The morning after esteemed food writer/activist Michael Pollan discussed the sad state of modern groceries and the future of eating with an adoring crowd at Humboldt State, he had a simple breakfast at Café Brio.
"I didn't have anything complicated, but I thought it was good," he said.
He didn't really know about the aesthetic behind the Brio croissant he'd eaten. I explained that owner Serge Scherbatskoy (my former neighbor) uses the best ingredients he can find regardless of cost -- Straus Family Creamery organic butter for the croissants for example -- and charges accordingly. Pollan had noticed that the sandwiches were made with Niman Ranch ham and "all sorts of good stuff," which typically makes for higher prices. The cost of good food was something that came up in the Q and A following his talk the night before.
"That's an issue," said Pollan. "Eating well, eating healthfully costs more than eating badly. And there are complicated systemic reasons for that. It's a real challenge to make higher quality food accessible to more people. I don't think it should be a goal, however, to make that croissant as cheap as a crappy croissant that McDonald's might sell. I think that really cheap food can only be produced using methods we shouldn't encourage, whether you're talking about chemicals or labor practices or whatever. I think the goal should be to make it so people can afford better food. We need to pay people enough so they can afford the good stuff."
Speaking at HSU he'd described a food system gone astray in part due to public policy and politics: subsidies for agribusiness leading to excessive corn and soy production and use, and government guidelines for eating steering us down a path toward looking at what we eat as "nutrients" instead of as just plain food.
In the lobby, handbills for an upcoming talk by Joel Salatin, an organic farmer championed by Pollan in The Omnivore's Dilemma, spoke of "food emancipation" and a "food system, enslaved by a global corporate bureaucratic fraternity."
Hearing that phrase, Pollan chuckled. While he doesn't really see it as some vast conspiracy, he noted that, "The government has created a certain set of incentives through agricultural policies and regulations. Those incentives have been organized around a simple goal, which is to drive down the price of food as much as possible, at least since the 1970s. That was the last time we had a serious drought and food price inflation. Nixon made it his goal to get food out of politics as an issue so that nobody was complaining about food prices. ... In general governments like food prices to be as cheap as they can be. So the set of incentives we created for our farmers and processors was aimed at making food cheap."
Lowered prices came via subsidies and externalized production costs that make food seem cheaper than it really is.
"There's one speculation that a $2 McDonald's hamburger really should cost $200 if you really calculated all of the costs. The cost of so many products is not the real cost -- oil is another great example. You're not paying for the military presence in the Persian Gulf when you buy a gallon of gasoline, but there it is. Similar things apply when we talk about food. So that's what we mean when we talk about a 'system.' And, you know, everybody likes cheap food.
"That's one of the challenges to changing the system. Now that we're used to it, it's hard to imagine a more expensive food economy. In Europe for example, they spend about 15 percent of their income on food -- we spend 9.5 percent. Nobody wants to see that go to 15, but to create a sustainable food system it will probably have to go higher. There's a lot of slack in that system: We waste about a third of the food we're growing. We're feeding most of our grain to animals; we're eating way too much meat. So there might be a way to do it by moving the emphasis from quantity to quality."
In some ways Humboldt County is ahead of the curve. Our locavore farmers' market system has been established for decades and we have grocers with longstanding relationships with local food producers. You can buy a Salatin-style real free-range chicken direct from a grower on the Arcata Plaza when the farmers' market is running (in case you haven't noticed, it's on winter hiatus). But I have to admit, that's not something I do often since the chicken may cost $20-$25.
"But," said Pollan, "in terms of quality, there's no comparison to a chicken that costs $7."
So should chicken be something you only eat on holidays or maybe once a month?
"Look at it historically," said Pollan. "Chicken was a special occasion food, it was a prestigious expensive food; more so than beef or pork. Those were the everyday foods and chicken was something you could only afford to have on Sundays. The reason was we hadn't figured out how to breed them and stuff them full of drugs and grow them in ways that make them really cheap. If that's what people want to eat, it's fine, but they have to understand the tradeoff in terms of quality and, again, the externalized costs that come with producing a chicken for $1.29 a pound."
Ask around in the small-scale farming world and you'll find that even with higher prices, most growers are operating at a very thin margin or even losing money, particularly this last year when late spring rains wrought havoc on organic farms. How do we actually move toward a more sustainable food system in the face of a stacked deck with entrenched subsidies and generally bad eating habits?
"It's not something that can be fixed overnight," said Pollan. "We're at the beginning of a very long process, and there are going to be setbacks. Many people who are getting into agriculture will not be in it in five years because it's really hard to do well. Some will make it, some will not. As consumers we have to do what we can to support the good farmers.
"The beauty of the food movement as opposed to so many other movements is, even if the political weather in Washington is terrible, we can still do things to build our own local food systems. We can create an alternative reality essentially, which seems to be very much in the spirit of Humboldt County."