Thursday, May 21, 2009

Ordinary Hero: Marion Nestle

Ordinary Heroes Award BadgeIf The Personal is Political,* there is little more personal than the food we eat. Yet Americans entrust our food supply almost entirely to big (really big) business. Wholesome, bucolic images of rosy-cheeked farmers jauntily pitching hay while black and white cows graze amiably in green pastures blaze from our television screens, magazines, newspapers and yes, on our blogs and web pages, but the truth about the food we eat is seldom close to these pastoral images.

Marion Nestle (pronounced Ness-ul) has been working to pluck the wool from our collective eyes since 1976. Food is political, she says, and if we are to protect our own health and the health of future generations, we need to get this and vote with our dollars every time we push a cart through the aisles of our local supermarket.

Her three books, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition, and Health,Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorismand What to Eatare more than enough to win her the Ordinary Hero award, but it's something she did last week that brought her to focus today.

She had been nominated to the Smart Choices board of directors. Smart Choices is going to put a zippy little green check mark on the packages of food that meet its criteria for healthy, wholesome food. They'll also tell us how many calories are in a serving of that food and how many servings are in the package. Sounds cool, huh? This might seem a prestigious and appropriate post for a woman whose entire adult life has been in the service of working to assure our food supply is safe and as healthy as possible.

Marion Nestle declined the nomination. She declined the nomination because Smart Choices "is a food industry-initiated plan to put a check mark--a stamp of approval--on processed food products that meet certain nutritional criteria," criteria that, upon scrutiny, she felt, did not provide the reassurance promised in that little green check mark.

The studies that food producers support tend to minimize health concerns associated with their products.

U.S. News and World in interview with
Marion Nestle and David Ludwig

To understand better why Marion Nestle doesn't trust that green check mark, check out 10 Things the Food Industry Doesn't Want You to Know, including item 2: "The studies that food producers support tend to minimize health concerns associated with their products."

Dr. Nestle places the blame for America's obesity epidemic squarely on the shoulders of Wall Street and its demand that corporations show ever increasing quarterly returns. She makes a fair and lively case for it in this video titled Food Politics filmed at the Alworth Center for Peace and Justice. Dr. Nestle doesn't take the podium until around four minutes in, and the visual is fairly monotonous, so I recommend that you grab a cuppa and a biscuit and sit down with a jigsaw puzzle or your favorite mindless computer game while you listen. She's definitely worth your time and I guarantee you'll come away with something interesting for the water cooler tomorrow.

For a lifetime of watching out for the quality and safety of our food, for standing up to the corporate giants again and again and again, and for teaching us how to find safe, healthy food (see How to Find Green Fish, How to Buy Organic Milk, How to Buy Green Produce), and in doing so, helping us all get a little closer to the world of the Village of Ordinary, the Ordinary Heroes award is kindly offered to Marion Nestle.

Learn more about Marion Nestle on her web site and keep up to date on the latest at the intersection of food and politics on her blog.

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Thanks to Tweep @AmiraElgan for introducing me to Marion Nestle through her May 12 tweet "HERO ALERT: Nutrition professor tells why she declined nutrition society's nomination to head a prestigious program."

*With a bow and a nod to Carol Hanisch, Shulie Firestone, Anne Koedt and Kathie Sarachild.


  1. I'll definitely have to come back and watch this video when I know that I have time.

    We're trying so hard to produce a healthy product on our grass farm. The funny thing is that it's not really that hard to produce it, the hard part is SELLING it! The government just doesn't make it easy for small farmers and ranchers like us to put our grass fed, hormone free, chemical free, antibiotic free product on the market.


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