…and It’s Not (Entirely) Michael Pollan’s Fault

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” –author and food activist Michael Pollan

In 2016, I pub­lished a book titled Sensible Wellness for Women. In it, my co-author Andra and I dis­cussed our approach to find­ing more health, whole­ness, and hap­pi­ness in our lives by mak­ing small changes to our mind­ful­ness, diet, exer­cise, and sleep pat­terns. We called it fol­low­ing the four: invite, digest, move, and rest.

I recent­ly read my own book for the very first time. Mostly I still agree with my advice. I believe we all should learn to sit with our thoughts and feel through our emo­tions. I believe most of us need to move more often and hit the pil­low a lit­tle ear­li­er. But the digest sec­tion made me cringe a lit­tle. I owe my read­ers an apology.

I still believe that diet is a four-let­ter word. I still hate how we have demo­nized caf­feine and alco­hol and car­bo­hy­drates. I still think that dis­or­dered eat­ing affects far more peo­ple – par­tic­u­lar­ly women – than we want to acknowl­edge. But Sensible Wellness leaned too far into my indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ence with­out con­sid­er­ing how the advice would play out more broadly.

I pro­posed an indi­vid­ual solu­tion to what I know now to be a sys­temic prob­lem. I wrote in my book that we have made eat­ing com­pli­cat­ed when it shouldn’t be. My cur­rent under­stand­ing is that it is actu­al­ly far more com­pli­cat­ed than I ever imag­ined. I thought the worst thing about the American diet is that we mind­less­ly shove over-processed, chem­i­cal-laden foods into our bodies. 

Perhaps the actu­al worst thing about the American diet is that most of the pop­u­la­tion can­not afford to eat any­thing except over-processed, chem­i­cal-laden foods.

Perhaps the actu­al worst thing about the American diet is that most of the pop­u­la­tion can­not afford to eat any­thing except over-processed, chem­i­cal-laden foods. When I wrote about “vot­ing with my fork,” I was real­ly just defend­ing my priv­i­leged choice to spend $8 on a pint of straw­ber­ries at the farmer’s mar­ket. But the real tragedy is the migrant work­er that picked the berries may or may not be mak­ing a liv­ing wage doing so.

I’m not blam­ing Michael Pollan for my tone-deaf views on our nation’s indus­tri­al food sys­tems. But he’s not entire­ly inno­cent here either. After read­ing Pollan’s books In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I gift­ed copies to every­one I knew. Pollan is an advo­cate of slow, mind­ful eat­ing. He believes that American agribusi­ness has lost touch with the nat­ur­al cycles of farm­ing, and sug­gests it’s a polit­i­cal act to demand “food with a defen­si­ble story.” 

For exam­ple, when I buy my lamb at the farmer’s mar­ket, I per­son­al­ly know the farmer. I dri­ve past this farm every week and know those ani­mals have been treat­ed humane­ly. If I order lamb at a restau­rant with­out ask­ing where it came from, I am “vot­ing with my fork,” i.e., sup­port­ing inhu­mane fac­to­ry farm­ing con­di­tions and meat laden with syn­thet­ic hormones. 

Farmer's Market

I am so square­ly in Michael Pollan’s audi­ence demo­graph­ic I might as well have a tar­get on my back. He caught me in his net of “we should under­stand where our food comes from.” I lapped up his roman­ti­cized descrip­tions of run­ning a small farm. He set the per­fect pas­toral scene, one that is far more ide­al­ized than real­i­ty. His books made me pas­sion­ate about sup­port­ing local farm­ers and local restau­rants where every­thing is made by hand (rather than trucked in and reheated). 

One can­not use nos­tal­gic ide­al­iza­tion to describe farm­ing. You don’t have to go too far back in our nation’s his­to­ry to see that the suc­cess of most farms was borne on the backs of enslaved peo­ples. Even today, it’s a labor of love, but back-break­ing work. And if you didn’t inher­it land from your fam­i­ly, cur­rent land prices and mort­gage rates make it hard to even get start­ed. That car­ton of eggs that cost $5 at the farmer’s mar­ket? Worth every pen­ny, when you con­sid­er the amount of blood, sweat, and tears it took to get those eggs to mar­ket. I have many friends that run small farms and I am always exhaust­ed lis­ten­ing to the long list of dai­ly chores a small farm requires in every season. 

But I want to acknowl­edge that it’s a priv­i­lege to be able to afford those prod­ucts. It’s a priv­i­lege to get take­out from Taj or Don Señor. I have only ever seen it as sup­port­ing my local infra­struc­ture with­out acknowl­edg­ing that lots of peo­ple would love to be able to do so as well but are not in the right tax brack­et or cul­tur­al group. 

Our local farmer’s mar­ket is on Depot Street, just a few steps from Washington Street, but seem­ing­ly miles away based on the scant num­ber of dark-skinned faces you see shop­ping there on a typ­i­cal Saturday morn­ing. I naive­ly believed that peo­ple sim­ply need to under­stand where their food comes from to eat health­ily. But one needs more than knowl­edge to gain access to fresh, nutri­tious, and afford­able food. 

Winchester is still offi­cial­ly a geo­graph­ic food desert, where gro­cery stores are more than 5 miles away from a major­i­ty of coun­ty res­i­dents and fast food restau­rants far out­num­ber local­ly-owned restau­rants. I used to groan every time a new fast food sign went up. But the lines at McDonald’s are always long because cheap, con­ve­nient food does have a place both in our diets and in our budgets. 

I now believe that true social change is direct­ly tied to pol­i­cy. To improve access to qual­i­ty food, we need to vote not only with our fork but also to elect offi­cials that sup­port farm sub­si­dies and pol­i­cy changes to encour­age organ­ic and/or regen­er­a­tive farm­ing practices. 

Shout out to the amaz­ing pod­cast Maintenance Phase for help­ing to enlight­en me on the his­to­ry of what we eat, anti-fat bias, and the gen­er­al ludi­crous­ness of America’s diet culture.

  • Erin Skinner Smith

    Erin Skinner Smith wants every­one to slow down, eat real food, move their bod­ies, go out­side, and hit the pil­low a lit­tle ear­li­er for a more pur­pose­ful exis­tence. She is a pub­lished writer, yoga teacher, and mind­ful­ness coach. When she’s not stand­ing on her head or typ­ing on her trusty lap­top, you’ll find her read­ing, play­ing gui­tar, enjoy­ing a glass of bour­bon, or snug­gling on the couch with her peo­ple and pets. Send her a dig­i­tal high five at erintheomplace.net.