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Now reading The State of Food: Part I

The State of Food: Part I

An interview with Mark Bittman.

Mark Bittman, a sixty-five-year-old born-and-raised New Yorker, currently resides in Berkeley, arguably the capital of California cuisine. As a columnist and food writer for the New York Times, Bittman made a thirty-year career writing about the wide world of food for various sections of the paper and the paper’s magazine. With his Dining section column, “The Minimalist,” Bittman crafted recipes and rallying cries for the home cook to get in the kitchen. As a contributor to the Opinion section from 2011 until late this summer, Bittman wrote about food as it related to national policy, agriculture, health, and the environment.

In August, Bittman told his editors that he planned to leave his post, and in September he wrote his last column. These days, Bittman is a cofounder of The Purple Carrot, a plant-based meal-kit company based just outside of Boston. Bittman has also written seventeen books, including the bestselling How to Cook Everything, and made all sorts of television appearances as a correspondent on the Today show and as a host of four other series.  

Bittman made the move from New York to Berkeley to be a distinguished visiting fellow at UC Berkeley, where his friend Michael Pollan also teaches. During his time at Berkeley, Bittman has been a part of the Berkeley Food Institute, a conglomeration of more than one hundred Berkeley faculty members committed to working toward more sustainable and ethical food systems. With Alice Waters, Bittman runs Berkeley’s “Edible Education 101” course, and may soon teach a journalism course. He continues to live in a part of town known by locals as the Gourmet Ghetto because of its proximity to Chez Panisse, Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, Monterey Market, the Acme Bread Company, and other seminal Berkeley food businesses. His house has a bungalow kitchen blessed by plenty of natural light. As I arrive, he gathers last-minute items around the house and we set out for Sonoma.  

We spend the day visiting two Sonoma-area vineyards, exceptional for their growing practices as much as for the wine that they produce—Preston, of Dry Creek Valley, and Sei Querce Vineyards, across the Russian River from Geyserville. In the afternoon we head to Shed in Healdsburg, where Mark gives a ticketed talk and reads from A Bone to Pick, one of his books. Along the way, and well into the night, we talk about the importance of eating more plants, the Obama administration’s successes and failures, and Bittman’s belief that we should start carding kids who want to buy soft drinks. 

As we drive across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, Bittman tells me about a class on social movements where he recently guest-lectured: “I got emotional. It brought me back to the old days—my own being in social movements.”

What kind of activism were you involved in when you were younger?

When I was a junior in college it was 1969–70, and that was the hottest year in student activism. It was the year after the U.S. started bombing Cambodia illegally, the year of the Kent State and Jackson State killings, the year of the big march on Washington to end the Vietnam War that half a million people turned up for. That was, of course, more compelling than school. That was where it was happening.

How did you come to food?

I grew up in New York, where the food was very varied, in a house where my mother was sort of disinterested in cooking, so I wound up eating a lot on the street and in restaurants, and I developed a very broad palate. My mother did cook every night so I learned by example that cooking was a reasonable thing to do or an expected thing to do. And then I went up to Massachusetts to go to college and there was no food at all. Nothing. It was 1967 and cafeteria food was abysmal and the food on the street was abysmal and I wasn’t in a family. There was no one who was going to cook for me, so I started to cook when I was a sophomore in college.

After that I went back to New York and I fell in with some people who cooked, and really started cooking seriously, and then I returned to Massachusetts. I lived in a commune there for a while, and I said, “I’ll cook and you guys can share the other jobs.” I just became more and more into it, and then when it came time to start writing, no one was interested in anything I wrote about until I started writing about food.

Why are you such a proponent of a more plant-based diet? Is that more important to you than eating organic or eating local?

I think there are two things that have to happen. One is people really need to understand how simple an okay diet can be and how there doesn’t need to be a thousand rules. It doesn’t need to be “Eat this, not that,” in a granular way. You just need a couple of really big rules, and I’ll get to that. And number two is that there needs to be official governmental agency. It’s important for that behavior to be present on every level—state, federal, city—in schools and everywhere else.

You don’t need to know anything else about food. If you have money, if you have time, then maybe you want to talk about organic, local, and pesticide-free. I’m all in favor of talking about these things. It’s how I make my living, and it’s all important, but those first two things are what people should start with when they start thinking about how to eat.

So, the two rules are: number one, figure out what food is, because there’s a lot of stuff that’s being sold as food that really isn’t food. You put that stuff to the side and say, “I’m just not going to eat very much of that stuff because I know it’s bad for me.”

And rule number two is, eat more foods from the plant kingdom this week than you did last week, and this month than you did last month, and this year than you did last year, and repeat. It’s as simple as that.

The USDA MyPlate program that Michelle Obama helped put forward says 50 percent of your plate should be fruits and vegetables. But government policies don’t support a national diet that enables people to get 50 percent of their calories from fruits and vegetables. Government policies encourage the production of junk food and animal products.

Here we are driving around Marin, so it’s hard to talk about it, but if we were driving around in Southern California, or interior California, or most of the United States, we’d be seeing one fast food joint after another. And then if we went into the supermarket we’d be seeing a chips aisle, a soda aisle, a candy aisle, a breakfast-cereal aisle. So, how can you say that you’re encouraging people to eat differently when everywhere they go the environment encourages them to eat badly?

How do we fix that?

All right, let’s go into my fantasies. I’d like to see the elimination of marketing junk food to children. I’d like to see a soda tax and a junk-food tax established immediately. I’d like to see better controls of chemicals in farming. I’d like to see routine use of antibiotics in animal production restricted greatly. I’d actually like to see routine use of antibiotics—that is, prophylactic use of antibiotics—outlawed. There are a million fantasies but the question is, what’s practical and what might happen?

We’re doing so little to make any of this a reality that we don’t even know what works and what doesn’t. I’ve been saying for five years that we should have a soda tax. Well, now there’s a soda tax in a city that doesn’t matter: Berkeley. It doesn’t matter because it’s so small that you’re not going to learn anything from it. And it’s so unusual that it’s going to be hard to draw conclusions from it. It would be a lot more meaningful if it had happened in Chicago or Philadelphia.

How much is the Berkeley soda tax?

A penny per ounce. But the interesting thing about it—this is an unintended consequence, which is why I said you have to try these things to know what’s going happen—is that the dollar stores in Berkeley pretty quickly announced that they would no longer carry soda because it was more trouble than it was worth to do the tax.

How is the soda tax working in Mexico?

That’s a good question. In Mexico it’s working really, really well. It went into effect on January 1, 2014, and in December of that year soda sales were down 12 percent [the entire year averaged a 6 percent decrease] and annual water sales were up 4 percent. I don’t know what’s happening in year two. So there is evidence that this stuff works, but you have to poke around the edges of all of this and try things. And there’s been an unwillingness on the part of Congress to do anything.

What would you like to see from the executive branch now, and during the next presidential election, regarding food and agricultural policy?

I would like to see the executive order tomorrow that says, “I’m directing the Food and Drug Administration to remove antibiotics from routine use in the food supply.” Really simple. This could actually be done. And then I’d like to see action on some of the other things I talk about. If President Obama had done half of the progressive things that he talked about when he was running for president, we’d be in a completely different environment here. So it’s not like we need to reinvent the ideas, we just need some execution.

I think that no one should be allowed to run for political office without being confronted by citizens saying, Here are a few issues about food that I really care about. Hillary Clinton should be asked these questions, and Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders. And believe me, Bernie Sanders, who I adore, does not have an answer to most of these questions. If food is really important, if there really is a food movement then we need to get candidates taking stands on these things just the way we need candidates taking positions on the environment, on climate change, on labor, on education, and on everything else. And until we do this, food is actually not as big of an issue as we think it is, simply because we’re not making it so.

We need a statement by the federal government that says all Americans should be able to eat food that is healthy, affordable, nutritious, fair, and delicious. If people ask, Well how’s everybody going to afford good food? The answer is that everybody is going to be making a living wage. How do we get everybody to make a living wage? Now we’re no longer talking about food, we’re talking about justice. That’s where these conversations always lead us. We need to have a society that treats people better than it does. Why is food so cheap? Because many of its costs are outsourced to society.

Not included in the price of food are the environmental and health damages that bad agriculture and a bad diet bring us. If we assign the proper cost to food, then food is much more expensive than we pretend it is. When we recognize that not everyone can afford good food, this is a recognition that a lot of people aren’t being treated fairly by society. That is something that we need to address. Isn’t this a democracy? Don’t we want to address that? I do.

(This is part one of a two-part interview. Check out Part II.)