Is the Food Movement Elitist and if so, Does it Matter?


My interest in food and my work within the food movement began, as passions do, at the personal level. I love eating and cooking and growing food, and I wanted to learn more about what went into the food I ate. Simple as that.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve done a lot of self-educating, in the form of reading, research and writing about food. I’ve also shared what I’ve learned with friends and family, who, to my pleasant surprise, seem interested in the topic, even if not to the total-immersion-extent that I am. The universality of this issue is clear, since we all need to eat.

Which brings me to the title of this post. The local/organic/sustainable food movement has been accused, with some justification, of being elitist. If you google the words “food movement elitism,” you’ll find a lot of attacks on Alice Waters, widely considered by many to be the founder of the local food movement in this country. Alice Waters is an easy target, and much of what she advocates can be construed as elitist, in the sense that buying and eating local fresh food is too expensive for a number of people to afford. For this reason, many are left out of the food movement, not because they are indifferent or unaware, but simply because they can’t afford to participate in it.

However, there is another, seldom-acknowledged, form of elitism at work, specifically the assumptions that many within the food movement hold about people outside it. I recently had discussions with several friends and acquaintances, including a local farmer, about why low-income people don’t eat local, fresh, organic food. I was surprised at their responses (I’d characterize these folks as liberal progressives). One person said that if people just stopped buying soda they could afford fruits and vegetables instead. Another said that if people took the money they spent on drugs and alcohol and used it for food, they could afford to eat properly (he was apparently equating the term “low-income” with “substance abuser,” something that really surprised me). Several people commented, in rather disparaging ways, that if people understood more about nutrition and health they’d make better choices. Not one of the people I spoke with talked about the cost of high-quality food as a barrier to eating better. As a low-income person myself, I was amazed at these responses.

We must re-examine our own assumptions about who eats good food and why or why not. This kind of intellectual or moral elitism is equally damaging to the food movement, because it creates an “us” vs. “them” dichotomy. In fact, cost is the primary barrier to eating well. Another issue for many people is lack of access, in terms of geographical proximity, to a farmer’s market or full-service grocery store. If you don’t have a car, getting to the best food can be a challenge. A third issue for some people is lack of knowledge about how to cook fresh foods.

Is the food movement elitist? If by elitist you mean does it exclude people, then yes. Does that mean we should dismiss it, or disparage it? No. If all we do is participate in the local food movement ourselves, then we are being elitist, but if we make our personal participation a springboard for other activities that allow more people to have access to good local fresh food, then we are combating that elitism. Again, Alice Waters is a good exemplar. She is best known as the founder of the restaurant Chez Panisse in the Bay Area, and for her decades of advocating for greater availability of fresh local food. However, she is also the founder of an innovative school lunch program in the Berkeley school district, which serves a wide variety of children of various income levels and ethnicities. This program, Edible Schoolyard, provides fresh local foods in the school cafeteria, and also includes a school garden and cooking classes, in which kids learn to grow and cook the foods they eat. She’s also expanded the Edible Schoolyard program to the national level, in the hopes of putting edible gardens in public schools nationwide.

Another common target of the charge of elitism is Slow Food, a movement founded twenty years ago by Carlo Petrini in Italy. At its best, Slow Food’s events and efforts promote the best of the local food movement: fresh local food and appreciation for regional cuisine and unique food cultures. However, Slow Food has too often been what Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved, a scathing critique of the global food system and its impact on cultures around the world, characterizes as “a bunch of tossers who sit around talking about olive oil.” Here’s an interesting discussion of Slow Food’s attempts to re-brand itself as a socially conscious movement.

In a recent article in New Voices, a Jewish student magazine, Michael Pollan, the food movement’s most eloquent advocate, acknowledges this elitism. “A lot of important movements begin as elitism—women’s suffrage, abolition, environmentalism,” he says. “And then, hopefully, they filter down and they don’t remain elite.” In an interview with Rebekah Denn in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Pollan added, “If the food movement is still elitist in 20 years, that is an indictment, that will be an indictment. But it’s a very new movement and I don’t think we should write it off because right now it’s elitist.”

Pollan’s historical overview of social change may be correct, and his assessment that the food movement in its current state is elitist is true, but we cannot simply sit back and wait for food equality to trickle down to the majority of the population. Access to high quality food should be a universal right, not a privilege. As Jews we are charged with the obligation of tikkun olam, repairing the world. If we have the means, it’s great to support local fresh food production where we live, through membership in a CSA, buying at farmer’s markets, or growing our own. However, it’s not enough for us to merely participate in the food movement ourselves. We also need to channel our efforts to include everyone, particularly poor folks. Although the systemic issues that contribute to these inequities may not be solved except at the national level, as individuals, there are a number of things we can do right now within our own communities to insure everyone has access to high-quality fresh local food.

Some ideas:

1) Volunteer with an organization that helps low-income people grow their own food. In Portland we have a non-profit, Growing Gardens, which provides food security to low-income folks by teaching them how to grow their own fruits and vegetables. In several local community food assessments published here, a majority of the participants surveyed said they’d be interested in a home garden program.

2) Grow extra food in your own garden and donate it to a local food pantry. This is an idea that’s been gaining national attention, particularly over the past year or so, and it’s an easy way to help bridge the gap. For an example of one such program, check out the Oregon Food Bank’s Plant-A-Row program.

3) If you don’t garden but have a yard, consider renting your yard out to an urban farmer. In Portland we have a terrific program, City Garden Farms, a CSA that sells vegetables from a collection of urban vegetable plots and vacant lots scattered around Portland. If you’re interesting in farming but don’t have access to land, try doing something similar in your community.

4) Find out if your local farmer’s market accepts food stamps and WIC vouchers. If they don’t, work with them to include these programs and increase access to locally produced foods. In Portland, EBT (electronic benefits transfer) machines are provided to farmer’s markets at no cost, but these machines require a landline. For markets without access to a building with a landline, wireless machines are available, but they can cost up to $800. While many farmers’ markets in Portland have EBT machines, not all do. If this is true in your community, consider finding ways to fund the machines, either through allocation of city funds, or grant programs.

Our olam is in dire need of some tikkun, and where better to start than by making sure everyone can eat the best food available?

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25 Responses to “Is the Food Movement Elitist and if so, Does it Matter?”

  1. Fawn Says:

    Great article Liz! I am glad you pointed out Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard program. Also, while I don’t disagree with the elitist assessment, I think it is more complex than that sometimes.

    I am thinking of our community garden program here in Portland, which is mostly used by renters, by in large not a wealthy elitist bunch, many of whom are immigrants and most of whom are low or middle income. Before we owned a home with garden space, it was a great way to grow our own food and connect with people in our community. I am also a huge fan of the Oregon Food Bank Learning Garden, which, like Growing Gardens, focuses it efforts on food security for low-income folks and local, organic produce.

    Thanks for writing this–great topic to be thinking about!

  2. Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster Says:

    Great article! I think you hit on a number of the key issues.

    A good article recently that wasn’t specifically about food but I think is related was this one in the Washington Post:

    It’s not just that the poor can’t afford healthier options, or that unhealthy options are subsidized. it is also that because of economic realities, they may end up paying more than the better off for the same unhealthy food.

    But I think we also have to give a lot of credit to the urban community gardens, which are by and large not an elitist phenomenon, but communities coming together to empower themselves. The rest of us have just begun to catch on.

  3. judi Says:

    Thanks for this article, Liz. My family has stopped buying at our local farmers’ market because the prices were way out of line with the produce that was being sold. And one of the big “draws” to this market is that they accept WIC vouchers- a joke, when a medium-sized tomato runs about $5…

    The non-profit organization that runs the local farmers’ markets was recently under fire for its treatment of vendors. In an online article, the director reported that one of her problems was that WIC receipts were down. One of the reader comments (excerpted) caught my eye:

    “…And by the way, a drop in food stamps at the market is hardly indicative of a price problem. It’s that the poor are already at Ferraro’s buying bacon, hot dogs, pork and beans and canned or frozen vegetables and simply chose not to buy from your markets. It’s people like my family who go to the markets and consistently spend significant dollars for food… “

  4. Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster Says:

    It’s amazing how farmer’s market prices can fluctuate. When I was living in Manhattan, the prices at the markets further north (say 96th street and above), were much lower than those in other parts of the UWS.

    At the markets that I did go to, I appreciated the diversity of economic class that shopped there. Some of the markets were next to public housing, and it would have been very sad if the people who lived next door were priced out.

  5. beth h Says:

    Great article! Lots of good info, a great deal of which I didn’t know about before.

    One issue: Depending on what part of the country you live in, the cost of driving to get to a Farmers’ Market may raise the price of that 5-dollar tomato (seriously??!) to 6 or 6.50, especially if gas costs continue to rise over the summer.

    It would be interesting to see what farmers’ markets in various parts of the country are doing to promote sustainable transport — of produce to market, AND of purchased produce to peoples’ home.? I’m blessed to live in bike-mad Portland where LOTS of folks ride for transportation; but what’s it like in cities and towns where bike access is downright scary and public transit service is poor-to-awful?

    Transportation is one of the costs of bringing produce to our table that deserves a closer look.

    Thanks again for a compelling article.

  6. Liz Says:

    I’ve found that the farmer’s market prices here are consistently lower than those of our local organic grocery store chain. This is an apples-to-apples comparison (pardon the pun) of organic produce, as opposed to conventionally grown produce. I’m sure the farmer’s market prices are that much higher when compared to conventionally grown produce, but that’s not really a valid comparison. Still, when you can’t afford either the FM or the organic produce in the store, it’s sort of a moot point.

    One of our local farmer’s markets serves a primarily low-income immigrant neighborhood, and they offered a WIC/Food Stamp matching program during the month of July last year. That is, they offered to match dollar-for-dollar, up to $20 of purchases with food stamps and/or WIC vouchers. They got a lot of response to this offer, and attendance at the market went up each week during that month.

  7. Miri Levitas Says:

    I appreciate your article. While I’m not sure what I think about the movement being elitist I’m glad you brought it up because it’s certainly something to think about. I saw Food Inc. last week and the movie touches on this issue. It seems that some lower-income families are paying more for medicines for things like diabetes which could have been prevented by eating healthier foods to begin with.

  8. Lauren Says:

    This is a great article!

    I work on a program called the Veggie Mobile. We sell fresh (often local) produce at whole sale cost in low income communities in the capital region of New York.

  9. RW Says:

    Urban farmers’ markets are a weekend diversion for the primarily well to do white urbanites who still take the Alice Waters/slow food movements seriously, and have not (and probably never will) address the actual food buying needs of working class and poor people who actually need to buy food. Judi’s comment about the absurdity of accepting WIC for produce that costs five or six times what any reasonable person on a budget would spend on produce at a chain supermarket captures the sad state of a food movement stuck in a bourgeois bohemian rut.

    Don’t bother asking yourself what you can do to share your enlightened world view on food with the downtrodden, benighted masses. They know how to overpay for a tomato the same as you and I do, but choose not to. You’ve made your choice, and they will make theirs.

  10. dividend Says:

    One issue not touched upon in the post is that of niche-marketing and lifestyle-branding, things so ubiquitous in U.S. culture that it would be foolish to think that the “slow food” and “eat local” movements are somehow immune.

    The fact that these “movements” get so much attention in the Times’ Style Section and Magazine, the pages of Jew (oops I mean, New) York, and innumerable blogs, does not seem to have their proponents batting an eyelid. It would be one thing if folks simply adhered to certain principles, but their anxiety in needing to incessantly trumpet these facts to the world– and be vindicated by coverage in high-brow, white-bread media– strikes the so-called commoner as pathetic if not laughable.

    Moreover, the presumptive quantity of self-branding and group-branding, as with any successful marketing campaign, eclipses the rigor and quality of the products themselves. “Organic,” thanks to the USDA, is a term that can be bandied about by just about anyone these days, even if their wares have been fertilized in pesticide-laden pig offal. “Local” is a branding terminology infinitely malleable in the eye of its beholder.

    What’s worse, some current proponents of these trends seem to think that it is still 2005, and that the US is not in a frighteningly deep and massive Recession. This is just embarrassing– why would anyone want to hitch their wagon to the rotting corpse of that kind of excess? Is it similarly now “hip” or “retro” to start investing with Bernie Madoff?

    Further– and this is my personal experience– the proponents and hawkers of these fancifully-labeled commodities have the most venemous demeanors of *anyone* in NYC I have seen trying to hawk their wares. These are attitudes borne out of the high-school-popularity-contest, “what shoes/music do you have” set who wish to extend this childishness well into middle-age adulthood, coupled with the subject of this post: the conflicted (and rightful) worry of being perceived as “elitist” or snobby.

    Were it actually for my personal health and sense of well-being, I would much rather put a $5 “local organic” apple– actually make that a $10 one– on a credit card at Whole Foods rather than suffer the embittered, insecure wrath of these would-be cafeteria “cool table” squatters who brandish the “good” kind of Lunchables ™.

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