The Culture of Food and Drink

Home / People  / Advocates  / Health Food Movement Progress Is Everywhere

Health Food Movement Progress Is Everywhere

Organic produce at Eli's Market in New York City. Credit: Andrew Lipton

Organic produce at Eli's Market in New York City. Credit: Andrew Lipton

I was part of a conversation recently with colleagues in the food world who were griping that nothing much had changed in the health food movement since Adelle Davis’ books, “Let’s Get Well” and “Let’s Cook It Right.” Both books had raised a new public awareness in the 1960s to the fact that unprocessed organic food, grown without pesticides and herbicides, can determine our health. What about Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, Frances Moore Lappé, Mark Bittman, Robert Kenner, Paul Newman, A.E. Hotchner and Wendell Berry, to name a few contemporary food activists? Or even more recently, Anna Lappé, Bryant Terry, Jeremiath Gettle, Daniel Salatin, Katrina Blair or Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney.

I’m also frustrated that there is so much work to be done, but everywhere I look I see evidence of how far we’ve come on the issue.

I argued that things had dramatically changed in simple ways. For instance, yesterday I wanted to make a chicken tagine with plums and olives. The recipe called for chicken thighs, onions, butter, dried plums and lemons. I needed some lamb for another recipe and some hamburger. I also needed milk, half and half, and yogurt. It was midweek, and I didn’t have time to go down to the farmers market so I shopped at my corner market.

I was able to get full-fat yogurt, a coup these days because in the last 20 years almost everything has become either non-fat or low-fat. This, by the way, does not necessarily mean they are good for you. Fat-free foods may also have added thickeners, flour, sugar or salt. Also you don’t want to avoid all kinds of fat because there’s a decent argument to be made that foods contain both “good” fats and “bad” fats. In the meat department, I was able to get hormone-free, antibiotic-free, organic grass-fed lamb, beef and free-range chicken. I also noticed they had organic, grass-fed bison. In the produce department, I was able to get organic lettuces, organic berries, avocados, apples, pears and bananas. In the dairy case, I had a choice of free-range eggs from three farms, and I also found organic milk, organic half and half, and butter. There are farms all over the United States that sell raw milk. Laws regarding raw milk vary by state, but it is available if you want it. I found dried plums that had not been sprayed with sulphur dioxide, which is great because I definitely didn’t want any of that pesticide on my food because children in my family are allergic to sulphur. I know, of course, our future begins with our children and grandchildren. And I remind my friends that in 1996, Alice Waters created her first edible schoolyard in Berkeley, Calif. Since then the program has expanded to New Orleans and Brooklyn, N.Y.

The health food movement goes mainstream

When President Obama was elected, Michelle Obama told the world she was going to grow a garden. When he ran for reelection in 2012, the First Lady was promoting her new book, “American Grown” about the White House garden.

“The garden is the way to begin the conversation [about healthy food decisions],” she told the National Review. “I learned, in changing my kids’ habits, if they are involved in the growing process of food and they get a sense of where it comes from, they tend to be excited about it. The garden is a really important catalyst for that discussion.”

All over New York City public schools now have roof-top gardens or other areas set aside for gardens. The students at Manhattan School for Children on West 93rd   Street give guided tours of their rooftop gardens.

Most colleges and universities offer programs in sustainability and integrated nutrition. We have new words in our vocabulary and dictionary that apply to quality food produced responsibly, such as locavore and sustainability. Most everyone knows about fermentation now because of Sandor Katz’s book, “The Art of Fermentation,” which was on the New York Times bestseller list for several weeks and nominated for a James Beard Award. Although California voters didn’t approve Proposition 37, which would have made the labeling of GMOs mandatory, the big news is that Whole Foods, the grocery chain with 339 stores across the nation became the first retailer in the United States to require GMO labeling on all foods sold in their stores.

Genetically modified ingredients are in much of the food we eat on a daily basis. Food labels give us information about nearly everything else we need to know about the food we’re eating, but there is generally no information about food grown with GMOs. Now, at least at Whole Foods, all foods will be labeled if they contain GMOs.

There are many more ways in which the food movement in the United States has dramatically changed. But in a way, my colleagues are right. Although we’ve done a lot, there is still more to do to protect our good food. And next we need to turn our full attention toward the issue of hunger, and getting that good food to those in need.

Organic produce at Eli’s Market in New York City. Credit: Andrew Lipton

Zester Daily contributor Katherine Leiner has published many award-winning books for children and young adults and, more recently, her first novel for adults, "Digging Out" (Penguin). Her most recent book, "Growing Roots: The New Sustainable Generation of Farmers, Cooks and Food Activists," won half a dozen awards, including the National Indie Excellence Gold Medal Award. Leiner's next novel is due out this year.

  • Mary Lee 3·28·13

    People like to complain. It’s human nature. But I, like you, prefer to look at the positive changes that have occurred in the last forty years, not just in food/health but in our lives in general. There is always more work to do. But as long as we’re moving in the right direction, we just need to “keep on keeping on.”

  • katherine leiner enter name 3·28·13

    Thanks Mary Lee. I think you’re right, every drop, every bite…

  • julie 3·28·13

    In big cities like NY and LA, organic and local food is readily available in all upscale neighborhoods where consumers bear the higher prices with ease, and some organic products are making there way into the larger grocery chains. But it’s not everywhere, and even if it were, it’s not affordable. Yes we have seen improvement in the last 50 years, but there is a long way to go.

  • Sally 3·28·13

    It’s easy to get discouraged, especially when you walk in the center aisles of grocery stores. Thank you for reminding us that things are improving, because of people like you.

  • Bette Glenn 3·28·13

    Well said Katherine! Thanks for the specifics to have at hand when people are skeptical. I was very impressed with your local market! And even though I shop at A Matter of Health in my town most of the time, I appreciate that our local Stop & Shop has an entire section devoted to healthful foods & some organic produce as well. Definitely a huge change for the good!

  • Maryann Macdonald 3·28·13

    It’s true, I find wild fish, organic chicken, milk, and grass-fed beef even where I shop…at Costco! Times are changing.

  • Marie Gewirtz 3·28·13

    Thank you for your informed article and for reminding us of the distance we’ve traveled with food throughout the past 50 years. I feel so fortunate to live in California and especially in Sonoma County where we are blessed with so much fresh, local, organic food. Even in winter we know where our food is grown and can appreciate the farmers who grow it. The movement needs to be more national, and even that is happening albeit more slowly.

    Keep up the great writing, it’s always an inspiration to read your offerings.

  • Beverly Capelin 3·29·13

    I am a fan of Zester Daily. I was pleased to hear about Ms. Leiner’s article through my daughter’s friend. Thrilled that a young active person was taking the time to read about
    the Food Movement. Young people are catching on to the organic food ethic faster than we can measure. It has gone viral, so to speak.
    AND yes there is so much to be done because so much has been adulterated so many do not even know what they are eating may cause ill health. However, the beauty of Youth is that their energy has no beginning nor end. While I plant my garden and get High Fructose Corn Syrup out of my Life, and work to get GMO’s out of our Lives…I believe there is a movement set in motion so big nothing will stop it. Right on, Ms. Leiner!

  • Katherine Leiner 3·29·13

    I want to thank all of you for your responses. I’m also happy to report that when I eat out in New York City, and ask where the meat comes from, mostly I get the name of a local farm. Those are restaurants that become my regular places. In the same way I want to shop in places where I know the farmers, I want the chefs in the places I eat to know their farmers. The more we ask, the more we’ll be told. Meanwhile, let’s talk about how to get this good food to those who are hungry.

  • michele willens 3·29·13

    nice piece had dinner last night at Blue Hill in NYC which must be the epitome of healthy but delicious food

  • Ron Bazar 3·30·13

    Things are getting better and things are getting worse at the same time! The yin and yang of the food world. While Katherine is right-on about one side, let’s take a look at how bad food has gotten on the other:
    • more toxins
    • more animal prisons and inhumane conditions and feed for those poor animals
    • more food additives and neurotoxins
    • more hidden addictive ingredients
    • more depleted topsoils
    • more high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners
    • more depletion of the aquifers and other water resources
    • increased use of fertilizers
    and many more destructive practices. The result: an epidemic of chronic health conditions and obesity, and declining sperm counts.

    Thank goodness a growing sanity is coming back to some of our food in the organic movement. Let it grow!

    Grow more real food everyone!


  • Gretta 3·31·13

    Thank you for reminding us about all the positive ways our food options have changed and some of the people responsible for those changes.. Gratitude is in order for all those who have worked hard as farmers, food writers, grocery store owners and people who wanted to cook and eat healthier and took the time to ask for what they wanted and spent the money to support those who produced and supplied what they wanted. Change happens when each of us does our part.

  • Juliet Whitfield 3·31·13

    I agree, the food world has changed a lot, even in the last 10 years. Even in a small Colorado town we can get a lot of locally grown food and more organic than ever. I hope the food movement continues so that we can support more locally grown food and more young farmers are able to make a living doing so.

  • katherine leiner 4·2·13

    Ron is right, when we look at how much ground we have covered, we also have to be aware of how much ground there is yet to cover. And if you look at all of it at once it’s truly overwhelming. Each of us doing our part, as Gretta points out, is all any of us can do. I was reminded on Easter Sunday at a meditation that I attended that each of our “Right” actions supports the next possibility and moving forward in that mindful way, is a substantial kind of activism. Word of mouth is a strong tool. Thank you all for coming together and responding to this article. Keep it up!!!!

  • Mary Ellen Long 4·5·13

    Cheers to you Katherine, keeping the conversation going. Seeing our small town’s embrace of the organic and locally grown produce is encouraging. Even the recent chain-store remodel has organic fruits and vegies front and center. I hope to see every school have a garden and the curriculum include food/health classes. Katherine Leiner, Michael Pollen, and Alice Walters should be read by all our young people.

  • katherine Leiner 4·5·13

    Thank you Mary Ellen. From your lips to God’s ears!!!