The Problem of Pretension.

Does this woman look pretentious?

Does this woman look pretentious?

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?


31 responses to “The Problem of Pretension.

  1. “On the other hand, if Waters wasn’t writing these op-eds, who would be?”

    Probably you, dude.

  2. I like the notion of using kitchens as classrooms, but I think the logistical challenges associated with that kind of a change are pretty staggering. As a college professor I am amazed by how many of my students not only don’t know anything about cooking, but have almost no idea what healthy eating is and how cooking and healthy eating are connected. So the goal is a good one. But I think any efforts at creating small culinary classrooms would have to be focused on elementary education. Freeing up time to do so at the high school level (at the expense of what?) seems near impossible. At the elementary level there would be a lot of ways to integrate food/cooking into the curriculum, but there would be some difficulties with actually getting students involved in the process. Also, there would be a basic hygiene issues – elementary kids are not exactly the cleanest segment of society.

    A fun idea to think about. And it would seem the kind of idea that could benefit from some small scale experimental programs.

  3. Thank you for writing pretty much what I was thinking. Tom’s struck me as myopic and, frankly, just ignorant of what Waters is actually proposing. On-site kitchens and local organic produce might *seem* pretentious, provided you assume Waters is just proposing them for their own sake.

  4. I thought Tom’s criticisms were good largely because there’s a huge middle ground between school lunches as they are currently constructed and $5 organic lunches. Many, many schools don’t have the resources to double their food budget, and having food cooked off-site is unlikely to change.

    If the only alternative to the current school lunch is to create a microgarden and a kitchen with an hour of cooking and eating, that sounds great, but most schools won’t be able to afford it, so most students won’t benefit. Where’s the solution that increases the costs of meals $0.10 and provides more vegetables and fruits?

  5. “When I read the nouns Alice Waters, I want to reach for my Browning.”

  6. Did anyone read Mark Greif’s essay on food in the most recent issue of N+1? I thought it was pretty good, although hard to summarize succinctly. I can’t find a link to it online, but it’s worth finding.

  7. I think the arguments about dodgeball and clarinets probably fall on deaf ears in Tommy’s case; I suspect he’d cut those programs, too.

    Students don’t have orchestras or sports systems at home, which makes school a good and likely place for instruction in those areas. Though Ezra might not have kept up with it, music (also athletics) are important parts of the human experience and won’t persist if we don’t teach them. Or, perhaps worse, they will become luxuries associated with privilege.

    Cooking is more useful than dodgeball proficiency, but not necessarily more useful than physical fitness, team skills, etc. I don’t know where you played dodgeball, but we just had the indoor court and outside. The indoor court was used for basketball, volleyball, pep rallies, and so on.

    Does the cost for a kitchen instruction facitility change if it is the site of both school lunch and home-economics class?

  8. The place for teaching young minds about food preparation (with the caveat that at home would be better if they were taught better things at home) would be in what was once called Home Economics classes. (the last time I looked, 20 years ago, they were calling it Family Living. I have no idea what they might be calling it now.) The idea of having my classmates of dubious hygiene and more dubious judgment in the cafeteria kitchen where they could poison 100s by accident or for fun is frightening.

    Maybe the answer is take the made for TV cooking contests to the scholastic level. Molly Ivins had a great essay about football being the great breach in segregation in Texas. Maybe Friday Night Iron Chef can bring nutrition to the Heartland. Shoot, just imagine the possiblities. Mark Bittman doing national power rankings in SI (based of course, on taste, plating and use of the theme ingredient). Recruiting wars for the CIA top graduates for six-figure coaching jobs. Bubba and Duke arguing down at the local bar whether the coach’s penchant for braised meat dishes is going to cost the Fighting Escoffier’s a trip to the state finals this year.

    Hmm, If I can get someone would write me a big fat grant to implement this …

  9. verplanck colvin

    This debate reminds me of a story I heard on NPR about French day care. Kids there get full-course lunches (appetizers, leg of lamb, etc.) and have to follow the rules of dining.

    I thought it was wonderful that kids are getting education about food, rather than throwing together a PB&J and plain potato chips with orange “drink”. It may be too over the top for americans, but to do something similar at such a young age would really help change the relationship we have with food in this country. Add in some basic cooking skills as they go on to elementary and high school, and you got yourself young adults who don’t think a box of mac ‘n cheese and canned corn constitutes a good meal.

  10. What if school lunch was funded as an educational & health initiative? Create an army of Food Educators to go in schools like the Peace Corps. These could be college grads working off some of their student loans.

    We need to get the USDA out of the lunch business. Too many conflicts of interest with the food industry.

    An investment in better food results in reduction of healthcare costs down the road.
    It’s got nothing to do with microgreens and food snobbery. It’s just common sense.

  11. Dan: I did read that essay, and agree that it was interesting. I intended to blog about it here, but without an electronic copy available it slipped off my radar. Perhaps I’ll reread it and see if there are any sections that are worthy of manual transcription.

    I think the arguments about dodgeball and clarinets probably fall on deaf ears in Tommy’s case; I suspect he’d cut those programs, too.

    Actually, I wouldn’t. But it hardly matters; they’re being cut anyway. Schools are having difficulty finding money and time for physical education, music programs, hell, even recess. And despite this we’re proposing to add a major new type of curriculum — one that comes with large capital costs? For what reason? I think the answer is: “because we have a hobby we enjoy, and we think they’d enjoy it, too”. It’s a nice idea, but it’s got to go way down the list of our social priorities. It’s not as if we have some compelling economic need to train more chefs.

    justawriter has it right: Home Ec already exists. For students interested in studying food preparation, that’s the tack to take. Better still, it’ll teach them a lot of useful skills. But it’s not for everyone, and it’s no more realistic to suppose it can be part of the school lunch infrastructure than it is to say that the kids in auto shop can fix the school’s fleet of buses.

    Finally, verplanck colvin: what’s wrong with PB&J? That classic staple is exactly the sort of solution we ought to be looking for. Dirt cheap, easily assembled by cafeteria staff without special equipment or large amounts of prep time, proven to be palatable to kids. Hand them an apple or a packet of carrot sticks — both of which have a shelf life of several months — and, assuming you’ve gotten rid of the candy and soda machines in the lunchroom, you’re done. Or send frozen veggie pizzas to the lunchroom. Or casseroles. Or soup!

    I should emphasize that I’m not asking that everything that shows up in the lunchroom be frozen and microwaved back to life. Fresh fruit and vegetables should be welcome, and given that every city has a competitive infrastructure for providing these to its restaurants, it should be entirely possible to get them. All I mean to point out is that approaching this problem by trying to create a tiny restaurant you and I would like to eat at is a bad and unrealistically expensive idea.

  12. pseudonymous in nc

    what’s wrong with PB&J? That classic staple is exactly the sort of solution we ought to be looking for.

    It’s not a meal; it’s a snack. Lunch hour should be part of the educational experience — basic socialisation, cultivating the willingness to sit down for more than a few minutes, etc. So the kids should be sitting down at tables with plates and cutlery, and the teachers should be sitting down with them.

    You can argue that that’s idealistic, but the cycle that exists right now is one where parents pass on bad habits, so that their kids eat out of takeaway boxes and wander around the house with food in their hands.

    We’ve had friends and family visit, whose kids are simply incapable of eating a proper meal, and the easiest way to avoid embarrassing the parents is to give them the fast-food crap that they’re most comfortable with.

  13. Pingback: Of Pragmatism, Pretension, and $5 School Lunches « The Internet Food Association

  14. C’mon, psudonymous. Surely you see that teaching table manners is beyond the mandate of our school system. We all have skills we’re fond of, and which we think everyone should enjoy. That doesn’t give us the right to hijack our already-beleaguered schools for our pet interests. If you’re not willing to demand that your friends and family meet your preferred child-rearing standards, how can you force it on strangers?

  15. And for what it’s worth: if a lunch requires extra dish washing or time, that’s a bug, not a feature.

  16. Most home ec classes have been cut, I think. My school sure didn’t have them. And while making fresh pasta is a hobby, I think of basic cooking and understanding elementary nutrition as a skill — the equal of financial literacy or, certainly, sex ed.

    As for where we played dodgeball, I think I meant to write handball. We played dodgeball wherever I was standing and crying.

  17. pseudonymous in nc

    Surely you see that teaching table manners is beyond the mandate of our school system.

    Not at all: if anything, it’s more perverse for you to think it’s fine to shove PB&Js into the hands of young kids at lunchtime and leave them to their own devices. You might as well argue that stopping them from beating each other up is a ‘pet interest’.

  18. I think that’d be a tough argument to make. Clearly our legal code is concerned with assault, but not with posture or etiquette. Obviously other state functions have drawn this line; schools provide a unique opportunity for forcing our preferred norms on others, but I don’t think this justifies crossing that line.

  19. I work in a high school cafeteria. All the schools in our district cook on-site.

    The assumption that labor costs would remain the same if cafeterias used more fresh foods really jumped out at me–it strikes me as very much not true. It could easily add an hour to the whole staff’s day, or another worker, which doesn’t seem like much, but adds up. Cost is a big deal, even in a moderately affluent district like mine.

    The idea of having the kids cook–for starters, the safety issues have already been mentioned, and are serious business. Second–I and the rest of the staff come in shortly after school starts (though one of us is there before school), and all of us leave between one and two in the afternoon. Fixing lunch for a few hundred kids isn’t something you can do in an hour or so.

    Lastly, speaking from personal experience, PBJ sounds like it wouldn’t be labor intensive, but try making a hundred PBJs. I’d much rather do cheese, or ham and/or turkey–all of which our district serves regularly.

    I would love to have more fresh food to serve. I and my co-workers do our best with what we have. And actually we do pretty well, but our school district has at least a bit of money. I imagine cafeteria workers in poorer districts are just as eager to serve good food to their kids, and the possibilities even more restricted. I’d recommend doing a stint in a few school cafeterias before making assumptions about what’s possible or easy.

  20. Upstate New Yawker

    My kids are ina school where there are some (30%) who need subsidized lunches. Add the cost of buying their “fresh” lunches and school taxes rise. I believe the kids are given healthy choices on the menu, if the parents prefer to have them eating fresh lunches, do as we do and make the same at home. The student cost of a lunch at our school is 2.00 per child. 2.57 is somewhat outrageous for a per-unit cost, schools are not for profit, remember ? Also, maybe a private school is better suited (and funded) for an idea like this, as the economy and budget cuts seem to focus on cutting money to schools before dealing with issues like government corruption, the fleecing of america by corporate greed, and the lack of accountability many seem to have now.

  21. Thanks for sharing your perspective, A.L. That’s too bad about PB&J! Is it that bad even when you’re using fast-food-style caulk gun to administer the jelly and peanut butter, or are you talking about applying it with knives?

  22. Thank you, Ezra, for this cogent and articulate response. Tom’s post had me spitting mad, because there were so many different things he was ignorant about that I couldn’t figure out where to start. (The suggestion that current school lunches are made with better materials than fast food meals was especially laughable! Working at a Salvation Army shelter during school gave me up-close and personal experience with the subsidized food distributed by the USDA, and it isn’t pretty.)

    The idea that the rise of diabetes is somehow divorced from the falling food quality is another one that had me just floored. I’m just sputtering and stammering, though, which is why I don’t have a blog of my own.

  23. I’d suggest you read my post a little more carefully, Wendy. I never said that fast food was of worse quality than current school lunch offerings; I said it was worse than what we ought to feel comfortable feeding our children. I agree completely that the current school lunch system is severely lacking.

    Secondly, I think that connecting “food quality” to health outcomes is such a vague notion as to be completely useless. There are a number of dimensions along which food could be evaluated that have some bearing on “quality”, but which do not correlate with health outcomes. You would be much better off eating frozen spinach than artisanal cheese made organically from grass-fed cows’ milk.

  24. Thanks for sharing your perspective, A.L. That’s too bad about PB&J! Is it that bad even when you’re using fast-food-style caulk gun to administer the jelly and peanut butter, or are you talking about applying it with knives?

    We usually use a spatula–like a cake-frosting knife, I guess. A gun might make it easier–though I’d probably feel compelled to go behind and smooth it out, if it all came out in a lump. Because I wouldn’t want to eat a PBJ that was all clumped up in the middle.

    We only serve PBJs at the elementary level, and there it’s a second choice one day a week, if you don’t like the main menu item. Sometimes I’ll sub at one of the elementaries, and it’s usually fun (no, seriously) but I privately sigh when I sub on PBJ day. Even ten to twenty PBJs takes more time than you’d think.

  25. I teach in Japanese elementary schools. The kids serve their own lunch, though the kitchen does the bulk cooking.

    How? Simple. Hygiene is part of the curriculum. They wash up. Then they put on their own special aprons and hairnets (cheap! simple scrubs. But their names are sharpie’d on the inside and they’re in their little bags and it’s important to them because it’s something that’s theirs.) Then they wash up again! Then they carry the food (in big pots) to the classrooms, sometimes wheeling it on a cart with the dishes. And then they dish it out for the rest of the class. Kids take turns being servers.

    These are not insurmountable problems, people! Practically the entire country does it this way! Yes, you have to have the teachers actively participating, and making SURE they wash up like they’re supposed to, but it’s an easy routine to follow! If you have sprog-level sinks with soaps, yes, which are basic installments in every elementary hallway here but would have to just come with the new school kitchen for you guys.

    Home ec is a separate class, something that’s given once a week or so in, yes, the school kitchens. But they learn nutrition – not to mention good hygiene and fair portioning – by serving lunch and talking about it with the teachers when they do.

  26. Pingback: Follow Up 2: School Lunches/Trader Joes “commerical” « relishments.

  27. I’ve actually volunteered in classrooms where we had a garden and where the kids did occasional cooking. Both required a great deal of volunteer time from adults; there’s no way a teacher with 20 kids could do it alone. The big problem with the concept of a classroom garden is that most schools are not in session during the season when the garden is actually producing. Even in California, with a long growing season, the class that planted the garden harvested very little. Volunteer parents kept the garden alive during the summer, and the following class harvested in the fall, but it took a small group of committed parents to accomplish that. (It needs to be a fairly small group because of the logistics – we needed a key to the school so we could get to the garden and to the water supply.)

    The idea of teaching kids to cook and garden in the elementary school is nice, but so far removed from the day-to-day reality of even affluent suburban schools as to be a pipe dream. It’s already impossible to get through the state-mandated curriculum in a year. And there’s no money available at all, certainly not in the schools we were in in California, nor in the schools my daughter attends in Washington.

  28. Pingback: School Lunch, Opportunity for Change? | LivingSmall

  29. Pingback: Jonathan Teller-Elsberg » Blog Archive » Guns in churches and health care reform

  30. Pingback: Feeding the Freezer « The Internet Food Association

  31. Pingback: Of Pragmatism, Pretension, and $5 School Lunches |

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s