Chefs with Issues: Buying food is a political act
June 4th, 2012
04:00 PM ET
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Chefs with Issues is a platform for chefs and farmers we love, fired up for causes about which they're passionate. Jay Pierce is the chef at Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen in Greensboro and Cary, North Carolina and frequently contributes to Edible Piedmont Magazine and the restaurant's Farm-to-Fork blog.

As this year’s political season wends its way to Election Day, we voters will be implored to act, decide, stand up for what we believe in.  Our voice matters; as every child learns in school, one vote can make a difference.  No matter how disaffected or energized you are by rhetorical jousting about healthcare, debt ceilings or foreign aid, there is one topic that hits close to everyone’s home: buying and eating food. 

To update Wendell Berry’s proclamation, “Buying food is a political act.” A person espouses their morals by the very act of purchasing food to eat. Was it grown or “manufactured,” does the food producer employ fair labor practices, and is land, water or air potentially harmed to provide this food? In purchasing our food, are we keeping money in our own communities or sending it across this continent or either ocean?

If you’ve ever been to a farm owned and operated by a family without a paid staff, then you can understand the difference that one sale can make at the farmer's market on Saturday.  I’ve met their children, been to their homes, eaten food that they’ve cooked, wished them well when times were tough, and congratulated them on their achievements.  Our restaurant is a part of their lives, and they are a part of ours; when we serve fewer guests, they sell less food. We depend on each other to make ends meet. 

That’s a local economy. Choosing to serve lamb that is shepherded an hour from our restaurant helps provide a family with a livelihood, as does the pork, beef, and dairy from just down the road.  Those folks actually dine in our restaurant, completing the circle.

Buying lamb that was reared 9000 miles away or eating at a big national chain seafood palace that buys shrimp and crab from Southeast Asia is effectively voting to cut American jobs of fishers and farmers. When you buy winter tomatoes, there is a possibility that you could be paying money into a system that perpetuates human rights abuses, as alleged and credibly documented by at least four successfully-prosecuted cases since the year 2000. Choose to dine with those who share your ideals.

Another way in which we vote for what we believe in is by buying heirloom produce.  “Eat it to save it,” is a call to action; if you want to preserve the taste of heirloom produce varieties, such as Arkansas Black, Newtown Pippin, and Ginger Gold apples, for future generations, you must buy them and eat them or the mechanics of capitalism will instruct farmers that there is no room in the marketplace for their product, and they will move on to something else, like Granny Smith or Red Delicious Apples or sub-divided exurban residential plots. 

The same principle applies to Purple Cherokee tomatoes, Lady Cream peas, Cushaw squash, sorghum, and more.  The tastes will be lost, the flavors hybridized out of existence in an effort to prolong shelf-life and increase shippability from distant corners of the globe. Our tastes will be homogenized and, I think, our lives less full and rich.

The opportunity to make a difference occurs myriad times throughout the day, with simple decisions.  Each time you get hungry or when you buy groceries, ask yourself, “What do I eat and where does it come from?” 

The easiest way to be an activist is to spend your hard-earned dollars with someone you know, who holds dear the same values as you.  A true measure of the strength of your convictions is how much you are willing to be inconvenienced to keep them.  And, once you get in the groove, this isn’t even an inconvenience.

Become aware. Don’t be content to be alive, strive to be awake, with a voice, and a vote.

Previously - How the modern day tomato came to be and all about heirloom vegetables

soundoff (44 Responses)
  1. rachelcollyer

    I wish I were able to afford to eat as ethically as I would like. And, living in a poverty-laden town of less than 40k, there are very few businesses that offer the produce I would be looking for (even being a stones-throw from the bounty of Ontario's Prince Edward County). There just isn't the turnover necessary for it to be profitable.

    January 20, 2013 at 5:40 pm |
  2. Wastrel

    Stealing food is a political act, too, I suppose. So is refusing to eat at a restaurant run by a politician who has pretensions to being a chef. Chefs, please concentrate on getting the best food and preparing it well, and leave the politics to others.

    June 7, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  3. LMF

    I would love to eat local food, but I live on an island off the coast of Alaska. It's just not a reasonable expectation. While we get a lot of fresh fish and deer meat here, everything else is another story. We try to catch a lot of fish when it is in season and freeze it to eat through the year to keep food costs down. Same with deer. But almost everything else is non-local.

    June 7, 2012 at 5:01 am |
    • Libby Vita

      It seems only fair that you also should be able to enjoy some delicious fresh Pine Island Florida mangoes.
      In season now and we ship to your door. Check out: and enjoy the some of worlds best along with all of us!

      June 16, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  4. ohsnap

    Totally organic is not possible. It's not. The air we breath and that plants grow in, is polluted. Even if they are grown in a controlled in-door climate, whoever walks into that place from the outside brings in contaminates...on their clothes, shoes, skin. If you water your vegetable garden from city water supplies, it has chemicals in it. It's a nice idea but I don't believe it is possible to have a truly organic-non-chemical plant. JMO. BUT I do believe we can grow things as responsibly as possible by composting, using rain water in our gardens, NO Miracle Gro chemicals, etc. That's what I do. And I will buy from farms that grow food in the responsible way that I just outlined. But organic? No, I got off that wagon a while ago.

    June 6, 2012 at 11:45 pm |
  5. ohsnap

    As a single woman working part-time, I have still been able to buy much local produce, eggs, milk. But for families on a very limited budget, buying local is a hard is expensive. One solution is to grow some of what you eat. Buying 'seconds' in bulk from local farmers and canning it may be another solution. 'Buy local' is the buzz phrase that's popular now, but until it is affordable, economically (in the short run at least) buying from a food chain store makes more sense to a family with 4 children on a limited income. In the state where I live Food Council groups, concerned citizens, farmers, community gardeners are working to make 'local' more affordable. I also work for a Land Trust that services about 1000 families in the city where I live via community gardens, education, etc. A slow but steady (and in many ways) fruitful process.

    June 6, 2012 at 11:34 pm |
  6. Hypatia

    Local markets are always a good bet-they may not have every brand the big grocery chains do, and some are "ranch markets' which can sell grades of produce not allowed at the big stores. The produce may not be uniformly 'pretty' but it's just as good-often better and the prices are almost always a pleasant surprise. Plus some of the big chains may actively support political causes with large corporate contributions (i.e. Kroeger donated heavily to CA's Prop 8, etc.) so it's always a good idea to know the parent company and its political leanings.

    June 6, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
  7. cc

    Unless you're rich you need to watch how you spend your money. Sure, I'd like to support local businesses-but not when they're screwing me over on prices. (Or on quality, but that's much rarer. Nor am I wiling to pay extra for quality that's higher than I can appreciate. I'm not a gourmet chef so there's no point in paying extra for flavor I'm just going to cook out anyway.)

    June 6, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
  8. MarkGlicker

    I buy what is nutritious first and fairly priced second. It could come from across the globe for all I care as long as it is still fresh.

    June 6, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
  9. Janice

    I have given up on commercial sources. Too many things that are done for efficiency carry an unsafe risk associated with them. Pink Slime was the tip of the iceburg. I grind my own organic meats, my own organic wheat, make my own pasta, buy organic eggs. I really miss trusting the commercial food sources, but I really should have stopped long before I did. It does cost a lot more, but it really tastes a lot better. I am happy to eat less good food rather than tons of garbage.

    June 6, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  10. saintleoba

    Okay, so in essence I agree with all of this, and now that I'm out of grad school and paying bills I'm practicing more what I preach. But those who espouse this lifestyle have to realize that this is, ultimately, a class-based ideal. The working poor, and especially the urban working poor, can neither find nor afford the very things that Chef Pierce is advocating.

    I happen to live in a very good area for farmer's markets and the like, but the cost of supporting our local, sustainable foods is out of reach for most people. Try to explain to someone on minimum wage in the American South why they should pay almost four times as much for a dozen (and often lower quality) eggs or twice as much for a gallon of local milk. Many here can no longer afford to by grocery store beef at all– let alone pay almost $10/lb. for local, humanely raised burger.

    I do support what Pierce says. But perhaps if we want to make a real change that everyone can reasonably participate in, we should put more time and energy into free community farm plots, subsidizing backyard garden initiatives, and home-ec courses teaching people on tight budgets how to stretch their dollars by cooking with whole foods.

    And I would especially like to see, as in my city, more support community farms which provide foods to the poor and homeless shelters, ones which practice these exact same farming methods: local, sustainable, heirloom.

    June 6, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • @saintleoba

      A lot of times you can get beef straight from the source as little as $5/pound for organic grass fed beef. That is how we buy it. I go to the farm, I get my beef, a chicken, eggs and veggies. They generally have "second" veggies that have a few bruises or marks that are like $2 for 4 pounds or .25$ a piece of whatever. If they don't advertise the seconds I always just say hey do you have any second veggies and they bust out the stuff that looks a little rough. Same great taste but not as pretty.

      June 7, 2012 at 9:19 am |
      • Billy

        It is just not feasible for most people to go to a farm to buy anything. I am not going to pay more than $2.00 a lb for meat so driving to a farm and paying $5.00 a lb just will not work for me. Community gardens and education on nutrition, cooking using real food does make a lot of sense since so many people these days don't know how to make nutritious meals anymore.

        June 8, 2012 at 9:12 am |
        • RMJ

          I agree with Billy. I think in general we need to go back to gardens. In urban areas, having a community garden would be excellent. We also need education on how to cook with fresh foods in general. We literally have a generation that only knows pre-package processed food. I live in what is considered a low income area and will actually try to start a community garden. I have my own small garden but thought this would be great for the community. The good thing about all of this, this is the second article this week i've seen on the food supply and being aware of where our food comes from. I'm hoping this is a shift back to 'Real' food. In this country we should all be able to eat great food.

          June 8, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  11. TxJim

    When I was a poor enlisted man in the 1980s I bought the cheapest food I could find. Tweny years later and I can afford to support oir local farmers and ranchers and am politically aware of how my food purchases effect people and so every Saturday we head to the farmer's markets. Living on the Gulf Coast means that we can purchase fresh, local produce, meats, and dairy 12 months out of the year.

    June 6, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  12. Ian

    I try and purchase what i can from farm stands. I'm a chef, so i understand the importance of local and sustainable. My only problem with this is all to often people get on some high horse and preach their ways of purchasing in such a arrogant and vitriol tone that it detracts from the argument. Also as a chef i get paid squat. This is something not well known in the public (to get another myth out of the way, we don't sit around all day and eat whatever we want and drink wine in the kitchen). Anyway, because of the lack of pay I try the happy middle of the road method while buying food....
    Buy local when you can and always buy seasonal. This actually makes more sense when you think of it. First, by purchasing local when you can you are supporting your local farmers and also putting money back into the community . Second by purchasing seasonally your are at very worst supporting a non-local producer, but at best you are eating something that is less sprayed and messed with since it is meant to grow that time of year. A tomato for example when grown during actual tomato season well be subjected to less pesticide and spray are one that is grown out of season.

    June 6, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  13. dragonwife1

    There are quite a few farmer's markets in our area, but they all seem to offer the same selection of vegetables. If I want to buy something different, pretty much my only option is the grocery store. As for buying meat, you'd think living in Nebraska it would be easy to find good, cheap locally-raised. Well, no. Apparently most of it gets shipped out of state – I can either buy from the chain grocery store, or try to find a local place and spend twice as much or more (and becoming vegetarian isn't really something we want – just personal taste). Even with only two of us, our food bill keeps creeping up, and with our job situation very precarious, I'm leery of spending even more for the admittedly better-for-us organic stuff. I do try to grow what I can, but have limited space and time (work full-time plus going to school), so we're not going to be self-sufficient anytime soon. I think the poll results show most people are like me – I'd love to be able to buy organic, local food all the time, but budget-wise it's just not affordable most of the time.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  14. Caroline

    I purchase local options when they are available.
    The biggest concern I have is with shipping food across the country or half-way around the world for no reason. That is simply nonsense.
    All ofyou need to get off the 'organic' routine - there is no benefit to you. But ifyou like paying extra for no difference that you can detect - go for it! But don't cry to us about not having enough $$ to put gas into your gas-hog!

    June 6, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • skainec

      Maybe the organic route doesn't matter to you, but pesticides can cause some serious problems. Take a look at the movie "Vanishing of the Bees", this movie talks about colony collapse of bees and how pesticides have contributed to the problem. It was a big eye opener for me regarding organic vs non-organic farming practices.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:29 am |
      • ohsnap

        I meant to reply to your comment, not make it a new appears twice on this board! Anyway, Totally organic is not possible. It's not. The air we breath and that plants grow in, is polluted. Even if they are grown in a controlled in-door climate, whoever walks into that place from the outside brings in contaminates...on their clothes, shoes, skin. If you water your vegetable garden from city water supplies, it has chemicals in it. It's a nice idea but I don't believe it is possible to have a truly organic-non-chemical plant. JMO. BUT I do believe we can grow things as responsibly as possible by composting, using rain water in our gardens, NO Miracle Gro chemicals, etc. That's what I do. And I will buy from farms that grow food in the responsible way that I just outlined. But organic? No, I got off that wagon a while ago.

        June 6, 2012 at 11:49 pm |
  15. AuntieMame2

    I hit the local farmers market every Sunday. I'm fortunate to be able to buy lots of fresh fruits and veggies, locally made cheeses, dairy products, local meats, even locally made homemade salsa. It does cost a little more, but I'm not feeding an army, so it's do-able. I especially like gettign the grass fed ground beef in light of that pink slime scandel that surfaced a few months ago. Some people aren't as fortunate though and don't have farmers market options and are forced to rely on what comes out of their local grocery store. There is a website out there that lists nationwide farmers markets – just plug in your zip code and it will retrieve a list for you if there are any in your area.

    June 6, 2012 at 8:20 am |
  16. eleanorffaf

    For me, it has been a gradual process, but about 80% of the time I am able to put together a meal with locally raised food...veggies, meat, and fruit are pretty easy to get locally. Also, we get great local cheese from Goat Lady Dairy and butter and milk from a few other locally owned and run family farms. Coffee, grains, olive oil, and chocolate are about the only "necessities" that come from far away in my house. I am happy that Chef Jay Pierce helps keep small farms in business!

    June 6, 2012 at 7:46 am |
  17. Patty

    Great article! I've been reading Robyn O'Brien's blog. That got me buying more local produce. It is more expensive and I can't always afford it, but I am more knowledgable and do try to vote with my dollars! Here's a link for an eye opening article on her blog.'t_Find_Hidden_in_Organic_Food/

    June 6, 2012 at 7:36 am |
  18. Lori

    I think the more we try to buy local, organic, drug free, the more it is fighting against the Monsanto's. I have celiac disease so I no longer purchase many processed foods – I can't. Today I drove 36 miles, to the only Gluten Free bakery on this side of the state. I spent over $38.00 to get 1 sub, 1 muffin, 1 roll, 1 small cheese pizza, 1 bag of bread cubes, and1 piece of cake. To say the least, I can't afford to go very often.

    June 5, 2012 at 10:11 pm |
  19. gatecrasher1

    How do I eat against Obama?

    June 5, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  20. sharon

    I buy local as much as possible. I also buy as far down the food chain as possible, buying whole halves of organically raised beef, locally grown produce and farm fresh eggs from local farmers. I can and freeze my own produce. I am constantly learning more about home preservation. I will be tackling cheese making next. I buy local beer but since wine is not a product of Utah I buy wines from around the world. I believe in buying locally when it is possible but we don't all live in CA where anything and everything is available year round.

    June 5, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • ohsnap

      I've been doing the same thing. I've always cooked from scratch anyway so learning to make stuff, like pasta, was a no brainer for me. I try to buy local (meaning in-state and I live in RI...very small state). I do buy things like grains, beans out of state but in New England. Things like good olive oil is not possible to get locally. Or coffee, so I buy Fair Trade or coffee that is sustainably grown. I have also taken to shopping like they do in Europe...I buy for a few days at a time. I found I waste less food that way (putting left overs in the fridge that never get eaten) plus I bike to get it.

      June 6, 2012 at 11:56 pm |
  21. podunda

    As long as it comes from the earth – Oh, wait, that's everything !

    June 5, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  22. RichardHead

    Though I can understand the premise of Chef Pierce, there is a major problem. When the Major conglomerates...Monsanto–telling farmers they will only plant seeds that they produce,
    or will be sued and put out of farming...Tyson foods–you will raise chickens and pigs our way or we will close you down, and last but not least Cargill-Salmonella from our meat? Your kidding me. As long as the BIG 3 keep paying off Congress and try to control the FDA and all it's agencies,with our dear President turning a blind eye to the millions of dollars rolling in to protest any changes( think Pink Slime ) Americans will only be allowed to eat what is produced in the Best interest of these companies. We allowed it America,and it is our fault.

    June 4, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • RMJ

      Yes, we have allowed it. I'm hoping that folks start growing there own food and get away from so much dependency on the big chains. I think we just got out of touch on how our food is being processed. Once I became more aware I make better choices. Besides the garbage that is passed off as food is making us fat and it's disgusting...

      June 8, 2012 at 10:17 am |
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