The new front in the culture wars: food
If you shelled out $10 a pound for a "heritage turkey" this Thanksgiving, tea-brined it and stuffed it with rosemary bread (that you made), speck (from the local charcuterie guy), fennel (from the farmers market) and lemon (okay, there are limits to this), you might assume that everyone, if given the opportunity, would support such a makeover of a meal that not long ago was dominated by frozen Butterballs and jellied cranberry sauce.
In fact, not everyone would. And that is an important thing to understand about the effort to remake America's food culture. Advocates of fresh, local and sustainably raised food say it is healthier, better-tasting and morally sound. If everyone could afford that heritage turkey and had a local charcuterie guy, the argument goes, then all Thanksgiving meals would be elevated to ethereal heights.
But many in this country who have access to good food and can afford it simply don't think it's important. To them, food has become a front in America's culture wars, and the crusade against fast and processed food is an obsession of "elites," not "real Americans."
Consider these shots from leading conservative voices in just the past month: Rush Limbaugh, responding to the report of a Kansas State nutrition professor who says he lost 27 pounds eating mainly Twinkies, said: "I know liberals lie, and if Michelle Obama's gonna be out there ripping into 'food deserts' and saying, 'This is why people are fat,' I know it's not true." Sarah Palin took cookies to a Pennsylvania school to register her disapproval of policies that forbid sweets. Glenn Beck suggested that food-safety legislation was a government plot to raise the prices for beef and chicken and thereby turn us all into vegetarians.
Both sides in this gustatory dust-up understand just how dangerous it is to tell people how to eat. The right's cultural warriors see an opportunity to turn the complicated issue of food into a class-war weapon - and to make nice with the fast-food industry, which has donated generously to the GOP. They are banking on the fact that over the past 60 years, the American way of eating has moved from small farms and home-cooked meals to industrial production and drive-throughs. The Golden Arches long ago replaced Mom's apple pie as a symbol of the all-American meal. Thus, "Don't let them take away your Big Mac!" becomes a rallying cry.
This transformation has been sold to us as progress, though not without consequences: Obesity-related diseases cost $150 billion annually.
Proponents of a more progressive food system - liberals mostly - have sought to avoid a paternalistic tone, too. They have focused on systemic failures that prevent families from making healthier choices. Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative, which aims to end childhood obesity within a generation, addresses access (Is fresh food available?) and affordability (Can poor and working-class families afford to buy it?). When reformers talk about personal decisions, they are mostly urging people of means to "vote with their forks" by consuming from places such as farmers markets and Whole Foods.
Access and affordability are indeed problems. But the sense on the right that this is fundamentally a culture issue is also correct, even if its message is wrongheaded.
We moved this month to Huntington, W.Va. - the town where celebrity chef Jamie Oliver set a reality TV show about healthy eating this year - to research a book about efforts to change the way the city eats. Like most U.S. communities, Huntington is dominated by fast and processed food. Still, finding affordable, fresh and even local food there has not been as hard as we expected. We have found plenty of organic produce at the supermarket. We've bought local eggs, buffalo meat and un-homogenized milk in glass bottles.
So far, we've prepared nearly all our meals at home and are averaging about $100 a week on groceries. That breaks down to $2.38 per meal, per person, though it doesn't include the gas and time it took to run down leads on food sources.
In other words, access to and the cost of "elite" food isn't beyond the budgets of many, perhaps most, Americans. Our meals cost less than the "Shrimpzilla" deal at the fast-food joint Captain D's - $4.99 for 30 fried shrimp and two sides - or the $2.59 McDonald's McRib (plus tax).
Those who would reform the U.S. food system need to address the question of values that Limbaugh, Palin and others criticize as elitist. They need to consider the role that socioeconomics plays in determining those values and how to begin to change them. They have to make the case for why eating well matters at the local level, and that case will vary by community. In the Huntington area, residents spend $1.25 billion annually on food, but little of it stays in the region. Local food as economic development is a more persuasive argument in places where good jobs are scarce than is the do-the-right-thing mantra that echoes from both coasts. Good food is also at least part of the solution to the region's health crisis: high rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
For the good-food revolution to have a chance, people have to make finding and preparing fresh food a priority at a time when everything about our modern food system urges us not to bother. And that won't happen if people think healthy food is an elitist plot to take away their McRib.
Brent Cunningham is managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. Jane Black is a former Post staff writer. They are writing a book on Huntington, W.Va.'s efforts to change its food culture.