care for food

May 21st, 2011 by brooke

I read this article today in the Washington Post called “Why being a foodie isn’t elitist” by Eric Schlosser, the author of Fast Food Nation. I recommend that you read it. I found it interesting because he names and deconstructs the most common critique made about the healthy food and sustainable agriculture movement. The article provoked me to articulate some of my own ideas on the subject.

I am sure that all small-scale organic farmers have heard the claim before that if they involve themselves in the work of sustainable agriculture that they are by default engaging in elitism. The small-scale farmer is often accused of inaccessibility, irrelevance, and of pandering to the wealthy. Small-scale farmers, offering healthier food and meaningful employment, not to mention better care of water and land, know how difficult it is to earn a living-wage through their work. Most settle for a very low income, relying on the satisfaction of their relationship to land and community as compensation.

Because their produce sits next to the subsidized, ecologically extractive, artificially cheap counterparts in the marketplace, it does seem expensive. But actually its not. For what it is, it’s still very cheap. For that reason it is an unfortunate paradox that organic farmers are often accused of elitism.

Caitlyn and I grapple daily with the question of how to make our food accessible. It is very important to us that a diverse range of people can enjoy our produce. It is also very important to us that we are able to respect our hard work by (hopefully soon) being able to pay ourselves a living-wage. While in some ways we would be emotionally fulfilled to work for little compensation and offer our produce at Safeway prices….we wonder if we would simply be perpetuating the unacceptable cultural norm of farming being a scantily paid profession (not to mention that we would probably get burnt out, exhaust our bodies and therefore not be a very sustainable business). We are still negotiating this balancing act of building a business that enhances the goal of community food security and demanding an elevated role for what we believe to be an important profession.

Although across the board small-scale farmers do take on the mission of making healthy food broadly accessible, I believe that it should not be the farmers job to make food cheap (in fact they can’t without sacrificing their own finances, health and sanity). It should be the job of our elected official, through public policy, to make healthy food cheaper. They should support sustainable farming by offering small-scale organic farmers the same, if not greater, subsidies than their industrial counterparts. In the meantime, if communities want to see farmers develop and employ the sustainable practices, which our governments currently use public resource to undermine, they may have to foot the bill by paying more for food.

No doubt, its a weighted issue. Those with more means will find it easier to pay more and those who are truly scraping by will find it harder to do so. For this reason access to healthy food is unequal. However it seems to me that we are making a crucial misinterpretation when we assume that healthy food is too expensive. The real issue at hand is that our economic system renders so many people too poor to afford healthy food.

I would like to see the issue of unaffordable food reframed. As I see it, food should not be cheap. Food is, and must be revered as, a thing of great value. Care for food, by natural extension, is care for soil, land and water, care for farming and the sensible stewardship of our natural resources, and therefore a care for communities and our stay here on earth. It seems of utmost importance that as a culture we assign a real worth to the embedded benefits of healthy food.

The devaluation of food can be understood as a tool of our current power structure, which encourages us to both disassociate with our natural resources so that they can be degraded and excessively extracted, and de-incentivizes us to involve ourselves in healthy alternative practices. This tool benefits a few and impoverishes many.

To an increasingly poor population cheap food is the only feasible option and therefore has become our addiction. In the context of this unneccessary epidemic of poverty, almost any healthy, sane, grassroots, farming or food distribution system, can be easily be cast in the light of irrelevance and critiqued as elite. In this way the system cleverly reinforces itself.

In his article Eric Schlosser poses the concept of food elitism in a new way. He does acknowledges that the snobbery of restaurant connoisseurs and food gourmands can be irritating and “if left unchecked could sideline the movement or make it irrelevant”. But he explains that if we focus on this trend we are failing to identify the truly dangerous food elite who are the corporate giants that increasingly control, through strong political lobbying, every aspect of our food system from seeds and fertilizers, to processing and distribution.

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