The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This restaurant fable explains everything wrong with San Francisco right now

( <a href="">David Orban</a> )
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The city of Junipero has a problem. Some of its citizens are starving, even as others gorge themselves on 28-course tasting menus. Food inequality has become a visible and painful symbol of class conflict. Activists accuse Junipero's foodies of snatching food from their neighbors' mouths. Some of the foodies have turned defensive, complaining aloud that people who forgot to pack a lunch are jealous of those who remembered.

How could it have come to this in such a great American city? Ten years ago, Junipero passed an anti-hunger ordinance limiting the total number of meals served in the city each day. The goals were many, but they included reducing food waste, preventing wild swings in the supply of food, promoting home-cooked dishes over bulk processed junk, and fighting obesity by keeping compulsive eaters from downing 12 meals in a day.

The cap was set at 4 million meals a day, enough for each of Junipero's million citizens to have a decadent four meals each. And for the first few years, everything was fine. But then the city's birdcage industry took off, and artisanal birdcage makers from around the world flowed into Junipero. They recruited their friends to this culinary capital, and started birdcage foundries of their own, bringing in even more birdcage designers, painters and extruders. By the time the birdcage boom peaked, a million new birdcage makers and their families had arrived, swelling Junipero's population to an even 2 million.

Under the 4-million-meal cap, every Juniperan could have had two meals a day, itself far from ideal. But even that is not what happened. Instead, the birdcage makers, flush with cash but peckish, started spending more and more to get their third meal each day. And as the price of a hamburger rose, from $3 to $30 and beyond, many native Juniperans found even the humble hamburger beyond their means. The same thing happened to fried eggs, cans of soup, and plates of rice and beans. Soon, many were scraping by on nothing but breakfast. For a while, those with cars would drive to nearby towns to eat out, but those towns had meal caps too, and soon the prices there were just as outrageous.

Food quality inequality soon followed. Wealthy birdcagers, more often than not, decided that if they were going to pay $200 for a pork chop, it might as well be a sous-vide, humanely raised, singing and dancing pork chop on a bed of truffled six-squash puree with a quince reduction. But native Juniperans found that after paying $20 for a baked potato, they simply couldn't afford to put butter on top. Fake bacon bits were out of the question. Their quality of life has suffered in other ways, too. They're maxing out credit cards, taking third jobs, and wearing scraps of rubber as shoes--all to keep putting food on the table.

"Fair's Fair! Two Squares!"

Everyone has a theory of how to fix things. The mayor has suggested requiring restaurants to serve a certain number of affordable meals per week. Chefs protested, saying that every pair of affordable meals takes them one two-top further from making their rent. Instead, they suggested opening more public soup kitchens, but then the mayor objected that $20 potatoes are already blowing a hole in the city's social services budget.

Activists chanting "Fair's Fair! Two Squares!" say that the food market has failed; they want prix fixe menus and rationed rations. The celebrity chefs from some of the city's great birdcage company cafeterias have offered to teach community cooking classes; an anonymous donor used his birdcage fortune to set up stands throughout the city to put free fake bacon bits on poor people's potatoes.

Restaurateurs proposed raising the meal cap for anyone who opens a new restaurant, but a Junipero Times editorial responded that these new restaurants would literally cater to Junipero's 1 percent, serving fare like foie gras cupcakes and accelerating Junipero's out-of-control gourmetization.

Public health experts are pushing for better nutritional standards, since total caloric intake is way down but candy consumption is way up. An Occupy Junipero movement takes the position that the whole thing is the fault of the birdcage industry, which should be banned as an engine of culinary destruction. Nothing has worked so far, but the proposals keep coming.

Junipero's cultural politics have gotten ugly. Angry protesters are smashing restaurant windows, hurling garbage at anyone who eats in public, and picketing the private food trucks that provide box lunches for birdcage foundries. One prominent birdcage CEO turned the anger back, saying in a TV interview that making birdcages is hard work and requires a full stomach, and people who don't deserve or appreciate good food should stop complaining about those who will put it to better use. A graffiti mural downtown has become a symbol of the city's tensions: it depicts a tide of bone-thin children, pressed up against the bars of a locked and gilded birdcage, staring forlornly at platters of grilled-cheese sandwiches stacked within.

Junipero has a food problem

Junipero definitely has a problem. But first and foremost it has a food problem, not an inequality problem. And the problem with food in Junipero is simple: there isn't enough of it. Junipero's population of 2 million souls needs 6 million meals a day, but the meal cap means there are only 4 million to go around.

Inequality enters, with a vengeance, because fortune favors those with fortunes. Junipero has locked its citizens in a cage and told them to fight for their food. When money is the weapon of choice, the fight will always by definition be rigged in favor of the rich. They are rich. This is unfair and tragic, but the tragedy for the poor is not just that the fight is unfair, but that they were locked in a cage and forced to fight in the first place.

In a sense, this happens all the time in a market economy: People compete against each other for things. But there is a crucial difference. If too many people want bicycles, other people make more bicycles. It matters less who gets the only bicycle left in the store today, when tomorrow there will be more on the delivery truck. Take away the truck, as Junipero has, and we will start to gaze upon each other with malice aforethought.

It feels like inequality is Junipero's biggest problem because inequality manifests itself locally, in people's daily lives. The footrace for food pits all against all, and makes everyone acutely conscious of where in the pack they fall. The poor see the rich as mad wastrel kings; the rich see the poor as a mob seething with jealousy; those in the middle live lives of stress and fear as they scramble to stay out of ranks of the unfed.

But the hidden limit -- the meal cap -- is global and systemic, not local and personal. No one is told, "I'm sorry, the city just served its 4-millionth meal of the day, so you're out of luck." The meal cap itself is invisible, mediated through the price of food, which then becomes the visible bone of contention between the rich and the poor. Inequality in Junipero would be far less devastating and far less divisive if it weren't being channeled into a daily fight for food. The single biggest source of suffering for Junipero's poor is the meal cap.

Everything else that is wrong with how Juniperans eat and live is wrong because there isn't enough food. Eating is expensive because there isn't enough food. Some people's meals are meager because there isn't enough food. Other people gorge themselves when they do eat because there isn't enough food. Food is a flashpoint because there isn't enough of it.

One thing and one thing only will bring peace to Junipero. More food.

James Grimmelmann is Professor of Law at the University of Maryland. You can follow him on Twitter.