Let me start with a confession: Without Kraft Macaroni Dinner, Velveeta, and Miracle Whip I couldn't have made it through college. I don't mean just that I ate the stuff—I manufactured it. My tuition, rent, and living expenses were paid with money saved from a summer job at the Kraft Foods factory in Champaign, Illinois. In one sense, I owe my career and current middle-class comfort to highly-processed, preservative-filled, mass-produced, heavily-advertised industrial food.
So how did it happen that I now find myself snapping up organic radicchio, heirloom tomatoes, and artisan cheese that costs more per pound than I used to spend for a night on the town? Is it simply that my culinary appreciation and ecological consciousness (not to mention wages) have risen since college, or is something else going on? Have I joined ranks with yuppies who think nothing of spending on a single meal of exquisitely prepared food and fine wine what an inner-city family needs for a month of groceries?
Well, not exactly. I still can't tell a Merlot from a Medoc, and the stove in our kitchen is so old that repairmen refuse to work on it. (Luckily, three burners still light, although when we bake we have to prop a chair against the oven door to keep it closed.) So, no wave of guilt overtakes me in the checkout line when I pay a little more for milk without pesticides or a loaf of delicious red-onion-and-rosemary sourdough bread.
I did pay attention, however, when a headline in my food co-op's newsletter recently asked, “Why did you buy the fancy red leaf lettuce when you can buy chopped bagged iceberg for half the cost?”
Mark Muller, the article's author and a fellow member of Minneapolis' Wedge Community Co-op, recounts how relatives question his purchases of natural and organic food. “Have I lost touch with mainstream America?” he asks. “Have I become an elitist—a food snob?”
FOOD REMAINS ONE of the most significant badges of class in American life. Wealthy, educated urbanites who would never permit themselves to poke fun at welfare mothers or immigrants freely make cracks about spongy white bread and Miracle Whip, which were staples in the cupboard when I was growing up. While I am eternally grateful to have discovered baguettes and aioli (both of which originated as peasant fare in France), I'm not surprised at the trepidation (and occasional hostility) many working-class and rural Americans feel toward new and unusual foods.
(Food tastes are not strictly a matter of economic status, however. When an upscale Minneapolis-based grocery chain noted for its gourmet appeal opened a state-of-the-art store in an upscale community on the edge of the Twin Cities, it bombed. The explanation: Well-to-do suburbanites, unlike their more urban counterparts, sink disposable income into new golf clubs or fancy lawn mowers, not truffles and free-range chicken.)
Muller explains that his own path to alleged food snobbery began with microbrew beers, which taste so much better than big corporate brands they're worth the extra cost. “I later made the jump into high-quality food,” he says. “I find the increased cost small compared to the health benefits, the better taste, and the pleasure of shopping in small co-ops rather than crowded grocery stores.”
Still, he adds, family back in Iowa “worry that we are wasting our money…. There are also larger, unspoken concerns-that eating these expensive organic foods is wasteful and counters our moral obligation to ‘feed the world.’”
Muller, a trained environmental engineer who works at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (a research and advocacy organization whose work contributed to our cover story; www.iatp.org), decided to investigate whether his taste for natural foods in any way worsens hunger in developing nations or harms poor families and hard-hit farmers here at home.
He notes that in North America food has been transformed into a commodity, just like standard half-inch nails or AAA batteries. A pound of lean hamburger in one place is supposed to be like a pound of lean hamburger in another, the only difference being perhaps price. But this fails to take into account a whole host of environmental, health, and taste factors. “Aficionados of cars, stereos, and televisions would not stand for someone claiming that they are all the same,” Muller notes. So why would we expect that to be the case with hamburger or eggs or tomatoes?
“Yes, we are blessed with some of the least expensive food in the world, but that comes with a cost,” he adds. The cost includes pesticide poisoning, destruction of topsoil, desecration of the countryside, and greenhouse gas emissions from long-distance transportation.
Current agricultural policies, which deliver cheap food via staggering taxpayer-funded subsidies to large industrial-scaled farm operations, are driving family farmers and the stable rural cultures they once supported to extinction. The public's growing interest in organic and locally grown foods is actually one of the few bright spots on the horizon for small farmers and small towns.
Little of this cheap food produced on megafarms finds its way to starving people in the Southern Hemisphere. Muller discovered that the top three recipients of U.S. agricultural exports are Japan, the European Union, and Canada, and that none of the top 10 are nations considered undernourished. “We produce food for people who are able to pay for it, and sometimes use food as a strategic political tool, but do not produce food out of moral obligation.”
Since most of what winds up on U.S. supermarket shelves is heavily processed and packaged, poor families see little savings on their food bill. Low prices paid to Iowa farmers make very little dent in the cost of corn flakes on the South Side of Chicago. “Processed foods are a lot more expensive than organic whole foods,” notes Jim Slama, president of the Chicago-based environmental advocacy organization Sustain, noting that farmers' markets, buying clubs, and community gardens can provide low-income people healthier food at lower prices.
Eager to settle once and for all the matter of whether he was a food snob, Mark Muller turned to the dictionary, which defines snob as “one who tends to patronize, rebuff, or ignore people.” Industrial agriculture seems to fit that definition far more than organic growers and natural foods shoppers. Industrial agriculture rebuffs family farmers and ignores obvious health and environmental concerns. And it's nothing short of patronizing to try to pass off tomatoes you can bounce off the floor and strawberries that taste like globs of dried toothpaste as nutritious and tasty.