Upon reading the quote from Sandor Ellix Katz's call to fermentation activism in my last post, a reader of this blog raised the concern that such an emphasis on food as politics might encourage laziness in other arenas. What if, for example, folks use proof of their organic purchases to exculpate themselves for driving a hummer? Or present loaves of home-baked bread to justify wasting water and leaving all the lights on?
These are extreme examples, of course, but, after mulling it over for a few days, I think there is some validity to the concern. I have to admit, I am regularly surprised to see, when waiting in line at my local food co-op, the shiny covers displayed in the checkout aisles, of such mainstream magazines as O and Women's Health. What kind of person shops here and buys those magazines? I ask myself. Clearly, there are consumers out there whose local and sustainable choices are not accompanied by larger cultural critique. I'm willing to bet, however, that their lack of cultural critique does not stem from, but rather predates, their awareness about food. What about the other set of co-op shoppers? Those who choose to patronize the co-op as part of a greater set of political principles - can stressing the activism inherent in their personal gastronomic choice perhaps promote apathy or inaction in other parts of their lives?
One aspect of the issue is that getting political about food largely means redefining one's role as a consumer. How political I am is defined by what I buy, and where I buy it (and what sort of bags I use to carry it home). Most of the advice offered by prominent food pundits (fundits?) like Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle concerns how to be the right kind of consumer (join a CSA, shop at farmer's markets, read food labels closely). For some people, this just means positioning oneself as a non-consumer (you cultivate, bake, or ferment). Either way, one's identity as an eater or activist exists within or in relation to, profit-driven systems of food production.
I don't intend to decry or diminish the importance of being a conscientious and responsible consumer. Buying directly from local farmers, paying attention to what's in packaged food, and tending gardens and P-patches are superlatively important. But limiting our activism to the sphere of consumer choice is not only slow in change-making, but is also extremely isolating. And it is that isolation, I think, that is dangerous.
In his book, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, Bill McKibben coins the term "hyper-individualism," in reference to Americans' increasing isolation from families and communities. He attributes the hyper-individualist trend to a range of lifestyle changes over the last 100 years or so, from cultural narratives about "making something of yourself," to suburbanization and 2-career families, to television and the Internet. I've found the concept poignant in thinking about food issues.
The call to food action in someways manifests McKibben's hyper-individualism, in that it primarily politicizes individual consumer actions and choices. An individual's consumer choices are just that: choices a person makes alone in the supermarket or in the kitchen, of what to buy and what to eat. There is very little community or interpersonal connection in consumer choice. [McKibben cites research showing that shoppers have as many as 10 times the number of conversations at farmers markets than they do at grocery stores, claiming that shopping locally will change your social life. I disagree - I have more conversations at the farmer's market because I make more transactions, not because I make more friends - food buying is still a rather solitary act.]
If eaters are not supported by or accountable to a community of food activists, their choices remain isolated, disconnected from any larger politicized story. Is spending 20 minutes in the meat section of the food co-op, agonizing over whether to buy 100% organic broilers, or grass-fed antibiotic free roasters, really a political act, if I'm just going home to cook the chicken for myself? Or does this endless emphasis on what to buy just make private martyrs of all of us? And worse, does the time I spend fretting about poultry purchases take away from time I might spend writing letters to senators, signing petitions, or attending rallies and meet-ups?
I want to say, let's worry less about each specific purchase (or non-purchase, as the case may be), and worry more about talking to each other and to the people who make food policy decisions.