111: Marion Nestle: Changing the food system (transcript)

December 27, 2018 by Dani Mihaleva
in Podcast

Marion Nestle

Marion Nestle is a longtime hero for me. Food is one of the major pieces that got me into my environmental work. Reading Diet for a Small Planet in the 80s is what got me from this fear that we’re in danger of not getting enough protein and dying, that enabled me to stop eating meat. Years later I was avoiding fiber remove foods. Years later I was avoiding packaged foods and if you listened to a bunch of episodes you know how big of an effect that had for me on acting environmentally. Marion Nestle is a voice of sense in a crowded world where a lot of people are after their own interests and not yours. She’s after health and safety and politics. She covers food from every different angle.

In this conversation I talk to her about the path that I expect many listeners are on but that she started in the 80s for herself, that there’s no obvious light at the end of the tunnel for the work that you want to do now. Are we going to make it out of this situation? I’m not sure but her in the 80s when she had started, I don’t think she could have seen… Well, this is what I talk about here. Could she see what would come of things later? So I wanted to bring vision that perseverance pays off to take the long view. Her most recent book is called The Unsavory Truth: How the Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat. Industry twisting how the public perceives an issue probably sounds familiar to people working in the environment. Her other books include What to Eat, Food Politics, Why Calories Count, Safe Food. All of them simple to read, they just cut to the chase of what’s important with sensible writing that’s clear and easy to read. You could start with any of them. There’s a big overlap between food and the environment regarding leadership which she and I talk about. Just to give an example. When she read that the USDA found that Americans could get their recommended daily allowance for 64 cents that seemed really low to her. And so she did what I consider science is she just went out and bought some green beans to see if she could satisfy the U.S. recommended daily allowance for that little amount of money. It turns out she not only was able to but she satisfied for even less money. And not only that but buying fresh is cheaper than buying frozen or canned. That’s the kind of useful science that Marion writes about, or investigative journalism. Anyway, I expect that she will inspire a lot of listeners.

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Joshua: Welcome to the Leadership and the Environment podcast. This is Joshua Spodek. I am here with Marion Nestle. Marion, how are you?

Marion: I’m just fine.

Joshua: And it’s great to have you here. So for people who don’t know I saw you speak at NYU where you are a professor, well, I am a professor and you’re a professor here, an emeritus I believe, and you were speaking… You could have spoken about food in a million different ways and I’ve actually been trying to catch the number of ways… Food connects to virtually everything in life and for you it’s about politics, it’s about health, teaching, writing, safety, business, community, science and so many different things. Your latest book is about science and research into food and how it can get distorted. Is that about right?

Marion: Oh yeah, it’s about how food companies influence research and that they pay for [unintelligible] nutrition societies that they support.

Joshua: And it infiltrates our lives in so many different ways that we don’t even realize, and they’re really effective at it. It’s kind of to me… I get like outrage and like how can they do this? But you have a really fun way, not… How do I put it? You’re upbeat about it. You’re upbeat about what you do.

Marion: Well, yeah, I teach students. They keep me upbeat. I mean these are people who are going to be working in the food industry for the rest of their lives. I want them to be interested in the same kinds of issues that I am and try to make things better. And we attract a population of students in our programs at NYU who come in here because they want to change the world. I’m for that.

Joshua: Partly I ask because a lot of what you said… You could have said about the environment as well and I think a lot of people feel frustrated but would like to feel invigorated and it sounds like a big piece of surrounding yourself with people who are like-minded and equally active and the community plays a big role in it.

Marion: Well, and also food connects to the environment because how we produce and consume food has an enormous amount to do with greenhouse gases. Production in agriculture is responsible for about a quarter of greenhouse gases by some estimations. And how we consume, how we waste food, all of those things have enormous environmental impact.

Joshua: Yes, there’s a direct connection as you describe also from a behavior in leadership perspective, I think it’s also very similar. I see similarities in that. It’s you know if you eat one unhealthy meal, that’s not really that big of a deal. If you do one polluting thing, it’s not that big of a deal. But it all adds up and it’s hard… I think a lot of people would prefer to behave differently but we have these systems around us that makes it so easy not to. It’s a big challenge.

Marion: You know from the food area there’s one thing that people can do which is to eat less meat because beef has… The growing of cattle has the largest defect in the agricultural system in producing greenhouse gases. So eating less meat is something that people can do right away. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t eat it at all but just eating less of it is a good thing to do for the environment.

Joshua: Yeah. I feel like there’s a lot of things that people could do and getting them started is one of the big challenges because I think most people when they switch, they don’t go back. Well, environmentally I think the people I’ve worked with tend not to slide back.

I’m really curious, your work is so infused with passion and please, correct me if I’m wrong, and it would be easy for me to guess what the passion is driving it all but I feel like if I have you, you could probably explain it… Because it was right in how it connects to so many parts of life and that must be a part of it. But what got you going, what keeps you going so much? If you don’t mind my asking.

Marion: Well, students. I am in a very privileged position. I teach students who are interested in the kinds of things that I’m interested in. I talk to reporters every day of my working life who are interested in the kinds of things that I’m interested in. That’s kind of exciting. It’s a full employment act. It keeps me keeping up with the literature which I find very entertaining. I like writing books. I really like writing books better than doing just about anything else and I get to do what I want to do. That’s pretty terrific.

Joshua: Yeah, I guess it really… I bet a lot of people envy having a passion that delivers so much value and connects with so many different things.

Marion: I worked very hard to get here, let me put it that way. But I know how privileged I am. I have a very privileged position. I mean I have a tenured position or I had a tenured position at a university in New York City that supports my work, has never criticized it. I’ve never not once had anybody come in here and said you know, “You’re keeping us from raising money.” That never happens. I have lots of people who are interested in what I do. That’s privileged. And I never needed outside money. I never needed grants or have for years and years and years to do the kind of work that I do. So I’m not beholden to anybody.

Joshua: I have a feeling some of the university there aren’t people saying, “Why are we giving her money?” They are probably saying, “She keeps bringing really good students. Do what it takes to keep her here.”

Marion: That is what happens here is that students come here because they’re interested in the kinds of issues that I write about.

Joshua: And you said the hard work at the beginning… I suspect that at the beginning you didn’t anticipate that you would reach where you are to be able to say you feel so privileged.

Marion: No. I started out as a molecular biologist and I lapsed one at that because I had small children at the time I finished my doctoral program and post-doctoral work. And I just couldn’t do a lab. I just couldn’t. There were women who could do lab careers that required the kind of time that bench research requires. But I couldn’t. I just didn’t have adequate childcare. So I gave it up and took a teaching job and I was given a nutrition course to teach in my first teaching position. And that was in 1975. So I have a very long career at this point. And you know I worked for a long time to get to the point where I had a tenured position where I could write about what I wanted to write about without getting into trouble.

Joshua: Part of the reason I’m asking is I think that some of the readers or some of the listeners who talk to me talk about how they can reach something like where you are. And I think a lot of them don’t realize the work that goes into it. And so partly why I’m asking is I think there’s a lot of people who for them working on the environment now is maybe you working on nutrition in the 70s and your experience may inform them of what it takes to get there but what it’s worth when you do get there.

Marion: Well, I’m not sure how to answer that question. I did what I thought was right. I worked on what I was interested in and it turned out what I was interested in is something that lots of people are interested in. So that’s quite fortunate. I think lots of people are interested in the environment. It’s just such a big problem at this point that they don’t know how to go after it. And I think that’s one of the reasons why food waste has become such a popular issue. Is it something that individuals can do that doesn’t require changing the entire food system which of course would be much harder? When what we really need is to change the food system and the question is how do you go about doing that. That’s a tough question.

Joshua: Yes, systemic change is very difficult and partly what I want to do with the Leadership and the Environment podcast is bring leaders from other areas and have them share how they got there, who they are, what the challenges were that they faced in those other fields because I think that most of them it’s generally across the board. No one knew that they were going to become great in the field that they became great and when they started. But I think that also…

Marion: How could you? You can’t. I mean, first of all, you can’t see the future. I mean I’m sure there are some people who have the kind of confidence that it takes to just put yourself out there right at the beginning. But I didn’t have that kind of confidence and I came into the nutrition and food area from a very, very different academic background and I’m essentially self-taught in food and nutrition. And I learned what I needed to know because I taught it and I needed in order to explain to students in a way that students can understand you have to know a field really, really well. But I’m basically self-taught and that took a very long time. It was not something that I did in a year. It was something that I did over many years. I had an eight-year teaching career at Brandeis University, I was at University of California San Francisco for ten years and I worked in government for two years before I came to NYU. And I’ve been in NYU for 30 years. I’m very old, that’s another point. It takes a long time.

So you know looking back I can tell you that at the beginning it was very difficult. First of all, I had to learn a lot, really a lot. And my first piece of advice for people who want to be treated as experts is to be an expert and to be an expert you’ve got to read a lot and think a lot and talk to a lot of people and it doesn’t come quickly. People think that food and nutrition are simple because everybody eats and everybody has personal experience with it. But in fact, it’s complicated. If it were really simple, we wouldn’t have any issues about it. But the research is complicated and very difficult to do. People eat very, very different kinds of diets and we have a food industry that is trying to make money off of people’s misunderstanding and confusion about what it is that you need to eat to be healthy and what it is that would be better for the planet. I mean I’m just in despair because we just passed the Farm Bill that I thought lost, just what a lost opportunity that was to try to create a healthier food system. But instead it’s just as I’ll say in a blog post tomorrow, “Same old, same old.”

Joshua: Yeah. I remember when I saw you speak someone asked about things that we could do and they said what about this, what about that and you said, “Well, those things aren’t going to happen under the current administration. So let’s not even talk about that.” And I thought, “Oh, that was really direct.” I thought that’s the best thing to say. What can we do?

Marion: The current administration isn’t going to do much but you need to be ready for when the administration changes.

Joshua: Or to find where you can act and locally sometimes you can do things that might not work nationally.

Marion: Yeah, exactly. I think it’s important to work locally. It’s much more satisfying and you can really do a lot.

Joshua: Oh, yeah, actually since you talked, there’s a group that I joined, Slow Food USA. I was just researching you and it just led to me led me to there. And so I joined and I wrote them and said, “I cook this great no-packaging vegetable stews.” I think they wrote back to me to engage on something and then I joined my third CSA just because it’s the way the different seasons work out. And yeah I have to say that connecting with food on a local level, visiting farms… When I was, I don’t know 10-15-20 years ago when I was going out clubbing and I thought, “Oh, I’m such a sophisticated person in New York.” if someone said, “Josh, your highlight of the summer is going to be visiting the farm where you get your food from” I would never have guessed that I would like that more. And I like it a lot more. It’s so much more deeply satisfying to look at a field of kale and know that one of them is going to be in your stomach and to just dig in the ground and get out some carrots and you know eat them that night. And I love the expression on people’s…I’m sorry if I am going on.

Marion: I have a terrace in Manhattan and I grow food on my terrace. I like it a lot.

Joshua: Yeah, there’s something when I think of how satisfying it feels I feel like it must be genetic like we evolved to really love getting delicious food out of the ground and most of our lives are so much removed from that. Most of my life up until a couple of years ago was almost completely removed from that.

Marion: Well, I think lots of people find that they grew up and especially if you grew up in cities, if you grew up without having much sense of what that’s about, I’m a great believer in vegetable gardens, they’re amazingly productive, even the small ones. I grow things in pots. I’ve had blueberry bushes on my terrace for 10 years and they survived the winter and they produce every summer like magic.

Joshua: Oh, man. Blueberries, I love blueberries. Yeah. It’s funny that I used to think that the best vegetables and fruits like the exotic fruits that you associate with the tropics I always thought they are the best but in New York when Concord grapes come out and the different types of apples and the pears it’s incredibly delicious.

Marion: I just put a peach tree on my terrace. I hope it survives the winter.

Joshua: So do I. I had so many peaches this past summer from CSA. As much as I love them, I decided to try to make vinegar out of one and the vinegar that’s come out delicious. It’s my best vinegar yet as much as I sacrificed. I did that last summer so I tried a different way this time. When I think of you and food I think of public, political, teaching and less about your personal experience with food. But now you’re talking I’m kind of curious about it. Is it something that you talk about? Is it as big a part for you the experience of food of growing it and eating it and cooking it and all that?

Marion: Yeah, I like it. I discovered food when I was a kid that fresh fruit tastes really good and I’ve loved vegetables ever since and every chance I get to grow my own I do.

***

Joshua: I really appreciate you’re sharing this and the reason is that I think that your experience is the experience that I think a lot of people would like to have and don’t know that it’s available to them in the area of the environment or in the area of food and obviously as you say there’s a big overlap between them. So I really appreciate you’re sharing that. I think a lot of people look at acting on the environment as something that’s kind of a distraction or something that would take sacrifice and I don’t think they realize the potential that’s available to them. And did you have example of role models that you followed when you were back in the 70s and 80s?

Marion: About what?

Joshua: About leading you to what you became that there was a light at the end of a tunnel of just struggling with the food.

Marion: No, I mean I’ve always been interested in food. My family had vegetable gardens and it was just part of what we did. And really there’s nothing to growing tomatoes if you have the right spot for them. It’s very, very easy to do and you know I just do it. I always have.

Joshua: I hope that also people feel that way about not accepting disposable cups and bottles and not driving when they could walk, things like that.

Marion: Well, for those of us who live in New York it’s much easier. I don’t have a car and I’ve never had a car since I’ve been here.

Joshua: Well, that part, yeah. And there’s still always things that… I think to me the way you talk about food things I think I’m getting there with food. I think with environmental things it’s like it’s not hard for me not to get a disposable cup when someone offers me one. I simply decline it. And if I’m thirsty for a while, I’ll wait till I pass by waterfowl or I get home and can drink water at home if I don’t have a container that I brought with me. And for some people that seems like very difficult. They’ll say, “Oh, I have to raise my awareness. I have to become more conscious about these things or this.” Or they’ll say, “How do you do it? How can you drink water without blah blah?” I find the answer similarly to how you said about growing you know it’s not that hard if you just do it.

Anyway. So I wanted to get that out there that it’s if you do it, it becomes easier and you can become great at it or you can develop into something that you love with the community around you of people who support you and you support them and you have these common goals that you all work for and it becomes meaningful because I feel like that’s what you have for yourself.

Marion: Are you talking about me personally or are you talking about you generally?

Joshua: Well, I am talking about you personally but you know in a way that I’m trying to make it accessible for people who are out there, to the listeners who might think, “I’d like to do something but I don’t really know what” or “I’d like to do something but if I act and no one else does, then what I do doesn’t really matter.”

Marion: Oh, I think what individuals do matters a lot. You know I developed a way to communicate with the public and to do the kind of work I do that works for me. It is not going to work for everybody. I write books. That’s what I do. Other people do other kinds of things – they go into communities and organize, they join organizations, they work on specific issues that are meaningful for them. Those are all great things to do. Those are not things that I ended up doing but other people will do the kinds of things that they find more satisfying. I think that’s just great. And there are plenty of food issues to work on and there are plenty of ways to work on them and the trick it seems to me is to find one that works for you and one that you feel satisfied doing and that gives you joy and pleasure and maybe does some good for the world. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Joshua: Yeah. I guess you see students of yours coming through and going through exactly that. They try this, try that, then eventually they find something that really resonates with them and they stick with it for a long time and then they start seeing a difference that they’ve made.

Marion: That’s the wonderful thing about school is you get to try lots of different things out in the different classes that you take and in your exposure to people who look at issues from very different points of view. That’s one of the benefits of formal education but lots of people who are interested in food issues go out and work on farms, go to food companies and work for food companies, work in restaurants. There are just lots and lots of ways of doing this and when I go to a new town or a new city that I haven’t been in before and if I’m giving a talk or something like that, I just always google food advocacy in the name of that town and I’m astounded by the number of organizations that pop up. You know in New York City they’re literally hundreds of organizations working on food issues but I don’t think I’ve ever gone anywhere where I couldn’t find a bunch more than 1-5-6-10 different organizations, even in small towns that are working on food issues of one kind or another. So if you’re looking for something to join or some issue to work fine, that’s a really easy way to start.

Joshua: You’re making me think of how I just went across the country and every place I stopped I would go to the farmers markets, I would ask them about composting and they would talk about the efforts and if I stayed for any longer, I could have… I was really in Houston I was there for about a week and I was thinking maybe I should help them. But yeah, I didn’t realize how accessible that makes communities connecting on food and especially acting on food and health. I am sorry, I am just thinking about the next time I travel I think I’m going to do what you did. I’ll tell you how it went. More fun for me.

And one thing I like to ask people when I have them on the show is… Speaking of the environment, if you don’t mind my switching topics a little bit not completely, is the environment something that is a big deal for you? I mean obviously it overlaps with food a lot.

Marion: Well, obviously it is. Agriculture as I said is responsible for probably a quarter of greenhouse gases. So how you grow food and how you raise animals for food has a big impact on the environment. As an individual there’s only so much I can do but I cannot drive a car. I can walk or ride a bicycle. I can grow food on my terrace. I can compost on my terrace so I’m not throwing a lot of food waste away. I can try to avoid drinking soft drinks so I’m not generating more plastic bottles and cans and that kind of thing. I mean those are individual actions that I think are fine and that collectively could make a difference. But if we really want to change the impact of human life on the planet, we have to make really major changes in policy that are difficult right now with the kind of administration we have. So I think individual action is terrific but political action is needed to run for office.

Joshua: You know it’s funny. If it’s OK with you, I might follow up with you on that because you know more about those things than I do. And you said you start with becoming an expert and if you don’t mind, I’ll follow you up and see if there’s resources you can put me through in that direction.

Marion: Well, I have them. I have some listed on my website and I write about things on my website. These things are on my website foodpolitics.com. Look under Advocacy.

Joshua: OK. I will do that and let you know how things go. And one thing I also ask is it sounds like most of the things you’ve thought of doing you are probably doing. I wonder if there’s anything you haven’t thought of doing or have thought of doing but maybe haven’t started doing that you might want to try out and share the experience, acting environmentally.

Marion: If I haven’t thought of it, I haven’t thought of it. So that eliminates things. I haven’t thought of. I don’t know what those would be.

Joshua: I mean to say “haven’t acted on”.

Marion: Yeah. I do the best I can and that’s all I would ask of anybody else.

Joshua: So is there anything else that’s lying around that you’ve been like, “I’ve been meaning to do X but I haven’t got around to it.”?

Marion: No, I pretty much act on those things.

Joshua: Okay. That’s a challenge when I have people on who have been at this for a long time. They generally have made their life about that and they’ve done all the low hanging fruit and I bet you do a lot more than just low hanging fruit as well that you probably do high hanging fruit.

Marion: You have to figure that people have to figure out for themselves what they can do that fits into the lifestyle that they want to live. I’m not somebody who is willing to give up all processed foods or never to take elevators or never to go on airplanes. That’s not something that I feel comfortable doing but I do what I can. And I try to do it in the food area because that’s what matters to me. And I try to encourage other people to do that because that’s what matters to me. The big issue in food is consuming animals because that’s where the greenhouse gas problem comes from. I’m not a vegetarian, I’m not a vegan and I don’t think that it’s necessary not to eat animals at all but I do care a lot about the way food animals are treated and I encourage people for whom that is their primary issue to continue to do the work that they’re doing. Different people have different primary issues and it doesn’t really matter to me which one people work on as long as they’re working on some of them. What I wish is that everybody who is working on food issues no matter what the issues are could get together and form a stronger political force because I think we really need that.

Joshua: And I think your books cover that a lot.

Marion: Well, thank you. I try.

Joshua: And I want to close with a very selfish question. When I looked at your NYU page it described classes you’ve taught. And I thought,’ “Those classes look amazing. As a professor I bet I could take them.” And then also the dates were all not recent. I wondered, “Is she not teaching now?”

Marion: I’m retired.

Joshua: So you’re not teaching anymore?

Marion: Well, I am teaching. I teach a one-credit class in the spring on Food Systems.

Joshua: Is that available to say, [unintelligible] professor?

Marion: It’s available to people with bachelor’s degrees from accredited universities. They can register for it as a special student.

Joshua: So I could take it.

Marion: You could.

Joshua: I’m going to start looking into it.

Marion: That would be great.

Joshua: Anything I didn’t think to ask or that you want to leave as a message for people or way to contact you or…?

Marion: Well, my website is foodpolitics.com. I’ve written 10 books about food politics since 2002 and the most recent one is Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat. And there’s information about all of my books and pretty much everything I’ve published and the lectures that I give and the media interviews I do are all posted on foodpolitics.com. If anybody’s interested, my life is an open book.

Joshua: And I have to say it’s all… From the reader’s perspective, it’s engaging and delightful and how you are in this is like it’s because many times people think, “Oh, politics, food politics.” But it’s fun. It’s engaging. At least that’s been my experience. Thank you very much.

Marion: I think it’s fun. And I like to work very much. I think food is fascinating and I hope that other people find it interesting too.

Joshua: Marion Nestle, thank you very much.

Marion: My pleasure.

***

With all of the famous people that I’ve hosted I felt more nervous with Marion. I think because food in the 80s started me acting on my values like this. And so a bit of my high-school-self came into the picture. One of the things I love about talking to people with experience is that experience enables people to reduce things to their simple essence. I think also having a background in science does too and I don’t know about you but I felt that she reduced a few things to their essence and said things very, very simply. And one of the main goals of this podcast is to bring expert leadership from other areas into the environment. And so I think that if you want to act on the environment, using Marion as a role model will get you far. As a side note, since seeing Marion in person which led to this podcast I’ve subscribed and I’ve subscribed to very few newsletters but I subscribed to hers and I really enjoy reading Food Politics. So I recommend all her books, her videos on YouTube and her blog foodpolitics.com.

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