Sunday, April 1, 2012

Three Tough Questions, Part 3: How Political is Your Palate?

A while back, I wrote a blog post elsewhere about how the presence of an organic food company's family history display on the side of a delivery truck turned an urban space into a kind of pop-up theme park. I was thinking about that the other morning when I focused my eyes clearly enough to read the text on the side of my Cabot yogurt container, which told me that I would enjoy my yogurt more knowing that the company was fully owned by family farmers.  "Others may dazzle you with pictures of farms," the text went on, "but do you know if their farmers own stock or get their fair share?"

This struck me as pretty hard-hitting, especially at 7 a.m.  "Dazzle you with pictures of farms" was a direct jab at what Michael Pollan has called "supermarket pastoral'--the evocation of small-scale and artisanal food production in ways that may be at odds with how the food was actually grown or how it's being sold (most notably in an upscale healthfood supermarket chain whose name hardly needs mentioning).  That's what I was seeing on the side of the delivery truck, and what increasingly turns up in marketing materials for products from apples to eggs to wine.  This strategy aims to make us feel good about our food by knowing something about where it came from, but what the Cabot container was telling me was that we shouldn't accept those claims at face value.  It was asking me to be both critical and political first thing in the morning.

I happen to be that way at all times of the day, to the occasional annoyance of my husband and others who have to listen to me.  But I do have to wonder about what the most workable balance is between "feel-good" and "feel-bad" approaches to knowing about our food (or all the other things we consume).

I was particularly thinking about that this week when Lisa Gross, founder of the Boston Tree Party, came to speak to one of my Tufts classes.  Lisa is a conceptual artist who conceived of this apple-tree-planting project--what she calls a "decentralized public urban orchard"--in 2010 as a combined greening, re-skilling, community-building, public art, and civic engagement effort.  Lisa is terrific--warm, articulate, and very savvy about the layers of social, metaphorical, and environmental meanings that she and others have seen in the Tree Party.  But while acknowledging that the name itself was a "cheeky" reference to a certain political movement with a similar moniker, she made it quite clear that the project is essentially apolitical.

Her rationale echoed something I've frequently heard from other younger farmers and foodies:  they're looking for ways to bring people together and make them feel better, not subject them to angst about everything that's wrong with the food system.  Lisa credits this positive approach with at least part of the unexpected success of the Tree Party--expecting a handful of groups to sign up, she's been amazed to find dozens and dozens of "delegations" planting and pledging to care for a pair of trees.  And the list of participants is an impressively diverse slice of Boston-area civil society, suggesting that the apolitical character of the project may indeed make it more appealing for a wide range of people to sign on.

It sometimes strikes me that younger activists like Lisa have grown up hearing so much doom and gloom about the melting, imploding, messed-up planet that they've consciously shifted away from fighting one exhausting battle after another.  It's something I hear frequently from my students:  they understand the critiques they're learning in school about everything that's wrong with the world, but they feel that just being critical doesn't leave them much of a platform for doing something with their lives.  They make me wonder whether my own tendency to default to the political argument is kind of an old-leftie reflex (even though I'm a tad too young to be a card-carrying old leftie) and whether, in a food system where there are few choices that don't feel insufficient or compromised in some way, there's a certain wisdom in just letting go of the cynicism every now and again.  I've been arguing for the importance of injecting a more critical/historical sensibility into the new food movement, but maybe it's just as crucial to know when to stop talking and just go plant something.

What do you think?  How political should we try to get over breakfast?  How do you balance the "feel-good" and the "feel-bad" sides of thinking about food?


  1. Such a good question! For consumers making point-of-sale decisions, I think that feel-good is a better choice. Evidence to hand (obesity, debt, affairs) seems to me to suggest that guilt and shame have limited shelf lives as motivators.

    The big problems of the food system lie in politics, though, and while feeling good might be worth a couple of extra bucks for organic milk, I doubt it's worth giving up a million-dollar lobbying deal, especially if you know the guy down the hall will take it.

    I also observe that fear has been deployed more successfully as a feel-bad tactic, specifically around food safety, and while I don't love that in a values way, I think it may hit the right combination of self-interest pull and fear-based push to make change happen.

  2. Good points, Sarah (I expect nothing less from you!). My sense is that some of the motivation to lean in the direction of feel-good rather than feel-bad stems from frustration with the immensity of making a dent in those big-time politics, and the decision just to try to operate on a smaller level where you can actually effect change (while feeling more positive overall). And of course you're right that guilt and shame just don't play well for very long, or at all.