Dr. Marion Nestle has no problem mixing food and politics, as evidenced by her popular blog titled Food Politics. Regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum, though, Dr. Nestle has a lot of insight and knowledge to give regarding nutrition, overall health choices and an understanding of the underlying issues to some of the current food debates, some of which we briefly go over in this interview. She has written numerous books and is currently a Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health (which she chaired from 1988-2003) and Professor of Sociology at New York University. You can view more information about Dr. Nestle here.
How did you get started in food activism?
“I prefer to call it advocacy rather than activism, so this kind of work is understood in the context of positive social changes that will improve food choices, dietary intake, health and the environment. I caught on to the need for food advocacy when I attended a meeting sponsored by the National Cancer Institute on lifestyle choices. Most of the speakers were physicians and scientists working on anti-smoking policies. They showed slides (this was pre-PowerPoint era) with images of cigarette marketing throughout the world, much of it aimed at children. I knew cigarette companies marketed everywhere and to children, but had never paid much attention. I came away from that meeting convinced that nutritionists ought to be paying attention to marketing by Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and the like. I started writing about the effects of food industry marketing and put that material into the book that became Food Politics in 2002. It’s now in a third edition published in 2013. ”
Why do you think nutrition is so important? How does it affect other areas of our daily lives?
“The two most important public health problems in the world, each affecting around one billion people, are not having enough food and having so much that it induces obesity. No other public health problems come anywhere close to those numbers or impact.”
Lately, it seems that you have been posting a lot about school lunches and the fight between the government and private industry over what our kids eat. Why do you think this is crucial and what would be the best solution?
“The school lunch fight is about politics, pure and simple. Food companies want to sell junk foods to school kids. They get billions of dollars in taxpayer money for whatever they can sell in schools. They also support roughly half the expenses of the School Nutrition Association. I’ve been in some of the poorest schools in the country where the school meals are healthy, taste good (sometimes even smell good), and are happily consumed by the kids. In my experience, in schools where the adults care what kids eat, the food is good and the kids eat it.”
How do you recommend the modern, busy family on a limited budget eat a wholesome diet? Many people know that organic, GMO free and whole foods are healthier but really don’t know how to do this with limited time and budget.
“I wish healthy diets didn’t seem so complicated (I blame food marketing for that too). Healthy diets include plenty of vegetables and a variety of relatively unprocessed foods, balance calories, and keep junk foods to a minimum. That’s not hard to achieve, but it helps a lot to know how to cook, well and efficiently. Healthier foods would be cheaper if we had federal policies that linked health to agriculture. That we don’t have such policies makes healthy choices hard for everyone.”
What do you think is one the most important nutrition issues we are facing today and what can be done?
“As I noted earlier, hunger and malnutrition on the one hand, and obesity and its consequences—diabetes, heart disease, and so forth—on the other are the two most important global public health problems. Both are a result of politics and income inequities. If any of this is going to change, food advocates have to engage with the political system.”
Are there any projects you are currently working on or books you are writing? What’s next?
“I’m working on a book about food advocacy using advocacy to reduce sugary drink consumption as an example. It’s currently titled “The Soda Project” because it’s envisioned in three parts: a print book, an electronic version of the print book, and an enhanced electronic version with live links to relevant materials. It’s all scheduled for publication in the fall of 2015 but that’s still a long way off.”