26 May. This article still attracts a lot of traffic, probably from search engine results. It seems rather topical given the widely reported projected increases in the price of food and petroleum products and the conflict between the human food and ethanol fuel uses for corn. I’ve also updated the PeaceBang link.
The Rev. Victoria Weinstein, writing as PeaceBang, is a dear friend with whom I ordinarily agree. She wrote:
I’m just wondering this honestly, and with no sense of judgment (quelle surprise!), but honestly, as middle and upper-class Americans are running around trying to eat organic everything and grass-fed beef (if they eat beef) and full-moon harvested herbs and drinking biodynamic wine, isn’t it true that most of the people in our country are still eating mostly crap?
Shouldn’t we be working on justice issues that make basically, minimally healthful food available to more people before scurrying about trying to fill our own larders exclusively with organic and perfectly nutritious foodstuffs?
I certainly hear some judgment there: the kind of hand-wringing directed towards one’s peers where overstatements can be accepted as cheery ribbing. I hear twee stereotypes which conflate motives and aspirations.
Let me tell you where I’m coming from. I’m middle-aged and chunky. I’ve had to live on very little money in the past, but — even though I am currently unemployed and temping — Hubby and I enjoy a high quality of life and this extends to our foodways. Our bedroom literally overlooks the Whole Foods, so we shop there for food quite a bit. And the local Safeway. And the CVS two doors down from the Whole Foods. And the little neighborhood bodega. And the Seven-Eleven. And the farmer’s market on Sunday. We also eat out quite a bit. None of these gets a majority of our trade.
Likewise, I am making a bejeweled potato salad for lunch tomorrow — new temp assignment; who knows if they have a microwave? — from farmer’s market potatoes and Whole Foods frozen organic vegetables. But I just had a CVS brownie in a fit of palliative stress eating. I can work both sides of the street. Like Paul, I do not always do what I want, but I have a general idea of which way I want to go.
But as for food buying choices, I gladly spend more on farmer’s market goods — if they are staples and not highly processed — if it supports regional and local agriculture, organic or not. I’ll spend more because I’m in a position to do so; not all can.
Why? I fear that diminishing petroleum reserves are going to lead to a more difficult agricultural future. Less petroleum and gas means more expensive fertilizers, pesticides, food processing and transportation. Food will cost more in real terms. Climate change may mean what grows well in one place may no longer grow as well. Long-term food security probably means having food produced in as simple and local a way possible, and having to make do with less. Whether this comes in twenty or fifty or a hundred years, I would rather do my part to prepare today. Our cheap, bad food situation may be a historical blip.
So I buy locally to support some farmers who need to be supported or they won’t grow produce for the Washington retail market. If more support these producers, they will expand their operations and entice others to enter farming. As with electronics, early adopters pave the way to greater availability and affordability, if not to the same degree! Unlike electronics, if traditional food-production skills aren’t preserved now, we are likely have less folk-knowledge to use later. Buying locally is as much an investment as an option; it is hardly sexy to tramp to Dupont Circle in the snow to buy potatoes and apples, so I don’t think I’m deluding myself. And I try to buy local goods to a great degree each week.
But in the interim, what of healthy diets for those without access to good quality food? Similar issues apply. First, people have the freedom to eat badly and make mistakes. Second, low-quality food is most appealing because for very little money you can be full and feel satisfied. (Little Debbie was my friend at college.) It is also convenient because it is often ready-to-eat or nearly so. The damage it does it capitalized and deferred. Whole foods — in the old sense of the term — are never going to be as fast and convenient, and I can hardly imagine they’ll be as cheap; if the two ideas of food compete on this basis, bad food will always win.
Rather than casting the issue as one of justice, eating wholesome food seems like a matter of attitude and understanding. Good food needs to be an appealing option, and the best way to do this is to encourage opinion-shapers to adopt better foodways and offer an experience of better foodways and education. Ministers ought to be opinion-shapers. So ought parents. I fear though that we had better get some more popular musicians on this campaign. (Which isn’t so bad. Morrissey has lead me to eat less meat.)
One problem, I think, is that most Americans experience food passively, and so little appreciate it. Quality is not as much an issue. But we do have the ability to appreciate an experience — this is how Starbucks continues to make money on over-roasted beans and syrup-topped confections — and the best place to experience good food is in the home. We like to be entertained by our food: family holiday meals and cooking shows are the evidence here.
So we can teach cooking. We can encourage dining together. We can speak plainly about ancestral foodways — which almost by definition are healthier than today’s — with pride. Without an appreciation for good food, there will be no market for it. I think a lot of small retailer know exactly what does sell and that’s why they sell so much junk.
I think the issue is less about justice than capacity, and once there is a greater capacity to respect healthy food, we can move on to issues that need political solutions.
Originally published 6 March 2007.