Filed under: Eating and Justice, Economics of Eating, Ethics of Eating, Food Policy, food politics, local v. industrial, Production, Regulation, Subsidies, Taxation
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 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Filed under: consumerism, Eating and Justice, Economics of Eating, Ethics of Eating, Farm Bill, food politics, Quotations, Subsidies, the-small-laws
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.
Craft beer connoisseurs will be facing higher prices due to a hops shortage driving prices up about 400% in a single year. According to the linked article, there had been a hops glut which made it difficult for individual growers to remain profitable, and a lot of farmers shifted from growing hops to growing subsidized corn for ethanol. Astute readers will recall that corn-based ethanol yeilds one sixth of the energy required to produce the ethanol in the first place. (Which reminds me, come to think of it, of the story, probaby apocryphal, that rabbit flesh requires more energy to digest than it yeilds in digestion, giving rise to the expression, again probably apocryphal, “starving to death on rabbit”.)
I want to say things about commmodity production, the various corn subsidies, and the way markets are supposed to operate, but I’m in the middle of studying for finals, so posting will be light.
Filed under: Economics of Eating, Ethics of Eating, Farm Bill, Food Policy, Subsidies
Since at least 1933.
I know he was probably being rhetorical, but I’m guessing that the
Cato-at-Liberty article to which he links is actually being disingenuous when they point out that nowhere does the Constitution say “Congress shall have the power … to hector schools about the contents of their vending machines.” In fact there is such a power.
Since the legislation to limit the contents of vending machines is attached to the 2007 Farm Bill, I’m guessing that this proposal is somehow tied to the spending power, which SCOTUS has found to be pretty near infinite. In United States v. Butler (1933) the Court adopts the Hamiltonian position that congressional spending power is a free-standing power among the powers enumerated in Article 1 § 8 of the U.S. Constitution. That is to say, Congress may tax and spend for any purpose that it believes serves the general welfare. If the proposal makes certain federal spending contingent upon the states’ compliance with a rule about, e.g., what goes into their school’s vending machines, it’s lawful under Butler, and is in a vein of thinking that goes right back to the founders themselves.1
Ordinarily I wouldn’t write a letter like this to address what I suspect is a rhetorical question, but this one kind of got under my skin: Mr. Sullivan often writes hopefully of the transformative nature of the Paul and Obama campaigns, and I am disappointed to see him occasionally fall into the same tired narratives of government intrusion and nanny-statism. I don’t think this narrative applies: there’s no time-honored tradition or civil right to sell candy to kids in school vending machines. The practice is itself an innovation of the past few decades, and it is not unconservative (as Sullivan defines the term, if I understand him correctly) to discover that innovations require modification.
Moreover, the proposal takes place in the context of a vibrant debate about the nature and extent of U.S. farm subsidies. For instance, it is not controversial to note that subsidies distort market behavior. It is hardly controversial to point out that the farm subsidy shifts the costs of raw inputs such as corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup from the consumer onto the taxpayer. The net effect is that Americans are able to purchase more calories for their retail dollar, particularly in the form of processed foods containing lots of fat and high-fructose corn syrup: in essence, U.S. taxpayers are paying to create the conditions for our own health and obesity crisis.
Seen in this light, the proposal is an attempt to correct a situation Congress has created. I might agree with Mr. Sullivan that Congress shouldn’t do this, but I am more inclined to say that Congress shouldn’t have to do this.
Update: A reader points out that no discussion of the Congressional spending power is complete without at least the mention of South Dakota v. Dole, which lays out four requirements which limit the spending power as a conditional tool to compel state action, albeit in a largely theoretical manner. The four requirements are: the condition must 1) promote the general welfare, 2) be unambiguous, 3) relate to a federal interest in national projects and programs, and 4) not fall afoul of other constitutional provisions (e.g., it is theoretically possible to condition spending in such a way as to violate, say, the equal protection clause: such a conditioning would be unconstitutional.)
If this had been a legal argument, I would certainly have been expected to address Dole, however it doesn’t seem to me that this spending proposal fails any of the Dole requirements. Moreover, my understanding from ConLaw is that the spending power is more or less unrestricted save in theory, and that as a result conditional spending is almost never challenged.
Filed under: Eating and Justice, Economics of Eating, Ethics of Eating, Fair Trade, Food Policy, food politics, local v. industrial, Quotations, Subsidies
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?)
Filed under: Economics of Eating, Ethics of Eating, Farm Bill, Food and Energy, Food Policy, food politics, local v. industrial, Meat, Production, Quotations, Subsidies, Taxation
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.
Filed under: Economics of Eating, Farm Bill, Food Policy, food politics, Production, Regulation, Subsidies, Taxation
Not news, exactly, and readers of this blog probably already know all of this stuff, but a fairly conservative friend of mine asked me my opinion of the analysis contained in Michael Pollan’s recent New York Times op-ed about the 2007 Farm Bill. I wrote the following in return, and it occurs to me that I haven’t seen all of these points laid out on one page like this. Here’s a little cut ‘n paste magic from the email:
I think Pollan is exactly right, and what fascinates me about the Farm Bill debate is how it seems to have aligned so many different and traditionally opposed interests. Let me see if I have it right:
1) Fiscal conservatives, libertarians and economic commentators on the one side object to the farm subsidy because it distorts the market by causing farmers to plant more of a particular commodity than consumers would demand at the natural price and is therefore inefficient.
2) Animal welfare people object to it because the grain subsidy makes it cheaper to raise food animals in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) than via free-range. The situations at CAFOs place a great deal of strain on the cattle, which means that they require a great deal more antibiotics than they do if they are raised naturally — indeed the U.S. meat industry is the largest user of antibiotic medicine.
3) Environmentalists object to it for a number of reasons — CAFOs are terrible for the environment, for starters, and the kind of monoculture that big factory farms are planting to grow the subsidised crops destroys the soil, requires the use of ever-increasing levels of non-selective herbicides such as Round-Up as weeds develop immunity to the herbicide — and in recent times is requiring the use of genetically modified crops which are able to tolerate being grown in fields heavily laced with herbicides.
4) People who are taking a hard look at the immigration situation in the U.S. have come to discover that one of the reasons the Mexican corn industry went belly-up last year is the farm subsidy — and now there are some 170,000 Mexican agricultural workers without jobs and a lot of jobs in U.S. agriculture. The farm subsidy creates a situation in which we have to spend more money to keep immigrants out than we would if the economies of other countries were not placed at such a disadvantage.
5) On a related note, the farm subsidy is TERRIBLE for the economies of many third-world countries, for just the same reason: they have to compete with subsidised grain from the U.S.
6) Nutritionists tend to think that the farm subsidy is terrible for the American waistline because it subsidizes hydrogenated oils and animal products and high fructose corn syrup. Eliminating the farm subsidy would drive up the prices of many foods, but 1) most of those foods would be foods which are overabundant in the U.S. diet and which consumers ought to cut back on, 2) these prices are unnaturally low to begin with, and 3) the money saved on the Farm subsidy could, and should, in part be used to ensure that the truly poor do not starve. Indeed, the farm subsidy encourages all of us to eat things that are bad for us, but this encouragement become more and more pernicious the more a consumer has to stretch his or her food dollar.
The thing is, these are all sound economic arguments, and they all point to the same thing: the public interest and general welfare are not served by the farm subsidy as it is currently written. There is no metric to measure which shows that the farm subsidy is a good idea, outside of the share prices of big agribusiness. This legislation is corporate welfare in its most blatant and worst form. I highly recommend the first two sections of an essay entitled “That Which Is Seen and That Which is Not Seen” by F. Bastiat, for some traditionally conservative, laissez-faire economic reasons why this kind of spending is a terrible idea.
I have also found an op-ed by Victor Davis Hanson about why the farm bill is a terrible idea from a straightforward economic standpoint. I have no desire to discuss national politics, but I should like to say that this may be the first time I have agreed with Professor Hanson about a topic unrelated to classical philology. Opposition to this farm bill comes from all sides of the political spectrum.