A long time ago, when processed foods billed for being “scientific” were the norm in American kitchens, some hippies and other radical folks began a food revolution. They emphasized whole, non-processed, organic foods. They started food co-ops and communal farm ventures. Many of them advocated for vegetarianism or veganism. Anti-capitalism and the environmentalist movement joined hands and a group of largely middle-class suburban kids had an impact on the great American farming tradition.
Fastforward to 2013. I am standing in the check-out line at Whole Foods, wondering, have we missed something? Whole Foods emphasizes organic food. It has a vast array of vegetarian and vegan options. Most of their choices are healthier and less processed than what one would find in the aisles of Wal-Mart. But most of the people shopping here actually make me feel out of place, by clearly being upper middle-class. My contrarian streak wishes I had worn something more outlandish to go along with my red hair and tattoos, just to convey the message, “Yeah I might be shopping here but I’m shopping here for REAL reasons, not cuz I’m some trendy yuppie.” But that’s me being judgmental. I should, I remind myself, be glad that non-radicals are interested in food that’s healthy for their bodies and for the environment. But I look at the tea-tree oil infused toothpicks (20 for $3.99!) in the check-out lane and I watch the guy in front of me pay $400 for one cart full of groceries, and I know that underneath my contrarian need to make normal people uncomfortable, there really is something wrong here.
The problem with most places that sell good food (and by “good” food I mean less processed, vegetarian or vegan, organic food) is the prohibitive expense of such food. And Whole Foods or similar health food chains are not even trying to sell to low income people. The presence of completely useless crap like tea-tree oil infused toothpicks makes that very plain. This is for the people who want to feel snobby about their food. This is for people who are buying good food more for the way it makes them feel than for any larger reason, the kind of people who go vegan for “health reasons” only. This is for people who like the word “artisanal” in front of things. As for the corporation, they’re not about health at all. They’re about marketing an idea. A very expensive idea to people who have the money to pay for that idea. You can tell where the rich areas and where the poor areas are in a city by google-mapping Whole Foods and then google-mapping Wal-Mart.
Maybe it makes sense that the food movement would be used as a business model for corporations. As soon as any movement gets big enough, someone’s going to figure out how to turn a profit off of it (and when my budget permits, I do prefer shopping at Whole Foods to shopping at Wal-Mart). But we don’t have to let the Whole Foods model of gentrified snobbiness control our food choices anymore than we let the cheap, convenient, processed-beyond-all recognition crap business model control our food choices. There are ways we can take back the food movement. Buying directly from local farms, either through CSA (community-supported agriculture) programs, co-ops, or farmers’ markets is one place to start. I find it extremely empowering to grow my own food, though that’s a bit more complex and involved but it is not as complex as some people make it seem. I’ve never been part of a community garden but I hear they’re great for people who may not have space in their backyard for a garden plot (and sometimes food banks will encourage volunteers to garden a plot in a community garden in order to donate all the produce to the needy, which is an amazing idea). Even just having a potted tomato plant or a basil plant or something is one tiny “fuck you!” to the corporations that want to make a buck off of your basic human need for food.
As for getting around the convenience factor of processed, meat-filled meals, the old stand-by of leftovers is extremely powerful. Some people get really into it and buy up a ton of produce at a farmers’ market and then can and stew and make jam and so forth. That’s a little too extreme for me. I just cook things and freeze them. Of course it messes with the texture a bit, but that’s a small price to pay for having delicious, nutritious food right there whenever I want it. My mom’s recipes are great for this because they’re proportioned to feed a family of five and have leftovers, so I cook a whole batch of something (for instance, this lentil stew), then divvy it up into serving-size portions and freeze them. Of course, it’s also good to make a point of having fresh produce on hand; raw, whole food has benefits that scientists are still working on explaining.
All of this I know. I have my garden plot. I have my homemade frozen food. I have a bunch of bananas on the counter and a couple cartons of blueberries in the fridge. But what I don’t know is, how do we smash the class aspect of this? How do we take health out of the hands of the marketers and put it in the hands of people who need it the most? How do we destroy the stupid mystique that surrounds words like “organic” and “whole” and “vegan” and make these things just a normal, commonplace, convenient way of doing food? How do we tell the corporations to stop turning a profit off our desperate need for holistically healthful food? There’s a world food crisis and it has to do not only with hunger, but with what kinds of food will be used to fill that hunger. It’s not much good feeding the hungry if we are feeding them with poison. How can we move from a place where a cart full of healthy food costs $400 and a cart full of unhealthy food costs less than half that, to a place where healthy food is affordable and available to everyone? This is one more piece of the puzzle and we need to figure it out before we lose the food revolution entirely.