By Mark Winne
A recent New York Times dining section piece (4/9/08) told the story of a 17-year old on his spring college shopping tour. Apparently the young fellow’s selection criteria was not limited to a school’s academic strengths but also included the quality of its dining service. On the day the young man visited Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, he was transfixed by the dining hall’s sumptuous repast that included vegetable ragout over polenta, spicy orange beef, Dijon-crusted chicken, vegetarian pho and spinach sautéed with garlic and olive oil. Precocious palate or not, the would-be collegian readily admitted to “something subliminal from the food…that influences your decision [about the college].”
My own tour not long ago of the Storehouse, New Mexico’s largest food pantry (http://www.thestorehouseabq.org/master.asp) was decidedly less than subliminal. Young mothers, mostly Hispanic, pushed shopping carts loaded with children past shelves of USDA powdered milk and canned vegetables. Dried pinto beans donated by a Colorado milling company, and day-old white bread salvaged by Albuquerque VFW Post 401 gave the pantry a well-stocked, if not inviting look. Rounding out the inventory was ground beef shading toward the brown end of the color spectrum, fluid milk only a heartbeat from its code date, and cardboard bins of over ripe cantaloupes that most of us would consign to the compost pile.
Should the budding gourmet select Bowdoin, mom and dad will pony up something in excess of $45,000 per year, of which $5,200 or $2,600 for a four-month semester will be allocated to his food tab. Given the superiority of the dining hall’s fare, the Fair Trade certification of its coffee, and the 20 per cent of the food sourced locally, including from two student-run organic gardens, it sounds like a pretty good deal.
But many of those young Albuquerque moms shopping at the pantry are also using food stamps. Their value equals, on average, about $1.05 per meal per person, or something just short of $100 per month. In other words, not counting the pantry’s periodic food supplement, the Storehouse shopper has about one-sixth of the food buying power that our pho-slurping friend at Bowdoin will have should he choose to matriculate there.
Not to give this young gentleman a hard time – if my choice was to eat at Bowdoin or the pantry, well… – but choice is what it comes down to in America’s food system. For the nation’s “haves,” things couldn’t be better. Cosmopolitan cuisine is at our beck and call, locally and organically produced food is virtually everywhere, and a super abundance of culinary skills are making extraordinary magic of it all.
But for the “have nots” it’s a different story. Hunger and food insecurity plague 36 million Americans, obesity and diabetes are rampant posing greater threat to the poor than to the affluent, and “food deserts” – places with few healthy food choices – are a common feature of our urban and rural landscapes. But in spite what can only be labeled a social injustice, there is good news. Over the course of several articles I will share the experiences of people, projects, and policies that are leveling the nation’s food system playing field. These will be stories from farmers’ markets, schools, food banks, CSAs, and the halls of our state legislatures where people are hard at work making the promise of good food a reality for all. Please stay tuned.
Mark Winne is the author of Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty (Beacon Press, January 2008). For more information contact www.markwinne.com.