The State of Food

In this country, when it comes to food, there are several groups of people. There are those at the top with the money and the inclination to buy only the best—organic, local, free range, no hormones, no antibiotics, grass fed. They can rattle off types of cheeses the way a kindergartener can rattle off the alphabet. When a high-end restaurant opens, they are the first ones there, and if the food is very good, then the menu becomes a sort of Holy Grail.

To those people I say, good for you. There are a lot worse ways to spend money—oh, so many worse ways—and affluent people who care about food and shop locally are supporting farmers and artisans who usually need every bit of support they can get.

Then there are the people who are not quite as affluent, the ones who must budget and plan to provide healthy meals for their families. They buy organic when they can—when the price is right and when there are sales. If they are lucky, there is a Trader Joe’s nearby where they can shop. However, often times they buy conventionally grown food because there simply isn’t enough money in the budget for the extra cost of organic. They know, of course, that in the long run, organic is better for the planet and for their health. But in the short run, bills must paid, the children need new sneakers, and the washing machine just broke and has to be replaced. There are a lot of people in this category, including Clif and me.

Finally, there are the people at the bottom—those who earn extremely low wages, those who are disabled, seniors living solely on Social Security, students, and those who have lost their jobs. Often they receive food stamps and rely on food pantries and soup kitchens to help them get through the month. Organic and local are seldom considerations for them. Just getting food on the table is enough of a challenge, never mind where it comes from or how it was grown. Unfortunately, there are far too many people in this category, and their numbers are growing.

I have lived long enough in Maine to have seen many food trends, from the days of casseroles made with cream of mushroom soup to quiche to granola to the advent of vegetarianism. But I have never seen such a fevered interest in food that corresponds with the huge gap between what those at the top eat and what those at the bottom eat. I suppose it should come as no surprise. As inequality becomes more pronounced in this country, it manifests itself in many ways, not the least in what we eat or how we regard food.

Tonight, President Obama will be giving his State of the Union Address. Political pundits are predicting that the president will talk about inequality and how bad it is for this country. This is all very well and good, but talk is cheap. Will action follow? Will this large ocean liner of a country at least veer in the right direction?

I remain hopeful, but I am not overly optimistic. To continue with the ocean-liner analogy—there are many, many icebergs in the water, just waiting for that ship.


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