Mar 22 2011

Thoughts on “Divided We Eat”

“Essentially we have a system where wealthy farmers feed the poor crap and poor farmers feed the wealthy high-quality food.”

-Michael Pollan

My mother likes to mail me packets of newspaper clippings and articles she’s saved that she thinks will be of interest to me.  (And in case you’re reading this Mom, they are!).  I never know if I’ll open up the manila envelope to pull out a new recipe, a food article, a thoughtful quote, or even travel tips.  Most recently, tucked among a few vegetarian recipes and a newspaper clipping about iPhone apps, my mom had included a Newsweek article entitled “Divided We Eat”.

The tagline for the article reads:

As more of us indulge our passion for local, organic delicacies, a growing number of Americans don’t have enough nutritious food to eat. How we can bridge the gap?

I’ve now read this article several times.  At first, especially in the early stages of the article, I found myself sharply disagreeing and feeling stung by the generalizations of families in several Brooklyn neighborhoods.  The article highlights three Brooklyn families:  a family in my neighborhood of Park Slope, a family in Red Hook, and a family in Clinton Hill.

My initial thoughts—thankfully—did not carry through the rest of my reading.  “Divided We Eat” is nuanced, informative, and thoroughly researched, managing to capture many of the food buzzwords in a few pages.  Though author Lisa Miller does start with a close up look at the Park Slope family, ultimately her article doesn’t revolve around these families.  Rather, she uses them as real life examples, much as a politician would illustrate something they’re talking about with a ‘Bob from Illinois’ example.  Unlike the pandering associated with these political comments (who are these made up people anyways?!), Miller captures actual people, engaging in real food choices.  Each family vignette paints a bigger picture of food inequality in Brooklyn (which serves a microcosm for everywhere else).  Brooklyn has enormous class differences and economic disparity but it’s also a borough I’m proud to currently call home: each day citizens attempt to address—not ignore—food inequality.

Did the article answer the question about bridging the gap?  Well, I guess that depends on how we define the word 'gap'.  Is it a gap in eating, a gap in spending, a gap in thinking, or a gap in how we relate to food?

The reason I was initially turned off by the article was because Miller was quick to label herself as a ‘food snob’.  That’s the kind of language that does a disservice to everyone.  I don't think eating well or caring about what you put in your body automatically makes you a snob. Though Miller was joking, it’s a cavalier comment that put me, and perhaps other readers, on the defensive about my food choices.  This type of commentary elicits guilty feelings for everyone: people who think about their food choices and people who simply don’t have choices.  I vote for eliminating ‘food snob’ and ‘elitist’ from further discussions about food.

There’s a difference between being aware of what you eat and wanting to support a local network of farmers and purveyors versus having the luxury to eat at Per Se or another high-end restaurant.  I also think there’s a clear difference between spending time thinking about food versus feigning interest in food because it’s trendy or fashionable. If the idea of fashionable food seems odd to you, look no further than the recent Barney’s Foodie Holiday, which stated “Food is fashion”.  But I fail to see the link between the Park Slope family depicted in the article (and similar families across the country) and the occasionally gluttonous, image-conscious realm of the high-end food world. Dismissing the “food aware” along with the “food trendy” hinders our ability to discuss food issues. Just because both groups have money to spend on food and time to think about it, does not make their motives the same.

I can only guess how much this confluence of food with class warfare baffles other parts of the world. In many other nations, it’s not a luxury to think about food – food is simply a part of life.  As the author pointed out, the French would inevitably answer ‘What is eating well?’ in terms of “conviviality”: togetherness, intimacy, and good tastes unfolding in a predictable way.”

Food is the ultimate hot-button issue because everyone eats it and no one wants to feel guilty about what they’re eating. Food can be as sensitive a subject as religion or politics—but it would be rare if your entire dinner table conversation always revolved around those two polarizing topics.  Your dinner table does always revolve around food—that’s the point after all.

We are at a time in our history where more and more people are thinking about food. Many of those who are lucky enough to have resources to apply to food, are doing so with thoughtful dialogue and awareness.  Unfortunately, those who don’t have the time or money to purchase and prepare healthy foods are buying sugary, fattening, and processed foods, not only because these foods taste good, but because the only affordable and accessible non-processed alternatives have been flown thousands of miles and are quite unappealing.

“On weeknights, everyone gets home, exhausted—and then there’s homework. Several nights a week, they get takeout: Chinese, or Domino’s, or McDonald’s. Davis doesn’t buy fruits and vegetables mostly because they’re too expensive, and in the markets where she usually shops, they’re not fresh. “I buy bananas and bring them home and 10 minutes later they’re no good…Whole Foods sells fresh, beautiful tomatoes,” she says. “Here, they’re packaged and full of chemicals anyway. So I mostly buy canned foods.”

Our current food culture places families like the Davises in an untenable situation. Between America’s work culture, income inequality, and seemingly unmovable food prices due to subsidies, monopolies, and infrastructure—how can a family make fresh food a priority? They can't.

Taxing soda is not the answer for encouraging poorer or overworked people to eat healthier.  People won't see a soda tax and think ‘oh you’re right, I should try and eat a salad tonight’.  Even if someone did think that, from where would that person buy a fresh (and palatable) salad?  Ultimately, it’s ridiculous to subsidize corn but then tax the result of that subsidy.  A soda tax increases the cost of something people can afford, and buy for pleasure, without giving them another option.   As long as the subsidies remain, taxes only further punish those most adversely effected by food policies.

“Divided We Eat” does not provide any clear answers or conclusions. Food is tied up in every sector of our life, so bridging the food gap (however you define the gap) is not a simple problem.  Joel Berg, director of the NYC Coalition Against Hunger, believes that the answer lies in “seeing food more as a shared resource, like water, than as a consumer product, like shoes”.  The more I read and witness, the more I’m inclined to agree with this viewpoint.  The most effective systems I’ve seen addressing food awareness, food access, and food affordability involve community-run CSAs, community-run gardens and farms, buying clubs, and independent grocery stores built around supporting several farms.

Is there anything Brooklyn residents can do as long government subsidies remain unchanged?  As New York Times columnist Pete Wells recently highlighted, what can really change about our food culture until our work culture changes? I don’t believe that the current situation is unfixable.  I’m inspired by the activities of small Brooklyn grocery stores, food coops, and buying clubs.  I’m inspired when I read about Woodbury County, Iowa, The Food Hub, young farmers in Portland, and innovative operations like Holton Farms. When communities band together and begin to treat food as natural right, instead of a luxury or a commodity, then change is truly possible.