Recipe for America

I finished Recipe for America by Jill Richardson this week. It was an excellent and comprehensive introduction to all the major issues plaguing the US food system today, covering everything from farming methods to legislation.

Admittedly, after reading this book, I felt overwhelmed (and more than a little depressed) by all that’s broken with our food system. I imagine this feeling is shared by pretty much anyone who has initiated a thorough investigation into a problem, so I’ll take comfort in the knowledge that, if it doesn’t feel overwhelming, perhaps I haven’t looked deeply enough yet. So there, at least I’ve begun to look deeply.

Here are some of my thoughts after reading this book:

Availability precedes consumer choice

One thing I was surprised to learn about was the prevalence of “food deserts” in this country. If you live in one such “desert,” you literally have no access to fresh and nutritious produce, unless you are willing to dedicate a day trip or more to grocery shopping. (The alternative is, you’ll find yourself subsisting on gas station offerings like Coke and Ding-Dongs.)

Amidst all this recent talk about obesity and the wasteful excesses of our food system, it’s hard to believe that such areas can exist in the US, but they do. This just highlights the importance of availability in shaping consumer choices. Fixing the broken food system is not simply a question of whether we can convince everybody to make better food choices; it’s also a question of whether they have the ability to make those choices in the first place. To this end, much work should be done with directing food flows to where it’s most needed, or even encouraging small-scale local agriculture.

Material realities determine relationship to food (know your audience)

The fact that one’s financial situation affects what one eats goes without saying. But, as I found out, not having enough money not only limits what one can afford, it also limits what one can do with what they buy:

“…when you suggest that people buy rice, pasta, and beans you presuppose that they have resources for capital investment for future meals … a kitchen, pots, pans, utensils, gas, electricity, a refrigerator, a home with rent paid, the time to cook. Those healthy rice and beans can take hours … buying a doughnut for dinner does not involve any of those middleclass resources. You pay 55 cents for this meal only and there you are.”

This idea that lower-income people don’t cook seems to run counter to intuition, as we all know from living in cities that eating out is vastly more expensive than cooking one’s own meals. But as it turns out, cooking requires material resources that many of us take for granted. When you are truly living on the edge of poverty, you eat what fills you, whether it looks like a meal or not.

Clearly, one should not always base one’s assumptions on intuition alone. For my thesis, I had hoped that cooking could help people develop a tighter kinship with their food, or at least a stronger awareness. But if many people in the US can’t cook, then the impact of advocacy-through-cooking is limited. That said, there are ways to still introduce stricken communities to the joys of cooking. Community kitchens and potlucks to mind. Either way, this just demonstrates that there is not a single solution to this vast problem. Solutions must be carefully adapted to a particular audience, which you should learn everything you can about.

The government is involved—a lot

Knowing is caring, and reading this book made me actually want to be an food activist. (This lasted about 5 minutes) As I learned, the US government is in many ways the final determinant for what one can or cannot do in the food world: what you’re allowed to sell, where you can sell it, and how it can be produced and processed.

For instance, the federal government legislates everything from the price that is paid for corn (Farm Bill) to what children are fed in public schools (USDA). Laws and court rulings determine what kind of pesticides are okay to use, and even whether one can successfully sue for damaging use of pesticides. The government can even limit the size of an independently owned farm, and whether a small producer can sell to certain constituencies (out-of-state, wholesale, retail outlets, etc.)

While all this sounds potentially helpful if done in the right spirit, US food policy currently acts as a complex support structure for a single idea of how to produce food: a mega-consolidated, industrial model. This model is founded on ideas of efficiency, economies of scale, and profitability; sadly, it does not concern itself with the intricacies of human or animal rights, environmental or community health, ethics, and long-term sustainability. Nevertheless, this is the system the US government approves of, because it provides more food and more jobs at lower prices than ever before in history. Because this is the dominant, government-supported model, it can make it very difficult for a small business to take off. For instance, they are sometimes forced to fulfill requirements that might work well for a large factory farm with economies of scale, but are onerous and unnecessary for small ones.

As much as I believe in bottom-up, consumer-driven change, this book makes the argument that any bottom-up endeavor must be complemented with policy change from the top. No matter how many of us want small local farms and independent producers, if it is difficult to start a farm in the first place, we won’t get those things. Both fights must be fought; one does not supersede or invalidate the other. Indeed, Richardson writes:

I believe that lack of popular outcry is why corporations have come to rule our food system, and with our urging, the government can work with us to take that system back.

The food system is MAD complex

The old adage “the more you learn, the less you know” applies here. I thought I knew enough about how food works in the US after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Not a chance—Michael Pollan barely touches on all the legislative shenanigans surrounding food. And the class differences, especially the plight of the poor (MP is pretty much your average white middle-class dude). And the issues with children and schools. And funding issues on public projects. The list goes on and on.

I realized it’s not possible to take a comprehensive approach to fixing the food system. Period. You can’t apply any abstract, generalized thinking to this—solutions must be tailored to the ground conditions of each and every micro-environment. And a lot of solutions need to happen everywhere, all at once, in order for good changes to sweep the system.

For instance, one cannot simply say “I will create bottom-up, consumer-level change.” Once you unpack that sentence, you come to the realization that there are all sorts of consumers. Changing their attitudes towards food would accordingly require all sorts of approaches. A busy Wall Street worker is not going to have the same food situation as a mother of five that lives in a food desert. The way you convince them to shop differently, to advocate to their friends, to get involved with the ‘movement,’ is going to vary widely, from the tone you take to the technological channels you employ.

Knowing this is actually kind of liberating. That means that it’s less important to sit around cogitating on the one “best” way to approach this problem. It’s more important to choose an angle, preferably one that you have excellent resources for and access to, and do some real ground work. Tackle it head on, prototype it on real people, build it for real, and release it into the wild.

Now as I really start thinking about what to make for my thesis, I at least know this: I’m going to build it, and it’s going to live out in the world.