You Eat What You Are, Part 1 (Ep. 76)
It’s about how American food got so bad, how it’s begun to get much better in recent years, and who has the answers for further improvement.
We begin at Union Square Green Market in New York City, a rustic oasis in the heart of the city, where Berkshire Berries has wonderful jams, Windfall Farms offers a cornucopia of greens, and Hudson Valley Duck Farm does all kinds of things with the modest duck. We also channel John McPhee and his wonderful essay “Giving Good Weight.”
But how much can the farmer’s market solve America’s food problems?
We talk to Tyler Cowen, whom you’ve heard from before. He’s a professor of economics at George Mason University, a blogger at Marginal Revolution, a food blogger at Tyler Cowen’s Ethnic Dining Guide, and the author, most recently, of An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies. He argues that economists were historically very concerned with food, and describes the current “crisis”:
COWEN: If you are a foodie today you have more options than ever before. But there’s also more bad food than ever before. There’s more obesity. There’s more junk food. The food world is getting a lot worse and a lot better at the same time. That’s one way to think about the crisis.
In fact, 15 percent of Americans are said to be “food insecure,” while 35 percent are obese. Cowen argues that the typical finger-pointing is often directed at the wrong people:
COWEN: I think agribusiness and consumerism are seen as the great villains. I think both are essential; we can’t do without them. They feed the seven billion people in the world. We do need to improve them, but I would work on them through innovation. The biggest food problem in the world today is that agricultural productivity is slowing down and for a lot of the world food prices are going up. And for that we need more business, technology and innovation, not locavorism.
We also speak with food philosopher Michael Pollan, who has been thinking and writing about food for years, perhaps most notably in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals:
POLLAN: The phrase “the omnivore’s dilemma” is an anthropological terms for an omnivore that can eat so many different things, some of which are not good for you, some of which will kill you, and deciding between what is good and what is bad is a big part of why we have these giant brains we have. And that anxiety afflicts us. It doesn’t afflict the cow or the koala. They eat that one thing, and if it’s not that one thing, it’s not lunch. And things are pretty simple. You don’t need a big brain; you just need a big stomach to digest all those leaves. So it’s part of our existential predicament to worry first do we have enough food and second do we have the right food.
You’ll hear from slow-food godmother Alice Waters (who has appeared on Freakonomics Radio before). She owns the famed Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse (where Pollan happened to be heading for dinner the evening we interviewed him). To Waters, the priorities for the food future are clear:
WATERS: I think that the work of the farmer needs to be elevated to a very important and vital place, and we need to consider the people that take that on as precious as the people who educate us in schools. And when that happens, when we begin to value our farmers, you’d be surprised how many people will answer that call, who will really be encouraged to take on that profession. It’s happening already, just among young people who are concerned about the future of this planet, and know that we’re headed to a dead end if we don’t think about where our food comes from and take care of that land that produces our food.
Along the way, you’ll also get to hear some World War II-era tape of New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia talking about how to stretch the meat budget. If you’re interested in this kind of thing, WNYC has a massive archive of historical tape; furthermore, it also maintains a Mayor LaGuardia Twitter feed.
And that’s all just Part 1 of “You Eat What You Are.” In two weeks, we’ll release Part 2, which focuses on the local-food movement.
Hope you enjoy.