Thursday, March 22, 2007

Using Your Power for Good and Not for Evil

Warning: Rant Ahead.

Michael Pollan is the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, a book that I have not yet read. However, I do know that the book is about paying attention to where our food comes from--for our own health and the health of the environment, as well as the taste of it. Here's what Pollan says about the book:
There are a couple of different dilemmas. The basic dilemma is: What do you eat when you can eat just about everything? There's a set of nutritional answers that people are struggling for. What are the healthy foods to eat? There's also a set of ethical dilemmas. If you want to eat ethically, should you eat organic or conventional? Should you eat local or organic? Should you eat meat at all? Those are really hard questions. And there is really no simple answer. The answer really depends on what matters to you, what your values are.
In an interview with Leite's Culinaria magazine (which I have also not read, besides the interview, but saw a link to on, Pollan bravely takes on the inherent class issues that exist within the politics of food:

AM: Is that really true, that people can do something about it? Granted, certain people can. Probably the people who are reading your book can afford do more about it than the people whose biggest worry is just surviving?

MP: There is definitely a class issue here. To do the right thing, when it comes to food choices, takes more money, there's no question about that. It's one of the biggest problems we face. But there are a lot of Americans — more than half, I would say — who have the wherewithal to spend a little bit more money on better food choices. I think, in a large part — certainly for my audience, probably for your audience —, it's a matter of priority rather than affordability. We spend a remarkably small, shamefully small, percentage of our income on food. We manage to spend money on lots of other things. All up and down the social ladder you find people with plenty of money for cell phones, home entertainment systems, all other forms of entertainment. Look at television:. 80 or 90 percent of folks spend more than $50 a month on television. It used to be free. Yes, there is a problem at the very lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder. But for most of the population, there is a lot of money that could be spent, if people decided it was worthwhile.

Now here's a dilemma. The way the federal government figures out the poverty level is by multiplying the cost of a "thrifty food plan" by three (i.e. poverty = spending one third of your income on food). It's an outdated plan that was invented in the 1960's, and the economic landscape has drastically changed since then. Now, I don't know about you, but I'm not sure how I could spend a third of my money on food when I'm spending half of it on rent.

Food is actually the most flexible part of the budget, because the car loan (I travel for my job), the rent, the phone bill, and the heat bill sure aren't budging (although we tried to squeeze a bit more out of that one by keeping the thermostat at 64 or below all winter). Not to mention the student loans that will come due in slightly less than 18 months.

We live at more than twice the poverty level, which is hardly the "very lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder" and our family of three spends $75-90 a week on food (that's about $325 a month). We spend over $1000 a month on essential living costs (heat, electricity, rent) and another $373 on quasi-essential costs (car, insurance, phone). Plus $200 a month on health insurance. We definitely can't afford to buy organic. We can hardly afford to buy meat (that's conventional meat, none of that free-range organic grass-fed stuff for us).

It'd be really nice if Pollan, who has the ability--the luxury--to spend more on his food and be a food activist could do something more than make ignorant statements about his perception that people are blowing their food budgets on cable TV.

I don't mean to denigrate Pollan too much. His ideas are awesome. I just wish that the foodie folks who are so concerned with this (hello, slow food) would worry about other food security issues. Hooray that your heirloom tomatoes were placed into your soft palm by the guy you know who works at the farmer's market three hours after they were plucked from the field. I'm thrilled for you. I bet there were a couple of underpaid farm interns who made that possible. And ask your farmer how much she makes each year. And ignore me counting pennies to buy the day-old kale. And buy another tomato to donate to the homeless shelter, while you're at it.

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