Several of the big topics that Barack Obama and John McCain were campaigning on—including health care costs, climate change, energy independence and security threats at home and abroad—could not be successfully addressed without also addressing a broken food system.
The 2008 food system he describes was seeing an increase in popular interest in food that was organic or "natural"; obesity so common it was considered an epidemic; documentaries like Fast Food Nation and Food, Inc. that painted the system in an unattractive light; a growing understanding of CAFOs, GMOs, and trans fats; discussions of how exactly climate change was making itself known; and new awareness of the government’s financial ties to agribusiness. That is just some of what President Barack Obama entered office with in January 2009: The "broken food system" Pollan wrote about was more in conversation with political concerns like security and health care costs than perhaps ever before.
The hope was that President Obama would enact major change—eliminate obesity, especially in children; halt global warming; bring Big Ag to its knees; make “good” food truly accessible. (Or, you know, at least address the issues and take the first small steps toward better solutions.) Did he?
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The reality is that while Obama’s administration did pass a good amount of food-related policies (perhaps more than any president since Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s and 40s), defeating Big Ag has proved just short of impossible; childhood obesity rates have mostly stayed stagnant; we know more about GMOs than ever and are still unsure of exactly their effect, if any.
But even if Obama "failed" in the eyes of Pollan and others to fix a broken food system, food has become a mainstream talking point in a way it has never been before—and the policies his administration did pass (and, I think, his sense of humor) have paved the way for that.
Over the past 8 years, we’ve seen the iPhone’s rise to ubiquity, the birth of Instagram and Snapchat, the explosion of food trucks, the fury of Cronut fandom, the nation’s embrace of farmers markets, the demand for (and fetishization of) "farm-to-table" food, the shift from gourmand to foodie. It’s been a wild and varied almost-decade in food, one hugely affected by social media’s grip on anyone with a smartphone and a plate in front of them.
Of course, media isn’t the only thing that’s fed the food world during Barack Obama’s tenure as president—public health (and childhood obesity in particular); the role of SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps; the fight against hunger; and a return of interest in farming and homesteading have all fed and featured in both the national conversation and the policies that the Obama administration has made.
Here, a look back at 65 moments in food, 2008 to 2016:
September: Gwyneth Paltrow sends her first Goop newsletter, arguably helping to urge organics and a new way of eating into the public vernacular.
September 7: Food, Inc. premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival. Eaters everywhere are piqued and made squeamish by the documentary, which brought some of the less savory parts of the food production industry to a commercial audience.
September 28: Stock markets plunge worldwide. If we weren’t already in a recession (we were), this was the linchpin.
October 8: Michael Pollan writes a piece for the New York Times Magazine, "Farmer in Chief," addressing it to the newly-elected Barack Obama: "...The health of a nation’s food system is a critical issue of national security. Food is about to demand your attention."
December 1: The U.S. is officially in a recession, according to the National Bureau of Economics—in fact, they write, it began in 2007. In 2016, on the other side of the recession, some will theorize that, rather than limit foodieism, the financial situation encouraged it: Food was a small luxury most could take pleasure in, even when cash was scarce.
March 19: First Lady Michelle Obama announces her plans for a 1,100-square-foot organic vegetable garden on the White House lawn. It’s the first vegetable garden at the White House since Eleanor Roosevelt’s World War II victory garden.
April 25: The World Health Organization declares the swine flu outbreak a "public health emergency of international concern."
September 8: President Obama says in an interview with Men’s Health that he might consider a "soda tax" on sugary drinks. Any notions of the idea are immediately shot down by the beverage industry.
March 16: Michelle Obama speaks in front of the Grocery Manufacturers Alliance, one of the largest representatives in the food and beverage industry, urging them “not just to tweak around the edges, but to entirely rethink the products that you’re offering.”
April 20: The Deepwater Horizon oil spill begins in the Gulf of Mexico.
August: A new AmeriCorps grantee, Food Corps, launches with a mission of bringing food and nutrition education to public schools.
October 5: Condé Nast announces it will cease production of the beloved food magazine Gourmet.
October 6: Instagram launches, arguably changing food culture, and the way we consume and interact with it, forever.
December 7: Loren Cordain publishes The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Foods You Were Designed to Eat based on the 35-year-old theories of Walter Voegtlin in his book The Stone Age Diet. The paleo diet quickly gains momentum.
December 13: President Obama signs the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, Michelle Obama’s campaign for better school lunches, which funds free school lunch programs and creates guidelines for what can and can’t be sold in school vending machines and cafeterias.
January 4: President Obama signs the Food Safety Modernization Act, which demands that farmers and food manufacturers take a more proactive (rather than reactive) stance in ensuring food safety.
March 7: The 2,400-word, 6-volume Modernist Cuisine cookbook comes out. It costs $625.
December 31: The Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit, which subsidized national production of ethanol (mostly from corn), expires—much to the joy of some environmentalists (who generally believed ethanol production would limit other clean, creative energy development initiatives, fund oil companies, and raise food prices) and the consternation of others (who felt that corn ethanol was the biofuel of the future and that its production would create jobs).
"This is what you'd read if you came here from another country (or from another decade) and wanted to know what people valued in dining... the gnarly, punk-rock aesthetic, the in-your-face food style that dominates young cooks today."
November 15: The USDA claims that 1/2 cup of tomato paste (on a pizza, that is) is equivalent to a vegetable serving, leading many to protest—especially in the context of school lunches—their naming of pizza as a vegetable.
November 16: Hostess Brands announces it will file for bankruptcy; people buy up what they fear to be the last of the Twinkies en masse.
November 29: The first protest of what will become the Fight for 15 movement happens in New York when over 100 New York City fast food employees walk off their jobs in protest of the minimum wage.
April 30: New York Times op-ed columnist and author of the How to Cook Everything cookbooks Mark Bittman publishes his vegan manifesto, VB6, in which he describes his philosophy of eating vegan before 6 P.M. (After 6 P.M., all bets are off.)
February 25: IKEA recalls its hugely popular Swedish-style meatballs after traces of horse meat are found in them.
May 17: Paula Deen admits to using racial slurs in a deposition for a lawsuit in which she and her brother are sued for sexual harassment by a former employee. Social media erupts, and a month later, the Food Network announces it won’t renew her contract.
August 5: The first hamburger made entirely of lab-cultured beef cells—the "test-tube hamburger"—is served in London.
December: Leanne Brown, a student in NYU’s Masters in Food Studies program, publishes Good and Cheap, a cookbooks written for folks with a $4-per-day budget—that of the average person on SNAP benefits. She makes the PDF available to download for free on her website and it goes viral. (In 2014, she launches a Kickstarter to print the PDF as a book; she asks for $10,000 and receives just short of $145,000 in just over a month.)
January 29: After a two-year debate, the "Farm Bill" (a.k.a. The Agricultural Act of 2014) is signed into law, most notably making financial cuts to SNAP and "authorizing nearly $1 trillion in spending on farm subsidies and nutrition programs."
February 10: The documentary Food Chains is released, detailing the protests of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers against poor worker treatment of farmworkers.
April 25: Following a switch in water sourcing in Flint, Michigan, residents begin to call the city complaining of the water’s poor quality; it’s soon discovered that the water is tainted with lead. The crisis will continue through 2016.
June 17: President Obama launches an initiative and task force against illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing—that is, the black market fishing industry, which, according to Obama's presidential memo on the matter, accounts for a global loss of "$10-23 billion annually."
November 12: Blue Apron, the meal delivery service founded in 2012, announces that it’s shipping 1 million meals each month.
October 14: Michelle Obama publishes her famous "Turnip for What?" video on Vine, which immediately goes viral.
February 24: President Obama vetoes a bill that would have led to the building of the Keystone XL pipeline, making many environmentalists very happy.
March 13: Blue Hill chef Dan Barber’s wastED pops up in New York. Everything on the menu is made from ingredients (like pasta odds and ends, vegetable scraps, and juice pulp) that would otherwise be thrown away.
April 1: California’s governor Jerry Brown imposes water restrictions for the first time in the state’s history, hoping to stay some of the effects of the drought that’s been heavy on the minds of Californians since 2011. Meanwhile, as the New York Timesreported, Californian chefs dance around their menus to abide by the restrictions, watering plants with cooking water and making traditionally long-simmered pho in pressure cookers.
December 17: It comes out that the brothers behind Mast Brothers chocolate—the artisan, "bean to bar" chocolate company in ur-hipsterville Williamsburg, Brooklyn—have not been making their own chocolate, as they’ve insisted, but melting down commercially available Valrhona for their $9 bars.
January: Google searches for "quinoa" peak.
March 21: WNYC’s Dan Pashman begins a series on his podcast The Sporkful called "Other People’s Food," in which he explores where "race, culture, and food" intersect, nodding to conversations about who’s allowed to cook—and be a spokesperson for—whose food. The first episode features Rick Bayless, the (white, Oklahoman) chef who’s made his name and fortune writing Mexican cookbooks.
May 20: The FDA announces its redesigned, modernized nutrition labels, which aim to make certain information—like added sugars, types of fat, and the difference between suggested servings and how people actually eat—clearer.