Food and Elitism

When I was living in San Francisco, I briefly became tangentially involved with the food movement, because, well, I like food, and I thought that some of the ideas beginning to percolate were good ones and I wanted to see them nurtured into full bloom, so to speak. But then, I became disenchanted, and largely dropped out. One might argue that if I had a problem with the movement, I should have tried to reform it from the inside, but it felt like an uphill battle; every criticism I raised was shouted down, and it was made very clear to me that my kind were not welcome in the food movement.

It was kind of a disillusionment, for me, because I was under the mistaken impression that the food movement was about reforming the food industry. Getting people interested in healthier eating habits. Addressing the glut of cheap, nutritionally questionable food flooding the market. But no, it’s just about elitism, like seemingly everything else in this society, and that, I am not so into.

The food movement is most definitely a white, middle/upper class trend. The lower classes and people of colour are often deliberately, yes, I say deliberately excluded, by the very people who claim to care across the board about issues like eating habits, access to fresh foods, dietary insufficiency, and assorted issues. I certainly felt a lot of doors slamming in my face just as an advocate for people of colour and the lower classes, and I was speaking from a position of privilege; is it any wonder that such people are largely excluded from the dialogue and in fact often deliberately told to go away?

Whether intended or not, the attitude projected by many people in the movement, especially prominent spokespeople, is that if people can’t or won’t buy local, hand-harvested, beyond organic food, they shouldn’t bother. They should just go hit the TV dinner aisle in the frozen section and make do with that, because they don’t belong in the food movement. When the movement does occasionally deign to recognize things like the fact that low-income communities usually have a dearth of fresh food, or that it’s hard to get groceries when you don’t have a car, it’s usually in the form of slumming and exploitation, rather than a genuine push for change.

Are people within the movement pushing for change and meaning it? Sure; people are starting community gardens in low income communities, pushing convenience stores to stock fresh veggies, and so forth, but these people often seem very marginalized, for me, and their concerns aren’t raised nearly as much as the loud voices of people self-righteously beating their chests about how much money they spend on food, and how there’s only one right way to eat and live, and how people trying to bridge the middle ground shouldn’t even bother. If you can’t buy all organic at the grocery store, don’t bother buying anything organic. If you can’t make your own pasta with your Italian pastamaker that you picked up on that quaint trip, might as well get boil in bag shlock from the frozen section. If you aren’t maintaining your own garden, just eat some nuke and serve.

There are huge class and cultural issues wrapped up in the relationship that people have with food, and the food movement seems to be largely ignoring these, unless they pertain to the white, middle class relationship with food. When it does vaguely address them, it often does so in a patronizing and frequently offensive way which turns people off, rather than making them feel like this movement has a place for them. You can’t just plop a community garden into a poor community. You need to think about creating a garden which is actually sustainable for the community, by which I mean a garden which will survive because it is being used to grow things which people want to eat and know how to cook, and it is set up in a way which welcomes members of the community, promotes community input, and is designed to be flexible to actually accommodate the community.

The almost willful ignorance on the part of some people in the movement is just kind of disgusting, to me, but it’s alienating for a lot of people. Someone who is just starting to perhaps explore the idea of eating locally, for example, is going to be turned off when ou realizes that eating locally is a pursuit reserved for people with lots of money to spend on food; lots of time to seek out local food sources; the space, energy, and time for a garden; and a car to use for transport.

Many of the people in the movement refuse to realize that money is a finite resource (now more so than ever), and that people often can’t spend more on food, but they could change the way in which they spend, if they were shown how in a way which they found accessible and helpful. People don’t understand that time is a valuable resource for many people; a working mother cannot afford to spend two hours putting dinner together, because she just doesn’t have the time. It won’t fit. The day has a finite number of hours. There also seems to be a general failure to recognize the difficulty and luxury involved in traveling great distances to seek out food from different sources; for those of us with cars, it’s no big deal to drive 10 miles to a better grocery store, but if you don’t have a car, you may need to rely on a bus system which turns that trip into an hour and a half, or an expensive cab ride, which is why you buy food in the corner store with the jacked-up prices and expired dairy products. You. Have. No. Choice. The fundamental failure to identify cultural issues involved in food is also pretty pathetic; if you want to reach out to communities, you need to know their food, but most people in the food movement aren’t really interested in reaching out to communities, so they don’t bother.

From the perspective of people standing on the outside, being in the food movement does not appear to be about improving the food situation (for the most part). It’s about being part of the oh-so-trendy “green” movement, and flaunting your credentials with other middle class white people. Like so many supposed cultural movements, it’s yet another opportunity to draw a dividing line between you and them, to enforce the growing gap between rich and poor, to pat yourself on the back for being “better” than someone else, with your “good” food and your Prius.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Mark Bittman recently mentioned the issue of “kitchen illiteracy,” and the idea that many people rely on packaged food and shortcuts because they don’t know about the alternatives. He was suggesting that things like cooking classes to demonstrate basic kitchen techniques to people could go a long way towards modifying the American diet; when you see, for example, that it’s just about as easy to throw a pasta dinner together from scratch as it is to manage macaroni and cheese from a box, and it can be cheaper, it starts to seem more appealing.

Networking with community advocates who already have positions of status and respect in communities of concern would be another great way to actually promote a better diet in America. Approaching people working with marginalized communities to talk about the issues they face and educating yourself would also be helpful if you don’t come from the same race/class background as the people you are trying to help. Actually trying to put yourselves into the shoes of others; to imagine eating on the food stamp budget, to take a bus or walk to get food, to work 60 hours a week and raise two children alone in a sketchy neighborhood: this would also make a huge difference.

And I shouldn’t do a disservice: there are people out there who are definitely doing that and they deserve credit for their work. I really do wish that the culturally illiterate people who appear to be the spokespeople of the food movement right now would shut up, stand aside, and let those people talk for awhile so that people could see that better food options are for everyone, not just white yuppies in their hybrid cars and wealthy neighborhoods.

5 Replies to “Food and Elitism”

  1. Many of the young moms I see know nothing about budgeting, planning meals, or how to use a stove. And where would they learn? Their moms often didn’t know, either. The foodie movement has no relevance to any of that, nor does it wish to. However, I suspect that organic would be much more available and less costly if more people wanted it and that does mean teaching cooking, meal planning and budgeting. Sometimes, I will talk to moms about how to make easy meals at home that their kids will eat. I am also congratulatory when they make the move from McDonald’s to Subway because it means they have begun to think about food. So, in a weird way, I probably do more for the food movement than the foodies and get a good deal more scorn.

    BTW, I am having someone over tomorrow to learn how to can pickles. That ought to count. (Tallie was here last night and says I make good pickles.)

  2. This ties in with another one of my pet issues; if we had nationalized single payer healthcare, physicians would be able to intervene with all of their patients on a regular basis, like you do, to promote health/talk about healthy eating habits/etc. And offering nutrition and cooking classes to people would be economically sensible, because it would save money for the system in the long term by getting people onto healthier diets.

    Alas, actually caring for people does not appear to be something the powers that be are interested in.

  3. The weirdest thing happened the other night; I got a phone call on the infamous landline inviting me to a “teleconference town hall” on health care issues with our illustrious member of Congress, and I was like “HELL YEAH” and then the system disconnected me. Censorship? Or just a fluke?

  4. They realized they had the wrong person – that’s the trouble with having a relatively common last name. They were looking for the person with your last name who would tell them what they wanted to hear. Have you noticed that people who tell them what they don’t want to hear have a lot of trouble? Even get arrested? How can we reform anything if we won’t listen to all sides?

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