By Monica Friedlander
Next fall’s freshmen may never look at their Chicken McNuggets the same way after reading Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals,” a provocative exploration of the food supply chain. The award-winning book is next fall’s selection for the On the Same Page program, sponsored by Berkeley’s College of Letters and Science.
Now in its fourth year, the program gives new students a common intellectual experience by focusing on a single exciting work. This summer, all incoming freshmen and transfer students in L&S will receive a copy of Pollan’s book and will be asked to read it in time for the fall semester. Then, when they arrive on campus, they can choose from a rich array of discussion sessions and seminars designed to foster dialogue and debate about the book. On Sept. 30, Michael Pollan, Knight Professor of Journalism, will make a public presentation in Zellerbach Hall.
“I've already heard from faculty across the entire college who are eager to participate,” said Janet Broughton, Acting Executive Dean of the College of Letters and Science. “I think it's going to be a terrific way to introduce our students to an education that will help them stretch their limits."
Pollan’s book does that by challenging our daily food choices — what Pollan refers to as “our most profound engagement with the natural world.” His engaging narrative takes readers on a journey from the soil to the plate, exploring industrial food production, the organic food movement, and his own experience as a “hunter-gatherer.”
“The beauty of this book is that everybody eats. Everybody makes food choices. Everybody has their own position about what choices they ought to make. It speaks to the gut,” says Tyler Stovall, dean of the Undergraduate Division and a member of the committee that picked the book for On the Same Page.
“There were a number of things we liked about the book,” Stovall says. “We were especially interested this year in issues of biology and the human presence on the planet. ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ does a wonderful job of looking at the food choices that people make and the shape of the environment as a whole. And the committee members who had read the book raved about how wonderful it was and how it changed their lives.”
The fact that the author is a Berkeley professor was not a factor in the selection process, Stovall said, but he added that ”it’s something very positive, especially since the book is local in two respects: it’s written by a local author, but it also talks about the importance of local production of food.”
“The main goal is to ignite conversations among students and faculty,” says Alix Schwartz, program coordinator for On the Same Page. This is why we're so excited about ‘The Omnivore's Dilemma.’ The book will appeal to anyone interested in science, culture, nature, good writing. In short, it's hard to imagine a student or faculty member who wouldn't find at least one aspect of this book compelling.”
Published in 2006, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” won the California Book Award, the Northern California Book Award, the James Beard Award for best food writing, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Program organizers do not expect students to necessarily agree with Pollan’s solutions or choices. In fact, Dean Stovall acknowledges some of the criticism leveled against “The Omnivore's Dilemma.” “The question often raised about this book is whether it tends to be on some level or another elitist,” he says. “That’s one of many debates I think our students will be eager to pursue.”
“What we’re looking for,” Stovall says, “is to heighten awareness and explore how one author has chosen to deal with the questions.”