As we sink our teeth deeper into the 21st century we have come to know a thing or two about food. We know that pastured poultry is superior; we know that grass-fed beef is healthier; we know that heirloom tomatoes are tastier; we know that hogs shouldn’t be raised in high-rises.
OK, got it. Now what?
What’s the next step for healthy eating, now that its foundations have been laid, best-sellers have been printed and the chickens have been turned loose on a world of unsuspecting grubs? How do we make natural food commonplace and get people to stop thinking of it as “locally sustainable agriculture” and start thinking of it as, simply, “groceries?”
It’s a fair question. Yet no one (this writer included) seems to have an efficient and commercially-viable model for small-farm-product distribution. That’s going to be the next big issue, because gathering healthy food is still an effort. It requires going out of one’s way — sometimes a long way — to score a pasture-raised pork loin.
We rely on quaint but horribly archaic delivery systems, such as farmers markets and subscription baskets. To some, this is a necessary step. Consumers must be educated, and they say that the best way farmers can do this is face to face. Perhaps this slow but steady pressure will one day turn the tide; it has worked for glaciers. But along with being painfully slow, it often seems that for every convert, another customer loses interest or energy and gravitates back to the megamart.
The obvious response to this problem is to, as some enterprises are doing, employ the classic middleman.
But as logical as this sounds, the business model is likely to be less sustainable than the food itself. Healthy foods already cost more than traditional supermarket fare, so adding a middleman’s cut elevates prices that many Americans already see as prohibitive. Largely, of course, this price difference is because factory farm food is government-subsidized, and because it’s produced on a mass scale that facilitates major profits derived from razor-thin margins. But when we try to sermonize about “the true cost of food,” eyes begin to glaze. Many shoppers consider price per pound, and if properly raised food isn’t competitive — oh well.
It is true there have been efforts and inroads. Some community “farm to fork” concerns match producers with shoppers, in some cases even delivering groceries to the cook’s doorstep. Other government-supported programs reward food-stamp shoppers with deals that double the value of their vouchers if they spend them on healthy, local food. Good for them.
But can a taxi service for groceries ever make economic sense? And how do these governmental fits and starts translate into a revolution when the No. 1 public-school cafeteria meal remains chicken tenders and fries? Decades of being told, explicitly and implicitly, how food “should” taste has colored our culinary worldview. So we have to argue that this is what broccoli is supposed to taste like, or that beef or pork that’s slightly chewy is superior to flavorless but fork-tender meat from animals whose muscles haven’t been called on to move around at any point in their miserable lives.
It has been a long, calculated journey into blandness, and now that we have arrived, it won’t be easy to turn back.
If all this paints a grim picture of the nation’s future food supply, it’s because raising food in a careful, conscientious, and economically viable manner is tough. And good food certainly cannot be taken for granted, or it will quietly recede back into the purview of a few pigtailed people who name their kids Butterfly and Truth.
This means that every food-buying decision matters. It means leaders in urban and suburban neighborhoods not only need to be aware of healthy food issues, but should conceive strategies that allow for greater shopping efficiencies for members of the community.
In short, sustainable farming has to pay. And for it to pay, many more people must join the party. Once it has the numbers, distribution will take care of itself.
A lot of small farmers out there are trying to make a go of it, and their lives and viability become much easier when an urban or suburban cook becomes even a casual patron. The purchase of a dozen eggs raised with care, or a couple of grass-fed steaks every now and then might not seem to matter. But if a million of your closest friends and neighbors in the greater metropolitan areas are doing the same, it will matter to the farmers — and to the future of your food — a great deal.
Tim Rowland writes from western Maryland’s highlands. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.