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The Elitism and Racism of "Local Food" and the Edible Schoolyard

“Eat local” is the latest intellectual fad on the Left Coast. These “locavores,” as adherents like to call themselves, want you to eat only food grown near where you live — say, within 100 miles of your home. The goal, in theory, is to foster “sustainable agriculture,” to lower the carbon footprint of your food (which generally travels thousands of miles from farm to kitchen table), and consequently get that warm-and-fuzzy back-to-the-earth type feeling.

Oh, did I mention that the locavore movement is most popular in California?

This little detail is significant because California is just about the only state in the entire union that has the climate and the soil to grow such a wide variety of produce that it could even theoretically support its current population with “locally grown” food.

While food is grown in every state, most of that food is not sold directly to individual consumers — it is sold to food manufacturers around the country and around the world. So even if you lived right in the middle of a Kansas wheat field, you probably couldn’t “eat locally” because you would have no retail access to that wheat, which will instead probably end up in a bagel at Coney Island.


Much more relevant data about the viability of eating locally can be found on this map created by the Department of Agriculture which shows the value of agricultural products “Sold Directly to Individuals for Human Consumption. As you can see, most of the produce which you can actually buy yourself is either grown in California, the West Coast, or in New England — precisely the areas where the “locavore” movement is popular. As a result, “eating locally” at current population levels is only even possible if you live in liberal enclaves on the coasts; the vast majority of Americans in the rest of the country couldn’t “eat locally” even if they tried.

But that map doesn’t tell the whole story. Most of the areas shown actually specialize in specific types of fruits or vegetables, so that if you want to be a locavore in Washington state, you’re going to be eating a hell of a lot of apples and cherries. If you live in Georgia, brace yourself for the all-peanut diet, with maybe a peach for dessert in summer.

Want to be a locavore and yet still be able to eat anything made out of grapes or almonds or lettuce or avocados or cantaloupes or any number of other standard foodstuffs? Well, the only way you could eat any of those things — and dozens of other common foods — is if you lived in Caifornia, because that’s just about the only place where such products are commercially grown in the US.

Which gets to the heart of the elitism and hypocrisy of the locavore movement. We can sit here in California and brag about our uniquely fertile and sun-kissed state, and exude faux despair: “Why doesn’t everybody eat locally and sustainably — like we Californians do?” But of course under that mask of concern is a smirk, because we know full well that people in Buffalo and Chicago and El Paso have no choice but to eat food transported there from the rest of the country. Which, you see, renders them globe-destroying rubes with unsustainable dietary carbon footprints. So we asshole Californians invented the locavore movement to lord over the rest of the country how superior we are.

(In retaliation, I propose to the midwestern states that they withhold all soybeans from the soyless Californians to create a catastrophic tofu shortage amongst the indigenous vegetarians. Food fight!)
The connection to Alice Waters and the Edible Schoolyard Project

One of the original and still most famous champions of the local food movement is Alice Waters, owner of Berkeley’s legendary Chez Panisse restaurant and pioneer of “California cuisine.” But she’s more than just that: In recent years she’s transformed herself into an educational reformer, promoting her ideas about sustainability through something called the “Edible Schoolyard Project,” which basically boils down to the introduction of gardening as a core curriculum in American public schools.

Sounds heart-warming — right?

Think again. The Edible Schoolyard, Alice Waters, and her entire worldview were utterly demolished in a devastating exposé published in last month’s Atlantic magazine which is actually the best piece of journalism I’ve seen so far this year. Before you click that link, however, first read this nice summary of the article published on the SFGate blog to properly prepare yourself for the experience of Caitlin Flanagan’s exposé:

Flanagan argues that time that should be spent on reading, writing and arithmetic is wasted on teaching children how to grow vegetables. This green-thumbing of students undermines their education and will ultimately turn them into field laborers, or, as she puts it, “intellectual sharecroppers.”

At the root of all evil is Waters and her Edible Schoolyard — a program she founded at Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley that helped inspire the school garden movement. Flanagan essentially sees Waters, an advocate of locally-grown and organic food, as a gastronomic elitist who has no business shaping the curricula of public schools.

As luck would have it, I was making a trip over to Berkeley the very afternoon I read the exposé, so I brought along my camera and did a little in-person investigation myself.


Before I even got to the Edible Schoolyard I encountered the Berkeley Farmers’ Market, where one can indeed buy local produce in abundance — and at abundantly high prices, unfortunately.

And that, actually, is the flaw in the whole “sustainable food” movement. For various economic reasons, organic food, sustainable food and even locally grown food is almost always more expensive than food produced in massive bulk by large agribusiness concerns. As a result, only the wealthy and the dilettantes can afford to dally with the pricey hobby of eating locally. The average person — and especially poor people and disadvantaged minorities — can’t afford the $5/pound organic vegetables sold by local farms.


A typical Berkeley Farmers’ Market customer.

I then proceeded down Rose Street toward King Middle School and its famous Edible Schoolyard, which was the first school garden of a now nationwide movement. But before I even got there, I had a revelation….


By chance I approached the school just after 3pm when classes had let out. Students were streaming away from the campus, and it seemed like every single one of them had fled the Edible Schoolyard and went directly to the nearby corner stores and bakeries where they had bought and were now eagerly scarfing decidedly non-organic and non-local food — like ice cream bars…


…cookies…


…and sodas and candy.

Now, let’s stop for a moment. The pictures above are reality, not the utopian daydreams of the pie-in-the sky educators who were positive that the Edible Schoolyard curriculum at King Middle School would transform all the kids into snooty gourmands who only eat (and only want to eat) locally-grown organic healthy nutritious meals. In reality, pre-teens and teens desperately crave high-calorie sweets and junk food of all kinds; they always have, and they probably always will. All the well-intentioned indoctrination in the world isn’t going to stop the biological need of growing bodies to cram as many calories into their mouths as they can get their hands on. Is this the kids’ fault? No. Is it the fault of evil corporations who advertise junk food? No. The advertisers don’t convert health-conscious kids into sugar addicts; they’re simply taking advantage of a pre-existing and innate requirement for adolescent kids to eat eat eat high-energy foods.


In fact, contrary to what the administrators had hoped for and predicted, not a single student was hanging out in the garden once classes were over. Those who wanted after-school physical activity instead were all down on the playground training to be on the basketball team.


Here’s what one part of the garden looks like in the heart of the school year — and frankly, it seems pretty ratty, and one of the few vegetables growing successfully over the winter is (as seen here) the cabbage.

You tell me: Can you feed the school’s thousand students with just 30 cabbages? No. But that was never part of the plan — was it?

Actually, it was. The project’s administrators originally imagined that the garden would supply food to the school cafeteria, but due to safety regulations and other bureaucratic problems, they must now concede that “produce grown in the garden is not used for school lunch.” But even without the regulations getting in the way, the garden still does not produce enough food to feed the entire school for even one day out of the whole year, much less on a continuous basis. The kids who work in the garden only ever eat the food they grow in what seems like carefully stage-managed symbolic meals every now and then around harvest time.

And this very problem — the non-viability of garden produce as an acceptable substitute for farm-grown food — reached all the way to the White House recently, when it was revealed that when Michelle Obama hosted the TV reality show Iron Chef at the White House garden, the cooks couldn’t actually use any of the White House produce in their recipes, either because there wasn’t nearly enough of it or it was unsightly — even though the whole point of the TV episode was to use Michelle’s home-grown vegetables.

If you can’t pull off the fantasy for a single propaganda meal, how can you possibly sustain the dream of kids growing their own food all year long?

Only in California

As we saw earlier in this essay, California — especially central California, where Berkeley is located — has the kind of near-perfect climate where you can grow practically anything, as long as you’ve got the right trucked-in soil and 1,000 unwilling volunteers. This makes the Edible Schoolyard perhaps something you could pull off here, but in not many other places around the country.


For example, one of the many exotic fruits grown in Berkeley’s Edible Schoolyard is the pepino — something which would be practically impossible to grow anywhere in the United States outside of a few select areas (and I suspect pepinos aren’t too successful in this garden either, since even this California climate is too cool for them).


Simultaneously, in the same garden where they can grow tropical pepinos, they can also grow winter wheat — something which is usually associated with cold areas.


“Cossack Pineapple” is an alternate name for a little-grown garden fruit related to the Cape Gooseberry. (I originally thought, based on the sign’s illustration, that they were attempting to grow pineapples, but realized that would be impossible, considering the climate.) Thanks to Alice Waters’ influence, the Edible Schoolyard is full of all sorts of unusual and exotic fruits and vegetables from around the world which you wouldn’t find in the average garden.

But not all of it is bizarre. For example, we have…


Have you ever seen anything more exciting?

Setting aside the sarcasm for a moment: I’m all for growing one’s own vegetables — I have a green thumb myself. But, you see, I’m an adult who chooses to dabble in the dirt of my own volition in my spare time. Imagine being a modern American 13-year-old in a world of ultra-violent head-spinning video games, text-messaging and cell phones and tweets and Facebook, hormones and peer pressure and ubiquitous pornography, adolescence and terrorism and war and economic collapse — and then look at these carrot sprouts. Hell, I’d run away as fast as I could too.


Here’s the compost pile. For the life of me I can’t figure out why there is a sign with the letters “FBI” next to the compost pile. There seems to be no known garden-related-meaning for the acronym “F.B.I.” For Burying Immediately? Fungus-Bearing Indigestibles? Or is it a bit of anti-authoritarian political humor — the Federal Bureau of Investigation is like garbage?

The Hidden Racism of the Edible Schoolyard

The Atlantic article more than once examines the undercurrent of racism in the whole philosophy behind the Edible Schoolyard. Its author Caitlin Flanagan writes, for example,

If this patronizing agenda were promulgated in the Jim Crow South by a white man who was espousing a sharecropping curriculum for African American students, we would see it for what it is: a way of bestowing field work and low expectations on a giant population of students who might become troublesome if they actually got an education.

and also…

Imagine that as a young and desperately poor Mexican man, you had made the dangerous and illegal journey to California to work in the fields with other migrants. There, you performed stoop labor, picking lettuce and bell peppers and table grapes; what made such an existence bearable was the dream of a better life. You met a woman and had a child with her, and because that child was born in the U.S., he was made a citizen of this great country. He will lead a life entirely different from yours; he will be educated. Now that child is about to begin middle school in the American city whose name is synonymous with higher learning, as it is the home of one of the greatest universities in the world: Berkeley. On the first day of sixth grade, the boy walks though the imposing double doors of his new school, stows his backpack, and then heads out to the field, where he stoops under a hot sun and begins to pick lettuce.

Ouch.

But, y’know — she’s right.


For example, in the official Edible Schoolyard Journal there is an article about the school’s program for sending students with learning problems to work in the garden for a week. In the minds of the educators who came up with this idea, it seemed so glorious: putting the disaffected urban youth back in touch with the land, teaching them all sorts of lessons about hard work and long-term planning. But as this picture from the journal shows, the students “turned five huge heaps of compost and cultivated a long bed in the back of the garden,” which, to the skeptical eye, seems like a giant step backward — basically, putting the minority kids out to do hard labor. All that’s missing from this picture is a sheriff with reflecting sunglasses and a shotgun, making sure the convicts on the chain gang don’t try to run.


And to confirm Flanagan’s suspicions about the condescending backhanded racism of the leftist ideologues behind the Edible Schoolyard: The peas are called “peas,” but…


…the beans are called “frijoles,” because well, y’know, beaners Mexicans sure do love them some frijoles, señor!

Seriously, could you get any more insulting?

Let’s get real, people: Globalization is the best thing that ever happened to mankind. Most of the edibles you enjoy on a daily basis come from thousands of miles away, grown in climates where you wouldn’t want to live: Coffee, sugar, chocolate, wheat, rice, cinnamon, vanilla — the list is endless. Civilizations have risen and fallen in pursuit of new foods. The Romans conquered North Africa to get access to its wheat fields; the Arabs invented international capitalism by gaining control of the spice trade; the French and the English colonized half the globe to bring home sugar and tea. The story of the last 4,000 years is the story of our quest for exotic foods.

And here comes the locavore movement to say, in essence, Let’s go back to neolithic times when we only ate what grew in the immediate vicinity. I say: Screw that. We worked hard as a species to gain access to every imaginable kind of food that this planet can grow. I’m not about to give it all up now just so I can feel a little more smug.