Not-so-deep in the archives, PG and I got to debating the food movement. And I think we got sidetracked. The question, as far as I'm concerned, isn't whether it's practical, this very week, for the Obama administration to announce a Bureau of Kale Enforcement. It isn't whether consumers should lobby the government, the food industry itself, or simply raise awareness of issues they heard about on NPR. It's whether we want the locus of change to be the individual grocery-shopper's choices. Not individual advocacy. I mean what we actually put in our carts or tote bags.
I've been following this issue, but I'm not sure what's to be done on a large scale to fix the U.S. food system, or, rather, am confident that if I offered what I think might work, it would be quickly shot down by anyone actually employed in that industry. But I'm quite certain the current approach, the one that asks individual consumers to turn food shopping into a research project, is the wrong way to go, for the following reasons and more that I'll remember upon posting this:
-To get the obvious, if not necessarily most important, out of the way: people often think that by food-shopping 'ethically', they've done their good deed for the day, year, etc., and otherwise become insufferable.
-Individual consumers who seek to shop ethically don't have any reliable way to approach this. Even the foods that are clichés of virtuousness aren't necessarily sustainable. Quinoa and ramps don't make the cut; kale, I'd watch out. What about the never-ending stream of contrarian announcements that local food can actually be more wasteful to produce/transport? What about organic? On that, see this post by Margot Finn (whose work sounds amazing), via Nick Troester:
What really makes the veins in my temples throb uncomfortably is when people post things like the [agribusiness-protesting] ad above with a tagline like “This is why it’s so important to know where your food comes from!” I don’t expect people to be experts on Bt, or any other aspects of farming and food production. Most people have more pressing things to do with their time than actually find out whether the organic berries at the store were grown using sodium nitrate mined in South America that leached perchloride into surrounding waterways, which might interfere with the human thyroid gland if it seeps into drinking water.Precisely. People who care, care in the limited way that involves forming some vague opinions about which foods are more 'pure' than others, and - and how else to approach this? - using shortcuts in the form of food labeling or, indeed, food presentation. But there is, at the very same time, an entire marketing approach - as Finn points out - dedicated to winning over the customers who believe that their food-shopping choices are of utmost ethical significance. We don't know what to look for on labels, or if we do, we don't know if the labels are accurate.
-Gender. Yes, men cook more than they used to, but the reality is that anyone advocating for increased scrutiny, by shoppers, of each supermarket purchase is at least neutral on the fact that this is an extension of women's household labor, another arena for never-good-enough. Rather than blaming the state or the food industry for putting Washington State apples in New Jersey supermarkets at the peak of apple season, we blame the person (the woman) who bought her apples at the supermarket rather than visiting the charming apple orchard just 50 miles down the road.
-Choosing farm stands, farmers' markets and CSAs over the supermarket because you believe in ethical food-shopping (as opposed to, because it's something to pass the time, because the food tastes good) has something in common with choosing a private school for your kids over the mediocre local public elementary. A perfectly understandable choice that's often better for the individual family, but that's basically throwing up your arms and saying to hell with the version everyone else has to deal with. But it's an imperfect analogy, in part because here, cost isn't necessarily the issue. It's great that many markets take food stamps, but the accessibility issue isn't limited to - to borrow a phrase - the price of arugula these days. Markets are not necessarily anywhere near where you live or work, are held at inconvenient times (early morning on weekends, or in the middle of the work-week), are cash-only, require a separate transaction for each type of ingredient you're getting (which can take forever if the market in question has a pretense of folksiness), and - and this is the clincher - will never, not even in Union Square in July, have everything you need, grocery-wise, so you leave still needing to do your food-shopping. For all these reasons, we should want that which is sold in these markets to be sold in supermarkets.
-So many factors go into deciding what to eat, setting aside convenience. Taste (subjective, goes the accurate cliché), class signaling, weight issues, specific health concerns, religious rules, etc., none of which ought to determine what is and is not available in mainstream supermarkets. It's unrealistic to expect that many will ever put food-movement-checklist first; those who claim it does might just be using it as an excuse to get better-tasting food (farmers-market vs. industrial strawberries, no contest there) or to impress the Pollan-reading Joneses. The more universally-applicable concerns - food safety, sustainability, animal welfare, and, of course, labor conditions - thus need to be dealt with before food gets to stores.
-Knowing where you food comes from becomes a substitute for - as opposed to a road towards - making the right choices. Thus the ragingly popular foodie notion that it's somehow more ethical to eat meat if you're unsqueamish about it (will to butcher a pig, gut a fish) than if you think of meat and tofu as just two things that come wrapped in plastic at the supermarket. Thus the food-movement obsession with the tragedy of kids growing up eating pizza, without any idea what a tomato plant looks like.
-Big picture, small picture: What really needs to happen, at the individual level, is more vegetables need to be consumed, more meals prepared at home. What we now have are some shoppers tearing their hair out because the asparagus came from Chile and not New Jersey (where we are positively inundated with the stuff), and others skipping right past it to the deep-fried-frozen-hot-fudge aisle. But things like meat vs. legumes, these are choices that both can and should be made by individual consumers, who can perfectly well differentiate between the produce and Cheetos sections of the supermarket. If some asparagus, tomatoes, eggs, whatever, are really that bad, this is something that needs to be verified, culminating in that product not being in stores.
None of the above is going to come as a wild surprise to those who've been following this issue, and the various contrarian take-downs it elicits. (See the tag for evidence that I'm repeating myself here.) What's different from the usual sympathizer's critique is that all I'm asking is that we stop putting the onus on the individual shopper.