Whose Food Politics

You'd be hard pressed to find a sexier political issue than food. Celebrities are photo-graphed carrying copies of Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. Last year, Michelle Obama broke ground on a White House vegetable garden to much fanfare. Alice Waters' Berkeley mantra of "fresh, local, seasonal, organic" has gone national.

But the scope of the dominant food-politics conversation remains surprisingly narrow, limited to questions like, What is organic? What is local? Is the growth of Whole Foods a bad thing? Are small farms really better?

Save for the occasional healthy-school-lunch pilot program, it's a conversation that too rarely acknowledges the millions of Americans for whom the choice is not fresh versus prepackaged but eating versus not eating.

The question of who eats and who doesn't is depressingly relevant right now. Almost one in five Americans reported lacking enough money to buy food at some point in the last year. The number of Americans on food stamps has increased 35 percent since the recession began in late 2007, and today one in eight relies on food assistance. This is help people desperately need: 85 percent of food stamps are depleted within the first three days they are available.

"That gaping chasm between the foodies on the blogs and the people they're purportedly trying to help, really, is the tragic flaw of the food movement," wrote journalist Tracie McMillan on her blog, 5 Dollar Dinner, where she is chronicling her research for a forthcoming book that promises to be a sort of Nickel and Dimed for the agriculture and food--service industries. "Even with food's unique ability to build common ground between people who are otherwise strangers, foodies mostly talk about, but rarely with, the people whose lives they're purporting to improve."

And while the foodies are talking about the subtle distinctions of "organic," not only is hunger deepening and use of food assistance growing, the stigma associated with food stamps and other anti-hunger programs has not gone away. Contrary to a February New York Times headline that proclaimed "Once Stigmatized, Food Stamps Find Acceptance," food-stamp users still routinely face judgment in supermarket aisles -- and from right-wing politicians. Cynthia Davis, a Republican state representative from Missouri, recently echoed the tired trope that food-assistance recipients don't buy the right kinds of foods: "We should revamp the food-stamp program so people who get food stamps can't buy junk food like potato chips and chocolate milk." Chocolate milk? How dare they! And of course, there were South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer's recent comments that public assistance is akin to "feeding stray animals." While many of us are decrying factory farms and high-fructose corn syrup, this dynamic is only getting worse.

One of the appeals of food politics is that it is so concrete -- --it's about how a daily, personal experience connects with the political. But many of us consider only our own daily experiences with food, not other Americans' basic access to sustenance. For affluent shoppers, it's all well and good to question which stores and companies are worth buying from. But we shouldn't expect Americans who are barely making ends meet to have the same set of concerns.

What if food security became an integral part of the foodie movement? For every admonition of Wal-Mart's greenwashing, there should be an equal effort to get stores in low-income neighborhoods to stock produce -- -yes, even of the nonlocal, nonorganic variety. (For each additional supermarket in a given area, fruit and vegetable consumption increases by as much as 32 percent.) There is already some movement in this direction, as the recession has driven more families to buy their food at low-end retailers. Family Dollar, the national chain that primarily sells goods that are under $10, announced last year it was bringing refrigerated cases to more of its stores in order to meet shoppers' demand for perishables.

Foodies could also wade into the politics of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP -- a k a food stamps), which liberals tend to take for granted. The very same big agricultural conglomerates that are bemoaned by Pollan, Waters, and their ilk have always been big proponents of food stamps. Why wouldn't they be in favor of more shoppers being able to afford their products? But if Big Ag companies -- which promote exactly the sorts of corn-syrup-laden products that foodies hate -- are the strongest advocates for food stamps, we'll never be able to change the incentives for healthy eating.

That "gaping chasm" between those who claim the foodie label and those who rely on food stamps doesn't have to be so wide. After all, everyone's gotta eat.

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