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June 29, 2012

Slate: Changes in both individual thinking, structure needed to fix American food system

— A few years ago, the chef and organic pioneer Alice Waters did a spin on "60 Minutes" that managed to showcase exactly why foodies get branded as elitist. "Some people want to buy Nikes, two pairs," she said in a casual moment at a farmers' market. "And some people want to eat Bronx grapes and nourish themselves."

  This was vintage foodie-ism, a smug and irritating noblesse oblige transposed onto a discussion of our meals. That didn't change the fact that much of everything else Waters said was right: The way we eat is making us sick; it's a good idea for kids to learn to cook; even, in a more formal moment, "good food should be a right and not a privilege." But her aside about sneakers made it unlikely that anyone not yet onboard with Waters would listen to her in the first place.

 I bring this up because roughly half of the conversation about how to secure the future of America's food supply has been driven by the same just-buy-better-stuff logic Waters embraces, despite its disturbing similarity to Marie Antoinette's "Let them eat cake." The other half of the discussion focuses on the structural challenges of eating well, sort of a caricature of liberal analysis. It's strikingly rare for those two halves to cleave together in public discourse - and that is a serious problem for anyone sincere about changing food and eating in America.

 Foodie analysis like Waters' suggests that individual preferences, which are seen solely as a product of a person and her culture, are the key to fixing the American way of eating. This gives foodies some strange bedfellows, ranging from Sarah Palin brandishing cookies at a school fundraiser as a way of championing individual choice (much to the chagrin of fellow conservatives), to journalists parroting Waters, to the USDA's long-standing, often futile efforts to offer dietary guidance. Indeed, individual preference has arguably been our primary strategy in attempts to change both American diets and American agriculture for decades. (The obesity epidemic might be one reason to think this approach has largely failed.)

 Then, a second, and no more perfect, strategy for changing America's food and diet emerged: treating it as a structural problem. In the last decade, concern over food deserts - neighborhoods with insufficient grocery stores, and thus insufficient supplies of healthy food - has boomed. The food desert analysis holds that access to a supermarket is a key part of making sure Americans eat healthier meals. It's an approach that is arguably more sympathetic to the poor, but can also imply that people are solely products of systems, rather than agents of free will.

  The term "food desert" itself is relatively new. It wasn't even in circulation a decade ago, but last year the USDA began measuring the presence of food deserts nationwide. Last July, first lady Michelle Obama put their eradication on her to-do list, announcing a series of partnerships with national grocers. "We can give people all of the information and advice in the world about healthy eating and exercise, she said. "But if parents can't buy the food they need to prepare those meals . . . then all that is just talk."

 Food deserts are - and have always been - a flawed conceit. As a measure of access to healthy food, supermarkets are crude. Some are flush with high-quality produce, but others have little concern for quality control. And while all supermarkets sell produce, they are also rife with processed junk (even Whole Foods).

  What's more, the method by which supermarkets are identified leaves out important nuances. Typically, a local list of food stores is screened for those that exceed a certain size. Modest green grocers, farmers' markets or street vendors won't show up in the measure of "food access." Indeed, one of the more obscure debates in policy circles is whether "food swamps" or "food grasslands" might be more apt descriptors. And while early studies found links between food access and either lower obesity rates or better diets, more recent ones question whether access plays a role in the obesity epidemic at all.

  Despite the divided national debate about food choice vs. food access, the two camps are not diametrically opposed. I've been covering food and class for nearly a decade, and I've yet to meet someone doing supermarket development work who doesn't think food education is important too. The efforts of Brahm Ahmadi, who's trying to open People's Community Market - a community grocery store in West Oakland, a textbook example of a food desert - is a case in point. And for all of Waters' foibles, most chefs I've met grasp the economic difficulty faced by working-class Americans (not to mention the problem of time). Check out Tamar Adler's "An Everlasting Meal" for an example of someone using the language of high culture to promote very proletarian ideals.

  I can't quite pinpoint why journalists play up this divide. Surely some of it has to do with the way each approach, in caricature, lines up neatly with right wing (individualistic) and left wing (social) ideology. The clean lines of an absolute make for crisper copy - and sexier headlines - than nuance. And they are typically drawn, somewhat laboriously, around the elephant in the room: economic class.

               

  So here's one solution: Make class consciousness a central - but thoughtful - part of the discussion over our meals. Right now, the affluent spend more at restaurants each year than the poor spend on all their food. The poor, interestingly, tend to make use of coupons at farmers' markets, suggesting that they are less in need of lectures than higher incomes.

  Here's another, and one that many communities - and even the first lady - already make use of: Go at this from all sides. Supermarkets are important. So are cooking classes. So is agriculture. So are farmers' markets and work-life balance. We didn't end up with an obesity problem because of a single fatal flaw, and we're not going to solve it with a magic bullet.

  At the end of the day, it's the overlap between the two sides that matters the most. How do we fix the American food system? The answer is going to include both individual changes and structural ones. The sooner we stop squabbling over which one is most important, the better.

             

 McMillan's work has appeared in The New York Times, Harper's, Slate, Saveur, Salon and Gastronomica. She is author of "The American Way of Eating," a nonfiction project examining food and class in America.

               This article arises from "Future Tense," a joint partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation and Arizona State University.

 

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