Interview: Mark Bittman on diet, food systems and rethinking Iowa’s food policies

Mark Bittman
Mark Bittman is a food activist and writer for the New York Times — photo via the UI Office of Strategic Communication

Update: Mark Bittman will deliver his lecture, “The Future of Food,” at the Englert Theatre on Wednesday, April 8 at 7:30 p.m.

Mark Bittman, New York Times columnist and author of best-selling cookbooks, was scheduled to speak at the Englert this evening as part of the University of Iowa’s Food for Thought semester. In anticipation of his visit, which was cancelled due to weather conditions, Bittman kindly granted Little Village an interview.

Bittman’s cookbooks act as reference manuals for the kitchen, promising to teach everything one needs to know to cook good food. His latest book, How to Cook Everything Fast, came out in October.

Bittman’s career spans decades, and his expertise on food has ventured onto the importance of a progressive food policy in more recent years.

At this time, there has been no confirmation of rescheduling Bittman’s visit to Iowa City, but the author and journalist has plenty to say in the meantime.

What do you think the most important food issue of 2015 will be?

Well, you know, it’s a tough question, and I’ll tell you why: It’s a tough question because I can say things like we need to develop a sustainable food system, but that doesn’t mean anything. That doesn’t really help us. So I think we have to look at individual action that will help us build towards a more sustainable food system, and we have to look at which of those individual actions is achievable.

And I think having said that — I think there are two things that I think are most important, not because they’re the most important thing in the world (but they’re up there) but because they’re not only important — they’re doable. And then there’s a third thing [I’ll speak to] that talks about what individuals can do.

The two things that I think are achievable and important are one: getting antibiotics out of routine use in animal production. I think that’s the super important thing. And it can be done — it has been done elsewhere — and it would benefit a lot of people without hurting many. So, that’s number one.

Number two: Another important thing is to try to start to restrict the marketing of junk food to children in the United States. And this is key, because as we all know, eating habits are developed when people are young. And it’s much easier to develop good eating habits in the first place than it is to try and change eating habits that have been developed poorly. What we have now is the ability for the people who sell junk food — and junk food is a shortcut word but its not a bad word — we have the ability of people who sell junk food to do it on a kind of unlimited and unrestricted basis.

That means they can be selling junk food to people — to kids who don’t have the ability to make rational decisions, because kids don’t have the ability to make rational decisions. And so, when that changes, then diet among children will change, and then of course diet among adults will change. And we will see big payoffs down the road.

So those are the two things that I think are very important, and also achievable. They’re not the only important things, they’re not the only achievable things, but if they came about, I think they’re the two that are the most valuable to talk about. Again, that doesn’t mean there aren’t others, doesn’t mean there aren’t bigger ones, just means those are the ones to talk about first.


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And then on an individual level: How do we get to those changes? By pressuring government, by lobbying, by getting better representation in Washington, and so on. On an individual level, what needs to happen is that people basically need to eat more plants. It’s pretty much as simple as that.

And I think — I’ve thought about this a lot too — I think if people adopt the mantra that is basically I’m going to eat more plants this week than I did last week and less of everything else, then I’m gonna eat more plants and less of everything else this month than I did this month than last month, and this year than I did last year and resolve to repeat that. That’s the key to changing diets in a positive way.

Thinking about Iowa, it seems like we could adapt a food policy demanding fewer antibiotics. Is there anything else you can think of for Iowa specifically that we should do to improve our future?

Well, you know, it’s silly to say Iowa should not be so focused on corn and soybeans, because who’s gonna make that happen? I’m not gonna make that happen and you’re not gonna make it happen, so who’s gonna make it happen? I don’t know the answer to that. I can say it’s likely that in 20 to 50 years from now, or maybe even sooner, farmers in Iowa will be growing less corn and soybeans, but…it’s not gonna happen this year.

Is there anything else about a national food policy that you want to add?

I think I would add that it would be a great thing for this country if we were to say every citizen or every resident has a right to affordable, green, just nutritious food. We don’t have that in this country, and if we did, we’d have a better food policy.

I’m going to switch to college students since this is a college town. The cafeterias and dorms don’t look like they used to. We now get meals that you find in restaurants and delis. What should college students eat? What should they consider when choosing their next meal?

I think an interesting thing would be to ask, or another interesting thing would be to ask what should college students do? And the answer to that might be: Look at dining services, and ask can we do a better job in procurement. Can we do a better job in making sure that the meat in dining services is serving wasn’t raised on antibiotics, can we work for more local food? What kind of demands can our procurers make with our suppliers? That’s an interesting question for college students to ask I think.

You have a new book coming out in May, A Bone to Pick, is that right? Can you tell us what we have to look forward to in that book?

I have a compendium of opinion columns coming out in May then a compendium of magazine columns coming out next fall. So, a lot of the work that I’ve done for the Times [over the years] is going to be published in book form, which is totally cool.

Yes, I agree.

And I’m working on How to Bake Everything, but that is way down the road. Way down the road.

I did pick up How to Cook Everything Fast, and you have a great section on staples for the fridge and freezer. If you had to pick, what five foods would you put on a budget friendly grocery list?

I don’t like that question and here’s why: I don’t think five foods is the right amount. I think people should be buying food for their pantry routinely, and should be making sure their pantry is well stocked…And, a well stocked pantry should not have five items in it, it should have 50 or 150 items in it.

People can afford to do that. Most pantry items keep for a long, long time and people can afford to do that and they can do that gradually, and over a period of time. You know, it’s more like five items a week. Or, I mean if you have plenty of money you could do 50 items at once, but for many people it will be five items a week, which is fine. The list is, you know, the list is there. Not saying everybody has to buy the book, but I can’t recite it.

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