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Food elitists share opinions, not facts
Home The News Food elitists share opinions, not facts
by Steve Kopperud, Executive Vice President – Policy Directions Inc.

If there is reason to despair for the fate of the Republic, it is our collective ability to take our advantages as Americans for granted, whether natural or wrought by the hand of man. I give you the subject of "food," as in what, when, how much, where it comes from, what was put on or in it, who controlled its growth, its processing and sales, and was it happy before it was yanked from the ground, snatched from its mother plant or walked up the ramp to the knock box.

The last decade has seen the rise of the "foodie," those folks who espouse all things organic, natural, holistic, bygone and local. This new voice in the politics of food is increasing in volume, and the noise is coming from chefs, boutique foodservice companies, organic producers with marketing dreams, or a new breed of "journalist" who, with just a Google search, becomes an instant "expert" on all things food. This has led to a cornucopia of books, tapes, "documentaries" and bad movies obsessing on all things food. The careful selection of "facts" – to the exclusion of opposing opinion or a semblance of balance – is the hallmark of these rants, the cornerstone of "point-of-view journalism."

These media point a collective finger at corporate agribusiness as sucking the nutrition, taste and soul out of American food, while further lecturing regular folks about what stuff should be going into their mouths. These essentially high-priced rants about modern food production are generally written by authors or produced by individuals who are, for the most part, upper middle class white folks, who've never known hunger, many of whom are safely ensconced in ivory towers, living comfortable and profitable lives with an affinity for the struggles of the real world best described as tenuous.

I give you the names Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser and Jonathan Safran Foer. These are the generals of a growing army of those who've brought us "food guilt," whether that's their intention or not. The politicization of food can't be laid at their feet, despite some who claim that responsibility proudly; that phenomenon has existed for centuries, traced to droughts, famines, empire building, recalls, global trade, futures markets, food versus fuel and spiking land prices. However, they can be held at least partly to blame for the general public's confusion about what it eats, and the new wave of politics driving the food debate.

Just so we're clear, here are capsulated bios of the people just mentioned:

  • Alice Waters: Chef, founder and owner of Chez Panisse, a restaurant in Berkeley, Calif. She's credited with creating "California cuisine," food based on her philosophy of using only seasonal, locally grown, organic ingredients from small producers. She was born in New Jersey, and educated at the University of California, Berkeley, and in London and Paris. She believes the international shipment of mass-produced food is harmful to the environment and produces inferior products.
  • Michael Pollan: Journalism professor, University of California, Berkeley, born on Long Island, N.Y., educated in Vermont and New York City; author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," "Food Rules: An Eater's Manual," and "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto," along with variations of these books and several articles and manifestos. He believes corn – as feed, as food, as processed food ingredient, i.e. corn syrup – is the main culprit in not only our nutritional/food safety/obesity tightrope walk, but as a major contributor to planetary environmental decline.
  • Eric Schlosser: Journalist, living in Los Angeles, born in New York City, son of a former president of NBC, educated at Princeton and Oxford University; married to actor Robert Redford's daughter; author of "Fast Food Nation," co-producer "Food, Inc."
  • Jonathan Safran Foer: Author, primarily fiction; born in Washington, D.C., educated at Princeton University. Author of "Eating Animals."

Waters' restaurant – based on a scan of a recent menu – charges $60-95 per head for a meal, not counting wine, which can run from $24 to nearly $800 per bottle. She was arguably the first national voice from the culinary/ foodservice sector who questioned mass produced food. Her philosophy is embraced and now routinely echoed by restaurant chefs across the country.

Foer is, well, just the latest in this growing line of folks who write for a living, who've had an epiphany over edibles and are making bucks off the trendiness.

While all are contributors, it's the musings and rhetoric of the Pollans and Schlossers of the world who materially drive much of debate over food these days. This dynamic duo was the source of discussion during a recent national Corporation for Public Broadcasting airing of "Food, Inc." during CPB's "POV" series.

These gentlemen represent the elite of those who've apparently been blessed with an insight on what the planet should eat and how much – or at least they think so. Oprah has anointed them, particularly Pollan ("Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."), investing in him a guru status on dietary wisdom. Their speaking appearances, guest shots on television and interviews in newspaper columns make them the flavor of the month in food "journalism," meaning millions are exposed to their opinions and beliefs with no opposing viewpoint or balance.

They add to their self-description as authors and/or journalists – at least on biographical second reference – the nom de guerre "activist." They ally themselves with organizations that make our blood run cold, and while their philosophies are generally not as radical as those of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Farm Sanctuary or the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), they are, in final analysis, more dangerous because they've got 24/7 access to the media. Anti-meat/anti-technology activists see them as having access to the upper echelons of media closed to the radical. Some politicians hear them and echo them because of the sheer political correctness of their messages.

In Pollan's perfect world we're all armed with guns and GPS devices to hunt down and forage that which we'll eventually consume. For Schlosser, it's the Cargills, the Tysons, the McDonald's and any multinational food company which will bring about Armageddon. According to both, we should shop at the local farmers' market, picking up organic fruits and veggies and longing for those steaks and chops from animals with which we can claim at least a passing relationship because we "know" the folks who raised and killed the animals. When you can't do the "local thing," well, just stop in at your local Whole Foods for that guilt-free food purchase experience.

Those among the consuming public who buy into the religious fervor of the food elite – generally those with extra time and disposable income – are firmly planted within the demographic marketers covet. This has led to an emergence within the food processing and retailing industry of "consumer-generated content," meaning marketing assumptions, on-line polls and customer surveys of this consumer minority leads, in some cases, to products reformulated to fit the trend. "BST-free milk," "raised without antibiotics or hormones," "contains eggs from cage- free hens," all are examples of significant and expensive food industry responses to a minority view, which by the way, have no basis in science or fact.

In reading critiques of their published work, it's clear few begrudge the "foodie" his or her political or lifestyle belief. Nor does agriculture broadly have a problem with any producer who can find profit in a niche market, whether organic, locovore, vegetarian or culture-specific. However, in the broader context of food security, the posturing of these elite betrays their philosophies as fundamentally naïve, elitist and ignorant of the unintended consequences of their words and actions. This element doesn't speak to all of us, only to those who can afford to pay two to three times conventional prices for their food. As in all movements, most of their audience is a sociological and economic reflection of its leaders, with a fair sprinkling of college-age devotees tossed in.

The United States is rightly proud of the fact its food production efficiencies result in Americans paying about 10 percent to 11 percent on average of their disposable income (that's money available after taxes) for food, whether at home or eating out. What isn't well understood is the percentage of income spent by the poorer among us ($10,000-25,000 per year) is closer to 20 percent to 25 percent of take-home pay on average. Our friends in Europe routinely pay in excess of 20 percent of their disposable income on food. Some anti-agriculture critics demand the "cheap food" era in the United States must end in the name of animal rights, environmental protection and a "healthier" diet devoid of meat and meat products. Others admit their food elite philosophy is out of the reach of many folks, but offer no apologies.

According to the last U.S. Census, only about 15 percent of Americans earn $100,000 per year or more, with the national median income sitting near $45,000 a year. The U.S. Department of Labor last year reported the "average U.S. consumer unit" – a family of two adults and a child – earned just over $63,000 a year and spent about 12.4 percent of disposable income on food. However, in a national survey to explore the effects of the current recession on families conducted in mid-2009 by Lake Research Partners, it's revealed families feel the pressure. More than 60 percent of Americans reported a cutback in overall spending; 27 percent of families have had problems paying for basic necessities including mortgage/rent, utilities and food, and 53 percent say they've cut back on the amount they spent on food in the last year. Given the federal poverty level is formulated for a family of four at about $22,000 per year, nearly 70 percent of those surveyed said they'd need $40,000 or more to make ends meet. For non-white families, these challenges are far more pronounced, according to research.

An April, 2008, "Vegetarianism in America" study commissioned by Vegetarian Times magazine, showed 3.2 percent of U.S. adults, follow a vegetarian-based diet, and of that group, 0.5 percent say they are vegans. The Vegetarian Resource Group reports American vegetarians are more likely to live on either coast, reside in large cities, and be women who work outside the home. Twice as many women as men are vegetarian. If the teenage component is added – a subgroup who generally temporarily embrace vegetarianism as trendy or a weight-loss regimen, but who also fall off the meatless wagon – to the mix, you hit the 5 percent of Americans who over the last decade or so claim they eschew meat in their diets.

So, being statistically generous, the food elite speak to the top 15 percent of U.S. households, not to the 85 percent who do not romanticize their food, reject this philosophy out of hand or, more importantly, those who confront significant income and spending challenges on not only what they eat, but when and how much they can afford to eat. To put it bluntly, the average family is ignored, as are single-parents, low-income households and minorities upon whom the burden falls more heavily.

Decision-makers – whether politicians, food companies or producers – must understand their decisions ultimately affect all consumers, not simply those in a narrow market for which they produce. At risk in blindly following the food elite is the creation of a two-tiered food system – one for those with the cash to pay to enjoy what they deem to be a guilt-free diet regardless of fact, science or producer experience, and a second tier for those who don't have that luxury (as in the rest of us).

To the extent possible, it's also imperative that unfounded assertions of "good versus bad foods," baseless assumptions of "healthier" or "safer" are not left unanswered whether the messenger is the foodie, a niche market producer, a television talk show, a book reviewer, a food editor or the guy in the airplane seat next to you. Food security – our ongoing ability to feed this country and a big part of the world as well as we do and at a price the rest of us can afford – depends on it.

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First Posting 25-03-2010 06:51:39 RoyRogers59