Last week I attended two events featuring journalist, author, and professor Michael Pollan. He joined chef and restaurant owner Dan Barber on Tuesday evening in a lecture hall of the 92nd Street Y, and Wednesday he spoke at a Just Food fundraiser, in a beautiful Flatiron District apartment. Prompted by the queries of Joan Gussow at both events, Pollan had to address the “elitist” question with which he’s become familiar. Aren’t you (and your ideologies) a little out of touch with the average American eater? How can the average American afford the foods you recommend we eat? And she wasn’t talking a meal at Barber’s restaurant Blue Hill. It’s the farmers markets with $4 tomatoes, and mixed greens at $6 per ¼ pound.
Barber is finally admitting he’s an elitist. And, he added, a day at Stone Barns (including enjoyment of the grounds, hiking trails, farm facilities, and food) still costs less than a day at Disney World.
Pollan responded that the prices of local products will go down as demand goes up. He also pointed out that Americans currently spend 10% of our income on food in America, while “when he was a boy,” we spent 18%. Meanwhile, while we once spent 5% of our income on health care, we now spend 15%. According to Pollan, there’s a direct correlation: factory farmed, processed foods lead to diabetes, obesity, and heart problems. Add the costs together, and we may think (industrial) food today is wonderfully cheap, but our expenditure on food and health care has risen from 15% to 25% in about the last thirty years.
Amidst my Pollan-event-hopping, flush with a Christmas check, and increasingly nervous at the prospect of leaving an apartment in Brooklyn and friends I love (for Berkeley, California), I decided to prepare a farewell feast that would be as local as possible. Fifteen people, lots of money: it would be a final splurge. After working at Saxelby Cheesemongers for two months, it seemed about time I bought a significant poundage of local cheeses. Plus, I’d been waiting for a reason to try Karen’s lamb from Three Corner Field Farm. A search for less-than-$12/lb. local honey took me to Marlow & Sons in Williamsburg. And I bought apples and pears from Migliorelli Farm, to dip in whipped heavy cream from Evan’s Farmhouse Creamery. I prepared an elitist meal, by all accounts.
As far as I’m concerned, the meal for a party of fifteen cost about the same as one pair of jeans from Seven. It’s a lot for food, but the evening was worth more than any clothes I’ve ever owned. Granted, most people can’t afford Seven jeans, and they can’t afford the dinner I served. The meal essentially spoke to Pollan’s point on the expenditure of our income. We need to learn to spend more on food. We will be healthier people. As Joan Gussow pointed out, we don’t want the prices of local, organic, family-farm products to go down too far with the market demand, because there is a bottom-line cost of production for the types of food we want to support. For small farmers to stay in business, they must make a profit. Real food costs something. What we actually need to work on is the other side of the equation: minimum wage should be enough that people can afford real food.
There is something else to be said, however. If market demand won’t take care of affordability, and if we agree that minimum wage isn’t anywhere close to paying for $4 tomatoes, we must look elsewhere to defend our local food movement from the damning critique of elitism.
The connection between health care and what we eat is a pretty good hint at some other solutions. Medical centers can establish nearby farmers’ markets and source their institutional food locally. Their patients might get healthier than they do now, eating from nearby falafel and hot dog stands. The government could increase the allotment of food stamp funding to the Farmers Market Nutrition Programs. Medicaid costs would go down. Health insurance programs could support clients who purchase CSAs. Emergency food organizations, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters can coordinate with local farmers and restaurants that source their food locally, and through donation, receive fresh produce, meats, and dairy products much more healthy for their eaters than the canned and processed surplus foods they are normally given. Pollan didn’t particularly expand on these possibilities, essential to the movement he has come to represent, even while he spoke for Just Food, a leader of food justice efforts in New York. But he did say: we need to vote with our votes, not just with our forks. Those who can afford farmers market prices must learn to accept them. But we also need to support policies that recognize the correlation between our health and our diet, and that recognize the (financial, and hedonistic) prudence of spending government money to support the production and consumption of real food.