A Lonely Nation Turns Its Eyes to Tom Vilsack.

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By Ezra Klein

When I’m not making unbelievably delicious meals or writing for Mark Bittman’s favorite blog, I’m employed at an underfunded vestige of a dying industry a political magazine. The American Prospect, to be exact. And sometimes, I write articles. And occasionally, they touch on food. Like this one, about the problems facing the foodie movement:

Getting politicians to promote the view that Americans should eat more like the French is a hard sell. Being a fat, unhealthy cow is as American as, well, apple pie and cheeseburgers. George H.W. Bush made much of his taste for pork rinds. Bill Clinton happily publicized his appetite for McDonald’s. George W. Bush told Oprah how much he loved PB&J on white bread. None boasted of his affection for Chez Panisse’s $95 prix fixe.

And that’s the other problem. Good food — the sort Waters features at her restaurant — is considered a luxury of the rich rather than a social justice issue. As Waters frequently argues, no one is worse served by our current food policy than a low-income family using food stamps to purchase rotted produce at the marked-up convenience store. Her vision is classically populist: It democratizes the concrete advantages health, pleasure, nutrition — that our current food system gives mainly to the wealthy. But her language is suffused with the values and the symbols of, well, the sort of people who already eat at Waters’ restaurant. Thus, in promoting an agenda that benefits poor people with little access to fresh food, Waters tends to communicate mainly with rich people interested in fine dining.

Full piece here. This touches on the discussion we had about lunchroom politics last week. The thesis of the article is that Alice Waters and others have accidentally subsumed a radically populist agenda within an accidentally elitist messaging operation. As example, think of health care reformers — like, say, me — who demand that everyone has access to the quality and stability of care currently enjoyed by the rich. That may be expensive. We may be accused of socialism. But it’s not considered an aesthetic preference.

There’s no similarly safe discussion around securing low-income Americans — or even just kids — access to the same quality of foods that the rich enjoy. And I’m not talking fois gras foam. I’m talking unrotted produce. Attempts in that direction tend to be dismissed as a Northern Californian’s culturally informed dismissal of corn syrup rather than a legitimate social justice or public health project. That is, as I argue in the article, the partial fault of the food movement’s frequently impolitic spokesfolk. Which is not to heap blame on Alice Waters and friends: They have spent their lives among aesthetes. They talk of what they know. It is to their credit that they are — or until recently, have been — the only prominent activists engaged in this issue. And, as I detail in the piece, they have long recognized their own limitations and sought to have other agents — mainly political actors — take up the cause.

But as of yet, that’s not really happened. It’s a real problem for those of us — which includes folks like Waters — who’d like to see a viable food politics emerge. Which is all another way of saying that there may be a real political opportunity here for Tom Vilsack, if he wants to take it.

2 responses to “A Lonely Nation Turns Its Eyes to Tom Vilsack.

  1. Ok, this I can get behind. Grocery stores–the kind that sell things like fresh produce and meat–shouldn’t be a luxury good limited only to affluent neighborhoods, as is currently the case in D.C. People who want to eat healthful, good food should have the opportunity to do so.

  2. I might get more into this later, but this strikes me as off: Being a fat, unhealthy cow is as American as, well, apple pie and cheeseburgers. George H.W. Bush made much of his taste for pork rinds. Bill Clinton happily publicized his appetite for McDonald’s. George W. Bush told Oprah how much he loved PB&J on white bread. None boasted of his affection for Chez Panisse’s $95 prix fixe.

    I realize this is a site primarily for gourmands, but a restaurant equivalent to Chez Panisse isn’t standard healthy eating even in Europe, and if you ate at Chez Panisse all of the time you’d be a) broke and b) just as fat.

    The real point is, of course, fresh food should not be a luxury item, and if you’re worried about public health, the relevant contrast isn’t between Chez Panisse and McDonald’s, but between McDonald’s and having the time, money, and know-how/availability to put together a healthy salad & sandwich lunch.

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