April 22, 2009
Vol: 16 No: 20

Interview

The Locavore’s Dilemma

By Rosette Royale , Assistant Editor

Everyday, millions of people don't get enough to eat. Joel Berg can't stop thinking about them

For years, Joel Berg has worked to end hunger in the United States, including putting in time in the USDA during the Clinton administration (see Joel and Bill in lower left of this photo). Now he's written "All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America?" in hopes of alerting the Obama administration, and the nation, about our hunger crisis. Photo by Kathryn Kirk

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Walking into the Whole Foods on Westlake and Denny downtown is like stepping into an epicurean wonderland: the four-pound containers of perfect strawberries (on sale, $7.99), the bound spears of asparagus (organic, from California, $5.99 a pound), the steam tables with chicken teriyaki and spicy rice ($7.99 a pound) and the glistening seafood display. Here, there’s everything you could want and things you didn’t even know you could want.

Joel Berg sees the want too, but from a different perspective. To him, the abundance on display, and its attendant cost, speaks of gross inequality. He points to the snow peas, at $6.99 a pound. “For peas?” he asks, exasperated. And don’t get him started on the high-end cheeses.

Berg spends a lot of time thinking about food or, more precisely, why some people have it and others don’t. As the director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, he works to represent that city’s 1,300 soup kitchens and pantries, along with the 1.3 million New Yorkers who use them. Prior to his current post, he spent eight years with the USDA during the Clinton years, where he concentrated on programs to end hunger.

All of this work, this passion, has fueled his latest endeavor, “All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America?” (Seven Stories Press, $22.95), a treatise that examines a sad truth of our country: every night, one in eight people goes to bed hungry. Full of hard numbers and a good dash of wit, the book is a call to the president—and the populace—to take a hard look at our nation’s hunger.

And so, after a quick stroll through the grocery store, with his sense of indignation on high alert, Berg sat down for a chat in the caf

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Comments

Thanks for a great article! By the way, if one is trying to stretch food dollars, I would recommend avoinding Whole Foods entirely (never shop there myself - I find $7/pound vegetables repugnant). Go to any of the markets in the international district, even Viet Wah, which is by no means the cheapest, will sell you snow peas and shitake mushrooms for a mere $3/pound. I feel that the reason that stores charge so much is simply that people seem to be willing to pay. Fresh produce spoils. If you don't pay what they ask, they will have to lower prices. Supply and demand. And the people picking the produce are not making anything near a living wage picking the stuff whether it sells for $2 or $7.

Elizabeth Oseid | submitted on 04/29/2009, 7:23am

Thanks for this great article. I admit I am one of those spoiled, upper-middle class kids that have been drawn in by the local/organic food movements. I support the movement and admire its values, but I have never been able to help feeling a little uneasy about all that premium-quality, expensive food when so many people are starving. I come from a family that has not always been so prosperous. My parents grew up where food was scarce (Cultural Revolution China), and when I preach my "progressive, liberal" values to them, they usually just laugh and brush it aside. It annoys me sometimes (or maybe more than sometimes), but I also know where they are coming from and once I get past my indignation, their disapproval never fails to make me feel pretentious. I still cling to many of my foodie convictions, but I have always wished I could find a way to reconcile this with my concerns about poverty and hunger. It is good to hear someone finally address the issue of our progressive food values leaving so many people out of the picture. This article was written with a lot of nuance, and I appreciate the moderate perspective that acknowledges the benefits as well as the drawbacks of both industrial and progressive food systems. I second the advice about shopping in the International District, and I would suggest farmers markets as well, especially during the summer. Some things are still pretty overpriced there, but if you keep an eye out you can find some really good bargains. In any case, it's fresh, local, and often organic food for a whole lot less than you can get it at Whole Foods. And you meet some local farmers & gather some good recipes in the process. Just one question for the author: what do you think about local agriculture and farmer's markets prospects for affordable, healthy, local food (as opposed to the whole community garden idealism thing)?

JZ | submitted on 05/03/2009, 10:40pm


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