Eric Schlosser: Why being a foodie isn't 'elitist'

May 03, 2011

Join Eric Schlosser, author of the bestselling book "Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal," for a discussion with Washington Post readers about his Outlook piece on "Why being a foodie isn't 'elitist'." He will be online at 11 a.m. Tuesday, May 3rd to take your questions.

Hello, Eric Schlosser here.

It's my belief that the food we eat has changed more in the past 40 years than in the previous 40,000--and in many ways not for the better.

For more than a decade, I've been calling for a re-think of our food system and our agricultural policies.

I think we need more competition in our commodity markets, less pesticide and fossil fuel use, much closer scrutiny of genetic modified crops and cloning, an end to the confinement of livestock in factory farms, healthier food in schools, and a shift toward organic and sustainable production, among other things.

I'm interested in hearing what you think.

What is your opinion on these proposed laws that will outlaw filming on farms by activists in several states. Do you think it's possible for them to be passed? What will the repercussion be?

I think they are one more effort by the food industry to keep American consumers in the dark about what they're eating.  I wouldn't be surprised if some of them do pass.  But I don't think they will succeed at maintaining ignorance about our food system.  The cat is out of the bag.

Because of the efficiency of industrial food production, (and food subsidies), conventional food may always be cheaper at the grocery. How do we educate people about the real cost to them? And the real fair cost for good, safe food...Especially when we're talking about the difference between food that sometimes looks better (genetically modified to be so vs. sustainably raised), and sometimes tastes better (prepared, high-fat and high-salt-content foods vs. whole foods).

The industrial system is only efficient if you don't include all the external costs being imposed on society.  Once those are factored in, this system is too expensive for us to bear.  I write books about these issues.   Other people make films.  And most people just tell their friends and families what they've learned.  It's important to share this knowledge.

You make a lot of claims about the food industry. I'm looking for facts. What are yours?

My book FAST FOOD NATION describes what I've learned about our food system.  It has hundreds of footnotes.  I felt strongly that my work should be transparent.  If you want to know where I got my facts, just look at the end of the book.  Different people, in good faith, can look at the same fact and interpret it differently.  But that's where an interesting conversation begins.

When the goverment gave some farms $ are you refering to crop insurance? If so I KNOW for a fact if farmers didn't receive that $ they would have had to give up farming. The Goverment should give ALL farmers $ ONLY if the $ is going to be invested into the farm to help it produce a better quality crop and to extend the farm's growing season. Farmers should be given health care and never have to worry that they might need to take on a side job for money to make ends meet or have health insurance. So how do you make this happen? Our 135 acre orchard scrapes by. We do 2 farmers markets. Most farmers markets are full and you have to wait years to get in. We have a farm market where we sell our produce direct but our local customers can't afford to pay more for local produce and if we sell for the same price as wal-mart we would not be able to pay our workers. We take some of our fruit to the local factory for processing as well. My family works 7 days a week. My husband works 7 days a week 14-16 hours a day and for what? We can't even aford health insurance. If the bank won't give us a loan we won't be able to pay our labor to pick the produce. On the bright side if we don't get the $ we sure would have it easy for a year actually having family time, just watching the fruit rot and in the end we would have the same thing: NOTHING! Keep pushing the farmers at some point we will QUIT and u will starve.....

The sort of farming that you do--growing fruits and vegetables, the kinds of food we all need to be eating--is the sort of farming that receives little direct government support.  The majority of our subsidies go to farmers growing corn and soybeans and other bulk commodities that often become animal feed.  I'm not against federal help for farmers.  But we should be supporting the farmers growing the food we need to eat.

You, along with the folks at Slow Food and many others, have done great work bringing awareness to the many issues within our food system. For most everyday consumers, however, there are simply too many issues to confront and not enough people who they can turn to for answers. The system has forever shifted from one where we all were just an Aunt, Uncle,or Grandfather away from being connected to a farm of some sort; and we'll likely never get back to that. Someone needs to step into that gap, and I believe it should be the retailers. They are the first connection most people have to the food system, and they should be a reliable, trust worthy resource who we can turn to for answers. In San Francisco, I am trying to build support for a "Great Grocer Challenge" that will: 1. Motivate retail employees to learn about products and issues. 2. Elevate the role retailers and their employees play in helping us eat and live better. 3. Help consumers by showing them who they can turn to for information in their local community. If we can make this happen here, we can bring it to other cities. So everyday consumers around the country will once again have a trusted resource they can turn to. I'd love any help, questions, advice, endorsement or suggestions, you could offer.

David Renkert 

thentic.com

greatgrocerchallenge.com

Sounds like a great idea.  The point of sale is a good place for the learning process to begin.  I don't know enough about the current retail environment to recommend how you get the plan off the ground.  But I know that some retailers, like Whole Foods and local co-ops, already provide information about their products.  But there needs to be much more.  Good luck!

Isn't there a possibility that being a part of the sustainable food movement and being a foodie are two different things? Some people just want luxury, taste and status, while others want social change. Scholars have shown that people do try to raise their status by painting their lifestyle as morally superior. By not delineating between status seekers and activists, the food movement becomes complicit in this status war.

That's an interesting point.  In general, though, I try not to "label" people.  I try to persuade people to act in ways that are not only in their own interest, but in the interest of society at large.  I don't claim to be pure or a saint.  But I think it's possible to eat well--without causing so much harm.

If you had to narrow it down to three things--what should Americans be doing with regard to their food?

1) Educate yourself about your food, where it comes from, and and the implications of eating it, not just for yourself and your family, but for everyone else.

2) Try to use your food purchases as votes for companies, farmers, and producers who are  doing things the right way.

3) Get involved in community efforts and larger societal efforts to help build a new food system that's more sustainable and compassionate.

 

I understand that consumers are becoming increasingly more conscious and mindful about their food purchasing, evidenced by an increase in organic and sustainably produced foods available in the market. But how do we create a real shift in agricultural policy that stops incentivizing and subsidizing unsustainable and unhealthy pratices. I work in government and understand that change can be slow, but I want us to do the right thing quicker! Will change be market driven or is there a way to challenge the giant food and farm lobby?

The change will be partly market-driven.  But we won't be able to shop our way out of these problems.  The government needs to stop subsidizing unhealthy foods.  And it needs to address a wide range of public health problems linked to food, like the overuse of antibiotics and pesticides. 

The medical community says antibiotics used in food animal production are contributing to antibiotic-resistant infections. Food animal producers say antibiotics are critical for keeping animals healthy. What's the real story behind this issue?

80 percent of the antibiotics in the United States are being given to livestock at factory farms.  That is madness--a conclusion reached not only by sustainability advocates, but also by infectious disease experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  We need to cut way back on the use of antibiotics in agriculture, as other countries have done.  

I was blessed to have grown up in a health-conscious (my mother has been buying organic, no trans-fat, etc) and environmentally-conscious (we always recycled, turned off lights, etc.) family. But since reading your book, seeing Food, Inc. in addition to reading the works of Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, and Jonathan Safran Foer, I have really re-examined the way that I eat. I no longer eat meat, have joined a local CSA and food co-op, try my best to only buy local eggs and dairy where I know the farmers and how they treat their animals.

I'm sure you've read the article in the New York Times yesterday about the fate of tilapia ("chicken of the sea")--it's so frightening that almost every single food source is plagued with politics, extremes, and is so far removed from what was intended. Being educated on these issues makes you realize how damaged our food system is and while sometimes this is paralyzing, also helps me to make whatever right decisions are still left to make. Thank you!

Well, thank you.  When people educate themselves about this food system, they usually change their eating an buying habits.  And that's why the big industry groups work so hard to keep Americans in the dark.

First, I admire your work and the courage to stand up against all name-callers and publish the reality. Thank you. While I am not hopeful that Michelle Obama will change our school food system, and I also don't see the White House organic garden making any change on people, you did not mention the Weston A. Price Foundation's work. Sally Fallon has been working on changing our school lunches and calling for parents to pay attention. What is your opinion about the foundation? Also, a more difficult question. How can I, a private person, regain hope that ignorance will not conquer our world? I've tried to influence many people in the past but I started giving up. I see no way out anymore. The reason is that when I see our president planting an organic garden while appointing ex Monsanto presidents and other evils to practically run our agriculture, I see contradiction. I see nothing but corruption. How do you keep your hopes up, how can you see the future evolving? Btw, this whole elitist thing is just another propaganda by big ag. All you have to do is go to Montana, Wyoming and see that those people eat well without being wealthy. Thanks for the great article. Kinga kilgallen

I agree with some of the Weston A. Price Foundation's stances--and disagree with others.  For me, the crucial thing is not to be rigid about any food gospel--mine or anyone else's.  The key is to educate yourself, make informed decisions--and engage in an honest discussion of these issues.  I am hugely optimistic about the possibility of change.  But changes of this magnitude are never easy.  They often take time.  And sometimes it feels like two steps forward, one step back.  Over the past decade, the well-educated and the well-to-do have learned about how the industrial food system operates and largely changed their diets.  In the years to come, we need to make good, healthy food available and affordable for every single American.

I read your article and I agree with your ideas. Less food should be eaten, and it should be of high quality. But no one would call me a foodie. The "foodies" I know are just people who are into food. They eat out, talk about food, discuss restaurants and chefs and cook. They don't discuss sustainable agriculture, animal welfare, food safety or even healthy eating. Maybe you need a new word. Eating Well in Austin

Again, I'm not big on labels.  I just want as many people as possible to become aware and get involved.

Eric, Thank you for your eye-opening column. With the growth (and growing popularity) of Farmer's markets, have small family farmers been better able to make a profit ? I shop weekly at a wonderful year-round farmers market in Dupont Circle, DC, and have been doing so for the past 10 years. The quality (and taste) of the food is far superior to anything I've ever found in a grocery store. I buy chicken, spinach, asparagus, broccolli, apples, cherries, potatoes, AMAZING peaches, milk, butter, eggs amount other seasonal treats every time I go. It seems to me that the farmers must be making some money off of this. Also, I notice well-known chefs shopping at the same farmers market, as the quality of the product is far superior. From your article, it seems that a lot of small family farms are suffering financially. The growth of agribusiness is troubling, especially with all of the recalls we have seen due to E-coli, salmonella, etc. I've seen more and more of an emphasis on local foods in stores - are things starting to improve for the small farmers ?

There is a growing market today for local, organic foods produced by small farmers.  And farmers' markets have played a large role in making that happen.  But the farm subsidies that we have in place are designed to help big, industrial farmers.  We need to change that crop support system, help small farmers and family farmer and young farmers stay on the land.  Again, I'm optimistic, especially as school systems in many states begin to forge links with local farmers.

How can people afford to eat healthy meals? In my area eating healthy food is expensive, for example: all my dairy is "kosher" and that means it is at least twice as expensive as other dairy; my vegetables are Local, USA or USA/Local Organic; my meat/poultry are free range/grass fed/natural foods. I eat nothing which does not have country or origin on it because if it doesn't have the country of origin on it, it most likely comes from Communist China and is uninspected because of lobbied legislation tying the FDA's hands by multinationals which import this garbage to the US. Eating healthy is expensive and time consuming. So I understand "fast food" diets. Sometimes it's just cheaper.

You know, a lot of that fast food taste good, and it's often cheaper when you buy it.  But if you factor in the cost of the diabetes, heart disease, or obesity that may come later, as a result, that food costs a hell of a lot.  Studies have found that preparing you own food is usually healthier and less expensive than buying fast food.  But most people just don't have the time.

Thank you for your article. I think there needs to be more of a PR effort to bring a diverse group of people into the movement to eat foods that are good for ourselves and the environment. This lifestyle doesn't have to be expensive or time consuming, it's just about learning a new way to buy your food and do your cooking. If you live in a community where this isn't the "norm" and you don't have a lot of these resources, it can be a hard change to make. Standing on a soap box to critize people's food choices and label them as ignorant isn't going to create any converts. We need to find a way to educate people and encourage them to make changes without sounding judgemental and respecting their personal choices.

You're right.  There's no reason to be judgmental, especially since a person's food choices are formed so early in life.  But I think people can change--and do change, once they see the consequences of their diet.  Dr. Oz, among others, is doing a wonderful job of bringing useful information to a wide audience.

Hi Eric, I loved all your books but found Reefer Maddness particularly interesting. As a believer that the 'War on Drugs' is a waste of time and $, I'm curious about your take on marijuana decriminalization, if it's a good goal to work towards, and if it will ever happen in the USA. Thanks for your great work!

I think marijuana is being decriminalized, at the moment, in a de facto way.  That's a good thing.  Far too many law enforcement resources are being wasted arresting pot smoking.  But there needs to be a strong emphasis on keeping drug gangs out of the production and sale of marijuana.  For many years, Ohio has allowed people to possess or grow small amounts of pot for their own personal use.  I think that sort of law makes sense.

This ought to be good...$50 dinners while the rest of us are looking at the Dollar Menu!!!

You know, a lot of traditional fast foods--like stir fry and burritos--can be healthy and inexpensive.  You don't have to go to a fancy restaurant to eat well.

Do you really see much hope in combatting the billions of dollars behind big agriculture? Their opposition isn't nearly as well funded or politically connected and the American public never seems to care about this topic, no matter how many interesting books and films you and others produce. Realistically, what can happen in the next ten years?

Like I said, I'm hugely optimistic.  The other side has billions of dollars to spend on marketing.  We have the facts on our side.  When you see Wal-Mart endorsing a shift toward organic, local, healthier food, you know big change is coming.

In general, I agree with the points you made in your essay (as far as they go). However, you and much of the "foodie" movement are skipping a step (and opening yourself up to charged of elitism at the same time). There are large swaths of Washington DC, and most other cities, where there are NO grocery stores. It's all well and good to say that people who live in these food deserts should have access to organic fruits and vegetables and humanely raised local meats, but the only local food options are convenience stores and fast food restaurants. When the only food people can realistically acquire is processed crap that has a half life, not a shelf life, complaining about factory farmed meat and non-organic vegetables flown in from Chile and China is of course going to be perceived as elitist. First things first -- let's get people access to healthy foods (however they're produced) and educate everyone about a proper diet. Then we can worry about replacing the factory-farmed meat and produce with organic, sustainable, humanely raised options. What are your thoughts?

Well, if you're talking priorities, I agree---the poorest people in this country need healthy food more than anyone else.  We need healthy food in schools and supermarkets in low-income communities, immediately.  But nobody, rich or poor, should be eating the meat from factory farms.  

I was out to dinner recently with my father-in-law who kept making comments about the menu and everything at the table down to the garnish on the food (it was arugula, which he'd never heard of or tasted) and it was hard to answer his questions without sounding, well, elitist. How would you recommend making your point concisely at dinner with relatives without sounding like a snob?

The healthiest diets in the world tend to be peasant diets--like those of Okinawa and the Mediterranean.  Lots of fruits and vegetables, some fish and little bit of meat.  There's nothing elitist about that.  And it tastes good.  

So how are we going to afford to feed everyone in the world if our consumption patterns shift substantially more toward organic and sustainable? I like the idea, but I just don't see how we can produce enough food for everyone in the world (not even talking about how the poor would not be able to afford it) if everyone went organic and sustainable, especially without genetically modified crops.

Well, studies have found that the yields of organic production are roughly equal to those of conventional agriculture.  And right now, an incredible amount of American food production is being misdirected.  About 75 percent of our grain is being fed to livestock feed.  And about 40 percent of our corn is being fed to cars as ethanol.  And about half the food actually produced for human beings is thrown away.  It's been estimated that if we stopped feeding our grain to livestock, we could feed an additional 1 billion people, at least.

...to try to get Congress to end the subsidy for corn that leads to cheap snack foods (from cheap high fructose corn syrup?) Why in the world would the taxpayers continue to subsidize something that we know makes us sick? (i.e.,sugary drinks and snack foods)

There's a new Farm Bill scheduled for passage in 2012.  We all need to make our voices heard on what it contains.  It should be a Food Bill that reduces subsidies encouraging unhealthy products and promotes healthier eating.

can you please link to the essay link that keeps being referenced? i can't seem to find it on the post's website.

I feel like the missing element from all of these discussions about sustainable food, local farming, etc is the actual labor force behind food production. Farmworkers are truly a slave class in the US, and are afforded basically none of the human rights we foodies take for granted. Can you talk about why there's so much love for the FARMER in America, and so little attention paid to the FARMWORKER who labors in the fields?

The simple answer is: racism.  Almost all of the farmworkers in the United States are Latino.  Most can't speak English.  And their abuse is too often hidden from view.  We need to recognize that a healthy diet depends on the back-breaking labor of  immigrants in our midst.  They deserve to be well-compensated--not demonized.  It would cost the typical American family of four about $50 extra a year to eliminate all the poverty among our 2 million farm workers.  It's about time we did that.

How do you propose feeding everyone in a large city - say, New York - with localy grown food?

A hundred or so years ago, Brooklyn had the highest value of agricultural output in the United States--because it provided food to nearby Manhattan.  That's also why New Jersey's called the "Garden State;" it supplied NYC with fresh fruit and vegetables.  Of course, there's no returning to those days.  But there is potential for NYC to get more of it food from rural Pennsylvania and upstate New York--and even rooftop gardens in Brooklyn.  

Unfortunately, there are many places where large corporations can run businesses far more economically than small entities. For example, big box stores like Walmart, Target, Kmart and supermarkets like Safeway, Krogers, Randalls, etc have all moved into areas and put smaller family-owned like businesses out of business. Why do local small farmers deserve subsidies to keep them in business when we don't protect other small and family businesses from being overrun by larger businesses? If the family businesses go out of business, then farming will be taken over by large cooperatives and business like the Pineapple Grower's Cooperative, or Dole, Green Giant foods, Nabisco, etc. While it would be a shame, unfortunately, we don't have enough federal dollars to go around and when the US loses its bond rating because it can't pay its debts we will have far greater problems than losing small local farming.

What we need--not only in the food system, but throughout out economic system--is competition.  In one sector of the economy after another, big companies have gained too much market power.  I'm in favor of using antitrust laws to level the playing field--and to stop giving taxpayer handouts to big industrial farms.

I don't have a question, but a comment. I think it's funny that my grandparents would be considered foodie elitists. They gardened and canned. They raised their own chicken, baked their own bread and fished in the river for their fish. They didn't trust processed food, and knew instinctually that too much sugar wasn't good. This was just the way they lived. It was their tradition, and I am carrying on with these traditions. Now, instead of my life style being called traditional and old fashioned, is considered elitist and snobby by some people out there!

It is pretty crazy.  Over the years, the food industry has called me a socialist, a communist, and un-American.  But quite honestly, on these issues, I consider myself pretty conservative.  I think the current, industrial system is a radical departure from how we've grown food, and raised animals, and raised our children, for thousands of years. Your grandparents had the right idea.  

Thanks to everyone for the questions.  I'm off now.  Be well, eat well, try to be aware, and try to show some compassion for those less fortunate.  Adios!

In This Chat
Eric Schlosser
Eric Schlosser is the author of "Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal" and a co-producer of the Oscar-nominated documentary "Food, Inc."
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