A Food Fight for Our Times

Think of food politics as an increasingly complex, layered and controversial arena where people make decisions about food production based not just on the food itself but its impact on the environment, health, the treatment of animals, working conditions and more.
11/25/2014 06:01 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2015

Think of food politics as an increasingly complex, layered and controversial arena where people make decisions about food or food production based not just on the food itself but its impact on the environment, health, the treatment of animals, working conditions and pay, just to name a few factors.

Celebrity chefs, food writers and even Hollywood actors are taking sides and sometime calling names.

Last month, food writer and cooking instructor Julie Kelly lashed out at Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio in a Wall Street Journal piece, calling him elitist for embracing the consumption of organic, locally-grown food and better conditions for farm laborers and fast food workers.

Full disclosure here: I work for the environmental organization Earthjustice that advocates on behalf of farmworkers and calls for stronger protection from the dangers of pesticides. And I embrace the idea of protecting our bodies, our food and planet from chemicals while also supporting the idea of higher pay and better protections for farm laborers and fast food workers.

But, I embrace a lot of causes. And of all of them, this is the easy one.

I don't get why people like Kelly and most recently the New Yorker's John Lanchester, a former food critic for the Guardian and London Observer, criticize those who think about the political, social and economic implications of the food choices we make.

I guess I never had a decent pair of blinders. None of us has the luxury of living our lives devoid of politics. Putting one's head in the sand doesn't seem like a rational way to handle societal or global problems.

In her WSJ piece, Kelly blasted Colicchio for serving on the board of Food Policy Action that promotes healthy diets, reducing hunger, improving food access and affordability, upholding the rights of food and farm workers, supporting local and regional food systems and the fair treatment of animals.

Kelly said: "To be truly useful, a food movement shouldn't be about politics. It should be about food: what to cook and how to cook it without breaking the family budget."

In her critique, Kelly pits the middle class against those who are low-income, and attacks Colicchio for praising the federal government's food stamp program, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

To Kelly, the food stamp program only "adds to the burden of average taxpayers."

The average taxpayer earning $50,000 a year -- the same middle class she advocates for -- paid $36 in 2012 to support food stamps.

And this month, the New Yorker's Lanchester laments the time, "not so long ago," when "food was food."

Lanchester said "Food is now politics and ethics as much as it is sustenance. People feel pressure to shop and eat responsibly, healthfully, sustainably."

To Lanchester, people who are focused on the politics of food are using these issues as a surrogate for dealing with even more serious political issues.

He ridicules and trivializes with satire, writing hypothetically of someone dying and going to heaven and telling a jury made up of Thomas Jefferson, Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr.: "I was all about fresh, local, and seasonal."

But every day we can all learn, make informed decisions, and connect the dots by linking our health and the environment to food production and issues like fair pay and worker protections. And, surprisingly, we can still care about other issues - striving in our own daily decisions to make a difference even if it's not on the scale of forming a democracy or leading the civil rights movement.

Is the alternative, as Lanchester and Kelly suggest, to don rose-colored shades and make believe there's only beauty in the world, with no pain, no ugliness, no hard choices, no anxiety and no pressure? Just eat and be merry, and give folks pretty Pinterest recipes!

If only. Unfortunately for all of us, we're increasingly realizing that the ways we spend our dollars create demand for what's put on supermarket shelves. And that if we don't care, we're letting others make decisions for us each time we buy food in a restaurant or grocery store, and that these decisions determine how our food - the stuff we put in our bodies every day - was produced, a process that spans much more than eating.

We're also realizing - even me, a busy working dad and others like me - that these issues are not abstract or too complicated to think about.

Actually, one meal at a time might be the only way we can learn more, make smarter choices, impact the quality of food production, our health and the planet, and more decent lives for all of us, including those who grow and cook our food.