5 Courses with Marion Nestle

We doubt even the most sleep-deprived student could doze off in Marion Nestle's class. NYU's Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health makes food issues riveting, whether she's describing the parallels between the marketing of cigarettes and that of sugary breakfast cereals or revealing scandalous practices within the pet-food industry. A one-woman truth squad, she began teaching at Brandeis in the '70s and served as a senior nutrition policy advisor in DC in the '80s. Now her many books, articles, and lectures provide immense source material for food activists. And soon she'll be schooling Boston: on Sunday, January 29, Nestle will provide the keynote for the Let's Talk About Food Teach-In on the Farm Bill at the Museum of Science. (For details, visit letstalkaboutfood.com.)

How did you become the food-politics guru? The turning point came at a conference at the National Cancer Institute. Many speakers were physicians with international careers [focused] on smoking and the marketing of cigarettes. They took pictures of cigarette ads everywhere they went, from the jungles of Africa and the highest peaks in Nepal. One of the physicians gave a slideshow on cigarette marketing to children. I turned to the person next to me and said, "We should be doing this for Coca-Cola!" I started collecting slides of all sorts of food marketing to children. That led to my first major mainstream book, Food Politics. And it all began.

And then you wrote the article "Food Marketing and Childhood Obesity - A Matter of Policy." I got tired of going to huge medical meetings about childhood obesity where no one talked about food marketing. So I started talking about it. . . . People are now very aware of the political forces behind food advertising and recognize the public-health consequences of food marketing. Recently, the editor of the medical journal The Lancet, read by vast numbers of influential people every week, wrote a rant on how we know that limiting food advertising has evidence-based impact. He said, essentially, "Get your head out of the sand about food marketing!"

Why didn't we all notice that junk food was marketed to kids just like cigarettes? You aren't supposed to. Good marketing slips below the radar: it's cute, fun, and collectible. You don't think of T-shirts from food or beverage companies as advertising, and you aren't supposed to. Even two-year-olds recognize the mascots.

What got you interested in the Farm Bill? I decided to teach a course on it because I didn't know enough about it - it's the best way to force myself to learn about something. The bill is huge! . . . There isn't anything in American agriculture, farming, and health that this bill doesn't touch, but there is no overarching agenda. The Farm Bill is simply a collection of government-supported programs, each with its own collection of lobbyists, proponents, and opposing forces. You get the sense that everyone said, "Let's just throw this program in." There is nothing rational in the Farm Bill.

Why do we need to learn about the Farm Bill? The elephant in the room in the Farm Bill is food stamps. Forty-five million Americans get food stamps, and it overshadows the amount of money spent on agriculture subsidies by many orders of magnitude. What are they [food stamps] doing in the Farm Bill? Why isn't there a separate food bill? Here's the deal: politicians couldn't get the votes for farm subsidies unless they got votes and support for urban programs. We get a few new programs with millions here and there for fruits and vegetables and farm education. It sounds like a lot, but it's trivial in a [multi-billion-dollar] bill.

Louisa Kasdon can be reached at louisa@louisakasdon.com.