Thursday, April 27, 2006

Eating Locally is Populist

I have a rant inside me, but I’m going to tone it down and let out only the rational, level-headed part of the discussion.
I had a comment recently from a beloved reader who thinks the Eat Local Challenge is elitist. Because poor people can’t afford to participate.
First of all, a poor kid could get a scholarship to Yale, and then she’d be part of the elite, but she’d still be poor. So “elite” may not be the word my reader was searching for.
In fact, any form of obsession with food – at the level we participate in blogwise – is elitist, so I guess I’ll have to cop to being elitist myself.
But that’s no reason not to participate.
Last year – in fact, I think it was August, during 2005’s Eat Local Challenge – the New York Times ran an op-ed stating just that: eating locally is elitist. I don’t remember all the arguments, although I recall some flawed reasoning along the lines that poor people are somehow ennobled by their honest, primitive diets.
Reality check: Poor people eat terribly! Poor people are no longer growing kitchen gardens. Poor people don’t have chickens in the back yard. They spend their money – or their food stamps – at the same stores you and I shop at (or prefer to avoid). And in those stores, they buy processed, overpriced crap.
If poor people want to eat a healthier diet, and if they can’t afford to get themselves to a farmers market or roadside stand, they still have the option of buying fresh, nutritious food at their cruddy chain supermarket. Some of that food might be local, a lot won’t.
But, see, I’m not ordering anyone to join the Eat Local Challenge. It’s voluntary.
You can watch me while I do it, you can laugh or you can snort, but it’s just a neat experiment that I find very educational (and rather tasty).
I will never claim that I’m doing it because I can afford to – I was unexpectedly “relieved” of my job three years ago, and at my age, I’m not bubbling to the top of any headhunter’s short list. So money is not easy at my house.
Eating locally, judging from my experience last year, boils down to eating very simply. No imports. No extravagances.
OK, sure, the local eggs are more expensive. But they’re so fresh and delicious you don’t want to stuff yourself with them. One or two will knock you silly, and you’re done. Organic produce often fetches higher prices, but again, the food is so satisfying you don’t want to shove vast quantities in your maw, the way you might with tasteless, lifeless food that has been trucked in from hundreds (thousands, even) of miles away.
That’s the educational part about ELC – and that’s the blissful reward.
I am so grateful for my reader's comment, and for the conversation I hope this post will generate.
(By the way, the farmers markets in San Francisco accept food stamps, and I have observed many a shopper participate, especially at the Heart of the City market at Civic Center.)
Was that level-headed enough?


Anonymous said...

Well, I hope this makes you laugh, given your rave about her book in the prior post, but...

Ironically, it was that Julie Powell twit (I now consider her a twit) whose op-ed piece you read about eating local being elitist. If I see her, I'm tempted to bean her in the nose with a cardoon stalk.

She really riled me up. You can't read the article online, but you can read a discussion here at

The more we vote with our dollars, the better. Thank goodness for farmers like Will Allen and Growing Power, starting small urban farms that can feed 2000 people on two acres. (With greenhouses and with fishtanks.)

Anyway, Joe Bob says check it out.

Hi to Cranky!

MizD said...

Hahah, Tana -- I remember that too and was about to comment. I think she's a twit too, but more for the rude remarks she made about her fellow food bloggers.

That said, I do believe that though eating locally/organically isn't inherently elitist, there are people who treat it as such, and this snobbery ("ugh, how dare you purchase that brand of wine/cheese/bread/etc etc etc") is detrimental to all involved. You don't encourage someone to eat local by shaming them into it.

One observation about the poor diets of poor people: sometimes the choice of fresh, nutritious food at the local supermarket just doesn't feel like a viable option. Not because the fresh food is too expensive, but because the fresh food takes time and energy to prepare -- time and energy that many members of the exhausted, overstressed working poor just don't have. Believe me, I know. Been there, done that.

cookiecrumb said...

Tana: Freakin' fantastic!!! I had never followed the Julie/Julia Project blog, so her name just whiffed through my hairdo last year when I read the op-ed. I'm so glad you and Mrs. D remember that. (Secret confession: I had doubts JP was being completely honest in the book, but that's neither here nor there.)
So, yeah, it really makes me laugh. I'll go prowl the Mouthfuls thread.

Mrs. D: How hard is it to boil up some beans, saute some zucchini...? Fire up the slow-cooker? For me, Eat Local Challenge month is about creativity, not about re-creating veal cordon bleu with local ingredients. (Ooh, that was snobby. I don't even eat veal cordon bleu.)
I mean, I know buying prepared food is faster. But it's more expensive. Oy, what a circular dilemma, which is geometrically impossible.

Well, anyway, I'm glad we're talking about it.

Civic Center said...

Great rant.

It really is about educating people and not being snotty about it in the process. Having said that, I did learn to cook at the schizophrenically democratic/snotty Judith Ets-Hokin's "Home Chef" course in the 1980s, where she would rhetorically ask the class, "Why do we cook with extra-virgin olive oil rather than the regular kind? Because it tastes better! Why do we only use Parmesano Reggiano? Because it tastes better!"

Makes sense to me.

cookiecrumb said...

Well, Mike, I'm all for the best flavors too. But May is going to be about boot camp and respecting the local growers. I'm up for it.
BTW, did you notice that was a link to your blog in my second-to-last sentence?

MizD said...

I don't think I could begin to count the number of days in my past where doing anything more than popping a frozen dinner in the microwave was out of the question. We're talking job heaped upon job upon job with half an hour at home and six hours a sleep at night, if I was lucky. Yeah, those were not nights to be chopping vegetables. I wouldn't have trusted myself with the knife even if I'd had the energy.

I do think there are times and there are people for which convenience takes precedence -- and Chopper and I have been guilty of that in the past, and that is part of the education process -- but I also believe it is important to recognize that some people simply do not have the time/money/resources to do anything more than take the tiniest occasional baby step in this direction, if even that. If we (ELC participants) acknowledge this, we lessen the risk we run of putting off readers (and possible future participants) who might think we're being "elitist" or "snobby."

(Yeah, I'm a bit on a crusade about this one issue. It rankles me; what can I say.)

Anonymous said...

Oh, dearie, dearie me.

I want very much to support the Locavore project. I KNOW poor folks eat badly these days. I KNOW I eat organic and locally grown foods as often as I can. I intend to grow tomatoes on the patio of my rented house this season, along with the potted herbs I brought from my old house, and maybe even run a few bean vines up some poles.

I am not the enemy. I just can't help (yeah, yeah, knee-jerk) responding to what is involved when it comes to food. I had the same problem with the Slow Food movement when I went to the first gatherings at mansions in Tiburon. But see? Now there are many kinds of convivia around here.

Go, Cookiecrumb! I so admire your fire and spirit and I will try to keep up as best I can.

BTW: Beer may be hard to come by, but we have ACE hard cider from Sonoma and sake from East Bay and --- well, I remember making raisin jack in the basement of a college rental, speaking of home projects.

Dive said...

I would venture to say that eating locally, as people who live in the Bay Area, **is** an elitist ideology....depending on how far you carry it.

Simply: While it is a luxury we should take advantage of, it is also a luxury many people in the world do not have. In fact, there are parts of this country were land is so completely inhospitable to agriculture that if it wasn't for interstate commerce, the locals would have to subside on meat alone.

So I think we, of all people, shouldn't become strident evangelists for this way of life seeing as we live in an state that has an agricultural season lasting well over 9-10 months.

Looking at history, globalism (as manifested by the spice trade) has introduced the world to cuisines and ingredients that today we couldn't imagine them without.

Italy: the tomato
Ireland: the potato
China: the chili pepper
US: pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon

So there is also nothing inherently wrong or, as some people are starting to act, immoral with **not** eating locally.

Besides, do I really have to give up my bananas in order to make the world a better place?

I don't think so. And it aint happening.

I also don't think **attempting** to eat local by itself is elitist and those who do so chauvanistic, but to act like it is the 11th Commandment decreed from on high by Our Lord Alice Waters is rather stupid and neglectful in regards to how the rest of the world must live.

And making it a moral check-off point is akin to foodie fascism where some are more ubermenschen than others.

Now, cookie, let's see if you can out-do **my** rant...



Anonymous said...

Hi Cookiecrumb, I've been pondering much on the whole poverty/eating locally issue myself, not for elitist reasons, but because it's often so damned expensive. But eating locally is about so much more than elitism- it's really about how our food is sourced. And, hmm, logic tells me that would include everyone's food, poor or not.

I'm actually incorporating an economic element to my Eat Local challenge by pairing it against my Poverty Line challenge (details on my site, if you're interested)- spending a week on each to see how they stack up in terms of food choices and finances. Feel free to send any elitist critics over my way :).

Anonymous said...

BTW, Powell's original article is still up (although you need an NYTimes registration, or try for a false one). The link at the top of the discussion will take you there.

cookiecrumb said...

I think it's a lesson, and I stand by that. We who have the privilege of learning how hard it can be to eat are gaining valuable info. (What a funny sentence that was.)
I am grateful for every one of your comments. This is exactly the dialogue I hoped would ensue.
(Kudzu: You totally rock in my book. Oh, and I'm making my own local apple cider. Beeyotch that I am. I've been known to break the rules and sneak a snort of gin & tonic. xx)

Dagny said...

So now I'm going to put in my two cents. CC's statement about the zucchini reminded me of something. I used to teach in East Oakland. A large number of the kids were on the free lunch program. Of course they never wanted the nutritionally balanced meal, but that's beside the point -- or maybe it isn't.

One day I had to have a long discussion about stereotypes in my class because the African American students were refering to the Latino students as "burritos." As the discussion of why this was not appropriate developed, one student asked, "What would white people be? Salads?" This led to a whole other discussion. There are a limited number of vegetables apparently that they thought were acceptable. I guess if you eat a lot of fast food though this would be the case.

By the way, the students's preferred lunch was nacho cheese sauce poured into a bag of Doritos and washed down with a Gatorade. EWWWWW.

Dagny said...

Oh yeah. Totally forgot. Triple Rock in Berkeley does sell beer to go. Just sayin'...

Anonymous said...

You tell 'em, Cookie!

Civic Center said...

No, I didn't realize you had linked to "Civic Centerl" until you pointed it out. How cool.

And taking Ms. Ets-Hokins one step further, "Why do we eat local foods? Because they taste better!"

Sara Zoe Patterson said...

excellent talk - I'll just add that it doesn't make a difference to someone standing in a grocery store with limited funds in hand, but grocery stores don't really reflect the real cost of food. In terms of health, in terms of government agricultural subsidies, in terms of people in other countries getting paid jack squat to grow our food and trash their backyards with chemicals, in terms of people in our own countries getting the same.

My own personal elitist concern is that - it's not that I treasure my locale more than anyone elses, or think Americans deserve higher wages and so on and so on. I want farmers, wherever they are, to be paid well for what they do. I like that I'm contributing to farmers directly, and so I know what is happening to my money. I also like knowing my money isn't contributing to transportation and gas guzzling.

But let's pretend for one moment this thing becomes mainstream, pie in the sky as that is, what happens to the farmers in Peru who are growing goods for us? (this is not a rhetorical question, though the situation is, I really want some thoughts).

ps - I thought your first assment of Julie Powell - the one where you said, "someone get this girl an editor!" was the best.

VI said...

Great post!

For what it's worth, the Oak Park, Illinois Farmer's Market has a voucher program too (although the market only operates from June thru October).

My wife is also working with trying to get the leftover produce from the day's market to our local food pantry. The problem here, is the market closes when the pantry closes.

Kevin said...

I want to know what's so wrong with being elitist -- assuming you are actually a member of some elite group?

Laurie said...

I began eating locally and organically, a little at a time, during a time that my husband was part-time and unemployed, at a time when every other cent was going to bills. What I found was that I could eliminate a lot of waste by planning. Last I heard, thinking was still free!

I do find it odd that this is considered elitist, because from my experience, eating processed food and fast food is much more expensive. Also, where I originally came from, rich people don't garden, they landscape. The regular folks grow food and swap and barter.

For me, slow food and eating locally came as a natural extension of my simple living philosophy. I guess our slow food convivium is different - we have a wide variety of income levels, as far as I can tell.

I was also told by a younger student in my class that other night that not shopping at Wal-Mart was elitist. I told her that my family survived before Wal-Mart, and we're surviving now, and I'm hardly an elitist. I guess its all in both education and perspective. She doesn't remember a time without Wal-Mart. Some folks don't remember a time when food was grown locally.

Laurie said...

I also meant to add that the argument for poor people not having the time to prepare whole foods is totally valid. I used to work 2-4 part-time jobs at a time to make ends meet, and I never had time to cook. Which is why we need to get local foods into restaurants and local prepared foods into grocery stores!

Amy Sherman said...

A couple things--for the record, the NY Times Julie Powell op ed "Don't Get Fresh With Me" was on eating organic, NOT on eating local.

While you are right about the poor choices poor people may be inclined to make when it comes to food shopping, keep in mind time is as much of an issue as money.

If you are working 12 hour days, you may not have the time to get to a farmer's market, especially one in your neighborhood which, as in the case of Hunter's Point is open only a few short hours a week. Also in many poor neighborhoods there is no supermarket, only crappy corner liquor stores with little or no fresh let alone local produce.

I applaud your choice and your acknowledgement that it IS a choice and not a mandate as unfortunately some other food bloggers have implied in their self-righteous diatribes. Ok, my rant is done!

MizD said...

Re elitism. I'm inclined to make a specific distinction on this:

The activity of shopping local &/or organic is not in itself elitist.

Some of the people who practice this activity are elitist in their behavior toward people who don't. (ie. "self-righteous diatribes," as Amy said.)

So, it's the people not the activity that earn the label. That's where Powell gets it wrong (I'm guessing, having not read her article in months), and that's where some folks who do eat local/organic get it wrong about the criticism directed toward them. The criticism is of attitudes, not shopping habits. Of people who say "Everyone can do this no matter what their time/money and if they don't they're just lazy," or of people who turn their noses up at folks who buy cheap wine or Western Family cheese because it's all they can afford.

Then again, even outside the whole eating local/organic realm I see this sort of elitism in food blogging all the time, and it's one of the things that makes me cringe and grow irritable on a daily basis. But that's another can of worms for another day...

Anonymous said...

Very level, Cookie! I like the word 'snort'--"snort, snort, snort!" and snark, and snoo! Hi DJO, what's snoo? (Hey, what IS snoo anyway?)

Check it out: there's a more rundown section of town here on the Monterey Peninsula (there the homes are only worth $650,000 now! Isn't that weird?) and guess what the corner market is. Yeah, a yucky liquor/Twinkies/chips quickie-mart. The more things change...

You gotta have a million-dollar home to live next to the elitist food outlets; $650,000 isn't enough.

Pyewacket said...

I remember having this discussion on chowhound at one point. There's one poster who gets her knickers in a twist any time anyone suggests shopping at farmers' market - because they are SOOOO expensive and SOOOO inconvenient (even though it turned out she worked less than a mile from a farm stand that was open in the evenings. Whatever). Anyway, after one of these discussions, I found myself having a bowl of boiled potatoes for dinner, with a little butter and milk on top and an apple for dessert, all local and organic, and I figured my meal probably cost about $2 at the most and took twenty minutes to make. Try finding a filling meal for that much prepared at the supermarket or a restaurant. But of course a lot of people assume every meal needs to be a full meat and two veg occasion.

That said, people commute an average of TWICE as long as they did twenty years ago, and there's been an increase in the number of people working two jobs. If you're that exhausted, any cooking is too much.

Those of us who cook also tend to underestimate how intimidating even basic cooking is for those who don't know how. I say, bring back home ec for everyone, around seventh grade. It would do more good than a lot of the current classwork.

I saw a man with one dollar's worth of food stamps at the farmers' market last year. He bought a huge bunch of beets with nice full tops and a big onion. I remember thinking there wasn't much he could possibly have bought for that much money that would have equivalent nutrional value. Maybe a bag of lentils.

Anyway, this gets my gander. Although I understand that it's not the organic/local buying, but the elitist attitude that can come with it that upsets people, I haven't encountered much of that attitude. I've certainly encountered snotty foodies, but usually of the 4 star restaurant variety. Most of the people I know who are seriously committed to eating organically are hippie-types. Not rich, not elitist. So either I'm missing a lot of irritating people - and thank god for that - or organic/local gets a bad rap for the 'tudes of a minority.

Dagny said...

Pyewacket, I am with you on bringing back home ec. (My mother was shocked to learn that it was no longer offered and thinks that all students should have to take it at some time.) It would give students not only the opportunity to learn some cooking skills, but would also offer a time to teach them about nutrition. With all of the food-related health issues for the kids that are around these days, I think that we should find every opportunity to educate them about the choices they make.

Anonymous said...

Some people choose to spend more money on food, some on clothes, some on cars and fancy televisions. So part of it is about resources, and another part is about choices of where to spend them.

If all the rich and the moderately comfortable people went out and bought all that food and stopped buying the processed stuff and the toxic stuff and the stuff made with gmo soy and corn and white flour, and instead bought good, local, organic FOOD, then maybe the food corporations that run the country would listen and maybe policy would change and maybe good food would become more affordable. Good food should be a right!

Civic Center said...

If I remember correctly, it was the girls who went to Home Ec and the guys who went to Shop (woodworking, metal, car repair, etc.). I'm glad the sexist categories were dropped, but the idea of a coed required Cooking course for all 13-year-olds strikes me as one of the great revolutionary ideas of our time.

Cooking, just like languages or playing a musical instrument, is intuitive for some people but not for most. It would be the coolest way to learn about food possible at a young age. Plus, learning how to grow your own food while you're at it could be part of the coursework too.

Somebody, please come up with a curriculum and let's make this happen.

Dagny said...

Sfmike, that is exactly what my mother has been advocating. When she went to school, home ec was limited to girls only. She thinks that all students could benefit from the skills learned in home ec.

Unfortunately with our current government, the focus in school is reading and math scores. (There have been threats of adding in science scores.) Schools in low performing neighborhoods spend at least two-thirds of the school day teaching reading and most of the rest teaching math. Maybe a little time for science. That means that there is no time for social studies, PE, and "electives" like home ec, music, and art. Just thinking about it makes me angry.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to point out (late, as usual) that there are an awful lot of poor people in America who couldn't even name a zucchini, much less know to cut it up to cook it. Even I look at some of the veggies at FMs and wonder what the heck they are, and which end to start chopping. And I was read to when I was young.

But I think probably the focus here is not on getting those in poverty to eat locally, because locally for them is McDonalds.

cookiecrumb said...

KathyF and all you other commenters: It's about education, isn't it? I for one did not know home ec is not being taught in school anymore.
I'm just as baffled by some of the produce at the markets as you are, but I merrily hack it up and throw it in the pot with some water and salt; voila, soup. Alas...
And the prize for comment of the week goes to -- Dagny! For pointing out that white people are "salads."
In this white girl's case, "crazy salad."