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The Poverty of Food Theory

What Class Says About Food

by LIAM HYSJULIEN

It’s hard to get behind any food movement (if they 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, so dearly 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 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 structures 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 disasters 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 of 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.

LIAM HYSJULIEN is a graduate student in sociology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. His areas of study are Food Systems Theory, food sustainability, food policies, and urban agricultural projects. Please send questions, comments, or concerns to liamhaiotb@gmail.com

This article originally appeared on As It Ought to Be.