By Ezra Klein
There’s a lot to agree with in Tom’s post detailing the offhand pretension of the food movement. Among the things I agree with is Mark Bittman’s link to Tom’s post. I am pro-Mark Bittman linking to this site.
But I’m unconvinced — not necessarily in disagreement, but unconvinced — by Tom’s broader argument. To catch readers up, here’s the arithmetic of our dispute. The average school lunch costs $2.57. Most of that money goes towards labor, towards building upkeep, towards transportation. Some estimates suggest that the actual food involved costs 30 cents. Alice Waters, in an op-ed, argued that a nutritious lunch of unprocessed foods grown without fertilizers or pesticides would cost about $5 per student.
In rejoinder, Tom wrote a post called “the pretentious is the enemy of the good.” He argued that “if we assume labor and equipment costs remain fixed but decide to pay three times as much for ingredients — a huge jump! — Waters’ estimate would still be about 50% too high.” But that’s not necessarily evidence that Waters’ estimate should be revised downward. It could as easily be read as evidence that the current expenditures on ingredients are too low. We’re still talking 90 cents, after all. And it’s not obvious to me that 90 cents is an absurd expenditure on lunch. That will buy me about a fifth of a pound of red bell peppers at Safeway. It will buy me one-third of an avocado. It will buy me some strawberries. It will not buy me lunch. Schools can, of course, purchase wholesale and at higher scale, but I want to see what 90 cents can buy before I declare it an upper limit.
Tom goes on to make a broader argument about the problems in the food movement. “The goal here is to wind up with healthier kids,” he says, “not to train itty bitty aesthetes.” That is, I think, the right question. What is the goal? Nutrition is certainly one of them. Good food — tricky to define, of course — is another. Those we can agree on.
Tom attacks Waters for wanting to see on-site kitchens. There’s no reason, he says, that schools should deny themselves economies of scale or the efficiencies of frozen food. But that’s not Waters’ goal. She would like to see on-site kitchens that are used as a classroom of sorts: Children, she thinks, should be taught to cook.
I don’t necessarily disagree with that. Cooking is more useful than dodgeball proficiency — particularly as you get older. But schools have dodgeball courts. I cook more often than I play the clarinet. But my school had a music room. We have to decide whether it’s worth the expenditure, but integrating kitchens into schools is not crazy on its face.
Similarly, cost is not the only factor here. I’d like to see government procurement used to support the sort of food chains we’d like to encourage. School purchases, after all, mean steady demand. We could use that to smooth the income streams of companies like Nestle and ConAgra. Or we could use it to bolster regional farms and sustainable producers. I’d prefer the latter. Regular income will help those businesses create economies of scale and emerge more self-sufficient. It may cost a bit more in the short-run but be beneficial in the long-run. The government has traditionally played this role in supporting now technology (largely military technology, but still). Indeed, it plays this role now in the food economy. It just does so thoughtlessly. But there’s no reason our power shouldn’t align with our policy goals. I’d like to see the kind of food economy we want given consideration when we decide which producers to support.
I haven’t, of course, run the numbers on any of this. It’s possible that healthful ingredients will cost $1.70 per lunch and that will be before we get to kitchens or productive purchasing. But these aren’t necessarily pretentious goals. And none of them are about “eating sophisticated food” or “luxury goods.” Indeed, nothing in Waters’ original op-ed read to me as a brief for sophisticated food or luxury goods.
But those terms are hard to escape in conversations like this one. Waters and her cohort are too closely associated with prix fixe menus and microgreens. A friend of mine e-mailed yesterday to say that Waters reminds him of George Orwell’s old line about the political impediment to socialism being socialists. He’s right (see the coming American Prospect for my article on this very topic).
This is, however, a vicious cycle: Since concerns about food quality are considered elitist, people who are concerned about seeming elitist don’t talk about food quality. There’s a reason that not a single politician has prominently associated himself or herself with the food movement. And so we’re in a space where the people talking about food are the people who are least suited to getting others to talk about food. Being a professional culinary elitist doesn’t make you wrong. But it might make you ineffective. On the other hand, if Waters wasn’t writing these op-eds, who would be?