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Food and class

The sustainable-food movement has a class problem.

Slow Food, for example, is an essential organization, with its declaration of a universal "right to taste" and its mandate to ...

... oppose the standardisation of taste, defend the need for consumer information, protect cultural identities tied to food and gastronomic traditions, safeguard foods and cultivation and processing techniques inherited from tradition and defend domestic and wild animal and vegetable species.

The group has undeniably done important work internationally toward those goals; yet its U.S. branch tends to throw pricey events accessible only to an economic elite.

Examples like this abound.

New York chef Dan Barber has been a tireless champion of small farmers and local food. Backed by a pile of Rockefeller cash, he's created a sustainable-food paradise/restaurant in the Hudson Valley called Blue Hill at Stone Barns. The "farmers feast" menu there runs $95. Clearly, the target consumer is not farmers but Wall Streeters and wielders of corporate expense accounts.

In my farming project, Maverick Farms, we've pledged to "promote family farming as a community resource"; yet we ask $40 a head for our biggest fund raiser, our monthly farm dinners. (We do offer a lower-priced work-exchange option.)

The problem is essentially structural. Small-scale farming is labor-intensive. We charge chefs $20 a pound for salad greens; but our produce is meticulously hand-picked and rinsed, "graded in the field," which means chefs can take our greens from the bag to the plate without culling bad leaves.

From a business perspective, it's a bad model. Despite our $40 dinners and $20 bags of greens, no one here gets paid a dime beyond room and board. We'd be much better off selling the farm and buying a McDonald's franchise.

Historically, people of limited means have tended to scrape by on what's locally available, while the wealthy have used their resources to draw in fancy food from far away. Now, that situation has turned upside down.

Economies of scale brought on by increasing consolidation, vast subsidies, and wholesale, unchecked exploitation of immigrant labor have created a system of cheap, plentiful, and dreadful food.

Industrialization, mass culture, wage stagnation, and Puritanism (e.g., prohibition) have almost completely destroyed traditional foodways here, allowing McDonald's and the home convenience-food industry to fill the void. A bad-feedback loop thrives; the food industry shovels billions of dollars into marketing and controls school lunches, leaving vast swaths of the population innocent of alternatives and ignorant of what real food tastes like.

In the meantime, a backlash against industrial food is mounting in the Anglo-American world. It started when Americans like Julia Child and Brits like Elizabeth David travelled to southern Europe at the precise point when industrialization was swamping our food culture. A prosperous middle class, buoyed by the post-War boom, travelled to Italy and France and tasted farm-fresh food prepared with flavor -- not portability, volume, and profit -- as the primary motivating factor. Hence the birth of the yuppie food revolution.

But middle-class wages have since stagnated; real growth in wages since the early '70s has been minimal, save for a blip in the 1990s. So the bulk of the people who frequent Dan Barber's restaurant or Alice Waters' place in Berkeley tend to be pretty well-heeled.

Chefs gained celebrity status starting in the 1980s, when the yuppie food revolution gained force. I predict that in places like New York and San Francisco, the age of the rock-star farmer is not far off.

I am reminded of a line from Baudelaire's notebooks:

If a poet demanded of the State the right to have a few bourgeois in his stable, people would be very much astonished, but if a bourgeois asked for some roast poet, people would think it quite natural.

Welcome to the era of roast farmer. Micro-farms dot the areas outside metropolises, producing hand-picked, highly nutritious, and pungent microgreens to be plopped on lawyers', accountants', and high-tech professionals' plates for astronomical prices. Meanwhile, the people who staff the vast services economy get the dreck served up by thriving companies like Smithfield Foods.

Strains within the system are starting to show. Simply put, industrial food is making the people who rely on it sick and fat, to the point that U.S. life expectancy looks set to decline for the first time in two centuries.

In a nation whose biggest employer (and grocer) -- Wal-Mart -- hangs its business model on its ability to low-ball workers, it's difficult to see how people are going to start, en masse, paying top dollar to niche farmers at farmers' markets.

Evidence of class-based distribution of diet-related maladies abounds. This recent AP article shows that in rural areas the child-obesity rate is even higher than the brisk national average. The evidence dispels "a long-held belief that in farm communities and other rural towns, heavy chores, wide expanses of land and fresh air make leaner, stronger bodies," the article says.

The article points to three factors contributing to surging child obesity in rural areas: mechanization of farming, the rapid rise of satellite dishes and cable television (which arrived later, but spread much faster, in rural areas than in urban ones), and rising poverty due to the decline in farming and other economic activity.

"The only other place where researchers are finding obesity rates similar to rural America is in the poorest, most troubled urban neighborhoods, suggesting that poverty may be the overriding cause," the article states.

Interesting connection. Just as manufacturing jobs have for three decades been fleeing inner cities in search of cheaper labor in points south, falling commodity prices for farm goods have been throwing farmers out of work. Likewise, the rural jobs provided by extractive industries like coal-mining are inherently short-lived. As a development strategy, mountain-top removal has natural limits, and when they're reached, capital must and does move on.

But why would poverty, which has historically led to starvation, cause people to be overweight? The U.S. spends less per capita on food than any nation in the world, probably than any nation since the rise of the nation-state. The cheap-food machine we've created -- fuelled by our cheap-oil policy and underwritten by billions each year in commodity-agriculture subsidies -- means that poor people can get almost limitless calories. Nourishment, however, is not part of the game.

How, then, can the sustainable-food movement mount a challenge to industrial food's hold on the bulk of the population? People aren't just addicted to the jolt provided by food laden with high-fructose corn syrup; they're also addicted to the cheap price tag.

In many urban areas, rising demand for quality food has provided a robust market for small farmers in outlying areas. For seven or eight months out of the year in New York, for example, a consumer who makes a conscientious effort and who has sufficient expendable income can satisfy just about all of her caloric needs from delicious food grown within 100 miles of the city. That's true for an even greater part of the year in California's population centers.

Theoretically, as demand for sustainably grown food grows in such places, increased supply will push its price down, meaning that lower-income people can afford it. And groups like Just Food in New York and efforts like Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley are doing important work toward broadening the range of sustainable food in urban areas.

But there's an important limiting factor at work here.

According to a U.S. Dept. of Ag study, in the period of 1994-1996, the average price for an acre of agricultural land was $850. But an acre of land in an area defined as "urban-influenced" -- close enough to a city to be attractive for suburban or second-home development, e.g., NY's Hudson Valley -- was $1880. Land in non-urban-influenced areas -- i.e., out in rural areas -- was $640. (Precise citation to come.)

Herein lies the paradox of the sustainable-food movement. Demand for locally and sustainably grown food is concentrated in cities; but prices for farmland near cities are severely inflated by development pressure. Where farmland is cheap, people are poor and accustomed to industrial food. Where people are wealthy and attracted to healthy food, farmland is dear.

And that dearness limits the entry of new farmers into areas such as the Hudson Valley. In short, a young person who'd like to buy 20 acres to grow heirloom tomatoes to sell into the thriving NYC market has to compete against deep-pocketed developers thinking about second homes for corporate lawyers (the same people, ironically, who provide a market for those tomatoes).

Pricey land limits supply of local food; limited supply keeps food prices up; high prices maintain the class problem of the sustainable-food movement.

Untying that knot will require structural changes. That won't happen in Washington, where giants like Archer Daniels Midland and Monsanto have the resources to keep politicians in line. But there are challenges to the brutal class politics of food being mounted all over the nation, in urban and rural areas alike. A Los Angeles-based group called the Community Food Security Coalition, whose annual conference I recently attended in Atlanta, has been an incubator and information clearing house for such efforts.

I'll be reporting on those initiatives in Gristmill in the days and weeks ahead.

Editorial Notes: From Philpott's bio on Gristmill:
Tom Philpott is a founder of Maverick Farms, a sustainable-agriculture non-profit and small farm located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. When he's not farming and cooking, Philpott is a freelance journalist, most recently serving a stint as a stock-market columnist for Reuters. From 1998 to 2004, Philpott worked as a financial journalist, starting in Mexico City and ending in New York. He has also written about food, working as a restaurant critic in Austin, Texas, and Mexico City. In January 2005, he decided to combine his interests in food and political economy by launching Bitter Greens Journal, which he styled as a "a running critique of industrial agriculture, a clearinghouse for info on sustainable farming, and a working manifesto for a liberation politics based on food." He also edits MaverickEats, the official food blog of Maverick Farms.
Tom points out that the Bitter Greens archives have entries on "ethanol and the energy intensivity of industrial ag." -BA

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