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Elitist Food

by Natasha Chart Sat Aug 11th, 2007 at 04:34:47 AM EST

So, after many years of driving almost everywhere, I sold my car before moving to Washington, DC. The last time I drove was to the U-Haul place to drop off the truck. Parking is a nightmare here and it's expensive, too. I figured, hey, my new place is three blocks from a Metro station and most of the places I need to go are right on the Metro, it'll be great. That's mostly the case. Mostly.

Here's where it falls down: groceries. The full implications of that part sort of slipped my mind, it's been years and years since I needed groceries and had no car. And I was way less picky about what I ate then; lots of fast food, lots of Top Ramen. It must be granted that there is a sizable grocery store only two blocks from here, and it was a selling point, so it isn't like I didn't take this into consideration at all. But it isn't a co-op, or a Whole Foods, and their selection of organic foods on top of all my allergies leaves me with slim pickings. For fruit, sometimes there are non-skeezy grapes or maybe strawberries, never very good.

Not that I'm complaining, no, really, just musing. Sometimes I do that here. It's either that, or they'd have to search me for pens before letting me use the bathroom at the local sushi bar. And I don't approve of vandalism at all, at all.

It's just that I really don't want to have all my cells tainted with pesticides and the toxic waste that gets added to regular fertilizer as an 'inactive' ingredient. Still, it's been very, very hard to walk past the cherries (okay, one bag, but I went shopping while hungry, and you know what a bad idea that is), apples, plums, melons, berries and other delightful summer produce towards the disreputable looking basket where the organic grapes are kept.

It isn't like there's no Whole Foods, it's just that whether I wanted to go to the one nearish to me or the one down the Red line, it's about half an hour by public transportation at least. It's actually a little longer on Metro, but less crowded and uncomfortable with groceries in tow. And it's been like, lords, a half million degrees during the day and as humid as it can get without actually raining. Add carrying much of anything and you might as well just be swimming.

Oh right, and then there's the time thing. Metro closes at midnight on weekdays and the grocery stores all close by 11pm. If I go for a few days leaving in a hurry in the morning and not getting home until late, I pretty quickly run out of as much food as I would have been able to carry home last time I made a grocery run.

I could, indeed, go to a farmer's market. It isn't like there are any of those. But early on the weekends just hasn't seemed to be working out well for me as a time slot for going out to be steam roasted during what would also be a round trip ranging at minimum from half an hour to an hour. Which feels like an eternity. I'm sure I'll get into the swing of things, though I'm going out of town again this weekend, so no farm fresh produce for me next week.

I'm living in an organic food desert. Which isn't nearly as bad as living in one of the regular kind, but I know way, way too much about where food comes from to eat most of it without a fight. If you see me eating a fast food meal or anything with processed cheese food in it, that should be a big, red flag to you that I'm literally about to pass out from hunger.

Now if I had a kid or two to take care of on my own, particularly if they were very young, getting healthy, fresh and organic food for my household without a car would add orders of magnitude worth of difficulty. They'd either have to come with me, cutting down how much I could carry even though I'd need to buy more, or I'd have to arrange somewhere to leave them for an hour or two. And babysitting, not generally free unless you have a lot of relatives nearby or have deep roots in the community, though not even always then.

At this point, if someone (like, oh, say, some weasely food company executive or Republican politician) told me that I should just change my grocery shopping habits a little so that I could eat more healthfully, I'd tell them to sod right off. So I can only imagine what I would think if I were in a more difficult situation and someone told me that. Told me, 'It's your own fault you don't make wiser choices when you feed your family, don't blame us for the fast food-induced health problems you're dealing with.' I'd be incandescent.

(Some of you who know me are aware that at times, I can very nearly approach literal incandescence under the proper circumstances.)

Grocery shopping used to practically be an afterthought to me. It wouldn't have been a big deal to come home after work or school and go back out shopping, because 1) the weather is so much milder on the West Coast, 2) the longest part of the trip was always the actual shopping, 3) at least some healthy food was rarely more than ten minutes away from the places I lived, 4) when my day/week was very packed, there was usually a 24-hour grocery store to go to if I was out of everything.

Let me add that I know most people don't keep my sort of schedule. But it isn't actually that odd to work late into the evening at an office job if you're a professional, study late at school if you're a student, or have inconveniently scheduled shift work. Then add having no car. Walking is great, after all, but it is in fact slow. And again, there's the carrying. It's not the same to go A bicycle would help, but not if you had small kids, and they're also not known for their large carrying capacities.

So you eat more at restaurants, that's often the way it shakes out. But when was the last time you were at even a good restaurant that had local or organic food on the menu? When was the last time you ate something at a mainstream restaurant where the sauce wasn't the best flavor in the entire dish, without which the rest of it would have been bland and unappetizing? Too often, you get leathery meat, mealy fruit, flavorless vegetables, and a big helping of bleached starch that may once have been a plant.

Somehow, I'm actually supposed to be the elitist. Because I think food should be, um, appetizing. And healthy. And uncontaminated. And fresh. And the kicker, easy to get.

Because it's food. We eat that stuff. I have to eat that stuff. I don't just have to look at it, wear it, have it keep the weather off me, ride in it, or walk on it. I have to put it in my mouth, chew it up, and swallow it, so that it can get turned into me and fuel for me. I can't decide to just skip it for a few days and pick some up next week when it's more convenient.  

I don't have a farm, or access to one. I can't garden where I'm at, and when would I have time, anyway? I live in a society that produces vast quantities of food, and demands that the majority of the public live in a constant state of perpetual motion, with the former enabling the latter. Nothing but systemic change can reverse what we see happening now, with people getting more sick, more often, with malnourished overweight people, with children condemned to a lifetime of ill health because their parents didn't have regular access to fresh produce, high quality grains, and lean protein foods.

How big a change?

Let's take cars. Our cars are among the factors killing our planet's ability to feed us, and we're going to need to make life easy and productive without them for far larger numbers of people. My situation right now, the inconvenience of it, the time sink, the energy drain, is why so many people fear to be without a car. They fear having to deal with the problems of people who can't buy their way out of their problems. The public can't be expected to give up their cars in nearly large enough numbers if it means having a harder time accessing food. Many US cities either no longer have, or never did have, the accessible, mixed use neighborhoods that people in European cities or much of New York can take for granted.

Not having a car in a place that's designed for cars significantly decreases quality of life. Though even being without a car somewhere that was designed for walking, but where the food distribution infrastructure is uneven, can decrease quality of life. So the public transportation question needs to be far broader than whether or not people can get themselves to and from work.

Then there's food itself. At the YearlyKos food issues panel last week, Dr. Marion Nestle told us that our food system makes 3900 calories technically available to each of us, every day. In talking with me afterwards, she said that regulating calorie intake was the most crucial factor in healthier eating. Yet loads of processed foods, junk food labeled as health food, and food being sold in almost every public place makes it easy to overeat.

Then most of that food sits somewhere on a scale of nutritionally inadequate to terrible. It will keep you alive. It won't necessarily keep you out of the doctor's office or hospital. Which you want to avoid, because the food there is really terrible.

It's really great that we're able to produce so much, in its way. But we won't be able to keep this up. Because no matter what happens, oil and natural gas are going to stop being cheap. That means our food is going to stop being cheap. It's also going to stop being plentiful. Because we have a long, complicated food chain that depends on a lot of centralized shipping and processing.

Our food chain's exorbitant use of energy is another thing that's ultimately decreasing our ability to feed ourselves. And when I say energy, I mean a lot of different things. Our food system is wasting a lot of fossil fuel energy; in terms of both oil and natural gas, when used directly as fuel or in the manufacture of agricultural chemicals. It's wasting a lot of nutritive energy; in terms of overapplication of fertilizers that wash away from the land to become poisonous to the fresh and salt water ecosystems that give us our fish. It favors large factory farms that produce a lot of just one thing, but that produce significantly less living material from their annual budget of solar energy as compared to a more diverse community of plants and animals. In this system, animal manure becomes 'waste'; both lost carbon and lost soil fertility.

There is no way to make our current food distribution infrastructure sustainable, both because of the energy and nutrient problems it inherently creates. A thousand straight acres of corn is never going to be good for the environment, even if it can be made less polluting and less harmful to the soil. A confinement animal feeding operation could sequester all its waste and minimize all its emissions, and that doesn't change the fact that it required wasteful excesses of grain, wasteful uses of antibiotics, and throws away many tons of material that should be added back to the soil so that more food can be grown from it.

There is, moreover, no way to guarantee a secure food supply to the people of this country under our current system. If the price of fuel goes up sharply, people could go hungry. If something happened to a major port clear across the country, people could go hungry. If we were to become a net importer of food from other countries, as we're on track to being, a war in a far off place could mean people going hungry here.

It's come to light recently that there are times when buying food from farther away can be less wasteful of carbon and I'm always going to want my coffee, but we have to be more sensible. All our food, all year round, can't continue to come from hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away.

In case the economists haven't noticed yet, about this globalization thing, it's very unstable. Countries go to war. They get attacked by terrorists. Markets crash. Natural disasters hit. We in the industrialized world are also doing our part to significantly increase the rate at which natural disasters caused by extreme weather, from drought to more intense hurricanes, will threaten transportation and crop yields. Hello, climate change.

That's the world we're living in, it doesn't run like a clockwork. And when it goes wrong, people in communities where food isn't being grown locally, or where there's no way to distribute it easily if it is, will suffer. More, anyway. Because people are already suffering food deserts. They're already suffering the ill health caused by misdirected resources and a system that produces too much of what no one needs, but blames these failures on the people who are least able to alter their circumstances, instead of those who set up the rules.

So I say, change the rules. Because the truth is that the real elitists are the ones who want the majority of people to be satisfied with low quality food today, in exchange for a future in which there won't even be enough of that left to feed everyone. The current system can't be sustained, can't be made to last and continue producing in such abundance.

Yet the options that would give us more readily available, high quality food now, are the same options that best allow us to continue growing readily available, high quality food far into the future. Those options are increasing small scale farming, increasing intensive organic farming, increasing mixed crop farming and rebuilding local processing and distribution infrastructure. That could feed us all in style for a very long time to come.

I wrote this for the Booman Tribune and a couple other US sites I post at, so pardon the assumption of a US audience in the pronouns and etc. But factory farming, that affects everybody, so there you go.
by Natasha Chart (natasha[dot]the[at]gmail[dot]com) on Sat Aug 11th, 2007 at 04:37:32 AM EST
Welcome :)

In France there are many shops who deliver periodically or on request fresh bio vegetable to your home, often organized purely locally.

I'm surprised this doesn't exist where you live.

by Laurent GUERBY on Sat Aug 11th, 2007 at 05:55:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Hey, Natasha!  I'm sure you've been down this road, but just in case, have you investigated any organic box schemes?  I had a google and found a few round your way.  Here's an example:


Re: Kids.  My experience is that you can get four shopping bags to dangle from a pram.  Depends on the pram, and maybe a bit of finesse involved, but certainly feasible.

The larger issue of not living anywhere close to shops.  That's a zoning law issue, right?  Maybe I got that all wrong, but if it is, then if you allow certain properties to change from residential to commercial, maybe only for organic food retail!  Heh, that would be a law--  So maybe there's a local-politics element for those who want to take that route.

And then I suppose the sensible thing is for people to work close to where they live, privilege jobs that are close to sources of organic food, etc....

I had a quick look-see at organic fast food places in Washington DC; there seem to be some.  But you know alla dat!

So anyways, kudos for the no-car experience.  I always thought not having a car meant I would have cash for taxis, hire-cars etc.  (where I live there are car pools you can join) if I needed to make a journey off the public transport grid.  Having your veggies delivered to your house--or your work!  Heh heh!--seems the best solution to your food situation.

Now, 'ave a banana!

Hold on.  No bananas.  'Ave an apple!

And 'ave a great weekend.

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Sat Aug 11th, 2007 at 06:07:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Not suggesting this is a solution to the enormous socio-structural problems of food production, which are clearly more important that immediate, trivial problems of day to day living... But, as an aid for living car free while it remains so poorly supported by present infrastucture, have you thought about Zipcar?
Zipcar : Check Rates : Washington DC
I'll Zip occasionally.
Drive from $9/hr and $65/day.
  • No monthly commitment
  • $50 annual fee
  • $25 one-time application fee
  • No application fee
  • Gas, parking & insurance included

We have a similar thing in Geneva (Mobility® CarSharing) , and I used Zipcar while I lived in Boston. It can really come in handy on those occasions when you really cannot manage without a car. I use it for larger shopping trips mostly. Could become pricey for a weekly use if you are on a fixed budget.

by someone (s0me1smail(a)gmail(d)com) on Mon Aug 13th, 2007 at 04:11:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Natasha!  So good to see you here!

I really enjoyed this diary.  This is an issue I'm well aware of, having spent my childhood carless in LA.  The groceries were always a major ordeal.  The laundry, too, actually.

Groceries were also determined to be a major factor leading up to both the Watts and '92 LA riots, second only to police brutality.

(btw, your Novakula encouter is still one of my favorite blog moments ever).

Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding. -Hobbes

by Izzy (izzy at eurotrib dot com) on Sat Aug 11th, 2007 at 02:37:07 PM EST
Thank you! And the Novakula thing is always a fond memory :)
by Natasha Chart (natasha[dot]the[at]gmail[dot]com) on Sat Aug 11th, 2007 at 06:24:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
welcome, nice to see someone else writing about reality-based food :-)

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...
by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Sat Aug 11th, 2007 at 03:02:20 PM EST
Welcome, Natasha.  Every old-fashioned Spanish household has one of these and they are meant for neighborhood shopping:

but I have been known to use a cheap carry-on suitcase with wheels because I don´t buy stuff.  ;)

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.

by metavision on Sat Aug 11th, 2007 at 04:09:03 PM EST
They are very common here in Switzerland too. Most of the food-shopping is within 10 minutes walks from were I live   and as far as I know it is the same in most places.

I am also happy that most supermarkets have taken to selling organic food for a few years now. But what I like even more is a newer trend and that is to sell local food. They give the adress of the diary farmer or of the farm were the vegetable and fruit comes from. Unfortunately this is not yet for all vegetable and fruit, but the number are increasing.

And welcome to ET, Natasha!

by Fran on Sat Aug 11th, 2007 at 04:22:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Sounds like a job for a Sports Utility Bike:

... with an electric stoker engine attached:

From afar, and my real world experience with shopping bag panniers on a regular bike, I make it to be about 3 times the cargo capacity, or more.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sun Aug 12th, 2007 at 12:01:44 PM EST
The red box is a motor assist?

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Sun Aug 12th, 2007 at 10:18:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, and because it goes through the gears, it is more efficient than most hub motors.

Sorry, left out the links:

Xtracycle's Sports Utility Bike

CleverChimp's Stoke Monkey

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon Aug 13th, 2007 at 05:21:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Those are really great!  I hope some day, I will reach that level of bike radicalness... even if I need to add training wheels.

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.
by metavision on Mon Aug 13th, 2007 at 02:48:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... but it would have to be one of the ones with two wheels in front and the drive wheel behind. A classical recumbant trike would require a trailer.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon Aug 13th, 2007 at 06:05:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
hey, I've got one of those!

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...
by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Sun Aug 12th, 2007 at 10:32:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I've only got a wish to have one at the moment ... thanks for the link.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon Aug 13th, 2007 at 05:22:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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