Keeping the Sustainable Food Discussion Relevant

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.

9 thoughts on “Keeping the Sustainable Food Discussion Relevant

  1. I could not agree with you more! Eating locally helps our local economy in so many ways. You also touched on something few people talk about, which is that factory food prices are artificially depressed. This has contributed to a complex web of problems including obesity, environmental damage, and the abuse of farmworkers. (think Florida tomato pickers) Eating locally and seasonally is not only better for our bodies and our local economies, it’s about the only way that I can vote with my dollars against the rampant abuses present in our food system. Thanks for such a great post!

  2. Nicely written. A couple of years ago, my family and I took the Food Stamp Challenge where we had to live on the available allocation for a family of five. We amped the challenge by trying to eat locally produced food wherever possible and what we learned was fantastic. We could do it but it strongly highlighted gaps in our local food system like co-ops for bulk purchases of grain and olive oil and the fact that many of the individuals facing food challenges have not had the opportunity for instruction about how to use local ingredients.

  3. Excellent post and comments. As you suggest, “the onslaught of seasonal kale and pickles” shows what the food system could look like, so it serves to highlight rather than hide the abuses of the industrial food system. In addition, the whole “local food is for rich white people” argument collapses in the face of the many initiatives across the U.S. and Canada aimed at bringing healthy, sustainable food to low-income neighbourhoods and involving those communities in growing their own food (e.g., Will Allen’s Growing Power, among others).

  4. Yes, the food is currently more expensive, but your post reminded me of something a farmer said in one organic-food book I read. Someone had complained about the price of his eggs (which I remember not being exorbitantly priced), and he pointed out that he deserves to earn a white-collar income in his profession. That brought up a new point for me – that careers in the farming and food industry that lead to the creation of quality and healthy food products deserve to be well-respected. Although I understand the debate over unequal access to this food, I think that some problems in our food industry (such as e coli outbreaks) are related to the de-professionalization of this industry.

  5. While I cannot speak for the authors, I think the intention of that blurb is to point to the vapidness of trends which often dominate the consumer culture of yuppies and those urban professionals who are aware of the special value placed on produce or food that is marked organic/local/sustainable. Having read your opinion, I agree that supporting local and handcrafted artisanal business is a significant move in a consumer culture–as the saying goes, your money is your vote.

    However, the underlying problem that I can extract from the first piece is that there remains an existing culture where the message of the artisans we support is lost amongst the masses. Larger scale problems such as the government subsidies of cheaper, environmentally inflaming food are lost to those who are ignorant, and only those who seek out to educate themselves about the agroindustrial complex in this country are aware of the implications of buying the local products that they do. Obviously you are aware of these issues, however I cannot say after living in New York City for all of my life that I can say the same for my peers, many of whom blindly buy anything marked with “local”, “organic” (lollipops anyone?) or kale. The driving point to that article is that in general, people living in the city do not an intimate relationship or eating philosophy that stems from a close relationship and understanding with the earth. Certainly, this is not the case for all city dwellers, and those who know about the environmental challenges of our civilization should support local food culture, and hopefully it opens up venues for more people to become aware of the food system in America–but having lived here I cannot say that the two always touch point with each other.

    I can go on about this forever, believe me! Kudos if you made it to the end!

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