It’s Time to Eat Real: An Interview with Michael Jacobson

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By Janeen Madan

Michael Jacobson, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and founder of Food Day 2011. Over the years, he has led campaigns for healthier diets and against trans fat, salt, soft drinks, olestra, food dyes, and other unhealthy ingredients. Jacobson is the author or co-author of numerous books and reports, including Nutrition Scoreboard, Six Arguments for a Greener Diet, Salt: the Forgotten Killer, and Liquid Candy: How Soft Drinks are Harming Americans’ Health.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has announced that Food Day 2011 will be celebrated on October 24—a country-wide initiative to fix our broken food system. What are some obstacles that the food advocacy community faces and how do you think this day will help mobilize people around a common goal?

Mike Jacobson (Photo credit: CSPI)

Compared to government and agribusiness, the food advocacy movement is modest in size (but growing fast) and somewhat divided.  Food Day should build alliances locally and nationally, getting people out of their silos and collaborating where there is mutual agreement. Food Day will also give people a national event around which to educate the public and advocate local, state, and national policy changes.

Food Day has launched 5 main principles. One of these is aimed at cutting out—or cutting down—junk food and replacing it with “good stuff.” How can we improve access to affordable, healthy food in both urban and rural areas across the country?

The first thing is to persuade or force companies to cut the sugar, cut the salt, add whole grains, and otherwise market more healthful foods. Of course, the best way to increase access to affordable, healthy food would be to reduce unemployment and increase family income. Short of that long-term goal, we need to ensure that federal spending on food stamps, nutrition programs for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and school foods is at least maintained, if not increased, and also wipe out urban and rural food deserts by getting supermarkets and farmers markets into those deserts and to help corner stores carry a modicum of fresh, healthy foods.

Food Day advocates a combination of policy reforms at the government level and changes in consumer choices at the individual level. How can the government provide stronger support to sustainable farms? And how can education initiatives and public information campaigns help change individual choices?

We can save money by cutting unnecessary subsidies to large farms and plow that money into technical assistance to small farms, young farmers, and farmers markets.

And, consumer demand is absolutely essential. If people aren’t eating broccoli, farmers won’t be growing it. Government needs to mount major dietary-change campaigns to move people away from junk foods and toward a more plant-based diet. That would help farmers, but of paramount importance to the consumer is that a healthier diet would reduce the risks and health-care costs of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, cancer, tooth decay, and constipation. But we can’t just rely on government; the choices that each of us makes many times a day determines just what passes between our lips. Better diets would save several hundred thousand lives and tens of billions of dollars in medical costs annually.

The U.S. Food and Farm Bill – the government’s key food and agriculture policy tool – is up for reform next year or 2013. What are some changes you would like to see?

Cut wasteful subsidies, assist small and mid-size organic and sustainable farmers, increase investments in agricultural research, encourage fruit and vegetable production and consumption, maintain robust food-assistance programs, institute incentives and disincentives that would internalize the health and environmental costs of producing both animal and plant products.

Lastly, given your work at CSPI, what role do you think science can play in promoting a more environmentally sustainable food system in the United States and around the world?

Scientific research is essential, especially in an era of climate change and widespread diet-related diseases.  That research could lead to more productive seeds, smarter agronomic practices, economic programs to guide production, and more-healthful fresh and packaged foods.

Interested in organizing or participating in local Food Day events? Visit

Janeen Madan is a communications associate with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To purchase your own copy of State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.


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