Mark Bittman Interview for Lucky Peach
Since Lucky Peach folded in 2017 and soon after killed their website, I’m posting this interview that I did for them with one of my food heroes, Mark Bittman. We conducted the interview during a short and sweet California road-trip in the spring of 2015 and it published in December of 2015.
P.S. This is the unedited version that I delivered to Lucky Peach. If you love Mark and his ethics, politics, ideas, passion anywhere near as much as I do, then I think you’ll appreciate this off the cuff take. Please forgive any typos etc.
On a slightly overcast spring Sunday morning I take the BART across the Bay from downtown San Francisco, where I'm visiting for the week, to North Berkeley and walk from the station to Mark Bittman's house. He's offered to pick me up but I'm early and it's a short twelve minute walk, during which I can spend a little more time organizing my thoughts and interview questions. I pass citrus trees heavy with fruit and many other colorful blossoming plants in the quiet residential neighborhood.
Yes, 65-year-old (note for pub: will turn 66 on Feb. 17th) Mark Bittman -- the born and raised New Yorker currently resides in the capital of California cuisine. Bittman has made a career for himself writing about food as it is related national policy, agriculture, health and the environment for The New York Times as a columnist and opinion writer for 30-plus years before he stepped away from that in the fall of 2015. Bittman has also written 16 books, including the bestselling How to Cook Everything, which published in 1998 and has sold more than a million copies, and made all sorts of television appearances as a regular food correspondent on the Today Show along with hosting four TV series. In January 2015, he made the move from New York to Berkeley on a solo cross-country road trip. Don't worry, he hasn't lost his New York accent.
Bittman is currently a distinguished visiting food fellow at the University of California Berkeley, home to food luminary and Bittman's friend Michael Pollan, working with the Berkeley Food Institute, a conglomeration of University of California Berkeley schools with 100-plus faculty dedicated to working toward more resilient and just food systems locally and globally. While in Berkeley, indefinitely at this point, Bittman lives 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/drink businesses.
So now, rather than his usual 8 by 8 foot Upper West Side kitchen, Bittman has a nice sized, blessed by plenty of natural light Berkeley bungalow kitchen, in which I notice, as he's gathering last minute items around the house for our day trip to Sonoma, he's written a shopping list on the small fridge-side chalkboard in this order --"duct tape, ND milk, PB, bread, strawb, morels." Next to the list is a postcard illustrated by Dave Peterson of a cartoon dog looking in the mirror that reads, "Stop agonizing."
As we head out Bittman points out a foot-tall tomato seedling by the front steps that he's just planted. In other spots around the yard he's planted a white tomato "Never heard of them before" says Bittman, some sort of black tomato seedling and pickling cucumber starts. It's a fairly landscaped yard but he's found a few sweet spots to wield his green thumb -- something that I'm guessing his apartment in New York did not provide an easy opportunity for.
I first met Mark in the fall of 2014 when I was lucky enough to be "in conversation" with him at Powell's City of Books in Portland, Oregon, for the book tour of his latest cookbook How to Cook Everything Faster. We've since become friends and I now find myself getting to take an abbreviated sort of Sideways tour of California wine country with him -- only we're in a different California wine region, neither of us is about to get married and we don't share the sentiment of "I hate fucking merlot.”
We spend the day visiting two exceptional Sonoma-area vineyards, exceptional in growing practices as much as in the wine that they produce -- Preston Vineyards in Dry Creek Valley and Sei Querce Vineyards across the Russian River from Geyserville -- and in the afternoon we head to The SHED in Healdsburg, where Mark gives a ticketed talk and reading from his newest book A Bone to Pick, published in the spring with Pam Krauss Books, that's also a fundraiser for the Berkeley Food Institute. Along the way, and well into the night, we talk about everything from the importance of eating more foods from the plant kingdom, and the Obama administration's successes and failures in terms of national agriculture and nutrition policies, to Bittman's belief that we should start carding kids for soft drinks in the U.S.
When we begin the interview, we're about to cross the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge just north of Berkeley, and Mark, who's driving, has just told me about a Berkeley class he recently guest lectured for (he's done about a dozen of these guest lectures for classes in various Berkeley departments so far) on social movements that he really enjoyed. He mentions that, "I got emotional. It brought me back to the old days -- my own being in social movements."
Crain: What kind of activism were you involved in when you were younger?
Bittman: When I was a junior in college it was 1969/70 and that was the hottest year in student activism. It was the year the U.S. bombed 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. It was huge politics all the time and the second semester of school didn't even really happen at half of the campuses in the country that year. There was just no point in holding classes. I was at NYU and I think that they stopped teaching in March. Everyone was too busy occupying this or marching on that.
Crain: You were studying journalism?
Bittman: Psychology. My freshman and sophomore years I sort of frittered away when I was at Clark University in Massachusetts and then I transferred to NYU and started to get into college and my classes and studying. ["That's San Quentin" says Bittman pointing ahead to his left as we near the end of the five and a half mile long Richmond-San Rafael bridge.] So it was pretty funny because I was just starting to get interested in my schooling when all of this political activity came along. That was, of course, more compelling than school. That was where it was happening.
Then I went back to Clark in Massachusetts and I made some new friends and reconnected with some old ones. We all agreed that the student movement, anti-war movement, women's movement, black power movement, nascent environmental movement and blah blah blah -- well, all of these movements needed to be united and a part of the same movement. They needed to be part of the working class, anti-ruling-class movement and ultimately about peoples' power and democracy. It's the oldest story in the book but there it is.
When I graduated I moved to Boston and became a part of a small organization with some of these friends and others called the Somerville Tenants' Union and we tried to do just that. We did rent control work and anti-racism work. We did the latter because Somerville was so white then you could practically count the number of people of color there and they were under near constant attack from racists. We also did pro-women’s work, pro-welfare work – many of these things that were basically failures -- that's what we were doing.
I ran the organization's newspaper. It was a tiny newspaper that came out very sporadically but I learned how to do everything that has to do with newspapers from that experience. I learned not only how to type, which I taught myself, but I learned how to write better and how to edit other people and help them figure out stories. I learned how to do layout and cutting and pasting -- all of these things that we used to do by hand that are now done on computers.
Crain: How many copies would you usually print?
Bittman: That's a good question. A couple thousand I would think. I have some copies up on the Cape and I'm going there in a couple weeks so I'll try to dig them out.
Crain: So you did that…
Bittman: For five years -- from 73 to 78 -- or maybe it was more like three or four years -- 73 to 77. And then life got in the way. My first kid was born and she's now 37.
Crain: So let's fast forward a bit and change gears. We'll come back to that time period. Why are you such a proponent of a more plant based diet these days? Why is that more important to you, or is that more important to you, than eating organic or eating local?
Bittman: I think there are two things that have to happen. One is people really need to understand how simple an ok 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 sort of granular way. You just need a couple of really big rules and I'll get to that. There are a couple of really big rules. 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.
So, the two rules I think are, number one, figure out what food is because there's a lot of stuff out there in the world that's being sold as food that really isn't food. Michael Pollan calls it "edible food-like substances." If you look up the definition of food it's stuff that provides nutrition. If you look up the definition of nutrition it's the health-promoting quality that's stressed. If you look at the large percentage of stuff that's sold as food -- for example sugar sweetened beverages, which is the primary example -- most of it comes closer to meeting the definition of poison than to meeting the definition of food. So, these foods promote "illth" as opposed to health. They make you sick as opposed to nourish you. So if you take the group of things that people eat that are bad for us, and we kind of know what that group is, and 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, well, that solves a whole lot of problems.
The other thing that we know is that, for the most part, the more foods that we eat from the plant kingdom -- unprocessed foods -- the better off we are. So rule number one is don't eat a lot of stuff that isn't really food. 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.
You don't need to know anything else about food. If you have money, if you have time, if you want to think about this then maybe you want to talk about organic. ["This is the top of the bay I think" says Bittman. It's the northern tip of San Pablo Bay and we're just passing through Novato.] Do you want to talk about local, do you want talk about pesticide-free, do you want to talk about fair labor practices, do you want to talk about food without antibiotics, do you want to talk about eliminating CAFOs or not eating animals unless they're raised ethically? On and on. It's all of those ten issues that we talk about all of the time. 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 and what their diet ought to be. Everything else is important, and it's hard to say secondary, but from a personal how do I eat perspective, they are secondary.
Crain: Number three is eat only white tomatoes but we don't need to talk about that.
Bittman: Right. [Laughter].
Crain: It's sort of assumed.
Bittman: From the perspective of how do I eat, if someone says to me should I eat a local apple or an organic apple? I say the question should be, should I eat an apple or an organic fruit snack? And I say, eat the apple. Organic junk food is still junk food which is why the organic question can't come first. The is-it-decent-food question has to come first. And decent food with pesticide residue, I'm quite sure makes for a better diet than junk food that doesn't have pesticide residue.
So all of that is sort of personal and now the question is, how do you change the environment to make it easy for people to do that? Because what I just said, which took five minutes to say but could take 30 seconds to say, is all pretty well known. It's what the government says for that matter. The USDA My Plate thing that Michelle Obama helped put forward ["Pretty nice huh?" asks Bittman as we both look at cows are grazing in a velvety green pasture off to the west.] says get 50 percent of your calories from fruits and vegetables. So how great is that in reality though and in practice? 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.
The result is that the government recommends a kind of diet but actually encourages its opposite. What do we see when we're walking around the supermarket, what do we see when we're walking around airports, what do we see when we're walking around our cities? We don't see the encouragement, we don't even see really the ability, to get 50 percent of your calories from fruits and vegetables.
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 -- aisle after aisle of things that we know to not be good for us. So, how can you say that you're encouraging people to eat differently when everywhere they go the environment encourages them to eat badly?
Crain: How do we fix that?
Bittman: Well, the short answer is you develop a national food policy. You say, ok this is how we the United States define food and how we're going to encourage the consumption of that food. And we're going to do that because we want to make agriculture healthier, we want to encourage the health of the land, the health of our people, the health of the producers, the health of consumers, the health of the animals, of the plants -- the health of everything in our food system. The only way to do that is to say, here's the national food policy and by abiding by it we are going to promote good food and discourage the consumption of bad food. And then, how do you enact that policy? What policies do you need to make sure that those things happen?
Alright, let’s go into my fantasies. I'd like to see the elimination of marketing of junk food to children implemented immediately, 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? I mean it's easy to say if I were Tsar of Food but the president can't even get stuff done. So if I were Tsar of Food here's what I would do but it's much harder to say what's practical, what might we expect, what might we hope for in the next six months, six years, six decades. The antibiotic thing I would have thought was going to happen with the Obama Administration but it hasn't.
The FDA announced on July 10th, 2015 that they are giving industry another year to comply with calorie counts in chain restaurants which is ridiculous. Basically, the industry has convinced the FDA that it's too hard to implement this in such a short amount of time. If they thought it was a marketing advantage they would have done it immediately. So making a laundry list of changes that we'd like to see, well, I don't know how helpful that is because it's just like prescribing problems and saying here's how we'd fix them if we had the power which we don't have.
There's no set answer to any of that because we're trying so little. 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. I shouldn't say that the Berkeley soda tax doesn't matter -- I should say it would be a lot more meaningful if it had happened in Chicago or Philadelphia.
Crain How is the soda tax working in Mexico?
Bittman: That's a good question. In Mexico it's working really, really well.
Crain It's been a couple years?
Bittman: It's been less than a couple years. It went into effect on January 1st, 2014 and by the end of the year soda sales were down 10 percent and water sales were up 12 percent. That's in one year. 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. If you don't try things how can you know what works and what doesn't work? And there's been an unwillingness on the part of Congress to do anything. We could know a lot more by now if the Obama Administration had done what it had promised it would do in 2008.
Crain: Which was?
Bittman: Obama talked about understanding that monoculture was not the way to go. He talked about understanding the need to try different forms of agriculture as well as the importance of organic food and of encouraging the consumption of fruits and vegetables. He talked about all of that stuff and accomplished very little of it but what we do have, as a result, is a significantly better -- not marginally better, better than marginally better, so significantly better -- school lunch program.
Crain: What would you like to see from the executive branch now and during the next presidential election regarding food and agricultural policy?
Bittman: 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 candidate Obama had done half of the progressive things that he talked about when he became 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.
Here's what I'd like to say about elections. I co-authored a proposal for a national food policy with my friends Michael Pollan, Ricardo Salvador, and Olivier De Schutter, who used to work for the UN as a roving reporter of the state of food in the world. So the four of us wrote this national food policy. [You can find it online in the Washington Post, on the Union of Concerned Scientists website and some other places.] Ultimately, I don't care which aspects of it you personally think are important. I personally think they're all important but everybody has their favorites and some people might have things they'd like to add to the list, and I'm totally fine with that. I bet most of those ideas are great. My main point here is that 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 -- what's your position on them? 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.
We need our candidates, on every level, to answer specific questions about food. What's your concern in San Francisco? What's your concern in Chicago? Because everybody has different local concerns about food. We need to all confront our candidates with these concerns and ask them what's your position on this? Nationally, we have many of the same concerns about food. What's Hillary Clinton's position on any of them? So far we haven't heard boo on this stuff.
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.
I think the bottom line of this national food policy discussion is that we need a statement by the federal government that says all Americans should be able to eat food that is healthy, affordable, nutritious, fair, green and delicious. Let’s unpack each of those things. We can say, what's healthy and nutritious? Well, we've talked about that. We can say, what's fair? Fair means that the people who provide our food -- from farmers to laborers to retailers -- are all treated well. What’s green? That means that the environmental damage is much more limited than it has been. And, well, affordable is obvious. So is delicious for that matter. You can bolster the food stamp program while you’re at it which would be a nice thing.
If people ask, well how's everybody going to afford good food, the answer is because 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. There's no reason we can't have that kind of society but we've had the wrong priorities up until now. So all of that food policy is a revolutionary thing because by saying we need food that's affordable and green and nutritious and fair -- you're saying that food needs to be more expensive, that food is too cheap because. Why is food to cheap? Because many of its costs are outsourced to society.
The reason food is cheap is because not included in the price of food are the environmental and health damages that bad agriculture and a bad diet bring us. So those are costs that aren't included -- the environmental clean-up and public health costs are borne by sectors other than the food sector. If we assign the proper cost to food then food is much more expensive than we pretend it is and then we don't have to answer these kinds of questions about how do people afford good food because we're pricing food the way it should be priced. Then we recognize that everyone can't afford that kind of food and this is a recognition that a lot of people aren't being treated fairly by society. That is something that we need to address. How do we address that? Isn't this a democracy? Don't we want to address that? I do.
Crain: So how do we go about encouraging cooking on a national level?
Bittman: I have a lot of ideas, and ideas are cheap admittedly, but humor me. We could bring back home economics in school, that would be a start. We could start with nutritional literacy in school, that would be an important thing. We could start a civilian cooking corps. We could have 10,000 people employed to teach cooking in 10,000 locations around the country. This would take federal funding of course but not all that much and it's a pretty good idea.
We could have soda taxes or the like in places that are bigger than Berkeley where a soda tax would actually make money. And then that money could be spent, the way tobacco money is spent, in countering the consumption of junk food. Part of countering the consumption of junk food would be subsidizing fruits and vegetables and teaching people how to cook them.
If you have the money to subsidize the purchase and sale of fruits and vegetables, and you have the money to do cooking classes in public places, you could address a lot of the problems that there are in food today. You could, for example, give away or sell cheap local fruits and vegetables in schools. Everybody in the United States has access to a school so by doing that you also address the so-called food desert problem -- the access to food problem -- that people talk about so much. You could have cooking classes in schools and libraries, the latter of which are not as highly populated as they used to be and post offices, for that matter, which are also not as popular as they used to be. There are public places that everybody has access to and we could use these places for access to food.
It will be argued correctly that some people are never going to cook, some families are never going to have a member who can cook and this is true so I'd like to propose that just as we have communal swimming pools in some cities, and communal gyms in some cities, that we have communal kitchens. These would be basically the equivalent of healthy fast food in which the customer comes first. They would be nonprofit organizations where good food would be cooked locally and could be purchased as inexpensively as possible because it would be subsidized. I know that this sounds like communism but so be it.
Crain: Do you see any significant positive change in terms of food in the US?
Bittman: I think significant positive change is what the Obamas put in the Farm Bill, which I mentioned before but only briefly -- the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. Sadly it didn't fund the fairly strict nutritional standards it encourages so it's a struggle for a lot of school systems to implement. That said, the changes have eliminated some junk food and the required percentage of whole grains in food being served in the lunch program is another really nice change.
To the extent that we can get kids to be eating really well we're going to have to have healthier grown-ups. To the extent that Republicans and others fight improvements in school lunch programs we're going to have a longer road to better public health. We all know from our own personal experiences that it's very hard to change our own eating habits and that means that it's key that children learn good eating habits. If we can teach children how to eat well we'll have grown-ups that eat well. To not support a better program of feeding our children -- a program that teaches our children nutritional literacy and not only in theory but in practice -- if you don't support that then you're basically anti-public-health. If you're anti-public-health I don't know what that makes you. I think that makes you a really stupid person or a cynical person or a person who benefits from bad public health.
If you're making a living by discouraging public health then you really ought to think about how you make your living. You are either immoral or you're completely cynical or both. Ultimately, a lot of what we're talking are morality issues. People don't not understand that -- people, I think, do understand that these are morality issues but people somehow think that morality somehow has no role in decision making because these are individual matters. Society, to a large extent, is about morality and I think that the decisions we make should be moral ones to the best of our abilities and at some point it really does boil down to that.
If you look at what happens in New York, in the Bay Area -- places that are setting trends nationally -- New York started the calorie count thing in restaurants and the trans fat things, both of which have become national, these are positive changes. Other cities are doubling the value of food stamps in farmers markets and that's a really good thing. It's not like there's a city that's paradise where everything is great. There are still people in Berkeley that can't afford to shop in Berkeley. We may have great ingredients here but it doesn't mean that there's a higher food justice in Berkeley because there isn't. There's not a city or state that's making sweeping movements on food that everyone should look to. There are bits and pieces here and there.
Crain: I hadn't realized before reading your latest book, A Bone to Pick, and one of your New York Times opinion pieces in it, that junk food is advertised on school buses. Really?
Bittman: I think that it still is. You probably read the story about First Amendment rights [The Right to Sell Kids Junk, March 27, 2012 The New York Times] and I actually just got back in touch with that woman yesterday. The crux of that piece is the question of how do you limit the marketing of junk to kids if the marketers are able to claim that it's their First Amendment right to do that marketing.
There are a lot of decisions that we make because we think children are irrational or not yet fully formed grown-ups. And, of course, we know that there's no such thing as a fully formed grown-up, and even if there were we know that even fully formed grown-ups don't always make rational decisions. But kids, we don't even expect to make rational decisions. That's why we don't let them drink alcohol, that's why we don't let them in theory take drugs, drive. Kids don't not drive until they're 16 because they're too short, they don't drive because they're too dumb. We don't let them vote, we don't let them join the Army, we don't let them do lots of things and some of this is because they're physically immature but most of it is because we just don't think that they're capable of making reasoned decisions until they're of a certain age.
If you are going to allow marketers, who are very smart and know what they're doing, impress upon children the importance of enjoying life through eating sugary foods that marketing is going to work because it's scientific and they know what works. We all know that we form many of our habits when we're young and we also know from our own experience -- we don't need a study to tell us this -- that it's hard to change habits. If you're going to allow marketers to teach children that sugary foods are a way to be happy you're allowing those habits to be formed. The result: unhealthy grown-ups who have habits that they want to break but have a lot of trouble breaking.
It's really the equivalent of saying, and we've changed this, but it's the equivalent of saying smoking cigarettes makes you really cool and when you're 14 and you want to be cool you should start smoking cigarettes. We don't allow that anymore. We stopped that and that was a very wise thing for us to do. We need to do the same thing with junk food. We need to say that it does not make your life fun to drink Coca-Cola -- in fact it could make you sick. We're not going to stop you from drinking Coca-Cola, when you're old enough to make a decision about that, but while you're young we're going to make it harder for you to drink Coca-Cola.
So what kinds of things can we do to make it harder for kids to drink Coca-Cola? I can think of two offhand. One is you don't market it to them. You put restrictions on the ability of marketers to target young people. Now that seems to be a First Amendment issue and that's a struggle but it's a struggle that we have to be involved in. The second thing is you make it harder for young people to buy sugar-sweetened beverages. I suggest we start discussing something like carding kids who aren't 16 when they go to the counter to buy a Coke. In other words, you have to be 16 to buy a Coke because we don't think that you're able to make a decision about how much soda you can drink until you're 16. Really it should be 20 but ok I'm compromising because it's such a far-fetched idea. But it's not a wrong idea, it's a right idea.
The third thing that you do, at least when it comes to soda, is you make water more widely available. There are a lot of different ways that that can happen. You can put more water fountains in schools, you can put more water fountains in cities, you can distribute water bottles. You can encourage merchants to start a campaign. You find a local merchant who's going to say we'll brand these water bottles with our logo and any merchant that is a part of this campaign will fill your water bottle, or let you go into their restaurant, or let you shop with your water bottle in their shop because we want to encourage the consumption of water.
And then, when that works, because it will, you start thinking about, well, how do you make apples as accessible as potato chips and cheaper? How do you make potato chips cost $2 and apples cost a quarter and have them sit next to each other in the shops and markets? And then you need to have public education materials telling you why you're much better off eating the apple than the potato chips.
How do you do all of that stuff? You can do some of these things on a municipal level which means a progressive town like Berkeley or Portland or San Francisco or Los Angeles can implement some of these things locally. That seems to be where change is happening now -- locally. That's the encouraging thing about the Berkeley soda tax but it's a tiny, tiny little thing in a tiny, tiny little city.
Crain: How much is the Berkeley soda tax?
Bittman: A penny per ounce so a 12-ounce can of soda costs 10 or 12 percent more than it used to.
Crain: When was it implemented?
Bittman: January 1st. But the interesting thing about it -- this is an unintended consequence, which is why when I said you have to try these things to know what's going happen -- and I don't think anyone predicted that this would 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. So you just don't know what kind of impact you're going to have. In fact, a number of other retailers in Berkeley decided it wasn't worth it to sell soda anymore. So that' a really beneficial unintended consequence of the tax.
Crain: And what about when you were thinking about a healthy fast food chain -- do you have similar business notions?
Bittman: I don't because other people are doing it and I'm not sure I believe in the business model. I think it's sort of like politicians. They can sound like they have really good programs but the closer they get to actually being in office the weaker they become on their good programs. And I think fast food that’s healthy and affordable and sustainable, well, that sounds really good but in practice it's just ok. I think that somewhere in there the profit motive is sneaking in and making things less good than they could be otherwise.
Crain: How did you come to food?
Bittman: I used to watch this show on Saturday mornings in the mid-50s called Modern Farmer and it was just this show with films of tractors. What's a modern farmer? It's a guy with a combine, right? There were three stations or whatever there were. I was in New York watching Modern Farmer at 7 in the morning on Saturdays and I'm sure there are other people who remember this.
So, 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 -- not at home though. 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 cooking 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 became time to start writing no one was interested in anything I wrote about until I started writing about food. Once I started writing about food then suddenly everybody was interested in what I was writing about. I was living in Connecticut then in New Haven.
I started running a little newspaper during those community organizing days, that was published sporadically and eccentrically by me, and that was sort of the equivalent of going to graduate school only it didn't give me any kind of credentials which did hurt. I couldn't get a job in journalism so I took a job as a travelling salesman selling photographic equipment because I was interested in photography too.
After that I started writing and no matter what I wrote about -- and I knew a little bit about a few things -- no one cared. Once I started to write about food, and part of that was timing, it was easy and I started reviewing restaurants, but restaurants in Connecticut were not really worth talking about for the most part so I quickly converted a restaurant review column into a cooking column. I always dabbled in restaurant reviews but I mostly did cooking stuff.
I never worked as a chef, nor did I ever want to, but I learned from chefs and I cooked with many chefs. And then several years ago I saw an opportunity to start writing seriously about food -- not that cooking isn't serious -- but more seriously about food and I took that opportunity. I still write about cooking, I’m always working on cookbooks and I still write cooking pieces for The New York Times Magazine and for the Food Section but the bulk of my energy goes into the serious stuff, the hard stuff. So, that's the short version.
Crain: Beyond sugar sweetened beverages a lot of people have or are switching to sugar alternatives such as agave or stevia. What do you think of that?
Bittman: The whole thing about agave juice or any of that is total nonsense. No sugar is better for you than any other sugar. It all raises your blood sugar levels and it all causes insulin to be secreted into your bloodstream so most of these things are pretty much the same. Maybe there are trace elements of something marginally beneficial in one or another but that's all beside the point. Your body recognizes and treats all sugar pretty much the same.
This is my understanding bearing in mind that I'm not a scientist: If you have too much insulin you may develop a resistance to it so that it takes more and more to get the job done and manage sugar. If your insulin becomes less effective you can become diabetic and get type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes used to be called adult onset diabetes but it is no longer called that because so many children have it.
Children used to never, ever, ever get type 2 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes you are born with whereas type 2 diabetes you seem to get from environmental factors like eating too much sugar. It's really bad when a chronic disease that was limited to fairly few adults is now something we have to worry about with children. That is a result of eating too much sugar especially sugary beverages as well as things like sugar which may or may not include highly processed foods like white flour. It's not entirely clear that your body actually knows the difference between a cookie and a piece of white bread. So that's a question and people are grappling with that and the jury is still out.
It's not like sugar is the enemy because sugar in moderate quantities is not that harmful or big a deal. I don't want to walk around saying that sugar is the enemy but we eat many, many times more sugar than we used to and we so much more diabetes than we used to so I think it's pretty clear that there's a correlation there, even causation there. It doesn't mean that you can't eat any sugar or that as soon as you eat sugar your body gets damaged or anything like that it simply means that too much sugar is bad for you and I think most people would agree about that.
Crain: In A Bone to Pick you write that "GMOs are cogs in industrial agriculture, the way dynamite is in war; take either away, and you have solved virtually nothing." followed by…"If anti-GMO activists were successful in banning GMOs, we'd still have industrial agriculture, along with its wholesale environmental degradation and pollution, labor abuse, and overproduction of ingredients for the junk food diet." What would you like to see happen in terms of GMOs in the next few years?
Bittman: I'd like to see someone use genetic engineering for public good instead of as a crutch for industrial agriculture, because then we could finish this argument since it would be understood that genetic engineering, like dynamite, can be used for good or ill. If it's used for good -- you need dynamite to build roads, right, so? You can argue that roads are bad, sure, but let's put that aside -- you use dynamite to build railroads which is good [laughter]. Or you can use dynamite to blow up other people. Same with genetic engineering. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with genetic engineering but very little of it has gone toward making a better product from the public perspective. Almost all of it has gone to supporting industrial agriculture and making money for its creators. So I would like it if genetic engineering were demonstrated to be a useful and viable technology. It really hasn't been to date.
I think that much too much energy has been put into the GMO labeling thing. That said, I am in favor of transparency and once the GMO labeling battle is won, which I think it will be, then I think maybe people will become interested in asking questions about what's in their food -- questions that are more important than whether they consist of genetically modified organisms. For example, I'd rather know if there is pesticide residue in my food. I'd rather know if antibiotics are routinely used to produce the food that I'm eating.
If there were a home run with genetic engineering, of course I'd support that and there are examples of progress with this sort of thing with the papaya industry in Hawaii and this new type of apple that doesn't brown. I mean really who cares, but ok. You can argue that it's at least not harmful. The fantasies of genetic engineers and the fantasies of how genetic engineering is going to increase yields, reduce pesticides, reduce water use etc. -- none of that has come true. If that stuff comes through, no problem, that's great and I think that that research should be supported. It's probably better to be supported by the government than it is to be supported by industry because we'd be more likely to have things that benefit more people.
Up until now the problem is that the prophecy of genetic engineering has largely not been fulfilled and that doesn't mean that it's scary but increasingly there is evidence that the ways that it's being used are damaging rather than helpful. So I'm not afraid of genetic engineering I'm afraid of the way that it's been applied up until now and those are two different things.
I think that the routine use of antibiotics in our food is scarier as is pesticide use, which is related to that. Genetic engineering is a crutch for monoculture and industrial agriculture in general and so are pesticides and antibiotics. I think that to the extent that we can reduce pesticides and antibiotics -- that's more important. Well, it's all important, but so many people are putting energy into whether food is genetically engineered. I would rather put energy into whether antibiotics are being used to produce the animals as well as heavy applications of pesticides, whether there's fertilizer runoff, whether food is too highly processed, whether there's maltreatment of workers or animals. All of these things are important and I would argue that all of them are more important than whether food is produced using genetically engineered seeds.
Crain: Right, it's good that this issue is getting attention because as a result there's more of a dialogue about food issues and people are questioning what they are being marketed but it's not as if GMO labeling is the end all be all issue.
Bittman: Right. More importantly how do you get people to eat more good food and less bad food? How do you convince people that that's the right thing to do and how do you change the environment so that they can? Those are the big questions. You can't change agriculture unless you change the way people eat and you can't change the way people eat unless you change agriculture so which of those comes first? Well, you can change the way people eat a little bit without changing agriculture and it will have a little bit of an effect on agriculture but really you need big market forces or legislation to change what's grown in this country. I mean you have the entire state of Iowa devoted to supporting industrial agriculture and junk food. The entire state. And Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and parts of Missouri and parts of a bunch of other states aren't too far behind.
Crain: Iowa is mostly corn and soy?
Bittman: It's all corn and soy. Mostly sounds like 60 percent. It's not 60 percent. It's probably 98 percent corn and soy.
Crain: How do we figure out a way to make healthy fruits and vegetables accessible for everyone in this country?
Bittman: The state of Iowa 100 years ago produced more apples than any other state in the United States and produced more tomatoes than any other state in the United States. The state of Iowa is now producing only corn and soy. Raising dairy in California makes a lot of sense as long as water is cheap. Now that water is going to be demonstrated not to be cheap forever in California it makes more sense to move dairy back to where it belongs which is the Northeast where water is abundant and the climate and land is tolerable for dairy production. This would free up a lot of land in California to raise fruits and vegetables. This kind of reimagining can be done but it has to be prioritized. It's not going to be done automatically.
Crain: Do you think it's possible to change Iowa's monoculture? And do you think it's possible to get enough people to grow vegetables in their backyards to make any sort of significant difference?
Bittman: I think that many, many people are deeply involved in personally changing agriculture and changing things on a small scale and doing very innovative and wonderful things in food but to change Iowa is a completely different story. Both have to happen. It's true that we grew 50 percent of our personal consumption of fruits and vegetables in home gardens during World War II but that was before big-time urbanization. That was when 25 percent of Americans lived on farms. Two percent of Americans live on farms now and a lot of those people who live on farms don't even have gardens. So I think, yes, routinely I think we do need people more involved in the production of their own food but we also need a shift toward regional agriculture and away from monoculture. We need to stop having the most productive states in our country rely on corn and soybeans.
I think that there are two major concerns about the food system right now. One is that there are public health issues that are directly related to our diet and only an idiot would argue with that statement. And two, is that there are severe environmental consequences resulting from the ways we do agriculture these days and those two things are related. We do agriculture because big food wants to produce and sell a certain kind of food so we grow things in a certain way and the fact that we grow them that way has tragic environmental consequences and the fact that those are the foods that big food is producing has tragic consequences on public health.
Both of these things are kind of inarguable and both would be helped by a more diverse agricultural system where a greater variety of plants are grown over a greater geographical area one that encourages people to eat different kinds of foods instead of processed crap. That's kind of as simple as I can make it. It is what I do for a living -- explain this over and over.
Crain: What about the USDA? What role does the USDA have in implementing these sorts of changes?
Bittman: The USDA has a dual mission. Its mission is to support American agriculture and to support the production of healthy food and those two things are in competition because American agriculture, as it has developed, is more profitable if it produces junk food than it is if it produces real food. So the USDA has encouraged the growth of the corn and soybean industry and that is basically the junk food industry. At the same time the USDA is trying to encourage healthy eating among citizens which is in conflict with the kind of agriculture that it supports.
You can't say, I support farming, because there's a kind of farming that's just not doing anyone any good. You can say, I support diversified small to medium scale farming of foods that we want to see comprise a larger part of our diet and that's a bit of a mouthful but that's the truth. To say, I support farming and meaning I support industrial agriculture that takes place in most of Iowa, is to say I support the destruction of land and the attack on the public health of the American people. Those are two vastly different types of farming, and yes, there's a middle ground that we need to find but right now the government does a much better job of supporting what, to use a shorthand term, we might call industrial agriculture than it does supporting sustainable, or agro-ecological, diversified farming.
The reason this stuff is inarguable -- and it's not that radical if you're on our side: yours and mine and my friends and allies -- the reason we know that it's defensible is that we look at health statistics and we see that chronic diseases are a huge problem in the United States and we look at what causes chronic diseases and we know that it's bad diet. And then we look at the environment and we look at the erosion of topsoil, we look at runoff that's poisoning the water supply, and we look at waste from animal production that's poisoning water, animal welfare and all of these things, and what we see are things that are distasteful at best but really quite miserable and damaging and destructive.
So what can we do to make this stuff better? It's not so much a question of what's wrong because I think we've described what's wrong -- beginning with Rachel Carson and Frances Moore Lappe and then continuing with Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan and many others. I think we have a very clear description of the ongoing degradation of the food system and ongoing degradation of our health due to our diet. We've been seeing this stuff and generally acknowledge it. The question is what can we do to fix that? There are no magic wands. We need to convince people to change the way they eat but that's not going to all happen at once and not everyone is going to be able to do that so in order to make that happen more efficiently and better we need the cooperation of government in limiting the so-called rights of industry to do whatever it wants to do.
That's why I think the limiting of marketing of junk to children is a really, really important way to start. To have kids start with healthier diets means that a generation from now we can hope that things will look better. If we look at this and at better school lunch programs, and even breakfast programs and after school snack programs, and so on down the line we're looking at teaching kids that this is the way that you ought to be eating now and when you grow up. Doing this is really the only way that kids will learn that stuff. What we're doing now is we're allowing marketers to teach kids that life is more fun with Coca Cola. And whether life is more fun with Coca Cola isn't really the important question -- the important issue — is that life seems to be shorter if you drink Coca Cola. And since kids can't make that distinction they need to be protected from that kind of marketing.
Crain: When does the Farm Bill come up again and what do you think it will look like?
Bittman: In 2018. It comes up every five years. People are already talking about it. To a large extent it's going to depend on the composition of the House of Representatives and the Senate. If the House of Representatives and the Senate are under Republican control it's highly unlikely that we'll see any progress on the Farm Bill and if the President is Republican it will be impossible. If we're talking about political activism, and we should be, two things that I think are highest priorities are one, work on the local level, because we've all seen that working on the local level can be effective and two, think about, talk about and work on campaign finance reform because without that we can't change much. You know, I've heard some very compelling arguments from people who are actually convinced that it's too late to make change on the national level because how do you enact campaign finance reform when everybody in office is totally opposed to campaign finance reform? I will say that there are reasons to be hopeful. If we look at the way things happen in the United States -- it often happens because of public pressure and public pressure means not just voting but also actual civic action and this means demonstrations, it can mean civil disobedience, it can mean fighting things out in the courts. It can mean anything.
The two or three success stories that you see happening right now in terms of this are most importantly the defeat of the Defense of Marriage Act and the legitimizing of gay marriage. I think it's been 10 or 11 years since Massachusetts was the first state to legalize gay marriage and we have a Supreme Court decision that has made gay marriage legal in the entire United States. That's a victory no one foresaw and that victory happened because people fought for that victory. I think similarly, and I don't want to go to deep into this, that we're seeing a change in attitudes about authority's control of and treatment of minorities in the United States. I think we're seeing that this year and last year, and if you look at what happened in North Charleston and what happened in Baltimore in the last month you're seeing reactions that are a lot different than the reactions to what we saw in Ferguson and New York City less than a year ago. And whether these are permanent changes or not I don't know but I certainly hope so and I feel that there's a shift there because of public pressure. It all comes back to that.
Crain: What are some other new ideas that have kept you up at night or something that you're especially passionate about right now?
Bittman: There are maybe another ten very important issues around food. We've made progress on almost none of that stuff in the last three years. We've made very, very little progress. I'm not sitting here talking about how good this is and how good that is. I'm talking about what our concerns are and how things need to be better. That bothers me and the column was great because I could keep bringing things up and saying this is important. But it's not as it we've solved antibiotics in the food supply and now we can move onto something else rather we keep talking about the same things over and over again. I'm feeling now like I want to home in on the one or two or three most important issues, and winnable ones at that, and I want to win them.
That was the idea behind Michael, Ricardo and Olivier and my getting together now two years ago and deciding to do a national food policy. We sat down in Michael's living room and and said what can we do to try to address these issues that we know everyone pretty much agrees on? We decided that the best thing we could do was to call for a national food policy so that's what we did. I don't know that that was the best thing we could do but as Michael and I are writers and Olivier and Ricardo work for NGO's -- well, it's not entirely clear to me what the best thing to do was or is but that's what we came up with. Now I don't know what the best thing to do is but I'd like to figure it out and I'd like to do it.