The LA Times has a must read Op-Ed on the polarization of today's food debates. The author, a sustainable farmer, describes the dynamics of her diverse family gathering around the dinner table during the holidays, all having strongly held, divergent views about food.
At one end of the table sat my husband's nephew, who runs a food bank. He's an earnest man who spends his days seeking nourishment for the hungry, and favors almost anything that increases food's availability or lowers its price. My husband and I occupied the other end. We operate a pasture-based ranch, and spend much of our time advocating for farming grounded in ecology and stewardship. The food we raise is less readily available and more expensive than most of what's found at typical grocery stores.
Other family members sat between us. They enjoy eating well but, especially in these tough economic times, want their meals as cheap as possible.
Our family dynamic mirrors an emerging national debate about how America's food should be produced. The controversy is often framed by agribusiness and food companies, heavily invested in maintaining the status quo, claiming that a globalized, industrialized system is the only way to produce enough food to feed the world's growing population, and to do so affordably. Reform advocates working to transform the system to one that's more locally based and isn't dependent on chemicals, mechanization and cheap fossil fuels are pitted against the world's poor, working class and hungry.
In other words, the sustainable food movement is characterized as uncaring and elitist.
She offers one of the best summaries I've seen of why this is a false characterization of advocates of change in the food system.
...our experience as ranchers and reform advocates belies the notion that today's good food movement is either callous or elitist. Making delicious, nutritious, safe food available to all people inspires much of the passion of those laboring to reshape America's food system. We've met them in every region of the country. They are young people setting up diversified farms; chefs dedicated to local sourcing; ordinary citizens establishing farmers markets; mothers and fathers remaking public school lunch programs, and on and on. They come from all walks of life, all incomes and every ethnicity.
It's worth reading in full. I'm not altogether satisfied with the conclusion, which is that the government needs to do something. I understand, on a systemic level, the arguments regarding subsidies and off-loading environmental costs, but given the cynicism I expressed in my previous post about the government's ability to bring meaningful change, I'm wanting to hear more persuasive arguments about grassroots change.
The article is correct in identifying the retail cost of food as being a central issue. It's just hard to convince people to spend more on food that is sustainably grown. It's unfair to say that it's always more expensive as this study reveals, but it's true that locally raised grass-fed beef is more expensive than the industrial alternative. Our family has chosen to eat less and pay more when it comes to beef and chicken. However I'm not sure that makes sense for families that are financially distressed.