20 May 2009

You are what you....

I had the good fortune to be part of an overstuffed house at the Pratt Library last week for a visit by writer Michael Pollan (+1 hour podcast of the program here). We somehow managed to put over 800 people into our Central Hall, and 'overflow' space Wheeler Auditorium, and *still* had people begging to get in (although, in all fairness to us, honestly: if you show up for a 7 pm program at 7:45 pm, do you really have a right to complain?)

The program was in support of Pollan's book, In Defense of Food, and co-sponsored by Baltimore Green Works. It came at the end of a period when, somewhat coincidentally, I'd just finished two other books about food, health, and its relationship to the envionment, global warming, and sustainablity: Mark Bittman's Pollan-influenced Food Matters, and Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen by Anna Lappe and Bryant Terry. All have me looking at food labels more closely -- most particularly ingredients lists, as Pollan suggests staying away from "so-called food" with unpronounceable ingredients. Eating more fruits and vegetables, and avoiding packaged products as much as possible, particularly those that contain more than five ingredients, or the notorious High Fuctose Corn Syrup are also some basic but important Pollan/Bittman/Lappe-Terry points.

But two things continue to nag at me about the crowd that came to the Pollan program last week: it was 99% white, and overwhelmingly middle class.

Food, nutrition, food safety, and health are serious issues in this country, and around the world, and poor nutrition disproportionately affects racial minorities and the poor. It is more than just the case that the poor and working class may not be able to afford higher priced 'organic' foods, or shop at stores like Whole Foods aka "Whole Paycheck".
(As an aside, as this article from the Washington Post points out, it's not just food, but just about everything is more expensive in poor areas) It can also be extremely difficult to eat healthily in poor and working class neighborhoods, where choices are limited and the only fresh vegetables around are green beans from KFC or a McDonald's salad.

To my mind, one of the limitations of the current 'locavores' and 'slow food movement', as well as the commentaries by others concerned about these issues is that few of those who are a part of this conversation seem to have made any effort to connect with people below their own socio-economic level. Just like the economy, the health of the nation has to change at all levels, and from the bottom up seems to work better and more effectively than 'trickle down'. The fact that many also praise 'ethnic' foods from second and third world countries as being better and healthier for you, makes this lack of connection even more disturbing on two levels; a) If these traditional foods are healthier, then there's less need to connect with The Other on issues of nutrition 'cause they must already be eating well, right? and b)it sends the message, "You can cook for us, but we don't want to have to deal with you as a fellow human being."

PS: Those interested in eating Local Food should be aware that "local" is fast becoming a corporate buzz word . Another Pollan point: Be wary of the claims on packaging...

There's also -- and I know I'm being unfair -- an air of self-rightousness (a danger for all converts) that wafts off many of the people involved in this issue: WE're eating 'right' -- what's wrong with YOU that you're not? (Thi was noticeable to much of the library staff working on the night of Pollan's talk from numerous people they encountered in the crowd, and Mark Bittman particularly warns against it in his book). Health and nutrition are far too serious issues to for them to be left to only the 'birkenstock and granola' crowd. One hopes more leaders would see how nutrition and access to healthy food and clean water are 'civil rights issues.' Michael Pollan had very high praise for Michelle Obama and her organic garden at the White House (which was attacked by agribusiness), and hopes others across the country follow her lead in growing food at home.

I also hope others follow the example of MacArthur 'Genius award' winner Will Allen and his Growing Power organization , and help to reconnect those in inner cities with nature and the joy of growing your own.

The best way to save the poor and working class is to help them save themselves.

It will be an irony, certainly, but a sweet one, if millions of African-Americans whose grandparents left the farms of the South for the factories of the North, only to see those factories close, should now find fulfillment in learning once again to live close to the soil and to the food it gives to all of us. -- from Allen's Good Food Manifesto for America.


3rd Wave Inc said...

Buying quality organic products is the initial move to a healthy, natural, green lifestyle that can bring a good feeling not only to ourselves but as to our environment as well.

John K said...

The cost issue is a serious problem, though. When C and I hit the farmers' markets in JC during the summer and fall, we still are paying more than we would at the local supermarkets, which don't practice locavorism. And Lord knows, Whole Foods and stores like that charge premium prices. It's going to take a complete restructuring of the food industry to change things, which means it ain't going to be easy.