Jill Richardson was a software nerd who started wondering about food when her old job took her into hospitals where doctors were using her software, putting her alongside cardiac patients. She began to question why so many people were so ill today. McDonald’s existed before. Coca Cola existed before. And people were already biologically programmed to hanker after fat and sweets. What had changed?
Her quest for answers led Richardson to write her first book, “Recipe for America: Why Our Food System is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.” She also blogs about food policy at La Vida Locavore and serves on the board of the nonprofit Organic Consumers Association.
She took time to talk to us about sustainable agriculture and why we should treat the safety of food like the safety of sex.
There have been so many recent books about food (policy). … Where does this book go that the others don’t?
My book is the book I wanted to read three years ago and it didn’t exist. Where the problem came from is really well documented. … I wanted to know, “Well, what do I do to fix it?” And that’s what I couldn’t find. What I could find was what I could personally do with my own diet. I can eat organic. I can go to a farmers market. I can plant a garden. Then the books would just generally say, “The answer needs to be political. You need to fix the system.”
But it didn’t tell you what that looked like.
Yeah. And I was so pumped up. I want to write my senator and tell them to fix it — and I didn’t know what to say in the letter. I didn’t even know if it was timely, what bandwagon I could jump on that was already moving. That is what my book attempts to do. It’s for somebody who is like me — a cross between a political junkie and a foodie, who wants to see better food and who wants to see it done politically.
What was the single most disturbing thing you found in your research?
The Stockholm Syndrome that exists. We’ve got a handful of corporations really controlling what we eat and they’re also controlling the message of how we feel about food, and what we feel is acceptable to eat. You can show somebody something that is totally not acceptable — recently I was ranting about a school system where they were feeding the kids corn dogs for lunch … and people were like, “So? They have a salad bar on the side.” Those processed meats are pretty much the worst thing out there. Feed them something that recognizably looks like it came from a chicken or a cow or something, not some mysterious processed mystery meat. … People talk about sodas as if high fructose corn syrup is the bad thing, so if I drink a can of sugar water made with real sugar, that is my “healthy soda.” No. We’re not supposed to eat that much added sugar per day. … Don’t delude yourself that it’s healthy.
In a nutshell, what is your recipe for America? What are the different solutions you found to the problem?
We have a system that is rigged. We call it a free market, but free for who? It is free for very, very large corporations to benefit at the expense of everybody else. And they’ve even got regulations in place that make it very difficult for small producers to start up. Say you wanted to start raising a couple cows and you were going to do it in a humane and sustainable way and produce beef that was healthier than the stuff at the grocery store. You’re going to have a lot of roadblocks that someone operating a feed lot wouldn’t have, even though their beef is less healthy and generates a lot of manure that the rest of us have to live with. We have a system that’s set up for them — that’s not set up for the little guys.
Is the solution to alter regulations? Is it to deregulate? How do you fix a system where the regulations are not working?
What needs to happen first is we need to wake the public up. I don’t see public support there, nor support from Congress. When we start talking about backyard chickens, people say, “What, you’re going to have a chicken? That’s so weird.” They don’t realize how much healthier it is and how natural it is and how much more sense it makes than to have a factory farm.
It’s not necessarily deregulating and regulating more, it’s coming together and making sure all the stakeholders are at the table and making sure this is best for the American people — not best for Tyson or Cargill or some large corporation.
What change, if any, have you seen under the Obama administration so far?
The hope of the American people. (pause) Really just a lot of lip service in many ways. The organic garden was a big deal. That was fighting words.
Michelle Obama’s organic garden?
Michelle’s organic garden. But for what Barack himself has done, he’s not done much. The biggest thing he’s done is that the No. 2 at USDA is a fan of organic and sustainable agriculture. … It’s very mixed. They haven’t really taken a bold stand on food in Congress. Right now the committee that would pass food safety legislation is working on food safety, they’re also working on healthcare and they’re working on cap and trade. I think those other two overshadow food.
One of the comparisons you make in your book is between safe food and safe sex. Can you explain that? How would our approach to food safety be different if we treated it the same way we treat sexually transmitted diseases?
When we look at safe sex, there is no BS. We’re not saying, “Oh, it might be really burdensome for you to wear a condom, so we’re not going to recommend it.” We actually have science-based principles when we talk about safe sex. We advocate abstinence or monogamy, if that is appropriate to you, and if not, condoms and other forms of birth control and protection and regular testing. Go get tested once a year, get tested if your condom breaks, etc.
If somebody were to propose, “Let’s make a database of every single sexual encounter there is and then you guys can all have sex without condoms and if somebody happens to get AIDS we’ll alert the system,” we would say, “That is insane. Just wear a condom.” And when it comes to food safety, industry wants to put in these late stage, after-the-fact fixes. They want to have a very unsafe system that is, in their mind, most profitable. Let’s stick the animals shoulder-to-shoulder in their own manure first. Let’s have a really fast line on our slaughterhouse where mistakes can be made. We don’t want to test because it’s expensive. And then let’s have an after-the-fact fix rather than just preventing and testing. Let’s irradiate the meat perhaps and then if there’s manure in your ground beef, at least it’s sterile. We can tell the consumer it’s their job to cook the food.
Or let’s make a national database of every single animal that exists in America, continue to keep them in unsafe conditions that promote the spread of disease, and then if a disease outbreak occurs we can track every animal that has been in contact with the sick ones and kill them. It makes no sense. But those solutions are the ones that industry won’t fuss at so much.
For the book, you sort of went undercover at Whole Foods. What did you learn from working there and did it change your perspective on the chain?
They do some really great practices. They do compost their waste. … But what really stood out to me is the amount of waste that occurs because the customers would get really, really angry if they came in and we didn’t have exactly what they wanted all the time. So you end up having a lot of perishable food sitting around waiting for somebody to buy it, and if nobody does, you throw them away at the end of the day. You might compost them, which is better, but it’s still a pretty wasteful system compared to growing a garden, where you’re not going to throw away the food because you pick it and you eat it, or purchasing from a farmers market.
One of the big criticisms of slow food or local food or organic is the cost. There’s this whole sort of stigma over the movement about it being an elitist thing. Is that a reality? Is it a perception? And how can it be changed?
This is a reality of our society and it’s very sad that we think it’s okay that people don’t all need to have healthcare and a living wage and that that’s acceptable. You get to situations where we’ll talk about cheap foods that a poor person might be able to eat, like rice and beans, and we don’t factor in the transportation, the storage, the cooking, the time, the equipment required — all those things that they might not have. So I think, yes, in our current system it is crazy to say that, “Oh, well, the solution is that everybody should buy organic and pay extra,” when some people can’t even — they’re worried that they have enough calories to survive that day, let alone whether or not there were pesticides put in it or it’s healthy. But I think the answer is we need to fix the system rather than calling out organic for being the problem.
I also think people can do better if they purchase directly from farmers because there’s nobody in the middle taking a cut. Right now I’m on a pretty strict budget, and when I purchase from farmers, I don’t mind getting the berries that are so ripe they’re about to go moldy in another day. … I can come back and make jam with it.
How has writing this book changed the way that you eat personally? Are there still guilty pleasures that you have that fall outside of the locavore diet?
Guilty pleasures — oh my God, I love Einstein’s Bagels and I love their hazelnut flavored coffee — which coffee snobs tell me flavored coffees are the lowest kind of coffee and they’re masking a musty flavor with the flavor but I don’t care. It’s really good. But in terms of eating locally, yes, I try to buy directly from farmers. I try to know my farmers. Lately something I’ve become greatly aware of is the benefit of pasture-raised eggs. If the chickens were actually outside eating grass and bugs, the eggs are healthier, there’s less cholesterol, there’s more vitamin A, there’s a better ratio of Omega 3 fats. So I’ve become a crazy lady trying to find pasture-raised eggs which aren’t very abundant around here. Those are some of the ways that I’ve changed.
Correction: The original version of this piece said that Richardson was seeking pasteurized eggs instead of pasture-raised eggs. We regret the error.