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Foodies Under Attack!

May 13, 2011

With the preening of celebrity chefs mixing with sermons around recreating the world's food supply system, foodies are getting some flack lately. Beyond being ridiculed like yuppies for extravagant behavior, the concern is that any backlash may hinder sustainability, organic and other food movements.

A 3,741-word screed in the March issue of The Atlantic entitled The Moral Crusade Against Foodies took aim at the smugness of foodie culture. The author B.R. Myers' targets include globe-trotting gourmets, sanctimonious food writers, gonzo adventure eaters and elitist sustainable-farming advocates. Wrote Mr. Myers in part, "The Roman historian Livy famously regarded the glorification of chefs as the sign of a culture in decline."

Another editorial in the Los Angeles Times, It's Time to End the Food Fantasy, likewise decried the worshiping of chefs and food shows, as well as the sharing the "perfect photo" of meals on Facebook, Twittering food truck sightings, and creating opulent kitchens where little cooking gets done. The author Alexandra Le Tellier concluded that given rising food costs and the obesity epidemic, "we need to redevelop a realistic relationship with food."

Some foodies are also reacting to a wave of politicians and agriculture-industry representatives calling the sustainable-food movement "elitist." Those charges seem to have cropped up again after John Parker, writing in the March issue of The Economist, said modern farming techniques will be required to feed the projected nine billion worldwide population by 2050. Wrote Mr. Parker, "Traditional and organic farming could feed Europeans and Americans well. It cannot feed the world."

In an editorial in The Washington Post in early May, Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, said calling the sustainable-food movement "elitist" is "an attempt to evade a serious debate about U.S. agricultural policies." He highlighted efforts by Walmart, Whole Foods, Kellogg and others in support of causes ranging from organic, sustainable production; fair labor practices; humane treatment of animals; and healthier food in schools.

"Calling these efforts elitist renders the word meaningless," said Mr. Schlosser. "The wealthy will always eat well. It is the poor and working people who need a new, sustainable food system more than anyone else."

Asked to explain the War on the Food Movement by The Globe and Mail, Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, said part of the problem is conflicting aims inside the food movement. For instance, some want to "replace Big Ag with Small Ag" while others want to reform "Big Ag." Complexities also come from people "mixing up aesthetics and ethics in a very new way" in the current food movement. But he sees no problem with the elite charge, noting that abolition, women's suffrage and the eco-movement were all started by elites.

"If the food movement is still dominated by the elite in 20 years, I think that will be damning," said Mr. Pollan. "It would need to be more democratized. The reason that good food is more expensive than cheap food is part of the issue we're trying to confront. And has to do with subsidies, and the way we organize our society and our economy. Those are big systemic problems."


Discussion Questions:

Discussion Questions: Is there a brewing backlash against foodies? Could charges of elitism hamper growth of the sustainable food movement?

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Instant Poll:

Could charges of elitism hamper growth of the sustainable food movement?


Very interesting topic today. As a foodie I was not fully aware of the revolt against us, but thankfully I am now. Like any major change you need a small group that spends time educating a larger audience. If the change was truly worthy the larger group joins the movement and it becomes the norm. Most foodies today are not discussing the best pate they ate, but more about sustainable farming, organic foods, support of local farmers and obesity in America. These are all worthy causes that most people could and will benefit from. The age of "supersize" is gone. It is far less expensive to eat smaller healthier portions of locally grown food than eat inexpensive fast food when you include the cost of medical services then needed due to poor eating habits.

Foodies like any other group will help bring important topics like sustainable farming and organic foods to the stage for everyone to see. Whether others want to join will be up to them. I am pleased with the direction we are taking as foodies and am optimistic about the impact it will have on the food industry and individuals in America and around the world.

John Boccuzzi, Jr., Managing Partner, Boccuzzi, LLC

"The food movement"?

Sounds like gastrointestinal functionality. Perhaps some are beginning to equate the two.

Those who are engaged in the day-to-day grind of either finding a way to feed their families sufficient calories--or in the business of producing commercial quantities of those calories--may be starting to take some umbrage at the attacks of those who believe the world should be fed with organically grown kale and endive. Perhaps justifiably so. There is always room to progress our methodologies to improve the outcomes. But there are also realities in scale and economics.

This discussion also brings to mind a recent experience where I shadowed food service reps for a major cereal company on calls to school dieticians and food service operators. In several of those districts the dieticians were distraught over the pending instigation of nutritional guidelines that would eliminate most of the RTE cereals in their morning breakfast programs. Their concern? The disadvantaged kids they were trying to get some calories into simply would not eat the "healthier choices" left to them by their corporate chieftains who had rushed to sign on to the White House nutritional initiatives. So the dilemma had become--get kids who get no food at home to eat something versus eating nothing at all. The law of unintended consequences strikes again.

"Elites" will always be repudiated by the general populace (unless they are entertainers or sports superstars) simply because people do not like to have others criticize them and tell them that what they want/like/do is somehow inferior. So yes, there is a growing backlash against those who "preach."

But I do not believe that backlash extends to celebrity chefs and the Food Network. They are simply the embodiment of the celebration of food that has permeated every generation and socioeconomic group throughout history. Whether it was my Appalachian farm grandmother serving Sunday dinner to company, my wife's Hungarian mother insisting on one cake per person at every family celebration or Dean Fearing serving royalty at The Mansion on Turtle Creek--that celebration of food is a wonderful part of our culture that I, for one, will never trade in for kale and endive!

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Ben Ball, Senior Vice President, Dechert-Hampe

I'm a foodie, and I agree with the accusations placed against foodies in the above article, but I don't think it is a big deal. Food and talking about food is popular right now. It is hip; it is a trend. It probably will not be as cool in ten years. People who really enjoy food and make it a key feature of their lifestyles will probably keep on doing so once it fades in popularity, and everyone else will move onto the next trend. It just a social change.

To put it another way, ten years ago redoing your bathroom was a great way to add value to your house, but now people redo their kitchens for the same reason. Ten years from now, people will place a premium on remodeling some other room. The foodie movement is a trend just the same, a trend.

As for charges that organic/sustainable/locally sourced foods are unable to feed the teeming masses, well, that's probably accurate, but that's not really a big deal. Even in developed nations, the foodie movement doesn't have wide acceptance, and most people still consume the fruits of modern industrialized farming. The foodie movement was never a threat to the industrial farm, but the movement is a valuable source of criticism for an industry that is largely invisible to your average Joe, and there certainly are valid critiques to be made of industrial farming. We've come a long way since Upton Sinclair wrote the Jungle, but improvements can always be made, and the foodie movement is helpful in holding up a mirror to, and asking questions of, industrialized farming.

The article implies that being a foodie wouldn't save the world, and of course that's right. Being a foodie is a leisure activity, and no leisure activity will ever save the world. Foodie celebrities who say otherwise have an overinflated notion of their ideas. Again, this isn't to say that these ideas are not valuable, just that they probably aren't spun from gold they way their proponents make them out to be. Being a foodie wouldn't save the world, but it might increase your personal enjoyment of food. That's probably enough for me.

Jesse Rooney, Sales Support Coordinator, Acosta Sales and Marketing

There are really two different issues going on here. The first is food as celebrity. That is a fashion that has come and will eventually go.

The second issue is that of sustainability of healthy nutritional food. That is a war between the food producers and those who believe in healthy nutritional food. That argument has taken a political turn and in parallel with other political issues of the day, is being called "elitist" to generate rejection by a naive, anti-progressive core of the electorate.

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Gene Detroyer, Professor, Independent

I find it laughable that the sustainable food movement could be considered "elitist" when the cause is being largely supported by hard-working small farmers, many of whom are struggling to save family businesses that have been around for generations. Critics may have some good points regarding sustainability, but the "elitist" argument is twisted logic.

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Rick Moss, President, Founder, RetailWire LLC

Any "movement" is always lead by people who care deeply about that particular issue. So it's no wonder that the food movement be led by...foodies. I think the article is really struggling to create the appearance of a problem, where there is none. But it's Friday so if we are trying to find other movements worth discussing (or rebelling against), may I suggest: "Citizens Against Winter Movement," "Enough With Wet Water, We've Had Enough, Movement" and the "Down With Movements, Movement."

Fabien Tiburce, CEO, Compliantia, Retail Audit & Task Management Software

Foodies have always been considered, by many of those who live to eat rather than vice versa, to be food snobs so no change there. Also by many of those involved in methods of mass production. In many cases, the description is fair although it doesn't necessarily deserve the accompanying sneer. The perception, and the sneer, have been spread I believe by ubiquitous celebrity chefs, television, the internet and, in many ways worst of all, social media. People photographing and twittering about their food before, during and after a meal are amongst the current height of uncool although they almost certainly see themselves in the opposite way. Blogs--including the dreadful Julie of Julie and Julia fame--have encouraged a conviction of self-importance and belief that the world is awaiting their opinions.

Those people are NOT like the ones who are shopping in farmers' markets (see today's other question) and looking for local producers i.e. REAL people. I can only hope that the message gets through sooner or later and those who believe that we all can and should contribute to ensuring a safe (oh yes, and sustainable) global food supply are no longer tarred with the "elitist" or "foodie" brushes.

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Bernice Hurst, Owner, Fine Food Network

This article seems to be mixing together--a "stew" if you will--different issues that really have little to do with each other (other than that they have something to do with food): celebrity chefs, overpriced/overbuilt kitchens, agricultural policies, etc. Some of these are fads that will pass on like any other, some are trends that are the inevitable outcome of growing wealth, and some are, indeed, misguided nonsense. The only thing of which I am certain is that once one group invokes a phrase like "sustainable" or "(social) justice" the response from another will be to brand the first group "elitist."


Maybe we need to distinguish between the gourmands, the ideologues and the technocrats when we analyze the "foodie problem." Feeding one's ego is not the same pursuit as feeding the world. I for one would like to see the Food Network and NatGeo devote a little more imagination to the challenges of sustaining a hungry planet--at the macro and micro levels. Managing ocean fisheries comes to mind; or over-dependence on monoculture and highly-refined ingredients.

Local agriculture successes should make feel-good stories. Instead we are treated to dueling cooks vying to impress self-important restauranteurs; food-venturers gagging down toasted vermin; and skinny chef-ettes mmm-ing and ahh-ing about caloric recipes over a porn soundtrack. Sure that stuff is fun and it seems to sell ads, but it does provide grounds for ridicule and self-righteous attack. As for the locavore and organic purists--they need to acknowledge the elephant garlic in the room--there is indeed a strain of elitism in their sub-culture.

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James Tenser, Principal, VSN Strategies

I'm with you Jamie. If we ate a regular diet based on most of what the Food Network chefs recommend, we'd all die unnaturally young. For an example of a series--currently running--that spotlights the grassroots efforts behind the locavore movement, check out Ovation's "In Search of Food."

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Rick Moss, President, Founder, RetailWire LLC

Here we go again, with foodies on one side, and nut jobs on the other. The pie is big enough for everyone to enjoy what they want, and more importantly what they can afford. I love gourmet food, but it doesn't have to cost a fortune, because someone thinks it should. The old Italians in my family kept a few staple ingredients in their pantry (garlic, olive oil, onions, and flour) with which they could create almost anything, plus a good aged balsamic vinegar.

I was also told by my dad that you can never please everybody, so don't even try, just do the right thing, and opinions will always follow.

We need as a country to continue to feed the masses, yet there is also plenty of room for organic and small niche farms, with both being able to succeed. Let the market dictate the success of both, and remember to keep in mind the blue collar folks, who just want safe, good food at a good price to feed their families.

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Tony Orlando, Owner, Tony O's Supermarket & Catering

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