Bringing America to the Table: How to Get People Interested in Food

We've been singing to the choir for a long time. What we need to do, though, is learn to reach those all the way back in the peanut gallery.


On my farewell visit to Borders, I browsed the environment section. Three years ago, the same shelves were devoted to the sky-is-falling-because-of-climate-change books. Now, there are numerous titles devoted to food, the food system, agriculture, and organics.

Sadly, the themes and tones are still monotonous. One after another, it seemed as if all of them could have been called How Industrial Food is Making Us Sicker, Fatter and Poorer -- and What You Can Do About It (the actual subtitle for Food, Inc.). Jeffrey Masson's The Face on Your Plate: The Truth About Food begins with this cheerful assessment: "The human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future."

Who really wants to read titles like Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal (by Tristam Stuart) or Confessions of an Eco-Sinner (by Fred Pearce)? They convey urgency and are written by serious, thoughtful journalists, but even many hardcore members of the food movement choir consign these books permanently to their bedside tables as if, someday, they will adopt a more inviting tone.

Diet for a Hot Planet author Anna Lappé once told me about her view of the need to sing to the choir: even they sometimes need to be reminded of the song and how to sing it well. Absolutely a fair point. Many books about the broken food system or the modern diet have important kernels of knowledge, are well-researched and written. But choir directors know that they have to quit practicing after a while and make real music. For the food system to change meaningfully, Mr. and Ms. Average American have to tune in eventually. And we're not going to get them to through ominous tomes. Three ideas come to mind.

Interest in gardening has grown exponentially. Though often hard work, gardening is nothing like trying to support your family from the land. Cued up as an avocation, however -- and that's the point -- it is quietly inspirational to many who otherwise have paid little attention to the food system. Gardeners have turned into a potential army for good food. We need to mobilize them.

The second is health. I'll admit it: I'm bored by the chatter of affluent white women talking about the healthful properties of certain foods. The scientific evidence is sketchy, but their hopes and suspicions propel them to believe. Whatever. For the most part, these women are engaged and interested. They can make the connection between their passions and the environmental and social impact of our food system, and channel their purchasing power. Alicia Silverstone's best-selling The Kind Diet turns Food, Inc.'s tagline into a positive message. She calls it "A Simple Guide to Feeling Great, Losing Weight, and Saving the Planet." Same message, expressed differently, and more widely read. The book is goofy in many ways but the main messages are powerful ... and accessible.

And then there's the great missing link: humor. I've seen numerous films about what's wrong with the food system, but there was one I truly loved: King Corn. Unlike Frankensteer or The Future of Food, it was delightfully funny as well as educational. We need more in this vein. Where's the movie where Kathy Bates drives her Happy Meal-dependent grandkids to the feedlot to lock them in with the cloned cattle? Or the buddy picture about the farmer and the chef conspiring to camouflage a bumper crop of giant zucchini in every meal? Someone in Hollywood should be preparing a corny horror film by now about genetically modified Frankenfish (if the script isn't buried in some studio's legal department). Speaking of lawyers, remember the episode of the TV comedy Boston Legal in which William Shatner learned about farmed versus wild salmon while vacationing in British Columbia? It was a hoot ... and it reached millions and millions of non-choir members.

No movement has ever found it easy to reach masses of people, especially when they already think they're doing something meaningful by eschewing bottled water while running errands in their SUVs. But successful leaders recognize that reaching people where they are, rather than where we want them to be, is necessary. If we use humor and others' passions as a starting point, we have a prayer that the whole congregation may be singing our messages eventually.

Image: REUTERS/Radu Sigheti.