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On ‘Good’ Food
In a world where 820 million people are hungry, what are food’s real moral implications?
There has been a cultural shift to reclaim what had been considered (by whom?) bad. A recent piece at Mic titled “Stop Calling Reality TV a ‘Guilty Pleasure’” reminded me of Bon Appétit’s call, “There Is No Such Thing as ‘Junk’ Food.”
Both of these are trying to do something good by lightening people’s loads—attempting to free them from the oppression of hierarchies of taste!—yet what are they upholding in doing so?
In the former, it’s TV that I think most people would admit they watch to escape and zone out—nothing wrong with that. In the latter, it’s corporate food products like Coca-Cola that are fine in moderation but that most people would probably admit are not pillars of a nutritious diet. Does it have to be? Why do we need them to be good things to enjoy them? Are we puritans? I know I’m not!
I think that’s the crux, that people want everything they like to be a morally good thing when often it’s just going to be neutral at best; if it’s good, then it says they’re good. Thus, everything must be good. When it comes to food, “accessibility” has become the word that matters more than any other. If something is widely available, then it is good by virtue of its availability.
A food product’s availability, cheapness, and abundance, though—which is how I’m defining “accessibility”—is usually a signal of exploitation of labor and planet, and by extension, becomes exploitation of the person buying it, relying on it, by virtue of giving them few other options, whether because of food apartheid, insufficient wages, or lack of leisure time.
To make myself abundantly clear: I am not arguing that farmers’ markets and local food are a broad-based salve for food system issues on their own. I am arguing that media conversations tend to make a mockery of them, support industrial food despite its poor practices, and regard poverty as inevitable rather than a purposeful side effect of capitalism. It’s liberal paternalism masked as relatability, and it’s a cop-out.
I’ve written a million (rough estimate) times before about the problems of the ways so-called “food movement” folks have discussed, or rather ignored, issues of income inequality, suppressed wages, and geographical access to fresh food by mostly ignoring the politics that create such a system in favor of focusing on those for whom consumption shifts are viable options—even if they are incapable of moving the needle toward better ecological and labor practices. But I still want to see the phrase “food movement” defined by those who invoke it in 2022. Who is erased when it’s said that most people on the planet are not eating a diet rich in vegetables and grains? Who is erased when we do not discuss the pain caused by the style of agriculture the U.S. has exported for corporate gain? What are most people on the planet eating and who profits off it? Who is hurt by it?
There seems to be no way to talk smartly about the food system without acknowledging that capitalism has done a bad job feeding people: The world’s farmers produce enough food to feed 10 billion people; the world’s population is 8 billion; 820 million people are hungry. Humanity’s most pressing problem isn’t that people feel bad about eating fast food, I’m sorry to say. It’s that people are hungry and the cost of food keeps going up.
And so the political terms need to be explicit: consumer- and market-driven “fixes” will not suffice by a long shot, and so then what? Does it keep us from imagining an ecosocialist (insert your better system) future that Michael Pollan said some shit that everyone likes to rehash and laugh at? Or is laughing at that keeping us stuck? How is upholding corporate food as good food a means of solidifying U.S. cultural and economic hegemony?
This “food movement” is increasingly a straw man, and I’m wondering whether those who claim to want a new food system are clinging to it because it’s too challenging or upsetting to dig into why it’s also bad that we are fed a diet of monocrops in the U.S. that feed corporate profits. Can we say it’s not self-care to eat a bag of Lay’s when the labor conditions at their factories have been historically atrocious? Do people deserve McNuggets while workers are striking?
Again: Who is benefiting and who is hurting? Why are we focusing on individual choice when it comes to the “morality” of food instead of the whole system?
I’m not denying the problematic focus on obesity that was long a hallmark of what seems to be understood as “food movement” writing, as Dr. Julie Guthman chronicled in “Can't Stomach It: How Michael Pollan et al. Made Me Want to Eat Cheetos,” a 2007 Gastronomica classic. What I want to ask is: How do we stop centering this moment? How do we learn and absorb and adapt rather than constantly rehash? Can we talk about food justice without incorporating diet culture tropes? Can we talk about industrial agriculture practices in a way that prioritizes planet and worker without suggesting anyone is “bad” for how they eat?
It’s a consistent refrain that local food is inaccessible—ok, now what? How do we make it so farmers and communities are connected? Who’s getting in the way of those connections? A recent Vox piece reminded us that farmers’ markets account for only 1.5 percent of food sales, so why is “local food” regarded as such a bogeyman in conversations about food systems? It’s worth considering that big media outlets are obsessed with making sure people feel morally good about not eating local and drinking Coca-Cola with McDonald’s (also see the Times washing away Tyson’s labor sins). Who is benefiting from this way of life? Who profits? Why is it bougie to talk about local food and food policy but not to endlessly, breathlessly cover restaurants and cocktail trends? What is alienating, and for whom? I am constantly thinking about fashion writer Aja Barber, who is always repeating that it’s not poor people that keep fast fashion in business: It’s the middle class and upwards. Whose way of life do we not wish to disturb?
In last week’s conversation with chef Rob Rubba of Oyster Oyster in D.C., I asked him about accessibility. He pointed out that in his area, as in most areas, that’s not because it isn’t available. At the start of the pandemic, while the supermarket shelves were empty, farmers had nowhere to go with their produce. “We have local food that's healthy, that's grown well, and there's no contracts to put it on the shelves in these markets and communities,” Rubba said.
When I talked to Millicent Souris, a writer and cook who manages a large soup kitchen and food pantry in New York City, she told me about the Nourish New York grant, which allows pantries to buy from in-state farmers. This shows there can be political will to shift the balance, to support local and get the food to people who need it. “Let me buy things and not have it all just be like, donated Tyson evil meat,” she said. “So those grants I take care of and I like to think it balances out all of the super-gross food bank tax writeoffs for giant companies.”
That’s one way to tip the balance away from corporate food toward regional food systems—couldn’t there be more? The only food media coverage of this program that I’ve seen is in Civil Eats: Who benefits from endless conversation about martinis and bagels—things I love—rather than policy that’s supporting farmers while working against hunger?
No one wants to look out of touch, to look like they’re supporting something inaccessible or too bourgeois when it comes to food. But doesn’t this just thwart our imaginations? Don’t we deserve better?
This Friday’s From the Kitchen will be a recipe for one of my favorite go-to meals, a kale and mushroom galette with white bean puree in an olive oil crust! See the recipe index for all past recipes available to paid subscribers.
I hope any of the many things I’ve been working on comes out soon.
I wish I could tell you, but I spent last week sick in bed (not Covid). Would anyone want me to write about all of my favorite TV shows at some point after this week’s rant to try to even the scales?
Pictured above are shortbread sandwich cookies with a homemade (by me) acerola jam with a bit of freshly grated nutmeg.