Intersectional Politics in In Defense of Food

In his book In Defense of Food, Pollan plies readers with the advice to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” (1). This highly simplistic advice is meant to be in contrast to Pollan’s critique to the overly complicated and every changing world of nutritionism. While Pollan’s offers an entertaining and at times informative commentary on the science and economy of nutritionism, it does very little to explore the social and political implications of industrialization and inequality. Sure, eating food, and not too much of it, mostly plants, is important, but this conversation completely leaves out people unable to even get enough of it. By exploring deeper the societal inequalities regarding access to healthy food and the intersectional issues surrounding class, race, environmentalism and urbanization, one can see the multitude of issues all finding their root in food.

Someone who does explore the political side of food and inequalities found in diets is Frances Moore Lappe, who authored the book Diet for A Small Planet in 1970. Her ideas of food as a political act are still very much prevalent today. In her book, she argued that the inequalities we see in society, and not the abundance or availability of food, is what caused food insecurity and hunger. In her book, she states that “in fact we have this tremendous abundance of food grown. But it’s the economic and political structures [that] determine whether or not that production is actually meeting the needs of human beings” (Lappe). By unpacking this statement, it becomes clearer that social and political inequalities are being mirrored the food market. While Pollan offers an engaging book about food and diet, the audience seems to be a small sliver of society. It truly is, as he puts it, and “eating manifesto”. And one that could only be followed by those with the means, time, and environment to use it.

Lappé, Frances Moore., and Lappé, Anna. Hope’s Edge : The next Diet for a Small Planet. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2002.

Pollan, Michael., and Go Big Read. In Defense of Food : An Eater’s Manifesto. New York: Penguin Press, 2008.

1 thought on “Intersectional Politics in In Defense of Food

  1. Andrea Verschuyl

    Hi Marlee!

    I very much agree with your assessment that Micheal Pollan’s suggestion to “shop at the perimeters of the grocery store,” and “eat food. Not too much. And mostly plants” is simplistic at best. I find what Pollan really fails to accomplish, perhaps surprisingly given the fact that his book is so thoroughly researched, is place his conclusions regarding the contemporary food paradigm in systemic terms. All his suggestions for undermining nutritionism are highly individualistic. While there’s nothing obviously wrong with limiting meat/processed food intake, no choice of consumer activism can address the structurally-enforced reasons for our modern foodscape. I think you made an insightful choice to challenge Pollan’s simplicity by referencing Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe. When food is explicitly politicized, it immediately connects our practices of consumption, production, labor, etc to broader systemic institutions. Contextualizing food with political theory encourages important “why” questions. Why is it more beneficial to the current power structure to reinforce Malthusian narratives of overpopulation, when significant research has indicated poor distribution is a more appropriate explanation of national and international hunger? Why is it helpful to separate food from cultural meaning and cultural production? Why do we pretend agribusiness feeds the world, when in actuality, industrial farming only feeds 30 percent of the world population? In her book, Who Really Feeds the World, activist Vandana Shiva does an excellent job of demystifying the dominant narratives justifying our food system today. In building broader understanding of why our food system works the way it does, we are better able to understanding its role in enforcing political hegemony.


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