Food Fighter

Grist's Tom Philpott on why class needs to be a part of the food debate

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?

Absolutely. Because I feel like there’s so much cultural and economic momentum behind the status quo. Take something like cooking skills—it is something that you learn generationally. I don’t want to hark back to some golden age—I mean, Julia Child grew up with servants—and so it isn’t like everyone used to cook and now they don’t. There has always been a class thing around food. But cooking is something that we learn most commonly from our parents, and it is something that can be lost in a single generation. And that skill has been widely lost and regenerating it is no easy task. The culture of convenience is so widespread and ingrained that it will be super hard to change. And so yeah, I do get discouraged. But what kind of knocks me out of that is the fact that in our intellectual culture there is a tendency to look for big solutions. When you look at the food situation like that, it seems impossible. But when you think about it in terms of small solutions, plural, you start to get hope. There are people working on this on the ground. The solution is right in front of us. I think the little projects I often write about, as they gain momentum—and as they sometimes lose momentum and flop—can become a model for policies that can be effective.

For example, someone like Will Allen who started Growing Power in Milwaukee. This guy’s been at it for twenty-five years, and he’s trained a whole lot of people how to grow food in small places—and he’s reintroducing the culture of fresh food, of home cooking, into places where the economy has cratered, and the food culture cratered with it. It’s not a fluke at this point. One of the knocks against Will Allen that I think is so ridiculous is that he’s not creating a viable food economy because his operation has relied on foundation money. My response to that is that our entire food system is propped up by subsidies of some kind, and the infamous crop subsidies are just the tip of the iceberg. There are de facto subsidies like letting feedlots pollute without having to pay for it. But my original point about him is that we should look at him as a model, look at the stuff that has really worked and then figure out how we can put public policy behind this. That’s where I think you could start to get some traction.

Like what?

The model of taking unused urban land and doing intensive agriculture. By that I mean, the Will Allen style, or what’s called French Intensive. In the nineteenth century in France, and really all of Europe, there was a land crunch and their agricultural productivity was declining. In the cities, and even in the countryside, they had little space and people figured out a way to grow a lot of food in a really small space that wasn’t resource-intensive. You build up compost so you have really fertile soil, and you plant really close together so your crops create a canopy that crowds out weeds, and because your soil is so fertile you can get away with planting things so close together. Think of a modern American city. An incredible amount of fertility, in the form of food, is extracted from the soil somewhere and brought into the city, and people eat it and it goes into the sewage system and that creates this pollution problem that is dealt with at great expense. And then you’ve got all this food waste that generally goes into landfills. Will Allen’s insight is to capture the waste stream and turn it back into soil fertility to feed these intensive beds. That could happen in any city. And there could be a city employee, a director of fertility, and there could be the city agriculture director.

Create incentives for this kind of thing, through policy, the way we currently incentivize our industrial food system.

Right. You could take what he’s doing in Milwaukee and formalize it. This is what gives me both hope and frustration. We’ve got these models but we don’t form policy based on them. Cities have a water policy and an electricity policy. They need a food policy. That’s how we start to overcome some of this inertia.

How did you come to see this class connection in the food story?

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?

Yes, and I think the 2012 farm bill is going to be really interesting. The movement got so galvanized in 2008 and achieved only marginal gains in that bill. But we need a broader agenda than just “cut farm subsidies.” That’s the one that resonates with people, but it doesn’t solve the bigger problem. We need investments in infrastructure and different incentives for farmers.

The kinds of things that you’re talking about will draw the same charges of socialism that were leveled at Obama’s health care plan.

That’s right, and actually the farm subsidies become useful in my response. You’re calling me a socialist because I want public investment in infrastructure, but you’re not complaining that we have between $12 billion and $25 billion to put into subsidies each year. How is that not socialism? It’s big government taking people’s tax dollars and redistributing them.

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Brent Cunningham is CJR’s managing editor.