Here in the Junta, we all learn together. As I learn to cook new things, hopefully you will as well, and as I learn to be a better blogger, well, I guess you’ll just enjoy a better blog. But like it or not (Please like it.), you get to be part of the learning process.
In the upcoming months, I plan to address issues of food safety, sustainability, and justice more regularly – or a least in a more focused way – than I have to date. In planning some of the things I’d like to talk about and in revisiting some of what I’ve written over the past few months, I have realized that I need to take a moment to set the record straight on some of what I’ve said previously.
The highly charged issues surrounding food as it relates to our health, our economy, our government, and our environment are immensely complicated. It is all but impossible to take a clear position on one aspect of these issues (We should all eat more organic food.) that doesn’t create problems with two other issues (Many people cannot afford or otherwise lack access to organic food. Many organic foods have larger carbon footprints than a conventional but local alternative.).
In some previous posts, I’ve greatly simplified these issues, presenting one position without really highlighting any of the complicating factors. This is not because I don’t recognize these complications or understand their importance, but because I’ve been lazy and because it is much easier to simplify things. But in reviewing these posts, I think I have been doing a disservice to myself and to the cause.
So going forward, I will try to be more nuanced in my discussion of these topics, to be less hard-nosed in some of my statements, and to draw clearer lines between what I do and what I think others should be doing.
And to get back on the right track, I will be doing a few posts over the coming weeks to explore some of the most troublesome issues in what I’ll call, for lack of a better word, food politics. These thoughts are by no means comprehensive, but they touch on the areas where I think I’ve been most careless in the past and will give me an opportunity to explain some of the personal compromises I’ve made to allow for all the contradictions in trying to eat “well.”
To begin with, I’d like to address the overarching problem that I believe to be the greatest obstacle in the movement for food change.
Reality Check #1 – Dropping the ‘Tude
It is very, very easy to sound like a self-righteous prick when you start telling people what they should and shouldn’t eat. While I don’t think I am a self-righteous prick, I do think my tone so far in talking about food purchasing decisions has been breezy and presumptuous, and this runs counter to one of my most strongly held beliefs:
Everyone wants and deserves good, safe food and a healthy environment, but until the sustainable food movement can reach beyond the wealthy and well-educated to connect with the other 95% of the population, we will see little if any change in the way our country feeds itself.
I’ve casually talked about how I always try to shop at the farmer’s market, always buy organic, and would never dream of eating an industrial tomato. And I think I’ve done so in a better-than-thou sort of way, suggesting that I look down my nose at people who don’t only buy pork from pigs who’ve been raised in three-bedroom apartments on a diet of fresh fruit with a full-time staff of Swedish masseurs.
First, let me say that I do not feel that way, but setting aside for a second the major stupidity of this kind of attitude, I need to confess that my suggestions about my own behavior have been somewhat disingenuous. I do shop at the farmer’s market, I do try to buy organic as often as possible, and I do find those grey February tomatoes disgusting. But I am not always the hard-line do-gooding foodie I like to give the impression of being. Sometimes I need carrots and the genetically-modified, pesticide-sprayed, shipped-in-from-China conventional ones around the block are just too convenient. The farmer’s market is closed, the Whole Foods is far away, it’s cold outside, and comfort wins out over principle.
So if I’ve given the impression that my buying and eating habits are beyond reproach, I apologize. I do pretty good a lot of the time, but I am no saint and expect no one else to be.
More importantly, I have the luxury of enough disposable income to make most of my food purchasing decisions based on principle and not on price. There are very few of us who have this luxury, and suggesting that everyone should do their grocery shopping with an idealist, cost-be-damned attitude is obnoxious, insensitive, unrealistic, and detrimental to what we actually want to accomplish.
I recently attended a workshop in the Bronx for community educators to provide them with strategies for teaching low-income youth about nutrition. While the workshop presented some good information, there were also moments that made me want to hide under my desk. Shortly after suggesting that agave nectar would make a good alternative to refined sugar, the workshop presenter advised that bee pollen is a great alternative source of protein.
Agave nectar and bee pollen have their place, but this most certainly was not it. The presenter needed only to look out the window immediately to her left to see streets lined with McDonald’s franchises and fried chicken joints. It would be a long hike just to a decent-sized grocery store, and I sincerely doubt they’d carry bee pollen.
I don’t think this particular incident is the sort of thing that’s happening all the time, but I think it is representative of the sustainable food movement’s failure to adjust message to audience. Some people are ready to buy all their food locally and organically, some people are ready to begin integrating some of these items into their purchasing, and some people just need help figuring out how to feed their families more vegetables and less fast food. We can speak to all of these groups and work with them to find affordable ways to make their families healthier and our environment safer. But the moment we begin judging other people’s choices or dictating their behaviors, we are fighting a losing battle.
Those of us who can buy the majority of our food from local and organic sources should, but we cannot expect everyone to do so. Telling someone that what they buy and eat is somehow wrong is entirely unhelpful. Instead, we must work to make sustainable food options more affordable and available, and begin a national conversation about why these options are better for our bodies, our environment, and our country. And we must do so in a way that respects the cultures, tastes, and budgets of all Americans; that accepts that different people will be able to make differing types and degrees of changes in their behaviors; and that understands that “everyone should buy more organic heirloom kumquats” is not a philosophy that is going to take us anywhere very fast.