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Podcast: Talk Policy To Me

Episode 203: Talking Food Policy

The role of your dinner plate in food systems -- and other food policy questions

Food surrounds us—and yet we can become careless about how food is transformed from the farm to something palatable on our plate. UC Berkeley public policy student, Reem Rayef, interviews Nina Ichikawa at the Berkeley Food Institute about what consumers should be thinking about in their individual consumption choices, but also what the impact the aggregation of those choices means for food overall.

Considering the role of multiple actors in U.S. food policy, they also discuss how coalitions of like-minded groups can mobilize greater and more equitable access to healthy foods. Get some food for thought with this episode all about food.

Wondering how to get more involved and have better conversations about food policy? Here are a few ideas from our team:

  1. Form a more mindful cohort of food consumers with a book club, reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma or Six Seasons.
  2. Cook a local meal. Try shopping at the farmer’s market and learning about the sources of your food and the farmers who grew them.

Speakers featured on this episode

Nina F. Ichikawa is the policy director of the Berkeley Food Institute. She is a fourth-generation Californian and policy professional dedicated to making good food accessible, sustainable, and culturally appropriate. Prior to joining BFI, she served in the office of Senator Daniel K. Inouye and with the US Department of Agriculture’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” Initiative. In 2011, she was named a Food and Community Fellow by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. In 2009 she launched the Food and Agriculture section for Hyphen magazine, and she has also written for Civil Eats, Grist, Al-Jazeera America, NBCNews.com, and Rafu Shimpo. Her writings on Asian American food and farming have been published in Amerasia Journal and Eating Asian America: A Food Studies Reader. Following research on sustainable food systems in rural Japan and Mexico, Nina received an MA in International Relations/Food Policy from Meiji Gakuin University and a BA in Interdisciplinary Studies/Food Policy from UC Berkeley.


I think like most people, I don't have the luxury of living all ideology. Who does really? I'm a working mom. I have a budget. I do what I can afford what I have time for. And I think what you can afford and what you like to eat in and what's in your proximity are the most defining features of most people's decision making and I'm no different. Food is about joy and getting together with family and friends and I never want us to lose that.

Reem Rayef: [00:00:35] That was Nina Ichikawa. She's the policy director at the Berkeley Food Institute, an interdisciplinary research center founded by seven schools including the Goldman School of Public Policy. I recently sat down with Nina to talk all things food policy.

Nina focuses on how food and nutrition intersect with labor equity and the environment. She is trying to answer interesting questions like: “How can we balance the idea of eating ethically and sustainably with the realities of what we have time for and what we can afford? How is the fight for food justice aligned with the fight for environmental justice? Or are they at odds? In what ways are innovative farming practices like rooftop gardens alleviating food deserts? What kind of policy incentives exist for farmers to grow fruits and vegetables that are high in nutrition, rather than commodity crops like corn and soybeans?”

We started off our conversation with a dilemma many of us face walking the aisles at our local Safeway or Whole Foods. What do labels like organic free trade and locally sourced mean? And what questions should we be asking ourselves in order to make responsible food decisions?

Reem Rayef: [00:01:42] So let's talk food policy. What are the things that you think about when you enter a grocery store, for example, or when you go into a restaurant?

Nina Ichikawa: [00:01:49] Well, I think immediately about how much policy and regulation have shaped what we are what we can access in that restaurant or in that store. I think there's a lot of sometimes antagonism towards policy, but actually policies are really protecting us. For instance our food safety is protecting our basic health and wellness and not allowing certain very dangerous chemicals or pathogens into our food system. So policy is – what I like to call it is, a bottom floor; a health and protection safety for us. It also is protecting ideally the workers in those restaurants or grocery stores. They have a minimum wage. I think about how far we've come and how far we have to go. And I think another aspect I think about for instance in the grocery store is that organic – a lot of people think that organic is just a word that any company can put on their package like healthy or fresh, and actually organic has had many, many years of hard fought gains and losses in the regulatory arena. And actually it has real legal implications, and companies cannot just throw that label on the package whereas “fresh” and “healthy” are much more nebulous in their meaning.

Reem Rayef: [00:03:09] I think one of the questions that I have when I walk into a Trader Joe's for example is, “What does the organic label mean and how has it changed and why?” Where does the skepticism about organic doesn't actually mean that's ethically grown or that the labor that produced it was fairly compensated. So what does the organic label mean? What do fair trade labels mean and how do you think about that when you go into a grocery store?

Nina Ichikawa: [00:03:35] A lot of this movement started in California. So I think this is a great place to study and understand how a lot of the dreams of sustainable agriculture and just more environmentally-sound farming techniques were happening here in California and people sought to enshrine them into law and make sure that those farmers who were doing those better practices could get credit for that. No one could just sell their stuff and there was a lot of maybe fakery in the market before organic regulations were really codified, first here in California and then nationally. So I think it was a great example of a movement moving into the mainstream and making some real political winds. Does that mean it's perfect? No way. But it's a win that I for one am not willing to give up.

Reem Rayef: [00:04:31] Do you have any overarching principles when it comes to your food consumption? When you enter a grocery store, are you all organic or fair trade? Do have certain restaurants that you will or won't go to, based on your principles and your knowledge of the food policy space?

Nina Ichikawa: [00:04:47] You know knowing what I know about agricultural chemicals and pesticides the ones that are not permitted in organic. I do try to buy organic when I can afford it because I want to keep those pesticides out of my own and my family's bodies. But it's you know I know that the research is also about consistent exposure, so I'm not really tripping about you know being 100 percent anything. I care a lot about trying to keep my family's cultural foodways alive. I try to follow the research on eating whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Basically nutrition advice hasn't changed that much in the past you know 100 years so I try to stay away from the fads and just listen to the basic information. As for restaurants, I do appreciate restaurants that have taken more of a strong stand for you know workers rights or they are purchasing from local farms I think that's admirable and running a restaurant is really hard. And so those restaurants that are trying to go out on a limb and do the right thing, if I have time and money, I want to support them with my time and money.

Reem Rayef: [00:06:02] Yeah the restaurant that you brought up is really interesting because I come from the East Coast. When I came here I was really interested to hear that whenever somebody would – maybe this is actually a function of the circles that I run in and the fact that I'm in policy school – but if somebody who is recommending a restaurant to me they'd say “Oh, and the best part is that it is employee-owned.” It was just not something that I ever heard. It's such an attribute here of a lot of restaurants so it really struck me when I came to California.

Nina Ichikawa: [00:06:29] Yeah, we're really lucky to live in an area with a lot of vibrant food businesses but we're finding that's the case all around the United States that there's a lot of experimentation. And, yeah, it's a good time to be part of the food movement. Ultimately you know you don't want the books you read and the philosophies you subscribe to make you be impossible to be around. So sometimes I have my choice in the eating and sometimes I don't, and that's fine too. I have a lot of books on the subject, but I don't want the books to strangle me or anyone who's coming to have a meal with me.

Reem Rayef: [00:07:08] I know food policy is a highly intersectional policy area and one that many of us have questions about in our daily lives. I asked my fellow students at the Goldman School what they're wondering about food policy and kicked those questions over to Nina. So big shout out to my classmates for these great questions.

Reem Rayef: [00:07:25] So is food security getting better or worse? Is it something that we are just hearing about more because people are more aware of it? Or is it actually an exacerbating issue?

Nina Ichikawa: [00:07:35] Unfortunately, I believe it is an exacerbating issue and it's a direct symptom of income inequality. Our economy is recovering a little bit here in the United States. We saw levels of food stamp, or SNAP, usage skyrocket during the recession, which is the way that SNAP is designed, to reach more people in times of need and contract in times of economic prosperity. Now the economy is sort of recovering and sort of fewer people are on SNAP, but still the rates of poverty and food insecurity are far too high in a country like ours and it's absolutely because I believe wages that are too low, housing prices that are too high and people do not have enough money for food because of those two factors and other factors that are allowing our economy and particularly here in California to be so wildly unequal. So I think until we have some realistic solutions to fix income inequality we're unfortunately going to see food insecurity continue to increase.

Reem Rayef: [00:08:35] When we're talking about alleviating food deserts, does introducing healthy foods to those grocery stores in food desert neighborhoods – does that actually improve health? Then those people still need to make the nutritious choice which I think we've seen is not always the case.

Nina Ichikawa: [00:08:52] I think we have some bad eating habits across the board in the United States – high-income people, low-income people, middle-income people, there are a lot of shared bad habits we have as Americans so I think it's worth talking about the extra structural challenges faced by low-income families. But it's not helpful to point fingers and say any one group has a special problem because I see plenty of luxury SUV going through the McDonald's drive-thru so we have a collective love of soda and fast food and candy and this is a cultural problem we have to address now.

As far as food deserts and increasing health of Americans, particularly in low income areas. Michelle Obama's “Let's Move” campaign put a lot of attention on geographic structural inequities. And I think that was really great for people to think about how we can fix areas that don't have any grocery access and there's been progress made in that direction. At the same time, there has been more research on issues like “time poverty” and a lot of the USDA recommendations for eating suppose that a family is cooking from scratch, and that is one of the biggest privileges of having higher income is to have more time to be able to cook.

Reem Rayef: [00:10:22] Are there parts of the environmental justice conversation in the food justice conversation that don't exactly align? Are there kind of areas where they are actually at odds and progress in one might not necessarily mean progress on the other?

Nina Ichikawa: [00:10:35] I have not heard about the misalignment. I think they are aligned. I think that a weakness of the food movement is not enough attention to racial justice as a part of fixing our food and farming system and obviously environmental justice is rooted in racial justice and racial inequities racial economic inequities of how pollution happens. So I think that more melding needs to take place. I come from an urban area. I grew up here in the Bay Area. So you know environmental justice is traditionally more looking at “urban areas,” and often the food and farming movement is looking more at room areas. But we're seeing increasingly how rural and urban are inseparable. There might be an unanticipated conflict I haven't heard of. But in my experience it's just more been different groups of people that I need to talk more to each other.

Reem Rayef: [00:11:31] Is there a way that city is using rooftop gardens and other unconventional spaces can alleviate that problem? Or is that something that happens on luxury apartments in New York and isn't actually a food policy solution or a food desert solution?

Nina Ichikawa: [00:11:44] Actually, it is impactful. We actually have a research project going on right now on urban agriculture here in the Bay Area and trying to assess whether it has impacts on food security. Some preliminary research does suggest it really does, particularly because many urban gardens at least here in the Bay Area are staffed by a range of community members including many volunteers, including low-income volunteers who take food home themselves. So it is a form of actually subsistence farming that's happening in urban areas and what we're trying to do is capture some of those relationships that do not happen – they're not on the books. There is no purchasing selling by happening, but it is adding to people's food security so we're trying to understand that and we've shared some research and are excited to share more.

Reem Rayef: [00:12:33] How can we incentivize farmers to grow high-nutrition fruits and vegetables rather than the high-commodity and high volume crops, like corn and soybeans? Given that we hear a lot about how difficult it is to economically maintain a farm and really small changes that the market can really make a large impact for farmers.

Nina Ichikawa: [00:12:53] I think the Farm Bill is a huge part of this. We had the Food Institute was involved in a Farm Bill graduate seminar this past year and students got really deep into these issues of federal incentives and disincentives for growing different types of crops so we have a ways to go in terms of changing our farmers support structure to more support what is now called specialty crops which are fruits, vegetables and nuts.

How can our federal system which we always need to have some type of support for farmers. How can it be shifted more towards items that Americans are supposed to eat? I think the farm bill is a great tool to try to accomplish that.

Also we have a research group called the Center for Diversified Farming Systems at Berkeley and it looks at the benefits and challenges of running of “diversified farm” – that means maybe growing many different types of vegetables or fruits and having different types of animals and plants and maybe edible and non-edible crops. And considering what impact this has on ecosystem and also how the challenges farmers might face it. There's a lot of research going on but you're right the norm for many years has been the cheapest type of food often for export sale, and I think we're recognizing that we have to grow beyond that model and make sure we're producing high-quality food locally as well.

Reem Rayef: [00:14:22] So with that being said what do you think our food supply will look like 10 years from now or 50 years from now on the produce side and then also on the meat and protein side?

Nina Ichikawa: [00:14:33] Well that's tied up in our immigration policy. So I think you're seeing also that how much intersectionality there is in food work with so many other very pressing topics right now. I mean if we continue with this very anti-immigrant path that is currently being pursued in our country, we're going to trash our economy and trash our food system.

Our food system and economy have been so built by the hard work and contributions of immigrants at many different points in the food system. I don't just mean on the farm, I mean in terms of certain grocery stores, starting restaurants, starting multinational food manufacturer companies like Chobani yogurt in upstate New York, which was started by an immigrant and he makes a big deal of hiring immigrants and prioritizing their voices. So I think that will have a big impact on whether our food system gets stronger or weaker.

I think in terms of meat and dairy people are really asking for change and asking for a more sustainable way of producing those products. A lot of that interest again is back here at Berkeley both on you know improving how we produce meat and dairy, but also how we produce alternatives – plant-based products so both of those inquiries are happening so I think we're going to see a lot of innovation in that area. And in a nutshell, the veggie burger will get better. And for those people that eat meat, I think that the good options are going to proliferate. So that's exciting.

Reem Rayef: [00:16:10] What about lab grown meat and it's ethical implications environmental implications?

Nina Ichikawa: [00:16:15] I don't know. I'm just starting to look into that. We're not doing any official work on that at Berkeley Food Institute, but I do think with anything we have to do a full energy accounting of it. We have a historical tendency to always just like the most technological thing in America. And I think that can sometimes blind us to some cold hard truths that like for instance beans are a tremendous source of protein. So I would like to consider the energy inputs and outputs and externalities of lab grown meat, versus say more innovation in the legume sector and consider which is more worth our energy. I don't know the answer to that. Are you interested in eating that stuff?

Reem Rayef: [00:17:07] I'm all for the better veggie burger. That's my stance. When will crickets be a major protein source?

Nina Ichikawa: [00:17:13] Yeah I think not too far off. Someone pointed out to me that shrimp have a lot of animal characteristics similar to crickets. It's a very it's a very mysterious process how certain animals become okay for human consumption and don't. It's a very culturally specific process so actually there was a there was a journalist here at the 11th Hour Food and Farming Fellowship at the Journalism school who was doing a year-long research on the cultural impacts of different types of insect eating and cultural legacies of the eek-factor or the-yum factor. So, I don't know people In Oaxaca love it so much. So maybe people just need to learn how to cook it better in the United States and it'll catch on.

Reem Rayef: [00:18:03] I was just going to say I have had an excellent cricket taco. At he end of our conversation, I consulted nine on my consumption choices. A lot of us want to eat ethically but there's tons of conflicting information swirling around on the Internet about what we should and shouldn't eat because of nutrition or labor or environmental issues. In this segment I present Nina with a series of food choices and ask her: Is it ethical? Is it delicious? Here we go.

Reem Rayef: [00:18:31] This is mostly me consulting you on my consumption choices. Nina Ichikawa: [00:18:34] Food is such a personal choice. It is so personal and intimate so what someone chooses to eat is so private and intimate. I do believe that should be everyone's personal choice if they have access to all the best information.

Reem Rayef: [00:18:49] Okay almond milk.

Nina Ichikawa: [00:18:51] I find it delicious. Ethically, I need to research the energy inputs and outputs. I can't say I'm a total expert on that or I haven't seen the exact side-by-side data. The different nut milks versus the animal milk, so I'm going to plead ignorance on that, but as far as delicious, yes!

Reem Rayef: [00:19:15] Programs like Imperfect Produce that are selling fresh produce that doesn't sell well at grocery stores, or is rejected by restaurants.

Nina Ichikawa: [00:19:24] Well there's lots of different models on how to do that but in a nutshell absolutely it's our moral obligation to consume any you know edible fruits or vegetables. it shouldn't matter how they look.

Reem Rayef: [00:19:41] So ethical and delicious.

Nina Ichikawa: [00:19:41] Yeah! Sometimes more delicious.

Reem Rayef: [00:19:41] Lab grown meat. Have you tried it?

Nina Ichikawa: [00:19:47] I have not tried it. I do eat meat and I have never tried lab-grown meat, and I really don't know if it's ethical or not.

Reem Rayef: [00:19:54] So potentially delicious, maybe ethical, but unsure.

Nina Ichikawa: [00:19:57] Sorry I can't give a more conclusive answer, but I'm a fan of research so I want to see the research.

Reem Rayef: [00:20:04] Shrimp.

Nina Ichikawa: [00:20:07] Well I think it's domestic versus imported and I have done some writing on the struggles of the domestic seafood industry. I think we can feel much more confident about domestically-produced seafood than imported seafood. I do find it delicious, but I don't eat a large quantity of it, and I think it can be raised ethically. We need more transparency in the seafood system that's for sure.

Reem Rayef: [00:20:35] Trader Joe's.

Nina Ichikawa: [00:20:38] Trader Joe's sells a lot of affordable organic and healthy food at an affordable price and I think that's very important and that's a food justice function from the perspective of the local economies and local control. It's not as good because it's owned by a German multinational. I really do believe in local community control and recycling those profits back into the community, so you win some, you lose some. Definitely as many foods there are delicious. I wish that they would invest more financially here in our local community.

Reem Rayef: [00:21:16] Blue Apron or other food delivery services.

Nina Ichikawa: [00:21:20] I don't really fall in the income bracket to be able to afford the pre-cut meals that you do at home. If you know that those kind of food delivery services like Blue Apron. It doesn't make financial sense for my family, and I do think that companies like that should be subjected to the same regulations as any other restaurant or food preparation company which has been an issue of controversy. So I because I've never eaten them, I can't comment whether they're delicious. As far as ethical, I think as long as they're subject to the same regulations that any other food company I don't see why it should be a problem.

Reem Rayef: [00:22:01] Pineapple pizza.

Nina Ichikawa: [00:22:07] Why not. And what do you think of pineapple pizza.

Reem Rayef: [00:22:11] I love pineapple pizza.

Nina Ichikawa: [00:22:11] Yeah. I like it. I am not sure you can call it Hawaiian, as it often is. Put whatever you want on a pizza is my feeling.

Reem Rayef: [00:22:24] So it's ethical and delicious.

Nina Ichikawa: [00:22:24] Yeah absolutely, absolutely.

Reem Rayef: [00:22:29] Conventionally grown produce. A lot of people have philosophy it's about what they will buy a conventional meal they'll buy organic.

Nina Ichikawa: [00:22:37] I think that's again important to build on the research. And there's you know lists like the dirty dozen which really set which really say which products are more important it's better to go on that research than you know [personal] philosophies necessarily so you know the dirty dozen list I think produced by Environmental Working Group says about which products are more are typically sprayed more in which are less. So those are great guides to follow, and you know we just do whatever we can within our means and you know Marion Nestle, a Berkeley grad and food policy expert, always says “Vote with your fork, but also vote with your vote.” So I actually think you know if we spend too much time obsessing over this green bean or this or this mushroom and we don't actually spend that time voting and participating in our civic and political system, then actually that's the unethical choice.

Reem Rayef: [00:23:32] What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding about our food supply that you wish more people knew?

Nina Ichikawa: [00:23:37] One is that cheap is the most important parameter. And number two, is that people have a choice over what they eat, and that ignores the structural factors. And number three is a sentence I often hear at public lectures which is—subsidies are the problem. And I just think it's sort of an oversimplification of a complex system. So I think we have pay attention both to the individual because eating is so individual and also to look at the structural and that's a way that we can really fix the food system for everyone.

Reem Rayef: [00:24:16] Amazing, thank you so much for speaking with me.

Nina Ichikawa: [00:24:19] I really liked your questions; this was a lot of fun.

Talk Policy To Me is a production of UC Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy and the Berkeley Institute for the Future of Young Americans. For show notes, visit us at talkpolicytome.org. Music heard on today's episode is by Pat Mesiti-Miller. Talk Policy To Me's executive producers are Bora Lee Reed and Sarah Swanbeck. Michael Quiroz is our engineer. I'm Reem Rayef. See you next time.