Bolivia, Quinoa, and the Foodists

This post is in response to an article titled “How many Bolivians are dying because foodies love quinoa?”.  Wow, there’s so much hiding beneath the surface of this article I’m not sure where to begin.  Although I see the article as a misguided polemic, it touches on an important issue: food elitism.

It’s taken me a while to understand the backlash against foodies and the perception of them as elitists.  The more impoverished an area, the more likely this attitude is to exist.  I’m reminded of the experiences of a friend of mine trying to get a food co-op into North Minneapolis.  At the essence of this backlash is the attitude that “You won’t tell us how to eat or be or what to do.  You don’t know better than us what’s best for us.” and overall that’s a very healthy attitude.  But I’ve never perceived my friends in the food scene as being this way.

For us it’s about the disconnect we all have with food and the consequences of that: social, environmental, economic.  It’s about an industrial food system that no longer cares about land or people, a system driven by outside investment.  It’s about rebuilding this lost connections and providing access to community, health, and wellness for everyone.  Do we deserve to be labeled as food snobs that couldn’t care less about the impoverishment of other areas of the globe?  Absolutely not.

What then is going on?  For this, let’s take a look at the bigger issue of globalization.  What I’m hearing here is that Bolivian farmers are participating in a global economic system (either by choice or by force), and that this globalization is more at the heart of the issue than food snobbery.  World trade, especially in agricultural commodities, is a complex issue and there’s no reason to believe that the policies themselves may have more to do with the problem of hunger than any well-meaning but misguided food snobbery.

So what about food snobbery?  Are a bunch of well-heeled snobs ruining food activism for the rest of us?  Yes and no.  Again it’s not so straightforward.  Yahoo!, which posted the original article linked above, also has articles such as this.  Apparently “quinoa is the superfood of 2013”.  We all should be eating it.  And this is where food snobbery crosses over with health fanaticism, which many of us are caught up in some way or another.  You can’t deny health topics such as this are now part of our cultural dialog.  I mean we all want to be healthy.  That’s not really snobbery.

The article does however take a direct hit at Alice Waters.  Yes I’ve eaten at Chez Panisse, yes it’s expensive, and yes it’s outside the price range of the average American.  But the question is why.  First we need to understand that organic, sustainably produced food is going to be more expensive than conventional.  That not only has to do with proper stewardship of the land, but also operating against a system that’s heavily subsidized industrial system.  It’s an uphill battle.  We shouldn’t feel bad about supporting that, as so eloquently stated by Joel Salatin.

It’s worth noting here you don’t have to eat at Chez Panisse to support this kind of food system.  Alice Waters enjoys good, simple food and to lambast her for operating a higher end restaurant is to ignore her own values.

Let’s move on to a different figure similar to Alice Waters: Thomas Keller of the French Laundry.  Even in this rant against foodies, the author still pays tribute to Thomas Keller and his art.  And that’s what it is: the art of simple food.

So what is there to take away from this?  First of all, don’t feel guilty about anything you’re eating or not eating.  Simply enjoy the food you are eating wherever it’s from.  Understand your values and work to support them.  And don’t get too prideful about your way of being, whether you favor eating quinoa or not.

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