Thanks to Stella Park, author of the Brave Tart blog, I read First We Feast’s meant-to-be-provocative article “20 Things Everyone Thinks About The Food World But Nobody Will Say”. Many of their points are long overdue for making it into (virtual) print and bushwhacking their way through the twittersphere, but, like most thoughtful “foodies” (thusly grouped and quotified with what I hope is the appropriate amount of irony) I take issue with one of their tenets, that “The sustainable food movement is only relevant to rich white people.”
While this paragraph-sized critique notes important national issues like the mere existence of food deserts in a country rife with bounty, when they argue “Locavorism has become the newest outlet for yuppie guilt, providing a feeling of living ethically and supporting a cause, but too often the onslaught of kale and artisanal pickles blinds us from looking at the deeper problems affecting America’s food system,” I can’t help but defend local, seasonal eating and artisanal food production.
I have been spending the last five-plus months interviewing small batch food makers and visiting their production facilities and farms, and in fact am ending my west coast research effort this weekend, continually struck by passion, sincerity, and well-intentioned effort that most of these artisans (and I am convinced that whether they like this overused moniker or not, I can’t use another term because what they are creating is edible art) are making. Despite the disparity of industries that I am covering (pickles, cheese, chocolate, and alcoholic spirits) most purveyors’ reasons for turning the production of a food product into their livelihood (and for many it is not yet the one that pays their electric bill) is a similar one: they want to make a high quality, environmentally sustainable product, for reasons that are very, very personal to them. Yes, the products are expensive, but they also support individuals who work very hard, and family farms, and keeping vast swaths of green space organically worked, all while promoting the growth and relevancy of endangered vegetables like kohlrabi or food preservation methods such as fermenting.
I agree that not everyone can afford to spend eight dollars (or more) on a jar of hand-packed pickles – but the reasonable alternative is not industrial packed and chemically preserved pickles available on every street corner. The alternative is that people are made aware of how much money the government subsidizes large industry to keep food deserts in existence. The alternative lies in the vastly growing number of food coops that offer cheaper prices on produce than SuperWalmart and CSAs that offer shares on a sliding scale. There are bulk buying efforts happening in a lot of “desert”ed places like Detroit and the parts of Brooklyn that aren’t visited by Manhattan-ites looking for a New York Times- or Zagat-reviewed meal, and a huge proliferation of farmer’s markets in urban, suburban, and rural area – many of which are starting to accept what used to be called “food stamps.” And these efforts wouldn’t have happened without the incredible rise and subsequent critique of the locavore movement.
Don’t forget that the term locavore was invented less than eight years ago, and has exhibited the same growing pains as many trends – food and otherwise – of the same age. I, too, adopted a near-militant locavore stance (as a poor grad student and then an adjunct professor, all while living in a small apartment in a large urban area) before softening my understanding of the term as more of an eating philosophy than an ardent set of rules. I believe that many self-proclaimed locavores feel the same: that they will make food choices based upon values that the original locavore movement was responding to, including knowing the farmer or purveyor as often as possible, organic or environmentally conscious sourcing, eating fewer processed foods, and, above all, seeking community in many forms through food. For me, this may mean occasionally buying food of unknown provenance from the local Trini take-out joint down the street. But this choice is also supporting sustainability and community in a way that I feel comfortable with and proud of.
And while I do not have a large disposable budget, I do know that I can afford to spend more on food than many others in this country (although I also believe that we, as a nation, have it so ingrained in us that food should be unnaturally cheap – that some, but certainly not all, people who say that can’t afford the sometimes more expensive organic or local or less processed food item at a store find room in their budget for other non-essentials). Instead, I look at my food choices – and that of my “rich, white” counterparts as a tax of the kind we have been so hotly debating for the past year. I spend my money on organic, local, artisanal goods to help subsidize their presence. Because there is more kale in the marketplace overall (which is actually quite cheap and incredibly easy to grow, I will add, and is one of the most traditionally “peasant” of all foods) if I spend more money on organic and locally grown produce no matter where I buy it from. Because when I choose to buy cheese from a small, organic artisan, they are able to keep purchasing organic milk from their dairy-farmer neighbor and he or she can afford to keep their cows pasture-raised. Because if I decide to buy that (relatively) expensive bar of chocolate, I know that there is no young kid in Africa who was forced to pick the cacao beans for free just so I can eat an unnaturally cheap and overly sweet few bites of cocoa-flavored indulgence.
The bottom line is that local and artisanal foods represent the products’ actual cost, since most purveyors are getting little to none of the subsidies that the large industrial farmers receive to keep their often environmentally-damaging food so cheap. And their presence in the marketplace reminds us of what a wide variety of high quality produce, meat, and goods is like – and that the real fight is in ensuring that the playing field is made more equal across the board. So the “onslaught of kale and artisanal pickles” does not, as these authors note, blind us “from looking at the deeper problems affecting America’s food system,” but rather it highlights this fight. That jar of pickles or wedge of cheese is saying “this is what you deserve, America. You deserve a wide variety of quality produce at a price that is fair to both you and the farmer. You deserve dairy that isn’t laced with bovine growth hormones and even coffee and chocolate that pays the source a fair wage for their efforts. You deserve a world where your food choices don’t reflect large industrial farms getting rich through subsidies and poor environmental practices that are paid for by your taxes and health.” I’ll gladly pay for that, and the authors of this article should as well.