Friday, February 11, 2011

The [Real] Kings' Speech

On Wednesday night, something great happened!

Michael Pollan, the journalist and author of such acclaimed books such as The Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food and Food Rules, along with Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) shared the stage, and I got to see it. FOR FREE!!!

I was so giddy walking onto the USC campus (University of Southern California), I felt like a kid again.

Alex was starving after a long work day so we stopped into a little coffee house/food shack near the quad.

Since embarking on our 21 day cleanse together, we've become no strangers to the difficult task of finding something quick and easy to eat on the run. But throw a college campus' selection into the mix and it turns out to be nearly impossible!

Walking into Trojan Grounds, I was slightly horrified by the lackluster array of edible goods offered to all the young, fresh, developing minds that fill the store every day. 

Not only did this canteen have every coffee drink and flavored syrup imaginable, they also had whole cakes for the taking displayed prominently in the case by the register. Finish a test you'd been studying for for a week? Why not reward yourself with a honkin' piece of chocolate cake for lunch? (hey, this really happened to me people)

When we moseyed on back into the "market" section of the establishment, more junk food awaited us. Candy bars galore; a larger selection of Pepperidge Farm cookies than I've seen at some grocery stores; beef jerky; ramen of every flavor; sodas of all shapes and sizes; sugary "water" beverages and personal sized cereal containers with cartoons gracing the colorful labels.

So far, Alex's snack options were looking pret-ty dismal.

With my eyes voraciously peeled, I finally noticed in the deep, dark far reaches of the snack section, a little area devoted to KIND bars. Sure, the boxes carrying the gluten free, sweet goodies had been knocked down and obscurred from view (looks like too many people were grabbing for the beef jerky), but they were there and I was happy.

He ended up leaving with a giant cup of (non-organic) sliced fruit and a coconut and almond KIND bar to snack on while we waited in the standby line.

As we rounded a well manicured corner, the theatre came into view and I was shocked at the number of people waiting out front. Students and all types of people from the community flooded the area around the front doors. How exciting to see so many people coming out in hopes of hearing these great thinkers and front-runners of the modern food movement speak!

Now the only problem was getting in.

Luckily, my dear friend Casey is a student and was able to procure one ticket for us. But the other- well, that would take some hustlin'.

To spare you the gory details, Alex employed the same skills I remember him using on one of our first dates when he so seamlessly got us past a line of 20 eager (and belligerently drunk) people at a popular live music venue by swindling our way in. Luckily, he was able to work his unique magic at the Pollan/Schlosser talk, bypassing an 800 person wait list to wind up with a precious ticket in hand.

Next thing you know, we're perched upon the best seats in the house.

The moderator of the discussion was one of my favorite local public radio personalities, Evan Kleiman. She hosts a show on LA's public radio affiliate KCRW called Good Food every Saturday morning.

They keep an archives of the show on their website and if you're in need of a quick pick-me-up at work or on the drive home, I highly recommend it:

Once the speakers hit the stage and introductions had been given, the conversation got underway and I was absolutely glued- eyes and ears- for all 2 hours of it.

Much of what they talked about I'd heard at least a murmur of before, but they also divulged a number of things that literally made me gasp out loud. Facts like...
  • 40% of all US grocery sales occur at Wal-Marts across the country. (Talk about a corporation having total control over our food)
  • A mere 12-14% of all food grown in this country is actually eaten by humans. 70% (what?!?) goes to livestock feed and the remainder is thrown out.
  • 27% of all military recruits are rejected due to obesity. It's becoming so bad that the Department of Defense has taken to lowering their physical standards. Great.
  • Legislation has just been passed to allow the unrestricted sale of genetically-modified alfalfa seeds in the US. Like Pollan pointed out, "Why does this matter to us? Who eats alfalfa on the regular?" Turns out, alfalfa is a grass eaten by much of the livestock raised for consumption in this country, which means any GMO present in their food will be passed onto us- either through the dairy products made from their milk or the flesh in our tacos. How politicians can still allow laws like this to fly is BEYOND me.
  • Spent hens- those poor female birds who've been doped up beyond recognition and made to lay eggs until they literally collapse- are in such bad shape that even fast food chains refuse to buy them. What a relief, right? Wrong. The companies who end up buying this abysmal cheap "meat" are the very ones feeding America's public school-going children in the cafeteria. Looks like there's never been a stronger argument for brown bagging it.
While the three touched on many depressing, unfortunate truths regarding food policy in the US and around the world, they also talked about hopeful aspects of the future.

For one, the food movement is starting to pick up speed- the packed audience and outrageous waitlist is a prime example. Pollan pointed out that the media seems to be picking up the story more rampantly than the people/voters- which is all fine and good, but, he warned, change will only happen beyond the flashbulbs and NY Times headlines.

As we made our way out of the theatre (herded much like cattle, funny enough), the entire audience was abuzz with what they'd heard and discovered in the previous two hours. Alex and I even struck up a conversation with a stranger about her eating habits and decision to stop eating meat after seeing Food, Inc (just like me!).

This whole experience showed me that if we as concerned citizens unite by boycotting the disgusting companies that are literally killing Americans by the thousands with their products and take the time to write our local government officials, we can make a difference. Like Eric Schlosser said, most politicians he's encountered aren't going to do anything until they see it will effect the number of votes they get come election day. Foodies unite. There is strength in numbers!

And the good news: I think we caught a fresh one the other night ;)

I'd like to hear from you! Do you remember your eating habits while in college? Or maybe you're in school right now and livin' it! How difficult was/is it to maintain a healthy lifestyle when faced with campus canteens overflowing with caffeine, sugar and junk?

I know I lived off coffee, pastries and questionable cafeteria food all four years myself...


  1. hey!, tea, coffee, tea....i had to study soooo hard and it was required!

  2. Making better personal food choices IS the first step in transforming our broken food system, but as you witnessed in the school convenience store, it is difficult to make good choices due to the choices of others who comprise the entire food chain. Obviously, we have to respect the dietary choices of others, but there are ways to reform those choices so that they are healthier, just and sustainable. The key is taking the time to think about the journey made by the morsels you put in your mouth! Food, Inc. is a good primer to start with. So is David Korten's Yes! blog:

  3. Hello Madeleine,

    Mr. Pollan was one of my professors at UC Berkeley. And yes he is as great as he seems.

    I wanted to find out if you would be interested in attending a great health/food/beauty demo coming up at Whole Foods in a couple weeks. Please email me if you are interested in finding out more: nicole {at} m80im {dot} com

  4. I was one of the "lucky" ones because instead of a dorm, I lived in on-campus apartments (meaning - we had a full kitchen, not just a microwave!) Even so, I found it hard to eat right. It was the first time I was planning my own menu & I often went for what tasted good, not necessarily what was good for me. Plus, lots of late nights, drinking, etc. - I was pretty neglectful of myself! But, I had a good time & I learned a lot so I think it was a time-period that needed to happen in my life.