Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Food for all

One of the regrets I have is that I missed visiting Bill and Nicolette Niman's ranch in Bolinas, CA on my way down the Pacific Coast. I was getting over the random bacterial infection in my thumb, as some of you may recall, and was laying low, relatively speaking, in the Bay Area for a few days. But after reading Nicolette's impassioned op-ed in this Sunday's LA Times, I realize I truly missed a brush with a kindred spirit. Drat. I need to get myself out there one day. We'd have lots to talk about....

Nicolette brings up a number of points that I've been grappling with, including the seemingly mainstream perception that good (aka organic/sustainably produced) food is something that only the wealthy can afford and have the luxury of choosing, and that those who talk of access of all Americans, or, really, all people around the world, to this sort of food are ignorant or elitist. No. There are many problems, but the lack of access to fresh, healthy food for all is not something that just young, well-to-do, over-educated white people sit around yapping about. From urban farmers in Detroit and Milwaukee to activists in Oakland to school gardeners in Houston, we're all working on it. Take the ethnically and age diverse DSLBD (Department of Small and Local Business Development... welcome to DC gov't acronymns) meeting on getting more fresh food into corner stores last Friday: I was one of only a handful of people who looked and sounded like me in the room. We were all there for a common purpose, though we brought a broad range of experience and perspectives to the table. Everyone deserves access to good food. Period.

And producers of that good food should be paid a fair price for it. At the risk of climbing up onto my soapbox -- mom has a gentle way of pointing out how my tone has a tendency to get a little emphatic and borderline preachy, but here goes -- I agree with Nicolette that Americans have got our priorities all wrong. Really, we spend less than 10% of our income on food? What the heck else are we spending our money on? Healthcare? (That's another soapbox, watch out.) Housing? iPhones? Please, after living on a shoestring budget for the past two years, I know what it's like to not have much money to spend. I'll hardly be rolling in it working for a small, start-up nonprofit. And yet I continue to choose to spend a good-sized chunk of it on food -- specifically local, sustainable food -- and put money directly into the hands of small farmers whenever possible. I'm not saying that everyone can (or should) spend nearly a third of their monthly budget on food; I'm saying that we can (and should) spend more than we currently do on feeding ourselves. Better to pay the grocer than the doctor, right?

Responsibly-produced food does seem to cost more when you reach into your wallet to pay for things at the farmers' market. Don't I know it. Certified organic produce and pastured meats cost a pretty penny these days. But consider what you're paying for. In her op-ed, Nicolette references the "true cost of food" that sustainable growers charge, then points to commodity crop subsidies, tax breaks, and other incentives offered to farmers whose operations are decidedly unsustainable, whose practices have hidden but substantial health, environmental, and social costs that consumers pay for indirectly. I'm not saying that the government should do away with subsidies, but how about rethinking what is subsidized and how?

Unemployment is rampant in our country and many can barely afford to feed their families. And yet there is potential for enough healthy food for everyone in the country (and the world) if we change the way the system works. Thankfully, not only does Ms. Niman point out systemic problems, but she offers solutions, some of which are the very things up for discussion during last week's DSLBD meeting: more widespread acceptance of food stamps, local initiatives to increase food access in underserved communities.

I can't exactly speak for Nicolette -- as I said, regrettably, we've never met -- but I wholeheartedly agree with her that together we can (and should) demand fresh, healthy, sustainably-produced food for all.

(You know, I just might add another seat for her at my fantasy dinner party....)

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