As a class, lower income people have been well represented in some of the best-covered food stories of our day, particularly hunger, obesity, and diabetes. As these issues have faded in and out of the public’s eye over the last 25 years, another food trend was rapidly becoming a national obsession—namely, local and organic.
At about the same time that Berkeley diva Alice Waters was first showing us how to bestow style and grace on something as ordinary as a local tomato, the Reagan administration’s anti-poor policies were driving an unprecedented number of people into soup kitchens and food banks. And as organic food advocates were putting the finishing touches on what was to become the first national standard for organic food, supermarket chains were nailing plywood across their city store windows bidding farewell to lower income America.
Organic food and agriculture had barely climbed out of the bassinet in 1989 when 60 Minutes ran its now famous Alar story. The exposure it received before 40 million television viewers ignited a firestorm of consumer reaction that eventually made organic food the fastest growing segment of the U.S. food industry.
Yuppie families reacted first. Like every parent since time immemorial, these parents wanted what was best for their children, and the emerging evidence that our food supply was tainted accelerated their desire for the healthiest and safest food possible. Though the research surrounding the health and safety attributes of various foods remained foggy, competing claims opened up a never ending number of consumer options. One’s food choices may be vegetarian, vegan, organic, grass-fed, free-range, humanely raised, or some combination of these. As to the source of this food, it could range from “generally local when it’s easy to get” to “obsessively local and will eat nothing else.”
In low-income circles, however, such food anxieties got little traction. Between getting to a food store where the bananas weren’t black and having enough money to buy any food at all, low-income shoppers had little inclination to parse the differences between grass-fed and grass-finished. But this didn’t imply that their awareness of organic food was non-existent, nor did it mean that low-income consumers were less likely to buy organic if they had the chance.
Low-Income Shoppers Speak
To better understand a variety of issues, the Hartford Food System, a Connecticut-based non-profit organization that I directed for 24 years, would often meet with low-income families to get their point of view. On one such occasion, we asked eight members of Hartford’s Clay/Arsenal neighborhood to discuss local and organic food. Like other impoverished urban neighborhoods, Clay/Arsenal was entirely devoid of good quality food stores, and their residents experienced hunger, obesity, and diabetes at rates that were two to three times the national average. This group was comprised exclusively of Hispanic and African American residents.
First off, the group expressed an immediate consensus that fresh, inexpensive food—the food they generally preferred—was unavailable in their neighborhood. Everyone agreed that traveling to a full-line supermarket was a hassle because it required one or two long bus rides or an expensive taxi fare. As a result, they did their major shopping once or twice a month, and when they shopped, price was their most important consideration.
When asked what the word organic meant to them, the residents answered “real food,” “natural,” “healthy,” and “you know what’s in it.” While they believed that organic food was preferable to food they described as “processed,” “full of chemicals,” or “toxic,” they said that buying organic food wasn’t even an option, because it was simply not available to them. One young woman made a point of saying that she didn’t trust the environment where she lived or the food she ingested. “Everything gives you cancer these days,” she said. Conversely, there was an underlying tone of confidence in the safety and healthfulness of food that they could identify as local and organic.
Their awareness of the benefits of local and organic food was very high. For the elderly, there was the nostalgic association with tastes, places, and times gone by. For those with young children, there was an apprehension that nearly everything associated with their external environment, including food, was a threat. Like parents of all races, education levels, and occupations, these moms wanted what was best for their children as well, even when they knew that what was best was not available to them.
Local and Organic Go Mainstream
“In a burst of new interest in food,” spouted Newsweek’s 2006 food issue, “Americans are demanding—and paying for—the freshest and least chemically treated products available.” Whole Foods’ John Mackey told the Wall Street Journal, “The organic-food lifestyle is not a fad…It’s a value system, a belief system. It’s penetrating into the mainstream.”
As we cast our eye over the sheer effulgence of American food, there appears to be no limit to the type and number of food products for those who are motivated by taste, environmental concern, animal welfare, political correctness, or simple virtue. Niman Ranch produces a pork to die for, and costs significantly more than the factory-farmed alternative. Don’t want to spend the “best four years of your life” eating swill from the college cafeteria trough? Select from any of hundreds of colleges and universities that are now featuring “sustainable dining” (some inspired by master chef Alice Waters). And when you just can’t find anything that satisfies your organic lifestyle where you live, you can always pack up and leave. The New York Times style page featured a number of families who had the financial wherewithal to escape from New York City to the Hudson River valley. Once there, the families “began eating strictly organic foods.” One couple said they had moved because the wife was pregnant with their second child and “we decided that the children needed to be in nature.”
Sounds pretty good. In fact, it just may be the latest incarnation of the American dream. But what about those who can’t escape or afford to eat “strictly organic” or for whom “buying local” means the past-code date, packaged baloney at the neighborhood bodega? How do we fulfill the desire for healthy and sustainably produced food that is increasingly shared by all?
There are two general directions that have shown promise in closing this food gap: one is through private, largely non-profit projects and the other is through public policy. At the Hartford Food System we founded the Holcomb Farm Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Farm that made an explicit commitment to distribute about 40 percent of its local and organic produce to the city’s low-income community. Using a hybrid method of funding, CSAs like the Holcomb Farm (Just Food in New York City and the Western Massachusetts Food Bank in Hadley are other examples) have been organized around the country to ensure that CSAs are not solely the province of a white, bright elite. Other models like the People’s Grocery in Oakland are using mobile markets to bring high quality, healthy food into communities that are underserved by supermarkets.
Public policy advocacy has leveraged federal and state funding to provide special farmers’ market vouchers to low-income women, children, and elders (Farmers Market Nutrition Program). These small denomination coupons have opened an increasing share of the nation’s 4,500 farmers’ markets to a wider demographic of shoppers. Along the same lines, a small but steady stream of farmers’ markets are installing swipe card machines to enable food stamp recipients to use their electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards to buy local food. And in what might be the biggest breakthrough yet, the national Women, Infant, and Children Program (WIC) will be implementing a new fruit and vegetable program that is potentially worth hundreds of million dollars to lower income consumers and local farmers.
While it may be some time before we see a Whole Foods open in East Harlem, non-profit organizations like the Philadelphia-based Food Trust have secured millions of dollars in state financing to develop food stores in underserved urban and rural Pennsylvania communities. As part of an overall economic development strategy, these stores are not only providing new sources of healthy and affordable food to low-income families, they are also expanding employment opportunities and the local property tax base.
These projects and policies have inched us closer to bridging the divide between the haves and have-nots, but unless every segment of society rejects the notion that there is one food system for the poor, and one for everyone else, these gains will remain marginal.