Category Archives: social class

A Food Policy & Politics Christmas Wish List

Santa baby, just slip sustainable aquaculture
under the tree, for me.
Been an awful good girl, Santa baby,
So hurry down the chimney tonight.

I wonder if she's asking for a garbage-fed pig, too. Also, I love that it looks like she's saying, "Santa, how could you? Why, I've never heard of such a thing!"From flickr user duluoz cats

Dear Santa,

I know I can be a bit of a “negative Nancy.” I spend a lot more time criticizing existing policy and reform efforts than offering alternatives or solutions. Of course, that’s partially due to the fact that not all policies need alternatives—the flip side of a lot of my apparent negativity is that I have a much sunnier outlook on the U.S. food system than many self-identified foodies and people associated with the “food revolution.”

For example, I’m down on most anti-obesity initiatives because I don’t think obesity causes serious diseases or death. I’m open to evidence to the contrary, but in all the epidemiological studies I’ve seen (including the ones cited by the WHO and NIH when they redefined “obesity” to a lower BMI range) BMI isn’t even significantly correlated with an increased risk of mortality until you get into the territory of severe or morbid obesity (BMI 35+). The number of Americans in that category has been growing since 1980, but it still amounts to less than 5% of the U.S. population, far less than the 30-60% of overweight or obese Americans usually cited as the evidence that we’re in the midst of an obesity “epidemic.” Americans on average aren’t much fatter than they were 50 or 100 years ago. The “typical American diet” high in refined grains and sugar probably isn’t optimal for human health (for reasons other than that it makes most people fatter), but it nonetheless enables many people to live long, relatively healthy lives.

What with the kids in laps and such, I'd think Santa might be more concerned about keeping his Ginger *down*, but what do I know?From Found in Mom’s Basement.

I think we’re doing somewhere between okay and great on several other fronts, too. Although imperfect in many ways, the industrial food production and distribution systems are sometimes more efficient in terms of total inputs and carbon emissions per calorie or pound than small, local farms—environmentalists should celebrate the spread of no-till farming and possibility of safe GMO crops that increase yields with reduced water, nitrogen, or phosphorus needs. Illnesses caused by food-borne pathogens are probably less common now than at any point in our country’s history (and new estimates about the incidence of food-borne illness are even lower). For anyone who’s interested in novel foods, there’s probably never been a better time or place to be an eater. The ever-increasing flows of people, goods, and information around the world have made everything from far-flung regional specialties to ancient recipes to innovative taste experiences more available to more consumers than ever.

Of course, that doesn’t mean things couldn’t be better. So here’s a list of seven changes I would like to see in how people produce, consume, regulate, and talk about food in the U.S. It’s a bit of a motley assortment—if there’s one thing people in the “food movement” seem to agree on it’s that food is implicated in our lives in a myriad of interconnected ways. I think there’s room for improvement in multiple realms. 

Is it just me or does this look like 1950s-era photoshopping? I'm skeptical that that dude's cheeks were actually that rosy, and wonder if maybe he wasn't really wearing that hat or holidng that magic kit. From flickr user HA! Designs

1. More Garbage-fed Pigs. This might be impractical, or ultimately less efficient than just feeding them  corn, but it certainly seems like it would make sense to feed more restaurant and/or home kitchen waste food to pigs. That might require revisiting some recent changes in state and local laws—according to the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida, the practice of feeding pigs garbage in the U.S. has “declined in recent years because of stricter federal, state, and local laws regulating animal health, transportation, and the feed usage of food waste.”

1940s wartime poster from the UK, from the Mary Evans Picture Library, which will sell it to you as a mousepad or jigsaw puzzle. Click.According to George Monbiot, similar changes in the UK have caused the percentage of edible grain in pig feed to double from 33% in the early 1990s to over 60% today, replacing crop residues and food waste. He claims that was largely an overreaction to fears about mad cow disease, even though there’s no danger in letting pigs eat meat and bone meal. Given that it’s now apparently against English law to feed kitchen scraps—even vegetable matter—to pet pigs, I’m inclined to believe him.

I’m all for food safety, but perhaps we could re-examine whether recent laws about the feed usage of food waste are really protecting pigs and people from disease, or just preventing us from making good use of garbage. Anyone who’s ever worked in a restaurant knows how much food gets thrown out. Legal or not, I’ve heard about some people buying kitchen slops from restaurants to feed their pigs, and that sounds like a win-win: the restaurant profits from their garbage, and the hobby farmer gets cheap, high-quality pig food. I’m imagining something like that, but on a grander scale. Could we increase the amount of food waste in pig feed to 60-70% nationwide? Get on it, Santa.

2. More funding for food stamps. Not only do they prevent poor people from having to choose between buying food and paying the rent, they also provide the best stimulus “bang for the buck.” The biggest disappointment of the new school lunch bill is that it’s partially funded by cuts in federal funding for SNAP. If you’re the type to get your panties in a bunch over the possibility that a handful of underemployed college graduates might use them at Whole Foods, just remember 1) that’s probably not hurting anyone and 2) it’s not how the vast majority of food stamps get used. From Economix, click for link

3. More sustainable aquaculture. I love fish, but it’s getting hard to keep track of what kinds are safe and ethical and I’m worried about declining ocean stocks and the ecological impact of farmed salmon. Some promising developments I’ve heard about in the last year are aquaponics and farmed barramundi. More please?

4. Living wages for farm and food industry workers. Congrats to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, who finally won the $0.01/lb raise they’ve been fighting for since 2001, which may raise their average annual income from $10,000 to $17,000. But that’s still pretty terrible. The low cost of fast food that people like Pollan complain about is almost certainly due more to the declining cost of labor in the last three decades than to farm subsidies. Thirty years ago, most meatpacking jobs were unionized and paid decent wages. I want that back.

Of course, it’s possible that if that happened, everyone else ( at least in the bottom 80% of income earners) would need help paying for the increased cost of food. So I guess this is a two-part request, and it’s probably the “big ticket” item on the list: I want more equitable income distribution. As Ezra Klein argued on the Washington Post site recently, there’s no reason to take our current rates of income inequality for granted.

In 1969, for instance, the average CEO made 26 times what the average worker made. Today, it’s closer to 500 times.

Not so in Japan, where “it’s indecent for rich people to make too much money because, after all, these are collaborative endeavors.” I’m not saying everyone needs to take home an identical paycheck, but I have a hard time believing the work and expertise of the average CEO is worth 500 times the work and expertise of their average employee. Or that the bankers who made deals with Magnetar deserve exponentially greater compensation than the people who spend all day every day picking vegetables or disemboweling beef carcasses. If that’s too much to ask, how about this for starters: everyone who works full time should be paid enough that they don’t qualify for food stamps.

5. Less “local,” more “low-impact.” I think the locavore movement has good intentions, but proximity is a poor proxy for things like the carbon footprint of food, largely because transportation only accounts for approximately 11% of the energy used in the food system—most of the rest is used up in water delivery, fertilizer production and application, harvesting, processing, packaging, heated barns and refrigeration, and the gas or electricity you use in your own kitchen.

Photo by Carbon Trust, featured in G-Online, click for storyJames Williams suggests that watchdog groups should calculate “life cycle carbon counts,” and the European Union has introduced “carbon labels.” I’m in favor of that, even though I’m not sure how practical it is. Perhaps some of your local farmers drive their produce to a single market in a new, energy-efficient vehicle while others drive old trucks, half-full, to a dozen markets every week. Despite the complications, someone might be able to come up with some ballpark regionally-specific estimates for commonly-purchased produce, and develop a “rating” system similar to the Seafood Watch guides you can print or download.

More broadly, I’d like to see the popular discourse shift away from the obsessive focus on locality, which corporations have already successfully co-opted. Are farmers in California or sub-Saharan Africa really any less deserving of your support than some guy who happens to live 50 miles away, especially if the former can get you a greener product? Sometimes thinking “global” may require buying “global,” not local.

6. Less condescension, more compassion. No more telling people they should be buying local, organic  heirloom beets instead of sneakers and cell phones. No more sneering at people who shop at “Whole Paycheck.” For the rich and the poor and everyone in between, I just want a cease-fire. I’m tired of people scolding other people or claiming the moral high ground because of where they shop, what they buy, how they cook, or what they feed their kids. This cuts both ways—it’s as annoying when people berate vegetarians for being stupid hypocrites or sneer at insufficiently-adventurous eaters as it is when people criticize fast food eaters and get smug about having a CSA share (or even having a particular CSA—I’m looking at you, Tantre shareholders).

No more of this passive-aggressive crap either. No one lectures people about how they ought to make their own clothes, but surely most of the same arguments people make about homemade food apply. Homemade clothes would probably be better-quality (at least once the maker has some practice and skill). They could be made with local, organic textiles free from chemical dyes and designed to suit individual tastes and needs instead of being made in factories and shipped halfway around the world. Wearing them instead of ready-made clothes would reduce your dependence on and support for unethical labor conditions and the culture of cheap, disposable wearables. And yet people are much more willing to accept that some people just don’t have the time to make their own clothes.

I’ve heard people say things to the effect of “it’s about priorities” in response to those who claim that some people don’t have time to cook. Well, duh, it’s about priorities. What is “I don’t have time,” if not a different way of saying, “It is less important to me than the other things I have to do”? No one saying “I don’t have time” is claiming they’ve got fewer hours in a day than anyone else, just that more important things are occupying those hours. What “it’s about priorities” doesn’t explain is why anyone thinks they should be the one to tell someone else what their priorities should be. If you have time to cook, or make your own clothes, bully for you. What I’m asking for is that people stop assuming the same is true of anyone else. Better to assume that most people are doing the best they can with what they’ve got. The fact that someone else’s life looks different than yours doesn’t make theirs inferior—nor does it make yours inferior, which is the fear that I suspect drives most of that kind of condescension anyway.

TeacherPatti wrote about a similar issue last week in the fabulous post titled “A Different Life.”

7. “Public health” policy that focuses on health instead of thinness. Thinness is a really poor proxy for health, for reasons I’ve already mentioned above. Policies that focus on calories, BMI, and weight-loss are all designed to make people thinner—not that they’re likely to succeed at that either. If we really wanted to make people healthier, we’d stop advocating calorie-restriction dieting, which is more likely to make people fatter and less healthy in the long-term. Instead, we could devote resources to encouraging physical activity and decreasing sugar consumption. And maybe in the process we could start promoting acceptance of a wider range of body shapes and sizes, which might in turn help people develop healthier relationships with food. More on this topic before and I’m sure, again in the New Year.

I know that’’s a lot to ask for, Santa, and I know you’re a busy guy. I don’t actually expect to get any of these things, and perhaps it’s better that way—as multiple fairy tales and clichés warn us, wishes can be dangerous, volatile things, prone to tragic backfiring. In the realm of food, that seems especially true. Policies that might be better for the environment often seem to be worse for animal welfare or human health; reforms that might be better for nutrition might be bad for the environment or leave some people hungry. The food system and its effects are so far-reaching and complicated that change is never going to be simple. I’m prepared to be happy with whatever you can swing this year.

Best regards to you and Mrs. Claus,

Margot

p.s. Happy Holidays.

nomnomnomFrom Roar of the Tigers

Price, Sacrifice, and the Food Movement’s “Virtue” Problem

I'm not elitist, I just think you should reconsider whether your cell phones or Nike shoes or whatever it is you fat fucks spend your money on is really more important than eating heirloom beets. I just want you to make what I believe would be the more satisfying choice for you. Because I am the authority on what you find satisfying.

Urging others to eat better (and thus more expensive) food is not
elitist,
[Alice Waters] said. It is simply a matter of quality versus quantity
and encouraging healthier, more satisfying choices. “Make a sacrifice
on the cellphone or the third pair of Nike shoes,”
she said.

The Price Paradox

One of the most frequent critiques of what has been called the “food revolution” and especially its de facto spokespeople, Alice Waters & Michael Pollan, is that the kind of food they want people to eat—fresh, organic, free-range, grass-fed, local, slow, “healthy” etc.—is generally more expensive than the alternatives: processed, conventional, caged, corn-fed, industrially-farmed, fast, “junk” food. For example, in an interview with DCist to promote his newest book, Anthony Bourdain said:

I’ll tell you. Alice Waters annoys the living shit out of me. We’re all in the middle of a recession, like we’re all going to start buying expensive organic food and running to the green market. (interview with the DCIst)

Pollan and Waters have responded to this critique numerous times, and their standard defense goes something like this:

Pollan, nomming something virtuous, I'd wagerWell, $4 for a single peach or $8 for a dozen eggs isn’t really that expensive. The real problem is that government  subsidies have made junk food artificially cheap and confused us about the real price of food. Many people have discretionary income that should be spent on more expensive food that’s better for their health, the environment, animal welfare, etc. If consumers demand it, producers will find a way to provide it.

Michael Pollan, demonstrating his undeniable talent for reducing complicated issues to pithy sayings, has summarized this in his rule: “Pay more, eat less.” In essence, they suggest that good food should cost more. But then, on the other hand, they argue:

Local, organic, [yadda yadda] food is so self-evidently superior that the primary reason most people continue to choose crappy, industrially-produced fast food that destroys their health and the environment is because it’s just so much cheaper. Many people don’t have discretionary income, and therefore something needs to be done on a structural level—possibly an entire overhaul of the agricultural subsidy system—to make “real” food affordable enough for everyone. In other words, good food should cost less.

These aren’t wholly incompatible, and indeed, I suspect that many proponents of the “food revolution” support both: people who can should be willing to pay more for fresh, local, organic food now. At the same time, we should collectively pursue policies that make that kind of food cheaper until everyone can buy it.

But what if the problem isn’t cost?

As James Williams points out in a recent article in The Atlantic, “Should We Really Pay $4 for a Peach?”, what he calls “healthy food” like apples, dry beans, carrots, and celery have declined in price right along with cookies, ice cream, and potato chips over the last two and half decades. According to the Economic Research Service of the USDA, from 1980 to 2006—precisely the period when many people claim that fast food overtook our national diet and made us into the fattest people on the planet—food declined in price across the board, and crucially, “the price of a healthy diet has not changed relative to an unhealthy diet.” As Williams says:

Evidently, consumers have chosen to take advantage of the declining prices for the cookies rather than the apples, thereby undermining the claim that we choose cheap unhealthy food because it’s cheap. As it turns out, we also choose it because we appear to like it better than cheap healthy food.

I take issue with the rhetorical move of collapsing American consumers—a diverse lot—into a single “we,” but even if what he says isn’t true for everyone, it must be true for a lot of people. I suspect that many proponents of food reform don’t want to believe that’s really the reason people continue eating “bad” industrially-processed junk because they have the special conviction of born-again religious zealots. Being converts themselves, many of them believe that all the unconverted masses need is to be enlightened the same way they were. They assume that once other people are “educated” about how superior organic, local, yadda yadda food is, they too will see the light.

But what if that’s not true? What if most people will remain skeptical about the supposed superiority of natural, organic, local, etc. food (often with good reason) or, more often, be simply indifferent to claims about its superiority, no matter how cheap and accessible it is? What if buying organic food really won’t be more satisfying to many people than a third pair of Nikes? (And could Waters have chosen a more racist or classist example of conspicuous consumption? Seriously, why not a flat-screen television or granite countertops?)

When Price IS King

from Sociological Images, click for link There’s an important caveat about the price issue that Williams left out: calorie for calorie, soda, candy, chips, and fast foods made with cheap meat, soybean oil, and white flour are significantly cheaper than apples and dried beans. For the roughly one in five Americans who lacked the money to buy the food they needed at some point in the last year, or the more than 49 million Americans categorized as “food insecure,” price may still be the dominant factor guiding their food choices.

I don’t think most food insecure people necessarily stand around in grocery store aisles looking at nutritional labels and crunching the numbers to figure out what will give them the highest caloric bang for their buck, the way Adam Drewnowski did. However, many of them probably stick to cheap, processed combinations of corn, wheat, and soy because they know they can afford enough of that to get by on, and because it tastes good to them.

In the somewhat-dated account of urban poverty There Are No Children Here, Alex Kotlowitz describes the monthly shopping ritual of a single mother on food stamps. She goes to the office where she gets her food stamps, and then goes directly to the store where she buys the same array of canned, boxed, bagged, and frozen foods every month. She has it down to a science. She knows exactly how many loaves of white bread, boxes of macaroni and cheese, cans of soup, pounds of ground beef and bologna, and bricks of generic American cheese it takes to to feed her family for a month on her government-allotted budget.

However, as those damned hipsters on food stamps have demonstrated, even people of limited means can produce the kinds of meals Alice Waters might smile upon. So why don’t they?

The Elision of Virtue and Sacrifice

As much as its proponents like to portray eating local, organic, yadda yadda food as a purely joyful and delicious celebration, there’s basically no getting around the fact that it takes a lot more work to turn fresh produce into a meal than it does to go through a drive-thru or microwave something frozen. I suspect that even most of the “food revolution” faithful rely on prepared foods and cheap take-out now and then, even if it’s more likely to be from Trader Joe’s or a local organic pizzeria instead of Walmart or Little Caesar’s. The problem is not that the ingredients of a home-cooked meal, like $1.29/lb broccoli, are so much more expensive than dollar menu meals at McDonald’s, which is what Food, Inc. implies. The problem is that broccoli isn’t a ready-made meal.

My friend Patti made a similar point on her blog recently, noting that the recent initiatives to get fresh food into Detroit smack of race/class privilege. As a friend of hers said:

If he has $3 left til payday and payday is two days away, he’s going to the Golden Arches.  There’s no denying that you can get a meal for $3 versus some tomatoes and a banana.

Eating “right” according to the the (shifting and frequently conflicted) priorities of the “food revolution” requires effort and sacrifice—perhaps not a sacrifice of objective deliciousness for people who’d rather have a bowl of homemade chili than a burger any day of the week, but a sacrifice of familiar tastes and habits and the instant gratifications of foods composed primarily of sugar, starch, fat, and salt.

For the food revolution faithful, that sense of sacrifice isn’t a deterrent, but actually seems to be central to their perception that eating local, organic, etc. food is morally superior. I first started thinking about this at a roundtable on “Food Politics, Sustainability and Citizenship” at the 2008 Annual Meeting of the American Studies Association. The panelists acknowledged that local, organic, and/or “natural” foods were not always objectively superior in the ways people want to think they are—they often require more energy to produce and transport even if they have a much shorter distance to travel, there’s no consensus on whether or not they’re healthier than the conventional, processed alternatives, and they are often labor-intensive and rely on child labor, unpaid interns, and the willingness of farmers to self-exploit. In short, they admitted that “bad” industrial food is often more sustainable, just as healthy, and possibly sometimes more ethical. But they all insisted that regardless of its real impact, what was more important was that consumers of local and organic foods were “trying.” And they all emphasized the importance of narratives—the stories we tell ourselves about why we do what we do, which is one realm where “natural,” local, etc. food has the indisputable upper hand. Their recommendation for the “food revolution” was to focus on fostering those narratives and encouraging people to keep trying, as if the intentions and the effort involved in eating “better”—futile or not—were more important than the actual carbon footprint or nutritional ramifications of the behavior.

And that seems to me like a serious confusion of intention and effect. If the ideal that you’re pursuing is sustainability—a slippery term to be sure, but for the moment, let’s just say it means a practice that could be continued indefinitely without making the environment inhospitable for human life—and you’re advocating a new practice in service of that goal, but it turns out to be worse for the environment than your previous course of action, I don’t think you should just shrug and say, “well, at least our hearts are in the right place” and continue with the new, worse practice. However, that’s exactly what the food revolution faithful do all the time. No matter how many studies show that food miles are far less important than efficiencies of scale and growing things in optimal climates, or that organic food is no healthier than conventional, or that people can’t tell the difference in blind taste tests, they’ll either say “that’s not the point” or insist that you must be wrong. The practice precedes the evidence, but they seize on any evidence that justifies it after already deciding on the course of action and systematically ignore any evidence to the contrary.

All of which suggests that eating “better” isn’t driven by evidence-based beliefs about what’s really healthier, more sustainable, more humane, or even better-tasting—which are often conflicting ideals anyhow. The main appeal of natural, organic, local, yadda yadda food is a deep, often inchoate, feeling that it’s superior, which precedes and trumps reason or any objective weighing of the evidence. I think what reinforces that feeling of superiority most is the experience of sacrifice, which channels good old-fashioned Protestant Work Ethic values like the satisfactions of hard work and delaying immediate gratification. The relationship between virtue and self-sacrifice actually long predates Protestantism—in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that people achieve eudemonia, which essentially means “self-actualization” or a virtuous happiness, through hard work and mastering their bodily desires (usually by denying them). The underlying belief seems almost instinctual—it is good to work hard and resist immediate pleasures. And we might like to think that what makes the hard work and sacrifice good is some long-term goal or “greater good” they’re done in service of, but that’s not necessary to produce the sensation of virtue.

Ergo, making a special trip to the farmer’s market during the few hours per week it’s open must be a good thing to do simply because it’s so much less convenient than shopping at a grocery store that’s open all the time. And turning a box of locally-grown produce you might be totally unfamiliar with into edible foods and acceptable meals must be better—morally, if not nutritionally—than microwaving a Lean Cuisine. And spending more money on something labeled “natural” or “environmentally friendly” must be better. People don’t even need to know what for to reap the psychic rewards. Things that are difficult, inconvenient, or require sacrifices just feel virtuous.

"If you care, buy our environment-friendly disposable baking cups. Buy those other disposable baking cups if you're some asshole who doesn't give a shit." From www.passiveagressivenotes.com

The Limits to the Virtuous Appeal

The problem for the “food revolution” is that the virtuous effort and sacrifice in service of questionable returns doesn’t appeal to everyone. Some people feel like they do enough hard work and make enough sacrifices in other areas of their life that they don’t need the extra moral boost of buying morally-superior food. And I suspect it’s no coincidence that the people who are most likely to make buying “superior” food a priority and get satisfaction from that are people who identify as “middle class” and often express a lot of guilt about how much they (and “their society”) consume in general—i.e. the politically left-leaning, (sub)urban elite. (The politically right-leaning elite might consume just as much or more, they just don’t feel as guilty about it.)

Many working-class people might technically have the time and money to eat the kind of food Alice Waters and Michael Pollan prescribe, but they don’t want to. They’re not looking to put a lot of effort into and make a lot of sacrifices for their diet. There’s no incentive.

It reminds me of Barbara Ehrenreich’s epiphany about smoking in Nickel & Dimed:

Because work is what you do for others; smoking is what you do for yourself. I don’t know how the antismoking crusaders have never grasped the element of defiant self-nurturance that makes the habit so enduring to its victims.

As she discovers, the real reason so many working class people smoke isn’t because of some rational calculation—like the fact that they might not get as many breaks if they don’t—just like the real reason more people don’t buy “healthy” food isn’t (mostly) because of the price. Smoking and familiar, convenient, “junk” foods appeal to working-class people for exactly the same reason they don’t appeal to the left-leaning, progressive, urban and suburban middle-class. They like them because they’re “bad,” because they’re self-indulgent, because they don’t do anything for anyone else—not the environment, not the animals, not third-world coffee-growers, not even their own health. For a lot of people, the narrative of virtuous effort and self-sacrifice isn’t just irrelevant, it’s an active deterrent.

Change I Can Believe In 

I see nothing elitist about campaigning for greater availability of fresh, local food in low-income neighborhoods, public schools, and prisons. But when you start telling people what you think they ought to be willing to give up in order to make what you’ve decided will be “more satisfying choices” for them, I think you’ve gone too far. I really like—but don’t totally believe—the concession Michael Pollan made in the WSJ interview:

To eat well takes a little bit more time and effort and money. But so does reading well; so does watching television well. Doing anything with attention to quality takes effort. It’s either rewarding to you or it’s not. It happens to be very rewarding to me. But I understand people who can’t be bothered, and they’re going to eat with less care.

He claims to understand why some people can’t be bothered, and even equates it with hobbies like reading and watching television—but his entire oeuvre is devoted to to making the opposite claim. For example, in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he says:

“Eating is an agricultural act,” as Wendell Berry famously said. It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too. Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world—and what is to become of it. To eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake might sound like a burden, but in practice few things in life can afford quite as much satisfaction. By comparison, the pleasures of eating industrially, which is to say eating in ignorance, are fleeting. (p. 11)

That doesn’t sound like the opinion of someone who thinks choosing junk food over fresh, local, organic food is an innocent predilection, like preferring trashy pulp fiction to James Joyce or watching reality television instead of Mad Men. The moral stakes in our steaks—a pun I’m stealing from Warren Belasco—are higher.

Even if the stakes of our food choices are higher (which is debatable), that doesn’t mean that it’s okay for food revolutionaries to try to push their priorities on anyone else, least of all the working class or disproportionately black urban poor. If they really want more people to make the choice to eat what they think is “better” food (and I think that should be based on evidence about the actual impact and not just intentions), they’re going to have to work on making healthy, sustainable, humane, etc. foods answer the masses’ needs and desires. They’re not going to get anywhere by declaring the masses ignorant for wanting cheap, convenient, reliable, good-tasting food or trying to convince them that what they should want is expensive, inconvenient, unfamiliar, less immediately palate-pleasing food.

I’m not actually sure it’s possible to create a food system that would satisfy both the desires of the “food revolution” and the needs of the working class, but if it is, it will require letting go of the narratives about sacrifice and virtue. As long as eating “better” is constructed as dependent on hard work and self-sacrifice, the “food revolution” is going to continue to appeal primarily to the left-leaning elite and efforts to get other people to join them will be—rightly—portrayed as “elitist.” And until that changes, natural, local, sustainable foods will continue to serve primarily as markers of belonging to the progressive, urban, coastal elite rather than the seeds of any real “revolution.”

Hipsters on Food Stamps Part III: Damned If You Do—ritos and Damned If You Don’t*

And what's a facebook reference without some irresponsible comparisons? This group has more facebook fans than 7/9 of the most popular pages for Ghandi, 2/3 of the pages for DFW, at least 5 of the pages for MLK Jr., at least one of the pages for "The Moon," and both "WAFFLES!!!!" (4 !) and "WAFFLES!!!!!" (5 !)

To recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting.
It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less.

Oscar Wilde 
 

Patronizing the Poor but Fetishizing Peasant Foods

One common response to the anger elicited by last month’s Salon article about hipsters on food stamps is: *yawn* nothing new, seen it before, everyone loves to hate people on welfare, tell me something I don’t know. And that may be partially justified—I gestured to some of the historical precedents in the first entry, both in the title, which was a reference to the myth of the welfare queen famously promoted by Ronald Reagan, and in my discussion about the home economics movement. Progressive Era social reformers were really concerned about what new immigrants to America were eating and made (completely unfounded, obviously) connections between foods associated with immigrants, like pickles, and all the other stereotypes they had about them—their stunted growth, laziness, excessive attachments to their mothers, lack of self-control over their unruly sexual urges.

sometimes I think I can't love The Onion any more, and then I find shit like this (from 1999): http://www.theonion.com/articles/corporatewelfare-recipients-are-they-eating-steak,672/Those kinds of myths—the idea that pickles make you horny or that poor, black women have kids out of  wedlock in order to game the system—gain traction in part because they appeal to existing prejudices about the poor and in part because they enable dominant social groups to project the things they are most afraid of being onto the poor, so they can distance themselves from them. It’s reassuring to a lot of people if laziness and sexual excess look like a black single mother on welfare instead of a white-collar worker who comes home and watches hours of television every night and might be unfaithful to his or her spouse (or desire to be). It’s much more convenient if “gaming the system” looks like a Black woman or Latina who lives in subsidized housing and uses 50 different social security numbers to collect thousands of dollars a month in welfare and drives a Cadillac, instead of like a corporate lobbyist who pushes for roll-backs of labor and environmental protections or like an executive who does all he can to cut workers’ salaries and benefits in order to maximize profits and shareholder dividends…and drives a Cadillac.  

The history of stigmatizing the food of the poor is probably as old as social classes themselves, or least as old as capitalism and the emergence of the middle class(es) in the 18th C. The expansion of the middle class in that period is one reason a lot of scholars give for the proliferation of silly “grammar”** rules like not splitting infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions at about that time. The middle classes have always had a lot to gain by making very clear distinctions between their way of speaking, dressing, and eating—which is always the  "right” way—and the culture of the poor—which is not just different, but “wrong.”

However, there’s also a long history of romanticizing the poor and glorifying how frugal, resourceful, or admirably un-fettered by material needs they are. This seems especially true in terms of food—as suspicious and critical as many home economists were of immigrant foodways, they also  looked to them for inspiration in developing cost-efficient and palatable meals and idealized their thrift. Bertha Wood, in the same book that criticized the “overstimulation” caused by Eastern Europeans’ taste for pickles, had far kinder things to say about Mexican food:

When not too highly seasoned, Mexican dishes are very tasty…. Only lack of variety and the use of hot flavors keep their food from being superior to that of most Americans.

In the 1980s, romanticization of the poor took the form of a widespread fetishization of “peasant” foods, especially in the growing world of California-inspired haute cuisine. The peasant food craze seems to have roots in the 1960s/1970s countercuisine and the hippie rebellion against the food industry. But the food of the international proletariat didn’t appeal to the Patrick Batemans of the world because they were a way to eat in solidarity with the oppressed classes in the global south. Instead, for the yuppies who adopted them, I think they were a way to mitigate the stain of elitism or food snobbery. “Peasant” foods are authentic, not pretentious. Their presence on the menu implies that that the gourmet aesthetic is based on some sort of objective standards of deliciousness, not subjective and arbitrary ideas about sophistication.

Peasant foods helped create the illusion of a culinary meritocracy—any kind of food can be “gourmet” if it tastes good enough. Of course, it’s not a meritocracy. The foods associated with the American poor, like Velveeta and Doritos, are totally ineligible, even though both would be probably be considered works of culinary genius if they were created by Wylie Dufresne or Grant Achatz. But the appearance of culinary democracy belies the arbitrariness of food aesthetics and the cultural hierarchies they reflect and reinforce.

To get back to the probably-apocryphal trend of “hipsters” living large on food stamps, I think that the differences in the way stigmas and stereotypes about the poor manifest in different historical periods matter as much or more than the commonalities. What strikes me most about the responses to the Salon article is not so much the occasional virulence—although that is often startling—but rather the division between the first two of the four camps I described in the second entry:

1. Outraged sheeple—a lot of people were completely sold on the veracity of the trend and responded exactly the way the article primes them to, i.e. how dare people who receive food stamps shop at Whole Foods, purchase gourmet or exotic ingredients, or ever buy anything more expensive or pleasurable than the bare minimum required to ensure their survival. This camp is split between people who object only to food stamps being spent on non-“essential” foods and people who apparently believe that people receiving public assistance should not be able to purchase anything that might be construed as a “luxury,” even with their own money.

2. Better than Doritos—another group of people who believed the story thought it was a good thing, at least as long the food they’re eating is healthier. This was frequently accompanied by the suggestion that eating “better” food would prevent them from getting fat and becoming a drain on the health care system. Virtually no one defended the purchase of “premium” foods on the grounds that they might be more pleasurable than whatever kind of gruel or cabbage soup might be the cheapest way to fulfill your nutritional needs.

I think these warring camps represent two of the most pressing middle-class anxieties about food right now: the obvious one is the fear of fatness and all the guilt and shame attached to eating or desiring anything seen as “fattening,” like “junk” food, but the less obvious one that the first camp seems to reveal is an anxiety about food snobbery or perhaps overconsumption more broadly. In other words, perhaps part of the reason so many commenters were so quick to try to dictate thrift and asceticism to the poor is because they feel guilty about their own “splurges” and aren’t sure that spending more money on organic or gourmet food is wholly justifiable. That may even be one of the reasons many readers bought Salon’s paper-thin story, assumed it was a real phenomenon, and even made their own unfounded assumptions about what kinds of things foodies on food stamps might buy. Just like the specter of obese poor people buying frozen pizzas and soda with their food stamps is a useful whipping boy for fat shame, the “hipsters” on food stamps with their heaping bowls of curried squash drew attention because they’re the ideal target for foodie shame.

Outraged Sheeple

My issue comes with shopping at Whole Foods which is much more expensive then Safeway or buying wild salmon which is $26.00/pound. Sardines have just as many health benefits as salmon at a fraction of the cost. Fresh herbs are $1.99 – $2.99 a pack but can be grown in a kitchen garden for next to nothing. Mint chutney is expensive, especially at ethnic stores.If a single person qualifies and can shop in this fashion every day then 1) he or she is receiving too much money or 2) they run out of money mid-month and are getting money from somewhere else (mommy and daddy) and should not qualify to begin with.—pjamma

First, a brief reminder that the “hipsters” in the story merely sauntered in proximity to chutney—none of them bought any of it, as far as we know. But even if they had—sure, it’s more expensive per oz than ketchup or salad dressing but it’s comparable to flavored cream cheese and probably used more sparingly and moreover, who is anyone else to dictate what condiments food stamp recipients buy? It is beyond ridiculous to presume that every single purchase someone makes on food stamps should be optimally cost-efficient. Sardines are, indeed, cheap and by most measures, healthy. They’re probably even sustainable. But does that mean people on food stamps should have to eat them to the exclusion of the occasional piece of wild salmon (again, not that there’s any evidence of a mass trend of salmon-buying on food stamps in the first place)?

Yes, according to many of the people who commented on the article:

This makes me sick. I have no problem with people who need help, but spending tax payers money on food like wild caught salmon is ridicules.—michele32

I can not justify buying organic/high end food with food stamps!I love sushi, but I couldn’t look myself in the mirror if it was bought with food stamps. If you feel the need to do so, buy it on your own dime. And while you’re at it, instead of asking the government to assist your educated palate, maybe you should be asking Mom & Dad. Obviously they gave you the taste of the good life to begin with, which you feel you are entitled to. So this is where my husband’s tax dollars are going, so you can enjoy organic vegetables??? I find this appalling.—KathyI

We live on ramen noodles, and spagetti, and things that are inexpensive. It makes me sick that hipsters would brag about buying gormet foods while living on assistance. If we cut off people who abuse the programs or cheat the programs, or spend their assistance on things not related to living expenses then maybe they honest people who really need the help can get it.—samjean

It must be nice for the government to feed these people steak,or chicken and rice. When I make less than 20,000 a year and turned down for food stamp’s more that 5 times in the last 3 year’s "I make too much to get food stamp’s" ,but these people are living high on the hog so to speak on food stamp’s this makes me mad—splweapons 

Food stamps are supposed to help needy families provide basic nutrition for their families. Why should our hard earn tax dollars be paying for someone to live high on the hog? How often do we walk into a grocery store, it’s snowing and 30 degrees, and see a woman walking around in nice clothes, big jacket with a cart full of stuff, very little food, and children wearing inappropriate clothes, or shoes? I see it more often than I’d like to. Then we get to the check out and they’re standing at the register paying for the food items with food stamps and then pulling out a wad of cash to buy their “stuff”. Kids are crying, "Mommy, I want this, I want that!" And she tells them, "Shut up, we don’t have the money." Then out in the parking lot, I see her put her children into an Escalade.–crebrew

The Cadillac reappears! But the best example was the one I quoted in the first article:

ONLY BASIC foods should be OK for food stamps.
No chips, no cakes, no artisinal breads, nothing fancy.
It’s not fair for those of us who are not on food stamps have to to pay for the largess of those who are.
There are millions of non food stamp people buying beans and rice to save money while food stamp folks can buy fun food?
No, that isn’t right.
If I could wave a magic wand…I would say ONLY basic vegetables, fruits, beans and grains are OK for foods stamps. Not much else. –Soliel

Sorry to be repetitive with the quotes, but I’m afraid I sort of let this speak for itself. In light of at least one of the comments I got on the first post, I realized that maybe it doesn’t. Maybe I wasn’t clear enough about the fact that there are already pretty strict guidelines about who can receive foodstamps, what kinds of foods they can purchase, and how much assistance they receive. The amount is based on the “Thrifty Food Plan,” a low-cost but nutritionally adequate diet established by USDA. No one gets more benefits in order to purchase wild salmon or the rabbit that one of the article’s subjects remembers fondly—which was probably a “splurge” meal that stands out from all the meatless vegetable, bean and rice concoctions they usually get by on. Food stamps don’t pay for “largess” or “living high on the hog.”

I suspect that these people, so eager to add further restrictions to how food-stamp-qualified people allocate their relatively-meager benefits, are basically projecting anxieties about their own excesses.

Better Than Doritos

On the other side, there are plenty of people willing to endorse even wild salmon, as long as it means this group of poverty-stricken people might not get fat.

With rising obesity epidemics and other diet-related health issues so prevalent in our culture, why would we want these folks to spend their meager allotment on highly processed foods laden with fats and high fructose corn syrup instead of organic carrots, salmon, and other healthy items?—terribletink

I have absolutely no problem with this. Its about time that food stamps were used for real food. Its about time that people really learn how to cook how to cook food as opposed to buying canned food and chips. Its the best way to stretch a buck. It also take’s away from the profits of the like’s of Nabisco, Nestle and all of those other corporations who don’t care and produce corn and other products. I’m totally fine with this.—tweeders1

Oh no! Not corn! I think we have Michael Pollan to thank for that. But wait, there’s more:

I am, as a 58 year-old public school teacher (living on teacher retirement–boo!), more offended to see people, especially parents of young children, use their "food stamps" to buy high-carb, high fat, cheaper foods for the kids and spending their cash on cartons of cigarettes and six-packs of beer. Cheers to someone who can make a good diet from the money for which the government says they are "qualified"!—gkcook

They are buying in the store rather than McDonalds and they are getting something healthy and cooking it well. So exactly why are they being potrayed here as a source of anger? Should people suffer and eat junk food that makes them diebetic (which those working for would have to pay for) instead of buying something healthy at the store and cooking it?—aburkett

One commenter even suggested that the “hipsters” be allowed to continue their extravagant ways, but only as long as they teach other “traditional food stamp recipients” how to cook:

Perhaps a solution that could make more people happy would be requiring them to take more traditional recipients shopping, and to teach them to use ingredients with which they may not be familiar to cook simple, flavorful, nutritious meals. They might even see teh benefit of public service. –SalliganeG

What a convenient solution–reform both of them at once! Make the abominable hipsters useful by forcing them to teach real poor people how to eat, and at the same time, rescue the poor from the dreaded Velveeta cocoon*** by teaching them about how accessible and virtuous rice and beans are. SalliganeG conveniently encapsulates everything I find objectionable about both camps—they’re equally patronizing to people who buy "real” food on food stamps and people who buy Velveeta and seek to prescribe one “correct” way of eating for everyone.

Even if the commenters follow their own prescriptions (which I doubt), who are they to tell anyone else how to eat? And no, “taxpayers” doesn’t cut it. The taxpayers’ representatives have already codified restrictions that correspond with contemporary cultural norms—as noted, the benefit cap is based on a food plan that couldn’t possibly include many or frequent excesses, and there’s a firm ban on things like alcohol, tobacco, and hot foods. You could probably add caviar and fois gras to the list of banned foods without affecting 99.9% of food stamp recipients, but if the remaining .1% wants to eat cabbage soup for most of the month to save up for one luxurious meal, does anyone really benefit from stopping them?

The Slate Big Money article that was critical of the Salon article also lays out the narrow middle ground that food stamp recipients are expected to walk:

Whether they are unemployed single mothers or young singles with pink Chuck Taylors and experimental facial hair, the best thing food-stamp recipients can do to both avoid criticism and live more healthfully is to avoid both the gourmet mint chutney and the Funyuns. And it helps to wait until you’re back on your feet before you shop at Whole Foods. You can get plenty of inexpensive, healthful foods at your Safeway (SWY) or Kroger (KR).

This also neatly encapsulates both the guilt about “junk” foods people know they “ought” to avoid and the conflicted relationship to costly premium foods that people tell themselves are nutritionally or culinarily superior to justify the expense, but probably purchase largely because of the aesthetic and ethical hierarchy that has way more to do with social class than nutrition or taste. Mint chutney and wild salmon are today’s un-split infinitives. Funyuns are the terminal prepositions. And the warring camps reflect the central contradiction of cultural capital: style and taste only work to reinforce class distinctions if the markers of the middle-class are confined to the middle class; however, the hierarchy must be ideologically justified. It’s a problem for class distinction if poor people can afford salmon; it’s a problem for the taste ideology if they don’t want it.

And perhaps what’s even more distressing is that all the concern about how the poor eat, or should eat, or who should determine how or if they get to eat ultimately distracts from the issues that cause people to apply for food stamps in the first place. And no, I don’t mean majoring in the humanities. As can only be expected in a nearly-500 comment thread, someone else has already said it better:

The real problem is that even people who have jobs often make so little money that they qualify for supplemental nutritional assistance. Working at places like Walmart does not pay enough to rent a place and pay utilities. Many of the Walmart employees are on foodstamps as a result. You are paying into the welfare system to help walmart continue to pay and treat employees badly. Instead Walmart should be required to pay a living wage. Instead of complaining about people on foodstamps….ask why you are being required to rescue and subsidize greedy corporations.—Francisco369

Amen, Francisco369. That concludes my ranting on the Salon article, meaning maybe I can get back to ranting about Food, Inc. sometime next week.

*I know, it’s terrible. I was compelled by forces greater than my shame.

**Not what linguists would call “grammar.” However, that’s what the people who codified some of the new prescriptive usage rules in the 18th C. called it—e.g., Robert Lowth’s 1762 book A Short Introduction to English Grammar. That lives on in the way teachers refer to usage and style lessons and how many people think about prevailing usage conventions. Some of my facebook friends have recently joined a group called “THEY’RE going THERE with THEIR friends. It’s called grammar, use it.” And I’m just waiting for someone else to start a group called something like “Its not a grammatical mistake; its a usage error. Learn the difference, you hypocrite.” [Okay, just because if anyone points out the “error,” I may actually cry, yes, I know that it should be “it’s” in both instances instead of “its"…that’s the joke, folks.]

***Gael Greene’s phrase, not mine