Subsidizing Backyard Chickens?

There are a lot of really bad food policy proposals.  But, this one take the cake.  Apparently the city of Austin, TX is subsidizing backyard chicken coops.  

The city announced Thursday that as a part of Austin Resource Recovery’s Home Composting Rebate Program, Austinites can attend one of five “chicken keeping classes,” buy a chicken coop, submit a rebate application online and receive a $75 check from the city.

Austin Resource Recovery is promoting the program as a way for Austinites to help reach the city’s Zero Waste goal by keeping food waste out of the landfill.

A few questions come to mind.  What happens to the waste that comes out of the chickens?  Does this waste (and the smell and the sound) impose externalities on neighbors?  What happens to the hens who have reached the end of their egg-laying life?  What happens to the hens who, whoops, turn out to be roosters.  Bird flu?  Will the chickens be protected from preditors and extreme weather conditions?  How much does it cost to maintain the chickens and how expensive is supplemental feed and veterinary care?

I'm not necessarily trying to discourage backyard chickens.  I just want to know why taxpayer A should be required to pay for person B's chickens?  If the problem is food waste, and supposing it causes some unmentioned externalities, why not just increase the price of garbage pick-up?  Then households can respond in whatever ways they find most effective and convenient.  I doubt, for most, that chickens are the optimal solution.      

Social Isolation and the Food Police

Last week on the Econ Talk podcast, Russ Roberts had Chris Arnade on as a guest.  Arnade is a former Wall Street trader who became disillusioned with his work and began (first as a way to just relieve stress) going on long walks to poorer neighborhoods in New York where he would meet people and take pictures.  He's since expanded the enterprise and has visited disadvantaged areas all across the U.S.  

There was a bit near the end of the discussion that hit home for me and helps explain a bit of the motivation that led me to write the Food Police several years ago.  

From the transcript, here is Chris:

They do see themselves as victims of policy decisions. They may not be actually informed about those policy decisions as people would like them to be. You know, I think what sticks out to me is the anger. The anger is kind of 3-pronged. One of it’s very much social. It’s a sense of feeling kind of diminished in terms of people caring about them, being made fun of: everything they do is laughed at. If they like NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.), that’s made fun of. If they vape, then that’s considered wrong. They eat at McDonald’s, that’s cheap. So that’s kind of just—if they go to church, they are considered silly. So there’s a sense of just feeling like very much they are being mocked in terms of their lifestyle.

After a bit more discussion, Russ Roberts the asks:

I want to talk about the first one, because it interests me. I am constantly trying to remind economists that money isn’t everything. And that, although work is nice when it brings money, one of the things it also brings is meaning. And I think the problem of the lack of employment in the United States as we’ve recovered from this recession, especially among less educated Americans, is a huge problem, not because they are poor and unemployed—which is unpleasant, no doubt about it—but because their life is not as meaningful and worthwhile. So, I totally understand that. What I wonder about is this idea of respect. Certainly respect is hugely important to our sense of wellbeing. But when you say things like, ‘People don’t respect NASCAR,’ or church, they being—McDonald’s. And among my friends, that’s true. Among the people I hang out with generally, higher educated people, those are all the attitudes they hold. But are the people who are enjoying those things—McDonald’s, etc.—why do they—how do they perceive that they are not respected? I don’t hang out much with people on the Coast, say, who are telling them that—is this something they are perceiving on television? Is it something they are reading about?

And Chris responds:

I don’t want to get overly simplified but I guess I really do think there’s two Americas. And I think the America that’s doing well dominates the media, dominates the culture in terms of—you know, Sociologists always talk about there’s an in-culture and there’s an out-culture. And we signal [?] ways of being in the in-culture, in terms of the television shows, in terms of what’s on, movies, and what’s kind of made fun of. And I think there’s a fair amount of people who make fun of the culture of poverty, in terms of how people get by. If people go to church. If people, you know, go to NASCAR. Or those sort of things. I think it does filter across through the media. And I think some of it also is, comes from a place of being frustrated already and then taking any perceived slights, you know, magnifying them. So, you know, we may not be as—they may be more overly sensitive than they should be, but that comes from a place of also being just frustrated, economically—feeling very much like they are left behind.

There are not doubt many good people in the so-called "food movement" who care about the downtrodden and are motivated by the belief that the food system they envision will help poorer people.  But, I think this exchange also reveals that we need to also respect and look at things through the eyes of the people we're trying to help.  

10 Year Anniversary of Omnivore's Dilemma

Blake Hurst, a farmer from Missouri, takes stock of the changes in cultural views toward food in the 10 years since the publication of Michael Pollan's highly influential, Omnivore's Dilemma

Here's one bit that typifies some of the clash between the views of the food movement and those of a conventional farmer.

Anybody who has followed the food movement over the last decade knows that corn is the serpent in the garden, the root of all evil, the original sin of industrialized agriculture. The writers and intellectuals who have changed the way we think about food and farming have seen the corn plant colonize, as they put it, an additional 25,000 square miles, an area almost the size of West Virginia. That’s got to hurt, if you like to eat artisanal kale in overpriced restaurants in Berkeley.

As a practical matter, agriculture has remained much the same because we farmers do what we do for good reasons. We use chemical fertilizers because people have to eat, and we can’t produce enough food without the help of commercial nitrogen fertilizer. We use chemical compounds to control weeds and insects because it’s the only way to do that without handing a hoe to millions of Americans every summer. We change corn into human food through animals (we eat the animals that eat the corn) and in food-processing factories that use corn products, because when it comes to changing changing sunshine to calories, corn is the most efficient plant known to man

Hurst wraps up as follows:

When it first hit the best-seller list in 2006, Pollan’s book was perfect for the times, laying out a series of challenges for the nation’s leading industry. He has changed how we think about food, increased scrutiny of those who provide that food, and spawned a growing and well-compensated cadre of chefs, documentary makers, food entrepreneurs, and other self-proclaimed food experts who are always ready with a quote or a Twitter hit about the dangers of modern food production. He hasn’t done much to change the way I farm, but he’s certainly changed the way farmers communicate with eaters.

Others will have to decide whether we’re better off for all of these changes. For farmers like me, the food movement has made life a little harder; it’s made me more conscious of how the decisions I make appear to others. I spend more time talking to people who are curious but uninformed about my industry. We now all talk like Pollan, but, a decade on, we still like a good hamburger or a perfectly prepared steak.

There are a number of good points in the article.  Read the whole thing here.

Eating Right in America

With the federal new nutritional guidelines coming out today, I suspect there will be a lot of talk about why the guidelines ultimately didn't recommend less meat eating, the impact of the guidelines, and the process behind the formation of the guidelines.

As such, now is probably as good a time as any to share a few thoughts about Charlotte Biltekoff's book, Eating Right in America: The Cultural Politics of Food and Health, which I picked up over the break.  In the book, Biltekoff argues that dietary advice is about much more than just science and represents a social construct laden with moral undertones.  She recounts the history behind several different phases of the dietary reform movements in the US starting with the science-based nutrition efforts (the force behind "home economics") that began in the late 1800s and early 1900s right through to today's alternative food movement (as far as entertaining food history goes, I prefer Harvey Levenstein's Fear of Food).  The thing that unites all the food reformers, Biltekoff argues, isn't the actual diets they recommend but rather the religious fervor of the people recommending the diets.  

She argues that one of the reasons we worry so much about what we eat today is:

not because of an increase in incidence of diet-related diseases or because of growing knowledge about the role of diet in preventing such diseases, but because of ongoing expansions in the social significance of dietary health and the moral valence of being a “good eater.”


dietary ideals always communicate not only rules for how to choose a “good diet”, but also guidelines for how to be a good person.”

Perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised that as organized religion as been on the decline in recent decades that people are seeking to express their moral chops in other domains - food now being a common choice.

Interestingly, Biltekoff is quite critical of the modern alternative food movement led by Alice Waters and Michael Pollan.  It is a movement that she, quite rightly, says has served to discount scientific evidence and to elevate the role of the senses and tradition.  She also notes how the movement has, "heightened the moral valence of eating right with alternative food, creating higher stakes for food and bad eating than in previous eras" and that it "wielded its own moral force with little-self awareness or critique."  

Biltekoff concludes with the following:

Given its social and moral freight, eating right is a kind of unexamined social privilege. It is not unlike and is clearly connected to other forms of privilege that usually goes unnoticed by the people who possess them, such as whiteness and thinness. Choosing socially sanctioned diets makes subtle but very powerful claims to morality, responsibility, and fitness for good citizenship. We who are lucky enough to have eating habits that align with the dietary ideals or inhabit the kind of bodies that imply we may think our shapes or healthy preferences are a sign of our virtue, the result of our will, or perhaps nothing more than a lucky twist of fate ... [should understand that] history shows that there are cultural mechanisms that produce the seemingly natural alignment between ideal diets, ideal body sizes, and the habits and preferences of the elite. We should therefore question our common-sense assumptions about the “goodness” of good eaters and be very careful about the subtle forms of social and moral condemnation we mete out, often unconsciously, to “bad eaters.”

I tried to put it more plainly in the Food Police: don't be a backseat driver when it comes to food.

Overall, I found the book to be a bit verbose, relativistic, and social-class-focused for my tastes, but it nonetheless provided some good food for thought. 

A Plea for Culinary Modernism

This piece by Rachel Laudan is a masterful discussion of the ahistorical fascination with "natural" food.  She gives an interesting historical account of the evolution of cooking and eating, and make the case that industrialization was the great food equalizer - that the view that "natural" food was good for the poor is hogwash.

Here's one excerpt:

As an historian I cannot accept the account of the past implied by Culinary Luddism, a past sharply divided between good and bad, between the sunny rural days of yore and the gray industrial present. My enthusiasm for Luddite kitchen wisdom does not carry over to their history, any more than my response to a stirring political speech inclines me to accept the orator as scholar.

The Luddites’ fable of disaster, of a fall from grace, smacks more of wishful thinking than of digging through archives. It gains credence not from scholarship but from evocative dichotomies: fresh and natural versus processed and preserved; local versus global; slow versus fast: artisanal and traditional versus urban and industrial; healthful versus contaminated and fatty. History shows, I believe, that the Luddites have things back to front.

She points out the condescension in the idea that other people should toil away to make their artisanal ethnic foods so that we can take pleasure in them.  Laudan concludes with some of the following thoughts:

Were we able to turn back the clock, as they urge, most of us would be toiling all day in the fields or the kitchen; many of us would be starving. Nostalgia is not what we need.

What we need is an ethos that comes to terms with contemporary, industrialized food, not one that dismisses it, an ethos that opens choices for everyone, not one that closes them for many so that a few may enjoy their labor, and an ethos that does not prejudge, but decides case by case when natural is preferable to processed, fresh to preserved, old to new, slow to fast, artisanal to industrial.