the writing on the wall?

Earl Butz, US Secretary of Agriculture 1971-1976

I came across something really striking in my research today—I’m reading an old paper written by Earl Butz, Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture.  This is the guy who promoted ‘fencerow-to-fencerow’ planting, opened up US markets to foreign trade (which is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself—except that it opened them up to the volatility of the global market and lead to a mild depression in the 80s) and promoted a ‘get big or get out’ policy that was good for industry and bad for most farmers.  He was a controversial figure who came to represent the first of the ‘revolving door’ agriculture politicians—lawmakers and bureaucrats within the government who had extremely close ties to industry.  He would eventually leave his post in disgrace, but he left an enormous legacy in terms of business-oriented (and partisan) farm policy.

He was already an accomplished agricultural economist and the head of the Purdue Agricultural Economics Department in 1952 when he gave a speech on the politics of agricultural subsidies[1].  In it, he offers a comprehensive critique of US domestic agricultural policy and analyzes the political climate leading up to the ’52 presidential elections.  I’m surprised by how much I like the guy—he’s concise and funny, and we agree on a lot of things when it comes to farm policy (chief among them that farm subsidies are out of hand).

However, what struck me the most was his analysis of the political climate under which farm policy was forced to operate.  Butz is harsh in his condemnation of Truman’s Agriculture Secretary Charles Brannan’s partisan and anti-farmer endeavors but adds an interesting caveat:

I am not being critical of Mr. Brannan, the person, when I say that. I am convinced that, given time, a new Secretary of Agriculture, under a Republican administration, would be subject to identically the same temptations and the same pressures to use the system just at [sic] it is now being used… the temptation to use this set-up for political purposes is, I think, almost beyond the power of human resistance for anyone who operates in the political environment in which cabinet members must function.

Makes you wonder- this is the same guy who came to popularize unwise farming purposes that benefited his administration in its political goals (i.e., through food diplomacy, especially in regards to the Soviet Union) while arguably helping orchestrate the demise of the small-scale farmer.  What do you make of this?

[1] The Politics of Agricultural Subsidies

Earl L. Butz

Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science
Vol. 25, No. 1, The Election Issues of 1952 (May, 1952), pp. 54-68

Published by: The Academy of Political Science



I wrote a post last week on using imperfect fruit in supermarkets, and I’ve just stumbled upon this wonderful (if extreme) example of nature’s creativity. This is a mutated eggplant photographed as part of Uli Westphal’s series on unusual produce, but the artist’s statement puts it best:

The Mutato-Archive is a collection of non-standard fruits, roots and vegetables, displaying a dazzling variety of forms, colors and textures, that only reveal themselves when commercial standards cease to exist. The complete absence of botanical anomalies in our supermarkets has caused us to regard the consistency of produce presented there as natural. Produce has become a highly designed, monotonous product. We have forgotten, and in many cases never experienced, the way fruits, roots, and vegetables can actually look (and taste). The Mutato-Project serves to document, preserve and promote the last remainders of agricultural plasticity.

Would you buy ugly fruit?

There’s a cool article on the Grist today talking about selling ‘sub-standard’ apples for cheaper- this is an excellent way to both cut down on food waste and to make good, fresh produce more affordable.  Food waste in America is embarrassing- one 2004 study estimates that we waste 40-50% of our food.  One of the many reasons for this lies in grocery stores’ reluctance to sell ‘imperfect’ produce– not spoiled or old produce, but imperfect produce- for example, peaches that are too small or apples that have a smaller than desirable proportion of red to green coloring.  Seriously.

A consequence of this perfectionist view, though, is that we’re drastically reducing the amount of food that we consider fit for grocery store consumption, where most of the country gets its fruit.  And by doing that, we’re driving up produce prices.  The company in this article works with suppliers and grocery stores to create a supply of cheaper, imperfect produce– food that’s still fit for consumption, of course, but that’s not as pretty as the standard we’ve set.

So what do you think?  Would you buy imperfect produce if it was cheaper?  I know that I always loved it when the grocery store I worked at over the summer put out it’s 6-for-$1 bags of funny looking but incredibly fresh apples and peaches (cobbler, anyone?)- but do you think that this is a viable model?

Food Education Activities

Definitely one of the most engaging presentations I attended at the NOFA-Mass conference was a presentation by members of The Food Project, a farm-based youth outreach program in Boston.  It combines environmental stewardship with food education and youth leadership- all of our presenters were high school students.  They showed us a number of very useful and interactive activities geared towards community engagement around food.

One of the biggest problems with food system education involves surmounting the apathy barrier and making food issues seem real to people.  It can be hard to make people care about things that they don’t see- especially when what they do see is plentiful, cheap food.  The Food Project uses a peer-lead system similar to the WPI project from earlier in the week, and has developed a number of simple activities to educate and raise awareness around food issues.

They start with basic facts and definitions- i.e., brainstorming a definition for ‘food system’ and using statistics from Michael Pollan about food calories vs. transportation calories (in case you’re wondering, it takes 10 calories of gas to produce and ship 1 calorie of non-meat food and 40 calories for meats).  The real gems, though, are the interactive activities:  there’s one that focuses on the food system as a whole, two that focus on the actual contents of industrial food, and two that focus on workers’ rights (or lack thereof).

The first one, concerning the overall food system, involves splitting the group in half and having each of them construct a ‘food chain’ by putting cards in order.  These cards have various pictures on them showing different stages of the food system- a field, a truck, a processing plant, a grocery store, etc.  The trick, however, is that one group has been given a conventional food system set of cards that has twice as many cards as the other group’s local food system deck.  This lays out for people in a simple and visual way the amount of energy that goes into the two different systems, and the fact that the local group is favored to win (due to its fewer number of cards) can act as a metaphor.

The second activity involves arranging drinks based on sugar content- groups are given a number of cans full of popular drinks and told to arrange them in ascending order of sugar content without looking at the labels.  At the end, the sugar contents are read out, participants rearrange their cans into the proper order, and the presenter passes around a ziplock bag full of the amount of sugar found in the most sugary drink.

Immediately after that, individuals are given slips of paper on which are written long chemical ingredients.  They’re then asked to read the ingredients out loud- a task that often proves difficult, if not impossible.  They’re then shown a piece of plate on which a McDonald’s strawberry milkshake was spilled several years ago (the plate has dissolved; the milkshake remains, unmolded, in a chalky solid form) and told that the ingredients whose names they read off are, in fact, the ingredients in a McDonald’s strawberry milkshake.  This is reminiscent of the scene in Supersize Me wherein a number of McDonald’s products are put in jars to decompose. Most of the products mold over eventually, but the fries stay intact for six months or so (whereupon the intern throws them out).  This is another excellent way to engage people in what, exactly, they’re eating- it forces them to take a good, hard look at the contents of their food.

The final two activities are perhaps the most powerful, however.  They focus on Immokalee farm workers (for a great book that talks quite a bit about their working conditions, you should check out Tomatoland) and their working conditions.  The first activity involves filling up a basket full of heavy objects and running it up and down a hallway to simulate loading trucks full of tomatoes- this is a fairly lighthearted activity, but participants are constantly reminded that Immokalee workers (and, indeed, farm laborers throughout our food system) do this for upwards of ten hours at a time.

The final activity involves passing out a number of cards detailing heinous crimes- cases of human slavery, sexual assault, extortion, etc.  Participants are asked to talk about their perceptions of these events- when did they happen?  Where did they happen?- and are sobered to hear that a good percentage of the events happened in the US in the last five years.

These activities are an incredibly useful tool in teaching about the food system- they’re a good mix of lightheartedness and hard facts, and force participants to confront the contents and origins of their food.  And isn’t that half the battle?

Regional Food Hubs


Another cool project by students at the WPI Center for Sustainable Food Systems focused on building a regional food hub in Southern New Hampshire.  I had heard of food hubs in the past, but didn’t give them too much thought (this was especially obtuse of me considering that I worked with the people behind the Intevale Food Hub last summer).  Turns out, food hubs are a really cool way for small-scale diversified farmers to build their markets.

One of the problems facing small-scale farmers is that it can often be difficult for them to find markets outside of CSAs or farmers markets, which constrains them to a relatively small consumer base.  The small scale of their operations also prevents them from accessing institutional markets, like nursing homes or schools.  These larger markets need a larger-scale food supply that can ensure their ability to feed large numbers of consumers.  These markets tend to be more stable, however, as they are reliable buyers over long periods of time.

Food hubs act as a middleman to bridge that gap:  they aggregate products from several small farms in one area and then sell those products to larger markets.  The aggregate nature of food hubs enables them to provide the consistency that these larger markets needs, and can also act as a low-commitment CSA for beginning farmers.  Instead of having to provide large amounts of food for weekly CSA pickups, a number of beginning farmers can contribute smaller amounts of their produce to a food hub CSA.

Food hubs are a way for small farmers to gain broader access to markets, and this particular project focused on building a physical structure for this farmer.  It was a wonderful application of engineering knowledge towards food system problems!  I had no idea that food hubs served this purpose, but what a great way to increase farmers’ access to markets!

WPI sustainability projects

I saw a couple of great presentations from Worcester Polytechnic students at the NOFA-Mass conference- they were from WPI’s Center for Sustainable Food Systems, and their projects revolved around using practical engineering knowledge to solve social problems.  It seems to me to be an excellent way to apply learned knowledge while benefiting the local community- and the students definitely didn’t disappoint!  The groups had a number of different ideas, but one that especially stuck out to me was a project that focused on the whys and hows of youth eating habits.

Specifically, this group was looking at why high school students eat unhealthy food, and applied techniques borrowed from anti-smoking campaigns to help them combat this.  Chief among these techniques is peer-led introspection, a process by which one member of the student group leads the others in keeping and subsequently discussion ‘food journals.’

There are two phases to the journaling process:  the first week, students write down everything they eat and discuss it.  The second week, the students are asked to make note of the food advertisements around them.  The peer leaders again lead the students in discussion about the advertisements, this time looking at overlaps between the food journals and the advertisement journals.

This is an excellent exercise in mindful eating, for lack of a better term- why do we eat the things we eat?  What influences us to make those choices?  I’ve pointed out earlier that knowledge is power- the more you know, the less likely you are to fall prey to misleading advertising or unhealthy foods.  By directly confronting both their eating habits and their food environments, the students are facing that interconnectedness head on.  Hopefully this kind of exercise will help them become engaged, savvy eaters- this is the kind of activity that’s beneficial regardless of age.

Time for a New Deal?



“I tell you frankly that [the Agricultural Adjustment Act] is a new and untrod path, but… an unprecedented condition calls for the trial of new means to rescue agriculture.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, March 16, 1933[1]

So pontificated FDR when he sent his draft of the AAA to Congress. I’ve mentioned before that I’m writing a fair amount on New Deal legislation—it marked a huge change in American agricultural policy. FDR’s policies legislated direct government involvement in farming practices and land use of individual farmers, which was revolutionary—it was the first legislation of its kind of be implemented on such a massive scale.

Roosevelt was acting at a time of national crisis—hundreds of thousands of people were in dire straits, farmers included.  There had been murmurings over the previous decade about making the kind of changes that the AAA finally legislated—price supports, purchase of surplus by the government, etc.  In the eleventh hour, the government enacted decisive legislation that took effective steps to address the problem.

A lot of conservatives then (and some conservatives now), say that the New Deal only prolonged the depression by preventing the free market from correcting itself–but the laws of capitalism and the laws of nature don’t play well together.  Nature when forced to obey the laws of economics wreaks havoc- supply and demand combined with the seasonal nature of crops tends to be a recipe for disaster without intervention.  Industry given free reign over agriculture– combined with a variety of other things, of course- created quite the perfect storm.

Sound familiar?

The New Deal was critically effective at addressing the problems that it was given, and revolutionized American agriculture in doing so.  Say what you want of the system that it created (and I will, and do!), but hunger in the US today is much less common than it was pre-New Deal.

Today we’re facing truly unprecedented conditions—a meteoric rise in obesity and its related illnesses, truckloads of unhealthy food depleting our soil and our pockets, and widespread disenfranchisement from our most basic food sources and knowledge.  The Agricultural Adjustment Act overhauled our food system at a time when it was desperately needed.  Has that time come again?

[1] Rasmussen, Wayne D. “New Deal Agricultural Policies after Fifty Years.” Minnesota Law Review (1983): 356. Print.

Nature’s Perfect Food

We all think of milk as a healthy food- but why?  Turns out, the present day isn’t the only time when political issues were reflected in food issues- E. Melanie DuPuis in her book Nature’s Perfect Food traces the story of milk through American history.  She chronicles its rise to prominence as an instrument of Christian revivalist movements of the nineteenth century and the construction of a massive distribution and promotion industry around it as a result of its purported perfection.  She focuses on the societal beliefs and forces that contributed to its status as a daily necessity- of particular interest to me was the role that government played. The relationship between the milk industry and the government illuminates both the successes and the limitations of the industrial food system, and can inform a fruitful discussion around the creation of a more sustainable food system.

milk-advertisement-wpa-art-program-1940Both government and industry have had a hand in shaping perceptions of the rise of industrial agriculture, and recognizing this (as opposed to thinking of industrial agriculture as a natural consequence of modernity) leads to a deeper understanding of the society and food system that we live in.  The perfection narrative- i.e., the idea that society is forever improving and moving towards perfection- of the government and industry groups (and the polarizing decline narrative of some consumerist and anti-corporate groups) perpetuates the idea of the industrial food system as inevitable:  in order to maintain the quality of life that we enjoy today, industrial agriculture as it exists today is an indispensible necessity.  DuPuis’ comparison to the Cold War is apt here:  much like pro- and anti-industry groups, both the Soviet Union and the United States were convinced that they had created the ‘perfect’ system, and there was no room for argument (214).  In the words of George Bush, repeated throughout his presidency, “you’re either with us… or you’re with the enemy.  There is no in between.”

This Manichaeist sentiment is inherently polarizing and doesn’t allow for productive discourse.  Not only does it create a considerable degree of animosity among groups working towards the same goal (a healthy, profitable, sustainable food system) but it denies crucial nuance.  By recognizing this divisive element of the political discourse surrounding the food system, one can clean a more comprehensive understanding of how to reform it.  In order to effect meaningful change, all perspectives must be considered, from recognizing the gains that the industrial food system has provided to acknowledging the valid claims of those who speak out against it.

For better or for worse, change must come from inside the system if it is to be meaningful, because to live as a member of society is to life inside the industrial food system.  Downfall narratives paint modern society, the government, and technology as the problem with the food system, but an anarcho-Luddite approach won’t benefit many people, if anyone.  Society, government, and technology are tools that can be used for good or bad; denying them that power would be to deny a good-food movement the avenue to succeed.  In order to become successful and effect lasting change, a movement must consider a holistic approach to both the cause and the solution—no single factor created the evils of the industrial food system, and no single reform will fix it.

Milk is not a perfect food, because nothing is a perfect food; despite Americans’ obsession with ‘superfoods,’ the only way to get a healthy diet is to consume a variety of healthy foods.  DuPuis’ thorough and repeated rejection of the perfection narrative provides a valuable common-sense counterpoint to the claims of both pro- and anti-milk crusaders:  there is no perfect food, and to subsidize industries as though there were is foolhardy and expensive. Government partnerships with ‘virtuous’ big business informed by deeply-held but not necessarily scientifically valid socially constructed beliefs do infinitely more harm than good.

The allowances that government has made to large corporations in the past twenty years has galvanized people—controversies surrounding rBGH milk struck a chord with consumers across America and introduced many people to the faults of the existing power politics surrounding food.  Writing blank checks to industries considered by some to be socially beneficial has proven questionable to public health, and people have reacted— it would be similar to the government subsidizing Twinkies because Twinkies were seen by some as wholesome and healthy.

The rise of organic milk without the support of the massive government and business infrastructure built around conventional milk over the last century attests to the fact that consumers (a word that interchangeable with ‘citizens’ in an interesting comment on modern America) retain a considerable degree of power.  Consumer awareness is increasing, and dismissal of ‘tofu politics’ (222) is unwise; this  idea that ‘the personal is political’ united people from all walks of life to mobilize their personal concerns for societal good in feminism’s second wave.

Organic milk is not the only proof of this; the explosive growth of organic agriculture, farmer’s markets, and even moves towards more humanitarian meat sourcing by major food providers and fast food restaurants.[1]  Powerful and deep-pocketed forces are arrayed against consumer awareness groups—the defeat of California Proposition 37 comes to mind here—but doesn’t that make the sentiment all the stronger, that despite this it has pervaded the national consciousness to the extent that it has?

The increasing awareness around food issues over the last few years, both by government and by private industry, suggests that consumers do have political authority—voting with one’s dollars is a powerful form of voting indeed.  But is there a way to harness this individual action into a broader form of activism?  Can there be a national movement, along the line of the populist agrarian movements of the nineteenth century, advocating a healthier food system?

DuPuis makes a valid point when she says that you can’t change the entire system by changing one element; you have to situate the problem in its sociopolitical and economic context (209).  Why is milk (or cheap ground beef, or a Happy Meal) so important?  To what end was the industrial food system created?  How can we achieve those same goals in a more sustainable manner?

She also cites veganism and vegetarianism as two movements that start as personal choices but create ‘communities of practice’ (217) that make their practitioners feel part of a larger whole, and thus more apt to advocate for their shared beliefs.  By considering the perils of perfection narratives, recognizing the power of consumers to effect change, and making a concerted effort towards the creation of communities of practice, I would argue that DuPuis lays a firm foundation for the construction of a stronger sustainable food movement.  By examining the relationships between government and industry, social movements and consumer behavior through milk, she analyzes the successes and failures of previous movements and provides a solid jumping off point for food advocates.

So what can we take away form this?  How can the milk narrative inform a discussion on healthy and sustainable food moving forward?  How can the relationship between government and milk illuminate the successes and limitations of the industrial food system?  And finally, what do you think would be the most effective way to effect change in the food system?

[1] Greenaway, Twilight. “Food Mega-wholesaler Sysco Pledges to Liberate Pigs from Crates.” Grist. Grist Magazine, 25 July 2012. Web. 28 Nov. 2012. <;.

Slow Food, Veblen, and Easy Cheese

This is an essay I wrote for a globalization of food sociology course- I was asked to consider whether the Slow Food movement was a matter of conspicuous consumption.  Believe it or not, I argue that it’s more than that!  I believe that Slow Food is helping to improve access to and knowledge of not only healthy, local food, but agricultural and culinary knowledge that many people have lost with the advent of convenience foods.  Let me know what you think!  I’m also going to cross-post this to the other blog I write for,  Go check it out!


Slow Food is an international movement that’s organized around the concept of good, clean, fair food:  good meaning good for the earth and for your health; clean meaning free of pesticides and other harmful chemicals and practices; and fair meaning that everyone in the supply chain receives a suitable wage for their work.  It has deep roots in Italian culture and gastronomy; it emphasizes learning about hereditary farming and food processing practices in order to counteract the increasingly frantic pace of modern life.  The movement itself has four main goals:  to study material culture and disseminate that knowledge; to reintroduce people to the pleasure of food and drink; to preserve agricultural heritage and diversity; and to protect both conscious consumer and conscientious producer by spreading knowledge about where to get inexpensive but high-quality food.

Slow Food is often criticized for being an elitist movement interested solely in finding the latest and most obscure (read:  most expensive) haute cuisine.  The image of latter-day yuppies wandering around farmer’s markets with their bags full of kabocha and mesclun invokes the image of Veblen’s ‘conspicuous consumption’people showing off their wealth by indulging in the latest food trend.  However, I argue that the Slow Food movement is neither a part of nor an offshoot of conspicuous consumption.  Rather, it’s an attempt to reverse what the sociologist Norbert Elias calls ‘the civilizing process’:  a centuries-long effort to appear more civilized by distancing oneself from nature that puts food production, processing, and cooking behind closed doors.  While it is indeed more pleasant not to have to carve beef quarters at the table, this has the unpleasant consequence of making people less knowledgeable about their food and where it comes from, which leads to the industrial, bland, questionably healthy food that makes up the vast majority of the first world’s food systems today.

The first task of Slow Food is an attempt to directly counteract that loss of knowledge by education and dissemination:  Slow Food aims to educate people about material culture, food, and taste.  In Carlo Petrini’s words,  “the rise and the spread of ignorance about food is a social plague that opens that way for the most reckless fraudsters and hinders the growth of a renewed, aware agriculture” (Petrini, 78):  knowledge is, as always, a key component in fighting the good fight.  Slow Food has indeed, through its workshops for all ages, disseminated a vast quantity of knowledge about agricultural history.  Children who have grown up only knowing the smell of apples from shampoo and the shape of fish from fish sticks may never even think of broadening their culinary horizons; to this end, Slow Food Italy sponsored a “Taste Week” in 1992 to expose children and young people to flavors they might not otherwise experience or seek out.

People who don’t understand what it means to eat ‘good food’ are more likely to fall prey to the nutritionism discussed by Michael Pollan, relying on either a government that’s often operating under the influence of special interests or the food companies themselves, who are under no obligation to ensure the health of their consumers. In order to become informed consumers who can lobby for change in the food system—either through activism or through voting with their dollars—people need to learn about their food system.  Slow Food’s ultralocal approach to organizing—essentially letting each local chapter do what they feel is the best way to educate the people in their community about their local food options—plays to its strengths, with locals educating locals about local food.

Obviously there are limits to what a non-profit organization like Slow Food can do; Petrini’s book (and much of the movement itself) focuses on educating people about agricultural heritage, but an equally important part of food knowledge is teaching people how to cook it.  For many people, cooking is not a skill that they learned from their parents; in a world of instant noodles and microwaveable peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, even the simplest of recipes can be indecipherable to someone who has never learned culinary basics.  Fast food is something that is comfortable and easy, especially if you were never taught how to cook your own food.

A number of non-profits such as FoodWorks Two Rivers Center in Vermont have taken the initiative to work with both adults and youth to help them develop culinary and gardening skills that they may not otherwise have had, but Petrini in his book discusses only education about different varieties of food.  Access to (and knowledge of) good, clean, fair food is a step in the right direction, but the practical knowledge of how to go about preparing it is equally as important.  This is an aspect of dissemination of knowledge that Slow Food could improve upon.

Pleasure and knowledge must go hand in hand; as people learn more about taste and are introduced to flavorful heirloom varieties of plants and animals, Slow Food enthusiasts argue that they will rediscover the pleasures of eating.  Slow Food aims “to research and promote the pleasures of gastronomy and conviviality,” (Petrini, 13) in other words reintroducing people to the pleasure of eating good food together.  This is the aspect of the movement that most critics point to as a bourgeois/yuppie attempt to justify sitting around eating fancy asparagus; however, the enjoyment of food is something that doesn’t need to be—and indeed shouldn’t be—restricted to those with means.

Crotty and Germov speak of food trends catching on as those with means and cultural capital make their food of choice stylish.  They use the example of yuppies popularizing takeout (Crotty and Germov, 252) but the example can just as easily be extended to include Slow Food enthusiasts popularizing farmer’s markets.  However, this is a process that will happen regardless of the ethical suitability or lack thereof of the food, so why allow it to delegitimize a movement?  The enjoyment of good food in a friendly group—whether takeout, slow, or otherwise—is something that the Slow Food movement aims to encourage.  It is able to reach a broader audience by mobilizing groups with cultural capital to make local food seem more stylish in addition to more accessible, and since it aims to make good quality, low price food a priority in people’s lives, this trend is playing to their strengths.  Perhaps this would be a valid criticism (and example of conspicuous consumption) if they set out to make the food expensive and exclusive, but Slow Food is very much about broadening tastes and lowering barriers to access for good, local food.

Part of this is access to good, local food is preserving that food through promotion and education.  Since the beginning of the 20th century, 75% of biodiversity in agricultural products has been lost, including species of both animals and plants (Petrini, 87).  Slow Food premiered the presidia system to preserve methods and species that are dying out; it’s an ingenious system that publicizes certain ‘endangered’ foods in order to keep them from dying out.

It draws upon human nature towards a productive end:  people want to help; they are drawn to ‘exclusive’ products (despite Slow Food’s desire to avoid ‘cultifying’ certain foods); and, especially in the case of those affiliated with Slow Food, they care about this biodiversity and the publicity generated by the presidia enables them to mobilize their efforts and dollars in a productive direction.  Slow Food, being a diverse movement tailored by nature to each of its local chapters and not having a strong overarching governing body, would not have the resources or the materials to have a seed bank; rather, the dispersed nature of the presidia and the preservation-through-consumption mentality allows them to take full advantage of the benefits of both these products and of their social networks.   This is a system that plays to its strengths and addresses its weaknesses:  Slow Food is sometimes criticized for being exclusive and focusing on obscure heirloom varieties, but this seizes upon that and uses it to generate positive change.

Indeed, by making these dying-out products more accessible to the masses, Slow Food aims to preserve them.  Part of this publicizing process is advocating for both the consumer and honest producer by spreading knowledge about where to get the best quality, low price food.  Rather than attempting to make money off of a small number of ‘exclusive’ foods, the Slow Food movement rather endeavors to raise consumer awareness of traditional foods in their own specific locale:  through promoting knowledge of agricultural heritage, “[savoring] its products without turning them into cult objects,” (Petrini, 59) people can reconnect with their surroundings and engage with the environment in a meaningful way.

Slow Food is actively wary of making food a status symbol, conscious of the Alba truffles that drew a large number of gastrotourists, leading to a month-long market full of cheap imitators that inundated the local market and “doing a great disservice to the quality of the excellent Alba truffles, a genuine local specialty of which only the name now survives” (Petrini, 58).  Slow Food’s loose organization lends it well to this dispersed method of access to good food; each small area organization can devote their resources to gaining knowledge of the locally-oriented farms and producers in their own area.

This tenet is perhaps the strongest argument against a comparison between Slow Food and Veblen’s exclusivity and conspicuous wastefulness argument; rather than reserving the nicest varieties for the very rich or well-connected, Slow Food aims to make it accessible and affordably priced for everyone.  On a fundamental level, the goals of the Slow Food movement are incompatible with the ‘pecuniary canons of taste’; it may feel just as good to eat an heirloom tomato as it does to eat off of fine china, but fine china makers aren’t trying to make their product inexpensive and universally accessible.

The conspicuous consumption laid out by Veblen in Theory of the Leisure Class argues that conspicuous wastefulness informs our ideas and conceptions of what is good and beautiful with the things that are labor intensive and superfluous.  Articles are valued because they are inefficient in terms of time and effort; handmade objects are more prized than industrially produced ones because handmade objects have necessarily had more effort invested in them from the beginning (Veblen, 127).  There are several differences between this idea and Slow Food’s advocacy of local food; first of all, Veblen emphasizes that there is no difference in the serviceability of an industrially produced spoon as opposed to one shaped painstakingly by a craftsman or artisan.  While this is indeed true of spoons, the same cannot be said for food.

Food, regardless of whether it’s produced industrially or otherwise, is naturally more labor intensive than a spoon:  it requires large quantities of water, soil, transportation infrastructure, food safety apparatus, and other miscellaneous resources.  Moreover, spoons are very much the same all over the world, and there are no adverse environmental, social, or economic ill-effects associated with a lack of biodiversity in spoons.  In contrast, a loss of biodiversity in species, food-producing or otherwise, can have drastic effects on ecosystems and health, making the remaining breeds much more susceptible to disease and leading to an increased depletion of soil as specialized breeds are farmed on it year after year.

All spoons have essentially the same effect:  spoon is produced.  Food moves from plate to mouth.  However, the effects of a wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano versus a can of Easy Cheese are drastically disparate:  whereas the production of Parmigiano Reggiano has helped to preserve an otherwise declining species of cow in Italy and is produced in theory by skilled craftspeople in an environmentally sound manner (Petrini, 88), Easy Cheese is a semisolid processed cheese product made from cows raised an industrial food system that has perpetuated immeasurable damage against the environment and society, and is a registered trademark of Kraft, a multinational food and beverage conglomerate.  Although food and spoons can both act as status symbols, the environmental conditions surrounding their production and consumption render them incomparable in terms of conspicuous consumption; one’s choice of food has deep political and economic ramifications that is not reflected in the comparison to spoons.

People may feel good both when they eat with hand-carved spoons and when they choose to eat Parmigiano Reggiano, but the difference in ramifications of each of these choices makes a choice in sustainable food more than a simple status symbol.  By encouraging people to educate themselves and others about their food, Slow Food is helping them to reconnect with a part of life that many in modern society have been distanced from, despite the fact that that has enormous and deleterious effects on our environment and our health.  Returning to the children who only knew the shape of fish from fish sticks, Slow Food seeks to bridge the divide in the industrial food system between producers and consumers.  A central question to ask is, where has my food come from?  This deceptively revolutionary question directly addresses both the industrial food system, one shrouded in mystery and registered trademarks and legal barriers, and the civilizing process that has brought us to where our food system is today.

Norbert Elias describes a process by which European society gradually distanced itself more and more from its food as a mark of its civilization in the post-medieval world;  industrialization of the food system is the natural heir of this process, and the Slow Food movement seeks actively to counteract this distance.  An examination of European guides to manners reveals that a practice once considered badges of honor reserved for heads of household—the cutting of the meat—gradually fell out of vogue as European society moved into the modern era.

Elias likens this to people seeking to “suppress in themselves every characteristic that they feel to be ‘animal,’… likewise [suppressing] such characteristics in their food” (Elias, 120).    As society gets more civilized, the process of preparing meat becomes distasteful as opposed to glorious; instead of reveling in the domination of man over beast, “specialists take care of [meat cutting] in the shop or the kitchen” (Elias, 121).  That phrase—‘let the specialists take care of it’—is the very loss of knowledge that the Slow Food movement seeks to counteract.  When people lose connection with and knowledge about the very thing that sustains them from day to day—to invoke Christian scripture, from our daily bread— that is a dangerous time for everyone involved.  That’s when we start keeping our cattle in massive manure lagoons and going weeks without using our stoves and spending more money lining the pockets of bankers than farmers.  That’s when our children don’t learn where their food come from or how to cook it, because we ourselves never learned.  That’s when we voluntarily disenfranchise ourselves, disavow our culinary heritage, and tell ourselves that ‘it will all get taken care of for us.’

That disempowerment is the very thing that the Slow Food movement is working against.  Through its study of material culture and dissemination of that knowledge, its attempts to preserve our agricultural history and our local producers, its efforts to get us to all gather around the table for dinner and just enjoy a good meal together, it’s trying to make food a central part of life again.  It’s trying to connect us with a culinary and agricultural heritage that many in the first world have been disconnected from entirely.  To call it conspicuous consumption is to reduce the movement to its barest, most fundamental component—the enjoyment of good food—and to judge that as something inadequate and frivolous.  And if that isn’t a perpetuation of the unsustainable, Easy-Cheese and CAFO beef McStatus-Quo—if that isn’t an attempt to defeat a legitimate grassroots movement through microaggression—then I don’t know what is.