Thursday, March 17, 2005

Food and class, part 2

Find Part I of this article here

Strains within the system are starting to show. Simply put, industrial food is making the people who rely on it sick and fat, to the point that U.S. life expectancy looks set to decline for the first time in two centuries.

In a nation whose biggest employer (and grocer)--Wal-Mart--hangs its business model on its ability to low-ball workers, it's difficult to see how people are going to start, en masse, paying top dollar to niche farmers at farmers' markets.

Evidence of class-based distribution of diet-related maladies abounds. This recent AP article shows that in rural areas the child-obesity rate is even higher than the brisk national average. The evidence dispels "a long-held belief that in farm communities and other rural towns, heavy chores, wide expanses of land and fresh air make leaner, stronger bodies," the article says.

The article points to three factors contributing to the trend of surging child obesity in rural areas: mechanization of farming, the rapid rise of satellite dishes and cable television (which arrived later, but spread much faster, in rural areas than in urban ones), and rising poverty due to the decline in farming and other economic activity.

"The only other place where researchers are finding obesity rates similar to rural America is in the poorest, most troubled urban neighborhoods, suggesting that poverty may be the overriding cause," the article states.

Interesting connection. Just as manufacturing jobs have for three decades been fleeing inner cities in search of cheaper labor to the south, falling commodity prices for farm goods have been throwing farmers out of work. Likewise, the rural jobs provided by extractive industries like coal-mining are inherently short-lived. As a development strategy, mountain-top removal has natural limits, and when they're reached, capital must and does move on.

But why would poverty, which has historically led to starvation, cause people to be overweight? The U.S. spends less per capita on food than any nation in the world, probably than any nation since the rise of the nation-state. The cheap-food machine we've created--fuelled by our cheap-oil policy and underwritten by billions each year in commodity-agriculture subsidies--means that poor people can get almost limitless calories. Nourishment, however, is not part of the game.

How, then, can the sustainable-food movement mount a challenge to industrial food's hold on the bulk of the population? People aren't just addicted to the jolt provided by food laden with high-fructose corn syrup; they're also addicted to the cheap price tag.

In many urban areas, rising demand for quality food has provided a robust market for small farmers in outlying areas. For seven or eights months out of the year in New York, for example, a consumer who makes a conscientious effort and who has sufficient expendable income can satisfy just about all of her caloric needs from delicious food grown within 100 miles of the city. That's true for an even greater part of the year in California's population centers.

Theoretically, as demand for sustainably gown food grow in such places, increased supply will push its price down, meaning that lower-income people can afford it. And groups like Just Food in New York and efforts like Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley are doing important work toward broadening the range of sustainable food in urban areas.

But there's an important limiting factor at work here.

According to a US Dept of Ag study, in the period of 1994-1996, the average price for an acre of agricultural land was $850. But the an acre of land in an area defined as "urban-influenced"--close enough to a city to be attractive for suburban or second-home development, eg, NY's Hudson Valley--was $1880. Land in non-urban-influenced areas—ie, out in rural areas—was $640. (Precise citation to come.)

Here lies the paradox of the sustainable-food movement. Demand for locally and sustainably grown food is concentrated in cities; but prices for farmland near cities are severely inflated by development pressure. Where farmland is cheap, people are poor and accustomed to industrial food. Where people are wealthy and attracted to healthy food, farmland is dear.

And that dearness limits the entry of new farmers into areas such as New York’s Hudson Valley. In short, a young person who’d like to buy 20 acres to grow heirloom tomatoes to sell into the thriving NYC market has to compete against deep-pocketed developers thinking about second homes for corporate lawyers (the same people, ironically, who provide a market those tomatoes.)

Pricy land limits supply; limited supply keeps prices up; high prices maintain the class problem of the sustainable-food movement.

And rural areas? From what I can tell, despite all the devastation of the last 50 years, the dream of industrial agriculture burns bright. March 20, the first day of spring, has been declared National Agriculture Day. Here’s how the Union County Advocate in rural Kentucky heralded the holiday:

Modern farmers have to be efficiency experts, engineers, scientists and marketing gurus. Life down on the farm is not what it used to be.

"The face of agriculture is changing--more rapidly now than ever before," says Sam Moore, president of Kentucky Farm Bureau. "From a team of horses and a good memory in the early 1900s to tractors with the power of 300 horses and computer-controlled cropping systems today, American farmers provide consumers with better quality food at a lower price."

That's the message of National Ag Day, which is being celebrated March 20, 2005, ….


No mention of niche farming or organic techniques.

Likewise at ag career day for high school kids in Sioux City, Iowa, chronicled here.

Bitter Greens Journal has been criticized for the undeniable gloom of its pronouncements. Why fixate on the inexorable rise of Monsanto’s stock price, and not celebrate the robust performance of Whole Foods?

But the bright-side view obscures the tremendous amount of work that needs to be done to create a sustainable and just food system in the United States.

13 Comments:

Blogger Gritsforbreakfast said...

The new Whole Foods in Austin is like a feed lot for yuppies. We really can't afford to spend any of the grocery bill there, so I'm not sure I agree you should be spending too much time celebrating their ascendance.

Keep chipping away at Big Ag, mi amigo; you're right to stay away from the fluff. OTOH, more posts highlighting the small-grower alternatives you want to promote, maybe even w/ some Maverick Farms pics, might lighten up your Bitter load. Cheers!

3/19/2005 09:45:00 AM  
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Anonymous amuldoon said...

I just started reading your blog and think it's great. I think the issue of class is so absent from most discussions of alternative food systems, as if the discussion is just for people earning 200k a year. Here's a short piece I wrote about John Mackey's self-serving wall street journal editorial a couple months back.
Keep up the fight!

11/01/2009 02:53:00 PM  
Anonymous amuldoon said...

oops! http://socialistworker.org/2009/08/31/let-them-eat-organic-cake

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