Comments from the Chautauqua Institute Lecture on Food

A reader on Michael Ruhlman’s blog left some interesting questions and comments in response to the previously posted lecture from the Chautauqua Institute, which you can also view here.  I thought I would post the conversation here, as well, because I think where our food comes from and how it is grown or raised is a very good and important question to ask.  It is a complicated issue, to be sure, and food has a greater impact in this world than I think most people give it credit for.  For example, food has an impact not only on our health and our bodies, but it has political, ecological, environmental, and economical implications as well — and more.  I joined in this conversation fairly late in the game, so I actually refer to a much earlier post.  Apologies!  Anyway, without further ado, here’s part of the conversation so far:

Despite Chef Barber’s misanthropic idealism I agree that the most ecological and ethical choice is also the most delicious, but it is also the most expensive. And while we may not have “an inalienable right to protein” many of us most certainly do not have the luxury of being self-righteous about our food origins, owning multiple successful businesses (restaurants in his case), or befriending Spanish foie gras farmers either. How is making food more expensive (albeit much tastier) going to help feed the hungry? Just curious.

JBL

I think the argument for making food more expensive in the hope that there will be more food for the hungry is pretty shakey no matter which way you look at it as it assumes that poor people are somehow going to have more money to pay for food.

Honestly, I think that the biggest reason for poor nutrition is not lack of access to good food, but a lack of money and the access to high quality education and housing and information that money provides. And the reason there is not enough money among the underclasses is that our lovely global economic system is set up so that wealth trickles up not down.

Moreover, super fresh food like the kind used by the the Dan Barbers and the Kellers of this world will be available cheaply and on a massive scale unless it is grown much closer to where people actually live -And with over 80% of the population of the US living in cities and increasingly urbanized suburbs that seems like an impossible task.

Mr. delGrosso, Am I to understand, given your second paragraph, that poor people are too stupid and ill-informed (and obviously too broke)to make better nutritional assessments and that somehow the global economy is to blame?

@JBL:

Not sure how it can be argued that if you have less money, you are going to have fewer opportunities at an education. And if you are less likely to have a good education, you are more likely to make ill-informed decisions. Of course, it’s a generalization. But I didn’t see anyone call anyone else stupid.

I really wish Barber expanded on the inalienable right to protein.

Mr. Escobar,
You are correct, not stupid per se, just ill-informed (or ignorant or unlearned, or you say tomato I say tomato). But we don’t need a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree to hear about saturated fats, high cholesterol, high calories, evil carbs, artery-clogging fats, etc…we just need a television.

And Mr. Escobar,
I will argue that one indeed CAN get educated in this country if they’re broke; in the form of grants, loans, scholarships, etc..I speak from experience! Unless of course you happen to be a white male/female which opens up a different can of worms.

JBL:

I was pretty careful to avoid saying that one couldn’t get educated. Lots of people do. I said fewer opportunities :). Strong disagree that TV teaches you anything about nutrition, or how to eat healthy. If anything, it is a continuous swirl of contradictory messages.

Pablo Escolar,

Point taken with respect to your egg shell walk; and if you think TV is a “continuous swirl of contradictory messages” try college! (kidding…sorta’)

While it is debatable that even the “news” objectively informs (teaches anything), free information is available, via various media, for anyone who cares or chooses it to actively pursue.

@Pablo Escolar,
Also seems like you’re “paisa”! 🙂

Oh no! Knowlton is a judge?! Kill me now!

JBL

It’s axiomatic that lack of access to money, results in a reduction of access to high quality education or, more to the point, the didactic experiences that enhance critical thinking skills and that help people make wiser eating and other life-style choices.

Also, being poor kind of limits what one can afford to eat to what they can afford.

How you read that I was suggesting that the poor are too stupid to make wise choices is not at all clear to me. I’m pretty sure that IQ scores follow a more or less normal distribution throughout the global population. Of course, the same thing cannot be said of money spent on education.

As for the global economy being to blame for limiting the choices of the poor, well, I’m not willing to go so far as to suggest that an abstract concept can cause anyone to do anything. However, I am sure that the global economic system is not the result of a unanimous decision by a myriad of businessmen and government officials that the end product should be the intellectual, physical and monetary enrichment of the poor.

Mr. delGrosso,

“It’s axiomatic that lack of access to money, results in a reduction of access to high quality education…”

We just have to agree to disagree with respect to this point. Where you see axioms I see non-sequiturs; in fact, I’ve already provided a counterexample.

“Also, being poor kind of limits what one can afford to eat to what they can afford. “

That’s also true for the non-poor (credit not withstanding).

Pertaining to your statement regarding the IQ of the entire world’s population I hasten to say: “I don’t know”.

I also do not think that the global economic system is the result of any unanimous decision period (wacko conspiracy theories not withstanding).


JBL,

Not to dismiss anything that has been discussed already (about education, socio-economic status, etc.), but this response is about your original post, which asked “How is making food more expensive (albeit much tastier) going to help feed the hungry?”

The point of all this is NOT to make food more expensive. Rather, it is about becoming conscious of where our food comes from and understanding what it does to our body, what it does to our environment, and how our environment impacts us in turn. It’s a cycle. It’s about appreciation of that food. Only then can we hope to affect and justify [massive] change. Hopefully, once we better understand food in and of itself, we can not only make food healthier, but stop wasting so much of it so that the poor and hungry can have something to eat as well.

Initially, you’re right. Locally growned, “natural” foods WILL be more expensive than conventionally grown produce and factory-farmed meat, but there is a massive ecological cost to those methods that is difficult to quantify, yet it is catching up to us today in the form of polluted air and waters, obesity, and sickness and disease from food-borne illnesses. Salmonella and E. Coli occur today in far more resilient forms, and are also present in greater quantities of our food. Thousands upon thousands of people get sick every year from contaminated batches of meat and even vegetables (spinach salad, anyone?).

The alternative (one of the alternatives, anyway) is to buy locally. Not only does this help local farmers and local economies, but because small scale farms are better able to control quality and the conditions under which their animals and plants grow, the potential for sickness and disease is greatly diminished. The shorter the distance that food has to travel from farm to plate, the less time there is for food to spoil. Additionally, there are fewer hands involved in the exchange of raw foods, which may result in less of a chance for cross-contamination as a result of long-distance shipping. Finally, if the food DOES happen to be contaminated, the pathogen(s) has less time to reproduce to significantly harmful levels (bacteria need time to multiply) AND the contamination should be limited to a relatively small quantity of food produced in a specific region, unlike the massive recalls of millions of pounds of hamburgers that have occurred over the past few years.

Thus, a better question might be, “How much money is spent on medical care as a result of food-borne illnesses caused by commercially grown food?” Or, perhaps, “How much money is lost through a lack of productivity as a result of people being sick from these food-borne illnesses?” If we knew the answer to those questions, the answer should be clearer.

My personal answer to this problem is a combination of Michael Pollan’s first three sentences in “In Defense of Food,” and of one of Chef Barber’s responses during the Q&A session, “Vote with [my] forks.”
1) I will eat food: not that expensive, unsatisfying, processed crap that harms both my body and the environment, AND benefits big companies that thrive off of carelessly grown produce and livestock.
2) I will eat mostly plants: Meat’s more expensive and I don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables anyway. It’s healthier to boot. Plus, if everyone eats less meat, there’s more of it to go around. A part of the law of supply and demand is that, with a given supply of something (we’ll use meat as an example), decreases in demand result in a concomitant decrease in cost. Since meat is highly perishable, the meat will need to be sold quickly, even if it is at a lower cost. This example (admittedly, none of what I’ve said) isn’t foolproof, I know, but it is a suggestion. I am not claiming to be infallible.
3) I will not eat too much: See above, but apply that to food as a whole.
4) I will vote with my fork: (Also, see number 1) I personally would trust a local farmer more with making sure that deer (which, btw, also carry E. Coli! Imagine that!) don’t go prancing all over his or her farm, shitting all over the leafy greens that I eat (spinach salad, anyone?), than a factory farm of epic proportions which may not be able to do this — may not even care– in an effective way at all. If I have a significantly more expensive cut of locally raised meat, it will probably be tastier and healthier, and I will be damn sure to eat all of it, and probably also to stretch it out so that I can keep my food budget down. It’d be too much of a shame to let that beautiful food go to waste otherwise, unlike the tons and tons of food waste produced by restaurants and home kitchens in our throw-away culture.

To further lower the cost of food, I personally grow some of it. Hell, I just watered my basil plant while reviewing this ridiculously long response. With technology, home gardens of even miniscule scales are possible with little mess or effort. For example, Michael Pollan gave a lecture in New York’s Public Farm 1, where I met Dr. Paul S. Mankiewicz, Ph.D while standing in line for book signings. Paul — and I apologize profusely if I am mistaken or if I am forgetting anyone — is the inventor of Gaia Soil ( http://www.GaiaSoil.com and http://www.GaiaInstituteNY.org ). With Gaia Soil, easy, lightweight, convenient gardens can be created in almost any environment with access to light (it’s nighttime now, but my baby basil seems to be doing just fine photosynthesizing with the ambient light from the various fixtures in the room).

My point is this: I believe that even with these proposed, dramatic changes, food will not become significantly more expensive to obtain. Additionally, any increased costs in obtaining food may very well be offset by the lower incidence of illness as a result from food poisoning. Health of both body and planet will improve, local farmers and economies will benefit, and the only losers will be big agri-business (which is a GOOD thing). Hopefully, others will think the same way I do in terms of not letting more expensive food go to waste. That way, less food overall is eaten (a potential solution to obesity!), and less food will be wasted or go bad and spoil overall. With decreased demand for more expensive foods (meat), costs will likewise decrease (farmers tend to produce more to break even with production costs, rather than produce less to artificially increase prices for profit), enabling the poor to afford food as well.

I look forward to your response. Also, sorry for the wordiness. I’m REALLY good at that.

I forgot to mention the costs of fossil fuels required to grow, fertilize, harvest, refrigerate, and transport the goods, but you knew that already anyway.

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