You are what you hold policy forums to discuss

A liberal thinktank tries to get Washington to turn its attention to food issues.

By Mike Madden
Published May 18, 2009 7:27PM (EDT)

WASHINGTON -- The usual rule is, never talk politics at the dinner table. Which may be why the Center for American Progress scheduled their forum about food policy today for lunchtime.

Actually, the event wasn't necessarily supposed to be about politics, at least not in any great detail. The liberal thinktank brought in New York Times food writer Mark Bittman and D.C. chef José Andrés to talk broadly about how Americans could lose some weight, slim down their carbon footprint and generally live better by eating better -- fewer calories from factory-farmed meat and elaborately processed corn products, more from whole grains, plants, and other actual foods.

But Washington being Washington, you can't hold a public gathering without a policy symposium breaking out. So it wasn't that surprising when, a few minutes into the gathering, Andrés spotted the new White House assistant chef, Sam Kass -- who also coordinates First Lady Michelle Obama's initiative to get people eating better, including the organic garden at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue -- sitting in the front row. "We are seeing signs that the White House wants to put someone, this chef, to start talking about food in a meaningful way," said Andrés, who can occasionally let his enthusiasm get in the way of his syntax. "The garden they planted is the first stone to a bigger food conversation."

Neither the chef nor the cookbook author made any specific policy prescriptions during their talk. (Bittman, actually, refrained from answering questions about some food policy issues, saying it wasn't his area of expertise.) Both agreed that people can do plenty on their own to eat better food without needing the government to change any rules, and that it doesn't have to involve expensive trips to the farmers' market. "The first choice is not between the organic cheeseburger, or the local cheeseburger, and the McDonald's cheeseburger," Bittman said. "The first choice is between the cheeseburger and the apple, or the cheeseburger and the rice and beans. And anyone can make the choice to eat better food; anyone can make the choice to eat more grains, more vegetables, more fruits, more legumes, more nuts... Intrinsically, those things are not more expensive than processed food, junk food and meat." He chided the burgeoning "food movement" for obsessing about local and organic food and getting pigeonholed easily as a result. "We all know that local food is desirable and very cool, but we also know that it can be more expensive," Bittman said. "The problem [with] the so-called 'food movement,' which is very, very young and very immature... is that it's being perceived as elitist." (Never mind that Bittman's employer and the TV network that just sent him around Spain to shoot a show often have the same perception problem.)

Andrés, meanwhile, lamented the very fact that the talk was even necessary. "I'm trying to remember when we had to start putting the word 'health' next to 'food'," he said. "Food is food, and food should be only one way -- good. And everything else shouldn't be supported by anyone, not individuals, not governments." The Spanish-born chef, who's on the board of D.C. Central Kitchen, a local food bank that also helps train homeless Washingtonians for food service jobs, said the goal of policy should be for anyone -- regardless of income -- to have access to good food. "I love [farmers'] markets, I love to meet the farmers; we buy a lot, as much as we can, every day more for my restaurants... but I can never forget that there are people that cannot go to those markets because simply they cannot afford it," he said. "Everyone should have the right -- and this is not socialism, this is only common sense -- everyone should have the right to have a plate of food that is decent every day of their lives." (Just don't tell The National Review that.)

Whether the government is paying much attention to talks like this remains to be seen. Kass, and the White House garden project, have gotten some buzz for the Obamas' efforts to make an example by eating better food and home cooking. (After the talk, Kass told me the White House kitchen staff is already using produce from the garden in catering for the First Family and for events.) But some food policy experts criticized Obama's attempt to reform crop subsidies as half-hearted, and given everything else the administration has on its, er, plate, overhauling the way the U.S. food supply chain works probably won't be a top priority any time soon.

Finally, in full disclosure, I should probably point out that the Center for American Progress had advertised that "a light lunch" would be provided for anyone who came to listen to the talk. That's fairly common at thinktank presentations; it usually means a sad, Saran-wrapped turkey sandwich and some chips, so I was planning on skipping the food and getting something later. For this event, though, it turned out Andrés had brought over boxed lunches from Jaleo, his tapas restaurant. They included anchovy-stuffed olives, little slices of chorizo wrapped in potato chips (which may have been one reason why Andrés said he didn't want the government mandating calorie labeling at all restaurants), some Spanish ham and cheeses, sauteed peppers, a little tin of white asparagus and a half-sandwich of tomato and cheese. (Yes, it was good. Yes, you'll just have to believe me when I say I would have written this up the same way without the food.)

Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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