A Critique: Food Choices and the Food Movement

In recent months, I’ve been encouraged by others to think a bit more critically about my families food choices. I’ve since watched and read a bit and I find myself still a bit skeptical. If an outsiders generalization of my readers is correct, my skepticism regarding the popular food trends of local and organic might be a bit controversial to you reading. I’m hoping it is, because I’d like to get some feedback and thoughts on the topic and am quite open to having my views changed.

I have to start with a bit of a disclaimer. There are a lot of things espoused by the food movement that my family is already doing. We’ve almost always composted and recycled. We don’t buy a ton of processed foods (microwave type stuff) and we don’t eat red meat much (I never ate it growing up). We even bring our own bags usually. Oh, and we’ve tried to garden in some form most summers. So, along the spectrum, there are a lot of things we are already doing. But, there are some things we aren’t.

We shop at Aldis and Cub, not Whole Foods, The Wedge or other organic/coop/local type places (I’ve tried occasionally). We don’t buy organic when it comes to our produce. And we don’t buy free-range, cage-free, grass-fed or anything when it comes to our meat. And, I haven’t been all that compelled to change those choices. Rather, I’ve had some concerns or critiques.

  • The Food Movement seems to be a primarily motivated by self-interest. I’m not saying individuals might have larger societal interest in mind, to that point, the information that’s presented is often in the form of national statistics of obesity, disease, etc. However, the changes that are being done and created are individual family choices. It’s families with the financial means and resources changing their families purchasing habits. I’ve seen very little collective action to encourage more systemic change (Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution might be a minor exception).
  • The justification and reaction seems to be from one extreme to the other. It’s clear our nation has some health issues, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, so on and so forth. And I definitely agree our eating habits are heavily at fault. We eat very unhealthy, highly processed food, and far too much of it (this last part is my vice). However, I don’t think the only solution is to buy local and organic. We’d be a much healthier nation if we ate more fruits and vegetables, organic or not.

There’s more thoughts I’ve had, but at risk of making this too long and not getting some conversation going, I’ll stop here. I’d love to hear your thoughts about food, organic, local, etc and why your making the current choices you do. And feel free to challenge me on the statements above or choices we make.

26 thoughts on “A Critique: Food Choices and the Food Movement”

  1. Hrmmph, I wrote a nice long comment to your post and the intensedebate ate it. I might try again later.

    In the meantime get your hands on these books, Fast Food Nation, Food Policy, and The Omnivore's Dilemma.

  2. I think there has been a lot of change in the local movement to get local food into food banks and soup kitchens. Also, the Food Movement, from its inception, has been a community oriented movement, and not one of vanity, gourmet, or self-interest. While a local chicken roasted with fresh parsley and rosemary may appear to be the fad of the wealthy that was the normal Sunday dinner for people only 30 or 40 years ago. It's not self interest to begin to take yourself, your family, and your community out of the industrial food system that has done untold damage to our nation's moral, ethical, and community fabric.
    My recent post Am I a Christian Hipster Yes- but…

  3. Ariah, I also have misgivings and my own critique of the so called "locavores," and although in many ways I fit the demographic profile of the stereotypical conscious eater, I am skeptical of any social movement that is comprised primarily of yuppies.
    That being said, I think food deserts persist in communities like ours precisely because the industrial agribusiness complex has successfully instilled the perception that healthy and conscientious eating is a preoccupation of the elite, and not something that regular people should or can afford to think about. I think you're right in your previous comment that the market ultimately bends toward demand, but demand is heavily influenced by marketing. So until the perception of healthy and conscious (whether socially, environmentally, ethically, etc.) eating changes, the message that large corporations spend millions of dollars promoting ("Don't worry about that other stuff; just eat what tastes good!") will continue to win the day, and demand will stay unchanged. Obviously there are other things that need to change besides perception, but that is an incredibly important one.

  4. Hello Ariah. Here's a few other things to think about.

    1. What's wrong with thinking of the personal healthy of your family? One of the main reasons we choose to fork out extra cash for certain foods is because we believe that this type of food is actually healthier and cleaner for our bodies. Certain foods that come to our stores can either have added chemicals that we've decided we don't want in our bodies or have lost essential nutrients due to the way they've been grown. Buy more expensive foods to us sometimes is a choice about our health and nothing else, much like our choice to not eat or feed our kids fast food.
    2. I think that how we spend our money is a bit like voting. There's a part of me that believes that as a person with some surplus cash, I vote with my dollars. The more local restaurants, businesses, farmers, etc. I choose to support the better. I'm okay paying a few bucks more to buy things from my neighbors store (Local D'Lish) then the convenience of buying something general mills or kraft makes.
    3. I think we should think about animals more. God created them, we should treat them better.

    And a final question for you my friend. In the past you've shown much passion and care around fair trade chocolate. You've encouraged others to not buy regular chocolate and in fact you've offered to buy chocolate for others as well. I can't remember exactly all your reasons for this, but I'm sure some of it has to do with worker's rights, etc.. Why the commitment to that, but less to the food stuff? Would it "cost" you too much to start buying more healthy food?

    And lastly, what's that margaret mead quote? Something about a small handful of people who can change the world. While of course there is much trendinish and fashion with the local healthy foods movement, I don't think that should stop us from making healthy choices for the world and our kids. We can be in the movement but not of the movement is my opinion.

  5. Oh sorry one more thing as it relates to systems change.
    Please check out the work of
    IATP (institute on agriculture and trade policy) locally they are doing a lot. in fact they helped changed the city's standards for local farmer's market and are behind many of the community gardens in north this summer
    Policy Link is doing great work both at a policy level and a knowledge base level.
    Also EJAM locally, environmental justice advocates of Minnesota, located in teh URban league is addressing this issue systemically as well.

    I would argue there are lots f people thinking about the justice issue of food, food deserts, etc.. locally and nationally.

  6. Ariah, if you're looking at "the movement" as just what you see in the news and on trendy magazines then you don't see these things. But if you look at what the community development world is doing around food it hits everything you're talking about. I mention a few below, but also National LISC, Will Allen is doing some advocacy, and probably many more in each local area. The justice issues around food are being worked on, but not as mainstream as the faddy/trendy parts of the movemen.t

    1. I don't really read trendy magazines and my 'news', at least as it relates to things like this, is usually the articles, movies, books and blog post recommended to me by friends. Maybe this will reveal the evangelistic side of me, but I sort of wonder, if this stuff is happening, why hasn't someone, or more then one, made a plain case to me. Tried to engage me in the topics, confront me with the facts, I'd probably be an easy convert.
      Are any of the things you mentioned actively engaged on the northside, with northside residents? A place that I can plugin and get connected in our community?

  7. Thanks for chiming in, I always appreciate hearing your views on this stuff. I'll try to hit on each of the things you mentioned.

    1. I don't think there is anything wrong with thinking of your families personal health. I probably didn't clarify it really in my post above, but you know my world view is shaped by a "love your neighbor as yourself mentality" (which I know you share). Thus, I try and balance the choices both for my immediate family and the larger community. I don't expect those who don't share that world view to do the same, but I wish I could find example within the church of how to find that balance (I'm not saying they're not there, just that I haven't seen them).

    2. I totally agree that how we spend our money is a vote. And I believe there is huge power in that when we collectively make decisions in one direction or another. And yet, we have to be strategic about it just like anything else. If my larger vision is for access to healthy food in my immediate community, how do I vote with my money in a way that makes that a reality?
    And this starts to get off into other tangents, but what do you do for the things that aren't available at the farmer's market or local D'lish? And if our money is our vote, but we only have a limited supply, but we need to buy enough to provide for our family, is there a way we can support local and still purchase enough within our budget to feed our family? If so how? And if not, that what are the top priority changes we should make?

    3. The animal thing is a tough one for me. I hear where your coming from, and I know of some practices I can't stomach to watch. At the same time, if given the choice between expending extra resources on caring for people's lives or animals, I'm going with people every time. This is probably a whole separate conversation.

    4. The chocolate question. In summary: I only eat fair trade chocolate because a large percentage of cocoa (used to make chocolate) is harvested using child slaves. I'm outspoken about it for several reasons, but the main one is that it's slavery. If there are other industries, any industries that you know of that primarily use slavery, let me know immediately and I'll stop immediately. Chocolate is also a luxury treat, not a necessary food source, and so I think it's reasonable to ask anyone from any economic level to consider altering their choices in that area. My decision to eat fair trade chocolate hasn't increased my spending on chocolate, rather I eat less chocolate.
    I'd love for someone to layout similar critiques of certain foods and how we can respond. I learned about the chocolate issue and feel compelled to share it, I hope others, more informed then me on the food issues, would do the same.

    5. "…It is the only thing that ever has." Great quote. And I'm with you, trendy isn't bad if the end results are the same. And your very right that you can be "in" but not "of", I'm certainly not a critic of those whose choices happen to line up with what becomes trendy. I think if you were to put it all on a spectrum, my family choices probably fall far more within the "food movement" then outside of it.

    Wow, that got really long. I hope those were thoughtful responses. Here's the only question I really have in return that I would LOVE for you to answer:

    -What should I do first? I trust you and respect the wisdom you have and thoughtfulness you've given to these issues. I know there's a lot of things our family could do. Give me one change I should make today regarding our families food choices and I'll seriously consider it. 🙂 Convert me.

    1. To be honest it's hard for me to give you any real tangible advice without knowing truly your values more around money, budgeting and the comprehensive nature of how you and Mindy are leading your family. When Erin and I began thinking more critically about food issues we walked slowly and took baby steps. One of the defining factors in the decisions we make around food is our budget. Today we budget $500 for food in a month. This includes trips to you know Holy Land or eating at the gym. Every month we make compromises as well as it relates to time, convenience, social calendar and money. But at the end of the day we've decided that in our budget we can afford $500/month for groceries. Then from inside that decision we make our choices. We eat less meat some months than others. We eat eggs 3 times for dinner at the end of month sometimes because we're tapped. You get the idea.

      I'll add the other thing for me too… I think certain foods taste way better than other foods. A grass fed burger is way better tasting to me than cheap factory farmed beef. I know that sounds uppity, but man it just does. Same with cheese and a few other things. So even within our own budget we prioritize certain things.

      By no means is anything simple and I respect anybody, including yourself, for a thoughtfullness that takes into account an full array of complicated realities. I help good friends every month with their budget. They see things often very similarly to me, but have 50% of the budget for food. They have to buy the cheapest foods most month just to not go broke. Never in a million years would I position myself as better than a family like that. So for whatever that's worth, that's my final thought.


      1. I'd love to see what you layout as far as your weekly food purchasing and menu goes (obviously, we can do this offline). And, what parts of the movement you'd recommend a neighbor like me get involved in.
        I'm okay with checking out a movie or book, but I'd love for someone whose passionate and wise about these issues to point me in the right direction.

  8. Yes, great organizations. These or the sort of efforts I think I could get behind. But at the same time, they seem to be separate from the trendier "food movement" I see. Could be wrong, maybe they are more tied together then I realize.

  9. I totally agree with you that the food movement seems most appealing & accessible to those with means. Although I love reading about it we are definitely taking baby steps as a family. What has been most beneficial to me about the movement is the education about nutrition.

  10. I've got a number of things to say on this topic – I'm very passionate about it and appreciate you being open to listening and for creating a dialogue.

    I'll keep my comment about 4 things concerning organic.

    1. Organic is better for you. Conventional celery can have the residue of up to 60 different pesticides – even after they've been washed. Personally, with two young girls at home, I'd rather keep those toxins out of my home – as these chemicals can have an impact on how kids develop.

    2. Organic is better for the farm workers. Please read these articles concerning the link between farmers working in fields sprayed with pesticides and the diseases they inevitably develop later in life. http://food.change.org/blog/view/farm_workers_sufhttp://www.theatlantic.com/food/archive/2010/06/a

    3. Organic is better for the planet. The great plains of the US has some of the best soil in the whole world, yet we are squandering it by growing crops (mainly corn) conventionally with chemical fertilizers, which leads to depletion of soil fertility and loss of topsoil. The runoff also pollutes nearby streams and rivers, and for us, eventually washes down into the Gulf of Mexico and creates the Dead Zone. Many of MN's lakes and rivers are listed as impaired: http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/eco/cwl/impaired.html

    4. Organic food has not been genetically modified. If you've seen Food, Inc. you're aware of the issue. (And how bad Mansanto is.) GM foods are cross-pollinating with natural varieties, leading to a loss of biodiversity, which makes a plant species more susceptible to disease and drought. GM have never really been tested on humans, so we don't know how they may impact us.

    I could go on in more detail if you wish, but that should give you some stuff to look over.

    If you can't buy all organic, as least avoid the Dirty Dozen: http://green.yahoo.com/blog/daily_green_news/332/

  11. "We’d be a much healthier nation if we ate more fruits and vegetables, organic or not."
    Simply put…a vegetable from the garden tastes better than one from the store!

    If you read about how the vegetables and fruits at the store are geneticly modified, bred, picked, shipped and ripened…(for size, durability, color, shape…..picked green so they won't bruise before they have matured or absorbed the sun's good energy, ripened on a truck with chemicals…there's nothing here about health or taste!) the selfish choice seems like a pretty good one!

    The term organic is a trendy and loose one…but local is awesome. I have even heard a good argument that canned and frozen vegetables are healthier than the "fresh" produce we get at the store because they are allowed to ripen and grow properly.

    I guess I am saying that I only partially agree with that statement about our health.


    1. Good thoughts, I guess I had not considered the difference in overall nutrition of the food item, local vs. story bought. Personally though, we have tomatoes, etc that we grow in our garden and ones we get from a CSA, and though I definitely like them, I don't feel like I really notice a difference in taste between the two.

      Think you can find a link or reference for the "canned or frozen" being healthier? I think that might be the route I do more of if I'm gonna stop with some of these main veggies we normally eat.

  12. Second I guess I don't see how local food is anything BUT community minded and unselfish. If I was selfish I would (and Do honestly…) consume and purchase things that have been flown halfway around the globe (which hurts the earth/community/all of us) just because I want an orange in the middle of the winter for instance.

    If I was selfish I don't care about local workers or farmers, or the health of the local soil…and I buy things from huge corperations that pollute the soil, replace workers with machines, buy up local farms, and use un-sustainable farming practices.

    1. Good point again. I wasn't specifically critiquing local purchasing, but the food movement, which includes lots of organic and plenty of large chain health food stores.

      And I'm very open to the fact that individuals selfish choices end up being very beneficial and good for the community/world.

  13. CSA's have "community" right in the title, for good reason.

    We have a great program in Nashville Called "Good food for Good people" where they load up local and organic produce on a truck and take it to poor neighborhoods. The local Whole Foods and Trader Joes both participate with donations.

    Trader Joes also gives a lot of food to homeless shelters etc…

    Trader joes for that matter is cheaper that Kroger.

    there are local farmers markets (not the fake one where stuff comes off a truck for tourists, but real ones) popping up all over town in non-trendy neighborhoods that are very affordable.

    There are CSA's that are in urban neighborhoods and rather than offering "subscriptions" require you to volunteer and learn about farming, and then get your food for free.

    mind you, i hear you about the affordability thing somtimes, and I definitly don't always buy organic or local….however i consider it to be EXTREMELY selfish of me when I don't.

    I think buying local food is about the most selfless thing I could ever do…I am just too lazy not to.
    – Ben Griffith

    1. Thanks for the strong thoughts Ben. Just so you know, we are part of a CSA in our neighborhood and support several community garden efforts over here. So, I don't want it to seem like I'm on the opposite end of the spectrum on these things.

      Mostly, I'm trying to figure out how to live a lifestyle that is both ethical in the ways your mentioning, and feasible financially and otherwise for my local neighbors. I just want to figure out what that looks like and it's difficult. Or maybe I just haven't really tried hard enough.

  14. You're right to be skeptical about organic – it is not a magic bullet. There is no magic bullet in our extremely complex food system, but organic is certainly part of the solution.

    I base my view on a few things.
    1. We have a responsibility to our fellow human beings, not to harm them but to love them.
    2. We have a responsibility to the earth and all living creatures, to care and not to harm.

    Let's say the food I require over the course of the year requires 10 acres of land. I don't own it, but I so directly influence how that land is used that I might as well own it, because I believe the way I spend my money ACTUALLY makes an impact on what happens in the world and what I choose to eat ACTUALLY determines how the earth will be used.

    I want my 10 acres to not deplete life, but to be live-giving. I want that land to be increasingly better every year. I want it to positively impact the earth's ecosystem. I want the humans that work the 10 acres and the wildlife that inhabits it and the neighbors of that land on all sides to be healthy and safe and not to be harmed by my choices. I feel I am literally responsible for how that land impacts the world. It is a moral issue.

    Choosing organic in the supermarket helps make my 10 acres a positive force in the world.

    Of course the closer those 10 acres are to where I live, the better. Locally grown organic is the goal.

    1. Jake,
      Thanks so much for taking the time to articulate these thoughts and respond to my questions. I'm definitely interested in making some changes, but have been trying to think critically through my values and how that should shape my decision making in this regard. I'm gonna write another post for Monday, so check back then.

  15. As far as a grocery bill goes, organic is more expensive…up front.

    Every thing we eat has a price. The conventional apple is cheaper in the supermarket, but the real price is more expensive. The supermarket price doesn't reflect some of the things I mentioned in an earlier post, such as soil nutrient depletion, loss of topsoil, groundwater and aquifer contamination as well as surface water contamination, as well as they effects of pesticides/herbicides on humans and other life on earth. We can speculate too that eating conventionally grown and genetically modified food may lead to health problems down the road, so we can add that to the 'real' price as well.

    We have created this situation in part by demanding cheap food. We are all trying to trim our budgets, especially in this recession. Americans, however, spend less than 10% of our income on food, the lowest of any industrialized nation. We have forgotten the cost of eating well, and it is showing up on our nation's waistline.

    My family is working through this too. We buy organic as much as possible. We buy from the farmer's market, are part of CSA, have a big garden and so on. Prioritizing fresh, quality, organic, local food is important to us, so we buy that first. We find we don't have money to buy they other stuff we don't need, and we are better for it. We are spending more than we used to, but we believe that we are creating a better world by eating differently.

    It's hard to eat well year-round in MN, so we just do the best we can. We are all works-in-progress.

    There's an old saying that says, "Pay your grocer now, or your doctor later."

  16. Devils advocate:

    Do we want to live in a germ free world with no toxins in our bodies? The Purell movement has made us more susceptible to germs. I eat cheap food and exercise a lot. That seems to work for me.

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