I’ve always been a political person, and also really into food and cooking. But I always kept those two things separate. When I really started to make the connection was in late 1990s and early 2000s when I was living in New York City. I joined a CSA and a community garden, and my girlfriend was working for Greenthumb, the city organization that oversees the community gardens. Then Mayor [Rudy] Giuliani declared the gardens “communism” and put them on the auction block, and there began a protracted battle between Giuliani and the community gardeners. In that battle, that is when I really started to think hard about the politics of food and the class issues around food.
When the economy of New York was in freefall in the seventies, the landlords—especially in poor neighborhoods—were literally not making in rent what they were paying in taxes, and there was this rash of fires where landlords would torch their buildings, collect the insurance, and check out, leaving these lots of rubble that the city didn’t have the resources to deal with. Community members organized and cleaned them up—they were often African Americans from the South, or West Indians who came from a tradition of family or community gardens, or in some cases hipsters or hippies that just wanted to garden. These people built these gardens and the city was only too happy to have them do it, and it leased them the lots for a dollar a year. Then came the real-estate boom in the nineties. And if you’re a developer getting federal money to build affordable housing and you go to East New York and walk around the neighborhood and decide which lot you want to build your quote-unquote affordable housing on, the part of the neighborhood that has the community garden is going to be the nicer part because there are people in there all day, eyes on the street, this beautiful space that people care about—there’s going to be a lot less drug dealing on that corner than on the next one over, where there’s just a vacant lot sitting there. The developers really wanted those spots, so Giuliani declared that the dollar-a-year lease was communism and put them on the block.
So sort of analyzing the way that whole thing went down, and thinking about why the question wasn’t: How can we support this? But rather: How can we destroy this? That’s when I really got involved in the food movement as more than just a consumer.
What do you think of Michelle Obama’s effort to tackle children’s health and nutrition?
I think it’s amazing to have a First Lady or anyone high up in the administration thinking about these issues and talking about them more or less frankly in public. But I have to say that after all that hype I am really disappointed—though not surprised—by what looks to be the outcome of the school lunch reauthorization proposal. The Obama budget asked for about $1 billion a year, and frankly even that number wasn’t sufficient—it would have added about twenty cents a day to the current amount for ingredients for school lunch. Then [chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee] Blanche Lincoln cuts that in half. Where does that leave Michelle’s efforts? So the money is one thing, but in the end, if she is really serious about this thing, she’s going to have to confront the food industry head-on. And whether she’s willing to do that remains to be seen. Right now it’s about engagement with the food industry, and maybe that’s okay. But at some point, if she’s serious, there will have to be a showdown.
How do you manage the political reality in Washington? How do you translate the vision for this movement with what is actually feasible in the policy-making realm?
I’ve been thinking about this in terms of what happened on health care. They didn’t take out industry, they preserved the role and profitability of the big insurance companies. At the same time, we’ve been led to believe that they are going to provide affordable insurance to 30 million uninsured people. It remains to be seen, but on paper at least they achieved this policy goal and did it without breaking the bank, and overcame incredible opposition. So what would such a thing look like in food policy? The political realists won the day. What could we achieve that would be like that in the realm of food policy?
But that’s got to be the next big battle on the food front, right? To begin to change the policies?