I heard about the work Michele Simon was doing as a public health lawyer and advocate through the academic grapevine. She's been zealously focusing on the food industry and food politics for 15 years.
When I caught up with Michele via e-mail and phone and asked her about food politics, here's what she said:
Q: How is our current food system tainted by corporate influences?
A: Farm subsidies given for all the wrong crops, including corn, soy and wheat — the engines of our meat- and dairy- and processed food-centered diets — are a big part of how Big Agribusiness influences government policy to retain the status quo. Another example is how industry keeps a stranglehold on certain federal programs, such as school meals and food stamps, to ensure that the least healthy foods are given priority over fresh produce. Still another way is how the food industry hides behind the First Amendment to claim that free speech protects their “right” to market their unhealthy products however they please, even to small, vulnerable children.
Q: What are some of the key problems with our food system?
A: Here are several:
Our health: We eat a diet that is based too much on animal products and processed junk food and not enough on eating the way nature intended: whole foods, mostly from plants. Every major health organization recommends eating more plant-based foods.
The environment: Our animal-centered diet, along with the chemicals used in conventional agriculture, is killing the planet.
Labor: Food workers (from farm pickers, to meat processors, to factory workers, to restaurant staff) are the most exploited workers out there.
Animals: I can't even begin to describe the horrible conditions of factory farms.
Family farmers: Small- and medium-size farms are almost extinct due to takeover by Big Agribusiness, which has forced family farmers either to become beholden to large companies or to quit altogether.
Q: If you were the “King of Food,” how would you fix our broken food system?
A: I would start over and build the system we would want to see if we put people and ethics ahead of corporations and profits. What we are doing now is mostly a lot of tinkering around the edges without really getting to the heart of the problem. We have turned a very basic human need over to the service of corporate profit.
Food needs to be recognized as something so vital to the survival of both the planet and the human race that it deserves special protection. We need to re-order our priorities, which is a huge challenge, I admit.
Q: What's always in your fridge and pantry?
A: My fridge is stranger than most. The top shelf has jars of grains and nuts. I always have fresh produce from my local farmers market.
Q: What food would we never find in your fridge or pantry?
A: Anything that had a face. Anything made by PepsiCo. Or Kraft. Or, well, you get the idea.
Q: What do you generally eat for breakfast?
A: Shredded wheat with raisins, nuts and almond milk. And fresh fruit.
Q: What's your favorite “junk food?”
A: Really good organic chocolate. I am a purist.