The Folly of Bourgeois Sustainable Food

Is it possible for gluttony, purity, and morality to coexist with affordability? Or is this utopian vision a myth?


My personal conversion to organic food came via orange juice. I was brought up drinking the conventional, extra-pulpy stuff from a paper carton, downing quarts of it on a daily basis. Then, while living in New York City after college, I discovered a grocery store offering an extra-premium, organic variety with bucolic visions of rustic farm crates and golden sunshine on the label.

The flavor was unlike any other bottled juice I had ever known; it actually tasted like the juice of an orange. This was most distressing. What exactly was that mysterious orange liquid I had been drinking my entire life?

I was instantly converted. To be able to buy a product that not only tasted amazing yet was also not tainting the earth with pesticides and preservatives felt like a tremendous leap for both the orange farmers and me.

Then I looked at the price—seven dollars a quart.

I love drinking real orange juice and not destroying the planet, but my ability to do both is directly related to my supply of disposable income. Without that disposable income, paying a premium for organic food—as well as local, fair trade, and sustainable—becomes exponentially harder to justify. At a certain point, when only the relatively rich can afford to not ingest bovine growth hormone on a regular basis, appreciating food and where it comes from becomes a bourgeois endeavor akin to collecting Fabergé eggs. When fair trade bananas hit five dollars a pound, consumption starts to seem conspicuous.

But that assumes that eating along the nexus of organic-local-sustainable is always synonymous with gourmet prices. If eating on that spectrum were affordable, then little stands in the way of abandoning the factory farm system. It's quite possible that the high costs of organic food are solely the result of grocery store markup and have nothing to do with whether or not the food was drenched in chemical pesticides.

I thought I might try to calculate whether bargain shopping could coexist with this idyllic vision in the greater Washington, D.C. area. The result was mixed. In theory, that thrifty, magnanimous, and self-indulgent organic lifestyle is possible, but in practice, it gets complicated.

Consider this: Whole Foods is often considered the hub of overpriced food snobbery, yet its organic brown rice was far less expensive than what was sold at an oversized grocery store in a much poorer part of town. Obviously, this had to be a mistake of Whole Food's pricing structure, as it goes against one of the central tenants of economics wherein products are valued at whatever you can get someone to pay for them. Why charge more to the population less likely to pay more? It only begets conspiracy theories.

Of course, Whole Foods also sold plenty of things that weren't organic or anywhere close to being local as well as a handful of dried pineapple strips in a small, resealable sachet covered with horizons of overzealous field workers for the same price as two full-sized pineapples. But I can appreciate that sort of value-added graphic design. Buying an overpriced sack of organic rice with no value-added delusion was just downright depressing.

At a nearby grocery mart, bags of organic carrots sat right next to the non-organic ones. If there is any real test of one's dedication to buying organic, this might be it: two bags of similar products, looking nearly identical to each other except for the price tags and whether or not the word "organic" was prominently displayed. Sadly, given financial constraints and no value-added packaging to indicate the lifestyle choice I was entering into when purchasing, I could imagine deferring to the cheaper, non-organic variety. They are just carrots after all.

Then there are the quasi-eco items that walk right up to being organic without actually being organic. A sack of reasonably priced "All-Natural Brown Sugar" was particularly bewildering, as there is no USDA standard for "natural." Does "natural" imply non-organic farming techniques, GMOs, or that the company just couldn't afford to get the USDA Organic certification? And is it better to poison yourself with a dash of preservatives rather than encourage factory farms to spray neurotoxins on their wheat crop? That then opens up the question about whether eating within the nexus of organic-local-sustainable is more of a personal endeavor or a moral endeavor, and would anybody pay a dollar extra per pound not to poison the well-water of a small farming town that he most likely would never visit?

While I stood there for a good five minutes pondering the deeper meaning of "natural," an elderly lady in a large overcoat and a church hat walked up and grabbed a sack of processed white sugar without hesitation. I quietly wondered if she didn't care about the nutritive loss in processed sugar, or if she just had better things to do with her time.

On the other side of town, the closest community co-op sold nothing but organic, fair trade produce alongside notices for community acupuncture and homeopathy classes. The selection was limited and the prices were cheaper for bulk sacks of flour and cooking oil by the gallon. Milk and eggs were surprisingly expensive, possibly as a tax on non-vegans.

Some of the newer grocery chains had a growing selection of relatively inexpensive organic options alongside the standard fare of diet microwave popcorn and preservative-laden instant cake mix. In particular, Trader Joe's offered plastic-wrapped organic products that were shipped in from the other side of the country at a reasonable price. It was the polar opposite of the farm-fresh local market, but if the idea is about not ingesting pesticides in an affordable way, this certainly wasn't a bad option.

Sadly, the high costs of local farmers' markets quickly eliminates them from competition. Shopping at the market on a lazy Saturday morning, perusing rhubarb grown by a friend of a friend, and then making a pie from those ingredients felt like the ultimate goal of all this food snobbery. Who needs small packets of dried blueberries with images of humble farm workers when you can spend your time chatting with farm workers? Everything is delicious and nothing gets poisoned. It's this potential utopia where gluttony, purity, and morality live side by side if only the local organic blueberry farmers could somehow reduce their price point.

Getting a community supported agriculture (CSA) share where farm fresh food can be bought in bulk for cheap is a possibility, but access to CSAs is often limited. The food is local, but not necessarily organic, and there are restrictions that come with only buying food that's in season. Even if you give up the need for Florida-grown, flavorless slave-labor tomatoes in the winter, there are other sundries that need to be bought. And those need to be bought at grocery stores.

Maybe with the combination of a CSA alongside a dedication to bargain hunting and cost-benefit analysis, then sure, it might be technically possible to live the life of an ethical gourmand on the cheap.

As a comparison, the low-rent grocery store a few blocks away from me offers chicken wings at two dollars a pound. Compare that to the eight dollars a pound of air-chilled, free-range, "Step 5" chickens found elsewhere. For 10 dollars I could buy a large bag of mystery wings and have my dinner for the rest of the week, but just the thought of it was all too depressing. What sort of chemical injection trauma must those chickens have suffered to make them four times cheaper?

The secret hope is that this current trend of foodie-ism, food snobbery, locavorism, gastronomy, or whatever it gets called becomes permanent and eventually leads to better, cheaper food for everyone. Otherwise I will have to learn to appreciate chemically flavored orange drink, and nobody wants that.

Images: Jason Tepper/flickr, flickr4jazz/flickr