There are days when it seems — both in and out of the food world — that Everything Is Going Wrong. That makes it easy enough to complain, and I’m not alone in doing so routinely. Nothing tastes the way it used to. Even pricey restaurants have lost their glow. Quality is shot. People die from eating melons. The dominance of hyper-processed, industrialized food (and, more to the point, food-like products) is spreading globally, and we’re all gaining weight faster than ever, while wrecking the planet.
Nevertheless, it’s nearly as easy to find signs of hope — lots of them — as well as people and organizations who’ve been prodding American food back on a natural, sustainable, beautiful track.
Then, of course, there are the things that just plain make you glad to be alive. Aside from the smell of garlic simmering in olive oil, what and whom am I thankful for? In no particular order:
1. Start — as many of those involved in the food movement did — with Marion Nestle, the nutrition and policy guru and an all-around heroine. (Her daily blog, Food Politics, is always worth a look.) Put simply: eat per Marion’s advice and you’ll be eating better. (You’ll probably live longer, too, but as Marion might say, “the studies are incomplete.”)
2. For low-income people, better eating often starts with WIC andSNAP. It’s a shame we need these food assistance programs, but it’s great that we have them, and we must fight to preserve and improve them.
3. There are more than half as many farmers’ markets as there are McDonald’s. The markets are gaining ground, and fantastic groups like Wholesome Wave are making them more affordable.
4. You gotta love food markets like Oakland’s People’s Grocery and thePark Slope Food Co-op, for their daily demonstration that corporate supermarkets aren’t the only way to shop.
5. Hooray for the Environmental Working Group, our best watchdog on misallocated subsidies, ethanol policies and a variety of conservation issues.
6. Let’s thank Europe. I agree, Europe is wholly un-American. But food-wise, we have more to learn from them than the other way around. Examples of how to move forward on food policy and agriculture while clinging (if by a carrot paring) to worthwhile traditional ways abound.
7. While we’re over there, let’s thank H.R.H. Prince Charles, who’s smart and outspoken enough to make you reconsider the notion of royalty. A couple of other admirable non-Americans are the United Nations’ Olivier De Schutter, a key figure in recognizing and promoting agro-ecological agriculture, and Vandana Shiva, who fights for food as nourishment, not commodity.
8. Back home: Will Allen and the Milwaukee-based Growing Power, Malik Yakini and the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, and Nevin Cohen of the Five Borough Farm are, along with the other pioneers of the urban food movement, making a difference.
9. Journalists. Especially Barry Estabrook (of the blog Politics of the Plate), Tom Philpott (Mother Jones) and Tom Laskawy (Grist), old-school guys who dig up the food stories you need to read. In her blogand her book (both called “Superbug”), Maryn McKenna routinely scares me half to death. Then there’s Raj Patel, a social justice writer who focuses on food; his “Stuffed and Starved” is a classic critique of the world food “system.” (Raj is also, by some accounts, the Messiah. But I know him and he’s not that great.)
10. Can’t mention Estabrook (or his book “Tomatoland”) without a shout out to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, who showed that farmworkers could fight for and win better working conditions.
11. Speaking of fighting, Just Label It and others are involved in the much-needed struggle for better food labeling.
12. If Michael Pollan had done nothing other than say, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” we’d still owe him a great debt. But his new edition of rules (“An Eater’s Manual”) features the typically gorgeous art of the great Maira Kalman.
13. We also owe the Humane Society of the United States, Mercy for Animals and PETA (they can be extreme and, I think, even silly, but still…). All decry animal abuse on a daily basis, sometimes at physical risk to their employees. It’s tough work; it isn’t pretty; but as awareness increases so will the cry for change.
14. For his long-range view and persistence, you have to love Wes Jackson, whose Land Institute is advancing perennial agriculture as an alternative to input-heavy annual monoculture.
15. Few views are as long-range as those of Wendell Berry, who’s pushing 80. The farmer, poet, novelist and essayist is a leading voice for sustainability and common sense, and perhaps the first scribe of the food movement.
16. Serious thanks to Bill McKibben, who’s trying to keep the earth in good enough shape to grow things on it, and Tim DeChristopher, who put his freedom on the line (and lost it) protesting oil and gas leases on public land.
17. And to Bill Marler, who, as the leading food safety attorney in the country, is trying to keep the things we grow from killing us. Check out Michele Simon on Marler’s Food Safety News, too.
18. The Rudd Center has spearheaded the movement for a much-needed soda tax. When that happens … well, woo-hoo: we’ll know that serious and lasting change has come.
19. For better and still improving school lunches, let’s thank Ann Cooper (the Renegade Lunch Lady), Kate Adamick, the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act and (why not? it’s Thanksgiving) Michelle Obama. (At this point, a nod to the world’s most famous walking advertisement for a plant-based diet: Bill “Mr. Slim” Clinton.)
20. With Washington on the agenda, a shout out to Ezra Klein, the hardworking economics and politics writer whose daily WonkBlog is indispensable. (The food link: I met Ezra when he criticized my mah-po tofu. No one’s perfect.)
21. Four D.C. lawmakers with the guts to fight Big Ag: Senators Bernie Sanders (a national treasure), Jon Tester, an organic farmer, and Representatives Rosa DeLauro and Chellie Pingree. There are others, but not enough; next year there should be more.
22. Let’s acknowledge all real farmers, stewards of the earth, as well as those fishers and ranchers who get it: there are plenty, and their numbers are increasing.
23. Much movement in the right direction is thanks to groups likeFood and Water Watch andAmerican Farmland Trust (“No Farms, No Food”).
24. But you don’t need to be a farmer to grow food: check out Roger Doiron and his plan for “subversive plots” that will not only lead to greater individual self-sufficiency but will also point to a better way of growing and eating.
25. Finally: Thanks to anyone who’s started a small farm in the last five years, and anyone who’s supported one; anyone who cooks, and especially anyone who teaches others to cook. In these realms, let’s thank FoodCorps, SlowFood USA and Cooking Matters, all doing great work. As are millions of individuals. Bless you.