Friday, May 25, 2012

"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."

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.

7 comments:

PG said...

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 wouldn't want that to be the sole locus of change, but I'm not sure how to make the capitalist private sector (basically what we're left with after the failure of government) care about our advocacy if we don't at least threaten to back up that advocacy with changes in our shopping. If Trader Joe's hadn't thought it could lose money by failing to partner with workers' groups, why would it do something it previously hadn't done? The person who simultaneously raises public consciousness about mistreatment of workers and boycott TJ's tomatoes is more effective than the person who does only one or the other. Though the person who carries out a silent boycott (never telling TJ's why he's no longer buying tomatoes there) is probably the least effective of all.

Sales tracker: Hmm, tomato sales are down. I wonder why?

Management: Duh, we need to change how we present the tomatoes. From now on, instead of one big pile, they'll be in multiple TJ's crates. We need to bump up the "buying at the farm" feel.

Phoebe said...

The faux-rustic supermarket display, indeed. (Wegmans here uses a gigantic wooden wheelbarrow to showcase the tiny % of its produce that's local, this in a very farm-dense area. Not that Whole Foods is much better/different.) But it's reasons like this that "advocacy" based on what individual consumers purchase is bound to lead stores to change what they do in ways that placate these consumers without changing anything substantial. Consumers want "organic"? Slap that label on food of technically organic produce from giant farms halfway across the world, or better yet, use a lot of earthy colors and the word "green" in your aesthetic.

But I also think it's a mistake to even think about this in terms of "advocacy." People who want to know 'where my food comes from' want to know where their food comes from, and typically aren't horrified that foods they'd never consider feeding themselves or their families are available in stores. They feel they're doing their part if they buy fresh food at a farmers market where the possibility of getting organic Chilean asparagus never comes up. And it's viewed as patronizing/nanny-state-ish to hold an opinion on what others should and should not be able to purchase at the supermarket. This is the initial impulse, and only once they're repeatedly called out on the "elitism" of this approach (which is partly the right term, but it's also just individualism) will they make some gestures about food policy more broadly.

PG said...

People who want to know 'where my food comes from' want to know where their food comes from, and typically aren't horrified that foods they'd never consider feeding themselves or their families are available in stores.

Hmm, to me it seems elitist to say that others with different preferences/ incomes shouldn't be able to get a certain food even if it's food I'd never feed myself. My husband loves Doritos and Rose's Lime juice and refuses to accept the Whole Foods and Trader Joe's substitutes; I don't like them because of the chemical tastes and colors, but I'll buy them for him despite this requiring a special trip to a more populist supermarket. And we share income! I'd be even more shy of dictating what's available to people with less money than I have. I don't mind taxing something with zero nutritional value (alcohol, tobacco, soda) to disincentivize its consumption, but I'd feel differently about doing so with nutritional food -- and though I shudder at the conservatism of saying so, increased regulations can have the same effect as a tax if it increases costs that are then passed on to consumers.

Also, as I noted in comments to the prior post, a store-by-store approach increases the lobby for making it a general regulation and also helps to bend the cost curve. There's now a sufficiently large supply of "organic milk" in America thanks to the pioneering efforts of the fancy supermarkets, that now Walmart can sell it too. Get enough people voluntarily buying it at Walmart and disdaining the regular stuff, and the milk producers' costs go down such that it becomes affordable for all.

A friend tried living on a food stamp budget in accordance with her liberal church's guidelines on food buying, and it was so tough she stopped after 9 days. (Also, insanely, she did it while studying for the bar exam. The first thing they tell you at exam prep is not to stop smoking, go on a diet, or otherwise mentally stress yourself unnecessarily for the next two months.)

Phoebe said...

Yeah, I shouldn't have used the word "elitist" at all, because that word quickly grows useless and YPIS-ish in this context. Anything an educated kale-eater says about less-privileged Dorito eaters (that they should or should not be allowed Doritos, that they should be allowed only taxed Doritos, whatever) will strike many as "elitist." And FWIW, I was explaining how it currently goes, not saying that food-movement die-hards should be removing all artificial flavors from supermarkets.

I think what's important in your comment, although I don't think this is where you were going with it, is that you point out that "low-class" foods are also consumed by not so "low-class" people. This is far more the case than people realize, and if we acknowledged it, it might cease to seem so "elitist" to hold opinions on what foods should or should not be in stores, taxed, whatever. I mean, think back to just a decade or two ago. Only kids with hippie parents ate "farm-to-table." Wealthy families in Manhattan were not on that bandwagon at all, but merely put more of a premium on being thin/serving expensive, imported, "gourmet" ingredients/drinks to the adults. The kids who grew up like this, now young adults, did not switch en masse to Alice Waters-inspired diets, and are actually, I suspect, catching up with the less-posh, weight-wise, these days. (I recently overheard a not-poor-seeming woman in a too-posh-for-me-so-I-was-on-my-way-out-once-I-saw-the-prices cheese shop guiltily confessing that she'd recently had Kraft singles.) Every household that goes to Whole Foods also needs to visit the regular supermarket. There are class differences in food consumption, of course, but they are, I suspect, vastly overstated.

Our bizarre insistence on pretending that the typical person with a college degree/a certain household income actually eats according to Michael Pollan's suggestions is what leads us to think it's elitist/patronizing/whatever to hold an opinion on soda or Doritos.

PG said...

There are class differences in food consumption, of course, but they are, I suspect, vastly overstated.

They probably are overstated between the middle class and upper class, but having my "regular," non-TJ supermarket be in a mostly lower-income neighborhood has highlighted for me the difference between my food consumption and that of people with lower socioeconomic status. Just as the store would not be stocking Naked juice and hummus if it were not for shoppers like me, they would not be stocking fried pork and the entire Hostess line of snacks if it were not for shoppers unlike me.

I wouldn't assume that my household is necessarily consuming fewer calories and fat grams than some families nearby, but I feel fairly sure that even with the Doritos, most of those calories and fats come from different kinds of sources. Twinkies and homemade rhubarb bread might have similar nutritional content (at least if the bread is eaten in sufficient quantity), but they are genuinely different foods.

Anyway, this is off-topic from what I meant to discuss, which is that I don't see how change is likely to occur unless people back their claim to prefer cruelty-free, nonraped-labor-picked food with a plausible threat of boycotting that which does not meet their standards. And while "organic" has ambiguous meaning, being on a migrant workers' rights group's shit list usually doesn't.

Phoebe said...

First point - I'd say that a lot of the difference between what different classes eat is in the packaging, or at any rate not nutritional, not even as great as the difference between a homemade cake and a Twinkie. Think a rainforest-friendly organic chocolate-caramel-cookie bar versus a Twix. A frozen pizza with pretensions versus one without. There are sugar-water varieties marketed to different socioeconomic groups. And aren't the rich getting fatter?

Second point - I'm not sure how to better convey this, but the what the where-does-my-food-come-from movement is not a labor-rights movement, and not really an anti-animal-cruelty one, either, but largely about giving an imprimatur (is this the word I'm looking for?) of morality to what are essentially aesthetic choices.

PG said...

the where-does-my-food-come-from movement is not a labor-rights movement, and not really an anti-animal-cruelty one, either, but largely about giving an imprimatur (is this the word I'm looking for?) of morality to what are essentially aesthetic choices.

Assuming that I understood you correctly, that is a good way to summarize it. But then the where-does-my-food-come-from movement doesn't really matter to me. It's of course exasperating when people claim a virtue they haven't earned, but if this isn't about people genuinely seeking to have their food choices minimize negative impact on others, I don't see why I should care what they want unless I get into the food marketing biz. Let them delude themselves about their moral standing as they wish. It's probably less harmful than many of the other moral delusions and hypocrisies out there, precisely because they're not politically active. (As opposed to the people who protest abortion and try to shut down Planned Parenthood, but think their abortions are the exceptional circumstance.)