For decades, Alice Waters has commanded attention for her love of the freshest, most local food. Last week, her crusade was the focal point of national attention, as Michelle Obama finally agreed to plant an extensive vegetable garden at the White House.
If Ms. Waters is serious about changing the national food system for all Americans, she needs to get down and dirty on the economic issues tied to her edible ethos. At present, the food Waters espouses--clean, local and organic--is not sustainable to the American wallet.
Two weeks ago, in honor of Houston's best growing season, I committed to eating only local foods for a full moth. For 30 days I planned to restrict my diet to whatever was grown, raised and slaughtered within 100 miles of my doorstep. My plan was derailed three days--and fifty dollars--later.
Without the use of my own vegetable garden, the only way I could afford to live on strictly local food for the period would be to eat eggs (at $3.50 a dozen) with scant veggies and bulk beans. Normally, I buy staples from a super market and make meals that feature whatever is fresh at local farmers' markets. Without the addition of non-local grains, flour, butter, milk and affordable produce, I was left with esoteric dairy, (raw goat's milk) meat, mushrooms, dried black beans and lettuce--all at an exorbitant cost.
It wasn't a huge surprise: in general, I spend almost as much at the farmers market as I do at the local grocery store each week, and the locally grown produce accounts for less than a quarter of what I eat. Trying to rely purely on my regional food sources was harrowing, though, and illuminated a major flaw in America's food system: for the first time in my life, I understood what it was like to be unable to afford the healthy food I wanted.
Like so many Americans, I have been inspired by Waters' mission and believe that her far-reaching message has improved this country. Nevertheless, her current platform needs an update, or more bluntly, a reality check. When interviewed by Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes, Waters outlined her noble vision: "I feel that good food should be a right and not a privilege and it needs to be without pesticides and herbicides. And everybody deserves this food. And that's not elitist."
Later, when asked about the exorbitant price of organic grapes, ($4 a pound) Waters said, "We make decisions everyday about what we're going to eat. And some people want to buy Nike shoes -- two pairs, and other people want to eat Bronx grapes, and nourish themselves. I pay a little extra, but this is what I want to do."
The remark was rife with elitism -- the choice that most people face is not between name-brand shoes and grapes. The audience Waters referred to in her comment is probably already capable of choosing organic produce, at least part of the time. But the people for whom this "right" is absent aren't likely to be sporting the latest Zooms or Air Jordans. Or both.
All people deserve good, clean food. But, if even professionals like me cannot afford to eat the way Ms. Waters eats, then it is highly unlikely that poor or even middle class Americans are going live off the organic produce at a local farmers markets.
Ms. Waters should use this moment in the spotlight to strongly encourage political leaders to help subsidize and support regional farmers in their area. She should lobby for the construction of community gardens across the United States, especially in urban areas where farmers markets and fresh food are hard to find. Finally, she should write some of her persistent letters to the CEOs of Whole Foods, Trader Joes and other sustainable food franchises to see if prices can come down significantly, so that everyone can enjoy the sustenance they deserve.
For Ms. Waters to be truly effective in the coming decades, she must address the unsustainable problem of sustainable food prices, or else the momentary excitement over the Obama victory garden will prove little more than a fad for the privileged.
Follow Isabel Cowles on Twitter: www.twitter.com/breadandcourage