The food world is currently up in arms over a simple question: are those farmer's market peaches really worth $3.90? Apparently Michael Pollan and Alice Waters--two champions of the "fresh" and "local" food movement--have recently said an emphatic yes, irritating both chefs and laymen on a budget.
Ignore all that, says James McWilliams on The Atlantic's food site. Pollan and Waters's words may have been elitist or may have been mere "media missteps." But "unfortunately, this matter goes well beyond what Pollan and Waters may or may not have meant." Why? Because food prices don't matter as much as we think: Americans are not buying junk food just because it's cheaper, but because we like it.
To debunk the myth of the cheap--and thus attractive--Dorito, McWilliams points to a study done by an arm of the USDA, which found that "between 1980 and 2006, the price trends for healthy food (apples, bananas, dry beans, carrots, celery, cucumbers, etc.) and junk food (cookies, ice cream, potato chips, etc.) were practically identical--they both dropped at the same rate." Or, as McWilliams translates, "at the time when Americans were getting fat on increasingly cheap junk food, healthy food was becoming increasingly cheap as well." That means they were actively choosing the junk food. Pollan and Waters, concludes James McWilliams, have a lot more to worry about than a few impolitic words in the media:
San Franciscans might enjoy a culture that celebrates a $3.90 peach, but for most consumers--including many wealthy and educated consumers--even a cheap peach won't come close to the appeal of a bag of chips. The food movement worries genuinely about reaching the masses. But do the masses want to be reached?