The Locavore’s Illusions

As charming as it sounds, growing kale in your backyard won't solve the nation's food ills

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A writer-mother of three in Brooklyn with a “tenuous and unpredictable income” tells of keeping her family afloat by growing her own fruits and veggies. Meanwhile, a Sesame Street effort on hunger in America plays up DIY solutions like food drives, new-and-improved parenting techniques, better grocery choices and community gardening.

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All this proved a bit too much for Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, who was moved to make an impassioned plea this week for a cultural reality check, warning about the possibility of the incursion of “a right-wing political agenda” into seemingly apolitical discussions of how best to fight the effects of a devastating economy on the nation’s most vulnerable.

Berg’s critique, which he focused, online, on Sesame Street, then widened, with me, on the phone this week, might, on the surface seem surprising: a kale and burdock root-munching Brooklyn mom would appear, at first glance, to have little in common with a Tea Party stalwart, and Sesame Street is hardly a hotbed of political reaction.

Yet in these, and in much of the well-meaning progressive response to the twin problems of hunger and obesity in our country, there is, indeed, a common thread: a deep-rooted, unthinking do-it-yourself individualism. It’s so ingrained as to be virtually unconscious. And at a time when nearly 49 million Americans are living in “food-insecure households” — i.e. homes where family members sometimes go hungry — it’s a tendency that, if unchecked, can do a great deal of harm.

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Berg, a former USDA Coordinator of Community Food Security, has spent the past two decades fighting hunger. In recent years, he has focused his efforts on working to enhance the poorest New Yorkers’ access to food. He’s a great fan of farmer’s markets (particularly when they make it possible for shoppers to pay for their purchases with food stamps), supports community gardens, and runs a number of CSAs — community supported agriculture programs — which specifically aim to bring fresh, local produce to low-income communities. But, he says, these small, local, well-meaning, if trendy efforts, however important and beneficial, can’t come close to accomplishing the large-scale good of a government program like the unsexy, old standby, food stamps (now called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP benefits.)

“In both media and society there is trendiness and there’s what’s hot,” he complains. “Now it’s all about rebellion against The Man — corporate agribusiness.” (Which, some progressives say, profits directly the more that food stamp-style benefits expand.) “But we couldn’t solve this if people took to growing their own food. Even if we had community gardens on every corner, it would be dwarfed by food stamps.” The progressive impulse, he says, now centers around “the feeling that you’re somehow an outsider — so spending $60 for a free-range, grass-fed beef is being virtuous. But we need large scale guaranteed programs that impact tens of millions of people at once.”

Berg’s critique is echoed by a number of other experts who spend their lives trying to bring better food to America’s neediest tables. And it should serve as a sobering self-check for those of us easily enchanted with the vision of a foodie utopia where a rainbow coalition of backyard farmers will solve the nation’s food ills by growing charmingly mottled heirloom tomatoes.

Sometimes thinking small and local — without an eye to the systemic and political — paves the way toward rollbacks of progressive policies that really work. Sometimes “The Man” can do a great deal of good, for example,when funding programs that add incentive dollars to SNAP benefits at farmers markets. Fact is: as a society, we’ve been assiduously cultivating our own gardens for the past thirty years. And what our politics have brought us is a bumper crop of poorly nourished people.