Industrial Harvest


Mapping the Food System by sarah kavage
February 15, 2010, 11:15 pm
Filed under: big ag, Food Geography & Culture | Tags: , , ,

Y’all know that I love maps, right?  I have a professional obligation to be interested in “spatial data”, sure – but they’re also such an attractive way to present information. 

Well, the USDA has just launched this nifty interactive Food Environment Atlas.  You, your computer and your internet connection can explore the geography of spending on food, food prices, food taxes, poverty and grocery store access, etc. across the US.  There are even a number of data layers related to local food production, looking at things like number of farms that sell directly to consumers, farmers markets and acreage devoted to vegetable farming. 

If you don’t want to mess around with creating the maps yourself, Nicola Twilley at Edible Geography has created a lovely sampling here

Like any other means of communication or displaying information, maps are just as frequently used to deceive and conceal as they are to enlighten – and the prettier the map, the more likely people will be to be seduced into taking it at face value.  It’s important to think about maps as skeptically and critically as you might a newspaper or Wikipedia article (we all do that, right?) – what is missing is just as important as what is there.  Although it’s a legitimately useful product, the Atlas also contains no data on acres of farmland that are devoted to industrially produced crops like wheat, corn & soybeans.  Acres of land farmed organically is also left out.  USDA keeps statistics on both, and both relate to our environment, our health and our food system.  Nor is there anything on meat production (slaughterhouses), which is fraught with environmental health negatives, especially now that it’s been concentrated and consolidated to an extreme degree.  Although I can understand why these topics would be neglected at the USDA,  there is nothing in the Atlas that might justify an argument that “corporate ag” might not be the best model of food production for our health, social justice and our environment – and indeed is likely at the root of many of the problems the Atlas seeks to address.



Greetings from the middle of the food desert by sarah kavage

Ironically, spending a month in Chicago working on a project about food and nourishment has up until this point meant sacrificing the ability to nourish myself.  You see, despite InCUBATE’s location in a pretty good neighborhood, there is little fresh or organic food to be found nearby.  It’s just in one of those nowhere-ish locations and although it’s been great to be around so much good Mexican food, one cannot live by tortillas and micheladas alone (although I’ve been trying), and eating out gets expensive really quickly.  Plus, most of the time I’d just rather eat my own cooking. 

So I’ve been getting into the terrible habit of living in semi-starvation mode for most of the day and then doing dinner meetings or social events where food is served.  Semi-starvation mode, for me, means snacking on bread (haven’t lacked for that), cheese and peanut butter, the occasional soy shake, and coffee throughout the day with no real meal.  On days when I don’t go out, that pattern just continues till I go to bed.  I most certainly am not starving, but I have a high metabolism and sometimes it feels just a little bit like it.  Plus the lack of ability to find a good vegetable is really frustrating.  I’ve been able to pick up some great baked goods, cheese and tofu at the Logan Square Sunday farmer’s market (next door!) but there’s little fresh being sold there these days due to the obvious fact that not much grows in mid-December in the midwest. 

One of the most interesting concepts in geography / urban planning to have cropped up in the last few years (or ten) has been that of the food desert.  Definitions vary, but usually food deserts are areas lacking in access to a) fresh b) affordable c) any food outlets.  Instead, you see fast food restaurants, convenience stores and liquor stores.  Usually these are poor neighborhoods with more darker skinned people and new immigrants.  It’s unfortunately no surprise that the upper-class white neighborhoods get the fancy organic grocery stores, the farmers’ markets, or any grocery store at all, and that the fast food chains prey on people who think they can’t afford anything better or are working two or three or four jobs and don’t have the time to run around the city looking for more nutritious alternatives, much less cook them.   A lot of people in Chicago (and other places) have been working to change this through community gardens and farmers’ markets, but it’s tough to get the big grocery stores to budge.  Small grocery stores can change what they carry, but are often locked out of their ability to get better quality goods because the large chain grocers have a lock on the distribution networks, or can undercut prices so much.  

I went to the local grocery store around the corner, a larger independently owned Mexican grocery that was actually quite fine in all respects except for the rather ugly, industrially produced produce.  In Seattle, the basket of groceries that I walked out with would have been of much higher quality (organic, etc) and cost between 30 and 40 bucks.  This basket?  $13 and change ($5 of which was for organic butter – yikes).  A three-fold difference in cost?  You gain a little bit of understanding into what people mean when they say they can’t afford organic.  I’m not at all rich by American standards, but I am a little bit different from most people because I don’t have a car and will pay a high premium for convenience (our local grocery in Seattle is a 5-10 minute walk from the house), and because we eat nearly all of our meals at home it’s easier to rationalize paying more.  And I love good food and want to support small farmers and organic farming.  So the bottom line is I pay that premium willingly, but I still feel like a sucker and wonder are we helping to create local food systems or are we helping to create TWO food systems, where the good food goes to people who can afford it and working class / poor people get the cheap, industrially produced crap?

To continue blathering on about my food consumption, observant readers may have noticed the use of “up until this point” in the first sentence of this post.  Yes, I finally found nourishment in the form of the Dill Pickle Food Coop, a newly opened coop that began as a buying club a few years back and now has a small storefront space in Logan Square.  Kudos again to Bryce, who seems to have his finger on the pulse of all things food-related, for cluing me in to this.  It was about a 15-minute walk, non-members can shop there, and they had some beautiful kale, potatoes, carrots and some almost at the end of their life-span but very cheap tomatoes. 

Guess how much I spent.  Forty bucks.  I knew that’s how much it would cost, too – it was just like being back in Seattle.  Despite the sinking feeling that I have become a yuppie snob, it was a great feeling to come back and actually cook.  I made some delicious lentil soup – which I ate two bowls of with the fresh baked bread and felt finally, totally nourished and very grateful that I am in the privileged position of being able to afford such things.

Look for more posts about this topic in the future.  It’s one I have a great deal of personal and professional interest in, but it’s complicated and I have not done nearly enough research to discuss all of or even some of these issues sensitively and in depth.  The food desert phenomenon is real, and illuminates so many issues of race and class in our society, but what can / is being done about it?