Stop Yelling About What Poor People Eat


via The Washington Post

Kevin Folta wrote himself a rather interesting article.

In reading this article, it’s important to set aside our emotions and realize what Mr. Folta is and isn’t doing.

  1. He’s not attacking clean food, though he comes very close.
  2. He IS attacking the way it’s marketed and the socially divisive consequences of that marketing.
  3. He is praising conventional agriculture. Perhaps too much.

Let’s talk about this.

Warning: there is strong language in this article.

“Boutique farmer” is a term I’ve coined for professional farmers that grow on small acreage (usually less than 10) and sell almost exclusively direct and retail. As a cohort they are overwhelmingly white and come from fairly affluent families. Homelessness, destitution, and true poverty — as opposed to hipster poverty — are not in the realm of possibility for these folks in the event they fail at farming or anything else in life. They enjoy deep, multi-layered social safety nets. Many, if not most, are college educated. They are awash in options and freedom.

And they’ve spent very little time with people unlike themselves. Usually until they talk to me.

I am also, arguably, a boutique farmer, though I now produce enough to keep both a large number of families and a few restaurants fed every year. Unlike most boutique farmers, however, I am a person of color. I grew up in southeast Washington D.C. in the 80s and 90s, when crack was around. I was never poor myself, but I did live near the geographic epicenter of post-riot urban decay. I attended D.C.’s public schools and had friends who lived in the projects. I didn’t live in the projects, but that didn’t stop people from getting stabbed in our driveway on two separate occasions. I walked around corners to discover one guy blowing another guy for drugs in an alley more times than a 12 year old boy should have to. At my elementary school, we came across used condoms, discarded firearms, spent shell casings, needles, and crack pipes on and near the playgrounds a few times a month. In the 5th grade, a police officer visited our school for the sole purpose of telling the kids in our class what to do when (not “if”) we got arrested. I’ve seen things in my childhood I’ll never tell my loved ones about.

Exhibit A

Since I’m Black, I have a lot of conversations with boutique farmers about getting good food into the “inner cities,” because that’s the default conversation the handful of Black farmers left in America are forced into. The boutique farmers, who’ve spent their entire lives as charter members of America’s most protected class, almost to a man/woman offer this “solution” to Local food going mainstream among the urban poor and almost-poor:

People just need to value food more, and pay for it. We don’t pay enough for food in this country.

“Fuck you right up your stupid asses” I shriek silently in my head, as “I think the situation is more nuanced than assignment of value” slithers audibly from a tongue well-honed with political polish.

In my youth, I saw my friends’ parents argue about whether to pay for food or electricity. Food or winter clothing. Food or medical care. Food or bus fare to work. Food or math tutoring. $9/lb for pork chops (which is what I charge for mine) isn’t something they could afford if they just “valued food more.” They’d have to value it at the expense of their jobs, children, shelter, and immediate health.

So Mr. Folta is damn right when he says:

At the same time we need to be constantly cognizant of those that live on the edge of food insecurity. How do you think they’d feel about separating the self-anointed clean food from the rest of the abundance we have access to?

As I’ve argued before in previous articles, those of us in the Local food movement need to stop being such snobs about it. We need to stop demanding that people lacking either the means or the motivation to go Local “come to their senses.” We, being privileged, need to do the work: figure out how to reach them, where they are, on their terms. And that’s because so-called clean food IS in the long term interests of everyone, which is why I take issue with Mr. Folta’s rosy depiction of conventional agriculture and cheap food.

In describing his perceived dystopian hellscape of the inner city, our President generally sticks to safe topics like gangs and drugs and a lack of respect for law enforcement.

Chicago, June 2016. Source: Donald J. Trump

But he never mentions the most glaring, intractable problem of all: the toll that cheap food is taking on the health of those communities.

See, the things people describe as common horrors of life for the urban poor — the drugs, murders, crime, etc. — still happen infrequently enough to be outrageous. Heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic debilitating illnesses, on the other hand, are common enough to be normal. There was nothing normal about that first dude getting stabbed in our driveway. But until I started attending a private middle school in northern Virginia, I’d simply assumed that heart attacks, dialysis, amputations, and obesity were like graying hair: a thing that happens to everyone when they get older.

Mr. Folta’s article lionizes the abundance and immediate safety of modern agriculture without addressing an uncomfortable truth: it’s is keeping people from starving, but it’s still killing them. Cheap meat, preservatives, additives, and sugars are the four horsemen of an apocalypse being wrought disproportionately on vulnerable communities by modern food. And the author’s admonition that restaurants (and presumably others) should be advocating for balanced diets instead of clean food ignores the economics of impoverished households just as much as the boutique farmers who say the solution is to pony up more dough.

While one third of the article attacks clean food marketing and another third praises cheap processed food, the final third veers dangerously close to condemning clean food as snake oil. And notwithstanding the dubious health benefits claimed by some packaged products in high-end supermarkets, it’s simply a fact that foods are most nutritious when minimally processed, carefully handled, grown in organic soil, selected breed-wise for nutrition vs yield, and eaten as close as possible to harvest. These are not traits of the food Mr. Folta touts in his writing.

I’m not suggesting that cheap food be withheld from people who would otherwise go hungry. And Mr. Folta shouldn’t throw the entire clean food movement under the bus because of its bourgeois marketing, either.

Or maybe he should.

So how DO you get “clean food” to vulnerable populations? I don’t know for sure, but I have exactly one unrefined idea:

  1. It’s easier to consume from a food system you participate in and benefit from economically. Vacant lots, rooftops, medians, and other idle city-owned property should be prioritized for development into community gardens and food forests where people could grow, sell, buy, and deliver (for pay) food through a lean, open hub like *shameless plug* GreenMaven. I’d be tempted to say that urban-dwellers should take advantage of massive land availability and rock bottom land lease rates in rural areas to become professional farmers, but that’s a sharp lifestyle shift that can’t be reasonably expected of many people. Part-time commercial gardening, on the other hand, can slide right into the emerging gig economy without upending people’s lives.

The solution, whatever it is, won’t be found in telling people what to eat — be it insisting they eat clean food because “processed food is crap,” or insisting they be happy with processed crap because “at least you’re not starving”.

The solution lies in innovation; creating new opportunities to participate in the food system at every level, as both producer and consumer. Ron Findley said it best: “kids grow kale, kids eat kale.”

Chris Newman is a farmer in central Virginia. He’s tall and skinny and is growing a great and woolly beard for totally non-political reasons. If you like what you’ve just read, please consider a click on that there green heart thing. And if you really like what you just read, maybe you’ll become a patron (contribute as little as $1/month!) so he can spend even more time writing, building foodscapes, and democratizing Local food.

Visit the farm, Sylvanaqua Farms, on Instagram @sylvanaquafarms.

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