Law For Food: The law affects what you eat. What you buy to eat affects the law.


The Power of Just-in-time Logistics, in the Palm of Your Hand

In today’s New York Times, David Pogue reviews a device called the Ikan which seems to be a combination supermarket scanner, list compiler, and web-based shopping service. It works like this: as you use your kitchen items, you can scan them into the Ikan device, which sits on your countertop. The Ikan complies a list of items, and you can add to the list by dictating items which don’t have a scannable label. The list is viewable online, and, once it’s complete, you can click “shop” or something, and Ikan will have the contents of your list delivered to your door. Reactions, as you might expect, are mixed:

Old-school homemakers may consider it a silly redundancy. How much more effort is it, they ask, to maintain a handwritten list? And isn’t going to the grocery store more than just a time drain? Isn’t it also a little outing, a small source of pride and accomplishment, an opportunity for social interaction?

Other people can’t believe the amount of time this system saves. You’ve just compressed a two-hour weekly errand into about 10 minutes. All you have to do is approve the illustrated, error-proof online shopping list, and then let somebody else battle the traffic, haul the bags and pay for the gas.

Before I get into the substantive merits or flaws of the Ikan, I should say that I rather suspect that this is a bad time to introduce a product like this one. With rising food, gas, and credit prices, I have trouble imagining that this sort of gadget / service is high on many people’s purchasing list.

I should think that, if the Ikan were able to overcome that setback, though, and reach a certain customer density, it could realize some efficiencies which are friendly to the ecology and the human environment. Specifically, I would suspect that one delivery van bringing groceries to several houses in a neighborhood produces less congestion, less noise pollution, less wear and tear on roads, and less gasoline per pound of merchandise than each of those households doing their own shopping. I would consider that to be a good thing.

On the other hand, it seems to me that the Ikan service relies on a number of presuppositions which are difficult to reconcile with ethical eating / locavorism. For instance:

  • Food ordinarily has a label on it so that machines can identify it more easily.
  • Food is ordinarily available in the same condition, all year long regardless of season.
  • Food is ordinarily fungible.
  • Choosing one’s own food is an activity that one’s surrogate can do just as easily and just as well as oneself.

The presuppositions I’ve identified here are as good an example as any of the differences between arguing against the excesses and arguing against the ground-state. It should come as no surprise to anyone that there are positives to sending someone else to the supermarket for you. For one thing, your time is probably worth more than it would cost to pay someone else. For another, shopping at the supermarket is, I suspect, very few people’s idea of a pleasant experience: you have to deal with traffic getting there and parking once you’re there, and shopping-carriage traffic the whole time you are shopping; the lighting and the atmosphere are rarely inviting; the food is practically the same week after week — it never comes into season, it never gets ripe, it never smells like food. Doing a week’s worth of grocery shopping at the supermarket is pretty strictly a utilitarian ordeal, and as such, it is something one would outsource if one could.

I don’t mean to pick on the Ikan here: I simply thought it was a way to illuminate how institutions perpetuate themselves and the values that give them rise. If shopping at the supermarket has become unpleasant, then you can hire a stranger to shop at the supermarket for you. Instead of asking why shopping for food is so joyless, you can simply pay someone else to spend that joyless time for you. But you can only do this if food is fungible — one of the presuppositions that underlies our whole production and distribution system. You can only do this if a tomato is a tomato is a tomato — red, watery, with a thick skin to protect from bruising during transport, mealy of flesh and without discernible odor. If food is not fungible; if, say, a tomato from a local farm is not the same as a tomato of equivalent weight trucked across the country from California, then you can no more send somebody to the supermarket for you than you can go to the supermarket for yourself.

The system of food production and distribution we have in the U.S., which gives rise to institutions such as supermarkets and to their logical extensions like the Ikan, is responsible for two miracles. The first miracle is the one we all hear about: the miracle that, (present life-threatening food-borne illnesses aside,) you can go to the supermarket and buy a tomato any time you like, no matter where you are. This is a not-inconsiderable feat, and it is rightly emphasized, if a bit too often and too loudly, by the Old Guard of U.S. food and politics.

To my mind, however, the second miracle — the one that is almost never considered — is even more amazing. You can go to the supermarket and buy a tomato any time you want, but you will never want to.

Advertisements


Let me get this straight…
13 June 2008, 2:32 pm
Filed under: Economics of Eating, food politics, local v. industrial, Production

… Steven Dubner, co-author of the acclaimed book Freakonomics has a bad first experience making homemade orange sherbet. From this experience he concludes that locavorism is a waste of time. The article is so badly conceived (“A Few Billion Locavores”? Really?) that I have to suspect that something like the John Dvorak Effect is at play. Still, I found some of the comments to be worthwhile.



Mea Culpa: Cowardice and Politics

Readers of this website, if indeed any remain, deserve an explanation, if not an apology, for the long, unannounced, and unjustified hiatus this website has taken. I would like to spend a few words discussing why I stopped writing and where I find myself beginning again. I would like to think that my absence has been due to overwork and to a perhaps unhealthy obsession with the U.S. Presidential races. It is true that I have been both busier and more distracted this term than ever, but the real reason is, I daresay, rather more interesting than that.

I.

I noticed back in November that my writings here, and those thoughts that I found myself wanting to put down, had taken an unexpected turn from food law and policy particularly toward, for instance, community planning and urban design; poverty and subsistence living; feminism and the politics of domestic labor, and I didn’t like where this writing was taking me. I found myself saying in person and thinking about writing here some Unserious Ideas of the sort that No Reasonable Person Thinks. Thinking and writing against the conventional wisdom. I started to think thoughts that I worried were radical. I was worried that I could start sounding like one, or indeed that I could become one, and that following food politics as I had could easily turn my writing on food into a continuous jeremiad against contemporary modes of being and behaving rather than a discussion of law and policy.

In December I experienced, without really knowing it, a certain deeply-ingrained cowardice of thought, and it was that cowardice which has made me stop writing.

Part of it is law school, to be sure. One of my professors joked a few months ago that our law school (which, it must be said, is a rather well-regarded school) is really good at churning out insurance lawyers. Despite its rhetoric about “Making a Difference” we are all far more likely to succeed in the current system than to change that system, and therefore, to the extent that the system is not good, to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Over lox and bagels one Sunday my roommate said much the same thing in a different context, about law school making cowards of us all. Law school teaches us to reflexively support the system. Show me a rule, a law, an institution, and law school has conditioned me to believe that rule, law, or institution does more good than harm. How could it not? The system works. If a law were doing more harm than good, it would be repealed. Law school teaches us to keep shifting in scope — where a policy clearly harms, for instance, a neighborhood, we shift to arguing that an alternative would harm the state. Law school makes us slippery, but it makes us a particular kind of slippery, a kind which supports the existing order in return for prestige and responsibility and a great deal of money.

All of these observations have been observed more cleverly and more convincingly elsewhere. What is bothersome to me is the realization that they could apply to me, and that they could apply unconsciously, insidiously. The choice is rarely so stark as being called into the darkened office of the powerful man and being offered a briefcase of money: that scenario is unsubtle and stupid. The choice is more often whether we will say and do the things that we think are true or right without considering whether they fit neatly into the conventional wisdom and the received order. This is the sort of lesson that we often think applies to teenagers and smoking, for instance, but I see no reason why it fails to apply to adults and professionals.

For me, I was uncomfortable presenting myself as a lawyer, even pseudonymously, who believes that our food system is dysfunctional from top to bottom. Lawyers who want to be taken seriously don’t advocate that people should cook their own meals, in their own kitchens, from food grown in their own gardens and towns and communities. Lawyers who want to be taken seriously don’t challenge the reality that all adults have to work outside the home. We don’t challenge the reality that our economy is built on our inability to say, “I have enough. I don’t need a new car, a new house, a new video game system. I don’t need a television at all.”

Lawyers don’t challenge these realities because there are no clients who represent the interests of having enough. There are no clients in favor of putting away or throwing away the television set and spending that time putting in a garden. The local economy, the family-owned restaurant, the farm, the local manufacture of goods for local consumption — these things do not support the lawyer with his three hundred dollars an hour and his very expensive suit.

II.

I am reading a friend’s copy of Wendell Berry’s excellent collection of essays, Sex, Economy, Freedom, Community and last weekend I came across, in the final and eponymous essay, the following paragraph:

The “conservatives” promote the family as a sort of public icon, but they will not promote the economic integrity of the household or the community, which are the mainstays of family life. Under the sponsorship of “conservative” presidencies, the economy of the modern household, which one required the father to work away from home — a development that was bad enough — now requires the mother to work away from home as well. And this development has the wholehearted endorsement of “liberals,” who see the mother thus forced to spend her days away from her home and children as “liberated” — though nobody has yet seen the fathers thus forced away as “liberated.” Some feminists are thus in the curious position of opposing the mistreatment of women and yet advocating their participation in an economy in which everything is mistreated.

(To be sure, Mr. Berry is making the mistake of assuming that feminists who argue that woman should have the right to work outside the home are also arguing that woman should in fact work outside the home, however I can think of a significant number of feminists make exactly these two arguments, side by side. Mr. Berry’s greater point seems to be that participation in the larger economy opens oneself up to mistreatment, whether one is a man or a woman.)

It seemed to me that Mr. Berry was quite concisely making a point that I had clumsily hoped to make in Feminism v. Locavorism, and I felt suddenly ashamed. I had plowed through the preface to the book, “The Joy of Sales Resistance” with great relish and satisfaction (although I do not quite share Mr. Berry’s distain for hypertext). It is always heart-warming to find an author or a musician with whom one feels kinship, and I felt that in this book. But the further I read the more I realized how cowardly it was of me to have stopped writing here.

III.

I think that as adults, we are inclined to discount the effects of peer pressure as something that only works on children. I think this is because we confuse the term “peer pressure” with the activities being pressured, and once we are no longer of an age that we can be pressured into those activities, we believe that we can no longer be pressured into any activities. We believe we are immune.

Moreover, because we associate peer pressure with teenage vices, we assume that, if an activity is good or at least morally colorable, peer pressure isn’t and can’t be the mechanism that encourages us to engage in the activity. We don’t want to think that we have to be coerced into doing what’s right. If it’s what’s right, of course we were going to do it all along, and not because we were pressured into it.

It gets a dirty name, this kind of pressure, because we are conditioned to see its presence only when its effects are bad, but the pressure has all sorts of effects. It socializes us. It protects us from offending others, and keeps us swimming with the school. I suspect that social pressures do a lot of good in the world in terms of making sure we get along as well as we do.

Wendell Berry again, from the same book:

A conservation effort that concentrates only on the extremes of industrial abuse tends to suggest that the only abuses are the extreme ones when, in fact, the earth is probably suffering more from many small abuses than from a few large ones. By treating the spectacular abuses as exceptional, the powers that be would like to keep us from seeing that the industrial system (capitalist or communist or socialist) is in itself and by necessity of all of its assumptions extremely dangerous and damaging and that it exists to support an extremely dangerous and damaging way of life. The large abuses exist within and because of a pattern of smaller abuses.

You see where this is going. What’s acceptable and unacceptable — the way we’ve been pressured into behaving — has a dark side in the area of consumption, in the way we act in an economy. Nobody wants Exxon-Valdez, but everybody wants to drive their own car. Nobody wants the last manufacturing plant keeping the small town alive to shut down but everybody wants to pay less and less and less for household goods. Nobody wants to work a 70 hour week, but everybody wants a big flat-screen tv in the living room, and surround-sound, and better clothes and a new car for every driver every couple of years, and we want to replace them all cheaply when they break or when something new or different is sold (see, e.g., the early obsoleting of DVD by Blu-Ray, or any of a thousand other consumer goods advertising arms races).

I don’t mean to say that we fail to connect the dots between cheap goods from overseas and crippled local economies. Many people are able to see the causal links, but are unwilling to pay the social costs inherent in changing their consumption habits. And those who insist that we should change those consumption habits are ridiculed as anachronistic, as unrealistic, as overburdened by an embarrassing devotion to the natural world. (See, for instance, the characters portrayed by Jason Schwartzman and Mark Wahlberg in the film “I [Heart] Huckabee’s.”) The notion that we should all stop driving, for instance, is dismissed as unrealistic without an examination of why it is unrealistic.

The dismissal extends, I should add, all the way up to policy decisions on the international financial level. According to economist Ha-Joon Chang, from his fascinating book Bad Samaritans:

“[Proponents of the neo-liberal free-trade agenda] like to present globalization as an inevitable result of relentless developments in technologies of communication and transportation. They like to portray their critics as backward-looking ‘modern-day Luddites’ who ‘fight over who owns which olive tree’ …. It is argued that there is only one way to survive the historic tidal force that is globalization, and that is to put on the one-size-fits-all Golden Straitjacket which virtually all the successful economies have allegedly worn on their way to prosperity.”

IV.

Of course, it is indeed unrealistic to suggest that USians give up their cars and stop buying so much stuff. The system has been stacked against those options, with the result that people who argue for these things come across as radicals. “I live 15 miles from where I work, and in the afternoon I drive my kids between oboe lessons and soccer practice. How can I give up my car? And who has the time, anyway, to buy and prepare local food?”

It’s a real, and valid, question, but it also reveals something of how our choices contribute to the system. The thing is circular: the system which makes unrealistic certain lifestyles is only a system because so many people are already making choices which contribute to it. I emphasize that I am not saying that there is anything wrong, in the abstract, with living 15 miles from where one works, or taking the kids to oboe lessons and soccer practice. I am, however, saying that these decisions have effects which, when aggregated, may and probably do cost more than they benefit.

However the argument that we should choose to limit our participation in “normal” activities is not an argument that people who want to be taken seriously are able to make. It is an argument against not the excesses of our economy but against its ground-state.

This is precisely the sort of argument that feels unseemly for a law-student to make, not only because it is the sort of argument that people don’t take seriously, but also because it runs against the existing order and subverts the conventional wisdom about freedom of trade and lowered transaction costs, about opening borders and the global economy. About, quite possibly, strong property ownership rights being a prerequisite for other human rights. It runs against a lot of things that I tend to believe, actually.

So I stopped writing. And while I would like to say that I stopped writing out of a genuine conflict of values, it seems to me that such a conflict would probably make for some pretty good blogging, and that the conflict wasn’t the real reason to stop writing. I think that the real reason was that, as a law student, and as someone who was, and is, looking for work in the legal community, I did not believe that I could continue to pursue this line of thinking and questioning, even in private, even under a false name like this.

V.

The upshot of all of this — and I hasten to add this so as to avoid politically devastating charges of “elitism” — the upshot of all of this is not, I hope, for me to be relentlessly critical of virtually everything that U.S. and probably most first-world consumers (that is to say, “people” — and I often wonder at the objectification inherent in so ready a substitution) do on a day-to-day basis. I mean this on two levels. First, I would be deeply remiss, in the context of this sort of a mea culpa, to start pointing the finger around at other people for the simple fault of responding to the economic and social pressures that surround them. Certainly not after having spent so many words describing my own cowardice and how I believe it has operated in the context of writing on this website, to say nothing of how it has operated in my own consumption choices.

Second, it is important to distinguish between evaluating a person qua person and evaluating a person’s actions qua actions. This distinction is often missed in discussions of these sorts of categoric reforms by both sides, but more often (and, I suspect, deliberately) by those who argue in favor of the lifestyle quo ante. It is a rhetorical move that unfortunately seems to have a great deal of traction, and I hope to discuss it in a subsequent essay. For now suffice it to say that these arguments, the ones I have been barred by cowardice from making, should in no way be construed as critical of individuals or indeed of the larger institutions that make the first world such a varied, safe, and comfortable place to live.

The critique that others are making, and that I hope to add to, is of the systems put in place by those institutions, and of the culture fostered by those systems which serve not to increase an individual’s (particularly economic) choices but to limit them to the set of choices rigorously enforced by economic and social pressures. I hope to discuss these limitations in future essays, as they are numerous and complex.

This critique, as expressed in the world of food and food policy, has wound up creating some tentative alliances that make little sense in the current political spectrum. In an interview with “Crunchy Conservative” Rod Dreher, Michael Pollan apparently was “amused to learn that he’s got a following on the [political] Right … but he said that the more deeply he goes into writing about food culture, the more he’s discovering things that resonate with traditional conservatism.” To me, this is both intuitively correct and one of the best arguments that the traditional left-right categories are breaking down along new lines. Our politics will perforce evolve with our polities.

All of which is perhaps my way of saying that I am back. I hope to write three long-ish pieces a week and at least five smaller ones in between. I will probably have a few more editorial-type pieces to write as I try to come to terms with this new politics of food, but I have every hope of returning to writing about food and the law in short order. Thank you for coming back, and I hope you’ll stay.



Feminism v. Locavorism

For some reason, a number of stories have made it onto the radar about the apparent tension between feminism and locavorism. Nathalie Jordi, an acquaintance of mine, writes:

[T]he very things that the young liberationists of my mother’s generation eschewed have become real pleasures for (some) of the liberated women of mine. We don’t necessarily see cooking, mending clothes or growing food as oppressive. Of course, that’s because we have the luxury of choosing not to do these things. Still. I see my friends run toward the stove at the same speed my mother fled from it. How quickly the tables have turned!

In an interview at Eating Liberally, Dr. Nestle considers, but fails to locate, the guilt for industrial, processed food with the late Peg Bracken, second wave feminist and author of The Compleat I Hate to Cook Book:

EL: Overworked, stressed-out moms are taking a lot of heat from some quarters for getting out of the kitchen, but who’s really to blame for our convenience food-dominated diet? Was the I Hate to Cook Book a progressive, pre-Friedan feminist manifesto, or a culinary cop-out?

MN: . . . If we want people cooking, and teaching kids about where food comes from and how to cook it, the doing of all that needs to be easy and fun and the results need to taste great at the end. People have to start somewhere. It’s just fine with me if they start with Rachel Ray. If she gets people — men, women, and children — back into the kitchen once in awhile, she is performing a great public service.

Back in June, Jennifer Jeffrey asked whether cooking and eating locally is just another way for women to feel inadequate, and whether local, sustainable eating is “friendly to the larger community of women.” In a follow-up post, however, she eloquently addresses the greater dimensions to local, sustainable eating. I don’t want to put words into Jennifer’s mouth, and I want to give her own words greater exposure:

The System is Broken. It’s not the fault of the farmer’s market that I feel overstressed. Rather, the game itself is rigged. The workforce rewards people who are willing to put in ridiculous hours and disregard personal health and long-term wellbeing. It does not reward self-nourishment or play or rest. Even more insidious is the fact that our buy-more culture has lured us into a devil’s bargain with debt. Even if we’re working at a job we love, it requires an insane juggling act to live a balanced life. That there aren’t enough hours to nourish ourselves properly, or that we have to make a choice between eating well and building our careers is just… craziness.

Convenience Has a Dark Side. Convenience has been our friend, but not a trustworthy one. We can put dinner on the table in 30 minutes or less, but those cans and jars are slipping us toxic additives and chemicals on the sly. Like the friend who keeps borrowing money but never pays it back, Convenience has become a liability. The fault lies with us: we haven’t set proper boundaries. We need to speak out, vote with our dollars, and support products that are healthy and safe.

The Bar is Being Raised. The slow-organic-local movement is putting pressure on the mega-grocers and Big Ag in ways that will confer advantages to all women. I happen to think that WalMart’s foray into organic products and Safeway’s new “O” line are moves in the right direction; the more options, the better. The goal is for more people have access to better food. Hopefully, the bar will continue to rise, and “organic” will just be the starting point.

. . .

It Isn’t All or Nothing. One home cooked meal a week is better than none. One trip to the farmer’s market in a month will introduce locally grown vegetables and fruits into your diet and help support the local economy. Some weeks I’m going to have the time and inspiration to roast my own beets and make my own marinara sauce; other weeks, it’s not going to happen. And that’s okay.

. . .

The Slow-Organic-Local Movement is a Boon for Female Entrepreneurs. Here in the Bay Area, a new crop of small women-owned businesses has sprung up around the growing demand for quality food products. I don’t have the time or desire to make my own preserves, but June Taylor does, using the best fruit ever. Alison McQuade makes amazing chutneys (Glasgow Spiced Apple + double cream Brie = bliss). Donna Eichhorn and Shirley Virgil make incredible handmade tamales and corn tortillas. No matter where you live, I guarantee that you can find women who are taking advantage of this growing opportunity.

If not for the surge of interest in small, local producers, these women might not be in business. They are, and we all win.

Lastly, I’ve framed this discussion in a feminist context, but of course this is a universal concern. While I still believe that this issue is of particular importance to women, since women have historically been the “nurturers” and therefore the convenience and ready availability of food has been a key factor in the changing landscape of women’s rights, I’m really a “people-ist” more than anything – someone who desires the equality of all people, everywhere. I’m thrilled that the quality of our choices is growing, and that so many people are talking about the myriad ways in which food affects our lives.

I suppose you can guess which side of the fledgeling debate I find myself on. I don’t believe that it is wrong per se to outsource your domestic labor, but doing so on the scale that the industrial world has done distorts the whole food supply, and the costs of these distortions aren’t being equitably distributed. First, I think there is this residual underlying sense, left over from the second-wave, that housework like cooking is something that holds women back, and I think this idea is just plain wrong. It seems mistaken to say that the labor of cooking is in some sense intrinsically inequitable. Indeed, I’m not even sure what that would mean. The distribution of that labor may still be inequitably shared between men and women, but that doesn’t make the act of cooking locally unfair. Even if it were, it would be an irresponsible and regressive feminism which attempts to shift the burden of this labor from middle- and upper-class households onto the backs of lower-class and increasingly illegal laborers. Even if cooking is slavery, we still do not liberate women by enslaving Guatemalans.

Yes, it is difficult to balance the demands of a career with the expectations of locavorism, but locavorism is anti-feminist only if we retain the notion that women are solely or primarily responsible for nourishing the family. Why shouldn’t men share in the messy early-morning fun of the farmer’s market? If fifty years ago men were helpless in the kitchen, it a paltry equality indeed that has made women just as helpless today. Eating, like the consumption of any other good, is in the end a political act, and not liking to cook doesn’t exempt man or woman from the basic obligation to pursue justice and equality.

Update: Edited for clarity.

Update II: Ethicurean points out today that “locavore” is the New Oxford American Dictionary word of the year, and that the term was coined by four socially-conscious women. (Readers: let’s make “ethicurean” the word of the year next year, shall we?)



Eating Well, Poorly

I was blessed in my childhood by having a mother who was very food-aware. We became farmers almost of necessity, as we were always very poor growing up: if we had not grown our own food, we would not have eaten. We never could afford health insurance, and because of this, my mother always sought to use food in place of medicine, and always sought prevention prior to illness rather than cure afterwards. “We can’t afford to get sick” she would joke, or half-joke anyway.

I never appreciated it at the time, because I saw our food as a mark of poverty and difference. Why should I have to suffer, i.e., not get to drink soda and eat fast food just because my parents were hippies and bad businesspeople? Field trips in school were particularly painful — other kids got to bring money and buy McDonald’s, I brought a big slab of homemade cornbread and a mason jar full of water.1 “Five dollars for lunch!” my mother would exclaim. “I can make lentil soup to feed all of us dinner and then lunch the next day for five dollars!”

My mother believes that food can replace medicine, that you could eat foods which kept up your immune system and avoid foods which depleted it. She had read studies on refined sugar, for instance, and always pointed out that not only does it rot one’s teeth, it apparently kills white blood cells. To my mother, it wasn’t that soda, for instance, or juice, was a pleasure which you should deny to avoid tooth decay and empty calories. It just didn’t make sense to drink it when water was free, for the same reason you wouldn’t pay somebody to hit you in the face with a shovel.

Naturally, I had a few years after I left home during which I ate all the foods that we kids weren’t supposed to eat. I think it’s interesting, though, how unintentionally I came back around to natural eating and food policy. I took a job at a deli in college and I loved it. It was down the street from my apartment and I was the opener; five, six days a week I would drag myself out of bed at six in the morning and run through the bitter cold (because it was always winter in those days, in my memory), and turn on the lights and make the coffee and set up the shops and do the preps and check in deliveries and try to make the morning cheerful for the early-birds and commuters. I loved it.

One thing led to another, I started working in food, and by the time I got to being a purchaser at Zingerman’s I had been cooking for a few years. I read Fast Food Nation and experienced two contradictory sensations. 1) During the act of reading the book I always really wanted a cheeseburger, and 2) every time I set the book down I didn’t want to eat anything that I hadn’t actually watched come up out of the ground. I kind of feel like that was a turning point for me. At the same time, I became very interested in the raw milk cheese ban and the science behind dairy production. What has struck me lately, thinking about this, is how holistic and connected all of these topics are. Raw milk takes you to e.coli takes you to grain feeding takes you to corn subsidy takes you to processed food and HFCS takes you to impending obesity crisis takes you to mediterranean diet takes you to local, seasonal eating and next thing you know you can’t. shut. up. about. food.

Which pretty much catches you up to the existence of Law for Food. Yesterday morning on my bike ride to school something else my mother used to say popped into my brain and stuck. Her friends used to ask how she managed to cook for all of us (and anybody else who happened by) the way she did (from scratch, often beginning with an armful from the garden or a quick trip to the root cellar) and she would explain that it was because didn’t work outside of the home. Then she would say how she believed that the peasant diet was the healthiest, most balanced diet you could eat. She would talk about how poor people can’t afford to get sick, so they don’t have the luxury of eating things that are bad for them, and she would also talk about the importance of the table, about how food builds community and how poor people have a better sense of community than the wealthy. Then she would say, and this always kind of confused me, “of course, nowadays you have to be rich to eat like a peasant.”

And it struck me how far I had come back around to seeing food the way my mother did, all those years ago when I was embarrassed to eat home-made food. It struck me that my mother’s little observation winds up being about the Farm Bill after all, and that, pace Marion Nestle, food is both love and health when your attitudes toward those things are in order.

Now, I realize how fortunate we were to have bought that farm outright, when my folks inherited some money, and that the reason we were able to eat so well was because we were land-rich and cash-poor. A lot of talk about nutrition can come across as unrealistic hectoring that doesn’t take into account the time and work constraints that we’re all under. Even if you own the land, growing your own food is a lot of work and requires a complete change in lifestyle and in attitude, and isn’t something everyone should or even can do. But we can do better than this. We can do better than inverting the economics of eating and promoting these unhealthy2 faux luxuries with the public funds.

Ultimately, the farm bill can never and should never put filet mignon on every table, but it can and does put ground beef — cheap, unsustainably-grown, overcrowded, medicated beef — in the drive-thrus and waterlogged cold cuts the lunchboxes. There are a lot of reasons, on the surface of it, to think that sustainable food, local food, and the rest of it are regressive; that what some of us are proposing is a return to the 19th century; that eliminating CAFOs and industrial food will raise the price of food, which will most hurt those who can’t afford local and sustainable food.

These objections do not make it past a surface analysis. Eliminating the farm subsidy means that the inverted food pyramid we currently consume will become a great deal more expensive; it means that Coke will no longer be price-competitive with water; it means that the marginal price difference between ethically-conscious meat and feedlot meat will diminish — reducing overall consumption of meat, making all meat more of a luxury and making ethically-conscious meat less of a luxury by comparison; it means we’ll be eating less food, but that the food we eat will be better. Most of all, it means we won’t be using federal money to make it easier for people without health insurance to buy foods that make them unhealthy, and harder for them to buy the foods that we all ought to be eating more of. It shouldn’t be necessary to own your own farm just to eat healthy.

1. This experience was formative in so many ways. For one thing, I have little patience now for parents who say that their kids just won’t eat vegetables. Eventually, they will, and even later, they will appreciate vegetables for what they are. For another, I will never be less than genuinely grateful for a home-made meal, no matter what. I resent the term “food snob” because I would rather have lentil soup with love than filet without. Because of my experiences in as a cook and seller of high-end food, and because I’m someone who frankly talks about food or food policy all the damn time, many of my friends say that they would never cook for me because they can’t cook well enough, and although I think they mean it as a compliment, it offends me a little. Early in our relationship, I was impressed when my significant other said to me, “I bet none of your friends ever cook when you’re around. I’d like to make you dinner.”

2. Lest we get into trade disparagement issues, I should point out that from a health standpoint everything is unhealthy when consumed in sufficient quantities, and that these quantities are different for different categories of food. It is simply a fact, though, that Americans in general overconsume in the fat and protien categories and underconsume in the vegetable and whole grain categories. From a health standpoint, there’s nothing wrong in principle with eating meat, just like there’s nothing wrong in principle with eating ice cream. There is, however, something wrong with eating ice cream at every meal, and the same thing is wrong with eating meat at every meal.



Probiotics, from the Dept. of Breaking Stuff, and then (Maybe) Fixing it.

From the Dairy Reporter, a story on probiotic dairy products intended to replenish the sorts of gastrointestinal flora that we used to get from food. Money quote:

[Walker] said that measures intended to improve public health, such as food pasteurisation and sterilisation and use of antibiotics means that there is a decreased exposure to micoorganisms – leading to a gap in colonisation and weaker defences against disease.

First of all, while this research doesn’t surprise me, I am a bit bothered by the fact that Nestlé is profiting off of mandatory pasturization and sterilization of food.

The sequence of events seems to go like this: unpasteurized foods contain a great deal of bacteria, most of which is harmless. Exposure to these bacteria would promote the immune system. (Note: I don’t have a scientific background, but my understanding is that these bacteria compete for resources with harmful bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract, which means that harmful bacteria wind up fighting a two-front war against both the immune system and these other bacteria. This means that the immune system doesn’t get overwhelmed by harmful bacteria. Any biologists care to comment?)

As it is now, a great many foods are pasturized or sterilized, either by regulation or voluntarily, and do not expose the consumer to these harmless bacteria. Which means that consumers’ immune systems get weaker. Thank god there’s Nestlé to put back in the stuff that was in the food to begin with.

I am reminded of something that Ari used to talk about when I worked at Zingerman’s. He was presenting on raw milk cheeses and he said that pasteurization was a bad idea is because it enables producers to lower their production standards, because they know that any bacteria that get into the milk will be cooked when they pasturize it. Pasturization destroys accountability because the dairy co-op or factory cheesemaker doesn’t know and doesn’t care whose milk might have been dirty: they can put it all into the same big vat and heat it up and it doesn’t matter.

Only, turns out it might matter.



Undecided about Fois Gras

The Real Potato sums up the moral dimensions of fois gras remarkably well:

“I’ll be honest with you: I’m undecided on this issue. Here are my biases: I’m generally horrified by the conditions of commercial meat production…. I’m deeply suspicious of animal rights groups: I’ve worked on the political left for many years and have often found them shrill, dogmatic, and elitist. I’m also suspicious of business owners who scream ‘Communism!’ every time City Council introduces a bill…. I’m not a vegetarian (that’s another post) but I think that there are big problems with the way meat is consumed in the mainstream American diet. I’m generally in favor of any food that’s produced by hand, by skilled artisans working in a centuries-old craft. I think foie gras is delicious, but while I’m normally in favor of democratizing good food and getting delicious things out to the masses, I tend to think that foie gras should stay expensive– it should continue to be produced artisanally rather than becoming another factory product, which would bring in a high level of cruelty, as well as low safety standards.” (Emphasis added.)

This is just it, and this is the uneasy tension that a lot of us in the food world seem to have: producing things responsibly takes time and labor. Time and labor are expensive. I think this is what Carlos Petrini was getting at when he criticized the Ferry Farmer’s Market a few months back. Ethical, sustainable food shouldn’t just be for people with trust funds and portfoilos, because good food is a universal value.

In Food Politics, Marion Nestle writes about how traditional regional diets, high in plants and carbs but with occasional meats and other proteins added in, provide the best balance of calories and nutrients. Regrettably, she also notes that when due to economic success, a traditional diet becomes meat-heavy, it never reverts back to its earlier form voluntarily.

As I noted in the comments below, the farm subsidies have the effect of ensuring that the meat-heavy U.S. diet remains meat-heavy. This requires factory farming and industrial processes. As Americans, it goes against our nature to feel comfortable with the idea that poor people shouldn’t be able to eat meat if they want to. Ultimately, though, the costs of democratizing the meat-heavy diet are high, and should be considered.