Magazine article The American Prospect

Whose Food Politics?

Magazine article The American Prospect

Whose Food Politics?

Article excerpt

You'd be hard pressed to find a sexier political issue than food. Celebrities are photographed carrying copies of Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. Last year, Michelle Obama broke ground on a White House vegetable garden to much fanfare. Mice Waters' Berkeley mantra of "fresh, local, seasonal, organic" has gone national.

But the scope of the dominant food-politics conversation remains surprisingly narrow, limited to questions like, What is organic? What is local? Is the growth of Whole Foods a bad thing? Are small farms really better?

Save for the occasional healthy-school-lunch pilot program, it's a conversation that too rarely acknowledges the millions of Americans for whom the choice is not fresh versus prepackaged but eating versus not eating.

The question of who eats and who doesn't is depressingly relevant right now. Almost one in five Americans reported lacking enough money to buy food at some point in the last year. The number of Americans on food stamps has increased 35 percent since the recession began in late 2007, and today one in eight relies on food assistance. This is help people desperately need: 85 percent of food stamps are depleted within the first three days they are available.

"That gaping chasm between the foodies on the blogs and the people they're purportedly trying to help, really, is the tragic flaw of the food movement," wrote journalist Tracie McMillan on her blog, 5 Dollar Dinner, where she is chronicling her research for a forthcoming book that promises to be a sort of Nickel and Dimed for the agriculture and foodservice industries. "Even with food's unique ability to build common ground between people who are otherwise strangers, foodies mostly talk about, but rarely with, the people whose lives they're purporting to improve."

And while the foodies are talking about the subtle distinctions of "organic," not only is hunger deepening and use of food assistance growing, the stigma associated with food stamps and other anti-hunger programs has not gone away. Contrary to a February New York Times headline that proclaimed "Once Stigmatized, Food Stamps Find Acceptance," food-stamp users still routinely face judgment in supermarket aisles--and from right-wing politicians. Cynthia Davis, a Republican state representative from Missouri, recently echoed the tired trope that food-assistance recipients don't buy the right kinds of foods: "We should revamp the food-stamp program so people who get food stamps can't buy junk food like potato chips and chocolate milk. …

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