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A public health alumna brings social justice to the campaign for healthy food

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2008 - Spring


Michele Simon, M.P.H. ’90, J.D., is incensed that businesses spend $36 billion annually “on marketing to get people to [consume] the wrong things.” She’s convinced that advertisements for alcohol, tobacco and junk foods promote chronic illnesses. And that’s why the author of Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back (Nation Books, 2006) crusades against “diseases caused by marketing.”

As part of her food campaign, Simon established the website to build awareness of the politics of food, and to encourage active public responses to the food industry. Simon gives frequent speeches in which she urges, “Look at what the food industry has done to alter our choices, then go after agricultural policy in a social-justice way. For example, poor communities suffer because of the availability of inexpensive alcohol and the lack of healthy food.” Simon is also the research and policy director for the Marin Institute, an alcohol industry watchdog group in California.

Likening her crusade to antismoking campaigns, Simon asked, “How can we change the laws so that eating healthy is not the exception? Agricultural policies are heavily influenced by industry. We’re subsidizing the wrong kinds of foods—we don’t even produce enough fruits and vegetables to meet daily recommended servings.”

Simon’s passion germinated during her years as a biology major at Carnegie Mellon University and her dual interests—bioethics and policy—spurred the New York City native to pursue a public health degree at Yale. When assisting with prenatal counseling at Yale-New Haven Hospital drew her toward genetics, Simon sought permission to take a course in reproductive law at Yale’s law school.

“Jay Katz’s class was fascinating,” she recalled, referring to Jay Katz, M.D., HS ’56, J.D., the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor Emeritus of Law, Medicine and Psychiatry at the Yale Law School. [See; “A Campaign Makes a Stop at Yale University”] Simon became Katz’s research assistant and was influenced by his pioneering work in bioethics and informed consent. “He certainly had an impact on me in combining health and law.”

At that time Yale offered neither a health policy concentration nor joint degrees in law and public health, but Simon was permitted to design her own program, which included courses in law, medicine and business. “I’m grateful I was able to do something that really suited me, and always felt I got support from the faculty,” she said.

During her first job, at California’s Department of Health Services–Genetic Disease Branch, Simon decided to enhance her health policy credibility and earned her J.D. at University of California Hastings College of the Law in 1995. Then, inspired by her new vegetarian diet and convinced that nutrition curricula at colleges and universities often reflect industry-influenced “science,” Simon taught herself about nutrition and quickly identified key political issues.

“With so much scientific evidence pointing to a plant-based diet being superior, why does the government tell us to eat meat and dairy every day? Why are school lunch programs so heavy on animal products?” she wondered. Using her legal training, Simon targeted nutrition policy, which was traditionally concerned with remedial programs like food stamps. “I was interested in quality, not just access—how to help people be healthier rather than just not hungry.”

She soon discovered a prominent nutritionist, Marion Nestle, Ph.D., the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition at New York University’s Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health Department and author of Food Politics and What to Eat, who was uncovering how politics influences America’s food choices. “I’m a disciple of hers, a great admirer, following in the trail she blazed, popularizing the notion of politics attached to what we eat,” Simon said.

Working with colleagues at Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, Simon analyzed industry influences on state food-related laws; her report, which argued that despite recent legislation to improve school food, more needs to be done, was published in the Food and Drug Law Journal in 2007. In late 2006, she spoke at both Rudd and the School of Public Health. “It was a lot of fun to go back as an alum. Talking about how I combine public health with law was a great opportunity to encourage graduates of the M.P.H. program to pursue policy and law, a growing field. Some major funders are seeing the need for more lawyers to work on nutrition.”

Nestle calls Simon “an unusually clear thinker about food issues, as she proves in Appetite for Profit, a terrific book. I use it to teach students how to interpret what food corporations really mean when they mutter platitudes about wanting to improve health, and to understand why the goals of food companies and public health can never really overlap. She’s so on top of the issues that I’m always learning new things from her.”

Now in its second printing, Simon’s well-reviewed book provides practical tools for “going up against the food industry. It’s a voice for people who have been working on this issue, frustrated by the obstacles.” (She has chapters on “Exposing Government Complicity” and “Battling Big Food in Schools.”) And, challenging a central argument of the food industry—that nutrition is a personal lifestyle choice, not a matter of public policy—she said, “This isn’t just a matter of personal choice—it’s a societal responsibility.”

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