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August 31, 2009

Michael Pollan: Farmers trump healthcare reform

Foodie guru Michael Pollan says he won't join the boycott of Whole Foods markets, even though he disapproves of CEO John Mackey's attempts to kill healthcare reform. Because the self-proclaimed "ethicurean" can't bear to forgo golden raspberries?

Not exactly. In a post on the conservative New Majority blog, Pollan argues that Whole Foods' support for farmer trumps the CEO's views on health care. On a personal level, Pollan says he hopes that health care reform will be a force for reform in the food system because when health insurers have to cover everyone, they will be motivated to push for prevention: If insurers had to cover everyone with type 2 diabetes, they'll want to make sure the food supply isn't creating more type 2 diabetics.

Yet, he's not bothered by the fact that Mackey is crusading to let insurers pick and choose which conditions to cover:

Repeal government mandates regarding what insurance companies must cover. These mandates have increased the cost of health insurance by billions of dollars. What is insured and what is not insured should be determined by individual customer preferences and not through special-interest lobbying. [WSJ]

If you're an insurer, it's way cheaper, and more reliable, to refuse to cover type 2 diabetes than it is to lobby for fresh, local, sustainable food. 

Pollan accepts the premise that consumers should use their buying power to push for social change, he just assigns a lower priority to healthcare reform than he does to farmers' markets. This is dismaying because justice for workers is supposed to be a core component of his vision for a new food policy.

Lack of access to affordable healthcare is the single biggest issue of distributive justice facing America today. Insurers rake in billions by charging more and more to cover less and less. Ever-rising healthcare costs are cutting into workers' standards of living.

The profit-driven insurance industry is screwing management as well as labor. Our employer-based health insurance system is a drag on the entire economy. American companies are less competitive because employers foot the bill for insurance instead of the government.

Mackey and Pollan are being astonishingly short-sighted. Ultimately, the gastro-industrial complex persists because it delivers cheap food. If we got real reform, more consumers could afford a healthier and more sustainable diet (perhaps even from Whole Foods).

Correction: In an earlier version of this post I mistakenly wrote "farmer's markets" instead of "farmers."


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To John Mackey, someone who wants health insurance to have to cover an illness is a "special-interest."

A health insurance company which wants to avoid paying for health care isn't a "special-interest."

Back in 2008, this Whole Foods, CEO John Mackey (how old is this kid?), was caught posting negative comments (trash talk) about a competitor on Yahoo Finance message boards in an effort to push down the stock price. So now I am suppose to take this loser seriously? Please, snore, snore.

It’s funny we hear Republicans say that they do not want “faceless bureaucrats” making medical decisions but they have no problem with “private sector” “faceless bureaucrats” daily declining medical coverage and financially ruining good hard working people (honestly where can they go with a pre-condition). And who says that the “private sector” is always right, do we forget failures like Long-Term Capital, WorldCom, Global Crossing, Enron, Tyco, AIG and Lehman Brothers. Of course the federal government will destroy heathcare by getting involved, Oh but wait, Medicare and Medicaid and our military men and women and the Senate and Congress get the best heathcare in the world, and oh, that’s right, its run by our federal government. I can understand why some may think that the federal government will fail, if you look at the past eight years as a current history, with failures like the financial meltdown and Katrina but the facts is they can and if we support them they will succeed.

How does shouting down to stop the conversation of the healthcare debate at town hall meetings, endears them to anyone. Especially when the organizations that are telling them where to go and what to do and say are Republicans political operatives, not real grassroots. How does shouting someone down or chasing them out like a “lynch mob” advanced the debate, it does not. So I think the American people will see through all of this and know, like the teabagger, the birthers, these lynch mobs types AKA “screamers” are just the same, people who have to resort to these tactics because they have no leadership to articulate what they real want. It’s easy to pickup a bus load of people who hate, and that’s all I been seeing, they hate and can’t debate. Too bad.

"American companies are less competitive because employers foot the bill for insurance instead of the government." Who, pray tell, do you think foots the bill for "the government?" Or did you think employers weren't taxpayers too?

Canada spends half as much per capita on healthcare as the U.S. with better health outcomes. Why do you think GM moved all those plants across the line from Detroit to Ontario? Healthcare costs? It was cheaper to pay corporate taxes in Canada than pay for health insurance in the states.

Like you said, we all pay for healthcare one way or the other. We can choose whether we want to pay our share of a bigger or smaller bill. Single-payer is cheaper because i) administrative costs are lower, ii) the government can negotiate much cheaper rate from providers, iii) the insurance companies aren't using our money to give their shareholders double-digit ROI.

I'd rather pay my share of an insurance system that's less expensive over all and covers everyone.

Either we pay for healthcare through taxes or we pay an extra cost added in to everything we buy to cover health insurance costs. Of course, people who don't have insurance through their employer pay the same inflated prices as everyone else plus even more money out of pocket to buy insurance. Of course, every medical service is a little more expensive to cover the expense of uninsured folks who can't pay their bills.

Steven Pearlstein (Washington Post Business Columnist) wrote, "Asked about his greatest regret as a legislator, Ted Kennedy would usually cite his refusal to cut a deal with Richard Nixon on health care."

But he provides no quotes of Kennedy.

Jed Lewison looked into this, and only found a quote in which Kennedy wonders, "Did we make a mistake waiting?"

Not the same thing.

It seems to me that what Pollan is saying that the BEHAVIOR of Whole Foods as a company is more important than the OPINION of its CEO. Also, someone who is worried about "justice for workers" might be concerned about the effects a boycott of Whole Foods would have on the company's workers, who seem to fare better in terms of both pay and benefits that most of the other workers in the industry. It may be satisfying to give a big "fuck you" to John Mackey by boycotting Whole Foods, but it's worth remembering that John Mackey isn't the only one who would suffer in the event of such a boycott.

It seems to me that what Pollan is saying that the BEHAVIOR of Whole Foods as a company is more important than the OPINION of its CEO.

Which is odd, because- from what I remember of The Omnivore's Dilemna- he didn't think that behavior was so great to begin with.

Parse, does Whole Foods really treat its workers better than more local chains catering to the same clientele, like Food Emporium, D'Agostino, and Fairway?

Also, if the point is to support farmer's markets, I can just shop at the farmer's market directly.

Alon, I believe they Whole Foods does treat its workers better than the kind of chains you have named, but I haven't done substantive research. Also, I think Lindsey has misquoted Pollan--he applauds Whole Foods' support for farmers, not for farmer's markets. I also don't how she would substantiate the claim that Pollan is not bothered by the fact that Mackey is crusading to let insurers pick and choose which conditions to cover--when what he says is John Mackey’s views on health care, much as I disagree with them, will not prevent me from shopping at Whole Foods. He even adds that he can understand why people would want to boycott, but it’s important to play out the hypothetical consequences of a successful boycott.

Yeah, let's boycott anyone who doesn't toe the line. Heaven forbid someone actually exercise their freedom of speech.

I was surprised to see Pollan's comments on the Whole Foods boycott since he spent a lot of pages in The Omnivore's Dilemma picking apart the industrial-organic model of food production. Some practices are clearly better than standard farming, but others are barely distinguishable (let alone sustainable). It was pretty clear that he preferred the CSA/co-op/farmers market model. As a result of his previous writing, I've been skeptical of Whole Foods ever since I read the book.

As for me, I won't be boycotting Whole Foods since I don't shop there anyway. Thanks to Mackey I won't be doing so in the future, either. Maybe I'll start to feel differently if a health care reform bill with a public option passes.

Whole Foods was somewhat notorious for engaging in union-busting.

Pollan's hitting the pipe on this one.

We are all adults here, and as adults we know there are consequences for are actions, so if you do not agree with CEO John Mackey views on healthcare, you can a) do nothing, b) shop there, c) not shop there, d) protest and picket the stores, its your choice, live the dream!

Between getting really great, fresh swiss chard at, say, a local farmers' market and getting it at whole foods, I'd probably go with the farmers' market (of course, often crunchy small farmers are zealous reactionaries too (not a rule, but hardly rare), but anyway...). Between getting wilted, nasty swiss chard at a less nice grocery store and getting great, fresh swiss chard at Whole Foods, I'd go with Whole Foods.

Julian, if you want to avoid buying reactionary produce, you'll have to limit yourself to buying food imported from a handful of third world countries whose farm interests are progressive, like Thailand. In the first world the farm lobby is pernicious - within the US, I'm wavering about whether farm interests ("Let's subsidize ethanol! And screw those starving Haitians!") are more destructive than the AMA; in other developed countries, it's not even a question.

Whole Paycheck is a union busting corporation, and its CEO bragged about cutting healthcare benefits to his employees.

Now, I'm boycotting Pollan in addition to Whole Foods.

As a pretty serious guy about food, I tire of Michael Pollan, who seems to desire the job of Messiah. He is tiresome, earnest -- and simply deadly to listen to.

As a Canadian living with socialized medicine, which is truly wonderful, I don't think bringing in healthcare reform will change people's diets. Here in Canada, we still have a lot of obesity and high fructose corn syrup in our foods. In fact, Canadian ketchup is sweeter than American ketchup.

It is education and lifestyle choices that will ultimately change people's health outcomes.

I read the Omnivore’s Dilemma and started to look at how pervasive corn is in our ‘natural’ bath and body products.

My company makes castile soap and I have created a video called ” Are You Washing With Corn”- view

People have to make choices as to what they buy, as that will drive the market, their health and the planet's overall sustainability.

One wonders if it occurred to the ever-so-sure-of-himself Mr. Pollan that many small farmers are among those people who desire health care reform? They are among the people who generally have to purchase individual policies, which are usually either expensive or limited (take your choice) and sometimes unavailable due to insurance company policies. In many cases farmers have actually had to take on a second, non-farm job or have a spouse who does so in order to qualify for a group policy. Mr. Mackey's very self-serving attitudes on health care do absolutely nothing to help people such as farmers who do not work for an employer such as Mr. Mackey. So, how, exactly, does Mr. Pollan think that Mr. Mackey is "supporting" farmers when he uses his celebrity as the CEO of a supposedly progressive business to actively discourage the kind of reform that would help small farmers? Typical of Mr. Pollan's wooly-headedness.

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