We set out to curate a list of books that might comprise the canon of literature of the good food movement. But we quickly realized that the vastness of the issues and range of viewpoints would make it almost impossible to settle on a shortlist. So instead we decided to each share a set of titles that have been influential in our own experience in the movement, whether teaching us something valuable, inspiring us to more fully embrace the cause, or reassuring us that there are plenty of smart, passionate people working to improve our food culture and industry.
So here it is! Books 1-4 are chosen and described by Caroline, books 5-8 by Saloni, and books 9-10 and films 11-14 by me. We hope they provide an inspiring and instructive way to spend some down time this holiday season, and that some become favorites of yours too. Enjoy!
- The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
- Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook
- The Mad Farmer Poems by Wendell Berry
- Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America by Michael Ruhlman
- Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
- Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations by Evan D.G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas
- The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table by Tracie McMillan
- Waste, Uncovering the Global Food Scandal by Tristram Stuart
- The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan
- You Can Farm: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Start & Succeed in a Farming Enterprise by Joel Salatin
- Food, Inc. directed by Robert Kenner
- Fed Up directed by Stephanie Soechtig
- King Corn directed by Aaron Woolf
- Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry directed by Laura Dunn
The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair
I read this book ten years ago as an undergrad in college. It struck me right in heart (or to quote its author, the stomach) and easily could be seen as a precursor to my future food-system work. Written in 1906, The Jungle reveals the dark underbelly of America’s meatpacking industry during the turn of the century – but any modern day reader will notice, it feels eerily familiar. The story follows the plight of a Lithuanian immigrant family to the Chicago stockyards where they experience horrific working conditions, witness inhumane treatment of animals + people and ultimately experience deteriorating health…and death. The story is one of the first exposés of America’s industrialization of agriculture and led to a public outcry which spawned the first Meat Inspection Act. It’s the first time people cared where they food came from (and what happened to it along the way). While the plight of the workers was shocking, the public was much more concerned with the disgusting and unsanitary conditions in which their meat was being butchered and processed. Another parallel that rings true to today, where labor and working conditions do not receive the same amount of attention as the local food movement. I still have nightmares of the gloom and misery found in the pages of this book – but it is necessary reading for anyone interested in understanding the genesis of food awareness and food safety in our country.
Bottom line: Important historical read on the origins and underbelly of the meatpacking industry but don’t pick it up before a big holiday meal.
Tomatoland, by Barry Estabrook
Part history of industrialized agriculture, part history of the Coalition of Immokolee workers and tomato laborer rights and part history of the scientific journey of our modern tomato cultivars, this is required reading for anyone who eats (and loves) tomatoes…and, really, for anyone who eats. Wonder why supermarket tomatoes taste so bad? Barry Estabrook takes you on a riveting journey to answer that question. What’s uncovered is the dark truth of modern day migrant slavery in the tomato fields of Florida. Sounds like a bummer but there is hope for the future of great tasting tomatoes and, spoiler, it’s probably in your backyard garden. The book reads like a novel but it’s all true. The tomato industry has been shaped by the major consumer food trends of the late 20th century: cheap food, long shelf life, year round availability and beautiful unmarred produce – all of which have created the hybrid, softball sized, rock hard, tasteless tomatoes of today and the exploited work force that harvests them. For foodies, farmers, human rights activists and someone just looking for an interesting read, this is a great book. It’s your civic duty as an eater to pick this up!
Bottom line: Novel-like non-fiction read on the tomato industry in America, may have you shopping for farmer’s market tomatoes by the time you’re done.
The Mad Farmer Poems, by Wendell Berry
“The joke of The Mad Farmer Poems is that in a society gone insane with industrial greed & insecurity, a man exuberantly sane will appear to be mad.” – from the Author’s Note of The Mad Farmer Poems
Anything by Wendell Berry could be included on this list but The Mad Farmer Poems is special because the book itself is a beautiful tribute to the words inside. The poems are housed in a large thin hardcover book on thick cream paper, peppered with agrarian inspired engravings by Abigail Rorer. They include titles like “Mad Farmer in the City” and “The Mad Farmer Manifesto.” I received this book as a graduation present and have consulted it from time to time when the world feels particularly “mad” and the only thing that makes sense is to dig in the dirt and plant my garden. Wendell Berry doesn’t hold back from being both humorous and critical in these poems, painting a world where the farmer alone has to stand up for what’s sane and honorable in a world that has lost its way.
Bottom line: Beautiful book of poetry for either a young farmer or an old activist.
Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America, by Michael Ruhlman
For those of us wanting to understand Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods this year, there is no better place to start than understanding the history and trajectory of supermarkets in this country. Michael Ruhlman’s new book Grocery shows us how we went from stores with 200 products in 1800 to behemoths with over 40,000 products today. The magic (because to your average grocery store customer that’s what it could be for all they know, magic) behind how each one of those 40,000 SKUs get on the shelf every day, 365 days a year, despite seasonality, ocean miles or gas prices is truly something to marvel at. I picked up this book this year to understand NVA’s work with grocery stores a bit better and was surprised by how much I didn’t know about the complex industry that we take for granted, sometimes multiple times a week! The margins are low, the hours are long and the distribution channels are complicated. The book also discusses the interconnectedness in the rise of variety in unhealthy “middle of the aisle” products and how it coincided with the rise of the modern day Supermarket. Americans’ complex relationship with food is a topic discussed in many books but Grocery provides a concrete case study as to how our perception and consumer preference for certain foods have shaped a whole industry – all while couched in a sweet narrative about Ruhlman’s late father and his love for the supermarket.
Bottom line: Definitely a book for food system nerds or folks like Michael Ruhlman’s dad, who just loooove to shop the variety found in grocery stores.
Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson
Pick your passion. Badass, quietly determined woman who stood her ground in the face of the corporate, wealth and male dominated chemicals industry (all while battling a rapidly metastasizing breast cancer)? Check. Gorgeous writing that truly evokes all that nature is and should be? Check. An alarming and deeply scientifically grounded expose of the impact of insecticides that spurred community action and public demands that businesses be held accountable and government keep its citizens safe? Check and check. This book is so exceptional and is (perhaps depressingly) just as relevant today as it was in 1962 when it was first published. Headlines abound this year about the EPA’s decision to reverse course on the 2015 proposal to revoke all tolerances for residues of the insecticide chlorpyrifos (based on research on its dangers). This reminds us that complacency and full faith in regulation, government and business is just not an option. We must constantly consider how our way of life and the new technologies and chemicals we introduce impact the natural world, and in turn our own health and wellness. Rachel Carson reminds us that we have to be conscious and activist consumers and citizens.
Bottom line: You could argue that Silent Spring catalyzed the good food movement, and that Carson’s message continues to resonate over 50 years after the book was published. Read it periodically to reconnect with your work and passion for sustainable agriculture.
Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, by Evan D.G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas
A Jared Diamond-esque panorama of the driving role that food has played in the rise and fall of civilizations since the beginning of time, the authors put forth the thesis that food surpluses explain how civilizations evolve. Urban centers are established when a society produces more than it can consume, and when it can find a way to store, trade, and transport their surplus. Food empires take hold, and are grown through their quest for more natural resources and food until they reach the limits of their carrying capacity, and collapse. This ambitious book reads like a riveting novel but then you pick up your head and realize you’ve just learned a tremendous amount about history that you never knew before. You’ll learn some great little tidbits to share at any dinner party, like how bird guano started wars. But for me, the most important lesson was the realization that many of the food system struggles of today have been around since the beginning of civilizations. That the world has always had overconsuming societies while others starve because of how food and food commerce drives global power and dynamics. That technology has never saved monoculture soils, and these countries always collapse in the end. And that a localized food model truly does build more resilient economies, cultures and communities.
Bottom line: A compelling thesis that food systems have always shaped power and civilizations, and a reminder that we are just as susceptible to collapse as previous empires unless we take a hard look at how we eat.
The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table, by Tracie McMillan
Trying to understand the why working class Americans eat the way they do, author McMillan went undercover in three jobs that feed America, living and eating off her wages in each And reporting from California fields, a Walmart produce aisle outside of Detroit, and the kitchen of a New York City Applebee’s. I’ll be honest that it is not necessarily a favorite book of mine (I took issues with some aspect of the author’s voice and the over-focus on her own personal journey), but I think it is an immensely important book for those of us in the good food movement for a few reasons. By tackling three steps in the industrial food supply chain, McMillan gives readers a pretty clear understanding of how food ends up on our table and why it can be so cheap (and she does so in a way that is easy to understand and wrap your head around). She makes the reader hugely empathetic to the life of those who are trying to feed themselves while truly being overworked and cash-strapped. Those of us who focus any part of our efforts on improving health, wellness and food access would benefit from this type of understanding. And finally, she makes the impact of cheap food on workers, especially migrant workers, so real and tragic, in a way that is reminiscent of Grapes of Wrath – and again reminds us how little has changed. The book is a fun read, and you may find yourself walking away with more layers and nuance to your work in and passion for the good food space.
Bottom line: The good food movement is often rooted in supporting local farmers, improving sustainability in agriculture and putting healthy food in our bodies. This book reminds us to think more broadly about our work – thinking about the laborers who suffer to make industrial food so cheap and the realities that working class Americans face when making food decisions.
Waste, Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, by Tristram Stuart
The topic of food waste is (thankfully!) getting a lot of attention these days. Up to 50% of food goes to waste in the US and Europe, while many (in our own countries and in developing nations) go hungry. This book is about the cultural and operational dysfunctions at each stage in the supply chain – harvest, transit, retail and consumption – that have led to this massive level of food waste. The author talks about the incentives that lead to overproduction without major cost or consequences. He describes consumer obsession with perfect produce, and the impact this has on waste at the supermarket (and all of the steps leading up to the supermarket). He describes how cheap food leads restaurants to “supersize” as a marketing gimmick and households to buy freely without knowing if and when they will use products, leading to rotting food in fridges nationwide. Stuart also eloquently describes why food waste is bad for our culture and planet. First and foremost, this book is one that will remind you of how important it is to be a conscious eater and purchaser. Don’t succumb to the fallacy of visual perfection in your product. Demand accuracy in sell by dates. Plan your meals and buy accordingly. Ask for a “doggy bag” as soon as you get your restaurant meal so you can turn it into two meals. Consumer patterns will be a powerful force for change across the food supply chain. I also loved it because it kept spurring business ideas and innovative community initiatives that could be introduced to combat food waste, like one in my hometown – Denver Food Rescue. It seems like “food waste” is an area of the good food space begging for disruptive business models and I am eager to see what emerges.
Bottom line: Cultural shifts, cheap food and our industrial food landscape in which consumers are so distanced from all that goes into producing their food has led to a massive amount of food waste. The book teaches us why and provides us with things we can start doing tomorrow to reverse this trend.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, by Michael Pollan
Michael Pollan’s impact on the food industry and my own career is hard to understate. I was working in so-called Big Food when he wrote Omnivore’s Dilemma, a clear account of how food is grown, marketed and consumed in America. His portrait of where food really comes from and what we should eat became the manifesto of the good food movement, and an indictment of the company I worked for and my very job as a marketer. The book and the movie it inspired, Food, Inc., raised consumer awareness of what 50 years of industrialization have done to wreck our food system and the people, land and animals that rely on it. Through his excellent reporting and engaging personal stories, Pollan presents the case for foods that bear many of the virtues we see on labels today: HFCS-free (high fructose corn syrup), pasture-raised, grass-fed, organic, humanely-treated, locally-sourced. Not only did this book (and Pollan’s follow-ups In Defense of Food and Food Rules) impact my own food values, it did for thousands of shoppers who began to choose more sustainably produced alternatives over the big brands. And as their market share eroded, they noticed. Because of Pollan’s influence, big companies have been reexamining their business practices, supply chains, product portfolios and ingredient panels in a race back to relevance.
Bottom line: This book is the most comprehensive and approachable book explaining the main issues of America’s industrialized food system. A great read for anyone just beginning to explore the themes that are shaping the food industry today.
You Can Farm: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Start & Succeed in a Farming Enterprise, by Joel Salatin
After reading so much about Joel Salatin in Omnivore’s Dilemma and seeing his Polyface Farm featured in Food, Inc., I wanted to read something by the farmer himself. I decided on this book because the 100-point, all-caps title YOU CAN FARM made me believe this farmer could teach a city girl something about the farming business and how to relate to farmers. Salatin wrote the book for the wannabes, as urbanites began leaving the city to try their hand at farming, only to become disillusioned about the nature of the work and how to do it profitably. From a purely business perspective his advice for novices is simple: success at farming is about keeping costs and overhead lower than you can possibly imagine through hard work, using and repurposing everything from the land, and avoiding debt. Salatin shares his philosophies not only about polyculture and clean food, but also about faith and politics. Tempted to skip over some of this, I’m glad I didn’t for I might have missed some of his cheeky vignettes, like advice on meeting the neighbors that went more or less like this: On that first visit, lean against their new pick-up truck and you will establish a lasting bond through your unspoken validation of their only extravagance. This was a great read for me, as someone who doesn’t need to understand the agricultural science of farming so much as the realities of operating a farm business. Amazon categorizes this book under Small Business & Entrepreneurship which is exactly where it belongs.
Bottom line: That very expression is Salatin’s main point: farming is a business, and businesses are successful when costs are managed to deliver profit to the bottom line. This book is full of pragmatic advice on how to do just that.
Food, Inc., directed by Robert Kenner
See Omnivore’s Dilemma above! This is the movie that brought Pollan’s reporting to the big screen and introduced millions of people to Joel Salatin and Polyface Farm. In my view, it is the most watchable and compelling food documentary because it covers the widest range of issues in our food system, and is beautifully shot and directed.
Fed Up, directed by Stephanie Soechtig
Is sugar the new tobacco? This film uncovers the hidden sources of sugar in everyday foods and explains the science of sugar addiction. The usual suspects (Coke, McDonald’s) may raise your ire and the families the filmmakers follow may raise your sympathies for how difficult it is for them to make better choices with the food industry conspiring against them. I appreciate this film for presenting the case against sugar, yet having been part of this industry as have many friends who still are, I do not believe the intentions are as starkly evil as the filmmakers portray.
King Corn, directed by Aaron Woolf
This film helped me understand two important themes of the good food movement: how commodity food supply chains work and why is it such a heroic accomplishment when something shows up at a grocery store identified with the name of the farm where it was grown, and how U.S. farm policy influenced the flood of corn that makes up today’s farming and food landscape, and our very bodies. If for nothing else, the film is worth watching for the remarkable interview with Earl Butz—the Nixon-era ag secretary who promoted the “get big or get out” model of farming—proudly looking back at his legacy.
Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry, directed by Laura Dunn
This was recently released on Netflix and a good pick for a cozy afternoon or evening during the holidays. For those like me who are less familiar with Wendell Berry’s works, the film is an opportunity to hear them from the man himself and see the Kentucky farmscape that inspired them. I found it a call to a quieter mind about the issues we are facing (“Look and see: that it is beautiful,” “Look and see: that is ugly, it is a scar”) and a reverie about the nobility of farming (“a handmade art,” “passion handed down,” it taking “formidable intelligence”). I had the chance to watch it with Deb from the NVA team and her husband who is a filmmaker, and it inspired more than one thoughtful conversation about Berry’s views on culture and agriculture, and the artful way the film was made.
Image: Maryia Kuprevich/Shutterstock.com