

    This was timely for me as, not five minutes ago, I watched an ad on TV for macaroni and cheese that boasted hidden cauliflower in the “good for you” dry boxed pasta mix. What is so difficult about simply cutting up a head and making it into a nice cream sauce? In quietly following your blog over the past year, I have become far more conscious about the things we eat. Thank you for another great introduction to books I would like to read.

  • Natalie Luffer Sztern

    You know I am reading all these comments and something popped into my head: ‘where are all the television shows that highlight and inform us of the source of our foods from farm practices; fruit and vegetable growers and spend time educating us where and how and why we get to buy what they produce rather than all these shows that teach us how to cook it – we r missing what happens before the food hits the fridge and maybe -..maybe that might be an idea to pitch’ but not to Food Network pls. That is what I think Eric Ripert tried to do on his PBS show and to the extent he did it, was educational and successful in my mind.

  • Lucy

    The food debate is interesting but not at all as simple as people make it out to be. While I wholeheartedly agree that eating fresh foods and staying away from processed foods is the best, I also understand that for some people this IS more expensive, more difficult and nigh impossible. My son is a college student in south Georgia in a very small town. While I know he could do a better job of eating healthy, I also know his options are much more limited than mine just as far as what’s available in the grocery store. And the time constraints make it difficult for him to take the time to prepare a meal from start to finish. Unfortunately the answer turns out to be fast food and processed food. I’m working on helping him come up with things that can be prepared ahead of time or even quickly at the last minute, but it’s harder than some would have you believe.


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