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Back Forty: Marion Nestle’s life in science, food politics

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By Samuel Fromartz

I’ve followed Marion Nestle’s work for two decades now. Her seminal book, Food Politics, was published in 2002 and laid the groundwork for a lot of food writing that followed — notably in journalism. But while I was familiar with her work, I didn’t know her personal story, which she writes about in her recently published memoir Slow Cooked: An Unexpected Life in Food Politics. Nestle came of age at a time when a woman’s pursuit of a career in science was uncommon. She left college as a sophomore to marry, had two kids, and only later studied for a Ph.D. in molecular biology and a master’s degree in public health. Her early career, she makes clear, was always secondary to that of her spouse.

Eventually she ended up as chair of a department at New York University, launching a groundbreaking food studies program, and writing a large body of works—mostly after she hit her sixties. Our discussion here about her memoir is edited for length and clarity.

The thing that really struck me in your book was the change, the evolution, you went through in your life. You were in science but had to navigate within a system that was stacked against women. I was wondering if you really felt chafed by it?

It’s hard to explain, but what I was going through was completely normal. There was no point in chafing against it. I was up against everything that was happening in society, and had no role models for evading or changing it. I completely bought into the system. It was just the way it was. My way of dealing with things always has been to make the best of whatever situation I found myself in. I’m so amazed when I meet people who fought back and tried to go their own way. At the time, I didn’t know anyone who could do that.

At a number of points in the book, I’m saying to myself, ‘Wow, she’s still going for it,’ even though you were hitting brick walls time after time.

Yes, she persisted! I had kids, and every decision that I made was going to have some kind of impact on my children. I was responsible for them. They were mine. My second husband was starting his career, which we both agreed was more important than mine. I don’t blame him for that. I felt that way too. He was an assistant professor at Harvard. I was a lecturer at Brandeis. Big difference.

I knew you had a Ph.D. in molecular biology, but I didn’t know that it was almost a coincidence, how you fell into studying nutrition, when you were teaching at Brandeis.

I tell the story in the book about how I was handed a nutrition course to teach there, which started everything. Later, when I was recruited at UCSF to teach nutrition to medical students, I ran into some of the same problems I had had at Brandeis: I tried to get help from other academics, but kept running into roadblocks from people who were offended by my lack of formal nutrition training. Looking back on it, I’m astounded by how hard it was to get help. I really had to learn nutrition on my own.

I taught nutrition without a license (except for a master’s in public health nutrition), and I’m still paying the price for that. I have, for example, never gotten an award from a major nutrition society, which seems funny because I’ve gotten awards from just about everybody else. But I’m not considered part of the in-group in my field. I don’t have an institutional background. I’ve never had mentors. In some ways, this made it easier because I could establish my own way of doing things. My background in lab science helped a lot in how I think about nutrition and makes it a lot easier to read papers in the field.

The other seminal point in your work was your exploration of public health, when you got another degree from Berkeley.

I was advised to go to public health school because I needed a nutrition credential if I was going to keep teaching it. Public health was a perfect fit because I routinely think about social and behavioral determinants of health. I had a great time in public health school. I loved the courses, the fieldwork, the content, and my fellow students. These were my people.

The other interesting thing was your experience in Washington working on the Surgeon General’s report on nutrition and food policy. And, really seeing the influence of lobbyists, which I gathered, was kind of surprising to you. Was that the seminal moment that got you on influence-peddling in food?

No, the seminal moment was a National Cancer Institute meeting about behavioral causes of cancer—cigarette smoking and diet. I heard a talk by John Pierce from U.C. San Diego, about cigarettes and marketing to children that I found jaw dropping. He showed all these photographs of the ways in which cigarette companies were marketing to kids in music and sports venues and on playgrounds near schools. He had been collecting this stuff for years. And I just sat there with my mouth open. I couldn’t believe it. I knew that cigarette companies marketed to children, but I had never paid any attention to it. Cigarette marketing was so much a part of the normal landscape that nobody noticed it.

I walked out of there and said, ‘Okay, that’s it.’ Nutritionists should be paying exactly that kind of attention to food marketing. I started paying attention. I started taking pictures of Coca Cola, PepsiCo, and McDonald’s marketing in every place I went. I accumulated a huge collection of slides on food marketing, began following campaign contributions and lobbying, and started writing articles about what I observed.

When you finally got the NYU appointment as department chair in nutrition, home economics and hotel management, did you have an idea of what food studies should be?

No, absolutely not. When my Dean asked, ‘How do you feel about having the hotel programs removed?’ my response was, ‘Well, it depends on what I get.’ And she said, ‘What do you want?’ I said, ‘I want food studies.’ I still can’t explain where that came from, although I had been introduced to the food world—academics, chefs, food writers—and knew of their interest in the serious study of food. They wanted to know about cultural aspects but also about history, geography, agriculture, anthropology, ethnicity, identity. I thought we could do that and it would be well worth doing.

So one other observation, your major works really began after you turned 65 — when you published Food Politics — which I am turning next year. So, you are a model for me.

You’re going to have a great 20 years. That’s all I can tell you. I sure have been having fun since 2002—thanks in no small part to Food Politics.

NOTE: UC Press is running a 30 percent discount on Slow Cooked. Use code 21W2240 at checkout.

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