An interview with our visiting professor Marion Nestle
Marion Nestle is Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health, Emerita, at New York University. She is also a Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell.
She has been awarded honorary degrees from Transylvania University in Kentucky and from the City University of New York’s Macaulay Honors College. Her previous faculty positions were at Brandeis University and the UCSF School of Medicine.
Her research examines scientific and socioeconomic influences on food choice, obesity, and food safety, emphasizing the role of food marketing.
The list of her honors is very significant, as well as her commitment in consumer activism.
She is the author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, Eat, Drink, Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics, Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning).
First time lecturing in Pollenzo’s Master of Gastronomy: World Food Cultures and Mobility, professor Nestle answered straightforwardly to our questions on food systems and food activism.
This is an inspiring excerpt of our conversation.
Professor Nestle could you please define what food systems are and what food system policy is?
Food systems are sometimes very simple or sometimes very complicated to talk about it.
At the simplest level they refer to everything that happens to a food from production, to distribution, to marketing, to consumption, to dealing with foodways.
It’s just a whole cycle of food production, marketing and consumption. It’s important because what gets produced is what people eat and what people eat is very important for their health.
What are the major problems in the food systems today?
There are three enormous food system problems in the world today.
The first is the nearly billion people in the world who don’t have enough food to eat on a daily basis.
The second, ironically, is the nearly 2 billion people who are eating so much of the wrong kind of food that they are at risk for diabetes, for heart disease and for other chronic diseases.
And then, for everyone in the world, is the effect of our agriculture production system and greenhouse gas production on climate change.
These are the enormous problems that need to be addressed by everyone.
What are the methods used by food advocates to improve food systems today?
Food advocates have been extraordinarily effective in changing food systems because advocates have two ways of dealing with the food systems.
One is voting with their forks, if you choose not to buy a particular food, you are sending a message to the producer of that food that you want change.
The second way is through the political system, if you advocate politically for changes in the food system that will promote healthier and more sustainable eating, you are going to have a great effect on a larger number of people as well as on the food system itself.
This is your first time teaching at the University of Gastronomic Sciences: what are you bringing to our students? What lessons can they learn?
I’m teaching “Food systems policy and politics” and I don’t know how much they’ve had before on this subject. First of all food is political and if they going to be involved in anything that has to do with the food system and they want to make it better for health and the environment, they have to engage in politics. They should be effective if they want to succeed and they have to be personally involved. Students have to understand the political context of whatever they are doing and also have some sense of urgency about how to change the system.
What is a gastronome in your opinion?
Somebody who knows and cares about food and wants a better food system for everybody. It always has connections with politics.
Doing politics at a local level, you are dealing just with people and with your communities. If you are in a position to try to help people eat more healthily and sustainably, then that’s politics and maybe it doesn’t feel so overwhelming or complicated or dirty.
How do you see the University of Gastronomic Sciences in the food studies international landscape?
I think it’s important because it is the only university devoted exclusively to the study of food and it brings in people from all over the world. It’s also the center of the development of Slow Food, which has as its mission to try to bring the message of Slow Food to as many places in the world as possible.
And it’s not just about good eating, but it is much more than that. We’re talking about sustainability in the food systems, something that goes way beyond the taste of food.
Could you give some advice to those students who want to make a change?
We have to begin from the grassroots. Given so many different countries represented here, the political situation in every country is different, and sometimes it seems impossible to deal with the national context. So there are things that can be done at a local level and can make a very big difference in people’s lives.
Consumer movements are having an enormous effect on food companies. Every food company recognizes that there is pressure on it to be more sustainable, more natural, to have fewer synthetic additives, to stop marketing to children and to low-income minorities in an inappropriate way. They are very much aware of this. They now recognize that they have some responsibility for public health, this is new, but they all recognize it.
This is the result of consumer advocacy, it has been very powerful.
All you have to do is to stop buying a product. And you send a very powerful message.
Alessandra Abbona, UNISG Communications Office