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The Limits of Local Food

May 7, 2011

Defenders of the mainstream food system often level critiques of elitism against those who promote alternative food movements. Proponents of organic food are criticized for their opposition to the increased use of chemical inputs which, from the perspective of the mainstream agricultural system, are central to addressing the problem of global hunger. Advocates of local food are similarly dismissed as out-of-touch. When Barack Obama referenced the price of arugula at Whole Foods in Iowa during the 2007 Democratic presidential primaries, his opponents pounced on the opportunity to characterize him as an elitist intellectual.

This is why I read Eric Schlosser’s recent editorial, “Why Being a Foodie Isn’t Elitist” in the Washington Post last week with such anticipation. I’ll admit to being a big fan of Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation. I think it’s a great read and offers a powerful critique of the fast food industry in the United States. His discussion of the meatpacking industry is enough to turn nearly anyone off Big Macs.

Over the past forty years, Schlosser observes, our food system has been fundamentally transformed.  Some of the trends are obvious: the number of farms (and farmers) has declined dramatically, while average farm size has increased. Other trends are less obvious: a sharp decline in the number of food processors and distributors, leading to a concentration of market power in the market. Recent developments in alternative food systems have countered some of these trends.

But what’s emerged is not a more inclusive system but a two-tiered system of food access. For the relatively well-heeled, markets provide a plethora of food choices: local, organic food purchased at farmers markets, fair trade products from abroad, and a greater variety of ingredients available at posh restaurants. But for the poor, markets do not provide more choices but fewer. Under perfect conditions, markets respond to demand expressed through purchasing power. Under less than perfect conditions, other factors also enter to consideration. Witness, for example, the problem of food deserts. Large areas in the United States, particularly in (the predominantly minority) poor inner cities across the United States, lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables from supermarkets. For these neighborhoods, the only sources of produce are corner markets, where the selection is limited and prices are high.

The term “food deserts” has entered the lexicon to describe these areas. But the term “food desert” itself is problematic because it naturalizes what is, in fact, a socio-economic phenomenon. Unlike deserts, which emerge from natural rainfall patterns, food deserts emerge when political and business leaders make decisions that result in the exclusion of neighborhoods (predominantly poor neighborhoods of color). A better description of this phenomenon is food apartheid, as food apartheid points squarely to the political and economic dimensions of choices of exclusion.

But back to the criticism of the alternative food movement as elitist. Clearly the criticism has resonance. Perhaps the critique’s longevity is a result, as Schlosser asserts, of the ongoing public relations efforts of big ag. It’s also likely popular because of the longstanding culture wars in the United States. But the term’s resonance is also a function of an element of truth. The idea that social change derives primarily from consumer choices reifies the notion of consumer sovereignty and ignores the fact that poor communities by definition cannot exercise the same level of influence in the market. It’s fine to say that upper-middle-class consumers should change their consumption choices and buy more local food. But it’s an entirely different matter for poor communities of color. The demand for better food from this perspective is not just a consumer choice but a matter of class. This is why the demand for a better food system cannot be limited to a reformist campaign for better choices but a demand for more transformative change linking better food with higher wages, as well as racial and gender equity. It means making local food spaces more diverse and inclusive, not simply spaces of whiteness as they tend to be now. It means, in short, thinking big.

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