Although Marion Nestle wrote her most recent book, Let’s Ask Marion: What You Need to Know About the Politics of Food, before the COVID-19 pandemic, she ended up writing about its effect after reading the page proofs of the book in April 2020.
As it turns out, COVID-19 was a perfect example of many of the themes of Let’s Ask Marion. Though problems already existed with regard to food systems, Nestle said the pandemic exposed all of the “contradictions and inequities” faced today.
COVID-19 discussion was a relevant constant for Nestle’s Food, Power, and Politics lecture, given virtually on Nov. 12 as part of the Signature Lecture series. The lecture was sponsored by the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies, UGA Libraries and the College of Family and Consumer Sciences.
Food systems, discussed extensively by Nestle, refers to everything that happens to a food from the time it’s grown to its processing, distribution, purchase, preparation and consumption. This thinking is important as it links agriculture to food, nutrition, public health and the environment, she explained.
“The COVID-19 pandemic illustrates flaws in the food system, how important it is to eat healthfully, how important socioeconomic factors are in determining the health, the politics of hunger, what’s happening with low-wage workers in our society and how our government has been captured by corporations,” Nestle said. “And all of this sets an agenda for food advocacy.”
But is there anything good coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic? For some people, maybe.
“There is some evidence that COVID-19 is making millions of Americans healthier,” Nestle said. “Who knew? But a lot of that has to do with the shutdown inspiring people to do their own cooking, not eating out so much. For people who like to cook and are willing to cook the food, cooking at home is probably healthier than what they were getting before.”
However, this is only true for people who can cook, can afford to cook and who have the equipment to cook, Nestle said.
Other research shows that butter is back, and butter sales are booming, for example. Many people were anxious about the most recent election and sought out junk food and alcohol as they watched the election results trickle in, Nestle said. This raises questions like, “What is it that people are eating” and “Are they eating healthfully?”
“I think that dietary advice is very, very simple,” Nestle said. “And it’s so simple that the journalist Michael Pollan can do it in seven words: ‘Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.’”
Although the “not too much” and “mostly plants” are easier concepts for people to grasp, “eat food” is a bit more complex. Food is something that is unprocessed, minimally processed or processed, but not something that’s ultra-processed.
Nestle wrapped up the lecture, before answering a series of questions posed by the audience, by suggesting people look at food insecurity, obesity, environmental problems and COVID-19 as “all part of the same food system problem.”
“Our food system has a lot of flaws,” Nestle said. “Food is very political in every possible way, and it’s critical to do advocacy for healthier and more sustainable food systems.”
Nestle is a consumer advocate, nutritionist and author of six award-winning books, such as Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety and What to Eat. Her research focuses on scientific and socioeconomic effects on food choice, food safety and obesity, coupled with a focus on the role of food marketing.
Nestle is also the Paulette Goddard Professor Emerita of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. Some of Nestle’s recent honors include the John Dewey Award for Distinguished Public Service from Bard College and the Public Health Hero Award from the University of California School of Public Health at Berkeley.