Q&A with Michele Simon — activist, attorney, badass

It's always fun to talk with someone who has such a sense of purpose that she doesn't feel the need to make nice. Michele Simon is one of those people. Let me be clear: Simon, a public health attorney for the Marin Institute, and author of Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back is a lovely individual -- friendly, thoughtful, and soft-spoken. But she's also totally unafraid to speak her mind, consistently skewering Coca-Cola, Kraft, and other companies she feels contribute to the poor health of our children, and our nation.

Michele Simon: attorney, activist.

Recently Simon chatted with me about school food, social justice, and why we all need to get more involved with the politics of food.

Let’s start with school food. What do you think about all of the momentum around school food reform?

It’s great that so many people are focused on school food, because schools are such an obvious place that needs reform. But the problems in schools are just a microcosm of a bigger issue. I think sometimes that gets lost. We have wonderful dedicated groups of advocates pushing for school food reform, and I can point to a number of great efforts that are happening around the country. And we need to remember that school food is a part of a larger broken food system that needs to change.

What would you say that change looks like?

Right now, our entire food system is based on profit and growth. That’s what our government policies support. But our policies could, instead, support a system that’s based on values and democracy, so good food is priced in a way that everyone can afford it. It’s a question of policy; better policy can help ensure that truly healthy and sustainable food is available to everyone.

And you think policy change is feasible at this time in history?

It’s a good question. There’s some very disturbing discourse now about how everything government does is bad. And, that anything government might do to “control” your behavior is bad, so if government makes food policy changes, those must be bad, too. But this argument assumes that government is not already involved in your food choices. It completely ignores the reality that government is already involved with everything you eat. Every single meal, every bite you take is already shaped by policy; it’s just that the policy is in corporate interests, instead of the public interest. Government shouldn’t be obstructing Americans’ ability to eat well; it should be supporting it.

I wrote something recently about how despite all the attention, the problem of obesity continues to grow.  A friend then asked me, flat out, “Why should I even care? If I’m taking care of myself, if I’m eating apples and not Cheetos, why should I even care about someone who makes the reverse choice?” What would be your answer to this person?

One answer could be the health care argument – that we’re all going to pay in the form of higher health care costs. But I don’t leave it at that because I come to this work with an altruistic perspective. I believe we have a moral obligation to make the world better for everyone. As human beings, we’ve always needed to support one another, to live in communities, and so on. I believe that as a society, we have a vested interested in each others’ well being.

But most people aren’t motivated by altruism; that’s just not something our society cultivates. But we don’t need to convince everyone. We don’t need to convince your friend. We simply need to convince enough people to let the policy makers know they have to fix this problem.

Do you think there are enough of those people to make real change?

Yes. There are many, many people who already work on these issues in one way or another -- from the dietitian who’s talking to people one-on-one about healthy choices, and getting frustrated when those same individuals leave their office and head straight to McDonalds, to the parent who’s pushing for better food in the school cafeteria, to people who're handing out “eat 5-a-day” pamphlets.

I want to put a plea out to everyone that’s currently trying to get a salad bar into their school, or a farmers’ market into their community, that it shouldn’t stop with these things. We need political and systemic changes for long-term success.

If everyone who is currently working on their own small fixes actually formed a cohesive political movement, we wouldn’t need to convince your friend why obesity matters to her. We’d have the critical mass to make change without her.

What’s your feeling about Let’s Move, Michelle Obama’s plan to fight childhood obesity?

I think Let’s Move is a start, but honestly it’s been disappointing. Let’s Move highlights the problem, has an extremely visible spokesperson, and the issues the First Lady is talking about are all good and positive. But what’s missing from What’s Move is any effort to address the massive problem of junk food marketing to children. Kids are getting junk food marketed to them every waking moment of their lives. I’ve been disappointed that the First Lady hasn’t talked more about that. The truth is I haven’t seen any movement from any government agency to stop corporations from marketing to kids. The federal interagency workgroup on childhood obesity is planning to set nutrition guidelines on what can be marketed to kids; that’s government saying to industry that it’s okay to market to children, as long as it’s within certain guidelines, which will also be voluntary.

We should just be saying “no marketing to children, period.” Kids younger than age 8 don’t even understand what advertising is. They cannot understand persuasive intent. So let’s not market to them, it’s unethical and probably illegal. That’s why I’ve been opposed to the new baby carrot marketing campaign, or having SpongeBob’s image on a bag of spinach. Kids don’t need cartoon characters to tell them to eat right; they just need corporations to get out of the way and let parents make the decisions they know are best.

You've been called anti-business for some of your stances. What's your response to that?

There’s a long tradition of name-calling by corporate interests, as a way to marginalize their critics. Instead of discussing the issue at hand, just call someone a name so you can cast them aside. I’m not against business, and I’m not anti-capitalism. I am against a corporate-controlled food supply, because the evidence is very clear that it’s not in the public interest. That’s what it comes down to for me: the evidence. There’s no gene for the way I think; I came to my way of thinking based on the evidence that has been presented to me.

And guess what? Small farmers and food companies are businesses, too. The issue isn’t about being anti-business; it’s which businesses do we want to support?

What's your advice to a parent who wants to start serving up better food, not years from now, after we’ve made all kinds of policy changes, but today?

I used to give talks that tried to steer people toward healthier food choices. But I stopped doing that because I felt it was unethical for me to go around telling people how to eat when individual economic circumstances vary so much. I can walk to the farmers’ market, I live close to good stores, and I can afford to spend more money on the right foods. But I’m not representative of most Americans.

I’d say to those parents who are fortunate enough to be able to afford fresh, healthy food and who can withstand enormous pressures from family and cultural norms: you have a responsibility to feed your kids right, and to help start changing some of our societal norms.  And more than that, you need to get involved; it’s not just about voting with your fork. It’s also about voting with your vote.

And to others who are doing the best you can right now, but feeding your family well is out of reach, I’d say join us in the movement to help make your job easier.

Do you have hope?

[Pause.] I do. I have to, because how else could I continue this work? I think we’ve done a good job educating people about the problem, and keeping food corporations on the defensive. Our next step is to really get political, because educating people is not sufficient. We need to make it easier to access good food, and we need to make it socially acceptable, so people who talk about these issues and who try to eat “healthy” food aren’t treated like outcasts.

And we’ve done it before; as a society, we’ve completely shifted cultural norms around smoking. We’ve successfully made smoking around others uncool. We can do the same thing with food; make eating well the cultural norm. I believe we can do that.

Ali is the co-author of the Cleaner Plate Club: More than 100 recipes your kids will love, due next month from Storey Publishing. Like Simon's ideas? Check out her blog, or follow her on Twitter.

17 Responsesto “Q&A with Michele Simon — activist, attorney, badass”

  1. It isn't that "everything the government does is bad". Probably only 10% or 20% of what they do is bad. The problem is when they do bad it is so awfully bad. Government instituted bad is far worse than any other form of bad because they force it on us with no rational flexibility. The government bureaucrats don't understand that things are different out in the rural areas. Our lives out here are not like their little zoned white boxes of homes. We don't work in little office cubicles. So when they apply their urban rules to our rural world they do terrible harm.

    Unfortunately appologists for the government dismiss the complaints about government by framing it as "Government isn't always bad". Government only has to be bad a very small percent of the time to be dangerous.

  2. Ali says:

    I always like hearing from you, Walter. Honestly, I struggle with this a lot. It feels like the more I learn about any one thing, the deeper I go into learning about it, the more discouraged I am by what government actually does. I keep seeing the same pattern: taxpayer $ going to policies that favor the corporate, often at the expense of, you know, actual human beings.

    That said, I would love to know more about what you mean in this case. Because I also agree with Michele "government shouldn’t be obstructing Americans’ ability to eat well; it should be supporting it." I guess I still have a shred of hope.

  3. I felt it was unethical for me to go around telling people how to eat when individual economic circumstances vary so much

    Anyone can make rice and beans. Anyone can roast a chicken and some potatoes. Anyone can make oatmeal (from scratch, I mean). None of these are more expensive than eating at McDonald's. All they require is some effort and planning.

  4. Ali, I've felt the same as I dig into what's happening. Tax and budget policies are being primarily shaped by lobbyists, often directly as well as by the obvious "they pay for the campaigns" angle. All too often the revolving door between jobs in government and jobs in the big corporations is making it so that corporate officers go to fill government bureaucratic or political posts where they create the laws, regulations and policies. Then when their "public service" terms are up they go right back to work for their corporate side of the wall with big salaries.

    GoldDigger, I completely agree. Unfortunately people are losing the skills too cook for themselves and even the belief that they are capable of it. Our family eats very well for very little. Under a dollar a meal. I am fortunate to have never lost this knowledge in our family history. There are benefits of being rural children of the Depression. Perhaps the Recession will re-teach these lessons. It helps if we all who know how to do teach others to do. The big processed food industry is hard at work convincing people they can't do for themselves, its too expensive, its too hard, it takes time, its inconvenient, its unsafe...

  5. I am for anyone who speaks their mind, who doesn't always try to "make nice". However, I would love for Michele to expand upon her idea of govt. policies that could make good food priced so that everyone could afford it. As a producer of good food, I don't know any way that my food could be cheaper, short of the govt. subsidizing my feed costs or buying land for me. I hear about this idea of good food for all quite often, but never hear about HOW that would be done via policy.

  6. Policy suggestions:

    1) Stop subsidizing grain, petroleum and other sectors. Let the prices rise so people really know what food costs.

    2) Completely and totally stop taxing land - land does not burden communities, it is a benefit soaking up pollution, holding water, cleaning the air, etc. Land should not be taxed. Instead it is income, sales and housing that should be taxed. The views we maintain with our forests and fields are enjoyed by tourists that bring dollars into our state and local merchants. Don't tax that land as it just pushes development.

    3) If housing (real estate) is to be taxed then other assets should be taxed too such as 401Ks, IRAs, gold, jewelry, furs, etc. There is no justification for burdening us, who have all of our assets in our land, farm, home, with the taxes and letting off the urbanites. The current system is merely a transfer of wealth from the rural to the cities.

    4) Regulations should be scaled. S.510 is a prime example. We don't need the heavy hand of government at the local level. The problems that S.510 seeks to address are problems at large producers and processors. Small farmers are not the source of the problems.

    5) As Shakespeare wrote: Kill all the lawyers. Not seriously, probably only 90% give the other 10% a bad name. The real issue is that in all too many fields (medical, liability, etc) the rampant use of the court system for a lottery winnings game is driving up the cost of everything and pushing people out of business. Frivolous lawsuits need to stop, outrageous awards needs to stop and the over payment to lawyers needs to stop.

    Those are some real policy changes that could be made by the Obama administration that would make people understand the real cost of food (not the subsidized checkout counter price tag) and lower the cost of real local food.

  7. Bruce King says:

    Rebecca, you closed your farm and no longer produce food. While you were in operation your farm WAS subsidized by the non-profit you worked for; they DID purchase the land and did rent it to you at lower-than-market rates for years. Even with the subsidies, your prices for items you produced were pretty darned high. With respect to food prices, charging $18 to $20 a pound for pork as you did doesn't make food more affordable for anyone.

    If you'd like to see a discussion of Rebeccas farm and operation, you'll find it here: http://ebeyfarm.blogspot.com/2010/10/another-farm-bites-dust-postmortem.html

    With respect to regulations, I'd like to see scaled regulations based on producer size. There needs to be a track allowing small producers to get large. The one-size-fits-all regulation around animal slaughter is an example. A slaughterhouse processing 1 animal a day is regulated identically to one that slaughters 1,000 animals a day. that means that you either have to get pretty big before it pencils out (more giant agribusiness, huge risk) or people just pass on the whole endeavor.

    Washington state allows the processing of a small number of birds (1,000? 2,000?) under state license, for direct sale to consumers. that's the sort of regulatory window I'd like to see for small producers of sheep, goats, pigs and cattle. Funneling all of the sales through farm kill is making life much more difficult for small producers -- and so most of the farms in my area just go completely under the table. Want a lamb? A wink and a nod and you have one.

    Bruce / ebeyfarm.blogspot.com

  8. Bruce King says:

    Don't know about vermont, but farm/forest land in washington state is taxed at the lowest rate of any real estate; roughly 1/10th that of residential housing. Not much tax burden here. Talking about $10/acre/year in taxes. noise level. Not a burden.

  9. Oh Bruce- there you go again, attacking a fellow farmer to make yourself feel good. We are still farming, until the end of the year, so on that point you are WRONG. One of the ranches we rent is owned by a non-profit, but they charge above market rent prices, so on the point of subsidized land you are WRONG. As for the $18-20/lb. remark, that is just what we charge for tenderloin, the most expensive part of the animal, the rest of our prices hover around $10-11/lb., so on that point you also WRONG. So why don't you save your erroneous attacks for another forum, because my point was to be constructive- to find out what kinds of policy suggestions Michelle might have to make good food affordable for all, while keeping farmers in business.

  10. Bruce King says:

    Rebecca, before you accuse of me attacking you, i'll quote you in your message here, "I am for anyone who speaks their mind, who doesn't always try to 'make nice'. "

    Your proposed solution is one that you tried personally, and it failed. Subsidies aren't the way I'd like to see us make small farms work. In fact, I think that subsidies are the polar opposite. Make a profit without subsidies and you have a sustainable model. Yours didn't work. Try again.

    You consider "market rate" for agricultural land to be what, $10 an acre? In most areas, despite the low tax rates on ag land, that wouldn't even pay the property taxes. Market rate is what people will pay for it, and you weren't paying market rate for your house or land. I estimate that your subisidy was over $100,000 over the 5-6 years you operated. That's a HUGE step up that most small farms don't get.

    Your goal might have been construtive, but your reccomended solution is something that has been tried and failed -- move on.

    Bruce / not making nice / ebeyfarm.blogspot.com

  11. Bruce/playing the armchair critic/at his amateur blog-
    if you read my comments above, I was saying that I did not know of any government policies, short of govt. subsidies or buying land outright for farmers, that would keep food costs affordable for the masses while keeping farmers in business. I said that as sort of a stretch of the imagination, meaning I know not of any logical solutions that the government could provide. I wasn't asking for subsidies and free land- I guess you inferred that.

    I did not receive any direct subsidies- I am not a commodity grain grower, so no direct subsidies for me. The only indirect subsidies I receive are the same ones you get- feed costs that are kept artificially low. How would your business do without those subsidized feed costs?

    As for market rate around here (which you know little about because you don't farm down here), cattle land does go for $10/acre/year, believe it or not. I know the cattle ranchers personally. Also, we don't have high property taxes on farm & ranch lands here. We pay full market value on our house we rent, which is on a different farm from the non-profit. Once again you have no idea what you are talking about. I am not asking you to "make nice", just to get your facts straight and refrain from personal attacks based on nothing. Are you ready to begin a constructive conversation yet?

    Rebecca/not trying to promote my blog

  12. Bruce King says:

    Rebecca, I'm not trying to convince you, nor do I care to. Folks that are interested can refer to the link above for an in-depth discussion about the situation at Rebeccas farm.

    Subsidies are the definition of unsustainable, in my opinion. Rebecca has called for them in many different messages, not the least of which was her "I'm quitting farming" posting, quoted at length in that link.

    at $10/acre/year 100 acres would cost you $1000 a year. If you can't find $1,000 a year to pay for your land, well, maybe farming isn't your gig.

  13. Ali says:

    Okay, Bruce. As the author of this post, I'd like to request that we bring the discussion away from Rebecca's farm. We hear your point about subsidies not being sustainable. Personally, I think that is an interesting point. It's not one I necessarily agree with, because there ARE subsidies, lots of them, and they favor a different kind of farm. But I hear your point, and I appreciate that there is a point in there; would have been nice to leave it at that.

    The other point I heard from you, Bruce, is the scale-neutral regulations. That's another very interesting point that's both on-topic and worth considering. If you have other points like those, keep 'em coming. But please try to figure out how to make them constructively.

    I think Rebecca raised a good point -- that we all want good food for all, and Michele Simon talked around that point, without saying specifically HOW we can make that happen. I appreciate that point, because I don't have any idea what the answer IS. I really don't. My own responses are not nearly concrete enough: a better farm bill. Less corporate control of the food supply. But what, exactly, do I mean by these things, and how do I take part in making it happen?

    I'm not a farmer, simply someone who is trying to raise a family based on real food, and is really quite stunned by how hard it can be even for those of us who have choices and access to good food. I'm troubled by what that means for the rest of the country and world. How do we get to a place where it's easier for small farmers to produce good food, easier for families to access and afford it?

    Golddigger made the point that it's probably not as hard as we often make it seem. That's a great point, too, but then I find myself scratching my head saying, "well, what's the solution, then? If it's just a matter of people making lentils, why aren't they?" Somehow, we still need to get ourselves from here to there. Or we say, "fine as it is," and move on. But it doesn't seem fine as it is. So what next?

    Bruce, you've made it clear that readers can visit your blog if they want a specific discussion about Rebecca's farm. And Rebecca made it clear that you didn't talk to her before writing it. Points taken. Let's consider that subject closed now. Thanks.

    Ali

  14. Bruce King says:

    Food pricing is a pretty hot topic for most farmers. The issue boils down to the fact that yes, you can produce a carrot for $.25, but that in order for someone to make a living at it, you have to mark it up. If you only sell 1 carrot a year, you're going to have very expensive carrots. Scaling up to make a decent amount of income means, for a lot of people, dealing with tens of thousands of carrots. Most folks can't make that transition to a farm-only income stream. that's why the vast majority of farms, conventional and organic, big and small, are run, owned or operated by people with off-farm income. You can do it, but you have to have pretty big pockets to get through the lean times -- at least that's what I've seen in the operations that are successful. these small farms are usually founded by folks with a lot of money they earned somewhere else. I'll include myself in that group.

    It's not enough to make a good profit on that carrot. you have to make enough profit to pay yourself a wage that competes with those offered by off-farm work, and thats very difficult.

  15. Great interview. Hope the tide will turn soon. Our kids spend most of the time in school giving them great food at home is just half of the story.
    Keep up the good work.

    Fran Deca Durabolin Winterson

  16. azure says:

    When people say "the gov't" does horribly whatever it does, have you considered the alternative? I hear Somalia doesn't have much in the way of gov't. And I also hear that plenty of people aren't particularly happy w/their HOAs--where people supposedly more or less "govern" themselves as far as their real property goes.

    In addition, isn't a more accurate statement of the problem is not so much that "gov't" (and which one by the way, state, federal, municipal, county?) as who currently pretty much controls the federal and some state gov'ts to implement policies & practices that favor only multi-national corporate interests? I'd say that's the problem, not the apparatus of gov't itself. Don't like bureaucrats? Try dealing w/a large corporation--even less to no accountability.

    Regarding access to good food, I think it's going to take a long time and it's going to take coming at the issue from several different angles (think how long it took--at how long people worked--for black people to get the right to vote, for "separate but equal" to be struck down, for women to get the vote, to be able to own property, to keep the credit record created during marriage after divorce (law was eventually passed in the late '60's or early 70's). I remember how early organic growers were regarded, as were what their small farms produced--now you can find organic produce in some supermarket chains and lots of energy & time is spent trying to keep Monsanto & some other corporate ag from including GMO, and other nonsustainable practices from being included in the USDA definition of "organically grown".

    Food co-operatives & buying clubs can work for some people. I still shop sometimes at a co-op that was set up in the early 1970's (in a small town in a still primarily rural county--not a wealthy county), and belong to a larger one that has two stores in another town (different county). Both face greater competition now that some more mainstream supermarkets carry organic produce/products and even sometimes local produce, so far they seem to be holding their own. There are farmers' markets in both towns. People in both of these counties (and a 3rd) are working on building a "food web" and trying to promote growing of more staple type food crops. Ironically, this push has been assisted by the bursting of the housing/credit bubble, as a great deal of the grass seed in the US was grown in this area. Fewer new SFH, less need for grass seed/new lawns so at least one farmer was willing to try growing wheat again. This is not an ideal climate for growing wheat, but it's been done in the past and is being done now. The larger co-op supported this effort, as did many of the local bakeries. The co-op now sells the wheat (has a grinder at one of its stores) and I believe there was still one mill (grain mill) in the area for all the bakeries and other wheat buyers.

    Traditionally, co-ops enabled their members to purchase of bulk items, and certainly the best deals on herbs & spices, where you can buy just as much as you need, are found at co-ops--although that's just one example.

    A friend, who lives in a rural area, helped organize an animal feed buying club or group earlier this year. It's had some ups & downs but unquestionably has saved the participants a significant amount of money--and some of that's come from decreased fuel costs. CSAs may work for some people--while on a cross country train ride earlier this year, I read of someone who'd moved back from VT to North Dakota and started a CSA. The costs of the CSA were listed in the article (local paper) and they were not out of reach of many people. Some winter veg were being started in unheated greenhouses. Some CSAs let people pay for part of their share by doing some of the work (which could include marketing), and some seem to include picking your own (w/limits) as a way of saving some money too.

    I think that it's essential to be flexible in thinking about how to make good food easier to obtain: maybe in one large urban area one way will work (abandoned homes that can be cleared, land used for community gardens or eventually urban "farms"), maybe in another school yard gardening is a possibility. I work in a different county 1 day/week, & my commute takes me by a church on several acres of land. The church started offering community garden plots 3 years ago. The land devoted to those plots has tripled since the start.

    Whatever works for those people, for that town, for the region.

    It seems to me that there have been subsidies of one sort or another throughout US history. We had tariffs early in our history, and the federal practice of selling land at low prices (very low) in return for people "staying" on the land for so many years is a kind of subsidy. As is/was the building of the huge dams that brought electrification and very cheap water for irrigation to some parts of the US, even the construction of the Erie Canal (made possible shipping of more food crops from upstate to NYC, & less expensively, etc.). Some of the agriculture in CA and some parts of OR & WA would not exist if it were not for those federal dam & "reclamation" projects.

    The land grant colleges/universities were originally established to assist agriculture (all those "aggie" schools).

    The problem seems to be that too many or most of the existing subsidies have been altered so that they primarily benefit factory farming & monocrop/industrial farming that does not produce "good" food. I believe that the waste products from some types of factory farms (if not all of them, not sure if CAFOs are included in this category) are exempted from the standards of the CWA, for instance. That would be an indirect subsidy.

    Re: small farm slaughterhouse reqm'ts, this is a confusing topic for me. I read Michael Pollan's book--the one in which he spends time w/Mr. Saladin (I believe that's his name). Yet, when I spoke to a person, who's been selling chickens, geese, duck at the local farmers' market for at least 3 years (and last year said they were expanding to sell goatmeat and a few other kinds of meat), she said what Mr. Pollan & Saladin, had reported, had not been her & her husband's experience at all. She had/has found the state (OR in this instance) very helpful, had offered assistance in getting grants (for solar panels for one barn, for building a code slaughterhouse on their own property) and in making sure whatever they built was compliant w/code. Whatever the limit for on site animal slaughter, it was going to be ample for this small farm's goals. And in fact, the two store co-op recently announced that it would be getting all its chickens now from this farm.

    This woman/farmer had been to hear/see Mr. Saladin, and her only comment was that people have different perspectives on what's happening for small farmers.

    I hope this small farm is successful. They welcome visits/school trips from the local schools, and I hope that their getting a contract or whatever from the two store co-op is an indication that their expanded operation will be successful.

  17. Debra says:

    Do you ever wonder what happens to families of foreclosed apartment complexes? In Long Beach, Ca living in a foreclosed apartment complex are women, children and elderly that the city of Long Beach has denied water. They are not squatters, they paid there rent to the owner, they should not be denied water. Isn't this cruel and unusual punishment? Property owned by Wells Fargo Bank now but they wont fight the city, they don't care. The foreclosed on owner owed a large water bill with the city, tenants told by city they had to pay the owners bill in order to get water. Shouldn't Wells Fargo be responsible. Can't anyone help these families. Help by reposting this story everywhere