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:
Well, $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
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.
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.
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.
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.”