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Michael Pollan


• Eat mostly plants, especially leaves -- Scientists may disagree about what's so good about eating plants -- but they do agree that plants are probably really good for you, and certainly can't hurt.

• Shop the periphery of the grocery store -- Center aisles are dominated by processed foods. The edges are home to what's fresher and typically closer to "real" food: produce, dairy, meat and fish.

• You are what you eat eats, too -- The diet of the animals we eat has a bearing on the nutritional quality, and healthfulness, of the food itself, both milk and eggs.

• Eat slowly -- Eat with a fuller knowledge of all that is involved in bringing food out of the earth and to the table.

• Have a glass of wine with dinner -- There is now abundant scientific evidence for the health benefits of alcohol to go with centuries of traditional belief and anecdotal evidence.

Source: In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan. Copyright 2008 by the Penguin Group


• What: Michael Pollan's lecture, "In Defense of Food: An Omnivore's Solution."

• Where: The Tivoli Theatre, 709 Broad St.

• When: Thursday, 7 p.m. Doors open at 5:30. Seating is available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Food is not just food anymore.

Grocery store aisles have become a maze of phrases: "low-fat," "protein-fortified," "high-fructose" and various grades of "organic."

Michael Pollan is trying to guide the American eater out of the maze. The best-selling author, guru of the sustainable food movement and critic of the food industry has boiled the complexity of "what to eat" down to three simple rules: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Food, in this case, is critically different from "edible foodlike substances."

Pollan -- who is best-known for his book "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and his participation in the documentary "Food, Inc." -- will be in Chattanooga on Thursday to cap off the Hunter Lecture Series, which is hosted by the Benwood Foundation, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies.

"We are extremely fortunate to have him coming. He is one of the foremost speakers on the subject of local food and environmental ethics," said Jeff Pfitzer, director of local-food initiative Gaining Ground.

In a recent interview with the Times Free Press, Pollan discussed his curiosity about the Southern diet, Chattanooga's growing problem with food deserts and going beyond better school lunches.

"I'm going to talk about our general confusion about how to eat, about what I call our 'national eating disorder,' and how we got that way," said Pollan. "I want to delve into the history of our craziness around food and then try to shine a path out of the confusion."

Q. Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia are repeatedly ranked as some of the nation's most obese states. What cultural mindsets or local obstacles do you think we face in the South that keep putting us toward the top of these lists?

A. I don't really have a theory about that -- but I'm intensely curious about it. Obesity rates correlate with income levels, and it's a class-related illness in some ways. When you go into a supermarket or even a restaurant, the cheapest calories tend to be the least healthy. So where money is tight -- and I know the economy is rough in the American South these days -- there tends to be more obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

And I know there's a great tradition of soda-drinking in the South. My guess is that you'd find that per-capita soda consumption is higher in the South. If there is any one thing that is contributing to these problems, it's soda.

Q. Chattanooga has a growing problem with food deserts. Many low-income neighborhoods do not have access to grocery stores -- much less stores that sell locally grown organic food. And if they do have access, many can't afford those options. Have you seen any creative examples for dealing with this?

A. There need to be incentives for the retailers and incentives for the farmers markets to come into the underserved areas. There's an experiment going on in Detroit -- if you receive food stamps you can get double their value if you take them to the farmers market. If you create a population that has that kind of spending power, farmers markets move into those underserved neighborhoods.

There are proposals in New York City that say if a retailer agrees to put in a produce section of a certain size, they get exemptions from certain zoning regulations so they can build in areas they might not have been able to build. I think we can expand on those experiments.

Q. The food processing industry is a major part of our local economy and provides a lot of jobs here. Do you think more sustainable, localized methods of food production can really impact our economy and provide jobs?

A. More jobs. The rap on sustainable farming -- if you talk to the industry -- is that it's less efficient. What does that mean? It means you have to have more workers. Sustainable agriculture doesn't see creating lots of jobs as a negative -- they see it as a positive. If you're on a diversified farm, you need more people present all the time. The genius of industrial agriculture is to produce huge amounts of food with nobody at all. If you shift from industrial to sustainable agriculture, yeah you may lose jobs on the industrial side -- but a great many jobs will be created on the local agriculture side.

Q. You've talked about raising a more food-conscious generation. What does your ideal school lunch look like?

A. In my Utopia, it wouldn't just be a better school lunch -- although that is vitally important. Tater Tots and chicken nuggets and pizza should not be dominating lunch as they do.

But I think we need to be doing more than that. I think we need to be teaching kids about where food comes from, and we need to be teaching them how to cook. I think the collapse of a culture of everyday cooking has contributed to our obesity crisis.

You eat 50 percent more calories when you go out than when you do at home. So we need to teach kids to grow food and garden, how to prepare food, and then how to eat it at a table together.

Q. You discourage eating alone. Why is it so important to make eating a family or community event?

A. The meal is a very important institution. Food is not just fuel. All the basic tools of democracy are learned at the table. That's where kids learn how to take turns, or how to share, manners. This is really important stuff that you don't get eating a burrito in the car going 60 miles an hour.