Tuesday, February 1, 2011

What would it take to create a “saner and more delicious food system” ?

I stumbled on a recent Civil Eats’ interview with Mark Bittman and I recommend that you read the full interview if you have time. I have also included parts of the interview here.

When asked the state of agriculture and food policy in the next 5-10 years, Bittman had this to say:

We just need more and more people fighting for food policy that benefits everyone. Right now the so-called movement feels like a few thousand people talking about it to each other—I mean, really, who’s reading this interview? Not that it isn’t worth doing, but how do we get these notions to a broader public? We need tens, hundreds of thousands of us, making noise in public. We need a new anti-war movement, one that’s not only anti-war but pro-food and, of course, pro-justice in all arenas. This is not a small thing!

My first reaction was disbelief. I am reading the interview, and at the least my dog and cat are sympathetic and read the interview as well. That makes at least one-and-half loyal followers of this movement at this very moment. I had thought there were at least a few million others in this country already participating and making changes in the better food movement. How else would I justify my time devoted to the topic?

But then again, delusion sometimes is a revolution’s best friend. Believing in something so whole-heartedly can blind us to the reality of the situation. So I started my accounting process to see if Bittman was right, that there really are just a few thousand of us talking to each other – preaching-to-the-choir so to speak.

First I thought of the Slow Food folks, an Italian movement that began in the 80s to fend off the globalizing effects of fast-food places such as McDonalds. I recently learned that Slow Food USA is making its way around the nation and their mission and philosophy is now common knowledge to your average hippie like me living in the Midwest. Local growers networks are popping up around me like Starbucks once had. On facebook, I’m noticing a range of activities ranging from individuals posting news and blogs about food and sustainability. Since Monday, I’ve joined three local groups, a few CSAs, and signed up for a talk about using technology to induce changes in the way we eat and becoming a healthier nation. (All of this right in the middle of the Midwest Corn-Belt where Monsanto probably has a secret cave and a Monsantomobile ready for action.)

So why is Bittman so gloom-and-doom? And what has anti-war movement got anything to do with the healthier and local food movement? As a former Army medic and having been to the battlefield, I failed to see the connection. No doubt that a peaceful world and a compassionate human race will give us a healthier relationship with our food. But that is wishing for the stars without even thinking about how to reach them. I personally think the sustainable healthy food movement ought to be treated politically in its own right. Why give the politicians more reasons to bark at the food demands we are making? If we make this simply about food, and our relationship with food, then perhaps we can begin to realize what really is the distinctive connection we have with nature and make reasonable progress with the middle-of-the-road politicians who worries more about reelection than anything. Perhaps then we can end our wars without much discussion and reach the stars in more sensible and direct way?

The point is: why are we still seeing this food movement as some sort of red-headed-stepchild of our national debate? Why is it that we can’t recognize this is perhaps one of the most critical and fundamental discussion we can make in our lives? Perception is everything. Problem solving requires that we clearly see each portion of the equation and solve them to get to the necessary functions we need to solve the next problem. There really is no reason to mesh all of our challenges in one place and blindly attack the topic with a shotgun. A more precision driven movement is required here. So I agree with most of what Bittman has said, but I would argue that we should not give a straw-man for the opposition to attack. The war is far removed from our food policies at a practical level. I won’t argue its consequent reality from our far removed relationship with nature and with each other, but we should focus on solving the core issue here and raise awareness of our relationship with food more directly.

Bittman’s pessimistic view continues when asked if he thinks real policy changes are possible:

It’s inevitable; it’s that or steady decline. The real question is “Does change happen because we win some important battles, or does it happen because the country or the world experiences some unforeseen disaster wakes us up?” I’m not rooting for disaster, but I’d guess we see either significant change or disaster—or both—in the next 20 years; food-wise, scary things are right around the corner. Typically, though, Americans need bad situations to bring about significant change.

Do we need WalMart and the First Lady working together? Maybe that doesn’t hurt. But we need to build community, and two things that do that are CSAs and real co-ops, and here I’m talking about community-run supermarkets. Imagine, for example, a co-op board saying “We’re going to have a small cereal aisle and a small soda aisle; we’ll carry that stuff because some of our members want them, but we want to focus on whole foods.” And note the case here: I’m talking about whole foods and not Whole Foods!

I would like to hope that Americans do not need a bad situation to bring about significant changes. I would like to believe that we are sensible enough to see our detached relationship with food and come to a reasonable decision to do something before it is too late.I would like to think that instead of going up against Wal-Mart, we should embrace their presence and demand that they respond to our needs - not the other way around.

I guess I am just an optimist when it comes to hopes and dreams. I hope you are as well. To conclude, I will echo Bittman’s reasonable demands for change:

a fairer form of taxation . . . subsidies moved from one place to another . . . a stronger FDA, a more sensible USDA . . . emphasis and support of regional food and food grown at small farms, by farmers making a decent wage . . . better treatment of farmworkers and animals . . . increase in home cooking
And I would add: a direct and distinct relationship with our food, our communities, and our future.

Mark Bittman is a food journalist and author. He wrote a weekly column for The New York Times dining section called The Minimalist. His final Minimalist column was published on January 26, 2011. Now he will be blogging a weekly op-ed column and becoming a regular Times Magazine contributor.

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