Framing the debate: “Food police”? No — “food patriots”!

Michael Pollan as The PollanatorAs I slowly make my way through The Nation's Sept. 11 food issue (apparently not hitting actual newsstands until Tuesday), an idea jumped out at me from Michael Pollan's portion of the "One Thing to Do About Food" forum. It's about framing, and I think it's something we need to get straight.

His suggestion is that we start caring now about the Farm Bill, that "obscure piece of legislation" that accounts for why public schools serve lots of feedlot beef and dairy products, why a Coke and a Whopper are so cheap even as small farmers struggle to break even.

The problem with getting Americans to care about the Farm Bill, Pollan posits, is the name: "How many people these days even know a farmer or care about agriculture?" Instead, he proposes, let's call it what it really is, "the food bill" — and start letting our legislators, especially ones in non-farm states, know that we voters are paying close attention to the upcoming revision in 2007.

This is genius. One of the reasons that Republicans control all three branches of government today is partly because they figured out in the '70s that manipulative , shorthand wording matters. "Pro-life," "tax relief," "death tax," "family values" — all are masterpieces of framing. (Democrats do it too, just not nearly as well.)

Already we're seeing push-back on the food movement from conservative pundits and counter-propaganda from big business. (Check out this "facts about high-fructose corn syrup" website.) They dub anyone who questions America's current way of eating "the food police," with all of the attendant liberty-depriving associations.

We need some alternate framing. "Food detectives" is nice, á la Pollan, but I think "food patriots" has more of a stirring, revolutionary ring. This country was built by small farmers, and it's time that we stopped driving them into the ground through government handouts to Big Agribusiness. Big Ag? Just this generation's equivalent to Big Tobacco. And it's making us just as sick, in the name of corporate profit.

So what kind of food are we fighting for, anyway? A few months ago I floated the idea that we need a name for our food, as "organic" just doesn't encompass all that what we're talking about. Readers wrote in and suggested "clean food" and "real food" (which Nina Planck uses), as well as "post-organic" and "sustainable."

I like "real food" vs. "fake food," as it does a good job of conveying the Nature vs. Factory element inherent to the battle of tomatoes against Twinkies. In the same vein, I think we could use "traditional food" and "factory food" and everyone would get what we meant, and what our opinion was of each.

And you know what? I'm not an "elitist" because I ask whether my $24 restaurant steak was grass-fed and -finished. I don't want a pastured chicken in every pot — I want food justice for every single person in this country, including those living on food stamps. I want a real free market, where corn and soy are no longer subsidized so that Lucky Charms are cheaper than apples, where small meat producers aren't forced topay a government tax that goes to "Beef: It's What's for Dinner" and other multimillion-dollar, Big-Ag ad campaigns.

Vote with our forks, indeed … but perhaps we can put them down occasionally, swallow, and raise our voices as well.

3 Responsesto “Framing the debate: “Food police”? No — “food patriots”!”

  1. Tana says:

    "Real" food works for me, as does "clean, healthy meat."

  2. Omniwhore says:

    For more on "framing the debate" -- read Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by George Lakoff. Considered an essential guide for progressives, the book covers issues such as marriage equality for gays and lesbians, metaphors that conservatives claim to own and constantly use against us (such as "patriotism" and "liberty"), and how to respond to said conservatives.

    If you're a Republican and you've read this far -- please keep visiting. We can all get along when it comes to real food!

    P.S. Interestingly, Potato Non Grata took the photograph of the author on the back of the book.

  3. Tamara says:

    I've been using the term "real food" for as long as I've been feeding my kids (10 years+). You eat "real food" at meal time *and* at snack time. Desserts and "junk food" or "fast food" are all synonymous with non-"real food" and are sometimes-treats.

    "Real food" is also "whole food" in my book, but I don't usually use that term, probably because so many average people associate it with hippie culture, in the same way I don't use the term "vegetarian," but prefer the term "meatless." (My family is omnivorous, btw.)

    It may seem like splitting hairs but perceptions are everything, and if I can teach my children that whole food is real/good and processed food is not/bad, then I've done part of my job.