Will Allen
Will Allen, CEO and founder of Growing Power. (photo: Growing Power/Flickr)

A movement starting with elites. Conflating the lower Hudson Valley and New England. Vegetarians have “blood on their hands.” Our show with chef Dan Barber clearly touched some nerves judging from listeners’ passionate responses, especially about Barber’s unapologetic answer to an audience question about the local food movement’s elitist underpinnings:

“I sound often defensive when I answer this because I feel defensive — it has been a movement that’s pretty much started with the people who can afford to pay for this kind of food. Do I think that’s unfortunate? I really don’t because, again, you mention Michael Pollan who’s on my mind now, but he often says that a lot of great movements in this country, including women’s suffrage, including the civil rights movement, started with elites and ended up becoming mass movements through powerful ideas. There’s nothing wrong with that. It takes a long time, especially in America, generally a generation. But those ideas can be quite powerful if they come in that sense from the top.”

Reverend Jeremy McCleod in Ferndale, Michigan says that there’s a bigger story to tell about people living on the economic margins who are actively reinventing the local food landscape:

“Barber’s work seems not depend on touching the needs of communities of poverty and he even makes a case for a kind of trickle-down development of good ideas by elites becoming useful for others. I found myself wanting to hear, from Dan or from Krista, recognition that it’s not only the world’s elites who are rocking the food world’s assumptions and consumptions.”

McCleod and other listeners shared examples of thriving urban agriculture projects in Denver, Chicago, and Milwaukee, citing Will Allen and his organization Growing Power. A former NBA player and a 2008 MacArthur Fellow, Allen inspires several listeners with his work transforming blighted urban spaces into thriving organic farms that provide practical, nutritious sustenance and job training to local residents. We discussed him as a possible conversation partner for Krista when we were planning the “Mindful Eating” event in Indianapolis.

Another listener from Muskegon, Michigan passed along a story about hobby gardeners in Newaygo County, Michigan who supply a local food pantry with 8,000 pounds of produce each year just by planting an extra row of seeds in their gardens. Here, quality food, grown locally, is made accessible to people who ordinarily couldn’t afford to purchase it off the shelf.

Others wrote about the tough economic realities faced by small family farmers who can’t compete with large agribusinesses and how U.S. agricultural policy undermines local food efforts. To our surprise, several people challenged Barber’s characterization of Blue Hill at Stone Barns as being based in New England (it’s in Westchester County).

What’s happening in your backyard that’s resonant with these examples of local food that’s accessible to us all? And what from the Barber show struck a nerve with you?

Share Your Reflection



I think the biggest question that came up for me listening to this interview was whether the model Barber spoke about sidesteps some of the most pressing crises we face as a global community. The fact of the matter is that in many places of the world, people don't have the luxury of worrying about whether the food on their plate is of high quality or was grown on an organic farm. They can't even get enough to eat.

I wonder if you've heard of Robert Paarlberg? By no means do I agree with everything he says, but he certainly has some provocative ideas about how the West's new obsession with organic/local food may be eclipsing larger problems of poverty and world hunger.

An excerpt from one of his recent articles:

"In Europe and the United States, a new line of thinking has emerged in elite circles that opposes bringing improved seeds and fertilizers to traditional farmers and opposes linking those farmers more closely to international markets. Influential food writers, advocates, and celebrity restaurant owners are repeating the mantra that "sustainable food" in the future must be organic, local, and slow. But guess what: Rural Africa already has such a system, and it doesn't work. Few smallholder farmers in Africa use any synthetic chemicals, so their food is de facto organic. High transportation costs force them to purchase and sell almost all of their food locally. And food preparation is painfully slow. The result is nothing to celebrate: average income levels of only $1 a day and a one-in-three chance of being malnourished."