Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Is the food movment elitist, and if so, does it matter?

My interest in food and my work within the food movement began, as passions do, at the personal level. I love eating and cooking and growing food, and I wanted to learn more about what went into the food I ate. Simple as that.

Over the past couple of years, I've done a lot of self-educating, in the form of reading, research and writing about food. I've also shared what I've learned with friends and family, who, to my pleasant surprise, seem interested in the topic, even if not to the total-immersion-extent that I am. The universality of this issue is clear, since we all need to eat.

Which brings me to the title of this post. The local/organic/sustainable food movement has been accused, with some justification, of being elitist. If you google the words “food movement elitism,” you’ll find a lot of attacks on Alice Waters, widely considered by many to be the founder of the local food movement in this country. Alice Waters is an easy target, and much of what she advocates can be construed as elitist, in the sense that buying and eating local fresh food is too expensive for a number of people to afford. For this reason, many are left out of the food movement, not because they are indifferent or unaware, but simply because they can't afford to participate in it.

However, there is another, seldom-acknowledged, form of elitism at work, specifically the assumptions that many within the food movement hold about people outside it. I recently had discussions with several friends and acquaintances, including a local farmer, about why low-income people don’t eat local, fresh, organic food. I was surprised at their responses (I’d characterize these folks as liberal progressives). One person said that if people just stopped buying soda they could afford fruits and vegetables instead. Another said that if people took the money they spent on drugs and alcohol and used it for food, they could afford to eat properly (he was apparently equating the term “low-income” with “substance abuser,” something that really surprised me). Several people commented, in rather disparaging ways, that if people understood more about nutrition and health they’d make better choices. Not one of the people I spoke with talked about the cost of high-quality food as a barrier to eating better. As a low-income person myself, I was amazed at these responses.

We must re-examine our own assumptions about who eats good food and why or why not. This kind of intellectual or moral elitism is equally damaging to the food movement, because it creates an “us” vs. “them” dichotomy. In fact, cost is the primary barrier to eating well. Another issue for many people is lack of access, in terms of geographical proximity, to a farmer’s market or full-service grocery store. If you don’t have a car, getting to the best food can be a challenge. A third issue for some people is lack of knowledge about how to cook fresh foods.

Is the food movement elitist? If by elitist you mean does it exclude people, then yes. Does that mean we should dismiss it, or disparage it? No. If all we do is participate in the local food movement ourselves, then we are being elitist, but if we make our personal participation a springboard for other activities that allow more people to have access to good local fresh food, then we are combating that elitism. Again, Alice Waters is a good exemplar. She is best known as the founder of the restaurant Chez Panisse in the Bay Area, and for her decades of advocating for greater availability of fresh local food. However, she is also the founder of an innovative school lunch program in the Berkeley school district, which serves a wide variety of children of various income levels and ethnicities. This program, Edible Schoolyard, provides fresh local foods in the school cafeteria, and also includes a school garden and cooking classes, in which kids learn to grow and cook the foods they eat. She’s also expanded the Edible Schoolyard program to the national level, in the hopes of putting edible gardens in public schools nationwide.

Another common target of the charge of elitism is Slow Food, a movement founded twenty years ago by Carlo Petrini in Italy. At its best, Slow Food’s events and efforts promote the best of the local food movement: fresh local food and appreciation for regional cuisine and unique food cultures. However, Slow Food has too often been what Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved, a scathing critique of the global food system and its impact on cultures around the world, characterizes as “a bunch of tossers who sit around talking about olive oil.” Here’s an interesting discussion of Slow Food’s attempts to re-brand itself as a socially conscious movement.

In a recent article in New Voices, a Jewish student magazine, Michael Pollan, the food movement’s most eloquent advocate, acknowledges this elitism. “A lot of important movements begin as elitism—women’s suffrage, abolition, environmentalism,” he says. “And then, hopefully, they filter down and they don’t remain elite.” In an interview with Rebekah Denn in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Pollan added, “If the food movement is still elitist in 20 years, that is an indictment, that will be an indictment. But it's a very new movement and I don't think we should write it off because right now it's elitist.”

Pollan's historical overview of social change may be correct, and his assessment that the food movement in its current state is elitist is true, but we cannot simply sit back and wait for food equality to trickle down to the majority of the population. Access to high quality food should be a universal right, not a privilege. As Jews we are charged with the obligation of tikkun olam, repairing the world. If we have the means, it’s great to support local fresh food production where we live, through membership in a CSA, buying at farmer’s markets, or growing our own. However, it's not enough for us to merely participate in the food movement ourselves. We also need to channel our efforts to include everyone, particularly poor folks. Although the systemic issues that contribute to these inequities may not be solved except on a national level, as individuals, there are a number of things we can do right now within our own communities to insure everyone has access to high-quality fresh local food.

Some ideas:

1) Volunteer with an organization that helps low-income people grow their own food. In Portland we have a non-profit, Growing Gardens, which provides food security to low-income folks by teaching them how to grow their own fruits and vegetables. In several local community food assessments published here, a majority of the participants surveyed said they’d be interested in a home garden program.

2) Grow extra food in your own garden and donate it to a local food pantry. This is an idea that's been gaining national attention, particularly over the past year or so, and it’s an easy way to help bridge the gap. For an example of one such program, check out the Oregon Food Bank's Plant-A-Row program.

3) If you don’t garden but have a yard, consider renting your yard out to an urban farmer. In Portland we have a terrific program, City Garden Farms, a CSA that sells vegetables from a collection of urban vegetable plots and vacant lots scattered around Portland. If you're interesting in farming but don't have access to land, try doing something similar in your community.

4) Find out if your local farmer's market accepts food stamps and WIC vouchers. If they don't, work with them to include these programs and increase access to locally produced foods. In Portland, EBT (electronic benefits transfer) machines are provided to farmer’s markets at no cost, but these machines require a landline. For markets without access to a building with a landline, wireless machines are available, but they can cost up to $800. While many farmers’ markets in Portland have EBT machines, not all do. If this is true in your community, consider finding ways to fund the machines, either through allocation of city funds, or grant programs.

Our olam is in dire need of some tikkun, and where better to start than by making sure everyone can eat the best food available?