Check Please: The Eat Local Challenge and the Price of Virtue

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Published  June 2015

Some years ago I was working as a janitor at a rural facility that hosted various conferences, one of which had to do with “sustainability.” During my lunch break, a white hippie in his 40s approached me brandishing a battered plastic bottle. It was full of yellow liquid, swirling with particulates. “See this?” he asked me excitedly. “I just showered in a single liter of water!”

He was very proud of himself. That hippie, who’s by now probably CEO of Cascadian Farms, was my first encounter with a version of “sustainability” today animating much of what passes for environmentalism here in South Louisiana. As the refineries poison us, as the oil canals fell the remaining cypress via saltwater intrusion and the land itself vanishes, there are still people so insulated by privilege that they believe this late-stage environmental holocaust can be corrected—or indeed affected—by individual consumer choices. This is, not coincidentally, the mindset Dick Cheney articulated in the early 2000s: that resource conservation is a “personal virtue.”

There is no vanity so obscene, no delusion so dunderheaded, and no personal virtue so earnestly purehearted that it cannot be commodified. Thus we are now offered the New Orleans Eat Local Challenge, the opportunity to literally embody—to physically comprise oneself of—the virtues of SUSTAINABLE and GREEN and LOCAL via eating expensive food. The Eat Local Challenge’s approach and ideology are not only stupid, but actively dangerous; they spring from a reactionary ethos of “personal responsibility” that helps conceal the economic oppression controlling most of the world’s food choices. They’re also racist.

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RAISING A WARINESS

On its surface, the Eat Local Challenge promotes appealing values: supporting local businesses and farmers, and most of all eating foods native to the area in which you live, with an eye towards reducing the environmental and economic suffering underpinning the year-round availability of flavorless GMO tomatoes.

Global commerce is monstrous. Unless you get your bananas off the grove dominating a neighbor’s yard, they’re likely imported on an oil-burning barge from some Chiquita-owned nightmare plantation across the ocean. The Eat Local Challenge offers you a way, supposedly, to do something about this system.

As a means to “raise awareness of the nutritional, economical [sic], environmental and cultural benefits of eating locally sourced foods” you can, for $30, sign up for a month-long yuppie Lent during which you piously deny yourself any foods grown outside the greater New Orleans area. Many of our expensive new local restaurants are participating with special, premium “Eat Local” entrees you can purchase, and there are a number of other food-related events you can buy tickets to as well. “It’s typical of what passes for innovation or entrepreneurship these days,” a friend told me recently over questionably-sourced cheeseburgers. “Take something that’s basically a nice idea—eat more local foods—and make it a special event you have to buy your way into. Turn a sensible general guideline into some month-long gimmick only rich people can participate in.”

Like many New Orleans transplants of my vintage, I am a rabid regionalist. I very seriously believe New Orleans should secede from the United States. New Orleans has the best music, the best architecture, the best attitude towards the inevitability of death. The whatever-the-fuck in New Orleans is better than the whatever-the-fuck anywhere else, and the Causeway will always be the longest bridge in the world. For me, what makes the Eat Local Challenge objectionable is certainly not its regionalism: it’s the worldview that the people with the least power—end-consumer food buyers—should, via shopping choices, bear responsibility for environmental problems caused by the world’s wealthiest and most powerful and that eating local, whatever its ostensible virtues, is in any sense “economical.”

 

THE WILL TO EMPOWER

For the Eat Local movement, the problem with global capitalism is that we, the consumers, are not making enlightened (and more expensive) consumer choices.

In a blog entry on eatlocalchallenge.com, Julie Cummins, the Director of Education for the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, addresses criticism of how unsustainably expensive it is to “eat local.” She acknowledges a study by Dr. Adam Drewnowski that gave scientific imprimatur to what should be common knowledge: people with very little money buy foods that are cheaper and more calorie-dense, i.e. junk food.

That study finds that “Whereas a daily energy ration of… ~2400 [calories] from added sugar and fat could be purchased for under $1, the energy cost of lettuce or fresh strawberries… was several hundred times that… in fact, calorie for calorie, fresh spinach is more expensive than luxury chocolates or foie gras.”

After calculating the difference in what it would cost to fulfill her daily caloric needs with donuts ($2) vs broccoli ($20), Cummins angrily bemoans a world in which processed food is “artificially cheap,” then concludes, “we need to be willing to spend more on what we eat.  Americans now spend just under 10% of our household budget on food, which is less than just about any other country in the world… if a car, a cell phone, and lattes are worth the expense, how can we skimp on food that’s good for our bodies and the planet?”

We need to be willing to spend more! That’s her diagnosis: we’re thoughtlessly neglecting to pay enough for our food… and if I had a nickel for every thinkpiece I’ve read in which poor people were urged to save money by curtailing their alleged latte habits, I’d be able to afford a fucking latte.

I quote her because there, laid bare, is the deeply reactionary “personal responsibility” politic at the heart of the Eat Local Challenge. By positing an unrealistically pricey diet as the only responsible path (and a meaningful environmental gesture), the Eat Local crowd implicitly condemn the poor, those with the least power and fewest choices, as somehow being the problem.

 

LOCAL IS THE NEW ORGANIC

This is nothing new. Back in the olden days, the holy grail for food fetishists was “organic,” with its connotations of Edenic purity. Enough Americans began demanding food labeled “organic” that big agriculture started supplying it. All the little organic farms got bought out by the same mega-corporations against which organic shoppers had felt themselves in bold consumer rebellion.

An article on onegreenplanet.org, a popular environmentalist website (“your online guide to making conscious choices that help people, animals and the planet”) quotes Dr. Phil Howard, an associate professor in the Department of Community Sustainability at Michigan State University. “One way [to help stop the organic industry consolidation] is to support smaller-scale and independent farms and processors through your purchases, if you can get that information about size and ownership,” says Howard. “Sometimes this will mean paying a bit more, because big corporations can afford to sell at a loss if it means driving competitors out of business.”

Again: the solution is paying more.

This is consumer environmentalism. Gogreennola.org, a search-engine-optimized result for the New Orleans Eat Local Challenge, is a website founded on the individualistic certainty that “one person can make a difference in her/his community.” They offer a selection of inspiring TED Talks: “When John Doerr, a venture capitalist, says it’s time for everyone and every business to go green, we know that going green isn’t just for hippies anymore.” The Go Green NOLA tagline is “small green steps, big easy change,” a reassuring narrative of possibility. Surely, anyone who can’t bother with a few small steps must be villainously lazy, and since individual decisions are what make the difference, I’m pretty pissed at whoever is failing to follow the site’s Go Green Tips (“Turn Off the Tap When You Brush Your Teeth… Don’t ask for ATM Receipts… Avoid Using Rubber Bands When You Can”).

Damn those malefactors for denying our community the big, easy change that would otherwise be within reach! At least we Eat Localites are enlightened. It’s frustrating how some dirty trash people insist on buying non-local food from corner stores, from places that (unlike the St Roch Market) accept WIC and SNAP. Those people can’t or won’t understand how selfish they’re being, how their bad decisions and incorrect consumer choices are harming the environment. I would sigh with exasperation at their short-sightedness, but I don’t want to risk inhaling the hydrogen sulfide blowing in from the refineries.

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TOTALITY

The system of power over us is, like most religions, one that operates as a conceptual and ideological totality: the market is not just the only possible system but, to its adherents, a perfect system. If there appears to be something wrong with the market, it must be some other force (regulation, revolution, perverse irrationalism) interfering with the system’s otherwise perfect and harmonious operation.

My mother, bless her heart, believes that if we could just vote the right candidates into office, the US Government wouldn’t be a brutal, war-mongering global oppressor. That we never seem to get the right candidates, or that once elected, those candidates never do what they should, is not proof of the system being fucked, but the fault of those ignoramuses who are voting wrong. If Obama hasn’t closed Guantanamo or given us all single-payer health care, it’s the fault of an imperfect and interfering externality: the rednecks who keep voting Republican, whom she accordingly reviles.

It’s a consistent dynamic under these invisible regimes: apparent flaws within the system are actually problems caused by other people, usually those who have less than you. Can’t find a job? Blame the Mexicans. Planet earth being destroyed? Blame the people who purchase 99-cent-a-pound bananas at Walmart.

For the Eat Local movement, the problem with global capitalism is that we, the consumers, are not making enlightened (and more expensive) consumer choices. We must be conscious consumers: if we want “sustainability,” which is to say, to sustain the current system, we must be sure to correctly use the only power we have, which is the choice of which products we buy.

All the system is ever selling you is an identity, the reassurance that you are or can be better. Thus your accumulation of Facebook Likes, your record collection, the assemblage of branded signifiers in which you hide your shameful naked body—thus yuppies’ ostentatiously miniature vehicles that run on sunshine or cow manure, thus their TOMS shoes and their Tom’s of Maine toothpaste.

For the elite, there is also an obsession with what they put into their bodies: the perfectly sourced, perfectly steamed and spiralled cup of coffee—not swill from some common coffeepot, but a single cup exactingly and precisely and attentively brewed, solo-ly for your precious little lips to touch and taste.

As anyone who’s wrestled with anorexia can tell you, these kinds of food neuroses are attempts to assert control. It’s crazy how powerful global capitalism is and seems; it’s not accidental how disempowering it is to the individual. The promise of Eat Local is that you can, through paying a premium, liberate yourself from these highly profitable supply-chains of suffering. Many hippies believed they could refuse the system by dropping out and forming self-sufficient communities. The proselytizers of the Eat Local movement—who have in common with many former hippies arrogance, entitlement, whiteness, and self-obsession—instead believe they can buy their way to self-sufficiency, to a heightened personal virtue.

It’s madness. The Eat Local movement and the Eat Local Challenge, which presume we have the budget for such foolishness in the first place, is not only elitist and classist but, we’ve recently discovered, racist.

 

ADDING INSULT TO INJUN-RY

Among the uncountably proliferating “Eat Local Challenge” events posted on Facebook (“Locavore Dinner at Dickie Brennans Steakhouse”) was an “Indigenous Foods Rooftop Dinner Party.”  Its stated intent was “To spotlight the foods that sustained the Indians before Europeans arrived… a dinner composed of 90% of indigenous Louisiana ingredients… just a few of the bountiful foods that fed the Houma, Choctaw and other tribes.” The accompanying photograph showed 23 white people and a black person eating fried chicken on a rooftop in Brooklyn.

A Facebook user, Kris Tastic, asked, “This sounds neat! I’m all for decolonizing diets. Are the chefs members of the Choctaw or Houma tribes?” The Eat Local Challenge responded that was not the case but, “We are in touch with some of the Choctaw in Mississippi about being part of the event. Will post here as we gather more details.” They then deleted Kris Tastic’s post and a few others asking similar questions.

A subsequently changed event description omitted any mention of the Houma and Choctaw, promising instead “To spotlight the foods that have sustained native Louisianians for centuries… a few of the bountiful foods that have fed Louisiana inhabitants over the years.”

Online pushback intensified against this literal erasure of indigenous peoples from an event focused on First Nations foodways. Many more complaints and questions were deleted, and more overtly racist white people began weighing in angrily on behalf of Eat Local. “Yall politicaly [sic] correct sissies should follow your trail of tears somewhere else,” advised Tulane Law student Philip “JD” Westwood, in a representative post defending the Eat Local Challenge from its critics. Many of the angry whites reiterated that this event was honoring the tribes by “spotlighting” and “raising awareness of” their traditional foods.

Eventually, the Eat Local Challenge replaced the Brooklyn rooftop picture with a closeup of some scuppernongs. They changed the event’s name to “Wild Edibles Rooftop Dinner Party” and the description now offers “To spotlight the wild foods of Louisiana… just a few of the bountiful foods that are recognized as being local to Louisiana and the Gulf Coast region.”

Recap: First they named the tribes whose food they’d be eating, but denied them representation at the event. Then, they stripped the tribes of their ethnic and historic identity, designating them mere “inhabitants.” Finally, they got rid of those troublesome human beings altogether, instead focusing solely on the food items.

Eat Local also posted a non-pology: “We do understand your concerns and the event description could have been written better and the event photo was not the best. We apologize if we have offended anyone.” This is, in the most literal sense, whitewashing and genocidal erasure. It’s not enough that First Nations peoples have been denied their homelands, sovereignty and, through industry-driven environmental disaster, cut off from their traditional foodways; now the very existence of these tribes must be eradicated, scrubbed from the record rather than the Eat Local Challenge acknowledging their own colonialism. The hateful responses from white adherents to the Eat Local Challenge were also very enlightening. In this moment, these locavores showed their true colors, just as the Eat Local Challenge showed the yellow streak running down its back by choosing genocidal erasure over basic accountability.

Nonprofiteers have no guts; they don’t handle controversy well. The point here isn’t only that the organizers of the Eat Local Challenge are genocidal racists, but rather that these sorts of “pitfalls” and “miscommunications” are an inevitable byproduct of green-capitalist contradiction: let’s fix the world via the mindset that’s destroying the world.

 

THE LOCAVORTEX

Most of our post-K do-gooder nonprofits and foundations are staffed by liberals from elsewhere, many of whom are embarrassed to be in the South. What else could explain their crusading eagerness to implement programs and solutions from more sophisticated metropolitan areas?

The Eat Local Challenge, like anti-smoking ordinances and the tech industry, came here post-flood from California. The concept of a month in which you restrict your diet geographically, originally branded “Celebrate Your Foodshed: Eat Locally,” arose within a group of Bay Area women who, via the internet, coalesced in the early 2000s around the locavore identity. Locavore is a prestige label designating someone with not only the leisure and the lucre, but the special—shall we say detail-oriented—personality one must possess to run a Carfax on every ingredient in every dish in every meal. The San Francisco Chronicle profiled these innovators in June 2005, following one of them among Berkeley’s farm stalls as she strove to determine which of the different blueberries on offer was most sustainable. By blogging about their efforts, they attracted additional adherents from places outside the Bay Area.

That same year, Palo Alto’s “Bon Appétit Management Company,” a sort of Ben & Jerry’s Aramark whose operations include a chain of over 500 cafes, invented an “Eat Local Challenge” consisting of the company challenging the employees of its kitchens and cafes to source foods from nearby communities. This highly publicized stunt proved a commercial success.

New Orleans’ Eat Local Challenge has elements of both these parents. Though sponsored largely by businesses hoping to benefit from it, like Pres Kabacoff’s Food Co-op on St. Claude, it propagates its ideology via a storm of participant self-promotion. Certain circles of social media become a locavortex, a welter of glossy, super-premium prepared-meal photographs, all captioned with pants-peeing, child-at-Christmas levels of excitement.

The Eat Local adherents’ enthusiasm is harmless in and of itself, but when you try squeamishly to depoliticize what’s fundamentally a political problem, you only ever end up reinforcing the status quo. When the status quo is genocidal, which it usually is, when the status quo relies on silencing the voices of indigenous peoples and non-whites, you take on those values in your blindered pursuit of your shining, narrowly-sliced feel-good goal, a goal which you’ve decontexualized out of any relation to the real world, a goal which you’ve effectively stripped of any meaning besides its value as a consumer-based marker of lifestyle status.

Thus a practice like “foraging” for wild plants, something the poor have done from necessity, becomes a show-off hobby for bored honkies seeking a deeper connection to the city they’ve invaded. Sorry Grandma, you can’t have any burdock. I picked it all. I promised my Kickstarter supporters each a jar of authentically foraged burdock-dandelion fizz, and it would be deeply unethical to let them down.

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HOW LOCAL ARE YOU?

How Local Are You?    That’s the question posed by the 2015 Eat Local Challenge’s poster. It’s a question easily answered by two others: where were you born, and where’d you go to high school? But the Eat Local Challenge has a new definition of local: How Local You Are is now defined by how much you can spend on premium foods.

If you’re local, you’ll pay $30 for the privilege of then paying even more for comestibles than you’re used to. Those are the kinds of exciting opportunities we get these days—these are the tools we’re given with which to build a better New Orleans.

Isn’t it interesting that at the same time everyone without a trust fund or a telecommuting tech gig is being priced out of New Orleans, the city’s nonprofit-industrial complex is cranking up the obsession with local? If you live on the Westbank and have to catch two buses to your downtown dishwashing gig, how local are you? Face it, you’re a suburbanite. You’re not local like Becky from Brooklyn who bought up a block of the Bywater last year and can afford to eat oysters every day. Shit, your apartment complex doesn’t even have any wrought iron. You probably just buy whatever food you can afford. You probably don’t know where your crawfish comes from, and you might even be too ignorant to be properly ashamed of that. You have failed to Eat Local. There’s no room on the rooftop for you.

C.W. Cannon, in a great piece on The Lens, quotes an Alice Walker short story: “They want what you got, but they don’t want you.” Everything you have as a poor person, as a nonwhite person, as someone from here, new white people with money want. They’ll dance to your music, they’ll sell bastardizations of your old family recipes, they’ll practice your “voodoo,” they’ll ironically bandy around your slang and, by wearing it themselves, render your traditions of adornment newly respectable. They love your fierceness, your authenticity, how you’re rooted in longstanding community traditions, and they love it so much they’re gonna take all of it away. Now, they’ll take the designation local too, eating their way into local-ness bite by sumptuous, expensive, meticulously-prepared bite.  Any version of “local” that can’t be bought and sold must be supplanted with a new, commodified version of local, a “local” available only to the rich.

But don’t cause a fuss, baby. It’s all about love, local love, and raising awareness. It’s honoring you. Enjoy the spotlight.

6 comments about Check Please: The Eat Local Challenge and the Price of Virtue

    • Pretty much, it’s a slew of sponsors that bear the brunt of the expenses. That $30 is not what “keeps the lights on.” There are a lot of volunteers that work during June, not to mention local suppliers that give away their products to support the campaign. Are there items that are expensive? Yes, there are. Are those dollars going to vendors that are not only local, but also folks that have been recognized for their talents and blessed with an income stream they didn’t previously have. Yes, they have.

  • A friend of mine is THE or one of the Choctaws who participated in this event.
    At face value, what an encouraging prospect! Showcase foods from natives.
    But now, its sad. How unfortunate it is to decide whether its a genuine desire to learn or sell.

  • You’re portraying these vendors and suppliers as if they’re direct employees of Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. They are not. They’re locals who work hard to earn their dollars. Should they sell at a loss or choose who they’ll sell to?

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