A Royal Mistake: "Future of Food" Event Reinforces Food Movement's Elitist Stereotypes

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By all appearances the Future of Food event organized by WashingtonPostLive was an all-star gala featuring some of my favorite writers and food-movement activists. Marion Nestle, one of the high-profile participants heralded the event as an indication that the nascent food movement has gone mainstream. If the Future of Food was the mainstream unveiling of the food movement to America then, in my judgment, it's not quite ready for primetime. 

My concern is not with the content of what was said and advocated, most of which I agree with, but rather with the elitist overtones. I would normally acknowledge the elitist undertones of the sustainable food movement, but when you have the Prince of Wales as your keynote speaker, there is nothing understated about it. Again, the content of what Prince Charles said is great, but in this case the medium is more powerful than the message. Do we really want a British royal as voice of advocacy for sustainable food in the US. I don't care if he has a bunch of employees that run an organic farm for him, that doesn't mean you can introduce him as an "organic farmer." It reinforces the worst elitist caricatures traditional ag. advocates attach to the food movement and has the potential to weaken the cultural argument for organic and sustainable alternatives.

Apparently others don't share my concern. Maria Rodale at the Huffington Post couldn't hardly contain her excitement describing her encounter with the Prince in an article titled, "What It's Like to Meet a Prince."

The first sign that I knew I would like the Prince was that a burly Scottish-looking brute came into the room and opened all the windows (even though it was a bit chilly and rainy outside). "The Prince prefers fresh air," he stated. While others in the room shuddered with the cold, I sighed with relief. I'm a lover of fresh air, too.

Suddenly, I turned and there he was, heading straight for me! Our eyes met...his were blue. All I could remember from the protocol was that I didn't have to curtsy, but I was supposed to wait until he extended his hand first for a shake.  We shook hands. His shake was firm (hands of a gardener!). He seemed kind of tan, too. I don't think it was fake.

The future of food will apparently be ushered in by hunky Scottish men making sure all of us food pioneers have plenty of fresh air. I'm sure Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau, will take this as a forboding shot across the bow of entrenched agri-business. His adversaries in the local/organic food community have real tans and the "hands of gardeners." 

If American foodie revolutionaries can't see the terrible optics of Prince Charles as a spokesman for America's food movement, we've got some friends across the pond who are more than willing to help. Terence Blacker at the Independent got it about right:

Five days after hosting one of the most spectacular celebrations of privilege ever seen, the Prince of Wales has been telling Americans about the importance of restraint and responsibility. 

Thankfully Wendell Berry, someone with farmers' hands, was in attendance at this event and in his brief remarks captured what is wrong with a food movement that features Prince Charles as a headliner. In response to the question of what we should do to mend a broken food system he said:

We must not work or think on a heroic scale. In our age of global industrialism heroes too likely risk the lives of people, places, and things they do not see. We must work on a scale proper to our limited abilities. 

In other words, changes to the food system are best worked out by people who are in a direct relationship with people, places, and things. It needs to be a grassroots movement of real people in real places fleshing out real practices. It's nice to have famous and powerful people advocating for a better food system, but the real work needs to happen in our communities among ordinary folks working with our limited abilities, and limited resources. As he says, sometimes the heroes do more damage than good.

Berry's most powerful statement came a few sentences later when he said:

We must quit solving our problems by moving on. We must try to stay put and try to learn where we are geographically, historically and ecologically.

In defense of Miss Rodale's breathless response to meeting Prince Charles, I would have reacted with the same star-struck adoration upon meeting Wendell Berry. He will be speaking in Seattle on May 24

Picture: Wildhorse Monument in Central Washington. Part of my efforts to pay attention to a place.