Two weeks ago I had the good fortune to attend a panel discussion at MIT moderated by The Atlantic’s Corby Kummer. Participants were Barry Estabrook, author of Tomatoland; Tracie McMillan, author of The American Way of Eating; and John (“Doc”) Willoughby, former executive editor of Cook’s Illustrated. Topics ranged the gamut, covering the role of tweets and hashtags in contemporary journalism to the most effective method of food reform (bottom up? top down?). The prevailing preoccupation, however, was how to make “good food” available to everyone. Although no one put it quite this way, the collective goal was to figure out how insiders might persuade outsiders–say, consumers still eating fast food and canned vegetables–to support fresh, local, non-processed, high-quality, “slow” food.
For understandable reasons, panelists treaded carefully through this cultural minefield. Tact, however, didn’t stop them from providing insightful observations. McMillan, who seems instinctively suspicious of the entire “foodie” project, threw an opening wrench into the event by noting that the migrant workers with whom she picked garlic in California were fiercely dedicated to eating high-quality traditional food while own mother could have given a hoot about “fancy” meals (her book, by the way, is awesome). Estabrook hewed tightly to an economic theme, suggesting that we couldn’t expect Florida tomato pickers to eat well when they were locked in the ever-tightening vice of longer hours and lower wages. Real food, he noted, required basic economic justice: people should be able to buy what they picked (a point reiterated by McMillan). Willoughby, a gourmand who admitted eating a McDonald’s hamburger once every two weeks, explained how hard-edged journalism that might effectively awake the masses was increasingly difficult to publish due to pressure from wary advertisers. Nobody, it turns out, wants their product promoted in the margins of an expose on the horrors of pink slime.
So lots of engaging ideas about food were bouncing around MIT. Nonetheless, while it would be ridiculous to expect anyone to solve the problem of how to democratize the desire for (and access to) “real food,” the panelists were verbally and visibly confounded by the task. Corby expressed “existential despair” over the prospect of such reform. I felt it, too, as I always do in these discussions.
I imagine, moreover, that very few of us missed the paradox framing the event: here, after all, was a room of highly educated, upwardly mobile, and culturally sophisticated journalists sitting on the top floor of a building overlooking the Charles River at one of the most elite schools in the world, and we were trying to figure out how to . . . well, how to get those who scraped our plates after lunch to eat the way we do. Adding irony to paradox, two of the panelists made a “popular sovereignty” plea for food choice, suggesting that they would never tell people what they should be eating, forgetting (I think) that that’s what we were doing (I thought).
In short, the best and brightest in the food world were brilliant at highlighting the problem at hand but stymied, sometimes awkwardly so, when it came to providing solutions.
I’m not sure that the situation could be otherwise, at least not now. Academics and journalists, emotionally drawn to equality but often intellectually inclined otherwise, can be quick to deliver pronouncements–end subsidies! stop food deserts! stick it to the Farm Bill! boycott Walmart! get rid of Monsanto!–but much slower when it comes to the precise details as to how. I really don’t think there are viable answers to the dilemma of making real food, good food, slow food, local food–call it what you will–a standard, and standardly desired, option. At least not currently. Perhaps we (that is, those of us interested in reforming food systems) should begin not by grappling for solutions to our food crisis but–as writers such as Eric Schlosser have already done–highlighting in as much specificity and honesty as possible the real barriers to change. I say this because I don’t think we’ve fully appreciated the height and strength of these barriers.
Here are some starting points for developing a better understanding of why solutions are so hard to achieve–that is, why obstacles to change are so daunting. By no means is what follows comprehensive, but here goes:
· There is no technological infrastructure to support the decentralized, diverse food system we’d like to see widely available to consumers of all socioeconomic backgrounds. Ushering a novel idea from theory to practice typically requires a brute-force technological advance. Consider fresh produce. We tend to think that pre-industrial consumers lived in a lush Eden of fresh food, supping on what fell from the heavens as they skipped through the garden. The fact is that fresh food was the rarest of luxuries. Apples were pressed into cider, corn into whiskey; meat was smoked, fish was salted, fruit brined. Wheat was processed into bread and often eaten when hard as tack and black as fungus. The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries represented the apogee of canned goods. Only one thing and one thing alone made “fresh” a relatively common expectation: the refrigerator. Slow food, if it’s going to go mainstream, needs its version of the refrigerator. I should add that I have no idea what that invention might be.
· To some extent, elites want to stay elite. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this desire, but still, it’s a cultural reality we need to confront. People with excess capital–be it social, cultural, or intellectual–generally prefer to protect the uniqueness of their investment (or inheritance) by keeping arrivistes at bay. This impulse is evident with many material objects–cars, clothing, art. But it seems especially easy to act on when it comes to food. As the idea of eating well is increasingly rooted in culinary esthetics, the desire to exclusively possess the rarest esthetic of eating intensifies. You know you’re about to start seeing $4 peaches when you eat $3 peaches. You know you’re about to eat backyard chicken when you eat chicken from the local farm. You know you’re about to eat the face of a pig when you’ve eaten its feet. In other words, esthetically self-conscious consumers, consciously or not, like to stay a dollar, a mile, and an odd body part ahead of the competition. Economically speaking, current conceptions of “good food” tend to rely on characteristics that cost more to attain and, as a result, are inherently bound to make products less accessible and more expensive. Irrespective of federal policies, locally sourced food generally costs more because producers aren’t making money on the margins through high volume and widespread distribution. Organic food costs more, in part, because it’s more labor-intensive to grow food without synthetic inputs. (Inputs that are not really saved, because many organic growers pay a lot of money for organic fertilizer and pesticides.) A consistent supply of “slow” food, in its emphasis on terroir and rarity, is necessarily off limits to mainstream consumers. My point in this ramble: there are clear economic obstacles to seeking the kind of reformed systems we seek. To think that consumers will wake up to horrors of industrial food and start spending more on the pricier alternatives strikes me as deeply unrealistic. Maybe once or twice, but not as a habit.
There are, in sum, entrenched technological, cultural, and economic realities that powerfully mitigate against the mass acceptance and popularization of commonly articulated food reforms. Corby’s “existential despair” is, good to know, rooted in the reality of existence. As the food intelligentsia continues to valiantly contemplate, and offer solutions to, the systemic problems marring food systems, we must keep in mind that we’ve inherited a mess a century in the making. The landscape has to be cleared before a new reality sprouts. That will take time, and patience. In the meantime, if my three suggested starting points are worth anything, we might very well start envisioning reforms that stand a fighting chance of clearing the barriers–reforms that are technologically feasible, as immune as possible to the esthetics of taste, and, put simply, affordable.