By Freesia McKee
After moving back to Milwaukee, my home city, last year and eating my newly non-vegan way through a few of the "greener" restaurants, I started to wonder who else pondered a few obvious things:
- Why is this food so damn expensive?
- Why does just about everyone in here look the same?
- Why am I eating here?
Sustainable food systems have exploded in popularity in the past couple of years. I feel enthused that so many individuals, businesses, coalitions and organizations are getting passionate and involved, but I do wonder if some of our actions contribute to problems instead of solutions.
I am not immune from blame. Yes, I have tasted such a thing as duck fillet nachos and I may even have spent $14 on them. I encouraged my girlfriend to buy organic produce at the mega-market. I have spent a significant amount of time growing, cooking, eating, and talking about kale, often at restaurants. How comfortable it felt to slide into an easy routine of frequenting the newest trendy restaurant with paycheck extras. I had easily become a "young professional" (read: middle class, college-educated, white) without even knowing it.
But I had to stop myself. Something wasn't right. Foodie-ism and the narrow emphasis on eating organic/local/artisan food was not an act of protest or activism.
In fact, it was pretty conservative. Foodieism reinforced and replicated systems of food injustice. Eat expensive grass-fed beef in your LEED-certified ivory tower and you might as well be dining on Chilean sea bass at the CPAC with Rush Limbaugh.
This is why I am not a foodie and why you shouldn't be one either.
Calling myself a foodie would signify that the duck nachos, the seven dollar cocktail with pounded basil in the bottom, the gluten-free tater tots made with local sweet potatoes are experiences that anyone could choose to take instead of monetized privileges that are gifted to some and not others. It would imply that these hipster foods are inherently more valuable than the foods that are eaten outside of those gentrifying restaurants. It is, often, also racist exotification.
These systems put values not only on food but on people. Who do we typically think of when we imagine what a foodie looks like? The only media representations I've seen are people who look like me (read: white, young, college-educated, thin). They may be voyeuristically buying food from "ethnic" or "authentic" people.
But why do we never call the "ethnic" people foodies? And, really, who doesn't like good food?
The other side of the foodie problem is that it loves to take food out of context. "We want your fried plantains but we don't want you," the movement seems to be saying. "We want to eat wild ramps and organic tomatoes but we don't want to think about who foraged or picked them and why."
And what does it mean when the tagline of a white-owned restaurant is something like "Modern Mexican Cuisine"? What does it mean when that restaurant charges three times more for enchiladas than the family-owned place down the street that has been there for 25 years? It means that "modern" equals white, and that "ethnic" equals antiquated and dirty. These restaurants cater to privileged people who are scared of leaving their comfort zone but want to feel adventurous.
This restaurant gentrification shows that racist-classist power dynamics are at play. When we say the only entities that get people excited about sustainable food systems are the ones that attract 30-year-old bankers, we are just replicating the racism/classism our food systems already holds strong.
After about six months in Milwaukee, my work evolved. I started working in classrooms to do school garden support and vegetable taste tests with elementary and middle school students. We tried lots of vegetables, including varieties that none of us had heard of before.
Have you ever tried mache? It is a lettuce variety with a nutty taste and small, soft clusters of leaves that my kindergarteners ate a whole pint of. Did you know that you can eat both the stunning flower and the spicy, round leaves of the nasturtium plant? Some of my middle school students made a salad out of nasturtiums they had grown themselves in their classroom aquaponics system.
Some of these students left that day talking about how they should really go into business this summer making salad dressing out of olive oil and vinegar. "Line up for your salad!" one student yelled. These comments and experiences occurred well outside of the scope of Milwaukee's downtown foodie restaurants -- these comments occurred at schools where nearly 80 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch.
For people to claim that kids don't like vegetables or that poor people don't like good food, is obviously ridiculous. I want to wear a sandwich board and walk down the streets of young-professional-gentrification evangelizing against this disconnect.
Foodieism has a misplaced emphasis on value-added quality over community. I wonder how to make the patrons of those restaurants think about and act on this. Our communities, together, are poised to create a true revolution for just and equitable food. If people of privilege want to join in, we just need to shut our mouths, open our eyes, and follow along.
What we need as communities, cooks and people proclaiming their love of food is not another establishment that serves $11 local swiss chard every Wednesday. Rather, we need to think about food in a way that targets our most systemic community concerns and looks out for all stakeholders in an equitable manner, not just the ones who consider themselves "foodies."