Why is Michael Pollan still a thing?

I realise that every time I write about Michael Pollan, it sends up a magical bat signal to summon his most ardent supporters, but every now and then, I decide the few weeks of harassment is worth it*. I’ve been kind of ignoring his antics over the last few years, other than noting that he’s published a slew of increasingly preachy books about food, been featured in a documentary, and now, he’s on Netflix. He’s hitting all the media points from old to new! That Michael Pollan, so hip and progressive in his quest to tell people in the US that they are eating wrong, but fortunately he is here to help them and will, of course, lead them along the will and the way.

So here’s the thing. The US food system is incontrovertibly broken. No reasonable person would deny that. Access to foodstuffs is predicated by class, race, disability status, and numerous other factors that mean some people have access to a huge array of culinary options and others do not — that some people go to farmers’ markets and select only the finest produce picked that morning, while others pick through waxy apples at corner stores. When it comes to the most fundamental issue of who eats what, these are both basic truths. Moreover, the situation gets even more complicated for people with specific dietary needs like allergies and food sensitivities.

Intuitive eating can be functionally impossible for people who have limited options. If someone feels great eating mostly veggie-heavy dishes with fish and whole grains (often heavily promoted by food evangelists like Pollan), that’s an accessible option if that person is wealthy and has the ability to seek out and cook that food, or pay for it in restaurants or when prepared by a personal chef. And that’s great. I’m glad that person has identified the foods that make their body feel in balance and that it’s possible to access them. But that’s not the case for many other people — like the low-income mother with three jobs who doesn’t have a store that carries good produce in her vicinity, or the Latina who can’t afford to move out of her neighbourhood, where good fish is not readily available.

So people like Pollan proudly pontificate about what people should eat, with very precise prescriptions, and it’s a problem for several reasons. One is that, simply put, all bodies are different and what is good for one person is not necessarily good for others — a diet that’s perfect for one high school athlete could be disastrous for another who plays the same sport, for example. Thus, it’s advisable to be suspicious of anyone suggesting that there’s one diet to rule them all, one quick fix to finding a balance of foods that makes you feel healthy and happy. Some people do really well on a primarily plant-based diet! Some people don’t feel all that good when they eat dairy! Others feel really anemic and unpleasant when they don’t eat meat!

This evangelism and rigid rulemaking comes with another cost: A sense of superiority. People who can afford these foods (and who can obtain organic, fair trade, etc versions of them) feel like they’re inherently better than people who cannot. Likewise, people who thrive on these kinds of diets sneer at people who cannot (and I know this acutely from my years as a vegan, which I was very snide about people who couldn’t eat a vegan diet, as though they were failing on the basis of willpower instead of actual health issues and preferences that had nothing to do with me because everyone should mind their own damn plates). It further underscores cultural divides, frustrating people who are trying to introduce some nuance and equality into food justice — people like Pollan directly undermine the very justice they claim to be fighting for, because their version of fixing the food system is primarily one for people in positions of power and privilege that not all of us occupy.

All of us deserve access to safe, fresh, healthy food, sound nutrition, and the ability to make well-informed choices about what we eat. Many of us do not have these tools and people like Pollan often cast this as a personal failing — you should just eat better, you should just take more time to cook, you should just…fix it yourself, in other words. The continued trend of elevating people like Pollan and treating them as authorities is highly alienating, and frustrating for people who are fighting from the ground up to reform the food system. Food snobs, meanwhile, appear unwilling to sit down with advocates for food justice who are dealing not only with serious social problems that restrict access to food, but people like Pollan, who make this into a simplistic issue of willpower.

It’s not about people shoveling processed foods into their mouths or what have you — it’s about the fact that many people have extremely limited access to a functional food system. Penalising people for not eating ‘right’ doesn’t actually address the fact that they may not have a choice, that someone who feels terrible after eating a Big Mac may not be able to eat something else, that someone who wishes she ate a diet lower in sodium may be relying on food from corner stores and small markets that focus on foods with a longer shelf life. These aren’t personal failings, but social ones, and they intersect not just with the food system but with larger social oppressions — something I rarely see people like Pollan talking about.

So yeah, I’ll be skipping his Netflix series, I guess is what I’m saying.

*Seriously though, this is perhaps evidence that people really can be harassed over anything, because it kind of beggars belief that critical engagement with a well-known figure in the food world would elicit much rancor — and it also illustrates that yes, absolutely anyone and everyone can be involved in internet harassment and this isn’t a bunch of mouth breathers living in their mothers’ basements but perfectly ordinary people like the ones you see in the organic produce aisle at Whole Foods.

Image: Michael Pollan, PopTech, Flickr