FoodVibe readers might have read Michael Pollan's recent article on food policy in The New York Times magazine. The article was written as a letter to the next “Farmer in Chief,” then unknown. However, in a pre-election interview with Time Magazine Barack Obama cited Pollan’s article:
"I was just reading an article by Michael Pollan,” he said, “about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the mean time, it’s creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats...sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and that are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs..."
Obama merely cites the problems Pollan exposes. But Pollan's article also offers an "elegant solution," which involves the following initiatives:
1. Resolarizing the American: returning to the sane roots of agriculture: diversified, sustainable crops, nourished by the energy of the sun.
2. Regionalizing the Food System: emphasizing local foods.
3. Rebuilding America’s Food Culture: early food education; leading by example.
It’s heartening to know that Obama is aware of Pollan’s ideas. Perhaps an Obama administration will attempt to implement its own elegant solution. But Pollan’s article speaks to me not only as a government solution, but a call to action—a call to support sustainable, local food with my wallet.
Of course, many people and organizations have been sounding this call for years. But now, in the face of the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression, the call to support sustainable, local food is more important than ever.
Because sustainable, local food is more expensive than conventional farmed food.
It’s more expensive because it’s rare. It’s more expensive because the farming techniques are laborious and time intensive. It’s more expensive because many small-scale organic farmers do not receive federal subsidies.
Pollan cites a provocative justification for the added expense:
“It will be argued that moving animals off feedlots and back onto farms will raise the price of meat,” Pollan writes. “It probably will — as it should. Paying the real cost of meat, and therefore eating less of it, is a good thing for our health, for the environment, for our dwindling reserves of fresh water and for the welfare of the animals.”
To me, the phrase that sticks out here is “the real cost of meat.”
To my taste a $.99/lb turkey simply sounds suspicious. At Whole Foods Market, this season’s turkeys—free-range and free of antibiotics and hormones—cost $2.49/lb. The difference is significant, especially in these lean times. But what, really, are you getting when you buy a $.99/lb turkey?
Likely, it has been frozen and preserved from the prior year. Likely, its been farmed conventionally, meaning it DOES contain antibiotics and hormones. Likely, it has lived in filthy conditions, unsuited for any being, let alone one that we might eat--and where there’s filth there’s disease
Good food costs extra money, yes. But it is food, after all.
This is how the Free On-Line Dictionary defines food:
1. Material, usually of plant or animal origin, that contains or consists of essential body nutrients, such as carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, or minerals, and is ingested and assimilated by an organism to produce energy, stimulate growth, and maintain life.
According to this definition, a McDonald’s Cheeseburger is not entirely food. Yes, it consists of essential nutrients that might keep one alive. But what does this livelihood look like?
Does a McDonald’s cheeseburger produce energy?
Why don’t we ask Morgan Spurlock, the documentarian who made Super Size Me, in which he demonstrated the health effects of McDonald's food by eating nothing but McDonald's three times a day, every day, for 30 days? Some of Spurlock's claims about McDonald's the company have been challenged, but no one has challenged the depiction of how McDonald's food actually destroyed Spurlock's body: he gained 25 pounds, suffered liver dysfunction and depression and extreme, crippling fatigue.
Does a McDonald’s cheeseburger stimulate growth? Maybe so, but not the type of growth we expect from food. Pollan noted in a recent interview with Terri Gross that the hormones fed to McDonald's cattle before slaughter might have devastating effects on young children and unborn children:
"...even microscopic amounts at a certain moment in the developmental process," he says, "whether in the fetus or the child, can have a dramatic effect."
Does a McDonald’s cheeseburger maintain life?
In a very, very limited sense. Spurlock's physician, after all, compared Spurlock's diet to a severe alcoholic binge.
Does anyone eat McDonald's every day. Of course not. Spurlock's example is exaggerated. But FoodCrack, which is not entirely food, exists everywhere. The majority of American families, for example, eat inexpensive, conventionally raised meat. With this meat, they might also be consuming their fair share of antibiotics, hormones, and filth.
Is this food? And is this food really cheap?
"...cheap food is only cheap because of government handouts and regulatory indulgence...not to mention the exploitation of workers, animals and the environment on which its putative “economies” depend. Cheap food is food dishonestly priced — it is in fact unconscionably expensive."
Our spending decisions matter. When we buy a locally grown apple from a small farm, for example, we are announcing not only the type of produce we prefer—fresh picked, ripe, seasonal—but the type of agriculture we support: small scale, local, with minimal impact to the environment, and maximum impact to our good health.
I buy free-range chicken, for example, because I support the idea of chickens roaming freely. I eat free-range chicken, on the bone, on the other hand, because my lust for deliciousness calls for the best meat, and because, as an anemic and a diabetic, I need a viable, healthful source of iron and protein, without the health-threatening additives--I need real food.
This is not an issue of elitism, as some might argue. As Pollan notes:
"It should not be difficult to deflect the charge of elitism sometimes leveled at the sustainable-food movement. Reforming the food system is not inherently a right-or-left issue: for every Whole Foods shopper with roots in the counterculture you can find a family of evangelicals intent on taking control of its family dinner and diet back from the fast-food industry."
To me, food choices are political choices: when you buy food, whether it be from Whole Foods or McDonald’s, you make a political statement about the type of agriculture you support, the type of world you want to live in.
Perhaps this is an unreasonable assumption. Many families, for example, can only afford to buy foods that support out-dated, oil-based agriculture—who’s to say these families do not support something like Pollan’s notion of sustainability?
I’m certain many low-income households would love to eat better, to eat more healthfully and sanely, to support local and/or organic farming. There are federal programs, too, that support this type of lifestyle. Also, there are, certainly, inexpensive venues for local sustainable foods. As Nina Planck writes:
"Self-appointed populists point out that the mesclun at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City is $32 a pound. Yes, some farmers sell it for that. I don't buy it myself, but that's not the only kind of lettuce available."
Just down the street from where I live, a neighbor imports fresh produce from Lancaster. Recently, I bought about 60 local pears for $2.
To me, it's about effort: taking the time to find good places to buy real food. Whole Foods Market is not the answer--it's merely part of the answer, just as the local farm is part the answer, and the guy down the street.
It might be cynical to say, but it's true: a great deal of our ability to influence the world is predicated on how we spend our money. In America, we speak loudly with our wallet. Now that our wallets seem to be shrinking we might focus even more acutely on our expenses. We might not have extra money to waste on food that is not entirely food. We might need to buy the most energy-promoting, growth-stimulating, and life-maintaining food the market has to offer. In that case, real food is the only answer.