When first lady Michelle Obama took shovel to dirt last month to break ground on a White House vegetable garden, she may not have realized she was moving a mountain. That's likely how it felt to a group of people who for years have been vocal champions of quality food and sustainable agriculture. At least one of them had even suggested a White House kitchen garden to four former administrations. These food revolutionaries want Americans to eat better and slower, and to understand how their food is produced and where it comes from. The cause has sometimes seemed elitist, especially in tough economic times, but their philosophies have always provided food for thought.
The interest from the White House represents a seismic shift. Expect to hear them quoted more in the coming months as the topic of food quality and safety moves to the front burner. Here are the people who got the ball rolling and why they matter.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.
Quotes in this story came from the New York Times, the Nation, the New York Observer and the Dallas Morning News.
Claim to fame: University of California, Berkeley, journalism professor, activist and author of bestsellers The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food.
Why he matters: Pollan's exhaustively researched books explain to the masses how food gets to our table, and it's not always pretty. He is a critic of industrial agribusiness, which, he says, has lost touch with the natural cycles of farming. He is also an expert on the Western diet.
What he says: "A health claim on a food product is a good indication that it's not really food, and food is what you want to eat."
Claim to fame: Chef-owner of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., and founder of the Edible Schoolyard project at a middle school there. The students grow some of their own food and help prepare it for lunches. The project has been copied around the country and the garden re-created in 2005 on the National Mall in Washington as part of the Smithsonian Institution's Folklife Festival.
Why she matters: Waters nearly single-handedly changed the American palate by creating "California Cuisine" in the 1970s, which has since spread throughout the country. The hallmark of the movement is eating local, preferably organic, food in season. Credit her for introducing goat cheese and baby greens to our dinner tables.
What she says: "You buy from the right people, you support the right network of farmers and suppliers who care about the land and what they put in the food. If we don't preserve the natural resources, you aren't going to have a sustainable society."
Claim to fame: Farmer and chef-owner of two New York restaurants, Blue Hill in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Farms in Westchester. He also appears occasionally on the Bravo series Top Chef.
Why he matters: His devotion to sustainable agriculture and eating close to the land has made him a go-to source for many food journalists. He frequently writes about food himself and is an adviser to Harvard Medical School on health and global environment issues.
What he says: "No one wants farmers to suffer, especially chefs. But if we're spending $20 billion or so a year on farm subsidies, we ought to invest in the foods we eat."
Claim to fame: Prolific writer of novels, short stories, poetry and essays and a farmland philosopher from Kentucky who is a staunch supporter of agrarian values.
Why he matters: At 74, Berry has been writing about America's relationship with the land for decades and warning about damage to cropland from large-scale farming. He writes eloquently about how industrialized agriculture has fundamentally changed what we eat and moved us further from what he believes should sustain us: real food and a connection to where it comes from.
What he says: "The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing, responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope."
Claim to fame: Italian journalist who founded the International Slow Food movement in 1986. Today, the group has 85,000 members in 100 countries.
Why he matters: Petrini's protest against the opening of a McDonald's near the Spanish Steps in Rome started his quest to find an antidote for the creep of industrialized food. The philosophy of the movement, which has chapters in Florida (including Sarasota, slowfoodusa.org), is that food must be "good, clean, and fair."
What he says: "We are enslaved by speed and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus: Fast Life."
Claim to fame: Investigative journalist and author of the muckraking Fast Food Nation, an expose of the fast food industry that is often compared to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.
Why he matters: Though Schlosser has written on other topics (marijuana laws, farm workers and prisons), his book about the dirty secrets about fast food resonated with the nation and kicked off widespread discussions about childhood obesity and how we eat. He is still in demand to talk about the subject.
What he says: “There is no healthy Happy Meal."
Claim to fame: Professor of food studies and nutrition at New York University and author of several books, including Food Politics, an examination of how the food industry influences government nutritional policy. (She is not related to the company of the same name.)
Why she matters: The former adviser to the surgeon general focuses her mighty voice on nutrition and health — and expects the government to do the same.
What she says: "It's way too early to tell what the Obama administration will do. I tend not to pay any attention to the rhetoric. I want to let the actions speak for themselves."
Claim to fame: Former Iowa governor and newly appointed secretary of agriculture.
Why he matters: A proponent of fresh and whole foods in schools, he wants to lead Americans away from industrially produced foods. He appointed Kathleen Merrigan, a Tufts University professor and outspoken guru of sustainable agriculture, as a top deputy.
What he says: “Let us build a 21st century rural economy of cutting-edge companies and technologies that lead us to energy and food security."