As we think about the state of our food system, it’s easy to dwell on the problems rather than relish the areas in which it has improved. But while there is much work yet to be done on the nutrition and food policy front, we would do well to pause and celebrate the victories—big and small—of recent years.
That’s exactly what two of America’s most influential food activists—Michael Pollan and first lady Michelle Obama—did in separate op-eds this week. For Pollan, whose book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” published in 2006, the last decade has brought about “some remarkable changes,” he writes in the Washington Post. For Obama, who launched the childhood obesity-fighting initiative Let’s Move! in 2010, the last six years have brought about several positive developments. She published an op-ed reflecting on the work that’s been done, and the work ahead, this week at AdWeek.
Jumping off Pollan’s and Obama’s reflections, here are five improvements in food and nutrition in America worth applauding:
1. A greater national consciousness of food origins
“The Omnivore’s Dilemma” sought to answer the question, “where does my food come from?” and over the next 10 years, millions of Americans would begin to engage with that question and make changes in their diets. The vegetable garden the first lady planted on the White House lawn with local students only continued that conversation.
2. We have more nutritious food options
The number of farmer’s markets has exploded in America, increasing 180 percent in the last 10 years to number more than 8,000 today. More specifically, grass-fed meat—like that which was featured on Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in Pollan’s book—was difficult to locate and purchase a decade ago. Today, as Pollan points out, it can be found in many supermarkets. Consumers are responding: Obama says that the sale of kale jumped 50 percent in just four years. Organic sales have more than doubled since 2006, totaling $40 billion annually, according to Pollan.
3. Kids are eating better
Not surprisingly, Obama—who has spent the majority of her time in the White House trying to improve childhood nutrition and physical activity—sees great strides in this area. Much of the improvement has come from education around nutrition and positive messages about food from influential Americans. Pollan adds “more than 4,000 school districts now have farm-to-school programs, a 430 percent increase since 2006, and the percentage of elementary school with gardens has doubled, to 26 percent.” Campaigns like “eat brighter!”—which would use Sesame Street characters to promote fresh fruits and vegetables in 29,000 grocery stores nationwide—are a positive step for continuing this upward trend.
4. There is (slightly) less junk food marketing aimed at kids
Junk food marketing has become a big issue for the first lady, who points to the work celebs like Cam Newton, Jessica Alba, and Steph Curry do with Partnership for a Healthier America to promote good food to millennials. But Obama has also challenged companies to self-regulate the types of foods they market to kids.
5. Farmers are more highly revered
Pollan points out that while farmers used to be the butt of “dumb hick jokes,” today farming is a popular college internship and the number of farmers (in free fall for about a half-century) has finally begun to rise again. Many of the new farmers, as Pollan points out, are young people—an encouraging development, for sure.
Again, much remains to be done. Big food companies still have a stranglehold on many members of Congress and wield great power in influencing policy to their advantage. Kids still grow up seeing a buffet of junk food ads on TV, a problem the first lady has pledged to continue working on. And access to healthy food continues to be a problem for those who need it most.
But progress is progress. Let’s celebrate the steps in the right direction!
Photo credit: Alicia Cho