Michele Simon: Cracking the Politics of Food

29 Jan, 2012

Michele Simon has made it her life’s work to dive in and fully confront the sometimes complex political issues behind the food system—and to make it possible for those attempting to bring about sustainable changes to survive and create a difference in this arena. A public health attorney, she has taught Health Policy at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, and is a frequent lecturer on corporate tactics and policy solutions. She has written extensively on the politics of food, and in 2006 published her first book, Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back.

Michele SimonLike many of us, Simon didn’t become fully aware of these issues until she researched them herself. “I’m a public health lawyer, which means I have both a master’s in public health and a law degree,” Simon told Organic Connections. “But I didn’t really get interested in food until after I graduated from law school. I made some personal changes in my diet and started reading all about the powerful impacts of our diets, not only on our health, but on the environment, on animals, and on almost every aspect of society.

“That led me down the path of exploring the policy and political aspects of our food supply. I actually discovered Marion Nestle’s work in the late nineties, before her book Food Politics came out. That’s what really inspired me to pursue this idea that politics has something to do with how we eat and the information we learn about our food.”

Simon also fights for better policy on alcohol sale and consumption. For more than four years she served as research and policy director for Marin Institute (now Alcohol Justice), an alcohol industry watchdog group. Her groundbreaking 2007 report on alcoholic energy drinks led to a federal ban on these dangerous products. “Alcohol is the number one drug of choice among youth, and underage drinking remains a huge public health disaster,” Simon said. “Similarly, adult overconsumption is the third leading cause of death in America. The policy levers in alcohol are actually similar to tobacco and food. In the case of alcohol, they are to make prices higher so that we discourage overconsumption, to limit availability so as to not have a bar on every corner, and also to limit advertising.”

Simon’s goal in the food realm is to expose the industry’s machinations, for the benefit of those attempting to fight it. “I’d say my mission is to get underneath the headlines that we see about food industry promises, pledges and commitments and really explain the context for what’s going on,” she continued. “I tend to focus on the consumer end of the food supply, so—looking at the actions of major food companies like Kraft, McDonald’s, PepsiCo and General Mills—what they’re doing, how they’re claiming to be part of the solution, how they’re really undermining public health, despite their claims to the contrary, and then how that plays out in the political arena.”

To that end, Simon founded Eat Drink Politics. “It’s a consulting business that I started with the recognition that there isn’t really enough emphasis on identifying who these major lobbying players are and how they operate,” she said. “Since I also spent several years working in alcohol policy, Eat Drink Politics is a way to bring together my expertise in both food and alcohol policy, because these are really neighboring issues. No matter what big industry you’re looking at, the tactics are very similar. So it’s a means for me to help nonprofits, advocates, government officials—whoever needs assistance in taking on these major industries and lobbyists—understand who they’re up against and how they operate.”

For anyone attempting policy change, Simon points to the vital importance of the age-old adage “Know your enemy.” “I don’t have the magic formula, but the first step is to acknowledge that there is a problem. Too often, groups go blindly in to try to get a policy passed without doing an assessment of what to expect and how many resources are going to be needed to get the job done.

“It takes a real commitment, and it takes analysis of the opposition. No politician goes into any race—whether it’s at the local level or right up to president—without doing an analysis of the opposition. Yet we have too many people in food policy who aren’t bothering to think about that: who on the other end is going to oppose this; what do they need to anticipate; what kind of resources are they going to need to make sure they’re ready for what could be a very heavy onslaught of opposition?”

While it can be a tough battle, Simon grants credence to the fact that the government itself has its hands tied. “The federal government is mostly doing what it can, given the severe limitations that the political system places on it,” she said. “It’s not like the president can just wave a magic wand. There’s something called Congress, and then there’s something called the food industry that has huge political power. That is not Obama’s fault—that is the fault of our very messed-up political system. At the end of the day, that system is what we need to fix.”

Another predominant factor in this battle is, of course, the media. Most mainstream media will not touch many of the issues relevant to changing our food system. For this reason Simon is thankful for the numerous channels that have risen up through the proliferation of the Internet. “The good news is, these days there are all kinds of alternative methods of information sharing,” Simon observed. “While we might not be hearing on the nightly news about what’s going on with Monsanto, we do have good outlets online.

“It’s definitely more challenging to reach mainstream America this way, but we don’t need to reach everyone to get things done. I’ve heard it said that if we changed 10 percent of the people’s minds, we could actually move the ball forward. So I’m not as concerned about getting information out to everyone; I’m more concerned about getting it out to enough people, and enough of the right people. That would mean policymakers and even people who are already working on these issues. Helping those who are already working on these issues to connect the dots and broaden their work is, I think, something we can do through many different channels.”

Simon urges individuals to become involved on a policy level. “There is no shortage of projects to get involved with, and I always tell people, ‘Just find one,’ she said. “In your neighborhood, there is bound to be some way to get involved with improving the food system, whether it’s through upgrading food in your child’s school district, or through some local effort to provide better access to fresh fruits and vegetables, or at the state level to improve policy there, or of course any number of ways to work at the federal level.”

Simon’s final word is optimistic. “I’m hopeful because there is a growing awareness that things are pretty messed up and we need to fix them,” she concluded. “I’m grateful for various media outlets like Organic Connections that are helping to get the word out there. It’s great to see new groups that are jumping on the food policy bandwagon, new foundations that realize this is a hot topic they want to get involved with. And, mostly, I’m encouraged by the passion of people on the ground who are working on these issues all over the country.”

To find out about Michele’s organization Eat Drink Politics, visit www.eatdrinkpolitics.com.

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