The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

I’m An Elitist

October 18th, 2009 · 2 Comments · Posted in food news, Industrial agriculture, Sustainability

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Support local food

Once again my pollanista cohorts are in a twist over the ravings of James McWilliams, the writer who argues that there’s something sinister about the local food movement. In a three part series of posts at the New York Times, McWilliams lately has been ranting that farmers markets are not only “elitist,” but actually sow the seeds of social unrest. (Read the posts here, here and here.)

Broadly speaking, McWilliams disputes whether local food is really more sustainable or whether it actually helps build healthy communities. I would love to see him in a debate with agro-ethicist Wendell Berry, who, quite eloquently, has made a career out of arguing–gently–that it is precisely because we so desperately require a sustainable food system and healthy communities that we must return to a local food economy.

I wonder if McWilliams has read Wendell Berry. If so, he must realize that by attacking the premise of local food he is making the case for what Berry has rightly called the system of “economic totalitarianism” in which our society currently struggles. That would be the giant, faceless corporations which, aided and abetted by our elected government and USDA, have hijacked the making and delivery of our food with such disastrous results. The unaccountable food corporations who stand to lose most from the local food movement are the ones responsible for wiping out family farms, destroying rural communities, polluting water and air, eroding and poisoning soil–all in the name of an unwholesome food product that poses a danger to the nation’s health.

I would love to see McWilliams try to debate Berry on these points. In a joint appearance with Michael Pollan on National Public Radio in August, McWilliams was demure to the point of shrinking into complete silence. Against the bulwark constructed by Pollan and Berry, McWilliams’ arguments become simply fatuous and rhetorical.

Even conventional farmers, I think, are beginning to realize that in arguing for a more organic, more natural, more community-based food system, Pollan is not attacking them. Rather, his critique is aimed at the totalitarian aspects of an industrial food system owned and operated by unaccountable corporations. Farmers know that it is not they who are profiting from an agriculture that destroys the land, destroys communities, destroys the environment, all in the name of mediocre–even dangerous–food. These farmers have become indentured servants to the industrial system. Or, like so many dairy farmers lately, they have simply gone bankrupt.

This is the system that McWilliams defends when he attacks the local food movement, when he attacks the very premise on which the local food movement has been erected. Of course he is correct when he says that farmers markets are “elitist,” if you accept the standard definition of “elite” to mean “the best,” or the “choicest” of its kind. There is no denying the quality of goods to be found at farmers markets. For freshness, appearance, variety and the care with which they were grown, there is no comparison between farmers market fare and the produce you find in the typical supermarket.

By that standard, farmers markets are certainly “elite” in the same sense that the Green Berets are considered an “elite” fighting force, the very best our military (or U.S. Army, at any rate) has to offer. And that would make me an elitist, too, since that is precisely the kind of food I prefer for myself and my family. But rather than shrink from the elitist label, I embrace it. I have no problem at all admitting that when I put food on the table, I want it to be the best. But McWilliams’ goes further to say that farmers markets are a potential wedge in the community because they are “exclusive.” People of lesser means may not have access to a farmers market, and may not be able to afford its goods even if they did.

McWilliams has a point. Farmers markets typically follow the money. But his argument is specious because you hardly need a farmers market to join the “elite” club of good food enthusiasts. Other than eggs, I do not buy my food at farmers markets. I grow my own. There was a time when most people got their food this way. Now, more people are discovering that the best food in the world can be incredibly inexpensive. It’s called gardening. For the price of a seed packet, you can have the best food money can buy, and it doesn’t get more local.

If you don’t have your own land, you can join a community garden. If you don’t have a community garden nearby, you can start one. Or you can band together with neighbors and share backyards. Food growers like Will Allen are proving that food can be grown almost anywhere–in cities, in vacant lots, on rooves, even in soil poured over asphalt. In fact, all it takes to join the food elite is a clay pot and a little sunshine.

In this way, we are all doing our part to resist the totalitarian food economy, to safeguard our own health as well as that of the planet. This is the subversive message of Michelle Obama’s White House garden. We are an “elite” group of food insurgents, and we should be proud of that. We are making way for a better future.

It’s hard to know where Mr. McWilliams thinks he is going with his anti-local screed. But I predict he will fade from the scene and not be emembered long. Where food is concerned, there’s a shitstorm approaching in the form of a rapidly heating planet and rapidly dwindling oil and water supplies. Our shrinking world is closing in on the industrial food system. The day may be close when food security becomes a concern for everyone. At that point, look for the local food movement to morph from “elite” to absolutely essential.

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  • vmccaffrey

    Wendell Berry will be at the Central Library in Arlington Va on Tuesday May 4th at 7pm. PLease come out and hear what this great writer has to say. If you have any questions please call Vicky at 703-228-6321.

  • vmccaffrey

    The Wendell Berry event is happening On May 4th, 2010 at Central Library in Arlington Va.
    The address is:

    1015 N. Quincy St
    Arlington Va, 22201