Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Going with the FLOsters

Is the fresh-local-organic food movement elitist? The FLO movement, you know them, they're the folks who don't blush when laying down $70 for a turkey. Elitist, them?

This was a hot topic before Haverchuk was born after a July 22 NYT op-ed by Julie Powell, the first food blocker to hit it big, made the argument that the FLO movement is a form of snobbery. (I'm not linking to her post because of the Times' policy of charging you to read old articles at its website.) Here is the best part of Powell's article.

The key principle of the movement is to ''treat fine ingredients with respect.'' A worthy goal, surely, as is providing healthful food for children and resistance to genetic engineering, antibiotics and hormones. It seems churlish and wrong-headed to mock this dedication; it's like sneering at puppies or true love or democracy. And yet, as admirable as these efforts are, there remains buried in this philosophy two things that just get my hackles up.

The first and most dangerous aspect is the temptation of economic elitism.
Of course, food has always been about class. In his classic meditation ''The Physiology of Taste,'' first published in 1825, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin suggested a series of three ''gastronomical tests,'' menus designed to expose the culinary sensitivity -- or lack thereof -- of one's dining companions. These are organized according to economic status: you can expect your wealthy friends (''Presumed income: 30,000 francs and more'') to salivate at the sight of ''a seven-pound fowl, stuffed round as a ball with Perigord truffles''; while your stevedore buddies will be perfectly satisfied by good sauerkraut.

This sort of garden-variety condescension is eternal, and relatively harmless. What makes the snobbery of the organic movement more insidious is that it equates privilege not only with good taste, but also with good ethics. Eat wild Brazil nuts and save the rainforest. Buy more expensive organic fruit for your children and fight the national epidemic of childhood obesity. Support a local farmer and give economic power to responsible stewards of sustainable agriculture. There's nothing wrong with any of these choices, but they do require time and money.

When you wed money to decency, you come perilously close to equating penury with immorality. The milk at Whole Foods is hormone-free; the milk at Western Beef is presumably full of the stuff -- and substantially less expensive. The chicken at Whole Foods is organic and cage-free; the chicken at Western Beef is not. Is the woman who buys her children's food at the place where they take her food stamps therefore a bad mother?

Powelll's first claim about economic elitism seems innocuous enough, but by asserting that the FLO ideology "come[s] perilously close to equating penury with immorality" she steps off the deep end. This claim, qualified with a phrase ("perilously close"--where's the peril if it only comes close?) that makes you wonder whether the writer agrees with her own argument, got some readers exercised. A handful of respondents offered sympathetic takes here and here; a more passionate crowd offered criticisms here, here, and here. In an online food blog poll, readers seem to side with the author by a narrow margin, but this doesn't tell us much.

Some of the criticisms stick: Powell's logic is flawed. As at least one con writer points out, her argument against the organic movement attributes ridiculous beliefs to its adherents that none of them would cop to. For example, she asserts that FLOsters consider those poor folks who feed their children conventionally raised chickens (the kind I cooked with a can of beer in its ass) to be bad parents.

This isn't how the FLOsters feel about it at all. The truth is nastier: they don't really care. Since when do rich folks give a rat's ass about what poor folks eat? If we don't care enough to find adequate health care or housing for the poor or to educate their kids in decent schools where they won't be afraid of being knifed or shot, what could we possibly care about what kind of food they buy and where they buy it? For heaven's sake, if FLO types gave it a moment's thought, they would admire those working class parents who cook at all rather than feed their kids cheap takeout and convenience foods, or nothing at all. A lot of poor parents barely have time to see their kids, never mind cook for them.

But Powell and her critics also miss another critical point about the politics of food. Both buy into an ideology of individualism according to which one's personal food choices are seen to make a difference. One can choose to buy local, fresh, and organic, thereby supporting local farms and industries and opposing corporate agribusinesses. Or one can choose to cook real food for one's family, bought wherever it is most economical, instead of eating junk. (This latter point seems to be Powell's ultimate notion of how to eat right.) Either way, this ideology places the onus of change on persons.

Neither stance appreciates that if change is needed in the way we eat, it must come at the level not only of individuals but of institutions. FLOsters might think they're improving the world through the choices they make, but the consumer behavior of a smallish cadre of wealthy urbanites in North America isn't going to make more than a little dent in the power of the corporations and the governments that do their bidding. FLOsters may object that their choices are motivated by health concerns, a fair point. But the scientific evidence doesn't yet support this position, and of course FLO cream, chicken skin, steaks, egg yolks, and bacon will kill you no more or less efficiently than their conventional equivalents. And they may object that their choices are ethical, but why confine food ethics to one's personal consumer choices? If it's wrong to confine animals to small pens where they wallow in their own shit and go berserk, it's wrong for all of society, not just for the person shopping at the co-op whose social advantages make it possible to know and care about this and to do something about it.

When the FLO movement is reduced to a menu of consumer options, it functions as a lifestyle rather than a politics. It's a token of cultural capital that the socially powerful use to assert their status. (The "fresh" part of FLO is especially preposterous when you think about it, given that much of the country has no access to fresh produce grown locally for most of the year.) As Powell argues, FLO is a luxury based in time and money that only the privileged few can afford (like blogging I might add). But as an expression of a desire for a more just world, its aims are good. If only its means of attaining them were their equal.


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