There was recently an Op-Ed in the New York Times by my old friend, James McWilliams about local food being “elitist”. While I’ll withhold my opinions on Old Jim and his motives (for now), I’d like to address the “elitist” issue.
Like all farmers, I take great pride in the ability to feed people. I also worry about those who go hungry, which I think is a shameful thing to happen in the wealthiest society in the history of the world.
Unfortunately though, access to food is not a right, despite all of our wishes to the contrary. Food, like shelter, freedom, and anything else in life that we treasure, is only attained through sacrifice and work, and the willingness to exchange that work for the other things that we place value in. The only thing that is truly an inalienable right, the only thing that the human species is guaranteed to acquire with absolutely no effort, is death. Hate to be crude, but that's the way it is. You heard it here first.
Buying real, locally and sustainably produced food is not an issue of economics for most people: it is an issue of priority. We as consumers make a choice when we buy a $4000 flat screen TV and the related goodies, and yet feel pinched when the price of milk tops $3.50 per gallon. We make a choice to build status symbol homes that are twice the size of the houses we were raised in, strap ourselves with mortgages and heating costs and property taxes, instead of focusing some of those financial resources on eating well, or more importantly, feeding our children well.
That said, we have an obligation to help those who really truly cannot access local food because of poverty, and not because of poorly chosen priorities. Slowly, we are making progress in that direction through public assistance programs that recognize the value of local food and enable the recipients of that assistance to shop at farmers markets. As farmers markets expand into more communities, the accessibility for these folks will continue to improve.
From my own experience, the typical farmers market patrons in the booming metropolis of Adams County, Pennsylvania share one common thread. That common denominator is NOT the balance in their checkbooks or the zeros on their balance sheets. It's not their age or ethnicity, or the car they drive, or their political beliefs, or any other characteristic used to stereotype the farmers market shopper by folks like Jim McWilliams.
Instead, they share the sense of value in the food they are buying; the feeling of community from being with other like minded people; and the importance of their patronage to the farmer and his desired way of life.
If those feelings and those values make them elitist, then sign me up.