Marion Nestle’s Unexpected Life in Food Politics

The food policy expert recently met with the UC Berkeley community to talk about her path to a career in food systems.

November 3, 2022
By Austin Price, BFI Communications Coordinator

Marion Nestle speaks in a student-faculty roundtable at UC Berkeley on November 1, 2022. Photos by Austin Price

Marion Nestle is no stranger to the Berkeley food systems community. Whenever she comes to town, she tends to fill up auditoriums and event spaces with people interested to hear her take on nutrition policy, industry science, food company PR, and food politics. I have heard a few people who have dedicated their careers to food and ag advocacy say that Dr. Nestle was the author that first turned them towards food systems. She’s written a dozen books, including the groundbreaking Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health.

But on a recent trip back to her alma mater, Nestle turned the conversation inward, to share her own journey to a prolific career as a food politics expert. “There’s no such thing as a question that’s too personal,” she said to a room full of UC Berkeley students and faculty.

On November 1, the Berkeley Food Institute, the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, and the Department of Nutritional Sciences and Toxicology hosted a student and faculty roundtable with Marion Nestle. The roundtable was moderated by Food Institute Graduate Council co-chair Nani Conklin and gave our community a chance to ask questions about Nestle’s journey to food policy, how she learned to handle the media, the balance of academia with family life, and the role of privilege and connections in the academic industry. The conversation continued that night at an event hosted by KPFA and moderated by BFI Executive Director Nina F. Ichikawa.

At the center of the discussion was Nestle’s newest book, her memoir titled Slow Cooked: An Unexpected Life in Food Politics. The memoir chronicles Nestle’s path to her current position at New York University, where she established one of the first higher education programs looking at “food studies” – scholarship focused on the role food plays in our social, political, and economic landscapes.

“I am hard pressed to think of a problem in society that cannot be understood more deeply by examining the role of food,” Nestle writes in Slow Cooked. “Just consider how food relates to hunger and chronic disease, environmental pollution, or climate change; to systems of agricultural production and distribution; to the ways foods are sold, prepared, and consumed; or to how societies deal with such matters as immigration, racial and gender discrimination, and incarceration.”

Yet, as Nestle explains her book, her career path hasn’t been easy, fraught with challenges associated with raising kids, the politics of academic leadership, the egos she encountered working in federal agencies. In one chapter, for example, she discusses the “swimming pool epiphany.” After dropping her kids off at a swimming lesson on a Saturday, Nestle thought she would pop into the lab to get some work done with no one else around. Rather than an empty lab, she found all of her colleagues there, and realized then that the expectations of an academic career do not complement the balance of work and family.

These are the types of stories that make up Slow Cooked – stories that show that a career in food systems is far from monolithic. The only consistencies, according to Nestle, are personal values like “sheer persistence and hard work,” and the reminder that food signifies something important to all of us. Everyone eats after all, she writes in Slow Cooked, and “everyone can grasp food issues and say something about them.”

For more information about Marion Nestle and her new book, see: