What we eat has become a moral issue of the kind that makes life harder for people whose life is already hard. Nearly everyone laments the loss of the family farm to big industrial farming, displacing the agrarian life with Roundup Ready crops and maltreatment of poultry and livestock. We want to eat good food, not just food that is healthy for us, but also safe for the environment, our communities, and the world. We want our food to taste good and feel good at the same time. In A Matter of Taste. Rebecca Tucker looks at how framing food as morally good or bad has kept us from addressing urgent issues such as how to ensure the billions of people on our planet have healthy and nutritious food while reducing damage to the environment and to our climate.
We have come to see some food as good and other food as bad on a moral level. This is a morality reserved for those who can afford to pay high prices for artisanal, organic, locally-sourced foods. As someone who relies on Food Bank’s Harvest Share to make my food dollars stretch, I think a system that requires disposable income to be “good” is not really a moral system, it’s a system of in-group and out-group class markers. Being able to name the farm where your heirloom tomato was grown is the Hermes bag of the comfortable class.
Additionally, the idea that slow and local is more sustainable than large and distant is not necessarily correct. We assume it is better for the environment to produce 1000 tomatoes that travel 50 miles than 10,000,000 tomatoes that travel 4,000 miles but really, which contributes more to climate change? If a large-scale farmer uses a high tech combine to make sure he is seeding the optimum seeds per acre using GPS and years of data, reducing waste and water, isn’t that better for the environment? We disparage the employment of underpaid migrant workers and ignore the employment of unpaid interns. The problem is, sometimes small is not better and sometimes the technologies that repel those infatuated with the agrarian past are better for the environment.
We need better, more honest conversations about how we plan to feed our growing world population, but those conversations won’t happen so long as there is a Manichean divide between good food and bad food.
As someone who relies on the Food Bank and Harvest Share’s produce to stretch my food dollar, I have no idea where my fruits and vegetables are sourced, but I assume that they won’t be classified as morally good. I reject any system that ascribes a negative moral value to not being able to afford expensive food. So, you would think I would love A Matter of Taste, but I did not.
I found much of the book interesting and I agree with Tucker that we need a middle ground that is not fractured by moralistic judgments. However, I think she wrote the book before she has settled her own mind. You see, she wants the morally good food, the locally-grown, the organic, the know-your-farmer food. She just does not want to be judged when she eats Triscuits.
Then there is the snarkiness. This makes me think this is a collection of essays written for an online magazine where snark is desirable, but snark is not the stuff persuasive writing is built on. If her goal is to persuade both sides to come together, she needs to be less judgmental of the well-off who spent $8 for a peach. Besides, you know she really wants to spend that $8 for that peach. Her heart is with the “good” food and her head is with the “bad” food. She needed to bridge that distance to write a more persuasive and coherent argument.