Should We Know Where Our Food Comes From?

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

As someone who’s long been skeptical on that front, I got a kick out of James Ramsden’s response to the food-knowledge pseudo-crisis in Britain:

[A] new survey by BBC Good Food Magazine has found our knowledge of the seasons to be pitiful. Of the 2,000 people polled, only 5% could say when blackberries were plump and juicy. And 4% guessed accurately at when plums were at their best. One in 10 could pinpoint the season for gooseberries. All of this is despite 86% professing to believe in the importance of seasonality, and 78% claiming to shop seasonally.

In the great scheme of our foodish shortcomings – the obesity, the steady rise of ready meals, our unwillingness to cook – does it really matter if people don’t know when a broad bean is in season?

“Know where your food comes from,” though, is the standby answer of what would make us improve our diets. But is that the case? Should individual consumers of food (that is, all of us) become experts in food production? Is that even possible? And what if a little – but insufficient – knowledge leads us to the wrong choices, “wrong” defined as the opposite of what we think we’re accomplishing when (ugh) voting with our dollars? Farmer Bren Smith recently cast doubt on consumers’ abilities in this area (NYT):

Especially in urban areas, supporting your local farmer may actually mean buying produce from former hedge fund managers or tax lawyers who have quit the rat race to get some dirt under their fingernails.

We call it hobby farming, where recreational “farms” are allowed to sell their products at the same farmers’ markets as commercial farms. It’s all about property taxes, not food production. As Forbes magazine suggested to its readers in its 2012 Investment Guide, now is the time to “farm like a billionaire,” because even a small amount of retail sales — as low as $500 a year in New Jersey — allows landowners to harvest more tax breaks than tomatoes.

Knowing where your food comes from may seem like a harmless-enough activity, at least if the worst that comes of it is, you’ve accidentally bought a tomato from a retired 35-year-old financier. And there’s something to be said for knowing that your food isn’t tainted, that neither workers nor animals were abused, although ideally (IMHO, as they say), this is something the state would take care of, not individual consumers conducting individual research projects.

The problem comes when it shifts from hobby to moral necessity, and when – as Emily Matchar has convincingly argued – the burden of dietary expertise ends up falling on women. The food-movement refrain – that we don’t think enough about what goes into our digestive tracts – also ignores that many women already think about this plenty, a point made most eloquently in a newspaper comment from a while back. Commenter Anath White wrote:

I adore Mark Bittman (and even received his boxed cookbooks last Christmas) but surely he must mean MEN when he writes “a time when few of us thought about what we ate?” A bit younger than he is, I’ve been aware of what I eat since my teens – in other words, most of my life. And I’d wager most of the women he knows would say the same thing.