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Food in the Time of Obama: The Last 8 Years + How We Ate

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On October 8, 2016—exactly one month before the Big Day, the upcoming presidential election—Michael Pollan wrote a piece for the New York Times Magazine: "Why Did the Obamas Fail to Take on Corporate Agriculture?"

Writes Pollan,

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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.

What Food Policy Questions Would You Ask During Tonight's Debate?
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What Food Policy Questions Would You Ask During Tonight's Debate?

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.

13 People to Know in the Food World Right Now
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13 People to Know in the Food World Right Now

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:

2008

Meet the Woman Who Gave Michael Pollan His "Eat Food" Line
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Meet the Woman Who Gave Michael Pollan His "Eat Food" Line
  • 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.

2009

  • 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.
  • October 20: McSweeney’s publishes its now-perennial-favorite essay, “It’s Decorative Gourd Season, Motherfuckers.”
  • December 30: Forbes names agricultural giant Monsanto its company of the year.

2010

  • February 9: Michelle Obama announces her public health campaign Let’s Move, which aims to reduce childhood obesity to 5% by 2030.
  • March 7: ABC claims that 70 percent of supermarket ground beef contains "pink slime" (a.k.a. meat trimmings treated with ammonia).
Beef Cuts to Know—and How to Ask for and Cook Them
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Beef Cuts to Know—and How to Ask for and Cook Them
  • 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.
  • May 1: Following President Obama’s 2009 pledge to put $3.5 billion toward programs to increase agricultural development and decrease global hunger, his Feed the Future initiative begins work.
  • September 12: Lady Gaga wears a dress made out of flank steak to the MTV Video Music Awards.
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Our Very First Instagram Ever (and 19 of Our Favorites Since)
  • 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.

2011

  • 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.
Modernist Cuisine's 7 Essential Food Safety Tips
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Modernist Cuisine's 7 Essential Food Safety Tips
  • March 21: The New York Times reports that the macaron—the tiny, delicate French cookie—is taking the city by storm. Many will liken it to the cupcake's popularity post-Sex and the City.
  • May 2: The USDA releases an interactive "Food Desert Locator" map, which shows where there are low-income communities in which a third of the population lives a mile or farther from a supermarket.
Meyer Lemon Macarons

Meyer Lemon Macarons by DolcettoConfections

Parisian Macarons

Parisian Macarons by Dorie Greenspan

  • September: Attorneys at The Center for Food Safety file a petition to the FDA asserting the need for labeling of GMOs in food.
  • 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).

2012

"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."

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Leave the Food Truck Behind: Make Korean Tacos at Home
  • 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.

2013

  • 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 9: Grub Street writer Hugh Merwin publishes the first piece about Dominique Ansel’s Cronut, the doughnut-croissant hybrid that launched a thousand imitators. Lines wrap around the block for the pastry all summer long and beyond.
How to Skip the Cronut Line
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How to Skip the Cronut Line
  • 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.)

2014

  • 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."
  • June 24: Mark Bittman "cringes" over the word "foodie" in his regular New York Times op-ed.
These Companies Want to Save You From the Grocery Store
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These Companies Want to Save You From the Grocery Store
  • 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.

2015

  • 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.
This Whole Dinner Would Have Been Thrown Away—But Wasn't
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This Whole Dinner Would Have Been Thrown Away—But Wasn't
  • 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 Times reported, 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.
  • June 16: The FDA determines that trans fats are not "generally recognized as safe" for human consumption, and gives food manufacturers 3 years to remove them completely from their products.
  • August 3: Whole Foods is criticized for selling "asparagus water" for $6 per bottle.

Somewhere in L.A., Whole Foods executives are laughing at all of us.

A photo posted by Marielle Wakim (@marielle.m.n.o.p) on

2016

  • January: Google searches for "quinoa" peak.
Searches for "quinoa" peaked in January 2016.
Searches for "quinoa" peaked in January 2016. Photo by Google Trends
  • 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.
  • April 13: The Tampa Bay Times reports that restaurants advertising a "farm-to-table" menu often lie about where they source their ingredients.
  • 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.
  • May 23: President Obama eats bun cha in Hanoi with Anthony Bourdain. If this is not peak-celebrity chef, we don't know what is.
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Nutrition Labels are Changing (For the First Time in 20 Years!)

What were some of your own memorable food moments from the past 8 years? Share them in the comments below.

Tags: barack obama, politics, food politics, food policies, presidential election