I have an argument — I just need some facts to go with it. I’m hoping someone here can help me with the math. And if someone wants to help me with a thesis, or — even better — a solution to the problems of adequate food distribution, that would be great too. And if I have accidentally become a socialist or a communist or something, I hope someone will be kind enough to point that out. Because that would be news to me.
I was talking to a social historian recently about the phenomenon of “food deserts” — neighborhoods where residents don’t have access to healthy, fresh, affordable food. This historian was lamenting the fact that Wal-Mart has capitalized on the problem of food deserts to pitch opening “small” neighborhood groceries as a way of wedging its foot into the door in major urban markets.
While I am no fan of Wal-Mart, I’m no fan of food deserts either. I asked my interlocutor, “Well, isn’t having a Wal-Mart grocery there better than having no grocery store at all?”
I was told that such thinking represents an unimaginative approach to solving social problems, one that embraces false choices instead of considering alternatives.
That’s a fair enough criticism. So I asked, “What are some alternatives, besides bringing in a grocery store?”
The alternatives suggested were farmers markets once or twice a week, and neighborhood gardens. My interlocutor pointed to the greening of Detroit and the growth of “urban farming” as alternative ways of increasing access to affordable, nutritious food.
There’s nothing wrong with farmers’ markets, neighborhood vegetable gardens, and urban farm plots. The more the better. But, I said to the social historian, these measures are not going to be able to address the scope of the problem. While they are incremental improvements, they are not scalable solutions. The growth of small-scale urban farms in Detroit neighborhoods is only possible because of the post-apocalyptic landscape of abandoned homes.
So while we’re planting our neighborhood gardens, I said, we need a way to reimagine getting the extraordinary, year-round agricultural bounty of our productive farmland onto the kitchen tables of people who need it now.
Then I got the whole spiel about industrialized agriculture, and how our dependence on that also reflects our unimaginative thinking, that we shouldn’t rely on transporting food, and that there are other alternatives that we aren’t considering.
I thought — and said — are you kidding me?
And then I made what seems to me a fairly simple set of observations. These are observations I made last year in a similar argument with an avowed Heideggerian, who was also raging against the machine that harvests everything from the almonds for his biscotti to the cotton for his hipster tees. But it’s a “common-sense” argument, and I think it would be so much more persuasive with charts and graphs and numbers. Anyway, here it is:
1. Among the “inputs” necessary to successfully grow food — soil, nutrients, time to fruition, energy, water — is one that people bring: labor. While American agriculture relies heavily — and, I would argue, exploitatively — on human labor for many fresh-market staples (lettuce, grapes, strawberries, melons, peaches, some tomatoes), mechanized agriculture has drastically reduced the overall number of labor hours necessary to produce food. That labor savings can then be spent socially on other things. In the case of myself and my interlocutors, time we might once have had to spend working on the farm can be spent arguing about the scalability of farming.
2. For every person who does not work in agriculture, somebody else has to produce twice as much food — food enough for the laborer, and food for the one who does not labor. If the laborer has children, and if the one who does not labor also has children, then the laborer must produce enough to feed himself or herself six or eight or ten times over. If those children go to school, then the farm laborer must produce a share of what each teacher would have to grow. Those who do not spend their time growing their own food must be provided for by those who can do it for them.
3. A tiny fraction of people in America, taken as a percentage of the whole population, work in food production (let’s leave aside for a minute those who work in processing and distribution, which is still, I think, quite small). Maybe five out of a hundred people produce enough to feed the other 95. How are they supposed to do that without large-scale industrial farming?
4. It’s not enough just to produce “food”; we need to be able to produce certain kinds of food in certain quantities — so much vitamin C, so much potassium, so much fiber, so much protein, etc., etc. But not every region of America enjoys the kind of near year-round productivity that we see in California or the Rio Grande Valley. So if you can’t grow what you need year-round, and you don’t believe in the evils of interstate trucking, then you need to find a way to preserve the summer’s bounty to make up for winter’s dearth. So add in that labor cost as well, and buy some canning lids and Bell jars while you’re at it.
5. To bring it home: how many hours of your day in the archives or the library or the classroom are you willing to give up in order to do your part to produce the food you eat for a year, in all its caloric quantity and nutritional variety? This is the question I have raised to those who tell me that America’s “nutritional problems” can be solved by some kind of downscaled, locovore movement. And nobody ever answers it — partly, perhaps, because I haven’t done the math. So I need to know who has done the math. Who has calculated the labor hours necessary to produce enough food in the requisite proportion and variety to feed an adult for a year?
And I do think we need to bring the conversation from the calculator to the home, because I think this enthusiasm for “slow food” in one form or another connects to historic divisions of labor within the home along gendered lines, divisions which — I am given to understand — serve as the very foundations of capitalism.
The advocacy for small-scale solutions to the challenge of feeding a nation of 300 million people also connects to issues of class and privilege. Yes, community gardens and farmers’ markets for urban and suburban areas are great. I think people should be allowed to raise chickens and milk goats in their back yards, deed restrictions be damned. I mean that. I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley — that mess and that smell isn’t going to bother me one bit.
But it seems to me that there’s a division of labor right now between those who think such solutions would work and those who would actually be implementing them. Imagining alternatives is great, and we historians go through an extensive, specialized, and specializing process so that we are especially good (one hopes) at recognizing contingencies and demonstrating that things did not have to be as they are. In order for us to have the time to do that, somebody else picks up the slack for us when it comes to farm labor.
It bothers me that the fact of our own “labor savings” — savings which are measurable in real hours and in real dollars, though I need help with math here too — goes so little acknowledged in discussions about what must be done. What if field workers — the strawberry pickers, the lettuce harvesters, the peach pickers, the grape cutters — were paid a living wage with benefits? Maybe we can start there.
I guess I’m not proposing anything except a return to the labor theory of value (well, that, and hyperinflation). As a society, we would do well to place the greatest value on the ultimate non-renewable resource: time. But it is precisely because we presently don’t have to grow our own food that some of us seem to have so much of it — so much food, and so much time. Maybe a “homegrown” movement would be a good step towards such a revaluation. It would “raise awareness,” as they say. But the people who live in the food deserts are already aware of how little time they have to spare, how little fresh food is available. They don’t need an object lesson. They need a bigger share of this land’s bounty.
If that bounty is not going to come from large-scale agriculture, but instead from some kind of “artisanal” farming, then I have a request to make: I am hoping that some fellow historians will be willing to grow enough food for themselves and me both. Because I have already done my time in agricultural labor. And if you’ve never done that kind of work yourself, I can tell you this: it’s much less romantic than you might imagine.