For a movement that's always been touchy about being labeled elitist, the food movement has been surprisingly outspoken lately about the virtues of expensive food. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Michael Pollan sang the praises of sustainable eggs that cost eight dollars a dozen and delectable peaches that go for $3.90 each. Such prices would seem less shocking, he assured readers, if conscientious consumers were willing to "pay more, eat less." Likewise, when asked to explain how average (i.e., not famous and rich) consumers could actually be expected to spend more on food in the midst of a recession, Alice Waters was as clear as she was unabashed: "Make a sacrifice on the cell phone or the third pair of Nike shoes." So there.
Needless to say, the backlash—as Pollan and Waters must have known it would be—was swift. Anthony Bourdain, who dedicates a full chapter of his latest book, Medium Raw, to attacking Waters's airy idealism, scoffs at the idea that people should be willing to spend more on food: "She annoys the living shit out of me. We're all in the middle of a recession, like we're all going to start buying expensive organic food and running to the green market." Jason Sheehan, author of Cooking Dirty, is even less restrained in his assessment of Pollan. Admitting that Pollan is "damnably right about a lot of things," he can't quite stomach that pricy peach. "When you've been too broke to buy soup," he writes, "some iconoclastic dickhead trying to tell you that paying $4 for a peach is a good idea because it is a really good peach can be the kind of thing that makes you want to buy a rifle and a map to the homes of famous food writers." (Dude, it's just a peach ...)
As it turns out, we also choose cheap junk food because we appear to like it better than cheap healthy food.
So, yeah, folks are angry.
But I wonder: Are we taking the food movement's king and queen to the woodshed prematurely? As someone who thinks Pollan and Waters are "damnably" wrong about a lot of things, I would actually defend them here on the grounds that in promoting expensive sustainable food they're really lamenting the artificial cheapness of industrial food. In fact, they've dedicated their careers to attacking the underlying political apparatus—namely subsidies—maintaining our remarkably inexpensive supply of crap food. Through tireless political involvement in the interests of sustainable agriculture, they've been nothing short of transformative, effectively leading a generation of foodies to equate political consciousness with culinary awareness. Pollan's and Waters's praise for pricey food might have been impolitic, but I'm willing to write off their remarks as media missteps rather than elitist disdain for the chicken-nugget-munching hoi-polloi.
Unfortunately, this matter goes well beyond what Pollan and Waters may or may not have meant. Lost in all the back-and-forth about the politics of costly food has been a simple fact about food prices and healthy food in general: They don't necessarily correlate in the ways we think they should. In a short and largely unrecognized study undertaken by the Economic Research Service of the USDA (PDF), researchers found that, between 1980 and 2006, the price trends for healthy food (apples, bananas, dry beans, carrots, celery, cucumbers, etc.) and junk food (cookies, ice cream, potato chips, etc.) were practically identical—they both dropped at the same rate. The study concluded, "The price of a healthy diet has not changed relative to an unhealthy diet."
MORE ON SUSTAINABLE FOOD:
Corby Kummer: Sustainable Seafood
Marion Nestle: Defining 'Sustainable Food'
Daniel Fromson: Food Elitism Debate
In other words, the study suggests that at the time when Americans were getting fat on increasingly cheap junk food, healthy food was becoming increasingly cheap as well. Evidently, consumers have chosen to take advantage of the declining prices for the cookies rather than the apples, thereby undermining the claim that we choose cheap unhealthy food because it's cheap. As it turns out, we also choose it because we appear to like it better than cheap healthy food.
What this finding means for the future accessibility of healthy sustainable food is hard to say. But it's not very encouraging. In Michael Pollan's Wall Street Journal interview, he made much of the fact that the Food Movement thrives in the San Francisco Bay area, a place where "there is a much higher level of consciousness . . . about where food comes from, about eating seasonally and locally, than in the rest of the country." Such a comment, undoubtedly true, is a telling reminder how taste of all sorts—but especially taste in food—is a culturally construed phenomenon. San Franciscans might enjoy a culture that celebrates a $3.90 peach, but for most consumers—including many wealthy and educated consumers—even a cheap peach won't come close to the appeal of a bag of chips. The food movement worries genuinely about reaching the masses. But do the masses want to be reached?