Food in the Public Square

The Collective Human Experience

Tag: Maria McGrath

Shopping for a Better World: The Dilemmas of the Ethical Consumer

In our July Food in the Public Square community conversation, one participant at my table discussion recounted her normal supermarket dilemma. She is standing before a set of products paralyzed by a conflicting set of concerns. Should she buy the organic grapes that are packed in polystyrene or the regular grapes sitting in a plastic bag?  The organic grapes are ecologically sound, but not the packing. Should she buy the local carrots that aren’t necessarily organic or the organic ones that have been trucked to Pennsylvania all the way from California? Should she leave the supermarket altogether and go to the natural foods store or wait for the weekly farmer’s market?  For this type of concerned consumer each and every purchase brings about a wrenching internal debate. Gee whiz, with all the moral wrestling, self-examination, and guilt, shopping (and eating) in the twenty-first century has really become a drag. How did this happen? Why are we putting so much energy and stock into the composition of our cupboards and grocery carts? And why do many of us see our shopping and eating as a declaration of political purpose?

Since the most contemporary phase of the natural foods movement germinated in the revolutionary idealism of the 1960s, it seems that the social movements and intellectual frameworks of period had to have played a part in our current understanding of shopping as politics. The New Left, although actually peopled by a minority of Americans, was a formative force in the reframing of left/ progressive politics from the 1960s forward. They considered themselves New because they rejected the liberal Democratic establishment (FDR’s New Deal liberal state) and they rejected the old left of the labor movement and unions. For the New Left both status quo liberals and the labor left had become too big, too bureaucratized, too institutionalized, undemocratic, and detached from citizen influence. New Lefters wanted to upend the political and cultural establishment. They wanted revolution not reform. They wanted a people’s politics, what they called participatory democracy.  The countercultural believed the same and decided to live a new world into being on communes, by going “back-to-the-land,” by making cooperative businesses and social service operations, and by breaking free of the constraints of their parent’s culture (see their long hair, rejection of monogamy & careerism, drug experimentation, rock n roll etc.).

Although Sixties/Seventies critics of the conventional food system had little faith in corporate capitalism, they saw creative potential in the marketplace and in the power of critical consumption. So they went about creating a new food world parallel to the supermarket/agribusiness system—farming organically, circumventing the supermarket by selling natural goods in hippie stores, buying outside of the system. This plan succeeded. Hippies made a robust alternative food network, initially just for other hippies (see John Mackey’s Whole Foods or Michael Potter’s Eden Foods; see food co-ops and organic farms) and later for a broader consumer base. With all their energy funneled into their corner of the food world, and having abandoned establishment politics, natural foods advocates left the conventional food system and food and farming legislators and regulators to march on largely unchallenged. Indeed, from the 1960s forward the conventional food and agricultural systems grew in size, scope, and depth.  The alternative food system grew too, but little in comparison. And many folks who might have previously used their energies in movements to reform agricultural policy, food policy, and social justice policy, had their hands full making and maintaining their alternative businesses and associations. Citizens who weren’t becoming organic/natural foods entrepreneurs put their political stock and economic power into buying and supporting the parallel food network. Undoubtedly there were still folks who devoting their lives  to non-profit public interest lobbying, as well as traditional politicking. But it is in the marketplace where the natural foods movement found its momentum and its voice, and it is through the marketplace that individual citizens have routinely exercised their political conscience. The question is how does this shopping cart activism affect the total food system?  What is the net effect of all these tormented trips to the supermarket or even to the natural foods store/CSA/farmer’s market on the conventional foods system? on UDSA farming policy? on corporate capitalism?

That is a tough question. Isn’t changing American eating and farming the final point of all this careful consumption? But if all this light and heat over eating right and shopping right is not shifting the larger food world—where most people eat, where and how most food is grown—than why keep investing so much stock in this strategy?   Why keep shopping for a better world?

Dr. Maria McGrath, Bucks County Community College

Julie Guthman’s “Cheetos”!

I can’t remember exactly when I first read Julie Guthman’s article “The Food Police: Why Michael Pollan Makes Me Want to Eat Cheetos.” (Cheetos are my all-time favorite snack, so I couldn’t help but fall for the title).  I was relieved and excited to hear that someone else felt uneasy with the “food revolution” Pollan seemed to be spreading. Let me be clear, it really wasn’t Pollan,the man, that was bothering me. He was a stand in for my concern with food revolution rhetoric as a whole.  So what, you ask, is my problem? It is true, I do have a contrarian impulse that makes me push against anything that becomes a “thing,” a thing that everyone preaches and follows without much reflection. But more thoughtfully, I sensed that what Pollan proposed as the answer to America’s “food problems”—that is local, organic consumerism, provisioned by small farmers like Omnivore’s Dilemma’s heroes, Joel Salatin and George Naylor—was generally only available to Americans in his social/economic class. His answer resonated with the well-off who longed for a certain type of consumer experience and a certain kind of moral/environmental life. But I never heard him honestly grapple with the class and racial exclusiveness of this solution that he pitched as universally correct.

And every time I read one of his new articles on food, he pushed another one of my buttons. This was the case when I fell on his 2009 NY Times piece Out of the Kitchen and on to the Couch.    

The premise of this article is that Americans are watching cooking on TV more than they are actually cooking, and that this is bad for us.  While this conjecture in and of itself is debatable and depends on a narrow definition of what constitutes “cooking,” his comparison of Julia Child and Betty Friedan made me see red.  Basically, he claimed that Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique made women hate cooking. Julia Child, on other the other hand, approached cooking with pleasure and creativity. She, not Friedan, should have been the model for women in the 1960s.  Boom, there it was. Feminism, bad; Gourmet cooking, good!  Feminism killed the family dinner; French gastronomy could save it. Yes, I know that is an over-drawn simplification of his argument, but I don’t think it is entirely off base.

I wrote an article in Ms. Magazine, titled Back to the Kitchen, about the back-handed anti-feminism I saw in this article. To summarize, I argued that working women have never had much time to express their cooking creativity. They have pieced together family meals from take-out, deli goods, and left-over breakfast, since at least the mid-nineteenth century.  Betty Friedan and second wave feminism had nothing to do with those pragmatic decisions. Also many women didn’t need the Feminist Mystique to learn to hate cooking. They hated it well before Sixties feminists began to point out the gender politics of household labor. In general, my article questioned the idealized farming and family past to which many food revolutionaries want us to return. 

Julie Guthman’s Cheetos article opened space up in the public forum for this critical engagement. I’m sure she will take us in new and provocative directions when she speaks at our Food in the Public Square Community Conversation on May 20th. Please check the website’s events tab for more on this day’s schedule.

– Dr. Maria McGrath, Bucks County Community College

Robert Rodale and the Cornucopia Project

On June 7th, 1971, J.I. Rodale died of a heart attack during a taping of the Dick Cavett show.  After boasting to Cavett that he would live to the age of 100, when the show went to break, Rodale slumped over in his chair and died shortly thereafter.  Robert Rodale, who had been president of Rodale publishing since 1954, would now be the figurehead for the company and for the organic agriculture and preventative health movements.   Fortuitously, he took control in the period when Rodale magazines, which had labored largely in obscurity under J.I.’s leadership, were now capturing the attention of countercultural communalists and back-to-the-landers.  Between 1968 and 1971 Organic Gardening and Prevention readership had doubled.

To get out from under his father’s looming shadow, Robert Rodale came up with a whole series of programs and ideas that distinguished his organic vision from his father’s.  As he stated in 1976 “I’m quieter, perhaps more introverted [than my father] and I have a concept of organic living—a simpler more conservative way of life.”  Responding to America’s recessionary economy and the early 1970s OPEC oil embargo, Robert argued for local self-sufficiency with his “Regeneration Project” and the “Cornucopia Project.”  Combined these plans proposed regional food, energy, and retail independence from the global commercial network.

The similarities between Robert Rodale’s ideas and the contemporary “food revolution” are striking.   In a 1980 Organic Gardening editorial, Rodale explained that the intent of the “Cornucopia Project” was “to create a sustainable food system that is not only organic farming but a regionalization of the food system based on fresh foods and foods that are in season.” In a 1981 editorial titled “The New Diet that Works,” Rodale pitched for “a new diet for all the people in this region—heavy, thin, rich, and poor. We call it the Local Diet.”  Sound familiar? If you are an optimist, you might see Rodale as the prescient and unrecognized father of “localism,” an idea that took time to catch on. If you are a pessimist, you might see current “localism” as a recurring aspirational theme in the American cultural imagination that comes and goes with uncertain impact on the broader economic system. You decide.

– Dr. Maria McGrath, Bucks County Community College