THE USUAL LAWS OF BACKLASH

In the Diner’s Journal blog in the New York Times, Sam Sifton came up with an apt description of the contrarian streak that lurks deep in the hearts of men and women, especially those who are obsessed with food. He wrote about the “usual backlash laws,” in reference to his three-star review of Marea, an “elegant Italianate restaurant Chris Cannon and Michael White opened this spring” in New York City. With tongue somewhat in cheek, Sifton suggested that even though readers who have eaten at Marea “hail its food and drink” and readers who haven’t “wonder what the fuss is about,” the reverse could soon be true. Thus the usual backlash laws.

Those backlash laws can strike unexpectedly, and indeed the term foodie, once used to describe those with a strapping appetite, has now, in some circles, come to have a negative, cliquish connotation, more appropriate for young teens than for adults. So it should come as no surprise that farmers’ markets and local food have also come under the crosshairs, so to speak, of the backlash movement.

Yet I was surprised. How could anyone find fault with Farmer Kev in his small stall in Winthrop, Maine, selling garlic and zinnias and cabbages and the sweetest little squash this side of the Mississippi? Or with any of the other small-time farmers in this state and across the country? These farmers work hard and long and often just barely break even, while contending with bad weather and pests that constantly threaten their crops. (This year, Farmer Kev lost all 250 of his tomato plants to blight.) How could we, the lucky public who reap the fresh, tasty benefits of this labor, have one harsh word to say about farmers’ markets?

Well, there are contrarians who are unable to make the best of anything, and James McWilliams, an historian at Texas State University, seems to be one of those people. In a recent column in the Times, McWilliams criticizes farmers’ markets, insisting they are only for the elite and are therefore not as benign as they might seem. McWilliams states, “[I]f there’s one thing you do not see at the farmers’ market, it’s socio-economic diversity…” In his opinion, the marginalized are even more marginalized because the food at farmers’ markets is too expensive for them, and the rich not only get to eat fresh, local food but also decide what kind of food is offered in a community. This, in turn, trickles down to undermine the middlemen, who benefit from the current system. Without giving any statistics, McWilliams seems to be suggesting that the big box grocery stores are laying off employees because the small-time farmers have so cut into their profits.

How to respond to this? Food justice is a subject dear to my heart, and it is my belief that all people, no exceptions made, deserve nutritious, delicious food. I could therefore write about this subject for many, many pages, and indeed I have for Wolf Moon Journal. But this is a food blog, and accordingly I will keep my comments relatively brief. Or at least try to.

First, in all fairness, it must be noted that there are, in fact, two food Americas—one for the affluent and one for the poor. Poor neighborhoods in inner cities are notorious for having food deserts, places with an abundance of fast food, convenience stores, and liquor stores, but nary a big box grocery store. Farmers’ markets hardly even come into this equation, and what residents of these food deserts long for are honest-to-God grocery stores that offer a variety of food.

Second, it must also be noted that poor people do struggle to feed their families, and they often don’t have enough money to buy good food. Processed food is frequently cheaper and goes further. In addition, much advertising money is spent promoting this food, and only those with the strongest willpower can resist the pull of advertising. Heck, I’m sometimes tempted by those chip and dip ads, and occasionally chips make their way into our house.

Now the counter arguments. How can McWilliams tell the socio-economic status of those who go to farmers’ markets? Is McWilliams so clever that he can tell just by looking at a person what his or her annual income is? Perhaps where he shops, people have stamps on their foreheads, R for the rich and P for the poor. Or maybe the clientele comes to the farmers’ markets in fur coats. I’m being facetious, of course, but I would suggest that gauging a person’s income level is tricky at best, and McWilliams should be careful when passing judgment.

Next comes the question, are farmers’ markets really only affordable to affluent customers? In my experience, the answer is sometimes. When it comes to meat, cheese, jam, and eggs, the prices are frequently higher than they would be at a big box store. (But remember, poor neighborhoods often don’t have big box stores.) However, when it comes to vegetables, the prices at farmers’ markets are usually very competitive. Consider what I bought recently at our local vegetable stand, which will soon be closing for the season. (I know. A vegetable stand is not exactly a farmers’ market, but it’s pretty close. It offers many of the same things for about the same price, albeit under one tiny roof, and the emphasis is on fresh and local.) I bought ten pounds of potatoes, four peppers, two heads of broccoli, carrots, two bunches of lettuce, and one butternut squash for the outrageous price of $14. That’s a lot of food for $14, and all of the food was local.

Finally, all of this discussion about the elitism of farmers’ markets manages to overlook an essential but “inconvenient truth.” That is, the underlying reason for much of the poverty in the United States. The simple fact of the matter is that many of the jobs in this country just don’t pay people enough money for them to easily support themselves, to buy good food. Let me put it another way. The problem isn’t with the cost of vegetables at the farmers’ market. The problem is with low-wage jobs. The man who pumps your gas, the woman who checks out your groceries, the greeter at Walmart—in short, many, many working people—don’t make a living wage. They work for $7 or $8 an hour. Some lucky clerks get $10, but that is still not enough to live comfortably, especially when you consider many of these jobs don’t provide health insurance, and affordable housing is often difficult to find.

Pay people a living wage. Provide affordable health care and housing for all. Then, this discussion about the elitism of farmers’ markets becomes completely irrelevant. But there. It’s much easier to point the finger at farmers rather than reflect on how we, as a society, exploit the labor of poor people. In the end, perhaps the contrarian view is more convenient, more comfortable. One thing is certain; it sure illustrates the dangers of backlash.

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