Monday, August 18, 2008

The Accessibility of Sustainable Food

I have been thinking a lot about sustainability lately. Specifically how accessible a diet of sustainable food is and how much of a role class and privilege play. Speaking with my cousin, Mia, a few weeks ago got me thinking about the image associated with buying and eating local foods. Even Stuff White People Like jokes that farmer's markets are a place for white people to placate "their undying need to support local economies, and the idea of buying direct from the farmer helps them assuage the fears instilled in them from reading Fast Food Nation (and yes, every white person has read this book)." Mia talked about an upper class, pretentious image that is often associated with this lifestyle and the inaccessibility many feel because of this. I agree. Image is definitely one concern, others include actual cost, accessibility, and time.

What is causing healthy food access problems? (via)

Poverty, or the lack of resources with which to acquire food, is the primary source of food insecurity in the United States. However, extensive documentation shows that the lack of access to food in low-income urban neighborhoods — the simple inability to buy it there — is an important additional factor. Compared to people living in higher-income areas, residents of low-income urban neighborhoods have very limited access to high quality food, enjoy fewer options in the variety of goods that are available to them, and pay higher prices for their groceries when they are available.

There have been efforts made to increase accessibility of healthy foods to low-income families including farms that accept food stamps. This is a great start but the vouchers go a lot further at the grocery store than at the local farmer's market. In May, Thomas wrote,"All modern famines are failures of entitlement, not of food production. There’s enough food, but some people due to poverty or other barriers cannot get it." This certainly makes food a feminist issue.

It also brings up healthy* "choices." I write "choices" in quotes because when the decision is between spending a few dollars more on average per meal or filling up self and kids on a tight budget, it is no longer a true choice. When paying bills or bus fare for work is at stake, making a "choice" to eat less than healthy meals is not just easy, but necessary. Time also plays a huge role. Even if someone can find discount vegetables to purchase, and a pound salmon that was on sale that week (maybe slice it up into pasta to make it go further to feed more people?), preparing this meal takes time that not every family has. Especially single parent families. Again, when the decision is between preparing this healthy meal and being late for your second job or grabbing McD's for the same price, it's no longer a real "choice." However, the price we should consider is not just a monetary one. We pay the price in terms of health, and what years of fast and over-processed foods mean for your body. These "choices" are difficult ones and although it's often easy for us to discuss the negative effects of certain choices people make from the comfort of our overprivileged cubicles, there is a lot more at stake for those we are scrutinizing.

Obviously class and privilege play a huge role. Not just in the "choices" we are able to make about our diets but also in access to fresh and reasonably priced foods. This also has a lot to do with location. For example, i was making Sirniki for a special Sunday morning breakfast last weekend and noticed we were out of eggs. I said to D, "can we go to the farm real quick for some eggs?" Then i thought about what i just said. How many people can just "go to the farm for some eggs." We are lucky enough to live 3 miles away from a farm. One with reasonably priced produce. Mostly because they save on transportation costs (when businesses don't need to pay for goods to come in from other states they save on transport and the goods are cheaper for consumers. This also saves on fuel and energy and lowers the overall carbon footprint... but that's a different post i suppose...) Anyway, i make the choice to pay $3.00 for local eggs versus $2.00 for a carton at the grocery store or $1.50 at WalMart (again, an entirely separate post...). I realize the ability to make this choice is due to privilege and not everyone is able to even consider spending $1.50 more on eggs. It's just not an option for some.

I have a difficult time rationalizing to someone the non-monetary cost of the $1.50 eggs purchased at WalMart. If i did try i would discuss the caged chickens with cut-off beaks who are force-fed medicated pellets of growth hormone, the fuel guzzling Semis used to transport the eggs from a CAFO (factory farms) in Idaho to your local store, the underpaid farmers who gave up family farms because they had no other choice, the uninsured and overworked employees that are not allowed to unionize, the environmental effects, the socioeconomic effects, etc... It is difficult to justify eating cage free eggs when they cost at least $1.50 more to someone struggling to feed his/her family, regardless the other costs involved in the decision. Although I am able to consider the other costs, to try to rationalize them to someone in a different position than me forces me to consider my own classism and privilege.

How can someone eat "healthy" on a time and money budget? Wisebread has an interesting article with resources that include: Eating Healthy - It Will Cost You, Why is it so Expensive to be Healthy? (with a wag of the finger at the objectifying photo of a cropped, overweight, body - poor form, Wisebread, poor poor form...) and Eating Locally on a Budget (for example, i bought lettuce, 4 ears of corn, a dozen eggs, a loaf of bread, 4 cucumbers, and an eggplant last week at the farmer's market for $9 total).

There is a lot of value in eating sustainable foods. Value that is often easier to consider from a privileged perspective. There needs to be more done to make these choices accessible to low income families and to provide information, resources, and support as to what these choices really mean in terms of our country's cultural, economic, agricultural, and ethical sustainability.

Some other neat stuff i found while writing this:
Food, Farming ... Feminism?
Obesity Inversely Linked to Low Income (just don't read the comments...)
Making Women Farmers “Visible” As They Feed Nations
Guerrilla Gardening
Eat Well Guide
and at the very least, watch The Meatrix

*Weight and health are not necessarily correlated. With that said, any comments that show weightist attitudes will be moderated - just a heads up so don't even try it...


phd in yogurtry said...

Your farmer's market is cheaper than ours. I don't even go because its too expensive (feeding family of five).

Great post, relevant, important topic. I think education is a crucial piece. Many simply don't understand nutrition labels, for exmaple.

Anonymous said...

Really great post.

This is something I've been thinking about too, from buying food directly, to producing my own, to being willing to pay more for food if I knew it meant the employees were getting health insurance to lamenting every time and urban grocery store closes in favor of a suburban mega grocery store (that last one especially).

frau sally benz said...

I don't even have a local market to shop at near my apartment. That leaves shopping at NYC my alternative, and that's NOT happening. That's a whole other level of expensive.

And these are great links!

Habladora said...

Great post - I saw that it is on Feministing's front page too - nice.

ahimsa said...

Thanks, I enjoyed your article! I'd like to add a few comments.

... when the decision is between preparing this healthy meal and being late for your second job or grabbing McD's for the same price, it's no longer a real "choice."

I understand the point you're making with this example but one way to help is to reframe this choice. It's not a choice between two extremes, organically/locally-grown food that has been cooked from scratch vs. greasy fast food. As the old saying goes, don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

To pick one example, canned beans are available at all grocery stores. These can be the basis for a meal that is quicker, cheaper, and healthier than making a trip to a fast food chain for a hamburger and fries. Eating lower on the food chain automatically creates a more sustainable and environmentally friendly diet.

Rather than promoting drastic changes (in terms of either money or time) I'd encourage people to make small changes, gradually, that move them toward a more sustainable diet. This can provide a sense of empowerment and is a positive way to fight apathy and helplessness. Every little bit helps.

These two links provide some more information:

I hope this is helpful!

Angelia Sparrow said...

Some of us are buying that food with money made while driving big ol' semi trucks. (I get almost 10 mpg, but I'm the exception)

I feed a family of six. I'm lucky enough have four grocery stores within 3 miles of my house. I shop at the Save-a-Lot, bottom of the line. We go heavy on pasta and rice based meals.

I feel like I'm splurging when I buy the 12 grain bread (the only thing I can stand peanut butter on) for 2.50/loaf instead of the white for 89c/loaf. I'm very aware that extra 1.50 is my peanut butter or my breakfast cereal or a pound of ground turkey and a package of taco seasoning.

I can't tell you where to buy organic anything, except off the back of somebody's truck. The fresh produce at my store is battered and sad. The stuff at Wal-Mart and Kroger is so over-waxed and overbred there is no taste to it. We eat a lot of frozen veggies.


I think this comes down to major misinformation about health, diet and food costs. If we look at things from a long term perspective, we would see that eating local and organic is cheaper in the span of your life, i.e medical bills! The major deaths in the united states are all mostly diet related - diabetes, heart attack, cholesterol problems, etc...
Go around any poor neighborhoods, and basically all you will see are check cashing stores, liquor stores , and corner shops featuring microwave hot dogs. This is f'd up.
I do all my food shopping at the local farmers market - I am lucky in this accessibility. But everyone should be. On a vegetarian diet, my food costs are extremely lower than those of my meat loving friends.
We have to take responsibility for our health- I mean, hello - the government, the insurance companies certainly aren't there to help us.
Most people live their lives in the us eating frozen (dead energy) foods. They eat processed toxic waste. They eat genetically modified foods. This is not true living. This is why it kind of annoys me that the - farmers market- is portrayed (stuff white people like) like some elitist, whole foods fucking concept. Like when republicans attack democrats as espresso sippin' arugala muchin' elitists. We should demand our accesibility to local and healthy foodstuffs. We should educate our children, our friends about sustainable living. We should make ourselves responsible for change. Just investigate it - lets say you eat frozen foods and mcdonalds all week. Take a week off. Try it. Take a week to budget what it would be to feed you and your family on a veggie based diet. I swear, tell me that you don't feel better, that you don't get sick as much...

Helen said...

Great post. Of course it gets even more complicated when you've a food intolerance to get round.

Hi from the other side of the pond!