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

Drive-By Libertarian v. Straw-Man Foodie

Reason Magazine issues a salvo in the fast-food restaurant labeling discussion, arguing that in our haste to regulate how much fat we eat, consumer protection advocates and supporters of mandatory nutrition information labeling have unduly singled out fast food operations and have forgotten that wretched excess in the consumption of saturated fats is not limited to the drive-thru window. Money quote:

Fast food makes such a savory scapegoat for our perpetual girth control failures that it’s easy to forget we eat less than 20 percent of our meals at the Golden Arches and its ilk. It’s also easy to forget that before America fell in love with cheap, convenient, standardized junk food, it loved cheap, convenient, independently deep-fried junk food.

While these statements may be true as far as they go, it seems to me that the author is playing fast and loose with the various argumenta ad antiquitatem, ad populum, ad hominem, and the old red herring.

To address each of these in turn: first, it may be true that U.S. citizens have been susceptible to overconsumption of the sorts of artery-clogging fare that typify the fast-food menu since long before the invention of the fast-food restaurant, but even if this proposition is true, it does not follow that our tendency to overeat is ordinary or good simply because it preceded the existence of some restaurants subject to regulation.

Second, nobody is arguing that at the current prices, demand for fast-food and fast-food-type food is high. If fast-food-type food weren’t popular, it wouldn’t be a major contributor to U.S. obesity, would it? Again, the fact that lots of people tend to eat fast-food-type food says little, if anything, about whether that tendency is something that we should address with regulation.

Thirdly, the author seems to be saying that because people overeat at independently-owned restaurants that sell, e.g., massive burgers as well as at chain restaurants that sell massive burgers, requiring chains to meet a standard that independent shops may avoid is hypocritical populism. This argument cannot be valid unless chain shops are no better off than independent shops at meeting the standard, and this is not the case for two reasons. 1) The franchisor (because let’s face it, in general we’re talking about franchises here) is more likely than the independent shop already to have access to information about portioning and nutrition. 2) the franchisor is able to design a single sign for use in multiple shops, thereby spreading the large costs of compliance over a wider population than the independent shop.

That is, if you’re Burger King corporate, when you determine the nutritional values of the Whopper and design a sign containing those values, you incur a single cost that brings all of your stores into compliance, but if you’re Ray’s Burger Joint, when you determine the nutritional value of the Ray’s Slider, and design a sign containing that information, you incur a cost that brings only one store into compliance. This cost will have to be replicated for every independent shop in the city. Thus it is not the case that failing to go after independent shops selling fast-food-type food necessarily stems from a desire on the part of the legislator to be seen as tough on big business and a friend of the little guy. It may simply be the case that these standards, although necessary, are more onerous on the independent diner than they are on the chain restaurant, and therefore the requirement of fifteen stores or more within the city constitutes a hardship exemption for smaller businesses.

Finally, all of these objections are another instance of Drive-by Libertarianism and how it obscures the issues. U.S. citizens ate too much beef in greasy-spoon diners in the 1950s for the same reason we eat too much beef in fast-food restaurants now, and it’s a reason that I should expect Libertarians to be more mindful of — government distortion of the market via subsidies.

It is fair to say that Federal Farm subsidies are really only half the problem, and that the other half is that we didn’t develop a firmly-entrenched food culture here in the U.S. prior to the distortions created by the farm subsidies. We didn’t then, and still don’t, have a sense of the difference between “food” and a “meal,” in the way that, for instance, the French do. It is further well-established that proteins and saturated fats and sugars are historically rare in the human diet, meaning that a feast-or-famine mechanism naturally kicks in when high-fat, high-protein foods are present. Unfortunately, the farm bill has made it those foods cheap and omnipresent.

Among my favorite statements about the law and justice is the following, by G.K. Chesterton:
“When you break the big laws, you do not get liberty. You do not even get anarchy. You get the small laws.” It seems to me that when you badly and unintelligently distort the pressures of a market, you get regulation, and the regulation isn’t the problem.

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.

Eating While Pregnant
24 July 2007, 12:15 pm
Filed under: food politics, Food Safety, Quotations, Raw Milk

Megnut has a post on how she ate while she was pregnant.  What is refreshing to me about Meg’s article (and subsequent discussion) is her rejection of the idea that there exists some perfectly safe diet which will not put you at risk of food-borne illness. Money quote:

Why take any risk? Because life is risky. Are you going to stop driving because you’re pregnant? Are you going to stop leaving the house? I found my balance between enjoying food and tolerating risk, and it included the occasional Wellfleet on the half-shell. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the recommendations, and to live in fear of every bite of food you put into your mouth. But that makes for a very stressful, anxious, long nine (plus) months. And that certainly isn’t good for the fetus.

Long-belated congratulations to both Meg and Jason on the birth of Ollie Kottke on 3 July.

Zizek on Evil
8 May 2007, 10:40 am
Filed under: Ethics of Eating, food politics, Quotations

“What if the true Evil of our societies is not the capitalist dynamics as such, but the attempts to extricate ourselves from it (while profiting from it), to carve out self-enclosed communal spaces, from “gated communities” to exclusive racial or religious groups?

“That is to say, is the point of The Village not precisely to demonstrate that, today, a return to an authentic community in which speech still directly expresses true emotions, etc. – the village of the socialist utopia – is a fake which can only be staged as a spectacle for the very rich?

“The exemplary figure of Evil are today not ordinary consumers who pollute environment and live in a violent world of disintegrating social links, but those (top managers, etc.) who, while fully engaged in creating conditions for such universal devastation and pollution, exempt themselves from the results of their own activity, living in gated communities, eating organic food, taking holidays in wild preserves, etc.”

— Slovoj Zizek, via Daniel Silliman