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,
Ill. 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 what an inner-city family needs for a month
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. 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 bagged iceberg for half the cost?”
Mark Muller, the article’s author, 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
Muller explains that his own path to alleged food snobbery
began with microbrew beers, which taste so much better than
big corporate brands that 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 expensive organic foods is wasteful.”
Muller, a trained environmental engineer who works at the
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, 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
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.
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
Current agricultural policies, which deliver cheap food via
staggering tax- payer-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 more expensive than organic
whole foods,” notes Jim Slama, president of the Chicago-based
environmental advocacy organization Sustain, noting that farmers’
markets 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.
Walljasper is editor-at-large of the Utne Reader.