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?

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. <http://grist.org/factory-farms/sysco-the-company-that-bring-you-most-of-the-food-you-eat-dumps-gestation-crates/&gt;.

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, slowfoodvassar.wordpress.com.  Go check it out!

slow-food

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.

Farmers and cooks- two sides of the same coin

Mark Bittman had an awesome article on nytimes.com today talking about the importance of fresh fruit and veggies- he had some excellent points regarding making them more accessible.

We need to reduce unemployment and increase the minimum wage (including that for farm and restaurant workers). This (obviously) goes beyond the realm of food, but it’s key to improving the quality of life for many if not most Americans. (Here’s a strong argument for that.)

This is a contentious first step that I’m sure would open can after can of worms- I would propose that we take a good hard look at farmworker’s wages instead.  It’s hard to buy another out of season tomato at Wal-Mart when you’re familiar with the true cost of that produce.  A good resource to look into regarding this issue is the Coalition of Immokalee workers– Immokalee is a tomato hub in Florida that’s been one of the front lines in farmworkers’ battle for livable wages.  Modern-day slavery (not to mention ruthless exploitation) is alive and well for migrant farmworkers, which is absolutely reprehensible.  I sincerely hope that when consumers are given the choice between slavery and local food, they’ll make the right choice.

We need to not cut but raise the amount of support we give to recipients of food stamps. A good example is New York City’s Health Bucks program, where food stamps are worth more at farmers’ markets (which don’t, as a rule, sell sugar-sweetenedbeverages!).

Making food stamps more valuable at farmer’s markets is one of the best ideas I’ve ever heard.  As Bittman points out elsewhere in his article, you don’t have to be a culinary maven to enjoy the benefits of fresh food- I may be a terrible cook, but it’s pretty hard to screw up a salad or ants on a log.  It’s not much harder to reach for a bunch of grapes than it is to reach for a bag of Cheez-Its, and subsidizing the grapes would only even the playing field in terms of true cost.

We need not only to attack the nonsensical and wasteful system that pays for corn and soybeans to be grown to create junk food and ethanol, but to support local and national legislation that encourages the birth of new small-and-medium farms. We need to encourage both new and established farms to grow a variety of fruits and vegetables, to raise animals in sensible ways and, using a combination of modern and time-tested techniques, treat those animals well and use their products sensibly.

This!  My thesis in a bullet point!  Actually though- agricultural subsidies in this country are out of control, and they’re not helping to feed us either productively or sustainably.  Instead of providing billions of dollars in subsidies towards a system that’s failing our health, our environment, and our conscience, we need to reimagine modern agriculture as something that will be able to survive (and, indeed, succeed) with substantially less government funding.

I really encourage you to take a look at Bittman’s article- it will inspire you to go out and grab a fresh Pennsylvania peach (soon, though- they’ll be out of season in a week or two!).  What’s your favorite seasonal recipe?  Right now I’m enjoying some truly perfect raspberries dipped in chocolate!