For breakfast, I usually have a cappuccino—espresso made in an Alessi pot and mixed with organic milk, which has been gently heated and hand-fluffed by my husband. I eat two slices of imported cheese—Dutch Parrano, the label says, “the hippest cheese inNew York” (no joke)—on homemade bread with butter. I am what you might call a food snob. My nutritionist neighbor drinks a protein shake while her 5-year-old son eats quinoa porridge sweetened with applesauce and laced with kale flakes. She is what you might call a health nut. On a recent morning, my neighbor’s friend Alexandra Ferguson sipped politically correct Nicaraguan coffee in her comfy kitchen while her two young boys chose from among an assortment of organic cereals. As we sat, the six chickensFergusonand her husband, Dave, keep for eggs in a backyard coop peered indoors from the stoop.
This Newsweek article from 2010 nicely illustrates the extent to which ‘foodie’ culture in theUnited Statesis utterly out of reach for the middle and lower classes. As much as we all lament ‘food deserts’ in poor neighborhoods, access to fresh vegetables, locally produced cheeses and high-quality meats aren’t inaccessible because they’re not available. They’re inaccessible because they’re not affordable.
I’ve been sick the last two days, and I spent my time in bed watching Jamie Oliver’s documentaries (OK, reality shows) on his attempts to reform school lunches (‘Jamie’s School Dinners’) and the eating habits of a British city (‘Jamie’s Ministry of Food’).
Both shows, and the efforts they represent, are terrific. One thing neither show takes seriously, though, is the higher cost of healthier food. In School Dinners, Oliver convinces a school cafeteria to switch from French fries to Moroccan couscous. The kids eventually take to it, but the healthier food initially costs more than four times more than the frozen-and-deep-fried fare.
One of the more moving episodes of Ministry of Food has Oliver counselling a single mom who spends nearly her entire weekly welfare check of 80 pounds on fast food. Her daughter has never eaten with a knife and fork. Oliver teaches her to cook a chicken breast wrapped in prosciutto with a side of asparagus.
By the end of the show, the single mom is not only cooking five meals a week, but has enrolled in culinary school. It’s inspiring, sure, but the show never returns to the issue of her weekly check fundamentally not being enough to feed herself and her daughter anything resembling a well-balanced diet.
Both shows highlight the importance of political, rather than individual, advocacy on issues related to food. The single mom in theUKbuys shitty food not only because it’s convenient, but because bite for bite, it’s cheaper than some fucking broccoli. Until sugar and fat are more expensive than vitamins and minerals, this will continue.
What we need isn’t more artisanal cheeses and small, scale local farms. Micro-batches and farmer’s markets will never be anything more than a signalling device for the rich. To provide access to healthy food to the poor, we need more factories, not fewer. Make carrot sticks on the same scale as Pop-Tarts. Get muesli distributed with the same breadth as Lucky Charms.
Until we put our factory-farming infrastructure to work producing the kinds of foods we want people consuming rather than avoiding, healthy-eating campaigns are nothing more than one more institution giving the poor lessons in how to cook a chicken breast wrapped in prosciutto.