The renowned food writer Mark Bittman drew 1,000 people to his talk this week at Congregation Rodeph Shalom.
It wasn’t your typical Wednesday night happy hour crowd in Alla Spina. As I sat at the communal table with my parents and some friends, I felt a sense of pride knowing that most of the people there would soon be joining me across the street at Congregation Rodeph Shalom to hear Mark Bittman, the popular New York Times writer and author, speak. What I didn’t realize is that about 1,000 people would be filling every available seat in the main sanctuary — balcony included!
In my event preview post, I mentioned my anticipation for last night’s event, which was hosted by Temple University's Feinstein Center for American Jewish History, Congregation Rodeph Shalom, the Gershman Y and the National Museum of American Jewish History under their joint program, What Is Your Food Worth? I’ve been attending these types of events in Philly for years and was particularly excited by the collision of the food justice movement and Jewish community. For this event, though, the only Jewish connections were that Bittman is Jewish and the event was held in a synagogue. (The rabbi who introduced Bittman tried to make a connection to kashrut, but Bittman’s discourse never touched upon Jewish themes or issues.)
As anyone who has ever read his work or heard him speak knows, Bittman can be blunt. Both his introduction and conclusion centered around the notion of individual choice. “Babies don’t crave donuts,” he casually said, then showed an image of a baby reaching for a donut — an example of his commitment to keeping his content and imagery relevant and humorous.
The focus of his talk at Roseph Shalom: defining what is food. The answer isn’t just "something we can consume." It’s about what is not food, which according to Bittman, is “UFOs: unidentified food-like objects,” a concept that drew laughter from the crowd. He quickly showed why his description, while apt, is no laughing matter. The billions of marketing dollars that snack food and soda companies spend annually is obviously working, as evidenced by climbing obesity rate in the United States. In a plea for better consumer education, he claimed that perhaps we would make better decisions regarding our food consumption if we knew the truth about the ingredients in the foods we eat.
Bittman villainized soda corporations and even suggested that their sugar-based drinks cause death. I’m not quite sure it’s that simplistic. I think that most people know that sugar is bad, but these drinks are addicting and it takes a lot of energy to change personal behavior to rid sugary beverages from one’s diet, especially when the marketing powers go unregulated. To illustrate this point of false advertising, he showed an image of a Diet Cherry 7up bottle he spotted in Florida that had the word “Antioxidant” in cursive on its label.
In my opinion, there are more guilty parties than just these soda corporations. What about the distributors who get the products onto shelves, the marketing companies that design the slogans and graphics, etc., lax government oversight/regulations, etc.
Bittman used the analogy of seat belts to explain the potential impact that regulations could have. When seat belts were first built into cars, people didn’t wear them and they didn’t prevent death from accidents. Then, states passed mandatory seat belt laws. As a result, deaths decreased. Bittman questioned, “Is this paternalism?” Since there is a connection between food and health-related disease, he says, public health regulations and food safety laws are necessary to advocate for our health and wellness.
Toward the end of the talk, Bittman shared his personal journey to eat less meat and junk food. He has been practicing part-time veganism since March 2007. Part-time? He explained that he is a vegan — before 6 p.m. “You can make any rules you want to," he suggested, just as long as your goal is to "eat better, eat less.”
On the way home, I asked my parents for their opinions on Bittman. My dad, Aaron Singer, made a great point, "I got everything he has to say, but sometimes life just gets in the way when you are trying to make a living or do whatever it is you do. It takes commitment to prioritize health and wellness, but I do feel inspired."
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