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Connecting the Dots – Michael Pollan’s Good Food Revolution

March 2009

By Michael Wall

In Defense of Food inspired us to make Cakes & Ale more of a gathering place, not just a restaurant,” says mp.jpgCakes & Ale Restaurant co-owner Kristin Allin, when asked about the impact of Michael Pollan, best-selling author and the Che Guevara of the natural food and sustainable agriculture movements. “We know that our food preparation is not there to wow the guests – no stacked food or crazy preparations – but we try to present an environment where guests can savor good food in good company, to really focus on the combination of eating a great meal and enjoying time with friends and loved ones.”

Besides In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, Pollan is well known for The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, which was named one of the 10 best books of 2006 by The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Both books explore the intersection between the human and natural world in the context of food and agriculture, topics that Pollan, the Knight Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at UC – Berkeley, has written about for the past 20 years.

Pollan’s body of work has propelled the issues of the organic and local food movement into the kitchen table conversations of the American mainstream.

Last fall, in the midst of election fever, The New York Times Magazine published an open letter by Pollan that challenged the then-unknown president to “reconceive agriculture as part of the solution to environmental problems like climate change.” He also called for a ban on “the routine use of antibiotics in livestock feed on public-health grounds” and to regulate Concentrated Animal Feeding Lots (CAFOs) “like the factories they are.”

Pollan has succeeded in raising awareness of the local food movement in a way that no one else has. But the true impact of his efforts won’t be known for years, maybe even decades.

“Michael Pollan’s work has connected some serious dots in understanding what we eat and the impact it has on our health and the health of our environment,” says Repast chef and owner Joe Truex. “It has challenged me as a chef to look beyond the surface value of the foods we buy and take a hard look [at] what one is supporting underneath.”

Pollan, the keynote speaker at the Georgia Organics 12th annual conference and trade show, approaches the issues of food and health with a straightforward philosophy emphasizing the disconnect between the country’s regulatory bodies.

“Normally, public health is in a compartment by itself, but I think increasingly we are learning that things like antibiotics administered on factory farms has an enormous effect on American public health,” he said recently in a phone interview. “So, you can’t just look at a question of antibiotic resistance or obesity or type 2 diabetes without looking at the food system.

“I used to think that we didn’t have the laws to properly regulate these places, but in fact, we have them. We’re just not applying them, and that’s because there’s just this tradition that you go easy on farms. But these places are not really farms,” he said. “We have to realize that these are factories and they have to be regulated like factories. I think simply by doing that it would completely end the externalizing of the real cost of cheap meat in this country.”

These realizations have far-reaching implications, affecting restaurant kitchens and household kitchens.

Pollan’s work “reinforced principles such as respect for food, where it comes from, how it’s raised and treated, and the huge impact on the flavors and healthfulness of our foods,” says Cakes & Ale’s Kristin Allin. “But, being in this business also brings us face to face with where our meats come from. Our guests don’t see this, obviously, but as owners, we try to prepare all our foods in a way that basically eliminates waste, by using the whole animal and composting our veggie scraps and in a way that pays homage to the animal itself.”

A key component of Pollan’s books involves an almost scientific evaluation of the natural resources consumed by the production of the foods we eat, whether it’s in a fast food restaurant, a chain bar and grill or a grocery store.

Just by following the trail of a single cow, he has exposed the flaws of the agricultural industry.

“The thing that I began to think more about while reading Michael Pollan’s books is the abundance of prepackaged items we consume in our homes,” says Allin. “For example, when I go to the grocery for my family and buy yogurt, cheese, crackers, salsas, breads, etc., much of it is already prepared, and it’s really begun to make me uncomfortable. I find it is easier in a restaurant to make these things or be intimately connected because we know the sources and are making everything from scratch, but much more difficult as a consumer or home cook, especially when one has small children and a full schedule. I try to make pasta sauces, salad dressings and soups from scratch, but sometimes it gets overwhelming. On the flip side, if you try to live this way, it’s nice to have restaurants and other businesses that do, too, so you don’t have to throw your values out the window when you go out,” states Allin.

Georgia Organics is a member-supported nonprofit organization working to integrate healthy, sustainable and locally grown food into the lives of all Georgians.

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