A plate full of issues: Food expert tries to raise consciousness about what we eat

Food editor and writer Ruth Reichl was in Pittsburgh last week to speak to the National Conference of Editorial Writers' annual convention about the nation's food supply.
By Mackenzie Carpenter
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Every month, Ruth Reichl's face beams out from a photo in Gourmet Magazine, a glowing symbol of the good life.

She's everywhere, it seems: in advertisements inviting readers to special wine-and-food weekends at the Gourmet Institute in Manhattan; on PBS, where her new show on worldwide food trends debuts next month; and, possibly, on the Fox Network, with which she's discussing a possible series based on her best-selling memoirs.

But last week, when Ms. Reichl interrupted the last frantic days of "closing" Gourmet's Thanksgiving issue to fly to Pittsburgh for the National Conference of Editorial Writers' annual convention, it was for a much more serious purpose: to sound the alarm about the possible failure of the nation's food supply to a roomful of journalists with the power to spread the word quickly.

First things first: there is a Pittsburgh connection, as always. Ms. Reichl's half-brother, Robert Half -- "I always loved that he had that last name," she laughed -- grew up in Pittsburgh and went to Shady Side Academy. Ms. Reichl visited the city often as a girl but has proclaimed herself in print as a confirmed Manhattanite.

Ruth Reichl is against two bills currently making their way through Congress: the National Food Uniformity Bill and the 2007 Farm Bill.
Click photo for larger image.

And indeed, she politely declined a plate of pierogies and kielbasa offered to her at the editorial writers' convention, saying she didn't like to eat before a speech.

While much of her life today is spent eating and writing about fabulous food, the subject "is too important to be relegated to a sweet, mindless food section," Ms. Reichl told her audience.

She should know: As food editor of the Los Angeles Times in 1990, Ms. Reichl got into trouble with her bosses after assigning a reporter to follow a mother on welfare and examine how she fed her family on $200 a month in food stamps.

That week's food edition featured a large photo of the welfare mother on the front page, prompting the paper's editor, Shelby Coffey, to storm into her department.

"He was furious," she said. " 'This,' he said, pointing to the Food section heading, 'is not that,' pointing to a picture of the woman below. He asked me what the hell I thought I was doing, and I told him if you want the section to be about ham with Coca-Cola recipes, hire someone else."

A year later, she felt vindicated when Mr. Coffey told her the food section was the most important part of the paper. It also confirmed her conviction that food coverage "very much belongs on the editorial pages of our newspapers."

While readers can't do much about the war in Iraq or health care costs, "everyone eats," said Ms. Reichl. Eating and shopping habits are something "readers do have the power to change."

That's where writers come in, she said: They can delineate the link between food and global warming, food and energy costs, food and health, food and animal welfare, food and world trade. Even one sentence in a book that sells, perhaps, 100,000 copies can change the way a large grocer does business, Ms. Reichl pointed out.

When Michael Pollan, author of this summer's bestseller "The Omnivore's Dilemma," criticized Whole Foods' CEO John P. Mackey for importing out-of-season asparagus from halfway around the world instead of locally grown produce -- a more energy-efficient and environmentally sound practice -- Mr. Mackey decided, after a much-publicized Internet debate with Mr. Pollan, to start supporting local farmers in his stores.

The number of food-related challenges is daunting, however, and most of them can be found on our nation's farms, which have evolved from smaller, family-owned enterprises to vast corporate-owned entities, Ms. Reichl said.

On a visit to a friend in drought-plagued South Dakota this summer, Ms. Reichl learned he was selling his ranch and "getting out," like so many family farmers under pressure from developers and agribusiness interests. Suicide rates are climbing in rural areas and have been linked to the difficulties of making a living on the family farm.

Then there are questions about the safety of genetically modified crops, which may contribute to narrowing biodiversity and encourage herbicide-resistant "superweeds" and the risks in eating food containing insecticides and foreign genes, she said. Farm fertilizer runoff from factory farms pollutes lakes and rivers. Biofuels made from crops may sound like a promising alternative to fossil fuels, but many small farmers suspect they're a Trojan Horse for agribusiness interests that want to establish massive cooperatives growing Brazilian switchgrass and sugar cane to make biofuels while pushing out crops grown for food.

Meanwhile, fast food companies are strenuously marketing their burgers and fries to children, and school lunch programs provide "honey baked ham, which has no honey in it, isn't ham and was never baked," Ms. Reichl noted.

Then there's the ubiquity of added sugars in everything from Wishbone Ranch Dressing to Campbell's Tomato Soup.

While the U.S. Department of Agriculture is in charge of the federally funded school lunch program, Ms. Reichl says that it should be moved to the Department of Health and Human Services, so that food is regarded not as a commodity but as a tool in protecting children's health.

And even as more and more people are eating fish because of its health benefits, with worldwide fishing stocks depleted, diners are faced with farm-raised seafood that not only doesn't taste as good as wild-caught fish but also may contribute to environmental degradation. Offshore farms stock thousands of fish in floating ocean pens, creating water pollution and sterile "dead zones" in the ocean. Meanwhile, on land, she said, farmers aren't allowed by the federal government to do their own tests for mad cow disease -- which some want to do to export their meat to Japan and other countries -- because "if they did, that would mean admitting there was a reason to test," she added. The USDA recently scaled back its testing for the disease, claiming too few infected animals exist in the nation's herds to justify the extra expense.

If anything, Ms. Reichl would rather see more coverage of conditions at pig farms -- where animals are jammed into pens and mountains of livestock manure remain untreated -- than the current controversy over foie gras, which has been banned in several cities amid much generated publicity. Foie gras -- French for geese or duck liver -- is produced by force-feeding the animals through a funnel down their throats until their livers expand to at least six times the normal size.

"I'm sorry people are so focused on it," Ms. Reichl said, given that the expensive delicacy is consumed by minuscule numbers of people. Instead, she asked the editorial writers to consider lobbying against two legislative proposals making their way through Congress.

First, there's the National Food Uniformity Bill, which would void all state food laws in favor of federal standards. It sounds reasonable, "but the office overseeing it would be the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, which has lost half its budget since 2003," she said.

Secondly, there's the 2007 Farm Bill, which "may be the single most important piece of legislation impacting our lives," since "it subsidizes the wrong kind of food," such as corn, which is used to produce high-fructose corn syrup, a common sweetener, and milk loaded with hormones and antibiotics.

But how, then, to make the right kind of food -- organic, and locally grown -- affordable?

While the number of greenmarkets, farmers' markets and community-based agricultural groups are growing, efforts by big companies to jump on the organic bandwagon are fraught with complexity. Wal-Mart's recent announcement that it would be selling organic food at 10 percent more than conventional produce is worrisome "because we have yet to find farmers who can grow produce for only 10 percent more without cutting corners."

Thus, the advent of "industrial" organic food, which is not the same as the real thing, she said.

Still, some in the audience were skeptical that eliminating cheap fast food in favor of more expensive organic foodstuffs -- that require more work in the kitchen -- was a truly realistic option for the poor. Ms. Reichl noted that more fast food is being produced on the organic model.

Our tastes are learned, she added. "We don't have to teach the next generation that it's good to eat 3,000 calories in one fat, cholesterol bomb."

Lest her message be construed as too negative, Ms. Reichl said she's been heartened by people's surging interest in how food is grown and distributed.

"Ten years ago I would have never thought people would be talking about food in a serious way, but I'm optimistic it's changing," she said.

"We all need to cut ourselves a little slack. You do the best you can, and not be doctrinaire. What we need to do is figure out how to make the ethic of food work for people who live in cities and lead busy lives."

Today, when Ms. Reichl goes into a dining establishment, she does something she probably would have never dared do in her years as an undercover reviewer at The New York Times, when she donned wigs and thick makeup to disguise her appearance and suffered slights from haughty maitre d's -- but always managed to stick it out until the bill came.

"I never order fish that is not sustainable. And if they offer me Chilean Sea Bass, an endangered species, I'll walk out of the restaurant."

Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.


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