POV Is an artist driven Op-Ed on social change and the arts.
Some food dollars support systems that really trash the world: they rely of fossil fuels and heavy-duty chemicals; they confine livestock and use feed that can make animals sick; they don’t safeguard agricultural workers; and they concentrate wealth in global corporations. Some food is grown thoughtfully by farmers who hope to protect, and even improve, the condition of their land; who aim to provide decent living conditions for livestock; and who treat their workers fairly. Unfortunately, that second kind of food is often considerably more expensive (for a lot of reasons, some of them attributable to governmental policy). The second kind of food isn’t as convenient or affordable, which makes the big, public conversation tricky, because it can be harder to buy good food if you’re poor.
With my band, I toured the southeastern United States to talk to growers, food sellers, and Michael Pollan himself about food. I wanted to know what choices a consumer could make to help align their food dollars with their values. I was particularly interested in designations like local, seasonal, and organic. I wanted to know which of those three terms I should look for when I shopped.
When I set out, I thought that members of hip-hop culture weren’t often engaged in the politics of food. That probably wasn’t true—I’ve since interviewed Russell Simmons, a pretty serous advocate of veganism, and I’ve followed along on the blogs as Jay and Beyoncé went to all-vegetable diet, at least for a while.
I quickly discovered that the moral dimensions of our food system are complicated and compounding. Several times over the course of my tour, it felt like there simply was no ethical food. Organic, fresh asparagus? No. Out of season, it had been shipped around the world, burning all sorts of fossil fuels. Cage-free eggs? Tough to say. The chickens can be kept in their coop for so long that when the door is opened they don’t even know to use it; essentially, nobody tells them they’re cage-free. Avocados? Tantamount to cocaine—there’s an effing avocado cartel.
In the food discussion, it’s important not to let the perfect stand as the enemy of the good. To draw a parallel: Have I recycled every single can or plastic bottle that I’ve used in the past year? No. I have thrown some of them into the trash. But, on the whole, it’s easy to recycle. I make sure to do so when I’m at home or in a place that’s rigged for it. Similarly, when buying food, it’s impossible to vet and research every last purchase. I’ve landed on a solution that looks like this: I don’t make absolute rules against buying certain items. Instead, I try to buy more of the ones that I believe are produced ethically. I still get Reese’s from gas stations and I still eat mangos flown in from far away. But I make a point to find out what’s growing in Minnesota every month. The Wedge (a coop in Uptown, Minneapolis) lists where each of its food items was produced. Even if I can’t or don’t want to shell out for organic red peppers, I can easily afford organic, local carrots, which are much cheaper. So, I eat more carrots. And I eat more greens from Eagan and more mushrooms from Wisconsin. If there’s a grower near you who sells directly at a farmer’s market, you can often buy local without paying an undue premium because you’re cutting out the middleman’s mark-up.
It’s a small gesture, I know, but I also bought a basil plant, which I very much hope to find alive when I return from my current tour. Shopping ethically, whenever you can afford to, also reinforced the fact that there is a market for ethically produced food. It’s not too far afield from the decision to buy records from musicians. We all know that you could get it for less, or for free, elsewhere. But buying music supports music making, it funds the time and rent and meals it takes to write new songs. If you’re new to the food discussion, welcome. It’s a head-trip. I’d recommend the book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Pollan as a point of entry. If you’re already hep to it, I welcome your feedback and look forward to continuing the conversation at farms, in grocery stores and on the road.