Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Food Transparency - It Must Be More Than a Portlandia Skit

Surely there are idealistic topics in our culture that transcend the political spectrum, no?  There must be aspects of our society that are populist and meaningful that I can write about that won't disgruntle half of the country?  Yes, there must be something most of us can agree on. Something rooted in the American ideal of liberty and choice, something we all believe in (because when it comes down to it, we're all little libertarian by it's base definition).  Since I like to reflect on food, how about we talk food transparency? Surely that's got the social impact without too much ideological division. Though I already see the potential pitfalls with my agricultural brethren.  
I want us to know what we're eating and the story it tells.  I'm certainly not alone in thinking that we should know it's voyage to our mouths before we send it back to the earth from whence it came.  I'm not asking for everyone to fall in line to one perspective or another.  I take the likely naive position that knowledge is power.  Transparency is knowledge is power is liberty is what it means to be American, at least in my idealistic eyes.  Knowing where the food in my grocery came from and how it was produced might not change my behavior today. But I'll at least take a moment and understand its different steps in its journey to my mouth, however pleasant or unpleasant.  And pleasantness is definitely a relative concept. 
But that's the problem.  Many of us don't know, don't want to make it a priority to find out, or are simply content with the current system.  Given the current state of American wellness, I can't imagine the latter scenario (probably the most common) will remain relevant. There are countless variables in this equation that create this situation and in the spirit of brevity, I'm not going off on that tangent. As a result, understanding your food's journey has been marginalized as an affluent, hipster demand.  Take this example:   

I appreciate this TEDx Talk as the solution they present is quite literal.  It's a valiant effort, flawed but certainly moving the story toward a shared goal of transparency.  They want to connect farms to restaurants and farmers' markets and ultimately to the consumer.  This is a consumer driven approach toward greater food transparency and it's important.  However I do see two challenges with the crux of this approach.
It's all about hipsters with money
First is the socioeconomic and cultural elitism associated with this mindset. That's an ironic response, I know.  What I mean is this solution is suited for the well to do.  Those with Internet access and the paycheck to eat at farm to table restaurants and the means to eat significant portions of their meals from likely inaccessible farmers' markets.  
Yes, this is me and my family to some degree.  But what about the rest of my grocery shopping and food consumption? And I dare to say that I'm not alone in that this transparency isn't relevant to even half of a typical Midwestern foodie/foodist's (hereafter referred to as foodies) meals.  We buy organic (most of the time) and when we do eat meat, it's from a butcher that promises cageless this and hormone free (some of the time). The speaker's scope is limited to foodies and producers who are already, out of principle, inclined to be transparent with their food.  I'm out of luck if I don't eat from the limited list of farm to table restaurants or buy all of my food from a farmers' market.  
It lacks the logistical scale to feed the masses
This is related to my first point.  I don't see us feasibly dismantling our massive food system in favor of the artisan small scale version that is realtimefarms.com's focus.  And again, I don't want to be critical of the ideas people are bringing to life on this front.  But what concerns me is if people get the great sense of accomplishment for something rather limited in scope.  It's like an urban farm.  Sure, that's cool that you farm an empty lot or two, but what percentage of a household or restaurant's food consumption are you providing, let alone the number of households and restaurants with which you are partnered?  But again, I'm sitting on the sidelines and potentially being overcritical.  These solutions are playing at the margins.

The truth is, we haven't hit the tipping point . Food transparency needs to evolve to include mainstream consumers and "traditional" channels.  This broadens the conversation tremendously and as a result, makes it a much more challenging conversation.  Challenging in that it's confronting the 800 pound gorilla in the room.  A broader conversation is obviously a bigger phenomena that includes powerful players like Big Food, agribusiness, and so forth.  For now, I'll keep this post focused on these efforts by foodies for foodies.  While the mindset of realtimefarms.com (the solution presented in the TEDx talk) sound appealing to this pragmatic food conscious Hoosier, it's scope is too narrow to harbor widespread change that we all ought to consider. We need to ensure that food transparency is not relegated to a certain socioeconomic strata that's oh so elegantly eviscerated by Portlandia:   

Ouch, that stings a little.  more to come.

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