Food & Class: Moving Away From the Personal Choice Narrative



It’s hard to get behind any food movement (if it can even be categorized as such) these days. While I tend to eat healthy—spending roughly a third of my income (which as a graduate student isn’t very hard) on organic, local foodstuff (mostly bulk grains, vegetables, and fruit)—I can’t buy into any movement that freely throws around—without a hint of irony—terms like “locavore” or “foodie.”

Still, I feel lambasting a movement that I respect, albeit not always linguistically, is counterproductive to fostering a united front. If we are going to recreate our food system, both locally and globally, it is imperative that both the food intelligentsia (Pollan, Allen, Patel, Berry) and rank-and-file, food-minded citizens are not cannibalizing each other during this very important moment in time.

Decades from now, the early 2000s may be seen as a watershed moment for the alternative-food movement. Sociologically speaking, food consciousness, akin to the increase in human-rights consciousness during the 80s, has entered full-force into mainstream American society.

Evidence of this collective food consciousness is everywhere, and unless McDonald’s begins injections a brain-altering serum into their McRibs, it is here to stay. We can look at the popularity of movies like Food, Inc. (Oscar-nominated) and Fresh and Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, as good indicators that mainstream America is awake and mobilized toward the problems of our incredibly destructive food system.

But being awake about an issue doesn’t always mean you truly understand it. And this is not to say that there aren’t smart people spending serious amounts of time looking at the issue of food, but personal experience, no matter how scientific we try to be, invariably leads to some degree of bias. The problem is not the bias, but the fact that we seem to be ignoring glaring contradictions in favor of a more comfortable narrative. The food movements seems to be content with the idea that since poor food choices got us into this mess, changing these choices will in turn solve the problem.

When Michael Pollan says that “[e]ight dollars for a dozen eggs sounds outrageous, but when you think that you can make a delicious meal from two eggs, that’s $1.50. It’s really not that much when we think of how we waste money in our lives” (Worthen 2010), there seems to be some strange, out-of-touch daftness in his line of thinking. Is the problem simply that we haven’t understood the message of the food vanguards? Perhaps, but I think there’s more to it than that.

I’d like to propose something a little more critical—fully aware that it will be perceived as both polemic and hyperbolic. The problem of food is just another example of a systemic assault that has been waged against the poor and working-class in this country over the last thirty-odd years. As wages have remained stagnant, the price of foodstuffs—with the exception of soda—has steadily risen. We have the saturation of commercials focused almost exclusively on promoting heavy, processed, food-cum-chemically-enhanced meals to children—with fruits and vegetables rarely making an appearance.

We have people with limited access to personal transportation, coupled with working multiple jobs and longer hours, living in food-dead zones, where the nearest grocery store might be miles away. We have basically created an economy running so fast and unequally that the logic of this system is predicated on people also eating as quickly and cheaply as possible. This isn’t about people just not wanting to eat healthy food. Or not knowing some ridiculous cost-balance equation about how spending X amount of money on nutritious food today will save Y dollars on health bills in the future. Or the platitudes that if people stopped wasting so much money on material junk they’d have more money left to buy $4.00 organic peaches. It’s about a system in which food, which should be the most basic of rights, is now some repackaged, commodified afterthought.

The problem of consumer-based movements is that they tend to focus all the strategies on personal choice, disregarding structural inequalities that are at the root of our food problems. And even when they acknowledge these structures, they think that civil-society-promoted social movements can somehow operate successfully within the system. When thinking of food, the question should not be why people don’t eat well, but why we have created a system that reinforces—at a cost to mental health, financial security, and physical well-being—a food plutocracy where food has become increasingly fetishized at the top and placed out of the reach at the bottom.

As citizens we need to break the Ag Business-political accord. This can be done by voting into office people who are not wedded to the interests of Big AG, supporting your local food movements, and pressuring at all levels of government a need for healthy and safe food alternatives. But without widening government support toward locally grown food, current food solutions will remain largely on the periphery—eating around the edges instead of tackling the middle of our increasing food crisis.

If the 2050 food disaster-narratives are even half true, it’s not a matter of making better personal food choices, following rules of eating, or becoming awakened to a foodie manifesto, it’s about addressing a coming global food disaster the world has never seen. I think the food movement needs to push even further and leave no options off the table. As Raj Patel once said, “why are there markets for food at all?” If we are going to buy into the idea, as proposed by the likes of Graham Riches and Patricia Allen, that access to healthy and safe food is a fundamental human right, how then that right becomes realized is an essential question.

How about a government program that tiers the prices of food—through EBT-type cards—by income bracket? Or government refund checks to individuals who buy fruits and vegetables. This isn’t about accepting a future of “eight-dollar eggs” which will only exacerbate the division—mostly along class lines—between the well fed haves and the well fed have-nots, but about realizing that gravity of our food future requires a range of solutions.

Originally published on CounterPunch

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View Comments (9)

  1. SunnyD
    Thursday, February 24th, 2011
    I think this has been done before. It's called communism. How'd that work for you?
  2. Thursday, February 24th, 2011
    Voting for a politician is not the answer. They are all the same. People were thrilled to vote in Obama and all the change that he was going to bring.

    Great change he brought. He's in the pocket of big business like every other politician is.

    The real change will come from a groundswell of individuals inspiring others and bring about the change.

    If we are going to rely on our current political system, we are doomed. The system is broken.
  3. Thursday, February 24th, 2011
    Thank you. I absolutely agree with you. The issues around healthy, whole foods are systemic and root themselves in inequities between the intersections of class, race, gender, and access (among others).. While it's true that those of us with cable television, vehicles and cell phones CAN afford to vote with our dollars, it's important to remember that not everyone has that ability (not that they're entirely without agency, of course).

    Just wanted to say thanks for puttin it out there. So, thanks.
  4. DennisP
    Thursday, February 24th, 2011
    I happen to be reading "Nickel and Dimed" right now, an insightful look at a social class about which I know almost nothing and which I have never experienced. Ehrenreich's experiences related in the book occurred 13 years ago. It's a whole lot worse now. Yes, systemic reasons, not just personal moral failures are largely responsible for bad eating. It's hard to eat well when you haven't the money, and are working two minimum wage jobs and the only food you can take time for is fast food. Liam's comments are right on target, though I don't expect America's politicians to do anything about the system.
  5. Friday, February 25th, 2011
    Government policies have reduced the diversity of farmers, and subsequently reduced the diversity of food. And you want this same government to set up price tiers for food? In other words, price tiers for farmers, in your vision farmers become nothing more than functionaries of the state. Producing set foods to a set quota, all for a set price. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

    No thanks.
  6. Monday, February 28th, 2011
    Liam brings up some thought provoking issues about the course and language of the food movement that I've struggled with myself. In advocating for thoughtfully produced foods like $4 peaches and humanely grown meats, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that it's truly not an option for everyone.

    While it's easy to blame unhealthful and generally crappy food choices on a consumer's lack of awareness there are, as Liam points out, socio-ecologic barriers that support these choices. My former professor once explained that social movements tend to start with the elite and trickle down, and while that may be true historically, I don't think it needs to be the case with the food movement.

    I don't fully agree with Liam's solutions, but I thank him for bringing up these issues and pointing out the importance of class and food environments.
  7. Emily
    Friday, March 4th, 2011
    Or even a government that stops subsidizing factory-farmed meat and starts subsidizing organic fruits and veggies.
  8. Tuesday, March 8th, 2011
    You have focus more on eating more like people did 75 years ago. I realize this is hard for some due to space, etc, but it helps to raise a garden, can and pickle what you grow to last you through the year, and use every last scrap of food. That's what poor people used to do because they had to.