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July 22, 2005

The Food Police

Julie Powell has an op-ed today that I, as a Californian who frequents Whole Foods and buys organic, completely agree with:

What makes the snobbery of the organic movement more insidious is that it equates privilege not only with good taste, but also with good ethics. Eat wild Brazil nuts and save the rainforest. Buy more expensive organic fruit for your children and fight the national epidemic of childhood obesity. Support a local farmer and give economic power to responsible stewards of sustainable agriculture. There's nothing wrong with any of these choices, but they do require time and money.

When you wed money to decency, you come perilously close to equating penury with immorality. The milk at Whole Foods is hormone-free; the milk at Western Beef is presumably full of the stuff - and substantially less expensive. The chicken at Whole Foods is organic and cage-free; the chicken at Western Beef is not. Is the woman who buys her children's food at the place where they take her food stamps therefore a bad mother?

Organic food is fine, though the much-touted heightening of taste is generally bollocks, but it's too often used as a mark of personal virtue. It's food that you feel good about buying, that you feel socially-conscious for purchasing, that you think offers moral superiority against its fiddled-with brethren. Of course, it doesn't. At best, it shows you a bit more environmentally conscious than those of your socioeconomic group who shop at Safeway, but then, they're proving thriftier than you.

It's unfortunately true that a switch to organic would be many kinds of disastrous for the poor of this country and, moreover, the poor of other countries. The green revolution would have to be rolled back, self-sufficiency that's only newly enjoyed would be quickly denied, and the increase in misery would more than outweigh the theoretical security that an end to GM foods brought. I remember, in one of Tom Friedman's few good lines, that he got on the French for hysterically fighting against GM foods while smoking packs of cigarettes. The theoretical harm of the former was much easier to use in the morality play than the actual harm of the latter. But that's fine, to each their own: just don't forget that non-GM, non-organic is a choice that can only be made by those with the cash to make it.

July 22, 2005 in Life | Permalink

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» Buy organic? from The Republic of Heaven
I have a pretty complicated relationship with organic foods and "natural" meats. Part of me thinks it's a big ol' scam, perpetrated on neurotic yuppies who are willing to pay big bucks to feel like they have some bogus "connection to the land and the... [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 22, 2005 4:40:09 PM

» Buy organic? from The Republic of Heaven
I have a pretty complicated relationship with organic foods and "natural" meats. Part of me thinks it's a big ol' scam, perpetrated on neurotic yuppies who are willing to pay big bucks to feel like they have some bogus "connection to the land and the... [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 22, 2005 4:41:20 PM

Comments

...just don't forget that non-GM, non-organic is a choice that can only be made by those with the cash to make it.

Great post. This is a point that many in the hippie-dippie world forget. When these same people apply this same snobbery to real estate, then we get neighborhoods such as those in San Francisco where poor are driven away by sky-high prices. Yeah, the neighborhoods are cute, but only for the rich hippies.

Posted by: Robert Zimmerman | Jul 22, 2005 12:49:01 PM

The people working at my local Safeway belong to a union. Their counterparts at the oh-so-trendy (and expensive) Whole Foods, just up the block -- don't. Where do I feel 'better' spending my dollar? No contest.

Posted by: sglover | Jul 22, 2005 1:04:57 PM

Whole Foods should not = the organic food ethos. And, yes, Whole Foods is annoying. However there is a lot more to it than that. Sustainable farming and farmer's markets are good for the land, good for the farmer and good for the eater, not so good for agribusiness. Sustainable farming in any part of the world, helps people feed themselves, and to not be dependent on Monsanto and their sterile seeds. The French are against GMO food more for economic and cultural reasons than for health reasons. And, when you smoke a cigarette you know what it does to you. With GMO foods you not only don't know what it does to you, you don't know that is what you are eating. Yes, organic food costs more and yes a lot of people don't have access to it, but that doesn't mean it's some liberal elite snob construct.

Posted by: Cathy | Jul 22, 2005 1:05:46 PM

The point that organic food isn't very affordable is well-taken, but like the unnaffordable housing in SF, labeling as snobbery any support of either ignores that there very changeable decisions which could make these items more affordable. And labeling it in this way makes it harder to change the market choices of those who could afford a shift in their buying habits.

Organic is more expensive to farm, just as much of America's agricultural products are relative to the world. But the reason its more expensive is in part we subsidized the hell out of corporate farms, and give them an advantage over small farmers. Federal poverty programs are based on a pathetic estimate of the costs of living, and though I'm not positive, but I would bet that the Food stamp subsidy is based on a cheap, highly-processed diet. Most people end up spending another 25-50% over and above food stamps on food per month. As a society we make choices that make organic food unnaffordable. And doing so has a long term costs in healthiness. Be a snob all you want but their would be tremendous improvements in health if people could choose food options that were more natural.

I shop organic, mostly, avoid corporate restaurants and when I point this out, I often hear the criticism of affordability, by fellow middle-class folks. But here's the thing, I drive a 10 year old Saturn, 130k miles on it, it's paid off, so I pay nothing except upkeep, and I don't intend on buying a new one until it won't move anywhere. Many of the critics all seem to have auto-leases on mercedes, bmws or SUVs. Sure, the car is a little dinged up and doesn't scream "success" like the ads tell me I should want, but I get to work on time all the same.

Who's the snob, me for allocating a little more money to food or the folks who think the car makes the person and spend $300/400 a month to feel better about themselves for the at most 10% of the day they are in the car?

Finally, is there a particular instance where low-income individuals have been castigated for not going to Whole Foods or its brethren? Or do you just feel like picking a liberal straw man to tack towards independence today? Most criticisms of the American food industry from the left are about the incredible lack of choices the poor have, not the choices they make.

As a final aside, why do I shop organic - Cantaloupes. Go to a Safeway, Harris Teeter or the like, bring a small child - if you can find a cantaloupe there that they can carry out, you're a better person than I. I like fruit and veggies to look like the fruit and veggies, not be Elephantaloupes.

Posted by: Arcbender | Jul 22, 2005 1:20:48 PM

I agree with Arcbender. There's far too much criticism of people doing what they consider moral, because they /must/ be deriving moral superiority from it.

Posted by: Tony Vila | Jul 22, 2005 2:09:53 PM

Organic is affordable, Ezra. Otherwise, you wouldn't be buying it yourself. I agree with you about the taste aspects, mostly, but I have had some organic lamb that finally convinced me that I in fact liked lamb, because it tasted so much better than the commercial lamb I'd eaten before.

I do derive some satisfaction from supporting my local producers of organic meat and milk, because I drive by their pastures and see their livestock grazing there instead of being confined in barns pretty much their entire lives.

How that equates to looking down on those who don't buy organic, I have no idea. That sounds just like something a Republican would say about liberals, if you ask me...

Posted by: David W. | Jul 22, 2005 2:35:21 PM

Wait, now I'm an asshole for putting my money where my mouth is? Lame.

Posted by: Kimmitt | Jul 22, 2005 3:11:36 PM

Whole Foods should not = the organic food ethos. And, yes, Whole Foods is annoying. However there is a lot more to it than that. Sustainable farming and farmer's markets are good for the land, good for the farmer and good for the eater, not so good for agribusiness. Sustainable farming in any part of the world, helps people feed themselves, and to not be dependent on Monsanto and their sterile seeds. The French are against GMO food more for economic and cultural reasons than for health reasons. And, when you smoke a cigarette you know what it does to you. With GMO foods you not only don't know what it does to you, you don't know that is what you are eating. Yes, organic food costs more and yes a lot of people don't have access to it, but that doesn't mean it's some liberal elite snob construct.

Oh -- then what else would you call it? This is completely anecdotal, but here's the reality in my neighborhood, the Maryland suburbs next to DC: Aside from the aforementioned Whole Foods, the local upscale hipsters patronize the Takoma Park Food Co-op. Down the road a piece, in Langley Park, the immigrants head for Shopper's Food Warehouse (unfortunately a non-union shop) -- because it's cheap. The Takoma Park hipsters made their town nuclear-free, they've got an embargo going against Burma (!), and they allow illegal immigrants to register to vote. Of course, no illegals can actually afford to rent in Takoma, but hey, it's the thought that counts, right?

I don't want to make too much of this, but these are all of a piece, little things that (I think) persuade people that many leftists live in a different, very coddled and self-congratulatory kind of reality.

Posted by: sglover | Jul 22, 2005 3:14:51 PM

I like fruit and veggies to look like the fruit and veggies, not be Elephantaloupes.

I've always been a fan of big melons, myself.

Posted by: sglover | Jul 22, 2005 3:16:20 PM

[i]Finally, is there a particular instance where low-income individuals have been castigated for not going to Whole Foods or its brethren? Or do you just feel like picking a liberal straw man to tack towards independence today?[/i]

Exactly right.

Here we have a columnist who clearly had a snobby jerk to a party at her place and snobby jerk gave her a hard time about serving Kraft cheese. So she used the most valuable real estate in op-ed writing to get even. Which would have been "whatever," but then she had to go and pretend she was striking a blow for the proletariat. I think not.

Sorry, but I have no respect for an op-ed writer who chooses to strike a blow for the poor by making wealthier people feel guilty about buying their kids good food instead of pushing wealthier people to figure out how to make good food more affordable for poor people!

And then you go agreeing with her? The hell?

[i]It's unfortunately true that a switch to organic would be many kinds of disastrous for the poor of this country and, moreover, the poor of other countries.[/i]

On the one hand, I agree--organic and small-scale family farming is inherently more inefficient. On the other hand, it's not really economically inefficient inasmuch as it's fully capturing the cost of lots of significant and arguably unsustainable externalities--draining the soil of all its nutrients is bad, destroying entire marine zones with ag runoff is bad, giving poor farmworkers cancer through exposure to pesticides is bad, introducing chemicals and non-native species that screw up the ecology is bad, etc.

I'm willing to bet that the poor nations of the world would happily grow organic if the US and Europe agreed to drop all their tarriffs and corporate ag subsidies. I think they'd find that marketplace preferable to the one we currently have. So I really take issue with the insinuation that somehow greens are a natural enemy of the poor--there are other far more powerful factors that are profoundly screwing up 3rd world ag policy and driving up the price of food, and not adding any net benefit except to their own pockets.

My point is that this shouldn't be an op-ed you support. It's one thing to be pissed off at the idea that the wealthy can buy modern-day indulgences at Whole Foods, but it's plainly obvious that's not what the writer is railing against. Becuase if she were, she'd have done enough basic research to know that NYS has a special food stamps program so low-income people can buy food at Farmers' Markets, and that nobody gets rich growing organic food on a family farm while plenty of people get rich in US agribusiness, selling non-nutritious food to poor people.

This article reeks of class infighting. And, frankly, it's appalling to be a member of a privileged class and get upset when your fellow members of that class remind you that noblesse oblige still applies. That's what this op-ed is actually railing against.

I'm sorry if it upsets the writer, but well-off people have more opportunities to do good, and therefore more should be demanded of them. She may not want to care about food policy, but she has an opportunity to change it and she's not, so she SHOULD have to hear about it. And if she doesn't like that, she should either give all her money and privileges away, or even better, work to build a less class-stratified society.

Alternatively, she can make fun of people who actually demand more of her because she's got influence. Because then she can be rich AND irresponsible, and as a bonus feel superior to people who are rich and responsible.

Give me a break. This op-ed sucks and I think I hate this woman.

Posted by: theorajones | Jul 22, 2005 3:34:44 PM

I buy organic because in the future, it's what we'll be eating. If peak oil is more than a myth, then soon the days of cheap fertilizer producing high yields will be over. The more people who grow organic, the less painful that changeover will be, and the better shape the soil will be in to handle it.

If that doesn't happen, I still feel better buying organic because it simply feels more natural to me. It's sad that what is most natural is now seen as something elitist.

I certainly don't do it to be elitist or look down on those who can't afford it. It is a personal choice, and to criticize personal choice in the name of "elitism" is in itself elitism. i.e., "I can't stand people who are bigots"....

Posted by: donna | Jul 22, 2005 5:37:40 PM

Oh, and I consider Whole Foods way overpriced. In my suburban area (yes, all you urbanites can feel all elitist now ;^) I buy from my local market, Henry's, (which used to be family owned but is now part of Wild Oats) less than a half mile away, or Vons and Albertsons, which *do* carry organics in my area. I won't drive the extra miles to shop at the Whole Foods in La Jolla, that's for sure. The more you support organics at your neighborhood stores and get them into the regular food supply chain, the cheaper they will become.

Posted by: donna | Jul 22, 2005 5:43:14 PM

this is like saying "some people can't afford health care for their children, so don't act like you're all superior because you get it for yours." It really misses the point. A lot of people don't have the time and money to buy and prepare nutritious food for their families, but rather than sniffing at the people who do have that time and money and make the effort, we should be thinking about how we can solve this problem. One thing that pops to mind is subsidizing small sustainable farmes rather than corn, sugar and tobacco producers. It doesn't have to be a organic farming, but sustainable use of our land is a necessity, not a luxury. You should read "Collapse" if you have any doubts about this point.

Posted by: Ben | Jul 22, 2005 7:04:03 PM

Interesting that no one has mentioned Whole Foods bad labor record and union busting.

Anyway, I find it interesting the Shoppers in Tacoma Park isn't union, the one in Lexington Park (Southern MD) by my College is. It msut vary from store to store.

Posted by: Lavoisier1794 | Jul 22, 2005 7:17:24 PM

It seems that Powell find the very fact that people buy organic for ethical reasons disagreeable. She complains of the 'wedding of money to decency.' What would she prefer, that we give no regard to the ethical ramifications of the money we spend? By that standard, she would consider us sanctimonious prigs if we chose a hybrid car for environmental reasons, because not everybody can afford to make that choice. She needs to understand that those who choose to spend our money with our ethics in mind do so to make our world better, not to make Samantha Powell feel guilty. Different families have different budgets, and different priorities. So of course we end up making different choices. I make it a point not to shop at Walmart because I don't like their corporate practices. That does not mean I pass judgement on people who do shop at Walmart. I don't currently recycle. That does not mean I think those do recycle should stop because they're making me look/feel bad. Let's face it. We live in a consumerist society, and what we do with our dollars are one of the most meaningful choices we can make. We can't give that up because not everybody can afford the most ethical choices all of the time, especially if the argument is being made by a NYT columist who probably won't be bankrupted by farmer's market veggies.

The funny thing is, I agree with Powell that there is too much of an obsession with whether something is 'organic'. Generally that word is bound up with a basket of assumptions about the healthfulness, ecologically-friendliness and worker welfare of the product. And those assumptions are often misplaced. If Powell is chafing under peer pressure within her own circle to buy organic, then she should say so. I would have a lot more respect for her if she simply argued "for me, the advantages of buying organic is not worth the price," and not dragged the hypothetical working-class mother into it. Nobody. I repeat, NOBODY is castigating the poor for not buying organic microveggies from Wholefoods.

Posted by: battlepanda | Jul 23, 2005 3:20:04 PM

The "green revolution" (aka Breeding Better Bugs!) was a horrendous bit of that faux-science worshipping of the late 19th -20th century industrial culture, that has destroyed the balance of agriculture and nutrition in many hideous ways.

Yes, this is a problem. Yes, the cluelessness of the wealthy idealists is also a major problem. But don't patronize us poor, either - this too is a common failing of wealthy ideallists.

It's a situation I, as a poorer blogger than most of you BNB guys, face every single bleeding day. Buy organic/local, buy factory-farmed/unfair trade, or go without? Every day, I recognize that this is a dilemma akin to that of the early Victorian lady who disapproved of the slave trade but didn't want to a) stop wearing cheap clothes c) think about where her clothes came from but still wanted to think of herself as a decent, moral human being(see the recent film version of Little Women for a dramatization of this).

Every day, making the conscious calculus of whether it's lower-impact to drive a little farther to the employee-friendly Buy-Blue store and buy more all at one go, or the nearby exploiting chain store and buy from their natural foods department, thereby encouraging them to continue/expand stocking Fair Trade products. Choosing to do without, living mindfully - even when living on beans and rice - or trying too, as much as possible.

Once I was made aware of the moral problems of WalMart and UnFair Trade, this is a dynamic calculus that I have never pretended didn't exist, to sooth my soul, by saying "well what can I do, I'm living on $50 a week?"

Even when my car is working, I often walk to the store, over a mile there and back, because I can and ought (and there is no decent public transportation here.) All the while recognizing that a) this isn't enough, and b) exactly how hard this would be if I had five kids, since I've taken care of five kids as head of household before.

Posted by: bellatrys | Jul 24, 2005 2:24:04 PM

Hmm. It seems to me that many of these choices become more complex if you own a car...

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Posted by: peter.w | Sep 17, 2007 2:42:04 AM

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