March 25, 2009 The Pump Handle 6Comment

Our food production system is unsustainable, but those who advocate for healthier agriculture and diets often find themselves dismissed as elitists. While I think this is often an unfair criticism , it’s clear that it hampers advocates’ effectiveness. So, I was delighted to read in the Washington Post this morning about a good-food advocate from an Iowan farming family. Jane Black writes:

Dave Murphy is the founder of a food advocacy group. But he wants you to know, “in no uncertain terms,” that he is not a foodie. Foodies are people who obsess about the perfect apple tart. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But for Murphy, the fight for good food isn’t about pleasure or aesthetics; it’s about justice and survival.

Three years ago, he left a good job in Washington to return home to Iowa, where a Minnesota corporation was threatening to build a nearly 5,000-head hog farm near his sister’s home. “This is not something abstract,” he said. “This is about people I know. People I went to high school with. When you speak to people from Berkeley or Manhattan, people on the coasts, it’s a really different ballgame.”

Public health advocates have been sound the alarm about CAFOs for years, because such huge livestock operations generally entail air pollution, animal-waste problems, and antibiotic overuse. Raising livestock more responsibly would require a different economic model, and while it might be better for agricultural communities in the long run, it would probably spell economic upheaval for them in the short term. More-responsible livestock operations would likely raise the price of meat, too, which would make it hard for low-income families to afford to maintain their current level of meat consumption. Reducing meat consumption would probably benefit these families’ health in the long run, but, once again, it would require an adjustment – and adjusting to a healthier diet is particularly hard for those whose neighborhoods have more fast-food restaurants than grocery stores.

So, when we well-off coastal types speak out against CAFOs, we can be accused of being out of touch with those who’d feel the brunt of the impact of stricter CAFO regulation. When Iowa farmers say they don’t want the environmental impacts of a 5,000-hog operation in their community, they have a lot more credibility. Black reports that Murphy’s Iowa-based activism has gotten results:

The first campaign by Murphy’s nonprofit group, Food Democracy Now, was a petition calling for more sustainable food policies and suggesting six progressive candidates for secretary of agriculture last November. After the secretary was appointed, he added a list of 12 candidates for key deputy and undersecretary positions. To date, two of the so-called sustainable dozen have received key appointments. Kathleen Merrigan, a professor at Tufts University who helped develop national organic standards, was appointed deputy secretary. Doug O’Brien, an assistant director at the Ohio Department of Agriculture, will be Merrigan’s chief of staff.

Murphy’s petition got some high-profile signatories, like Alice Waters and Wendell Berry, who fall closer to the “foodie” end of the spectrum. Foodies are often sneered at for celebrating the taste of organic, locally raised foods even though a large percentage of our population can’t afford them – but rhapsodizing about apple tarts doesn’t preclude advocating that healthier food be more affordable and widely available. Recently, Waters proposed reforming the national school-lunch program, which is currently heavy on processed and high-fat foods; she wants the federal government to increase funding so that schools can buy and prepare healthier meals featuring organic foods.

Although I don’t think that healthy-food advocates who happen to be financially well off coastal residents should be barred from participating in debates about food policy, I do think we benefit from being part of a coalition that includes people who have firsthand experience with the negative effects of our dysfunctional food system. I hope more activists like Dave Murphy will emerge and promote reforms that will help food consumers and farm communities alike.

6 thoughts on “A Food Activist with Farm-State Cred

  1. “Although I don’t think that healthy-food advocates who happen to be financially well off coastal residents should be barred from participating in debates about food policy…”

    Could you be more specific and perhaps name an income level above which we should stop paying attention? Lucky for us you weren’t around during abolition, suffrage, civil rights, and women’s rights movements. All of which were started or significantly aided by “elitists.”

  2. I’m not sure what your point is, since I specifically said I DON’T think income should bar anyone from participating in debate. What I suggest is that well-off people with less direct experience of the problem work in coalition with people who feel the situation’s effects most acutely – which is exactly what happened during the abolition, suffrage, and civil rights movements.

  3. I second Liz’s point. When I hear some of the most-quoted members of the ‘food movement” speak, I wonder whether they have ever been in a food desert, either urban or rural – north Bronx or rural Iowa. For change to be made where it is most needed – which is to say, where healthy food is least available and where the chronic diseases of poor diet are most prevalent – it’s essential that there be more voices from those areas testifying about the actual local complexities.

  4. Hi,
    I spoke at Greenfest in Seattle yesterday, and one of the points (which seemed to get a reaction) from the audience was that you can expect pushback from the big ag processors on all the “organic is better” talk in the media. One of their key startegies will be to wedge the various constituences of the progressive food movement into fragmented groups. One of these wedge items will be “the arugula eating coastal foodies” vs the hungry under-served middle and lower classes.
    Please don’t buy into it. Sentences like the one I found offensive are playing right into their hands. By stating the negative version of a state, you are implicitly acknowledging that the positive side has legitiamcy. Which it does not.
    I agree with main premise of your post. I don’t like to slam allies in the process.

  5. Chris, I agree with you about the risk of movement fragmentation, and thanks for writing in. I think there are two separate issues here:

    How the good-food movement is and views itself – We may come from different backgrounds, but the main thing here is that we’re working toward the same goal – affordable, healthy food and a healthy environment for all. From what I’ve seen, groups with different perspectives are doing a good job coming together around this common purpose.

    How the general public views the good-food movement – This depends not only how the food movement actually *is*, but how it’s painted by the opposition. Even if we’re all united behind a common purpose, those who oppose us will highlight particular individuals, like Alice Waters, and claim that they’re elitist and out-of-touch (even if that’s not the case). We have to make people see past that one-sided image and understand that the good-food movement is working for a better future for all and is shaped by the input of many different communities.

    We shouldn’t, as you say, buy into the myth of “the arugula eating coastal foodies” – but we have to acknowledge that this image is being pushed to the general public, and figure out how to show them the multi-faceted picture that more accurately reflects what today’s good-food movement is like. Having a spokesperson like Dave Murphy is one good way to do this.

    I guess we’re faced with the same question that comes up in any political campaign – how do you counter a smear without legitimizing it?

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