Sunday, January 28, 2018

Remember the Food Movement?

Sara Mojtehedzadeh and Brendan Kennedy's Toronto Star exposé of a Toronto-area bread factory is great journalism. Great for so many reasons, but here's a less-obvious one: it's about the factory, not the imagined consumer of factory-produced bread. It's not that there isn't any connection made in the piece between factory conditions and consumption, but it's an aside, early on: "These may well be the croissants you eat for breakfast." The point of the article is not to make you, the individual possible-croissant-consuming reader, more closely examine your breakfast choices. It's about labor conditions and - as the headline "Undercover in Temp Nation" suggests - the structure of today's economy. That bread is an everyday item we're all familiar with is a way of bringing the reader in. The essential, though, is what happens in the factory where Mojtehedzadeh works undercover:

No one tells me where fire extinguishers or exits are. Another temp confides she didn’t buy safety shoes, which cost the equivalent of a day’s wages. She makes it through the screening anyway. 
The story is about injury, death, and shady business practices at bread factories. The implicit fix the article demands involves changes to, and increased enforcement of, labor law. There's no suggestion whatsoever that the source of the issue is the modern consumer, demanding bread produced in a factory. No cultural archetype posited as The Bad Croissant-Consumer, to be shamed either for being fancy, bourgeois, and croissant-nibbling, or, conversely, for being lower-class and not getting an artisanal-enough croissant (or for having processed carbs to begin with). Nope, the (correct) assumption underlying the piece is that people of all sorts eat packaged bread; that eating is a necessity; and that the issue is how the people producing that bread are treated. It's a story about consumer products, but not about consumption.

It's my sense that ever since the 2016 election, the food movement - and with it, the more general movement to consider individual (posh) consumer choices the ultimate political act - has been kaput. Yes, food is still political. But the thing where status as a good person hinged on choosing spelt over quinoa, or avoiding winter asparagus, that thing is, for better or worse, over. (Better because it was silly, worse because it's a sign of dire times that silly preoccupations get forgotten.)

It feels like ancient history, but there was a time when I felt a bit guilty about my grocery habits. Not for sometimes overspending on cheese (that I still sometimes do, and still feel guilty about), but for ignoring The Rules. Rules laid out by various prophets: Use only the freshest, most local, most seasonal, or else. Or else what? The concern was always a bit vague, but very much rooted in something ethical.

It wasn't 'clean eating' (which persists, as the euphemism for dieting it always was), but this arbitrary dividing line between real food and fake, where authenticity was measured by inconvenience. Inconvenience, and something a bit more sinister, but always between-the-lines: certain food could be trusted (sourced ingredients), whereas other food - in particular, ethnic food - could not. Everything, to be trusted, had to be served to you by a white, flannel-clad, bearded hipster, at a place with farms listed on the menu. This excluded all dining establishments and grocery options falling under the category once problematically referred to as "ethnic." Oh, but Scandinavian food, that was OK. (Gee, I wonder why the food movement as it once was feels passé?)

While the writing itself would often be in the third-person plural, it was clear that a "we" including food writers weren't buying packaged food at supermarkets - those other people were. "We" were spending 60 hours a week sourcing ingredients at Berkeley farmers markets, at Cobble Hill fishmongers (and to be fair, it is a good fishmonger). Except who were "we," anyway? Much was made of food and privilege - of how not everyone is able to live off kale and locally-sourced squab or whatever. But of those who could, how many ever were?

There was also this eternal pre-food-movement mother, the one who foolishly fed her kids supermarket foods, and who didn't value time-consuming food prep the way her son (there, generally, there was a son) the food writer would. Remember that? That was something.

Individual ingredients were declared problematic, the way individual celebrities (and internet randos) are these days. Everything was scary, in this semi-/pseudoscientific way. Tomatoes sprayed to look red, and farmed salmon treated in some way to be pink! Did you know that asparagus came from Chile? Did you? Exposés about how packaged food was engineered to... taste good, a fact presented as if inherently sinister.

From the prophets trickled down an aesthetic, but an aesthetic you could ignore at your own risk - if properly trained, you would think a Rules-meeting diet was the most delicious. There was no subjectivity to this, no possibility that anyone might actually honest-to-goodness prefer certain packaged foods to fresh, or value time over from-scratch preparations. Genuine nutritional concerns (why is sugar added to so many packaged foods?) mixed with aesthetic ones (much of locavorism), as well as ones that were clearly pointing the way to worse eating habits.

When I thought about this rationally, The Rules made little sense: wasn't it a better idea to eat less (or no) meat, rather than locavoring one's way through traceable steak dinners? Wasn't purism re: local/seasonal inhibiting vegetable consumption, if it left grocery-shoppers feeling guilty for buying the only vegetables actually available to them, for months on end, or at all? But most of all: if there were issues with the food system - there were! there are! - why was the proposed solution a change in individual consumer behavior? I found the whole thing irritating at best, pseudoscientific as well as casually sexist and xenophobic. But it still, somehow, led to this nagging sense of guilt, one I can't say has entered my mind in ages.

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