Unaffordable nation

Unaffordable nation

Will people pay more for slow food?

By Amanda Witherell

Bay Area author Michael Pollan opened the first event of Slow Food Nation by pointing out that food prices have risen more than 80 percent in the past three years. “Food has emerged as one of the most important issues,” Pollan said from the stage of the Herbst Theatre, where he was discussing “The World Food Crisis” with Indian author and activist Vandana Shiva, Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini, and authors Raj Patel and Corby Kummer in front of a sold-out crowd.

“Prices are going up, but wages aren’t,” Patel said to Pollan, and the real crisis is in that gap between what people make and what people spend on food — and that includes the people who grow our food.

“The World Food Crisis” was one of several panels held during the three-day Slow Food Nation, the first major event staged in the United States for what has become an international movement focused on the pleasures and politics of eating. San Francisco, a city with a food consciousness that chimes with many tenets of the slow-food movement — and one with a proximity to fertile regions that provide a wide range of local food — seems the perfect host. An oft-repeated phrase at Slow Food events throughout the weekend was that eating healthy is a right, not a privilege.

But how can that sentiment be translated into sustenance? Can the people who grow our food even make a decent living? And how does an event where tickets went for as much as $159 focus on the needs of people who struggle just to get adequate nutrition?

This much is sure: prices may be up, but small farmers aren’t getting rich. “It’s very difficult for many of our farmers,” Aliza Wasserman of Community Alliance with Family Farmers told the Guardian.

Jeff Larkey runs Route One Farm in Santa Cruz. He’s been farming for 27 years and rents 65 acres for about $45,000 per year because it’s too expensive to buy the land. In the past he’s worked up to 150 acres, but now, he said, “Going forward is a big question in my mind because the costs of doing business have skyrocketed so much.”

Larkey has many long-term workers making wages that vary based on experience, with the bottom rung starting at or slightly above minimum wage. “I’d love to pay them all $20 an hour because that’s what the work is really worth,” he said.

A way to solve the problem might be for growers to raise their prices — but many already consider organic, sustainably-grown food as fuel fit only for the well-heeled.

“To eat organic, healthy, local food generally costs more,” Pollan admitted in a later talk. “The whole system is canted to support fast food. That’s what we subsidize.”

He pointed out that Americans spend only 9.5 percent of their income on food — an all-time and international low — and people need to become more comfortable with paying more so growers and processors can earn fair wages. “We all need to spend some amount more on food.”

That’s tough for people who can barely afford food now.

Anya Fernald, director of Slow Food Nation, said the group constantly struggles with the financial issue. Fernald also said proceeds from ticket sales will be used to seed future events and the next course of action, which will be determined by the farmers, food artisans, and nonprofits that participated.

When asked how they intended to get their message out to people who might have been priced out of attending the event, she said the group chose the Civic Center as a way to reach a broad audience. She pointed out that 60 percent of the events were free.

Pollan also said that policy needs to change to make food more accessible, and that’s what the Declaration for Healthy Food and Agriculture seems to speak to. The document was unveiled in the rotunda of City Hall on the eve of Slow Food Nation and outlines 12 principles that “should frame food and agriculture policy.” Included are statements that affordable, nutritious food should be accessible to everyone and it shouldn’t mean exploiting farmers, workers, or natural resources to get it. Roots of Change, which coordinated drafting the declaration, is hoping for 1 million signatures by fall 2009, when they take it to policymakers in Washington, DC.

Originally published September 3, 2008 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian