Local food movement beginning to reshape American society

Celebrated author and local food advocate, Michael Pollan, recently observed that the growing awareness of food as sustenance for social and individual health (instead of simply being “fuel”) is reconnecting families, legitimizing our democratic way of life, and proscribing the demands of healthcare in an era when all three institutions stand on the brink.

Food’s relationship to the realm of politics is often overlooked, but the link is latent. As Pollan so eloquently expresses in his most recent state-of-the-the-local-food-movement (actually a review of five books covering the subject of local food and sustainable agricultural), an infant’s first refusal of a morsel of food is her first political stand.

Food’s link to economics is even more glossed over, yet even more primordial. Interestingly, food never becomes a political issue until it first becomes an economic one. As Pollan notes, “Cheap food has become an indispensable pillar of the modern economy. But it is no longer an invisible or uncontested one.” Perhaps it’s a mass awakening to the hidden costs of “cheap food” which has made food economics a political issue for many Californians.

We can thank our growing awareness of the unadvertised dangers of cheap food to authors such as Pollan and his contemporaries Schlosser, Nestle and Salatin who, in turn received their impetus from veterans of the sustainable ag movement such as Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry. These icons threatened to expose the Green Revolution of the 1970’s for what it really was – the beginning of the end for farm sustainability and humane ecology.

So, the public is finally wise to the fact that fast food (and cheap food in general) has been waging war on our health, our  environment, animal welfare, our pocketbooks, and the most basic of all social institutions, the family dinner. The result has been the formation of a divergent set of political threads into one umbrella movement which, in the words of Pollan, “coalesces around the recognition that today’s food and farming economy is “unsustainable”—that it can’t go on in its current form much longer without courting a breakdown of some kind, whether environmental, economic, or both.”

In my estimation, an economic breakdown is concomitant with an environmental one. Consumerist society has (at least for the past half century) predicated itself upon consuming more goods than it produces. Vast consumption and waste have pit man against the natural world as if we existed apart from it.

We can see the most palpable effects of this disassociation by reviewing health care spending figures. The Center for Disease Control estimates that three quarters of healthcare costs are associated with chronic, preventable diseases linked to diet. These include type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and over a third of all cancers. “The health care crisis probably cannot be addressed without addressing the catastrophe of the American diet,” writes Pollan, “and that diet is the direct (even if unintended) result of the way that our agriculture and food industries have been organized.”

He goes on to explain that the food movement isn’t just about economic, physical and environmental health.  It’s also about “community, identity, pleasure, and, most notably about carving out a new social and economic space removed from the influence of big corporations on the one side and government on the other.”

Detailing the reinvigorating effect farmers’ markets have had on the lost sense of “social space,” the author lauds the community-building effects of farmers’ markets:

     “Socially as well as sensually, the farmers’ market offers a remarkably rich and appealing environment. Someone buying food here may be acting not just as a consumer but also as a neighbor, a citizen, a parent, a cook. In many cities and towns, farmers’ markets have taken on (and not for the first time) the function of a lively new public square.”

The resurrection of the public square has led to a new economic paradigm (well, actually an old one).  Once a niche portion of the Global Food Economy just a few short years ago, farmers’ markets are now viable market economies in and of themselves. Nothing highlights this point better than the following passage:

     “Though seldom articulated as such, the attempt to redefine, or escape, the traditional role of consumer has become an important aspiration of the food movement. In various ways it seeks to put the relationship between consumers and producers on a new, more neighborly footing, enriching the kinds of information exchanged in the transaction, and encouraging us to regard our food dollars as ‘votes’ for a different kind of agriculture and, by implication, economy. The modern marketplace would have us decide what to buy strictly on the basis of price and self-interest; the food movement implicitly proposes that we enlarge our understanding of both those terms, suggesting that not just “good value” but ethical and political values should inform our buying decisions, and that we’ll get more satisfaction from our eating when they do.”

One important impetus for the movement, or at least its locavore wing—those who are committed to eating as much locally produced food as possible—is the desire to get “beyond the barcode”—to create new economic and social structures outside of the mainstream consumer economy. Though not always articulated in these terms, the local food movement wants to decentralize the global economy, if not secede from it altogether, which is why in some communities, such as Great Barrington, Massachusetts, local currencies (the “BerkShare”) have popped up.

Pollan sees this trend as a rebuke of what he calls “consumer capitalism.” This is one point we will have to contend. The resurgence of local food economies is part and parcel of a truly free market system. Ludwig von Mises, father of the Austrian School of economics, would be proud to see what he theorized as consumer sovereignty and the entrepeneur function so lucidly on display.

What we are seeing with the food movement is the free-market offering a “release valve” for the Commodity Subsidy Bubble which has been inflating alongside the dollar since the Nixon era. The fact that the government has thus far stood out of the way has made the local food movement an economic success.