Pollan packs auditorium: Best-selling author visits college; lectures about U.S. food culture

Photos by Amelia Conte and James Schwendener

We all get three votes a day.

According to Michael Pollan, who lectured in Shafer Auditorium on Thursday evening, changing the food industry is based on everyday personal decisions.

The lecture, entitled “The Sun Food Agenda,” was presented by Pollan, award-winning author of several New York Times best-sellers including “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food.”

“I see my goal as a writer and public speaker as essentially trying to get people to understand the consciousness behind their choices,” Pollan said in an interview Thursday. “I want to show people what’s at stake and how their choices make a difference so they can decide what to do with that information.”

During the lecture, Pollan explained the significance of America’s current food culture. As stated by Pollan, in the U.S., 20 percent of fossil fuels consumed are directed toward the food system, $500 billion a year goes toward treating chronic diseases directly related to diet and one-third of greenhouse gases are a result of the food system. One-third of Americans will get Type 2 Diabetes and there are 76 million cases of food poisoning each year in the U.S. that result in about 5,000 deaths.

Along with all the “bad news,” Pollan offered several positive plans of action.

“There are natural systems where both humans and nature can benefit,” he said during the lecture. “We need a Farm Bill that is really a Food Bill. We need incentives to diversify crops, reduce fossil fuel, and protect soil and water.”

Many of the attendees who filled the auditorium traveled through the lake-effect snow from Pittsburgh or Erie to hear Pollan’s lecture.

One audience member drove to Meadville from Youngstown, Ohio, to meet Pollan, who is one of his personal heroes. Jim Converse, Market Manager of the Northside Farmers’ Market and Regional Shared Use Commercial Kitchen Incubator Planning Committee in Youngstown, lives out the idea of promoting local foods on a daily basis.

“Pollan is one of the many heroes pointing the way to a new future of food,” Converse said. “The Northside Farmers’ Market works to promote our regional economy and healthy local food. Youngstown is greatly reducing its footprint as a city, and we want to continue breeding a new generation of farmers.”

Another audience member traveled to Meadville from North Lima, Ohio, to hear a favorite author at her alma mater. Meagan Zeune is a 2007 graduate of Allegheny College and is now involved in promoting sustainable agriculture as the Program Director of Goodness Grows, an organization that follows many of the same principles laid out in Pollan’s philosophy.

Goodness Grows provides vocational training for farmers, raises awareness about local and world hunger, and strives to help communities grow through regenerative agriculture.

Zeune was especially affected by the statistics Pollan presented throughout his lecture.

“Our generation is going to have to deal with the health problems caused by our food culture,” Zuene said. “We have to take action and speak up. Pollan was right when he was that we have to scream at our politicians and build a movement that is irresistible.”

Pollan promoted a “quality over quantity” philosophy regarding America’s food system. In a culture where healthy food is more expensive because cheap food depends on cheap oil, it is a challenge to win over those who live paycheck-to-paycheck. However, one of Pollan’s main points is that “everyday low prices” have social consequences.

“I really think the next phase is getting food services in institutions to change,” Pollan said. “What’s happening around the country is that students are organizing their own food services, planting gardens and composting.”

Pollan encouraged attendees to use their bodies and minds to protect their local “food shed,” which he compared to a watershed.

“Students can do a lot because this is a very empowering issue,” Pollan said. “They don’t have to wait to graduate. One way students can make a bigger impact is by visiting farms. Learn what their challenges are. Break down that distance and shorten the food chain.”

Pollan also referred to U.S. Representative Kathy Dahlkemper’s current position on the Committee on Agriculture and her potential power as this area’s representative.

“Dahlkemper is in a position to drive change,” Pollan said. “Let her know with your votes that if she takes a progressive stance on agriculture, she will be rewarded.”

To contact Kathy Dahlkemper, visit https://forms.house.gov/dahlkemper/contact-form.shtml.