Skip to main content

Month: September 2009

Michael Pollan Column in New York Times

Michael Pollan recently wrote an opinion column for the New York Times in response to President Obama’s speech on health care.

In the article, Pollan argues that the biggest problem with health care in the U.S. is not the system itself so much as our poor diet and high rates of obesity.

Pollan states:

Even the most efficient health care system that the administration could hope to
devise would still confront a rising tide of chronic disease linked to diet.
That’s why our success in bringing health care costs under control ultimately
depends on whether Washington can summon the political will to take on and
reform a second, even more powerful industry: the food industry.

Read the entire New York Times opinion column

Biddy Martin on Go Big Read in the Wisconsin State Journal

Biddy Martin Invites you to Sift, Winnow,” begins the title of Chancellor Martin’s editorial on Go Big Read in the Wisconsin State Journal:

“Starting this year, the university is choosing a book annually for a project titled Go Big Read, and asking the community – not only the university community, but also the broader one that extends well beyond the borders of campus – to read it and engage with one another. We are excited about the initiative, which is already under way.” (read the full story here)

In addition to providing the Chancellor’s insights on the program, the piece announces some new events that are being added to Pollan’s visit. The previously announced Kohl Center lecture September 24 at 7 pm (doors at 6 pm, no tickets required) will be followed by post-lecture discussions, including a public discussion in the Great Hall of Memorial Union. There will also be a Friday panel at 3:30 pm in the Union Theater. Stay tuned to the project calendar for further details.

Sarah McDaniel
Go Big Read

Food For Thought: Let’s Start a Book Discussion Online!

Are you unable to attend one of the scheduled book discussions but want to get involved in the conversation?
Want to connect with people from all over the UW campus and the greater Madison community?
Join us in a virtual book discussion on the Food For Thought Posts in the Go Big Read Blog!
Each week, we will be posing a new topic for discussion on the blog, and followers are encouraged to participate by responding in the comment section below each post. Feel free to use and expand on these questions in your own book discussions. Have a great idea for discussion topic? Let us know! Contact the Go Big Read Program at

Food For Thought: Topic for Discussion Week of September 7, 2009

Who is Michael Pollan and why should we listen to him regarding food and nutrition?

Go Big Read Exhibit in Memorial Library

Do you have favorite literary title(s) that celebrate good food and good eating?

An exhibit case on the first floor of Memorial includes some Go-Big-Read-related selections from the UW Madison Libraries. If you have favorite titles, tell so that we can include your suggestions when we expand this exhibit, around September 15, to two or three exhibit cases in the Circulation Desk area.

Jill Rosenshield, Associate Curator
University of Wisconsin–Madison Libraries Special Collections

A Food Chemist’s Perspective on “In Defense of Food”

See Dr. John A. Lucey’s complete commentary posted in the Resources Section of the Web site.

In reading Michael Pollan’s thought-provoking book, I was struck by his mostly negative impressions of food science and food processing. The food scientists that I work with here in this department, in industry and in my classes, are highly creative people that are driven by a passion for food or cooking. Food science serves several critically important functions or roles in our society. Firstly, with the shift in population from rural to urban areas, food science has provided the means to feed consumers who no longer have the opportunity to grow their own crops or tend their own animals, much of the population no longer has the time (or passion) to prepare traditional home-cooked meals each day as more housewives have joined the work force and food science has developed a range of ready to eat meals or food that require less preparation time. Food scientists study how to preserve foods during transport or storage, they study what organisms might grow on these foods and develop methods to destroy those organisms that pose a danger to consumers and they explore how to maintain the quality of the food that the consumer expects. In the US there are 300 million people to feed each and every day and food scientists have played a major role in ensuring that there is sufficient food (although not everyone is able to afford all food choices) and that these products are safe to eat. Food scientists have saved countless lives by developing many technologies and approaches to improving food safety. Food or food-like products (and the industry that produces them) were unfairly blamed by Pollan for our current health problems. The argument that food alone causes these health issues is not a balanced discussion as critical factors like lifestyle and our level of activity were ignored. Anyone that has watched reality programs like The Biggest Loser realizes that reversing excessive weight gain for an individual involves reducing the number of calories consumed, changing their lifestyle, having emotional support, and increasing their level of activity or exercise. Ultimately, it is the consumer that makes the choice on what to eat and how much they are willing to pay for food; blaming the government, nutritionists or food scientists for our purchasing decisions is easy (but unfair) and it also avoids us taking responsibility for our actions. Many individuals fail to stay on a particular diet not because those “healthy” foods suddenly become unavailable but they fail because of factors like not addressing their overall lifestyle and level of activity. To put things very simply, if we consume more calories than we need (and it does not matter to our bodies whether these calories come from carbohydrates or fat), then the body will start to store these extra calories (as fat). We have two choices, consume fewer calories or burn the extra calories by performing some activity/exercise. Unfortunately, when I look around I see more opportunities for individuals to be more sedentary. As a society we have to include this trend towards a sedentary lifestyle in our conversation about our health and wellness. Governmental nutritional policy has for decades recommended eating more fruits and vegetables (5 servings or more per day); unfortunately many people do not follow this advice. The main thing I hope most people took away from reading Michael Pollan’s book was the encouragement to eat more fruits and vegetables. In conclusion, we need to remember that he makes it clear that this book is “his manifesto” or opinions concerning food, with this Go Big Read program we can all share our opinions on this important topic.

Dr John A. Lucey
Department of Food Science
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Book Discussions Planned and More to Come!

This afternoon, I had the pleasure of attending a training for book discussion facilitators. I enjoyed discussing the book with a group of volunteer facilitators that included undergraduates, graduate students, staff, and faculty. Everyone came well prepared and with a great enthusiasm for facilitating community engagement through discussion.

Discussions are open to all and are being offered in the public libraries, campus libraries, dorms, and other locations on and off campus. Discussions continue to be added to the events calendar, and we’re hoping to add more to address the huge interest in the project. Some discussions have special facilitators or topics and tie in to other programming. Several open, community discussions will be held after Pollan’s talk on September 24th. We’ll also be hosting some discussion on the blog each week.

If you’d like to host a book discussion, you are welcome to use the Book Discussion Tool Kit on the web site, which includes suggested questions, guidelines for participants, and selected book reviews. You can also request a trained, volunteer facilitator for your discussion by contacting KT Horning, Co-Chair of the Discussions Planning Committee. Many thanks to all the volunteer facilitators and the members of the Discussions Planning Committee.

Sarah McDaniel, Go Big Read

Book Discussions at Sequoya Library and Senior Center

Madison Public Library’s series of book discussions continues. We’ve learned already via last month’s discussions at Madison libraries that there are certainly a variety of opinions and perspectives on Pollan, science, eating and the state of our food culture. Join us as we continue in that vein.

September’s discussions:

September 17th at 9:30 a.m. at the Madison Senior Center, 330 W. Mifflin St., (266-6581).

Madison Public Librarian Liz Amundson will lead the discussion.

September 17th at 7:00 p.m. at the Sequoya Branch of Madison Public Library, 4340 Tokay Blvd. (266-6385).

Susan Lampert Smith, Science Writer and Senior Lecturer at U.W. and former columnist at the Wisconsin State Journal will lead the discussion. Susan, along with her husband Matt Smith, are the owner of Blue Valley Gardens, a certified organic fruit and vegetable farm located 30 miles

west of Madison.

September 19th at 1:30 p.m. at the South Madison Branch of Madison Public Library, 2222 S. Park St. (266-6395).

South Madison’s librarian will lead the discussion.

Place Matters

If an author calls Berkeley, CA home he may see things differently than say one who calls Hartford, CN home. The questions he asks and the information he shares is in part determined by his place. Last year Mark Winne released a new book, Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty (Beacon Press, 2008). While Winne’s book tells a different tale than does Pollan’s, they describe many of the same institutions and structures, yet their descriptions of these institutions and structures are very different. While my point here is not novel, it has several important implications for food systems. I would like to use the example of a farmers’ market to illustrate my point. For Pollan, a farmers’ market is a place where good food can be bought in season and where we might free ourselves from the western diet (p.14, 157-160), for Winne, a farmers’ market is an oasis in a food desert where cheap food becomes available to the food insecure (p. 37-49). Even an institution as narrowly defined as a farmers’ market can mean many different things, can have very different objectives, and most importantly can have very different impacts. Place matters. This is not a criticism of the authors at all (both amazing), but rather a caution for the reader.
A few years ago, I was selling at the Kirkwood Farmers’ Market in St. Louis, MO. I operated a small farm about an hour or so south of St. Louis and would come in on Saturdays to try to make a living as a farmer (had it worked, I wouldn’t be here writing this). In the market I was selling at, only three of the vendors were actually farmers. That is to say, that all of the other vendors were purchasing their produce from a wholesale outlet/auction and then reselling at a profit. In early spring, when I was bursting with lettuce and radishes, my neighbors were selling green beans and tomatoes. I would often here from the market goers that I had best start planting those things that were selling and even had dozens of folks over one summer ask why I didn’t plant mangos like the other vendors (there are no mangos growing in Missouri!). I tried my best to educate, but I failed. The problem was simply that they had applied a concept out of context. They had read, as we all have, about farmers’ markets and the importance of supporting local farmers, but they were unaware that this market had no restriction on what a vendor could sell or whether a vendor need be a farmer. They had come to believe that they could get year-round tomatoes (and mangos) from local family farmers at their market. Well meaning books and ideas taken out of context by readers and without regard to place can be problematic.

College Library “Food for Thought” display

Many campus and community partners in the Go Big Read program are creating displays or exhibits connected to the themes of this year’s title, In Defense of Food. At College Library, books from our collection related to a variety of food issues are part of a 2nd floor display entitled, Food for Thought. Stop by and browse through these titles, which are available to be checked out as well.

There is certainly a buzz in the air about the book and Michael Pollan’s September 24th lecture. Those of us volunteering for book distribution at the Chancellor’s Convocation on Tuesday were pleased by the response of eager first-year students receiving their copies. Keep checking the Events calendar on the Go Big Read website as more book discussion opportunities are being added.