We’ll tax you till you’re healthy, jerks »
Our old pal Mark Bittman knows a lot about food. He espouses a vegan-till-dinner diet, which we also encourage you to try if you’re not yet vegan. Give it a go, you know. We love his recipes, his How to Cook Everything app, and his general attitude toward eating.
We’re less pleased with his latest op-ed for the New York Times, in which he proposes taxing “bad” foods “like soda, French fries, doughnuts and hyperprocessed snacks,” and using the revenue those taxes generate to “subsidize the purchase of staple foods like seasonal greens, vegetables, whole grains, dried legumes and fruit.”
OK, MB, we see where you’re coming from. Coke is terrible for you. So are Fritos and Hostess snack cakes. We vegans would love people to eat more produce and non-animal proteins. It’s just that increasing the price of foodstuffs at the retail level makes everyone uncomfortable, and it doesn’t address the government subsidization of meat and dairy, which makes that stuff extra-cheap, and guess what? A cheeseburger will kill you just as quick as a Little Debby.
It also leads normally super-serious magazines like the Economist to respond with their own “humorous” op-eds about taxing fat (read: unhealthy) people in the name of “consumer sovereignty.” I assume the individuals at the Economist have senses of humor, but the editorial voice isn’t exactly the Grub-Street Journal, and this little piece isn’t exactly Swiftian.
Is it the government’s responsibility to encourage better food choices? Is it anyone’s? Omnivores get defensive when vegans call attention to the violence inherent in eating animals, and also because they know their diets are bad for the environment. Even if you don’t mind having animals killed for your meals, you know that mass milk, cheese, and meat production is killing the planet. Maybe that’s the stronger argument, since caring about people’s health and well being is usually wrapped up in scolding and “nanny state”-style policies.
Nutritious food should be accessible to and affordable for everyone. The answer probably isn’t “subsidizing ‘good’ food with a tax on ‘bad’ food,” though, however tempting it may be. You can’t treat food like cigarettes and alcohol in any context because, no matter the quality, food is necessary to live. Addressing the broader aspects of our Terrible American Diet—i.e., federal subsidies to grow corn that mostly feed the cows that mostly feed people—may take longer, but it’s more responsible and more effective. Right? At the very least, making high-fructose corn syrup BAD while ignoring weirdo chemical compounds like non-nutritive sweeteners—aspartame won’t help you grow up big and strong and smart—seems hypocritical, and dumb. You’re better than soda demonization, Mark Bittman.
[“Untitled (view of checkout through pet food aisle)” by Robert Adams via Yale Digital Commons]
No duh, Salon: government subsidies make good food expensive and horrible food cheap »
Guess who just figured out that food subsidies are all fucked up? Good job, Salon, you’re just behind the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine (remember Megan Rascal’s compare-n-contrast graphics? Kick-ass), and King Corn, and Fast Food Nation, and (our best frenemy) Michael Pollan. Only, what, a decade behind the rest of us? Not too bad!
This quote is good, though:
Indeed, this is a problem not of individual proclivities or of agricultural biology that supposedly makes nutrition naturally unaffordable — it is a problem of rigged economics and corrupt policymaking.
Because you have to reframe the argument. Vegans will never, ever win the elitism fight (until the day we’ve all turned into disabled queer people of color through the power of white-cis-guilt/will), but we can point out that the relatively higher price of eating vegetables is a national problem with deep, ugly roots that’s bad for everybody except big agriculture executives. Who are mostly grody white dudes who don’t give a fuck about your need for more than corn-syrup-covered Potato Buds.
Fuck the man. Eat a vegetable and yell at your representatives and tell corporate agriculture to fuck right off. Food stamps at farmers’ markets forever. Food accessibility is a vegan issue.
Guest post: Food accessibility is a vegan issue »
I was sitting at my desk, staring at my coffee, when my co-worker walked in with a bag of cherries and said, “God, organic fruit at the farmers’ market is fucking expensive.”
At least we have a farmers’ market nearby selling local, organic fruit and vegetables, I thought, and my co-worker has the resources to buy some. When discussions of veganism and privilege come up–as they seem to be doing with increased frequency—there’s some understandable defensiveness from vegans, and some valid concerns that the “veganism is for rich white people” trope is both wrong and insulting to anyone not rich or white. But there remain striking differences food access across communities. This should concern everyone, but especially us veganism advocates.
A recent survey [pdf] by the very rad Food Empowerment Project (FEP) lays out the data. Looking at Santa Clara County specifically, they found that:
“On average, higher-income areas have twice as many locations with fresh fruits and vegetables compared to the lower-income areas…14 times more locations with frozen fruit and six times more locations with frozen vegetables.… In addition to being generally less available in lower-income areas, the variety of produce is also limited in these locations.”
Some of these findings are helpfully laid out in chart form:
Other sections point out things that should be obvious to those of us who live, work, or generally exist in urban cores, but are worth stating plainly: there are fundamental differences between supermarkets and small corner groceries; meat and dairy alternatives are virtually nonexistent in many communities, despite high levels of lactose-intolerance in some of those populations; that, along with being “cash-poor,” many providers in low-income communities and communities of color are “time-poor,” way too overstretched by multiple jobs and responsibilities to travel to a distant shop for decent produce, return home, and prepare dinner. The FEP study calls this “environmental racism.” Check out the full thing, along with their recommendations, here [pdf].
Your ability to make healthy food choices shouldn’t depend on your address or income, and lack of access to fruits and vegetables amounts to a public health crisis in many places. The growing trend of farmers’ markets accepting food stamps is a welcome development: by expanding access to good food rather than restricting access to junk, it’s also a much smarter, and less paternalistic and classist way to encourage people to eat well. (Another option would be to eat all the locavores, provided they were humanely put down, with reverence for all that they would provide us, but that’s a topic for another post.)
As vegans, it should matter to us especially. When we tell others to go vegan–which we should–it’s crucial to consider what barriers might stand in their way. Some are ideological, reflective of long-standing habits and assumptions, but some are more practical, like whether they can get to a market that sells non-gross apples. The ability to do so does mark a sort of privilege that needs to be recognized and dismantled, even if anti-vegan internet goofballs like to cite it for their own purposes.
And finally, concern about food security and access shouldn’t be the domain of a borderline-sociopathic “locavore” community that seems to raise these issues only to argue that we need to kill chickens in our yards. We shouldn’t cede that ground (sign a petition against at-home chicken-slaughter right now!). Everyone deserves decent food, produced sustainably, locally, and without poisons, and vegan advocates should be on the frontlines of that push. The FEP’s work is a good place to start.
Rick Kelley is a recent transplant to the Bay, having fled the brutal Minnesota winters for warmer climes. He spends his days at a Oakland workers’ rights nonprofit and his evenings probably playing moderately accurate renditions of Propagandhi songs with his awesome partner and their rescued pup, Bandit. He’s also currently active in organizing against Oakland’s “Let’s All Kill Some Chickens in Our Yards For Fun” proposal. He used to blog, and might do so again someday.