The NY Times Business Section: Out to Lunch on the Local Food Debate | Civil Eats

The NY Times Business Section: Out to Lunch on the Local Food Debate

In Sunday’s New York Times, Damon Darlin has now weighed into a debate which I am suddenly making a career of noticing, that of publicly lambasting locavores. Normally a tech writer (and perhaps better suited to it), Darlin has wheeled out some of the same tired points that others have recently, making them officially clichéd.

It takes only 12 words before he drops Michael Pollan’s name, whose best-selling books argue eloquently for a better food system, and in the next paragraph he mentions Michelle Obama’s organic garden at the White House, though he makes no mention of her new “Let’s Move!” campaign against childhood obesity, for which this garden is a tool.

I was going to dismiss Mr. Darlin’s piece as not worthy of notice despite its prominent placement in the Paper of Record and thus avoid writing my third column lamenting this misplaced disrespect for eaters who care what they eat (I swear I do have better, more enjoyable things to write about), but then he said this:

Some of these so-called locavores may think they are part of a national movement that will replace corporate food factories with small family farms. But as much of the East Coast lies blanketed beneath a foot or more of snow, it’s as good a time as any to raise a few questions about the trend’s viability.

What struck me first about this statement was that it came the same week that talking heads in the media and politics (And even Donald Trump?) were blindly arguing that all this snow was proof that climate change was a hoax (perpetrated to what end? I’ve always wondered). The irony is that these bigger storms are likely a symptom of that same climate change, caused in no small measure by industrial agriculture.

Then I noticed the condescension. These so-called locavores may think they are part of a national movement. Mr. Darlin, we are part of a national movement, an international movement in fact, led by dozens of very worthy organizations working hard to create a food system that is good, clean, and fair. Our current system is none of these things. I happen to sit on the board of directors of one such organization, Slow Food USA, which has 26,000 members nationwide and over 100,000 members worldwide. Pretty sure that alone qualifies as a movement, but as I said we are not alone.

What Mr. Darlin seems not to understand though is that there is so much more to this movement. We are not a bunch of yuppie foodies stuffing our craws with foie gras, as he and others might have their readers believe. The system we envision, as I said, is one that is:

1. Good – meaning that the food tastes good and is nutritious
2. Clean – meaning that producing the food has only beneficial and not negative effects on the environment in which it is produced, and that there is nothing in the food that isn’t food (and if it wasn’t food 100 years ago, it is not food now)
3. Fair – meaning that the people who produce the food should be justly compensated for their work.

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This is not an effort to create some Utopian state, nor is it a recreation of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward,” (another accusation Darlin hurls). It is a wholehearted effort to improve the lives of everyone who eats. We do not say: good food for us, we say good food for all! And when Darlin states, “People who grow vegetables in empty lots and schoolyards have a nice, wholesome hobby–but one that can make little sense economically,” he needs to do a bit more research than reading William Alexander’s “The $64 Tomato.”

In fact, during World Wars I, II and the Great Depression for example, more than half of America’s produce came from privately held or community-based “Victory Gardens.” But Americans have been sold a bill of goods, by Big Ag and other industrial interests, that has us all thinking that cooking, much less growing our own food, is a chore akin to washing windows, one to be avoided whenever possible and then done grudgingly only when absolutely necessary. In fact cooking is far more important. It is an almost spiritual act to provide nourishment to our loved ones, yet as a society we have come to mistake frenzy for efficiency, which has led to believing we are satisfied with expedient mediocrity, and in the balance as always it’s the children who suffer.

Meanwhile, with respect to making “little sense economically,” I’ve often pointed out that where I live in Johnson County, Iowa, there are about 50,000 households. If each of them redirected just $10 of their existing weekly food budget toward getting something locally–from a farmers market, a CSA, a local brewery, or eggs from the farmer down the road, it would keep $26 million in our economy every year. Now imagine same statistic in a major metro like Mr. Darlin’s native San Francisco.

We are not idiots and none of us expects to see the brick-by-brick dismantling of McDonald’s worldwide (well OK, some may wish it, but that’s different). But there is a massive amount of room for improvement and we want to see it. No health care system, no matter how it is reformed, can deal with the $157 billion we spend annually in the US alone on obesity-related illness. We live in a world with a billion people starving and another billion overweight and yet undernourished. Children born in the US have a one-in-three chance of developing diabetes before they are old enough to vote, and among minorities that ratio rises to one-in-two.

Clearly the industrial model, which may work just fine for Darlin’s primary field of computers, is not working for food. There must be a better way and we are out to find it. Trying to stick us with an elitist tag when we are trying to help farmers and raise healthy children simply won’t wash.

Today’s food system is complex.

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Chef Kurt Michael Friese is editor-in-chief and co-owner of the local food magazine Edible Iowa River Valley. A graduate and former Chef-Instructor at the New England Culinary Institute, he has been owner, with his wife Kim McWane Friese, of the Iowa City restaurant Devotay for 16 years. Named for his children Devon and Taylor, Devotay is a community leader in sustainable cuisine and supporting local farmers and food artisans. Friese is a freelance food writer and photographer as well, with regular columns in 6 local, regional and national newspapers and magazines. His first book, A Cook’s Journey: Slow Food in the Heartland was published by in August, 2008 by Ice Cube Press, and his lates book, Chasing Chiles, was released by Chelsea Green Publishing in March, 2011. Read more >

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  1. Jack
    Seems odd that the tech editor for the NYT would write a story about food in the week in which Google Buzz blew up. Maybe someone was shopping that story idea around the Times and that's the only section that bit on it. Also, I love how after many paragraphs of nit-picking about locavores, he finally mentions that, oh by the way, our current food system causes "frequent E. coli and salmonella bacteria outbreaks." In an honest story, that last part is the lead.
  2. Daniel
    Colbert had some kind words for the global warming deniers: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/02/11/colbert-rips-fox-news-for_n_458075.html
    "simple observational research: whatever just happened is the only thing that is happening."
  3. Just how does Mr. Darlin think we have been eating in the winter for the past, oh, I don't know, 40,000 years? Even our ancestors of 100 years ago couldn't just up and go to a supermarket. Duh.

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