OR and the food system

A few weeks ago, I caught a couple minutes of a Michael Pollan interview (the Omnivore’s Dilemma) on Bill Moyers Journal. It was fascinating, but I was tired, so I turned the TV off and went to bed. I just got around to listening to the podcast. Pollan mentions several issues in the interview that have OR implications.

  1. Food is cheap in the US. But cheap food is very expensive when taking the whole system into account (food transportation, type II diabetes, other health problems). Looking at the whole system is necessary to understand the costs. Pollan claims that food processing requires 10 calories per calorie consumed(!)
  2. Food security is a big issue when our food system is centralized. It is easy to contaminate our food supply when so much food is processed in one location. This is not a new issue, but may have an OR solution. Lawrence Wein talked about the issue at the INFORMS annual meeting (Wein wrote a paper about botulism in the milk supply).
  3. Pollan is very critical of the school lunch program since it is used to get rid of food surpluses, which means that students are fed junk food. This really gets me riled up since my oldest child is almost old enough to start school. Pollan advocates spending $1 per student per day to increase the nutritional value in school lunches. Here’s the kicker. As part of the solution, a certain fraction of this extra $1 should be spent within 100 miles of the school in order to meet many social goals (increasing nutritional value of school, reviving the local economy, supporting local agriculture, reducing our dependence on the amount of fossil fuels to transport food all across the country). This sounds like an optimization problem!
  4. Pollan proposes a way to measure how healthy out diets are: the fraction of our meals that we cook ourselves. Discuss amongst yourselves. Looking at the fraction of our diet that comes from plants (as opposed to animals) could also a decent measure or looking at the fraction of our diet that is not made of corn by-products (corn syrup) eaten might be OK. On the other hand, a diet of all Fritos is 100% plant-based so it scores high in my first measure, but it is also 100% corn-based, so it scores low in my second measure. I think Pollan has me beat.

Pollan recommends starting a vegetable garden. Apparently during WWII, Eleanor Roosevelt was instrumental in the Victory Gardening program that encouraged people to start vegetable gardens at home. It is widely reported that at the end of WWII, 40% of the US food production came from these 20 million gardens. This is way better than “Freedom Fries.”

I started a garden this year. I built a raised garden bed and planted tomatoes, zucchini, green beans, eggplant, sweet potatoes, hot banana peppers, and butternut squash with various levels of success. It was easy and fun. Digging up sweet potatoes was more fun than I could have imagined (9 small plants yielded about a bushel of sweet potatoes). My cherry tomatoes were so delicious that I ate all of them right off of the plant (a few a day over the course of several weeks). It didn’t generate 40% of my food consumption, but it’s a good start.

Watch the Michael Pollan interview here.

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