This summer I read the Omnivore’s Diliemma by Michael Pollan and it left me with this icky feeling. This should not be the case as I belonged to a CSA when I lived in DC, regularly shop at Farmers Markets around the Bay Area and go to restaurants where the menus list what farms their food comes from. I totally agree with the need to shop for your food locally. And in the Bay Area, I’ve found it’s cheaper to buy your produce at Farmers Markets than at the grocery store.
The content of the book itself is really thought provoking and important. I have done my fair share of razzing J about being uncomfortable with eating a whole fish. I want to know where my food come from even if it means coming face to face with some uncomfortable truths like – meat comes from, you know, dead animals. But where the book leaves me at the station is the ideas that this is something everyone SHOULD do and the raising of food prices (through the removal of corn subsidies) is a good thing.
The whole problem with this idea, is that it doesn’t take into account access. This article pretty clearly articulates my concerns. I have a fair amount of education and a good paying job that pays me enough to live in an area with its own Farmers Market and access to public transportation to get to other farmers markets. On top of that, I own a car to get me to a pick your own farm.
Having spent 12 years in DC without a car. Getting groceries was a pain in the ass. This included living near a metro and having the Dupont Circle Farmers Market and easy metro ride away. When you think about people without cars and people who live in lower-income parts of DC where metro doesn’t run and buses run infrequently, the issue becoems less about choice and more about policy. And that’s where I really object to the Michael Pollans and the Alice Waters of the world. They think if only folks could just TASTE all of these wonderful fresh fruits and veggies, they would all just run to their nearby Farmers markets and pay for better, more sustainable food. It’s the “run over to the local Farmers Markets” that’s the hard part.
Here’s a story from my own backyard. There’s a local nonprofit community development corporation in Oakland that develops low-income housing and retail in underserved communities. To address the lack of access to produce in a neighborhood, not far from where J and I live, they created a shopping center. For years, they tried to find a retailer who would run a grocery store in the complex. They finally found one, and after a year, the retailer literally left in the middle of the night. One day you have a decent grocery store the next day, you have to take a bus to get a jug of milk. That is what they call a food desert.
There are groups doing something about this. Our fabulous CSA, Claggett Farm has a drop off point in Anacostia and has a goal of having half their shares go to folks eligible for Food Stamps. In Minneapolis, they city is supporting a pilot project that sets up small Farmers Markets in the parking lots of public housing developments. After two years, two of the four are self sustaining and not receiving any city funding.
The thing is, I love these institutions that the Michael Pollans of the world exhort. My income shouldn’t be the determining factor on where I get to eat a healthy meal. Michael Pollan policy proposal is to end the obscene subsidies of corn but nowhere does he ever talk about changing policy to increase access. That does make him come across as (the dreaded word) elitist.