What Foodies Can’t Get (Not Even at Whole Foods)

March 14, 2012 § 1 Comment

On March 8, I attended an event hosted by the design gurus at LAND Studios (Landscape, Art, Neighborhoods, and Design). As part of their Lockwood Thompson Dialogues, the design firm invited Penny De Los Santos, a photographer of food culture for National Geographic, as well as Dan Barber, the head-chef and owner of the hyper-sustainable Blue Hill Farm restaurant. The two sat down at the Cleveland Public Library to discuss the current state of food. The discussion was moderated by Michael Ruhlman, a Cleveland resident and perhaps most famously famously (in my mind), the right-hand-man to none other than Anthony Bourdain. Both are pictured below.

The conversation was, to be frank, a foodie’s wet dream. A reception beforehand featured cooking demonstrations by some of Cleveland’s best chefs, all of whom also happen to be advocates and supporters of the farm-to-table movement. Among those present were Johnathan Sawyer, recent participant on Iron Chef America and owner of the Greenhouse Tavern and Noodle Cat, Douglas Katz, of Fire Food and Drink, and finally Jackie and Ben Bebenroth of Spice Kitchen and Bar.

The eats were amazing; the beer: free.

The reception ended, and after a brief introduction from LAND Studio, Ruhlman introduced the audience to the distinguished guests, De Los Santos and Barber. I attended because I’ve found Barber’s work particularly intriguing. I had seen a number of videos of him lecturing at Harvard (jump to 15 minute mark), and at TED, twice. In sum, Barber is a giant in the food world. I mean no disrespect to the work of De Los Santos, but I went to the event to hear what Dan Barber latest interest was, which, as it turns out, is wheat.

Unfortunately, however, throughout the course of the event, issues of equity were skirted aside again and again. De Los Santos was first to point out to Barber that healthy, organic, grass-fed, free-range food is expensive, and most working people cannot afford to eat it on a regular basis. To be fair, Barber, a hero of mine and champion of sustainable agriculture, has never pretended to be devoted to issues of food access. After all, he approaches sustainable agriculture from the stance that ‘it tastes so much better!’ And he is right. The odd thing, however, in my mind, is that despite his extensive knowledge of food history, and reticent acknowledgment of a broken food system, he remains divorced from issues of justice as they relate to the food system.

Barber spoke eloquently about the fact that the global food system is not working for 50% of the world’s population, and that presently the food system does not have the cheery sustainable future that we might be getting ourselves excited about. He spoke about the four main things needed to have successful agriculture; soil, sunlight, fresh water– which is increasingly scarce–and consistent weather patterns–which are increasingly inconsistent. He pointed to a study that suggested the last time all four of these characteristics were remotely stable was during the Green Revolution in the 1950’s and 60’s. What is disconcerting is that a man with such robust knowledge of food systems can be so apathetic in regards to issues of equity and justice–precisely because it is the poor and disadvantaged of this country, and those around the world, who will be disproportionately affected by continued fluctuation in these systems.

Photograph by Penny De Los Santos

When De Los Santos brought to Barber’s attention the outrageous cost of eating local and organic food, Barber’s response was, in a nut-shell, “it’s a matter of priorities,” from which he then suggested that twenty years ago, if you would have told someone that they would be “paying for cable television or a cell phone they would have laughed at you.” While it may be true that money can be found by eliminating extraneous expenditures, such as cable television or a smart phone, it is patronizing to suggest that poor and disenfranchised populations should go without either. I am certainly not an evangelist for the iPhone or of Dish Network, but the folks who are currently buying into the local food movement and eating organic foods  have not done so by cutting a smart phone or a cable package out of their life. The reality is quite to the contrary: many have used their “local” diet as a status symbol to extoll their virtuous life style to others, as a way of mitigating their own sense of self-guilt or powerlessness within a broken food system. They have been able to buy into this local food system by virtue of their socioeconomic status, and are using it, largely, for their own self-aggrandizement.

When Michael Pollan came to Cleveland on National Food Day, back in October, he spoke about the future of food, and what it might look like. He spoke to the issue of food access directly. He suggested that the future food system will be a two-tiered one; one in where the wealthy will have access to local, healthy, non-GMO, pesticide-free food, while the poor and marginalized will continue to eat highly-processed, GMO, food devoid of nutritional value.

My contention with most ‘foodies’ is their general disinterest in the very issues that made them interested in food in the first place. I am talking about the Food, Inc. converts and Whole Foods shoppers. These are the people who have largely financed the infusion of organic products into national grocery store chains. Their demand for healthy food has been met with a growing supply of it on the shelves of stores across the country. Organic food advocates point to the ‘hidden cost’ of conventional food, saying that the future cost of medical bills on a personal level, as well as environmental degradation on a global level, together produce a cost that is exceedingly higher than the “ticket price” found on most food-stuffs. The extra 50 cents paid for organic food results in healthier living and an investment in a more sustainable food system. Unfortunately, many working families simply cannot afford any additional cost added on to their already thin budget.

“In 1949,” according to the Huffington Post, “Americans spent 22% of their income on food, whereas in 2009 they spent a meager 10%.” The pervasiveness of cheap food has radically changed the way families think about their finances. Why pay more for food when you can put that money toward savings, education, or any other expense? Foodies fail to realize that food access, like education access, is an issue that should not be relegated along economic, geographic, or ethnic lines. Sadly, one of the most intimate aspect of our lives, our consumption of food, has been co-opted by forces largely beyond our control, and it is taking our environment–along with our health– down with it.

At the closing of the discussion I had the opportunity to ask about this very issue. Barber offered a response which is prototypical of the foodie community: “Food is simply going to cost more.” He skirted the question with an answer that cheapened the issue at hand: how are poor people going to remain healthy in a system increasingly stratified by wealth and access?

I asked for solutions, for examples of people or organizations bridging this two-tiered system of food. What I got was anything but. I understand it is hard to approach this issue with a clear head. While foodies’ contribution to the larger food movement is invaluable, their disinterest in the underlying issues of justice as it relates to food is nonetheless shameful. Foodies and community activists need to begin dialoguing to find innovative solutions to this increasingly unjust food system. Without these conversations, our food system is damned for failure. Before we know it, we will be reminiscing of a time where the food system worked for 50% of the worlds population.

Daniel Brown, co-founder of MSCS.



§ One Response to What Foodies Can’t Get (Not Even at Whole Foods)

  • […] “What Foodies Can’t Get (Not Even at Whole Foods).” If you’ve spent any time with me in the past year or so, you know I’ve gotten passionate about food access and how privilege can affect the dialogue around “good” food. This is definitely a topic I’ll be coming back to when I have more time to rant and rave – in the meantime, this post from the Midwest Sustainable Cities Symposium is excellent. […]


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