Mark Bittman Talks About Why 'California Matters'

A large part of California's environmental, social, and economic identity is defined by the state's food and agriculture system. Author and New York Times columnist Mark Bittman recently teamed up with UC Berkeley Food Institute and the University of California's Global Food Initiative to create "California Matters," a series of videos focusing on food-related research happening across the state. The series aims to parse out issues related to food in California and examine its far-reaching implications.

Starting today, and then every other Tuesday, we'll feature an installment of "California Matters" here on our site. In each video, Bittman speaks with experts in their respective fields to address topics that are as diverse as the state itself. Issues covered include labor rights, sustainable agriculture, urban foraging, ocean acidification, and more.

Mark Bittman / Photo: Fred R. Con

The following is an edited conversation I had with Bittman about the program "California Matters."

California produces much of the country's food and often leads the way in both food policy and fads. What emerging issues and trends will affect the rest of the country?

Mark Bittman: Obviously California's water policy will affect the country forever but we don't know exactly where it's going to go. I personally think it won't be a crisis per se but water use will have to change through regulation. How that will happen I don't know. Water should be used to grow crops that are best grown in California and I think there's a lot of water going to crops that are not well suited there. I learned a lot in California. Even if I did the same series in Texas I would have learned a lot there. Immigrant labor is a huge issue all over food, all over the U.S., but California is huge in terms of activism. What happens there reflects what happens elsewhere. The fight for fair labor and immigration is a nation-wide phenomenon.

In terms of food, what would you say is the most exciting thing happening in California at the moment?

Bittman: I think the fact people are looking to make farming more sustainable and more fair is exciting. That's happening on many different levels in California and that's what we're looking at in the series. There's an episode with Full Belly Farms where we talk about pollinators -- that's a really important one and is a good look at a model that others can follow. I think looking at immigrants in agriculture, pesticides in agriculture, and labor in agriculture -- those are important aspects that are changing for the better thanks to the people we're speaking to in the series.


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Did you speak with any young people in your series?

Bittman: No, but labor, climate change, nutrition, fairness, and justice -- that's what we're talking about on the series but it's all happening. That's why I was doing the series. I hope it's watched by young people.

You spent some time in Southern California exploring Chinese restaurants in Asian American suburbs. What was it like as an observer?

Bittman: I have been to the San Gabriel Valley and Orange County many times, so it didn't come that much as a surprise, but it was important to walk around with a pure academic of Chinese immigration in the United States and to see how it plays out in the evolution of the so-called Chinatown. That was really cool as well. The Pan-Asian community is such a vibrant community. One of the things about the series that is so great for me is to look at things I wouldn't have ordinarily looked at when coming to California.

In your writing you're pretty specific about how and what you eat. Has living in California changed any of that?

Bittman: My cooking has become simpler because the ingredients are better in California, but chopping has become more complicated because there are more food options.

Have you decided to stay in California for a while?

Bittman: I'm committed to staying another year. The role is not entirely clear, but I will be in Berkeley and that's all I'm prepared to say at the moment.

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