U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Let’s Do the Math

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.

28 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I probably should have pointed out that neither the social historian nor the Heideggerian mentioned in this post are affiliated with my institution. These were social conversations about social issues. And I guess my post is probably too presentist for a history blog — or at least it would be, if there weren’t so many presentist social historians running around. (I kid — sort of.)

  2. I became a historian so I wouldn’t have to do a math. You’re not helping.

    Nor is your social historian interlocutor, who, not to put too fine a point on it, seems an utter – not to mention benighted – fool. He (or she) manifests exactly that sort of bien-pensant obliviousness that gives academics a bad rep. In this case, deservedly so.

    This genius is trying to undo the division of labor; which is to say, the last five centuries of economic development. That’s not utopian, that’s delusional. If this person were any more out of touch with reality they would inhabit not another Zip code but another dimension.

    You don’t put it that way, but your “math” makes clear what an absurd proposition this social historian was advocating. Makes you wonder just what kind of society this person envisions. But then that’s the point of utopian thinking, you don’t have to pretend that math – or people – exist.

    • This was always one of the raps against socialism – it was always the bourgeoisie who most wanted it. And talking about farmers markets, neighborhood gardens, and all that other nonsense this moron was blathering on about is about as bourgeois an attitude as you can get.

      I’m not implying this person is advocating socialism. My point is that some solutions to some problems always appeal more to people who do not suffer those problems and hence will not be on the wrong end of the solutions. This is one of those problems, as LD notes when she mentions the class aspects of this issue.

      • Oscar Wilde famously remarked that the problem with socialism is that it takes too many evenings. Same ges for scaled-up locavorism

  3. Yikes Varad! The historian in question is not a moron — s/he is a very thoughtful person with a perspective I do not usually consider, and more than one or two good ideas. However, the historian in question — like many an academic — is a little bit oblivious to “practical” concerns that people who spend their entire working lives in a white-collar / service economy don’t generally consider.

    One thing we could do is make a better use of farm subsidies — which are important for many reasons — and make sure that the subsidized crops with good nutritional value make it to public school cafeterias in some decently edible form. The tax dollars have already been spent on the food, the R&D dollars have been spent on developing the crops — put that food on somebody’s table.

    Here’s another thing that people don’t consider: water. You cannot have everybody and his brother growing their own little plot of this and that — that duplicated effort doesn’t just waste time; it wastes water.

    Here’s a story out of Fresno just yesterday re: the Sierra snowpack, which provides water to 1/3 of Californians in addition to farmers. The snowpack this year is 17% of normal.

    It’s much better to have San Joaquin Valley farmers irrigate their fields every year from the reservoirs and truck their food over the Grapevine than it is to have people in L.A., who already get plenty of water from Sierra snowmelt, using that drinking water to irrigate their own little garden plots. Of course, the farmers in Oxnard, the Imperial Valley, etc., etc. are closer. But nothing beats those peaches and nectarines in season from the San Joaquin. And thanks to transportation technology, the “season” for domestically grown fresh produce lasts for months longer than it did before.

    There’s a tradeoff for everything, and the “green revolution” has not been without its awful costs. There is a tendency to look at false binaries, either/or solutions, instead of a plurality of options. But this business about feeding a whole city of people with food grown only locally seems nonsensical. Show me the math!

  4. I strike “moron” and amend it to “nitwit.” Thst seems more appropriate. Academics can be real nitwits about the practicalities of life, which seems to be the case here. “Moron” was harsh, I concede. But this sort of blasé obliviousness always gets my dander up/ trips my dudgeon wire.

  5. There is a highly developed literature on these issues as they are encountered in the contemporary less developed world. I don’t know it well enough to point to a source that does the math. See generally the website of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, http://www.foodfirst.org, and the writings of their current director Raj Patel. On historical issues, see Nick Cullather’s excellent The Hungry World: America’s Cold War Battle Against Poverty in Asia – blowing up standard self-congratulatory narratives of agricultural modernization and the Green Revolution. Urban organic farming, mostly by medium-scale coops, is a major sector of food production in Cuba, and mostly a big success. In Detroit, there’s at least one urban coop “verticle farm” housed in a single six-story building that produces, all year round, enough vegetables to feed many thousands of people (if I’m remembering correctly). And it doesn’t have a big footprint space-wise, don’t know about energy. I assume it must involve a substantial dose of sophisticated equipment, so this is not pre-industrial agriculture, but you wouldn’t call it factory farming in the same sense as we use that term for most of today’s U.S. agriculture. I think the “Transition Town” movement literature also has a lot to say about this.

  6. Our problems are not mathematical; they remain epistemological.


    Published: April 17, 2012

    It has become an article of faith among some policy makers and advocates, including Michelle Obama, that poor urban neighborhoods are food deserts, bereft of fresh fruits and vegetables.

    But two new studies have found something unexpected. Such neighborhoods not only have more fast food restaurants and convenience stores than more affluent ones, but more grocery stores, supermarkets and full-service restaurants, too. And there is no relationship between the type of food being sold in a neighborhood and obesity among its children and adolescents.

    Within a couple of miles of almost any urban neighborhood, “you can get basically any type of food,” said Roland Sturm of the RAND Corporation, lead author of one of the studies. “Maybe we should call it a food swamp rather than a desert,” he said.

  7. I’m so happy to read this post on here – and as a fellow historian, I think it is completely appropriate because these discussions (as I witness them on food blogs/in the mainstream press) tend to miss any historical perspective except to cherry-pick from our past to create some golden age around when and what our collective “grandmother ate.” I hope there’s more on this topic to come…

  8. Bill, I’ve googled around, and the closest I can come to a “vertical farm” in Detroit is a proposal/plan by Hantz Woodlands (a tree farm) to build a commercial urban farming venture, though it’s not entirely clear whether they would be growing food crops or ornamental tree seedlings (or, perhaps, fruit tree saplings). I’m not saying the 6-story co-op you mention isn’t there, but I can’t find the link. However, any 6-story building in Detroit that produces enough food for “many thousands of people” would use an extraordinary amount of electricity. That’s one of the inputs, right? If you can’t get energy from sunlight, you’ve got to get it from somewhere, and that probably means sunlamps. I’m not sure coal-powered farming is the answer.

    A vertical farm did open in Singapore last year — “the first in the world,” per the press release — and apparently produces 1/2 ton of vegetables every day, which are sold in an upscale Singaporean supermarket chain. That’s just 1,000 pounds of fresh produce every day — it sounds like a lot, but I seriously doubt that quantity could provide the variety or the caloric concentration to meet the nutritional needs of even 1,000 people.

    There are, though, plenty of urban farming co-ops, rooftop garden co-ops, etc. These are community vegetable gardens that must surely improve the diets and generally enhance the lifestyle of the many people who divvy up the labor and the harvest. But I’m not finding anything to indicate how many families could be nutritionally sustained by such small-scale ventures. Such gardens, if well managed and kept “small” in membership, could probably supplement or even replace a family’s fresh grocery purchases for a season. And that’s something real, and really advantageous to people for whom fresh produce is prohibitively expensive.

    But it troubles me that while there is great enthusiasm for these ideas, and not a little condescension (from my interlocutor and others) about the blinkered stubbornness of those of us who are not quite sold on just how viable this alternative would prove to be in practice, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of “math” backing the enthusiasm of many people. And the people who are most enthusiastic about it — at least the ones I have met in person — have little to no experience in growing / preserving food, for themselves or anybody else.

    These things that work in theory need to work in practice. I’m not entirely sure that something that mostly works okay in Cuba counts as “working.”

    (No, Andrew, despite your impish tweet, I’m not a socialist by any stretch of the imagination. On some days, maybe a Populist. Maybe. I raise no corn, but I do raise plenty of hell.)

    • Turns out the article I was remembering was about a project in or around Milwaukee. http://growingpower.org/

      I guess you don’t know much about Cuba. There’s a lot to criticize, but also a lot to learn from. Their emergency/disaster preparedness, warning, relief services, and their public health system, are the most effective in the less developed world. And their urban organic farming coops also. In the climate-changed world that is coming, they will (temporarily) fare considerably better than the sectors of U.S. factory farming in most of southern California, the Southwest, and the plains, which will be turned into semi-desert/dust-bowl over the course of the second half of this century. If things keep going as they have been, Cuba, of course, will eventually be mostly under water.

      • Perhaps you could add one or two more “qualifiers” here?

        “but also a lot to learn from. Their emergency/disaster preparedness, warning, relief services, and their public health system, are the most effective in the less developed world.”

        So of the worst, they are the best?

        Hardly a standard we should hold for any people, anywhere.

  9. Interesting subject, LD. Each year, SAU holds a FOCUS series on some issue of public import. 2013’s theme was food. Very interesting debates arose along the lines you are suggesting here: To Eat or Not To Eat (Anything). Here’s one workshop, “Frankenfood to the Rescue,” on the GMO debate.


  10. Great post. As both a capital-s socialist and a small-c communist myself, I can definitely say that they are fine traditions and there’s no need to worry if you find yourself on our side of the register.

    To my mind, the solution is a socialist version of Wal-Mart, a socialist version of Burger King, and a socialist version of whatever the top-Michelin-rated pretentious destination eatery currently is. I’ve never met a locavore activist not entirely immersed in mourning and melancholia. Not at all politically interesting to me. But historically–very relevant. This, I think, is the core of James Livingston’s critique of anti-consumer politics and historicization of US “left politics as Augustine Christianity by other means (well that last clause is my own polemic, probably).

  11. Kurt, thanks for the great comment. As you probably saw, I tagged the post with Livingston’s name, though I didn’t mention him. But you don’t know how close I came to mentioning Augustine in that post! I was going to invoke him as an antidote to the Utopian optimism of one particular subset of social historians who seem to believe that past “possibilities” 1) were actually possible enough to have made a huge difference and/or 2) are still possible in the present. There are possibilities now, but they are different. (“Out on the road today I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac…” etc., etc.)

    So I was going to drag in my favorite infuriating Saint as an antidote to all this blithe Pelagianism about how we can make a heaven on earth if we just give it a little elbow grease. Not likely — but it can’t hurt to try, as long as we’re willing to admit that even our best efforts may indeed be errant in aim. (That’s not Augustine; that’s William James.) In any case, the locovore enthusiasts often seem to me to be literally longing for Eden, and lamenting the loss of some (supposed) past paradise.

    Bill, one of my profs is taking a group of students to Cuba this summer, for the second year in a row, and I think future trips are planned. I would be glad to go along on the trip some time if it works out, and then I can see for myself, as much as any tourist can, I suppose.

    As to predicting the future — not my table.

    • LD
      “I was going to invoke him as an antidote to the Utopian optimism of one particular subset of social historians who seem to believe that past “possibilities” 1) were actually possible enough to have made a huge difference and/or 2) are still possible in the present. There are possibilities now, but they are different.”

      A big, complex, and important topic (about which I could go – and have gone – on at great length if you’re interested). Do you know Robert Johnston’s The Radical Middle Class: Populist Democracy and the Question of Capitalism in Progressive Era Portland, Oregon ? A wonderful book,. and don’t miss the footnotes.

      • I do not know the book, but I see that my university library has a copy. So I will check it out when I have time. I have more than a passing interest in populism — as I said half-jokingly to Andrew (and as is clear enough in many of my posts), I find myself occasionally drawing from a subterranean aquifer of populism percolating through my own sense of things — though there are occasional chasms across which that aquifer rages like a torrent. I have learned to channel the flow, and no book has been more helpful in that regard than Sennet’s on The Hidden Injuries of Class. Academe still chaps my hide, though. And yet, somehow, it is where I want to be. But — oh! — I want to throw wide the gates and spoil the Egyptians, and hand out the treasures of the ages to anyone who seeks them. Not very decorous of me.

        Anyway, I am interested in whatever you have had to say on the topic. Thanks for the book recommendation, and for the thoughtful comments on this post.

  12. At risk of asking the obvious; why not just provide better public transportation options for residents in these poverty stricken areas so they can travel to neighborhoods better stocked in food shopping?
    Why can’t this option be part of your solution?
    If my solution fails or already has, I can always try to make peace in the Middle East, which seems a sunnier black hole to fix

  13. Public transportation is great, and might always be improved. But how much extra time would you think people should be willing to take at the end of their work day — how long a wait, how many bus changes, etc. — to get to a grocery store to shop for whatever they could manage to cart/carry on the bus? Someone shopping for a family of four would have to make multiple trips per week. This is one of the reasons that “convenience food” — fast food, processed food, prepackaged meals — often wins out over more nutritious unprocessed choices.

    If you are a single mom coming home at the end of an 8-hour shift, and it takes you an extra 90 minutes to get to the grocery store and back for 1 day’s worth of groceries — and have fun lugging around the eggs and milk! — but it takes you five minutes to get to the 7-11 on the corner, how often would you choose the 7-11 food over the bus-ride groceries?

    There’s nothing wrong with improving public transportation. But telling someone “There’s better food available across town for you if you’ll just take the bus” is not addressing some underlying structural problems. Cities use enterprise zones to lure businesses, give them tax breaks and all kinds of incentives to “develop” areas. Maybe some of those tax breaks could depend on concurrent development within poorer neighborhoods, including fresh grocers and green space.

    • LD In this one response you put your hand on the deeply problematic class politics of dare I say the entire environmental/ecologist kind of identity politics: the insularity of privilege. You also point to how non-class issues are in reality class issues i.e. the implicit hierarchy of asking others to already overworked to do all the work of accommodating an insufficient and unworkable stopgap measure to a labor/food crisis. Now I’m not going to praise Monsanto; I do think they are part of the problem. On the other hand, the anti-pragmatic Utopianism of much of the Left now is simply blind to the limits and capacities of working-class realities. This is a problem addressed in, among other representations, Mike Leigh’s satire of health fad/foodism called Nuts in May. highly comic and recommended! Todd Haynes’ Safe is another film that deals with this.

  14. Thanks. So you’d say there’s not enough money in these neighborhoods to attract businesses?
    Gypsy taxis service inner city neighborhoods. Is there a chance for the underground economy to provide these goods?
    In my experience convenience stores usually charge more than supermarkets; yet they are the only choices in certain places.
    I’m still thinking this over but I see how it is a problem and why.
    Thanks again

  15. The Economic Research Service (USDA) has a lot of facts and figures. Search for “food deserts” on their website. http://www.ers.usda.gov/.

    Michelle Obama has pushed for better food in school lunches; part of the problem seems to be that students (even her own daughters) don’t particularly like fresh fruits and vegetables.

    IMHO the food movement comes close to being a secular religion (saying this as the son of an early subscriber to “Organic Gardening”).

  16. Bill Harshaw, thanks for the link. I checked out your blog and realize that of all the people yammering away on this thread (myself included), you know the most about the subject. So glad you weighed in.

    The big number that I want to calculate is this: using “pre-industrial” or “low-industrial” agricultural methods — something like the equivalent of organic home gardening, summer and winter and seedtime and harvest — how much human labor does it take to cultivate enough food for one person in a year?

    One of the commenters — another Bill — was very enthusiastic about the supposed 6-story vertical garden. I was sure that he was sincere in putting forth this info as legit, but I was just as sure (before even googling) that he was sincerely mistaken. It just couldn’t add up — not even with hydroponic gardening.

    I get the sense that there’s a lot of think-tank talk about how we all need to go back to the land, live with a sense of community rather than individualism, live more simply, etc etc etc. Maybe all true, but not all that easy to bring about.

    I told one of my interlocutors that it would take a nationwide (really, a worldwide) “conversion” along the order of the Second Great Awakening to get people to believe in the gospel of gardening our way out of this mess.

    “Nature’s first green is gold…”

  17. Given what’s going to happen climate-change-wise (already baked in, too late to avert, according to the most recent science) over the second half of this century and beyond, the great majority of the world’s surviving population won’t have any choice.

    For a great easy read on how bad it already is in much of the poor world, take a look at Christien Parenti’s Tropic of Chaos. For recent well-informed conservative estimates, see Jorgen Randers, 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years, and Andrew Guzman, Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change. People have got to start paying attention to this stuff or the consequences will get worse and worse.

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