Tag Archives: food privilege

Organics, Ethics, and Snobbery

I’ve been thinking about Julie Powell‘s op-ed in the New York Times all weekend. (If you want to read it, but don’t want to sign up for the New York Time, use my sign-in…login: accidental / password: hedonist). In her article, Julie posits many ideas, some of which I agree with, many of which I don’t.

The basic premise, as far as I can discern, is that there’s a percieved air of privledge that comes from shoping for organic foods at places, and that some people have been wrongly equating that privledge with eating well. Julie’s idea is that one can eat well regardless of where the food is purchased. Good eating and good food are the provence of all, not just for those who can afford to shop exclusively at Whole Foods. To this idea, I completely agree.

The issue, she leads us to believe, is that she’s trying to equate purchasing motivations with ethics and misses the entire point of organic foods and the larger isssues with supermarkets and the food distribution industry.

There are several issues here, and I don’t wish to muddy any of them, but all are important to note when it comes to this.

It is my belief that most individual food purchasing choices are based off of the following factors:

  • - accessibility
  • - cost
  • - knowledge of product

The first two items here are mostly out of the control of the individual consumer. I cannot go in to a Kroger’s and demand they sell dry aged beef, or that they sell milk at a lower price. Well, I could, but they would shrug off my requests unless they were done en masse. If enough people asked for dry aged beef, or if enough people stopped buying milk at higher prices, then the market (both literal and economic) would make the necessary adjustments.

The only item that an individual consumer does have control over is the third item, knowledge of product. The issue with this is that the majority of consumers, both rich and poor have put their faith in the quality of their food in the hands of the purchasers for the major supermarket chains. We, as a consumer culture, have given the responsibility of finding quality food to complete strangers whose number one priority is to make money for their stockholders.

The Organic movement came about in response to this. Folks who initiated the organic movement realized that many of the foods that had become industrialized (in order to feed the millions of consumers at grocery stores) had been made cheaper at the cost of quality, environment and sustainability. When the organic food industry finally was able to sell foods on a regular basis, the economic model in place that delivered the product to a person’s plate added more to the cost of the food.

Have some organic companies gone overboard? Absolutely. In some instances, some foods marked as organic clearly don’t need to be labeled as such (do we really need organic sodas?). In other instances, industrial farms simply make a better product.

But the larger issue here is that the Organic movement (and to a lesser extent Whole Foods)is a direct response to many of the unethical behaviors of the supermarket industry. In short, those who believe in the organic movement have decided to take back the responsibility for knowing the foods that they eat.

The issue here is not those who can afford to shop at Whole Foods versus those who can “only” afford to shop at Key Food or Western Beef (or Safeway or Piggly Wiggly). The issue here is knowledge of food, regardless of where one shops. Whole Foods does allow, rightfully or wrongly, one to feel better about where they shop, because Whole Foods sells themselves as a corporation willing to do the extra leg work needed to assure good food and good practices. This costs money, but allows a person to put faith back in their food retailer (On a bit of a tangent, I think that such faith in Whole Foods is a bit lazy, but this is simply my own opinion).

I think Julie is a bit wrong here, finding classism in an issue where no classism truly exists. Good food can be had anywhere. Give a person an egg, some flour, some milk and some butter and they can own the world. I know of no one (and admittedly, my sampling population is lacking) who looks down at folks who buy non-organic foods or shop at places other than Whole Food’s and Farmers’ Markets. When Julie writes “What makes the snobbery of the organic movement more insidious is that it equates privilege not only with good taste, but also with good ethics.” Whole Foods and other purveyor of organic goods are simply a market response to a food industry clouded in darkness, rather than a concerted division between the haves and have nots.

What I do find is people putting less and less faith in the food distribution network. People are growing tired of the choices we’re being given, as well as the various farming and selling practices done in our name. The issue, as I can see it, is ensuring a level of transparency in the food distribution network that allow consumers to make informed purchases, regardless of purchasing ability. Transparency, I should note, that doesn’t currently exist, nor does the industry seem too keen on allowing.

UPDATED: Needed to alleviate some glaring double and triple negatives, and to clarify some thoughts.