As a critic of the globalized industrial food system, I often face charges of elitism — in part, likely, because I neglect to acknowledge the system’s clear achievements. So here goes.
In human history, few pampered Roman emperors or African kings had as easy access to a broad variety of foods as the present-day U.S. consumer. At least since the rise of agriculture, a primary problem for most people has been how to capture enough calories every day to keep our bodies functioning. Today, for about an hour’s worth of labor at minimum wage ($5.15), a Homo sapiens can just about settle the day’s caloric needs in one brief sitting at a fast-food restaurant. That’s stunning.
For many people, the industrial food system provides an essential way to feed a family in an era of stagnant real wages and increasing time demands. That undeniable efficiency — never mind, for now, the mounting social, public-health, and environmental costs — will have to be reckoned with by any movement to rebuild locally oriented food systems. Five bucks won’t get you close to a full day’s calories from the farm down the road, nor will it take five minutes to transform the food you buy there into dinner.
Thus when I and other critics thunder against the “unmitigated disaster” of industrial food, we do flirt with elitism. Of course, that state of affairs counts as another triumph of industrial food: a system that produces enormous profits for a few corporations and ruthlessly exploits labor repels criticism merely by producing cheap and convenient goods.
I got to thinking of these paradoxes when preparing to mark a special occasion with a friend I was visiting in Chapel Hill, N.C. We wanted to celebrate over a meal, but were strapped for time and cash. Rather than go out, we decided to cook a simple, quick, and relatively frugal meal at home. Our experience conjuring up an impromptu dinner in Chapel Hill, a city known for its robust local-food infrastructure, taught me a lot about the limitations of trying to eat responsibly under time and financial pressure — and how just a few tweaks could bring dramatic change.
To Market, To Market
We decided to spend $30 on groceries and wine, supplemented by pantry goods and salad greens from the community garden in the courtyard of my friend’s cooperative apartment complex. Thirty bucks is a lot by the standards of industrial food, but not so much for a celebration meal. A single entrée at the excellent nearby restaurant Lantern, which prides itself on using local ingredients, would cost only a little less than that; most wines there would cost more.
First, we focused on wine. At 3 Cups, a vendor of delicious and carefully chosen coffees, teas, and wines, we blew half our budget on a bottle of 2004 Montesecondo, a biodynamic red wine imported from Tuscany. The Carrboro Farmers’ Market isn’t open Sundays, so we took our remaining $15 to the Weaver Street food co-op. In the meat case, I didn’t find any local product. The farmers’ market regularly features at least two nearby vendors of “pasture-raised” pork, and shoppers who arrive early can find free-range chicken. At the co-op, though, none of the meat carried much information beyond “hormone- and antibiotic-free.”
My search for local products in the vegetable section didn’t fare much better. The farmers’ market, as of a couple of weeks ago, offered an abundance of sweet potatoes and a decent amount of red cabbage. The co-op offered “organic,” but not “local,” versions of each, which I added to my basket.
When we returned to the apartment I harvested close to half a pound of salad greens (green wave mustard, baby Russian red kale, and Tokyo bekana) from the garden. Those flavorful greens, still thriving in the warm fall weather, would have cost me at least $4 at the farmers’ market.
I then set to making supper: Peppercorn-crusted seared steak in garlic-red wine reduction, roasted sweet potato wedges, and red cabbage braised in a little wine and vinegar. Rather than make a dressing, I served the food over the salad, letting the heat wilt the greens. As we ate, the last sun of a warm fall day slanted in through the apartment’s back door.
The food was delicious, as meals taken between close friends in the afternoon over a good bottle of wine tend to be. Judging from the colors — vibrant orange, deep red, various shades of green — it was also loaded with vitamins, antioxidants, and micronutrients.
But our meal tasted of something else too: tremendous privilege. Not everyone has $30 to drop on a meal for two. Nor do most people live a short distance from local shops, or have an afternoon to devote to cooking and eating. Then there’s the question of confidence in front of the stove — another sign of privilege. I whipped the meal out in less than an hour — but then, I’ve passed much of my misspent adulthood in kitchens, learning to cook during leisure time that’s not available to those who are struggling to make a living.
The meal also represented the difficulties, even when you have the time to try, of avoiding food from far away. Beyond the greens, there wasn’t much local about the meal. The sweet potatoes may have hailed from not too far away, as the Carolina lowlands is a leading production center of that tuber. There’s no telling, though, where the cabbage came from. As for the meat, I later found that it had traveled all the way from Montana. Ouch.
For all of the meal’s thinly veiled privilege, it’s not hard to imagine a world in which such healthy, delicious fare is more accessible and easier on the earth.
Better Plate Than Never
So what could change? Say a community like Chapel Hill decided to get serious about making local food more accessible. The first step might be a “community food assessment” wherein stakeholders — farmers, community leaders, city politicians, anti-hunger advocates — organize to examine the foodshed’s assets and needs.
Say they decided to make a priority of a USDA-approved slaughterhouse, which would allow local farmers to much more easily market their pasture-raised meat. A city employee could then raise the cash for the project by winning state and federal grants — a time-consuming process for which farmers have little time and less experience.
In one swoop, a USDA-approved meat-processing facility would revive the proud and dying butcher trade, create new jobs, boost small-farm incomes, and drive down the price of local meat. To market the meat, the farmers’ market (currently open Wednesdays and Saturdays) could expand its operations — financed, perhaps, by some sort of community-credit scheme. Again, jobs would be created.
As for cooking skills, those could be revived by inserting culinary-arts curricula into the public-school system. Such programs wouldn’t have to be the realm of “experts” teaching canonical techniques to the masses. Community members with from-scratch cooking skills could be invited to contribute — or hired as teachers.
Meanwhile, to boost vegetable production, the city government could start a large-scale composting program — which might prove more cost-effective than shoveling valuable nutrients and organic matter into a landfill — and then distribute free or low-cost fertilizer to people interested in starting backyard gardens. Vacant lots, large swaths of lawns, courtyards, and even parks could be converted to high-producing vegetable plots — just as they were during the “victory garden” days of World War II. After all, gardening is the No. 1 pastime in the U.S., and community-garden programs flourish in low-income areas of New York City, Philadelphia, Seattle, and other U.S. cities.
None of this would stop the industrial-food machine, with its trillions of dollars in assets and multibillion-dollar marketing budgets, from rolling on. Yet for all of its power to label its foes “elitist,” compelling alternatives to it are not only possible, but are happening. Just last week, an inspiring project called the East New York Community Food Co-op sprang up in one of New York City’s most economically devastated neighborhoods.
Such initiatives point the way toward an inclusive vision of sustainable food. Now that’s something to celebrate — this time, preferably, over a dinner from local ingredients.