Local food is elitist! This trumpets from one paper or another, revealing that despite the growing preoccupation with good food, ultimately, it is just another white soccer Mom phenomenon. Working class people (who strangely, the paper and the author rarely seem to care about otherwise) can’t afford an organic chicken or a gallon of organic milk! Ordinary people don’t have time to make soup. Regular folk don’t care about that stuff – that’s for brie-sniffing folks, just the next rich people’s food fad.
I can think of a few hundred refutations of this claim, of course. There are all of my readers who are low income and struggling and still eat real food. There are the people who buy from me, mostly neighbors, mostly not affluent *at all* – they just want good food. There’s us – we qualify for food stamps in our state most years. We don’t need them – we are awash in good food, but we sure as heck aren’t affluent. There’s the composition of the farmer’s market in my town and in the nearby cities – and of the coop and other local food resources. There’s Red Hook Farm in Brooklyn and the local food movement in urban Detroit, and every other inner city food movement. There’s the way local food infrastructure has burgeoned in a thousand low income rural areas, where the exchange of food is part of what keeps people alive. There are the immigrant community gardens and the fact that plenty of poor parents cook every night. There’s plenty of evidence to the contrary.
All of that is true, but it isn’t the argument I want to make. What I want to argue, in fact is that the accusation that local food is elitist is actually a product of the industrial food infrastructure – that is, the requirements of an industrial food system, the presumption that the basic structure of food production should be industrialized is what makes the price of good food higher. The accusation that local food isn’t “serious” because it costs more is an accusation in bad faith – the reason it costs more is because the same system makes it cost more.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing in favor of farmers’ not getting a fair price for their food, but consider the cost of a gallon of milk. I can produce a gallon of milk from my barn for about $2.40 in hay, grain, amortized goat costs, and a tiny chunk of my mortgage payment. Since my milk is mostly grass during the summer, that means with a reasonable markup, I could produce a gallon of milk for 3.50, and make a fair profit. That’s not too bad – my local Stewarts is advertising milk for 3.80 per gallon, so I could sell a few gallons to my neighbors and offset some feed costs, without costing them more, maybe even save them some pennies. It goes without saying, also that my goat’s milk tastes better (sorry, but it does, and everyone thinks so), is organic, probably came from animals with better lives, and would be fresher than the milk in the store.
My friend Judy, who runs a dairy, observes that it costs $9 for her to produce a gallon of goat’s milk. Now why the difference? Why does it cost her $9, which isn’t even remotely competetive and me $2.40? Well the main difference is that she had to get set up to sell her goat’s milk. She had to put in a bulk tank, build a barn to specifications, put in the second septic system between the milk room and the barn septic, add restroom facilities (even though her house bathroom is three steps away), and pay 16,000 dollars for pasteurizer.
As I’m adding up my costs, I don’t have to count any of those things. I can amortize my steel milking pail and the quart mason jars I use, but that won’t add but pennies. I can pasteurize my milk – after all, raising milk to a particular temperature and holding it there for a couple of minutes isn’t rocket science, and a $4 dairy thermometer works fine, along with a stainless steel pot (let’s not even ask whether I can sell it raw).
Of course, the big difference is that Judy *can* legally sell her milk, and I can’t. In order to sell milk, I’d have to build the milking parlor, get the bulk tank, run power to the barn, and buy the 16K pasteurizer. Nevermind that for someone milking 6 does, this is ridiculous overkill – them’s the rules. And look, my organic milk now costs $9 gallon – and gee, isn’t that elitist, to think that ordinary people can afford organic *milk!?!*
Now I can hear the protests – after all, all this stuff exists in the name of progress and food safety, right? Well, the problem with that is that if you need all this stuff for milk to be produced safely, you have to first explain away the fact that the French are all still alive . Because it is perfectly evident that it is possible for someone to hand milk six cows in a milking parlor without electricity or running water, in a building built 400 years ago and to the standards of that day, to take it from the cow and cool it in a bucket of water from a spring, and sell some of it directly to consumers who do not die, and indeed, go on to have lifespans longer than our own and who spend less per year on illness and health costs, and make some into cheese that you then age in an actual cave on the back of your property and sell as raw-milk camembert, again, without anyone dying or even getting sick. Indeed, bacterial levels won’t be any higher than is safe. Most European dairies have a system of rigorous inspection that permits the selling of raw dairy to clean dairies – and we know that system works. It is a system that priveleges and supports small producers, who can make a living.
It is perhaps no accident, then, that good food in much of Europe is not considered to be elitist. Poor people expect to eat well too. They expect their produce to be fresh, their cheese to be tasty, their food to be well cooked. The idea that the poor have no choice but to eat at McDonalds is not an idea with a great deal of currency in countries that support and encourage small scale food production. This is not to claim that in all ways Europe is a paradise, but it does undermine the idea that what we do to reduce access to the food system is inherently necessary.
Consider this – I have an elderly neighbor whose wife died a couple of years ago. This gentleman never learned to cook, and has declined to do so – he says it is because it wouldn’t make sense for just him, but I suspect it has to do with his loyalty to his wife and her cooking.
Since his wife’s death, my neighbor eats mostly frozen foods, and several times a week, eats out at one of two local diners, or the local pizza place. Both are perfectly nice places, but he did mention to me at one point that he was gaining weight and that he didn’t feel as good after eating at these places as he used to, and suggested it might be because the vegetable choices are quite limited. I invited him to dinner and served a typically vegetable lavish dinner, and have many times invited him to return. He accepts maybe one invitation of five, because he doesn’t like to be beholden – but one day he joked “you should open a restaurant, I’d feel less guilty if I could pay you.”
Now I was quick to reassure him that when you are cooking for six, you might as well cook for seven, but I was struck by this. I could offer to let him pay me – in a perfect world, this might be a good solution. And he’s not the only person I could feed – probably comparably in price to the local restaurants, but with better food – organic bread and rice, homegrown vegetables and lots of fresh stuff.
The problem, of course, is that I can feed my neighbor every day of the year in my kitchen. I can give him soup, sushi, stew, salad for ten years. But the moment he pays me, I become a restaurant, and i’m supposed to have a stainless steel counters and a triple sink. Well, I’ve never yet seen a home kitchen that came with a triple sink. It doesn’t matter that I have cooked literally thousands of meals for hundreds of people without a single instance of food borne illness occurring in my kitchen – that has nothing to do with it. But if I need stainless steel, well, it just isn’t worth it. My food becomes elitist – and my relationship with a man who has never done anything more elite in his whole life than milk cows is tainted.
The kind of restaurant I’ve considered running is common in immigrant communities – there’s no official restaurant, perhaps, or perhaps people simply can’t afford to get started. I lived over a Colombian bar and grill – quite literally – when in grad school. Two days a week the apartment below me opened up and 50 or 60 people would come, drink beer, eat grilled meats and salads, play music and dance. There was no license, no advertising – everyone just knew. You’d think this would be annoying, but I loved it – they were friendly and welcoming and paid off the landlord with beer and barbecue. It exists outside the local economy, producing good food at a slight markup and providing an income, a local gathering place, a supportive environment. Its merits are far greater than any triple sink can describe.
The local food system is elitist in large part because it is forced to be. Others have documented the ways in which small producers are discriminated against – the way subsidies favor large producers, the way externalization of pollutants favors people who don’t actually live where they produce their food. Joel Salatin in _Everything I Want to Do is Illegal_ carefully documents ways in which beaurocratic regulations have nothing to do with food safety – and indeed, the system that produces the 1,000 cow hamburger can’t be said to be primarily focused on keeping eaters safe.
The arugula jokes, the accusations of elitism come from the same people that support a system in which good food is largely unavailable to low income people – then they explain that low income folk didn’t really want it anyway, and that they don’t have time or desire or knowledge to care about food. What’s remarkable is that this self-perpetuating cycle gets broken by the ordinary low income eaters themselves who also can see the virtues of eating well. What they need to understand is why the milk and produce and soup they want, they can’t afford – because the industrial system doesn’t just produce falsely “cheap” food, it also drives up the price of small, local and good.