I’ve always loved food. I grew up in the World War 2 years of rationing and deprivation but got sent to a small camp in Vermont one summer run by a fabulous cook. She and her husband had spent many years in China and she knew what to do with fresh ingredients. She ran a large ‘Victory’ vegetable garden and if we were good campers, we got to pick vegetables for dinner. I tasted everything, and a freshly picked green bean warm from the sun was a revelation.
I went to college hoping to study about food but there were only two choices, agriculture (but I’m a city girl) and dietetics. I picked dietetics by default, and lasted exactly one day. The next year, I tried public health but it was so easy for me that I thought I wasn’t learning anything. It didn’t occur to me at the time that it was easy because I think like a public health person, and it took a long time to get back to it.
I ended up a scientist and didn’t rediscover food until my first teaching job in the Brandeis biology department. The department had rules that instructors could only teach the same course three years in a row (so it wouldn’t get stale) and you had to teach whatever was needed whether you knew anything about it or not. I was given a nutrition course and it was like falling in love. I’ve never looked back.
I taught nutrition to medical students at UCSF for eight years and when that job fell apart (I was fired, basically), I was told I had better get some nutrition credentials so I went to public health school, and food, science, and public health came together at long last.
My current interest in the role of the food industry in food politics dates from the early 1990s when I was invited to speak at a meeting on behavioural determinants of cancer sponsored by the National Cancer Institute and run by former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. Most of the speakers were anti-cigarette activist physicians and one after another showed slides of cigarette marketing in remote regions of the world. One showed slides of cigarette marketing aimed at children. I had seen such marketing, of course, but never paid much attention to its pervasiveness or invisibility. I thought: we should be doing this for Coca-Cola.
I started noticing and writing articles relating aspects of food marketing to obesity. The result was Food Politics. Soon after it appeared, I stopped chairing my department, after 15 years, which freed me up to do more writing. The department now links nutrition, food studies (a field we started in 1996), and public health—three fields that are inextricably linked in the way I think about public health.
I write a monthly Food Matters column for the San Francisco Chronicle; blog almost daily at www.foodpolitics.com and at the Atlantic Food Channel at http://amcblogmte4.atlantic-media.us/food/nutrition; and tweet @marionnestle.