Does the Food Movement’s Elitism Hinder Our Progress?
By Annie Levy
A few years ago I was in a convenience shop with my young children, who kept pestering me for the various processed crap purposefully positioned, as we all know, in every aisle. I was growing impatient and cranky. The words shot sternly out of my mouth: “That’s junk food. We are not junky people.”
Never would I have considered myself the kind of a person to label others as “junky” and ascribe morality to eating choices. But I’d actually used the word; did I believe it? Did I also believe I was raising my children to be better than those other “junky” kids? I felt sure that my whole grains and limited sugar diet were making them healthier, but was I also inculcating in them elitism and us vs. them notions about choices people make? The words appalled me so much that they became a stepping-stone of introspection, leading me to question my values surrounding food.
I’m an avid cook, a food blogger, an activist, a mother raising children to enjoy food. I consider myself to be part of “the food movement,” that wide array of people working to connect real food to policies and politics of social justice, the environment, sustainable agriculture, good nutrition and health. Yet I fear that in communicating these issues, we fail to connect to people in circumstances different from our own. We even push them away. Are we limiting true social inclusiveness that actually may undermine the broad change we seek?
Michael Pollan helped me to see the kind of cooking I do as an anti-corporate act, but is this call-to-kitchen-arms for everyone? There are many people for whom the marketed culture of convenience and fast food answers real problems in their daily lives. Does our anti-corporate stance turn off people who actually like these familiar brands and the sense of belonging in a common branded society? Does the call for a return to cooking neglect the privileged element of leisure and other social arrangements that permit it?
The revered Alice Waters once said, “when we eat food that is fast, cheap, and easy, we digest those very values.” What are the judgments contained in this kind of statement? She intends, I believe, to critique the values of a food system that doesn’t care about its conditions or effects on people and the environment. But the words suggest that if you eat fast, cheap, and easy you become fast, cheap and easy – language many women might recognize as shaming. Isn’t this how it really sounds to someone who enjoys such food, or is caught in situations in which it might seem the best available option? Why should such people be so aggressively judged?
Shaming happens consciously and unconsciously in our discussions around class and diet, and these problems might be systemic, but we must not forget there are human beings with feelings formed in and dependent on these systems.
We may be committed to ideas of the greater good and positive change, but we are caught in our own ways of thinking. There’s a failure of imagination that there are people who could think differently, or have different conditions and attitudes shaping their choices. Casting aspersions and creating us vs. them identities works both ways. These people have their own opinions, prejudices and judgments about us and may, in turn, perceive our own eating habits as high-end, pretentious, expensive, and time consuming. And yes, with the words “we” and “us,” I am also making assumptions about you, the reader.
What would it mean to recast fast, cheap and easy as legitimate values in the contemporary context? Could we not do this while acknowledging the cultural legacies of Slow Food as a commons as well as the wide hidden and external costs of cheap food? It’s easy to represent our food system as manipulated by advertisers and marketers operating in a food economy skewed by subsidies and politics. But those players also understand and reach people where they are at, recognizing that price, ease, speed and familiarity are all important values for their customers.
The return to cooking - the leisure, expertise and hobby of it - doesn’t feel possible or appealing to everyone. It is so often stylized in a socially exclusive way or to a degree of aesthetic perfectionism that it moves beyond something aspirational to alienating instead.
My Freudian slip in the convenience mart caused me to reflect deeply on the values I want to teach my children. We were new in town and I wanted them to make friends beyond just “people like us.” Accepting food gratefully and graciously, whatever it was and whoever was offering, felt more important than dietary aims.
If openness towards all foods would be the higher value, my children could step out of the confines of the food education, learning more in the process. If I didn’t forbid anything, if I relaxed my standards, they could eat omnivorously and understand the food system not only through my opinionated instruction but also through the lives and situations of the people with whom they ate.
The most profound aspect of understanding our food system is really seeing that everyone – eaters, consumers, producers, servers, packagers, cooks, pickers – has a stake in this system. Only seeing the food system as an eater and a cook, rooted in elitism or purity, can blind you this obvious fact.
I also feel the need to nurture in my children a conscious sense of gratitude that we have enough to eat. Many people go hungry and many others don’t have the ability to make the kind of choices we do. I want my children to understand food in this personal-familial-social sense. Food is not stress for me, the way it is for many people. I am in the position to spend time at home cooking; it’s enjoyable for me mostly, something that feels rewarding and a choice I make with my time. I have a lifetime of knowledge that gratifies me. We have enough money as a family to eat according to our principles; organic for bees and the climate, fair-trade for labor rights, ethical meat when it is possible to source it. Understanding these factors makes it harder to judge people who make different choices than our own.
We dwell in an increasingly polarized world, economically, politically. It’s a cliché to acknowledge that food connects us in a universal way, but at the same time to divide ourselves by different identities defined by what we eat and don’t eat. I might not be a person who eats McDonalds. He might not be a person who eats pork. They are vegan. She thinks your quinoa is pretentious. That girl is fat because she drinks soda. And you can see how it all goes wrong.
Every single one of us has a stake in the food system, but when we self-conscious people in the food movement dominate the discourse, we often widen the gaps. We imagine ourselves the arbiters of taste, teaching people “real food” and aesthetic norms around its presentation (witness Pinterest and Instagram). When we present our values as “lifestyle” they become aspirational social goals, which to some are educational, to others just eye-candy, and to others off-putting. We entrench positions by talking more than listening, which in turn, can elicit a strong response. Take for example parents’ reactions to the attempts to improve school food by proclaiming their children’s “right” to eat the junk food that is being replaced; they are pushing back. There are realities of nutrition and calories, but our conversation takes place amidst divisions of society and language, and becomes broader than the matter at hand. We get in our own way.
I don’t have answers, but there are have been shifts in the way I try to communicate my food politics and values in the teaching, writing and social media that I do. I try to celebrate people’s experience of eating – that bringing home of a box of doughnuts or a bucket of fried chicken as an act of festive generosity is just as much a gesture from the heart as homemade cookies or artisanal bread. I try not to judge anyone, myself included, from making choices that fall short of my absolute ethics in a setting of practical limits. I try to not privilege exotic food over plain food, “cheffy” dishes with a thousand ingredients and a restaurant-like description, over just the simplest most accessible piece of fruit or bread. I actively resist the idea of perfectionism, which says “No! Not you!” more loudly than it says, “Come along!” I honor the moments in which I eat with people from food cultures different from my own, and feel grateful for whatever I receive.
As a cook, a food writer, a parent, I want a food system that doesn’t reflect inequality, injustice and violence. I don’t want to eat racism. I don’t want to eat environmental destruction or wage poverty and slavery. I don’t want to feed species extinction to my kids, or pesticides endangering bees and butterflies. I don’t want to eat climate change. But I’m not afraid to eat fast, cheap and easy per se.
So how do we critique the corporate food industry and agribusiness without putting down people who enjoy their products and identify with brands? How do we talk about food and obesity without shaming people? How do we highlight wonderful homemade food without styling it in ways that brag perfection, wealth and leisure? There are careful linguistic and aesthetic choices we need to make. How do we make an inclusive food movement that gives everyone a voice? How do we create the space to hear voices that we’ve silenced, so that we can begin to listen?
These are the food values that I want to pass to my children, and they are much broader than food.
Originally published in Comestible Issue 4
Illustration by Laurence Deschamps-Léger (Laucolo)