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Food Detective

Q & A with Michael Pollan

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Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a book that tracks (in often excruciating detail) how food reaches the consumer, was named one of the 10 best books of the year in 2006 by both The New York Times and The Washington Post. Three years later, Pollan, a journalist who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, has released a young readers edition.

Q What inspired you to adapt The Omnivore’s Dilemma for young readers?

A A desire to get middle schoolers to pay more attention to their eating.

If we’re going to change the food system, we have to begin with the population that’s between 10 and 18, where the problem is most severe. People born after 2000 have a 1 in 3 chance of developing type 2 diabetes.

Q Why did you write the book in the first-person and adopt a narrative, storytelling style?

A I’m a surrogate for the reader. I go to places the reader can’t. And a narrative style is entertaining—it turns dry exposition into a kind of adventure. Pleasure is a very important part of this book. I’m not lecturing people; I’m taking them on a journey.

Q When it comes to educating children about their food choices, what roles do schools and parents play?

A School cafeterias serve chicken “McNuggets” and give kids 10 minutes to eat, educating them to be the next generation of fast-food eaters. We need to give kids good food and enough time to eat it, teach them where food comes from, and provide them with opportunities to grow the food in school gardens and cook it in school kitchens. Knowing how to cook is an essential skill. Parents can also get their kids involved in cooking. They need to take back control of their kids’ diets, which has been ceded to food marketers. [Parents] need to be the gatekeepers.

Q What about food production has changed the most since you were about the age of the young readers of this book and what challenges or opportunities do those changes present?

A First, the way we raise animals has changed since the ’60s when I was a boy and animals still grew on farms and ranches. Now they grow on CAFOs—Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. The meat looks the same, the hamburgers look the same, but in fact they come out of a very different system. Some of the animals have even been re-engineered. The result has been a tragedy for the animals, for the environment, and for our health. The challenge is: how do you regulate these places to mitigate their impact, to be more humane to their animals, and—ultimately—how do you close them down? You don’t patronize these places. Vote with your dollars.

The second change is much happier. There has been a birth and rise of organic and a renaissance of local and of pasture-based animals.

Q Can you explain the title The Omnivore’s Dilemma?

It’s a term that has been used to prescribe our predicament as a species. We are designed to eat everything, which is a wonderful opportunity, but also a dilemma. You have to learn what works for you. This is our dilemma: how do we choose between all the choices that we have.

Q In the book you call yourself a “food detective” and ask that children be food detectives too. What do you mean by that?

A The whole project of The Omnivore’s Dilemma started with a very basic question: Where does my food come from? With industrialized food production, so much is hidden from us that you have to become a detective to get to the bottom of it.

Q The book includes some disturbing images, both written and visual, such as a cow with a permanent opening in its side used for research. Could these images be too explicit for young readers?

A I think middle schoolers can handle the images, and I think, like all of us, they should be exposed to them to make better decisions. It’s better to have more information then less. Looking at how your food is produced is not always pretty.