Five years ago, Michele Simon started a nonprofit called the Center for Informed Food Choices. She couldn’t have been more on target—our eating habits have reached Situation Critical.
Mary Vance: How can we convince people to eat right?
Michele Simon: I connect corporate influence over food policy and the information people receive about how to eat. I’m very interested in how we’re not even being told the correct information based on science on how to eat because it’s so obscured by government. In the last couple of years especially, this topic has really heated up with the government finally admitting that we have a public health crisis on our hands. In my monthly newsletter, in which I track the goings-on of the food industry and government policy around nutrition, I poke holes through anything they say because you can’t believe anything they say. I really get people to understand that corporate motivations and goals are completely in conflict with public health.
But how can we educate people about nutrition?
People need to be told how to eat right, but we cannot do that without addressing the cause of the problem: that we have an economic system—an engine—that is furthered by corporations and government policies designed to keep that engine going. That isn’t going away, and no matter how many five-a-day fruits and vegetables posters we print, the engine that keeps corporate profits coming is a primary priority over public health. We can’t trust the food industry because it’s profit-driven, and government is in industry’s pocket. Nutrition criteria, like Kraft’s “Sensible Solutions,” are classic industry strategy. The companies influence the government process for setting nutrition guidelines and then rely on the same guidelines for their own marketing. They say, “This is healthy because the FDA said it was.” Well, really it’s because they influenced the process by which the FDA said it was healthy.
So it’s all about profit, not people?
We have an understanding that this is a market-based economy, and capitalism is the system that drives that, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that we have a populace that understands that corporate profit is inimical to public health. Corporations have done a very good job of pulling the wool over our eyes, at making us believe they are part of the solution. There are all kinds of ways the industry positions itself as “educating consumers,” and we have been fooled, because in fact all they are doing at any given moment is promoting their own products. The media is not good at seeing through a lot of it, so the public gets messages that now industry cares about them with their whole grain cocoa puffs and trans-fat-free cookies.
Is litigation an effective strategy?
I have mixed feelings about it. I do think it should remain an available strategy, but it’s not something I am out there promoting as the way to go. Given that our government is such a failure at protecting us, litigation is all that’s left. When food companies have deceived the public and manufactured foods in a way that is dangerous, why shouldn’t they be held accountable just like any industry? But to me, getting industry to change is not the primary way to go because it’s not preventive; it’s too late. People are already sick.
So where do we start?
The first step is to get government out of the pockets of the industry. It means taking a very hard look at what’s going on and admitting that the whole system is a failure. And this is not just about nutrition; it’s a whole set of social ills that corporations have caused—from the environment to you name it. There’s something wrong with the system, and we need to present that evidence and let the public draw its own conclusions. The message should be clear: it’s not up to Kraft or Coca-Cola to feed people, so it’s not up to them to “solve” the obesity epidemic. It’s not in their interest. But nutrition education is not rocket science. We’ve turned it into this big mystery because that’s how people get research dollars. Here’s the answer: eat a plant-based diet, a good variety of foods that come from nature, and avoid anything that comes in a box. Eating well can be convenient with planning. We’ve really twisted the meaning of convenience foods. I was just hungry and I had a peach. What could be more convenient than that?