The paper of record identifies — sort of — a new trend
New York Times food reporter Kim Severson has declared a new trend: “lazy locavores,” people who want to “eat close to home” but are too time-strapped (or lazy) to put much effort into it.
According to Severson, “a new breed of business owner” has arisen to cater to their whims. She opens her piece with a San Francisco entrepreneur who “will build an organic garden in your backyard, weed it weekly and even harvest the bounty, gently placing a box of vegetables on the back porch when he leaves.”
Wow, outsourced home gardens — that is pretty lazy. The question, though, is whether Severson has actually discovered a trend, or merely manufactured one on deadline — the notorious vice of NYT style writers. The answer, I think, is a little bit of both.
At its best, the sustainable/local food movement challenges the industrial-food paradigm that draws a bright line between food consumers and producers. In the industrial model, a very few people produce food (i.e., farmers, processors, cooks, etc.) and everyone else consumes it, more or less passively.
Through most of human history, production and consumption were pretty closely intertwined. Most people farmed, and even city and village dwellers kept a garden patch (and even livestock) that supplied significant calories. Nearly every household cooked its own meals — the modern restaurant arose in the 19th century, frequented by a very narrow group of wealthy folks.
To industrialize food production, we’ve basically relied on fossil energy to release the great majority of people in industrialized societies from food production. In the process, we’ve allowed the food industry to externalize massive environmental and social messes.
Now, with fossil energy looking scarce and climate change evidently in full swing, it’s surely time to reconsider the industrial model.
As far back as 1977, Wendell Berry in his seminal Unsettling of America was denouncing the consumer/producer divide. “The responsible consumer must also be in some way a producer,” he declared — that is, take more responsibility in the kitchen and the garden for food production, get to know and support the farmers in one’s region, etc.
In his 2007 book Slow Food Nation, Slow Food International director Carlo Petrini took up that theme, and even coined a new word: “co-producer.” According to Petrini, co-producers take an active role in producing the food they consume — again by cooking, gardening, learning about the food system, and actively supporting the farmers in their “foodshed.”
All of this leads us back to Severson and her rent-a-gardener — the guy who moves around the Bay Area tending and harvesting the vegetable patches of the rich (presumably handing the produce over to personal chefs to whip into culinary delights).
Nothing against the gardener himself. I give props to anyone, in this day and age, who’s figured out how to scratch a living out of the land.
But surely the roving gardener’s clients aren’t challenging the production/consumption divide, or rethinking their place within it. Rather, they seem to be viewing “local food” as an opportunity for ever-more rarefied and status-laden consumption.
This is the same idea I was trying to get at in my recent speech at the Organic Summit — that the sustainable food-movement may be losing its ability to inspire people to think about their consumption, and instead merely giving them license to consume mindlessly, so long as they buy products with certain marketing labels attached (“organic,” “local,” etc.)
Outsourcing one’s veggie garden seems like a prime example of this hyper-consumerist take on local food.
But most of Severson’s other “lazy locavore” examples seem forced. For example:
A share in a cow raised in a nearby field can be brought to you, ready for the freezer — a phenomenon dubbed cow pooling. There is pork pooling as well. At Sugar Mountain Farm in Vermont, the demand for a half or whole rare-breed pig is so great that people will not be seeing pork until the late fall.
Wait a minute. The practice of buying share in a cow or pig actually represents a major commitment on the part of the consumer.
Small-scale livestock farmers often struggle to find markets for the so-called “off cuts” — essentially, everything that’s not a quick-cooking steak or pork chop. By selling whole animals to groups of consumers, farmers solve that problem.
And the consumer, in turn, is confronted with a freezer full of not just steaks and chops but also stuff like pork belly, beef shank, shoulder roasts — cuts that take skill and knowledge to turn into delicious food.
Near the end of the article, the famed novelist and homesteader Barbara Kingsolver tells Severson:
As a person of rural origin who has lived much of my life in rural places … I can’t tell you how joyful it makes me to hear that it’s trendy for people in Manhattan to own a part of a cow.
I couldn’t agree more. There’s nothing lazy about that kind of locavorism. Severson is onto something, but she didn’t quite nail it in this piece.