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Mark Bittman, for years a food writer at the New York Times, has inaugurated his new op-ed column at the Times, and did so with a challenge to the US food industry, noting that despite all the advantages of the US food distribution system, “we’ve come to recognize that our diet is unhealthful and unsafe. Many food production workers labor in difficult, even deplorable, conditions, and animals are produced as if they were widgets. It would be hard to devise a more wasteful, damaging, unsustainable system.”

Among the suggestions that Bittman makes in his column:

• “End government subsidies to processed food. We grow more corn for livestock and cars than for humans, and it’s subsidized by more than $3 billion annually; most of it is processed beyond recognition. The story is similar for other crops, including soy: 98 percent of soybean meal becomes livestock feed, while most soybean oil is used in processed foods. Meanwhile, the marketers of the junk food made from these crops receive tax write-offs for the costs of promoting their wares. Total agricultural subsidies in 2009 were around $16 billion, which would pay for a great many of the ideas that follow.”

• “Begin subsidies to those who produce and sell actual food for direct consumption. Small farmers and their employees need to make living wages. Markets — from super- to farmers’ — should be supported when they open in so-called food deserts and when they focus on real food rather than junk food. And, of course, we should immediately increase subsidies for school lunches so we can feed our youth more real food.”

• “Break up the U.S. Department of Agriculture and empower the Food and Drug Administration. Currently, the U.S.D.A. counts among its missions both expanding markets for agricultural products (like corn and soy!) and providing nutrition education. These goals are at odds with each other; you can’t sell garbage while telling people not to eat it, and we need an agency devoted to encouraging sane eating. Meanwhile, the F.D.A. must be given expanded powers to ensure the safety of our food supply. (Food-related deaths are far more common than those resulting from terrorism, yet the F.D.A.’s budget is about one-fifteenth that of Homeland Security.)”

• “Encourage and subsidize home cooking. (Someday soon, I’ll write about my idea for a new Civilian Cooking Corps.) When people cook their own food, they make better choices. When families eat together, they’re more stable. We should provide food education for children (a new form of home ec, anyone?), cooking classes for anyone who wants them and even cooking assistance for those unable to cook for themselves.”

• “Tax the marketing and sale of unhealthful foods. Another budget booster. This isn’t nanny-state paternalism but an accepted role of government: public health. If you support seat-belt, tobacco and alcohol laws, sewer systems and traffic lights, you should support legislation curbing the relentless marketing of soda and other foods that are hazardous to our health — including the sacred cheeseburger and fries.”
KC's View:
People can agree or disagree with some or all of what Bittman writes, but I think it is fair to say that he will be an influential voice in the food debate, with a powerful platform. And do, it is worth paying attention to what he writes, because he will be perceived as a thought leader.

Supermarkets should certainly appreciate his passion for cooking - it falls directly in line with their mission.

In a follow-up posting on his Times blog, Bittman writes:

“My mission here, as I see it, has several aspects: Try to figure out just why things move in the wrong direction; look for examples of positive societal change; and suggest ways in which individuals can make a difference, not only in our own lives but in the bigger picture.

“I have a friend whose slogan is “cooking solves everything.” I don’t think it does, but the point is a valuable one: if you cook, you think about what goes into your mouth; you shop more carefully; you begin to think about where the food you’re shopping for came from, and how it was produced; you begin to think about what you’re throwing out, and how you might use it instead of waste it; and so on.

“But there are powerful forces at work to make sure that we – not only Americans, but citizens of the world – spend as much money as possible on stuff that is barely nutritious and barely recognizable as food. The work here is to counter those forces, to encourage the relatively tiny but all-important trend moved along by those people who want to see real food, produced by agriculture that honors its laborers, its animals, its land, and its consumers, and brings us toward a place – the future – where food nourishes rather than harms.”