by Liam Hysjulien
“There is no possible way of transcending the present and the past from where it derives, without a thorough-going criticism of it.”
–Alvin Gouldner, The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology
In a recent New York Times Op-Ed piece, “Big Food vs. Big Insurance,” the deservedly heralded American health food czar, Michael Pollan, argues that a comprehensive reform of our current food system, eating habits, and overall food consumption rests a
t the center of our current national healthcare debate. As a country, we spend over 147 billion dollars a year treating obesity and billions more treating other preventable food-related diseases. Obesity, for a new generation of Americans, has become the face for both agribusiness ingenuity and bloated American decadence (Pollan 2008).
As the green agricultural revolution of the 1970s helped usher in an era of cheap food and larger waistlines, it also highlighted—and more distressingly, helped exacerbate—the growing inequality of food access across the globe. In recent years, new food systems studies have eroded the long-held belief that the current industrial food complex is a sustainable and economically viable option. In light of recent food insecurity concerns, primarily in the form of E. Coli and other foodborne diseases, the United States Department of Agriculture has mandated a “Know your Farmer, Know your Food” initiative that promotes the idea of developing farmer-to-consumer relationships in local communities. For anyone who has ever studied the USDA, this change in policy should come as no surprise. From 1976 to 1992, the USDA worked extensively with local food communities, providing resources and funds to community urban agriculture projects. While funding for the USDA community garden projects ended in 1992, in the 2008 Farm Bill new funds and mandates have been made towards promoting community garden projects, farmers’ markets, and nutritional-based school programs—hopefully modeled off of Alice Waters’ edible schoolyard in Berkeley, California (USDA 2008).
In continuing to unpack this idea of food as being symbolically linked to elitism, it becomes important to understand in what ways locally-grown food has come to be both viewed and defined as elitist. James McWilliams, in his October 14th, 2009 New York Times opinion piece, offers the most salient example of how the politics of healthy, locally grown food has come to be viewed as the politics of the elites. First, I commend McWilliams for raising these questions about the viability of local food systems, especially in the liberal climate of the New York Times. Even as we strive to be advocates for change, it is important to remember that objectivity must not be damped by an uncritical fervor over an issue (McWilliams 2009).
While I disagree with the spirit of McWilliams’ piece, I agree with some of the points raised in McWilliams’ book, Just Food, as well as in his opinion piece. Ecological modernity, if used properly, can effectively reduce food costs and create new methods for the continued growth and development of our food system. I also agree with McWilliams’ point that we need to reduce, greatly reduce, the amount of meat that we consume in this country. My main criticism with McWilliams’ New York Times article is not his arguments per se, but his blatant usage of political divisiveness in crafting his argument. McWilliams’ criticism with localized food movement stems from a superficial argument over its lack of food diversity. In this current era of mainstream punditry, divisiveness has become the default tactic for eliminating public discourse, marring important and complex issues, and creating cleavages, instead of areas for communication, between different socio-economic, racial, and regional groups.
McWilliams prefaces his piece by stating that the marriage between localism and community cohesion may not be as beneficial as some localists would have you believe. He then follows this position by stating that he “has no numbers to draw upon” to defend this statement. Futhermore, one of his main arguments is that the idea of localism is a value shared largely by rich individuals whose main concerns are not diversity and access to food, but “securing heirloom tomatoes cultivated within a 100-mile radius of their domains.” While the lack of large scale national studies between food and diversity makes it difficult to look specifically at the numbers, I contend that newly emerging food community projects greatly contest McWilliams’ claims.
If we are to address this coming crisis of Western food, a crisis we may already be in the middle of, we must find ways of moving beyond political tactics that pit different classes and perspectives against one another. By claiming that local food is a strategy by food elites to reduce diversity and somehow control another group’s diet, real issues surrounding food become hidden behind walls of partisan doublespeak. We cannot ignore this crisis of food, not when we are seeing new super-diseases create public-health crises within our food systems, not when we are seeing exponential growing rates of obesity, and vast amounts of public money in the form of Medicare and Medicaid, going towards treating preventable, diet-related diseases. As new studies of obesity are showing, the causes behind obesity are less a cause of individuals’ choices and more about environmental and social factors. How can we expect low-income people to eat healthily when there are no fresh fruits or vegetables in their surrounding community? Or when a person, whose wage has not increased in the last thirty years, is attempting to feed their family of four? This isn’t about obstructing consumer choice, or an Epicurean, left-coast indoctrination program to make everybody in America eat heirloom tomatoes and arugul.
It should come as no surprise to people who have studied either food systems over the last thirty years, or, for that matter, the de-industrialization of American cities over the same period, that issues of food and class are directly linked. This certainly is not a new phenomenon, and the relationship between food and class, food and economics, and food as a means of political and economic control, has existed since a surplus of grains helped to establish modern civilizations. In the United States specifically, community agriculture projects have historically existed during prolonged periods of economic crisis. After the 1880s collapse of the Reading Railroad, the Potato Patch gardens in Detroit helped feed city residents. These Potato Patch gardens are generally considered the first documented American urban community garden project. The victory gardens of the 1940s were as much a response to limited food resources as an emblem of American pride and self-sufficiency. During the oil crisis and stagflation of the 1970s, inner-city municipalities and federal agencies, most notably in New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia, worked with neighborhood associations and city officials to convert publicly vacant lots into functioning community gardens. Members of these communities worked to remove waste, broken bottles, and debris, and turned blighted areas into functioning urban environments. These spaces provided low-income community members with feelings of ownership in their own neighborhoods, and helped foster social capital and community cohesion during the volatile economic climate of the late 1970s. I use these examples to illustrate how local, community-grown food is not, at least historically speaking, an idea and value shared only by elites (Lawson 2005).
In a 2006 study in Epidemiologic Reviews, the authors explored the relationships—though causality cannot be implied—between socio-economic status, gender, race, and rates of obesity. Anecdotally, mainstream constructions of obesity point to a seemingly direct relationship, often stereotyped in movies, television, and the media, between being poor, southern, and obese. One of the most important findings in this study is not the groups themselves that are obese, but the overall positive trend of obesity rates in America over the last thirty years. From 1971 to 2000, overall rates of obesity have increased, with the surprising exception of low socio-economic status white males, across all socio-economic status (SES), gender, and racial categories. This upward trend is especially troubling among SES African-American males where the rates have increased from 13% of respondents in 1971 to 33% in 2000.
In the case of both African-Americans and white females, the overall trend is higher than their white male counterparts, and middle-SES African-American females show the highest rates of obesity with 54% of respondents in 2000. Even in lieu of this quantitative evidence, the authors rightly surmise that this evidence does not indicate a causal relationship between obesity and a respondent’s SES and their race. Instead, the authors contend that claims in previous studies linking SES, race and obesity often fail to take into account both the complexity and multi-directional causes behind obesity. The authors of this study conclude that the primary factors behind obesity are not the result of individual characteristics, but are largely influenced by social and environmental factors (Wang and Beydoun 2007).
If we want to have a more nuanced understanding of the problematic coupling of elitism and food, the argument between social environmental factors and individual behaviors becomes paramount. Trends in obesity, while higher among certain demographics, are not confined to specific groups, regions, or races. Still, these higher rates in certain geographical regions, particularly the southern United States, indicate that social factors specific to those regions and communities are contributing to this epidemic. It should then come as no surprise that African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods—where the highest incidence of obesity occurs—have fewer supermarkets, which limits easy access to fruits, vegetables, and grains, and in turn leads to increased consumption of high-fat, high-sugar packaged foods (Wang and Beydoun 2007).
As an activist and researcher living in the south, I have seen the disease of obesity destroying my community’s health and sense of self-worth. Nobody wants to be morbidly overweight—to have to go outside everyday and face the scrutiny and criticism that our society places on those who don’t meet the ideals of beauty and weight. This issue is not about trying to convert people to the latest food trends, but instead to reconnect people, all people, with the traditional and historical roots of food consumption in America. This applies not only to placated yoga moms reading about the newest super-grain in the Utne Reader, but to inner-city and rural individuals caught in a food paradigm that benefits the very few at the expense of everybody else. If we are going to change our food system, we must look at this movement as being not just the “personal as political,” but a diverse movement of local farmers, inner-city activists, columnists, academics, artists, and politicians who are working on the front lines to improve our food system. The evidence of this movement is all around us today. Projects like the awe-inspiring Will Allen’s Growpower out of Milwaukee; the Inner-city Garden Project in Durham, North Carolina; Food from the Hood in Los Angeles; and the GrowMemphis community garden project are just a few examples of ways communities are working to provide their area with fresh affordable food.
I conclude this piece from a place of agreement with the spirit of McWilliams’ article. It is always important to remain both critical and reflective on different trends, political movements, and social issues—especially the ones we idolize. We must not let our own personal ideas and values limit our ability to see areas for improvement. And we must continue to allow different voices and opinions to be brought to the food systems table. Even so, we need to move beyond this idea that local food is merely the interest of a select few. This idea merely perpetuates a class-based political system of food patronage and elitism, and undermines the work of thousands of activists who are attempting to change—with their arms against the machine–-this coming crisis.
Lawson, Laura. 2005. City Bountiful. University of Nebraska Press.
McWilliams, James. 2009. “Is Localism for Rich People Only?” The New York Times
Pollan, Michael. 2009. “Big Food Vs. Big Insurance.” The New York Times September 10
Wang Y, Beydoun MA. 2007. “The Obesity Epidemic in the United States—Gender,
Age, Socioeconomic, Racial/Ethnic, and Geographic Characteristics: a Systematic Review and Meta-Regression Analysis.” Epidemiologic Reviews 29: 6–28.
United States Department of Agriculture. 2008. 2008 Farm Bill. Washington DC:
Liam Hysjulien is a graduate student in sociology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. His areas of study are Food Systems Theory, food sustainability, food policies, and urban agricultural projects. Please send questions, comments, or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org