In 2004, Tom Philpott quit his job as a financial journalist in New York City and moved with his girlfriend and her sister to take over their father’s farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Today, Maverick Farms is an educational nonprofit farm that promotes sustainable agriculture and family farming as a community resource. Philpott is also a food columnist for Grist Magazine, where he is one of the only American journalists to bluntly confront the class issues that permeate our food system. CJR’s Brent Cunningham talked to him in March.
What does class have to do with the effort to change the way food is produced and consumed in this country?
I think about it from two different lenses. First, if you start with the idea that our food system is broken and you want to build a movement to reform it, one thing you have to confront head on is that the food industry is a massive business—something like a trillion dollars a year—and it’s a huge employer, one of the biggest in the U.S., and paradoxically the people working in the food system tend to be among the lowest-paid workers in the country; I’m talking about farm workers, meat packers, etc. So you’ve got this vast army of workers who get paid very little and in the end can really only afford to eat the cheapest crap. The second lens is how, since the 1970s, wages adjusted for inflation have stagnated, and starting about the same time—not coincidentally—the USDA switches policies and starts encouraging farmers to grow as much food as possible and you get this long period of declining food prices; you get this steady drop in food expenditures as a percentage of income. I don’t think you can run an economy with structurally stagnated wages without food being really cheap.
You situate the food debate in this broader globalized economic and cultural reality.
Food doesn’t get enough attention from the people making the economic critique. There are economists who discuss this stuff, but not really as it pertains to food. And on the food side, Michael Pollan [the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma] is a brilliant man but he doesn’t think in terms of economics, and that is real common in what might be called the agri-intellectuals.
To extent class does surface in the food debate, it tends to be about whether organic food is too expensive for the masses.
Right, and where else I think it goes is this issue of personal responsibility. I believe that personal choice can make a difference, and that you can eat cheaply without resorting to processed foods. But you have to keep in mind the structural things that keep processed food so available and so easy and so cheap. People like Pollan and Alice Waters [owner of Chez Panisse and doyenne of the sustainable-food movement] are capable of lapsing into this personal responsibility critique, and I think it is so limited. Both of them know that, I think, and both of them are careful not to do that, but I think it’s very easy to lapse into it, and when they do the journalists covering them don’t press them on it. There’s a long tradition of blaming the poor for their problems. Part of me doesn’t want to begrudge someone who has some awful job—a job that I would not want to do—from enjoying a cheeseburger at the end of the day.
The key, as you say, is to make those healthy choices more accessible to people. That’s a massive job. Do you ever feel you are tilting at windmills?