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Filled Seats and A Call to Action: Marion Nestle in Brazil

This essay was originally published in the newsletter of O Joio e o Trigo, an investigative journalism project in Brazil. Some minor edits were made for the translation into English. The article describes the Brazilian launch of Marion Nestle’s book Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat. The book tour was organized by our partner, ACT Brazil.

“What was that?” Marion Nestle raised her hands in surprise as she crossed the door of the auditorium at the Faculty of Health Sciences of the University of Brasilia. For a moment, we felt cold chills go up our spines. Had she hated it? “I’ve never done a book launch with so many people.”

The emeritus professor at New York University had left her city 24 hours earlier. She was exhausted. But she found the strength for one more autograph, one more photo, one more smile. The 200-seat auditorium was packed to hear her, and one could feel the enthusiasm of the people as they listened intently to Marion’s clear and forceful speech.

Two days later, the auditorium of 230 seats at the Faculty of Public Health of the University of São Paulo (USP) was at capacity. Not only were many people sitting in the aisles, but the organizers also set up an extra room to simultaneously transmit Marion’s speech. She could hardly believe it when she arrived and saw the huge line of people eager to hear her. The same thing had happened the day before at the State University of Rio de Janeiro.

“I’ve published ten books. Ten. And I’ve never seen anything like this,” Marion continued telling us, after a presentation at the Social Service of Commerce Organization’s (SESC) Research and Training Center. Born in the 1930s, Marion surprises one with her deep vitality and energy. Yes, she was tired. At times it seemed she wanted to curse us for the intense schedule. But she kept going and did it well, with extreme clarity of thought.

What is left after the short Marion Nestle tour? First, the hope that she will return a few more times. Second, a book for us to pass around. Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat.

Third, ideas. Many. It is here where the professor’s trip through Brazil highlights our unhappy state of affairs. What is the meaning of having hundreds or thousands of people being subjected to the food industry bulldozer? This ludicrous scenario cannot last forever. While it’s here, the debates that Marion’s visit raised are an act of resistance.

And it’s growing: we are slowly trying to create a more promising tomorrow. As we have done before. It took decades for Brazil’s food and nutrition security system to develop public policies that made the country a global model.

Public university auditoriums were crowded just a few days after the Education Minister called them “bedlam” environments. The event in the USP happened hours after another minister, the Minister of Health, expressed his intention to dismantle years of work on the best labeling model of ultra-processed edible products. In the middle of the undoing of successful public policies to fight hunger.

But there was Marion, declaring that the Brazilian Dietary Guidelines are the best in the world. And showing that there is still a lot in play.

What is a professor before a government? Perhaps we should reverse the question: what is this government in the face of a person who has lived through a world war, the Cold War, numerous reactionary governments, academic machismo, corporate dossiers and more, to become an icon on food debates? Yes, they have the power, and use it without shame to produce violence, inequality, pain. But it is certain that their time will come to an end.

Marion, don’t worry. The people in the crowded auditoriums will take these ideas forward. They will develop new research. They will decide to join civil society organizations, or march on their own. They will propose public policies. They will produce the necessary changes to face the 21st century. In the last few months, we have all been trying to lay the bricks that will lead us to some better outcome. The professor’s trip through Brazil helped build a whole row of bricks on the wall.

“I have no words to express everything you have done,” she said as she said goodbye. Well, we do. Thank you, Marion. See you next time.