As advocates pick up the pieces following the left-leaning California electorate roundly rejecting three food-related ballot measures, denial has given way to other emotions. Author Michael Pollan and columnist Mark Bittman had high hopes that Californians would codify their anti-progress and pro-meddling policies into law, but instead of endorsing these agendas Californians chose food (and beverage) freedom. (Animal rights activists also took a pounding elsewhere.)
What can we conclude? Comparing food activists’ expectations with voters’ actual preferences shows that the so-called “food movement” is no such thing.
Michael Pollan believed a month ago that his movement was this close to finding a high-powered single-issue constituency that could drive its agenda. Pollan compared the organizations leading the fight for Proposition 37, the California ballot measure that would have required labeling many foods produced using biotechnology — a measure that reputable scientific authorities feel is unnecessary — to the National Rifle Association or the Sierra Club. But Prop 37 went down in flames, losing by over 573,000 votes at the latest count.
And just a few days after saying that “the fact that 33 percent of these average California cities have voted in favor of taxing themselves […] I’m not sure that’s a failure,” Mark Bittman is wondering why marijuana legalization is doing better at the polls than his favored social engineering. Believing that his problem is one of money alone, he proposes pushing more soda taxes, as if that will make them popular or something. Nobody tell him about a recent Harris Interactive poll that showed over 60 percent of Americans opposed to such taxes.
The problem Pollan and Bittman face is really existential: There is no “food movement” outside of Berkeley and the Upper West Side. Pollan proposed before the election that Prop 37 would show “whether or not there is a ‘food movement’ in America worthy of the name — that is, an organized force in our politics capable of demanding change in the food system.” Well, by that line of reasoning, there isn’t.
By definition, a movement must expand and convince others to join it. The activist food movements are not expanding and serve only to rally the converted. The New York Times did a preview of the soda tax vote in Richmond and found that while upscale progressive groups in the proudly left-wing city (its mayor is a member of the Green Party) rallied to the measure, poorer voters did not support it. Community leaders said that the upscale backers did not consult them.
This paternalist mindset, along with the weakness of the activists’ proposed remedies, will keep the “food movement” an idea rather than a reality for some time. Preaching Bittman’s approach might remain popular at hoity-toity cocktail parties, but it’s not winning converts among the rest of us.