Q&A with Michele Simon — activist, attorney, badass

From The Ethicurean

It’s always fun to talk with someone who has such a sense of purpose that she doesn’t feel the need to make nice. Michele Simon is one of those people. Let me be clear: Simon, a public health attorney for the Marin Institute, and author of Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back is a lovely individual — friendly, thoughtful, and soft-spoken. But she’s also totally unafraid to speak her mind, consistently skewering Coca-Cola, Kraft, and other companies she feels contribute to the poor health of our children, and our nation.

Recently Simon chatted with me about school food, social justice, and why we all need to get more involved with the politics of food.

Let’s start with school food. What do you think about all of the momentum around school food reform?

It’s great that so many people are focused on school food, because schools are such an obvious place that needs reform. But the problems in schools are just a microcosm of a bigger issue. I think sometimes that gets lost. We have wonderful dedicated groups of advocates pushing for school food reform, and I can point to a number of great efforts that are happening around the country. And we need to remember that school food is a part of a larger broken food system that needs to change.

What would you say that change looks like?

Right now, our entire food system is based on profit and growth. That’s what our government policies support. But our policies could, instead, support a system that’s based on values and democracy, so good food is priced in a way that everyone can afford it. It’s a question of policy; better policy can help ensure that truly healthy and sustainable food is available to everyone.

And you think policy change is feasible at this time in history?

It’s a good question. There’s some very disturbing discourse now about how everything government does is bad. And, that anything government might do to “control” your behavior is bad, so if government makes food policy changes, those must be bad, too. But this argument assumes that government is not already involved in your food choices. It completely ignores the reality that government is already involved with everything you eat. Every single meal, every bite you take is already shaped by policy; it’s just that the policy is in corporate interests, instead of the public interest. Government shouldn’t be obstructing Americans’ ability to eat well; it should be supporting it.

I wrote something recently about how despite all the attention, the problem of obesity continues to grow.  A friend then asked me, flat out, “Why should I even care? If I’m taking care of myself, if I’m eating apples and not Cheetos, why should I even care about someone who makes the reverse choice?” What would be your answer to this person?

One answer could be the health care argument – that we’re all going to pay in the form of higher health care costs. But I don’t leave it at that because I come to this work with an altruistic perspective. I believe we have a moral obligation to make the world better for everyone. As human beings, we’ve always needed to support one another, to live in communities, and so on. I believe that as a society, we have a vested interested in each others’ well being.

But most people aren’t motivated by altruism; that’s just not something our society cultivates. But we don’t need to convince everyone. We don’t need to convince your friend. We simply need to convince enough people to let the policy makers know they have to fix this problem.

Do you think there are enough of those people to make real change?

Yes. There are many, many people who already work on these issues in one way or another — from the dietitian who’s talking to people one-on-one about healthy choices, and getting frustrated when those same individuals leave their office and head straight to McDonalds, to the parent who’s pushing for better food in the school cafeteria, to people who’re handing out “eat 5-a-day” pamphlets.

I want to put a plea out to everyone that’s currently trying to get a salad bar into their school, or a farmers’ market into their community, that it shouldn’t stop with these things. We need political and systemic changes for long-term success.

If everyone who is currently working on their own small fixes actually formed a cohesive political movement, we wouldn’t need to convince your friend why obesity matters to her. We’d have the critical mass to make change without her.

What’s your feeling about Let’s Move, Michelle Obama’s plan to fight childhood obesity?

I think Let’s Move is a start, but honestly it’s been disappointing. Let’s Move highlights the problem, has an extremely visible spokesperson, and the issues the First Lady is talking about are all good and positive. But what’s missing from What’s Move is any effort to address the massive problem of junk food marketing to children. Kids are getting junk food marketed to them every waking moment of their lives. I’ve been disappointed that the First Lady hasn’t talked more about that. The truth is I haven’t seen any movement from any government agency to stop corporations from marketing to kids. The federal interagency workgroup on childhood obesity is planning to set nutrition guidelines on what can be marketed to kids; that’s government saying to industry that it’s okay to market to children, as long as it’s within certain guidelines, which will also be voluntary.

We should just be saying “no marketing to children, period.” Kids younger than age 8 don’t even understand what advertising is. They cannot understand persuasive intent. So let’s not market to them, it’s unethical and probably illegal. That’s why I’ve been opposed to the new baby carrot marketing campaign, or having SpongeBob’s image on a bag of spinach. Kids don’t need cartoon characters to tell them to eat right; they just need corporations to get out of the way and let parents make the decisions they know are best.

You’ve been called anti-business for some of your stances. What’s your response to that?

There’s a long tradition of name-calling by corporate interests, as a way to marginalize their critics. Instead of discussing the issue at hand, just call someone a name so you can cast them aside. I’m not against business, and I’m not anti-capitalism. I am against a corporate-controlled food supply, because the evidence is very clear that it’s not in the public interest. That’s what it comes down to for me: the evidence. There’s no gene for the way I think; I came to my way of thinking based on the evidence that has been presented to me.

And guess what? Small farmers and food companies are businesses, too. The issue isn’t about being anti-business; it’s which businesses do we want to support?

What’s your advice to a parent who wants to start serving up better food, not years from now, after we’ve made all kinds of policy changes, but today?

I used to give talks that tried to steer people toward healthier food choices. But I stopped doing that because I felt it was unethical for me to go around telling people how to eat when individual economic circumstances vary so much. I can walk to the farmers’ market, I live close to good stores, and I can afford to spend more money on the right foods. But I’m not representative of most Americans.

I’d say to those parents who are fortunate enough to be able to afford fresh, healthy food and who can withstand enormous pressures from family and cultural norms: you have a responsibility to feed your kids right, and to help start changing some of our societal norms.  And more than that, you need to get involved; it’s not just about voting with your fork. It’s also about voting with your vote.

And to others who are doing the best you can right now, but feeding your family well is out of reach, I’d say join us in the movement to help make your job easier.

Do you have hope?

[Pause.] I do. I have to, because how else could I continue this work? I think we’ve done a good job educating people about the problem, and keeping food corporations on the defensive. Our next step is to really get political, because educating people is not sufficient. We need to make it easier to access good food, and we need to make it socially acceptable, so people who talk about these issues and who try to eat “healthy” food aren’t treated like outcasts.

And we’ve done it before; as a society, we’ve completely shifted cultural norms around smoking. We’ve successfully made smoking around others uncool. We can do the same thing with food; make eating well the cultural norm. I believe we can do that.