Marion Nestle on Her History With Food Studies and the Future of Food Politics


Look around New York City, and you will see hundreds of this town’s young, hip denizens picking up a bundle of organic kale at their local farmers’ markets while chatting about their rooftop beekeeping operations or basement brewing ventures. And many of those people are taking their hobbies one step further by enrolling in Food Studies programs so that they can dive into these topics in the classroom and expand their investigations of food systems and agriculture.

Marion Nestle, along with food consultant Clark Wolf, jump-started the Food Studies program at New York University in 1996. At the time, cookbook author Paula Wolfert told the New York Times, “I don’t think a course at NYU is going to make any difference” in raising the public awareness of food’s complex contributions to culture, society, and personal nutrition. How wrong she was. Since then, the world of food education has expanded furiously, fueled by young America’s invigorated interest in food.

Professor Nestle has become one of the key voices in food policy, nutrition, and food education in this country, and Food Politics, the book she wrote in 2002, was just re-released for its 10th anniversary. Nestle is also gearing up for the publication of Eat, Drink, Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics in September; the book will feature about 250 political cartoons that deal with the issue of food policy.

We sat down with her to talk about her history in the field, the state of food policy today, and where food activism is heading.

How did you become interested in nutrition?
The quick is answer is I was given a course to teach. I was teaching in a department that had a rule that you could only teach the same class three years in a row. I had been teaching cell and molecular biology, and it was my turn to switch out of that, and students were sitting in the biology department chairman’s office asking for a nutrition course. It was handed to me.

What year was this?
This must’ve been in 1975. This was at Brandeis in Boston. It was a long time ago, so I’ve got a 35-year career in this. And then some.

What drew you in?
I was hooked on the first day. I didn’t know anything about nutrition, but I knew a lot about biology. I just went to the bookstore and bought a whole bunch of nutrition textbooks. I had about eight of them, and I laid them out on a table and opened them all to the page that talked about human nutritional requirements. And they were all different. And that was it. I mean that’s really what did it. They were different. You could not even have textbooks agree on the names of the nutrients that were required in the human diet. The most basic thing about human nutrition wasn’t settled. I thought that was really interesting.

I went to the library and got the book on Recommended Dietary Allowances, which is the Institute of Medicine’s compendium of information on human nutrition requirements. I was trying to understand why these textbooks had different lists. I picked a nutrient at random–it happened to be thiamine–and I read the section in the Recommended Dietary Allowance book about thiamine, and it mentioned several papers that were critical studies.

One of the things they teach you in molecular biology school is to read the original research. So the library was right there, the papers were right there. I pulled the volumes off the shelf and read a study on how the human requirement for thiamine was developed. It was a study that was done on six young women who were incarcerated in a mental institution in the South, and I was kind of stunned by that. First of all, there were six [subjects], and it was in a mental institution, and one of the symptoms of thiamine deficiency is neurological problems and mental illness, so that seemed like a rather strange study population. In the paper they talked about how one of the assays they used for thiamine sufficiency was cooperation with chores around the hospital, and they could tell that [the subjects] were starting to get thiamine deficient when they started getting cranky about doing chores.

Then I picked vitamin C, and I did the same thing. This was a study that was done at a Midwestern prison on six men who were incarcerated. Same study: Put them on a vitamin C deficient diet, looked for symptoms, and during the study, two of the prisoners escaped. And I thought, “This was not a well-controlled clinical trial.” And this is the first day that I was preparing class. I was completely hooked.

I thought, “This is a fantastic way to teach undergraduate biology,” because I’d been teaching cell and molecular biology, which is extremely abstract: You can’t see it, you can’t smell it, you can’t taste it. You can do all those things with food. It was a great class and they were great students and that class formed my thinking about nutrition and really never changed it after that.

Did you grow up in a food-conscious household?
Yes and no. I mean, my mother was an adequate home cook but not very interested in it, and there were a few things she made that were really good. But I had gone to a summer camp that was run by a woman who really knew how to cook. If you were a good camper you could go out into the vegetable garden, and you could pick vegetables for dinner and then she’d cook them into something wonderful. One day, I went out–it was my turn to pick vegetables–and they were string beans, and it was July and it was hot and I put one in my mouth uncooked, and it was totally revelatory. You know, it was crisp, it was hot, and it was absolutely sweet and delicious. I had no idea that string beans tasted like that. I’d never had that experience. As a city girl, the only string beans I’d ever eaten were canned.

How did Food Studies come to be at NYU?
By the early mid-1990s, I had been doing a lot of traveling with a group that brought together academics, food writers, and chefs. I knew there was huge interest in studying food because I heard it from these meetings. So I worked with Clark Wolf, and we proposed a program in Food Studies [at NYU]. There was a lot of hesitation about it because no other university had one in any real academic way. Boston University had a program in gastronomy, but there were no others; there was no precedent. The dean said we could do it as long as we had a plan B. So we had a plan B. Marian Burros in the New York Times wrote about it the week after the state approval came through, and we had people in our office that afternoon saying that they had waited all their lives for this program. We had a class in the fall, and we’ve never not had a class. And now everybody’s doing it.

How do you interpret the growing interest in food studies?
It caught the zeitgeist; I don’t know how else to put it. Or give Michael Pollan credit for it. I’m happy to do that. I meant, I like to think Food Politics had something to do with it. But Michael Pollan certainly had a lot to do with it, because we had people coming in clutching copies of his book and saying, “This is why I’m here. I wanna study this, I wanna do what he does.” Don’t we all?

I think it just caught what’s happening in society, which is that young people don’t have an outlet for creative revolutionary energies, because you can’t do anything about election campaign laws and you can’t get the troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq. You can’t get corporate America out of Congress, but you sure can fix somebody’s food and make a really big difference. You can do something about your own food, you can do something about your neighbor’s food, you can do something about school food, you can do something about institutional food, you can do all that and make a real difference. And you can do it young and see the results, and they’re going to be very quick.

My generation had the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, and the women’s movement. We had all that. We were part of social movements that really made a difference. You could measure those differences in the opportunities for women, in the opportunities for minorities. So there were large masses of young people in my generation who felt like we made a difference, and we did make a difference.

Whereas today, everyone will change their Facebook pictures for marriage equality, but no goes out to the Capitol.
Masses of people are not surrounding the Supreme Court.

Cooking a meal or changing the way that you’re growing the vegetables on your farm, you can see a change, you can watch yourself making the change, and then food studies takes it one step further.
Well, you can eat the results of the change.

The food movement, in my mind, is twofold. There’s the academic side, with people who worry about the environment and want to make a difference in how food is distributed, and then there’s food as style. Like buying a new pair of shoes, we ask if you’ve had the ramen at Momofuku. Do you see that element of food interest affecting the discussions within food studies?
Oh yeah. We do food and culture, and we do production and consumption. That’s part of consumption.

People come to NYU because they want to make it in New York. So it’s the height of cool. But there are a lot of people here who are interested in the academic study of those kinds of fashion and they do it really well …There are people who study chewing gum, there are people who study food photography. There are people studying everything. I mean I was just at dinner last night where people were taking pictures of every dish, I thought it was weird.

Is this reinvigorated interest in food based on the desire to know what’s in our food? Because I feel like the call for “real” food has happened many times before.
Oh, Scott Nearing is one place where it started. But absolutely, it’s not new at all. What’s different about it–and I think it’s really different–is that it used to be just a couple of funny people who were off in the woods doing this thing, and now it’s a movement. So in a sense the real difference is quantitative. There are just so many more people involved in this now.

Where do you think food activism is heading, specifically with young America?
Well I’m teaching a course in food advocacy this semester for the first time, which means that there’s enough interest among the students in our program to go beyond identity into “What can we do to make the world a better place through food?” If I’m reading the tea leaves right, that’s where I think it’s headed.