August 11, 2007

Elitist Food

So, if you didn't know, I sold my car before moving to DC. The last time I drove was to the U-Haul place to drop off the truck. Parking is a nightmare here and it's expensive, too. I figured, hey, my new place is three blocks from a Metro station and most of the places I need to go are right on the Metro, it'll be great. That's mostly the case. Mostly.

Here's where it falls down: groceries. The full implications of that part sort of slipped my mind, it's been years and years since I needed groceries and had no car. And I was way less picky about what I ate then; lots of fast food, lots of Top Ramen. It must be granted that there is a sizable grocery store only two blocks from here, and it was a selling point, so it isn't like I didn't take this into consideration at all. But it isn't a co-op, or a Whole Foods, and their selection of organic foods on top of all my allergies leaves me with slim pickings. For fruit, sometimes there are non-skeezy grapes or maybe strawberries, never very good.

Not that I'm complaining, no, really, just musing. Sometimes I do that here. It's either that, or they'd have to search me for pens before letting me use the bathroom at the local sushi bar. And I don't approve of vandalism at all, at all.

It's just that I really don't want to have all my cells tainted with pesticides and the toxic waste that gets added to regular fertilizer as an 'inactive' ingredient. Still, it's been very, very hard to walk past the cherries (okay, one bag, but I went shopping while hungry, and you know what a bad idea that is), apples, plums, melons, berries and other delightful summer produce towards the disreputable looking basket where the organic grapes are kept.

It isn't like there's no Whole Foods, it's just that whether I wanted to go to the one nearish to me or the one down the Red line, it's about half an hour by public transportation at least. It's actually a little longer on Metro, but less crowded and uncomfortable with groceries in tow. And it's been like, lords, a half million degrees during the day and as humid as it can get without actually raining. Add carrying much of anything and you might as well just be swimming.

Oh right, and then there's the time thing. Metro closes at midnight on weekdays and the grocery stores all close by 11pm. If I go for a few days leaving in a hurry in the morning and not getting home until late, I pretty quickly run out of as much food as I would have been able to carry home last time I made a grocery run.

I could, indeed, go to a farmer's market. It isn't like there are any of those. But early on the weekends just hasn't seemed to be working out well for me as a time slot for going out to be steam roasted during what would also be a round trip ranging at minimum from half an hour to an hour. Which feels like an eternity. I'm sure I'll get into the swing of things, though I'm going out of town again this weekend, so no farm fresh produce for me next week.

I'm living in an organic food desert. Which isn't nearly as bad as living in one of the regular kind, but I know way, way too much about where food comes from to eat most of it without a fight. If you see me eating a fast food meal or anything with processed cheese food in it, that should be a big, red flag to you that I'm literally about to pass out from hunger.

Now if I had a kid or two to take care of on my own, particularly if they were very young, getting healthy, fresh and organic food for my household without a car would add orders of magnitude worth of difficulty. They'd either have to come with me, cutting down how much I could carry even though I'd need to buy more, or I'd have to arrange somewhere to leave them for an hour or two. And babysitting, not generally free unless you have a lot of relatives nearby or have deep roots in the community, though not even always then.

At this point, if someone (like, oh, say, some weasely food company executive or Republican politician) told me that I should just change my grocery shopping habits a little so that I could eat more healthfully, I'd tell them to sod right off. So I can only imagine what I would think if I were in a more difficult situation and someone told me that. Told me, 'It's your own fault you don't make wiser choices when you feed your family, don't blame us for the fast food-induced health problems you're dealing with.' I'd be incandescent.

(Some of you who know me are aware that at times, I can very nearly approach literal incandescence under the proper circumstances.)

Grocery shopping used to practically be an afterthought to me. It wouldn't have been a big deal to come home after work or school and go back out shopping, because 1) the weather is *so* much milder on the West Coast, 2) the longest part of the trip was always the actual shopping, 3) at least some healthy food was rarely more than ten minutes away from the places I lived, 4) when my day/week was very packed, there was usually a 24-hour grocery store to go to if I was out of everything.

Let me add that I know most people don't keep my sort of schedule. But it isn't actually that odd to work late into the evening at an office job if you're a professional, study late at school if you're a student, or have inconveniently scheduled shift work. Then add having no car. Walking is great, after all, but it is in fact slow. And again, there's the carrying. It's not the same to go A bicycle would help, but not if you had small kids, and they're also not known for their large carrying capacities.

So you eat more at restaurants, that's often the way it shakes out. But when was the last time you were at even a good restaurant that had local or organic food on the menu? When was the last time you ate something at a mainstream restaurant where the sauce wasn't the best flavor in the entire dish, without which the rest of it would have been bland and unappetizing? Too often, you get leathery meat, mealy fruit, flavorless vegetables, and a big helping of bleached starch that may once have been a plant.

Somehow, I'm actually supposed to be the elitist. Because I think food should be, um, appetizing. And healthy. And uncontaminated. And fresh. And the kicker, easy to get.

Because it's food. We eat that stuff. I have to eat that stuff. I don't just have to look at it, wear it, have it keep the weather off me, ride in it, or walk on it. I have to put it in my mouth, chew it up, and swallow it, so that it can get turned into me and fuel for me. I can't decide to just skip it for a few days and pick some up next week when it's more convenient.

I don't have a farm, or access to one. I can't garden where I'm at, and when would I have time, anyway? I live in a society that produces vast quantities of food, and demands that the majority of the public live in a constant state of perpetual motion, with the former enabling the latter. Nothing but systemic change can reverse what we see happening now, with people getting more sick, more often, with malnourished overweight people, with children condemned to a lifetime of ill health because their parents didn't have regular access to fresh produce, high quality grains, and lean protein foods.

How big a change?

Let's take cars. Our cars are among the factors killing our planet's ability to feed us, and we're going to need to make life easy and productive without them for far larger numbers of people. My situation right now, the inconvenience of it, the time sink, the energy drain, is why so many people fear to be without a car. They fear having to deal with the problems of people who can't buy their way out of their problems. The public can't be expected to give up their cars in nearly large enough numbers if it means having a harder time accessing food. Many US cities either no longer have, or never did have, the accessible, mixed use neighborhoods that people in European cities or much of New York can take for granted.

Not having a car in a place that's designed for cars significantly decreases quality of life. Though even being without a car somewhere that was designed for walking, but where the food distribution infrastructure is uneven, can decrease quality of life. So the public transportation question needs to be far broader than whether or not people can get themselves to and from work.

Then there's food itself. At the YearlyKos food issues panel last week, Dr. Marion Nestle told us that our food system makes 3900 calories technically available to each of us, every day. In talking with me afterwards, she said that regulating calorie intake was the most crucial factor in healthier eating. Yet loads of processed foods, junk food labeled as health food, and food being sold in almost every public place makes it easy to overeat.

Then most of that food sits somewhere on a scale of nutritionally inadequate to terrible. It will keep you alive. It won't necessarily keep you out of the doctor's office or hospital. Which you want to avoid, because the food there is really terrible.

It's really great that we're able to produce so much, in its way. But we won't be able to keep this up. Because no matter what happens, oil and natural gas are going to stop being cheap. That means our food is going to stop being cheap. It's also going to stop being plentiful. Because we have a long, complicated food chain that depends on a lot of centralized shipping and processing.

Our food chain's exorbitant use of energy is another thing that's ultimately decreasing our ability to feed ourselves. And when I say energy, I mean a lot of different things. Our food system is wasting a lot of fossil fuel energy; in terms of both oil and natural gas, when used directly as fuel or in the manufacture of agricultural chemicals. It's wasting a lot of nutritive energy; in terms of overapplication of fertilizers that wash away from the land to become poisonous to the fresh and salt water ecosystems that give us our fish. It favors large factory farms that produce a lot of just one thing, but that produce significantly less living material from their annual budget of solar energy as compared to a more diverse community of plants and animals. In this system, animal manure becomes 'waste'; both lost carbon and lost soil fertility.

There is no way to make our current food distribution infrastructure sustainable, both because of the energy and nutrient problems it inherently creates. A thousand straight acres of corn is never going to be good for the environment, even if it can be made less polluting and less harmful to the soil. A confinement animal feeding operation could sequester all its waste and minimize all its emissions, and that doesn't change the fact that it required wasteful excesses of grain, wasteful uses of antibiotics, and throws away many tons of material that should be added back to the soil so that more food can be grown from it.

There is, moreover, no way to guarantee a secure food supply to the people of this country under our current system. If the price of fuel goes up sharply, people could go hungry. If something happened to a major port clear across the country, people could go hungry. If we were to become a net importer of food from other countries, as we're on track to being, a war in a far off place could mean people going hungry here.

It's come to light recently that there are times when buying food from farther away can be less wasteful of carbon and I'm always going to want my coffee, but we have to be more sensible. All our food, all year round, can't continue to come from hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away.

In case the economists haven't noticed yet, about this globalization thing, it's very unstable. Countries go to war. They get attacked by terrorists. Markets crash. Natural disasters hit. We in the industrialized world are also doing our part to significantly increase the rate at which natural disasters caused by extreme weather, from drought to more intense hurricanes, will threaten transportation and crop yields. Hello, climate change.

That's the world we're living in, it doesn't run like a clockwork. And when it goes wrong, people in communities where food isn't being grown locally, or where there's no way to distribute it easily if it is, will suffer. More, anyway. Because people are already suffering food deserts. They're already suffering the ill health caused by misdirected resources and a system that produces too much of what no one needs, but blames these failures on the people who are least able to alter their circumstances, instead of those who set up the rules.

So I say, change the rules. Because the truth is that the real elitists are the ones who want the majority of people to be satisfied with low quality food today, in exchange for a future in which there won't even be enough of that left to feed everyone. The current system can't be sustained, can't be made to last and continue producing in such abundance.

Yet the options that would give us more readily available, high quality food now, are the same options that best allow us to continue growing readily available, high quality food far into the future. Those options are increasing small scale farming, increasing intensive organic farming, increasing mixed crop farming and rebuilding local processing and distribution infrastructure. That could feed us all in style for a very long time to come.

Posted by natasha at August 11, 2007 01:18 AM | Food | Technorati links |
Comments

Lots of good material for pondering. Have you checked out the following, though, to see if you can subscribe to a deliverable food program?

http://www.localharvest.org

When I was in college and didn't have a car, but lived off campus, I bought an old, large and serviceable Kelty pack for grocery shopping. I got funny looks on the bus, but it could carry two sacks of groceries and the frame was very strong, saving my back from a lot of misery. Maintaining the discipline of getting groceries on weekday mornings when there wasn't a class to deal with, or Saturday mornings when most of us were recovering from Friday nights, wasn't easy, but it was a very effective lesson in time management - and, happening in north central Indiana for me, almost as ugly a place for weather as DC. I learned fast that time was what I would have to sacrifice for lack of cash. When you're 20 it's not so bad....when you get to 30 and beyond it's a much harder sell.

In western Europe, you can find wheeled carriers that are built like all-weather versions of carry-all suitcases. Find ones that can that can deal with bus travel, and you would have a start on the infrastructure you need to make it convenient to minimize car use while getting the food you need.

After having the right tools in hand, the other problem when it comes to access to organics is whether you create a distribution system that can work for everybody, or whether you co-opt the existing one so that "organic" doesn't equal either "elitist" or "decrepit". Would it be more worthwhile to push, say, Albertsons or Safeway or Kroger into being more organic-friendly, as opposed to spending time figuring out the best strategy for getting to and from a Whole Foods?

I would also say that, after cars and their required infrastructure, I think large houses are our next major "energy sink". Contractors and developers see no profit in making smaller, more effectively designed homes, so they build McMansion after McMansion. In the Seattle area, where I now live, the median price for a home maintains its high price in the midst of foreclosures throughout the nation in part due to a "hole" in homes available between 1200 and 2000 square feet that aren't over 20 miles away from the central core.

My two bits...

Posted by: palamedes at August 11, 2007 08:20 AM

My local grocer has lots of those nice wire old-lady wheelie carts for sale, so if you live in the neighborhood you can buy one for wheeling a couple of sacks of groceries to and fro.

Old ladies are pretty smart.

Posted by: Scorpio at August 11, 2007 01:53 PM

Bush on friday

Posted by: ccoaler at August 11, 2007 10:46 PM