Gristmill reports on the sustainable food movement

posted by Jason Kottke Oct 19, 2005

Gristmill reports on the sustainable food movement and its problem with class. "Demand for locally and sustainably grown food is concentrated in cities; but prices for farmland near cities are severely inflated by development pressure. Where farmland is cheap, people are poor and accustomed to industrial food. Where people are wealthy and attracted to healthy food, farmland is dear."

Reader comments

malatronOct 19, 2005 at 6:24PM

In today's local paper (sub. req'd) in Northampton, MA. they report:

"Boosting Valley produce - In new deal, UMass commits to buying 15 percent locally
Joe Czajkowski pulls into the dusty drive of his Hadley farm and wastes little time unpacking leeks. He's a busy man with mouths to feed.

The farm stands within sight of towers at the University of Massachusetts, home to some of his newest customers.

Under a contract drafted by Communities Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, the university's dining services pledges to use 15 percent of its $1 million yearly produce budget to buy from local farms."

This is an important developement in this arena. Namely, demanding that powerful public institutions reflect the wants and desires of the local community.

You all should go read the comments over at this Gristmill post. They are very informative and poigant. All of them.

MargaretOct 19, 2005 at 6:29PM

I've noticed this when reading articles in favor of locally grown, organic, etc. food. I wonder if the people who write these articles realize that for the vast majority of Americans, spending twice as much on a pound of chicken that wasn't raised in a huge industrial farm isn't practical. My mother, for instance, loves the Cook's Illustrated cookbooks and TV shows, but she just shakes her head when they say "Well, the XXXXX brand is twice as expensive, but we really think it's worth it for the extra blah blah blah it offers." For most people, it absolutely isn't worth it, and this "class divide" is only going to grow until the people who promote slow food and buying local and small realize that they're leaving most of the country behind.

NoahOct 19, 2005 at 11:44PM

A lot of the cost differential between industrial and local family farms comes from the structure of government subsidies. Industrial ag shouldn't be cheaper. Beyond the much-discussed subsidies for commodity crops, our tax dollars also go to develop the chemical pesticides, roads and fuel (how much do we spend on intervention in oil-rich countries!) that ultimately underwrite the costs of the non-local food economy.

SamOct 20, 2005 at 9:44AM

Margaret, while I agree that the people who promote slow food and buying local and/or organic could be perceived as leaving the rest of the country behind, I honestly believe the rest of the country chooses to leave itself behind.

My wife and I together live on an income that straddles the poverty line, and we can afford to eat local, organic food. It's all about choices. We don't have cable TV or cell phones, we don't rent movies (we check them out from the library), and we budget carefully to ensure we can eat the food we enjoy.

I've come to realize that the idea of slow food and local food is less about taste and texture (though it has advantages in those areas too), and more about living your life a certain way. It's about getting to know the people that are responsible for your food supply, putting a human face on agriculture. This way, you don't mind paying twice as much on a pound of chicken, because you know how hard your friend works to raise it, and you feel that she deserves it.

GusOct 20, 2005 at 9:47AM

Quite right Noah, we currently subsidise the polluters and penalise those producers who DON'T contaminate
our food. We need co-ordination of local food networks to bring the cost down and we will all need to get
used to eating not just organic, but local and seasonal.

AmyOct 20, 2005 at 10:54AM

Local organic food will continue to cost more until people buy more of it and they don't recieve adequate support from the government. Small farms can't be as "efficient" if they aren't using pesticides and hormones. I feel lucky to live in a place that is both rural AND really supports local, organic food. For example, I teach in a school that has only 60 students from preschool to 8th grade. Yesterday we had "local food day" where all the food served from the kitchen was grown by local farmers or by the students themselves in the school garden.

Mark M. SmithOct 20, 2005 at 12:24PM

I happen to live in a smallish town in Kansas (Manhattan, KS to be precise). It's not out into the Western farmland and it is a university town, but it's also pretty far removed from the city and suburbs I grew up in. Farming actually manages to happen around here. That said while there are occasional options to buy local food it's not really very practical. Only a small percentage of the produce that I eat is going to be growable nearby. A great deal of the stuff offered at the weekly farmer's markets are trucked in from California or Mexico and cause me to doubt as to whether it's even worth the effort for something that's in all likelihood just the same produce available at the mega-mart... this sort of thing isn't at all cost-effective enough for real small, local farmers to be involved in outside of their local communities.

It's a nice idea, but even for those that live in a farming enviroment the local biome is going to have a pretty big effect on what you can truly get locally.

malatronOct 20, 2005 at 1:48PM

Again, incase those who have commented here have not yet checked the comments at the Gristmill post, I encourage you to do so.

There is a very engaging and perceptive discussion going on over there.

Here are the links to some comments I found particulary stimulating:
The Author Tom Philpott response to crticism.

Sishongjerry's, It's harder than you think.

Tasmonia's Know how necassary.

And my first comment.

I think it's imporatnt to note the different set of barriers that each class and race face when faced with these issues. I am a white male, which no doubt in my mind causes me an advantage in my ability to build coomunity with farmers, who themselves are 98% white and male. With that said, others may or may not face greater diifuculty creating the same access I have, but you can create it.

No doubt. It takes work, and effort, but you will be rewarded with the designation of being a member of a community.
A member which affords you the benefits of a commpasionate marketplace.

As I said at Gristmill, "we may be poor, but we are not dumb. We adapt, and we do so smartly and quietly...I guess you could say we live with market protection, which is how it should be, as anybody with affluence is very familar with"

sishongjerryOct 20, 2005 at 2:09PM

It's harder than you think

I have lived in both rural areas in high school, Denton, NC. and urban currently, Chicago, IL. I am also broke. I will say, even though I know, I KNOW, that locally grown food is better for my health and in some respects my wallet, I can't afford to eat it. Yes, the economic benefits are there, if you have the money to go shopping for food, and the time to actually prepare a meal, Plus, I'm not a vegetarian, and I'm not quite ready to buy a pound of ground beef from the farmers market...
To the point here, processed, industrialized food is cheaper to an extent. If all the money I have is 10 dollars, I can go to McDonalds and purchase 2 double cheeseburgers, and fries, for under $3.25 with tax included.

Granted it's just one meal, but I, being broke and cheap, will buy it just the same, simly because I cannot afford to purchase each of the individual ingredients at one time.

I know this is bad for me, I know that it doesn't help my community, I know what should be done, I just cannot afford to do it. I have to work through most farmers markets anyway, so I wouldn't even be able to get there without losing money by taking time off work.

I have long been of the opinion that healthy, fresh, "clean" food is primarily harvested for the upper echelons. You don't even have to be rich, you just have to not be poor. With an average person such as myself is lucky to find a job making more than $8 an hour, ($16,640 each year). Without an income over $23,000 a year (before taxes), living in Chicago where the cost of rent alone can be $12,000-15,000 that only leaves about $5,000-6,000 for all the other bills. In the end, The food budget drops to only being $1,500 each year, that's less than $5 each day, for 3 meals.

I would have to say, and this is just observation, but everyone who argued it was not about being rich enough to buy the food, can probably afford to do such, without having to worry about living in the street because you spent that $5 on A tomato instead of rent

tom philpottOct 20, 2005 at 2:24PM

Thanks, malatron! Good stuff.

LaurieOct 27, 2005 at 9:32AM

It bothers me that Slow Food may be getting a bum rap. Slow Food is doing much to raise awareness of local foods and yes, Slow Food USA groups DO have programs to work with lower-income groups. As Tom mentioned, Slow Food New York sponsors community gardens, and the Slow Food DC listserv reports many initiatives that work with lower-income groups. If Slow Food makes local heritage food trendy, so what? It makes the issue of the importance of locally, sustainably raised foods attractive to a group of people who would never have given it a second thought before. It works at the consumer level as well as the farm level.

As for those who say they can't afford food other than McDonald's, I'm sorry, but I've been in your shoes, and I just don't buy that argument. I can eat much more cheaply by preparing my own food than eating fast food. Education and prioritizing your time and money is the key. I began by substituting one organic item at a time at the grocery store, and learned how to shop efficiently. It does take planning and thought, but it can actually be fun if you take on a positive attitude about it. Slow Food doesn't have to be expensive or take long and laborious preparation. It is more of a way of thinking about life than a way of eating.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.