How can New Orleans have such a religious culture of eating when we grow more food for gas tanks than for the dinner table?
Stand at The Fly Uptown or Salaville in Westwego. Look west towards Baton Rouge. What looks like mud is actually alluvial silt. In Louisiana, we have some of the world’s richest agricultural soil because of this silt. As your gaze rests upon the russet water, it will soon be pierced by a ship’s bow. The barges which skein the river carry over half of the country’s most shameful food: commodity grains. The Port of Southern Louisiana, according to its website, is the largest grain port in the U.S. with grain elevators that handle “over 50% of all U.S. grain exports annually.” Where is all that grain going? Mexico, China, Europe, Africa. What controls its ebb and flow? The Commodities Index. Not a pound of that grain, billions upon billions of tons, is available locally.
In the early 1990s, a number of foods— including coffee, beef, pork, corn, and wheat—were aggregated into a system called the Goldman Sachs Commodities Index. (For more reading on this, look up “The Food Bubble” by Frederick Kaufman in the July 2010 issue of Harper’s, an incredible article which dissects the genesis of our contemporary food markets.) This index effectively mutated the food we eat into unregulated derivatives that stockbrokers and their clients could gamble on. Futures trading on deregulated (no longer price-controlled by the government) agricultural products became, in effect, hedging financial bets on the anticipatory behavior of a crop. People who had nothing to do with food suddenly had everything to do with agriculture. Stockbrokers, who weren’t using or processing or storing food, began buying tremendous amounts of it on the new Commodities Index. By 2008, this practice created a gigantic bubble, especially with bread-quality wheat, the cost of which soared to record levels and caused multiple riots around the world. (Wheat sold for about $0.06 per pound before the bubble and at one point reached $0.45 per pound. More than a third of the world’s population relies on wheat; it’s the second most consumed foodstuff in the world). All of this nearly brought the world market and foreign governments to a precipice unknown since World War II.
Trading grain is as old as Mesopotamia, as old as Joseph in Egypt. The innovation of the Goldman Sachs Commodities Index was that this system globalized food trading on a coherent, consistent, and derivative basis. Large grain trading companies—like Bunge, Continental, and ConAgra—have always, informally and privately, dealt in grain futures from many different places. Food, to no one’s surprise, grows everywhere, so companies for many years have blended, stored, bought, and sold grain from various geographical harvests. While wheat or corn or soybeans are being harvested near Baton Rouge, they are being planted in Argentina, and vice versa. The fluidity of nature’s cycles lubricates the constant availability of food. But the creation of the Commodities Index fundamentally altered the food we eat (or don’t eat) by controlling its cost in an abstract “market value.” Wheat or corn—still in the ground or unplanted—suddenly had long-term and short-term financial value. And the government did nothing to moderate this pricing speculation.
The Commodity System choreographed the irrevocable translation of food— the only biological requirement for survival—into a commodity. It appropriated any emotional, nutritional, or cultural tether innate in eating or growing food. When economics appropriated agriculture, most tragically in the 20th century, food became less about flavor, nutrition, and pleasure and solely about yields and profits. When Goldman Sachs created the Commodities Index, food became one more ethereal poker chip in our globalized economy. Capitalism had, in effect, triumphed over commerce.
Because I own a commercial bakery in New Orleans, I was invited to attend a USDA-sponsored meeting in Baton Rouge this summer. It was cute, climate controlled. Exposed brick, pasta salad, too much print collateral. The plan was, with one week’s notice from the organizers, to assess the “state of local food” in Louisiana. One USDA representative, 20 minutes into the meeting, raised his hand. He said that he was hearing positive, constructive comments. But what was the heart of the matter? I raised mine. “Every policy that LSU and the USDA support, every decision, and every tax dollar they [you] have spent is creating the very problem we are here to discuss.” I was, in pure language, blaming him.
I attended this meeting because I have a sincere desire to understand and usurp the way people eat in Louisiana. Food is a human right, not a financial privilege. Access to food should not be restricted by artificial distribution systems of entitlement or economy. We have 7.5 billion people on this planet and we grow enough food to feed 10 billion. Why are 2 billion people obese and 800 million starving? Why are one in three children in New Orleans hungry? Why is 40% of edible food in the U.S. thrown into the garbage each year? Governments, NGOs, and Monsanto claim that there isn’t enough food to feed “our growing population.” No, there’s plenty of food produced, but not enough distributed.
While crawling home in the Baton Rouge traffic from the meeting, I realized there was sincere and honest intention at the meeting. Traffic has, for me, a way of digesting and organizing thoughts: as I spoke with Emily Paul (a graduate student at the Tulane School of Tropical Medicine/Public Health and a summer intern at my bakery), I realized that we’re giving aspirin to a cancer patient. Right now, the work is to save the body, not teach prevention. It was cathartic to tell it like it is to suited government agents from Ferriday and Monroe and Ruston and D.C. But was it mature? Was it effective? Probably not.
Louisiana exports 90% of our seafood and imports 90% of our food. We do the same with our grains (corn, rice, wheat) not because we don’t grow them, but because artificial distribution and financial systems like the Commodities Index and policies at the USDA perpetuate their export. Why is it cheaper to shop at Walmart than Hollygrove Market or the New Orleans Food Co-Op? For the same reason it’s cheaper to drink Bud Light than Abita Light: the Commodities Index. The commodities system is not a nebulous, corporate web of Byzantine intrigue. It’s literally in front of you everyday. Not only is it at places like Rouses, Whole Foods, Winn Dixie, Shell
Gas, Brothers, Manchu, and St. Roch Market—it’s in the landscape around us. Most importantly, it’s eroding the topography around us. Next time you are at the river you might notice, on the more industrialized banks, something that looks like an escalator made of milk crates. That is a grain elevator and our river is studded with them. These units transfer and transport American grain to the entire world and they are owned by some of the most powerful and wealthy companies in the world. Our Mississippi Delta is the geographical and economic womb of America because it controls what food arrives and what food departs.
Cheap food is cheap because more of its ingredients are grown. That is, more tomatoes are grown in California than Creole tomatoes are grown in Belle Chasse. This is, simply, a concept in economics called market share. The more available of any given product is, theoretically, cheaper than a product in lesser supply. This is a gross overstatement, but it accurately illustrates a troubling and particularly acute reality in New Orleans. We have several food deserts in New Orleans and this is due precisely to the commodities system, not to any ecological or environmental constraints. Louisiana has four growing seasons, compared to many other states, yet none of our agricultural potential is being curated towards feeding people. Instead, we facilitate the Commodities Index, like Charon, by transporting its grain through our River, while also contributing to its growth (as the annual cultivation of GMO crops in Louisiana soars). According to the USDA, we are the third most food insecure state in the country. As defined by the USDA, food insecurity is when a “household lacks money and other resources [to secure] food.” Yet we are up to our knees in the commerce and export of grains (corn, wheat, rice, soybeans) and seafood.
Food deserts are not due to lack of people, or lack of hunger. They’re due to a lack of money. Healthy, fresh food has become, literally, a commodity compacted to even greater degrees since the inception of the commodities system. Instead of a Rouses or Winn Dixie or Roberts, food deserts have a Family Dollar or a gas station with hot food. Large and mid-level corporate supermarkets cannot afford to operate in low-income, economically diluted areas. Foolishly, the city/state/feds not only encourage this deleterious attitude, but buoy it by paying out EBT to said gas stations and Family Dollars. The worst aspect is these food deserts perpetuate and inflate the largest part of our state budget: public health. Poor nutrition, engendered by the Commodities Index and local government, maintain startling levels of disease and sickness in New Orleans and Louisiana. Compacted by environmental conditions, bad food and lack of access to fresh, local food is culpable for the albatross of health issues we continually wear around our neck in Southeast Louisiana. The answer to poor nutrition and lack of access to fresh food is not subsidized junk food. The answer rests in the roots, not the branches. Diagnosing and confronting the conditions which engender hungry people and obese people is the solution. Refusing to isolate access to local, organic food to other societal and economic issues is imperative. Typically, hungry people aren’t happy people, or educated people, or employed people. Food deserts and the Brothers Gas Stations with EBT which keep them solvent are, in essence, providing anti-access to food.
At a recent seminar on the history of the Poor Boy, a woman asked how the community can encourage local restaurants and markets to choose the more expensive local ingredient. How, she asked, does the chef concerned about running a profitable business not opt for the $1 per pound shrimp over the $5 per pound shrimp? My answer was that, now or later, we are all paying for that $1 shrimp. No matter how much or how little your income, no matter how trivial your environmental sympathies, no matter how often you eat at Rally’s—you pay for bad food, either in your own body or someone else’s. Every cent that you spend in and around New Orleans— whether on a tall boy of Busch Light or a mortgage payment—finds its way to “cure” this public wound of bad health and bad food through taxes in our hospitals. Bad food— grown on and for the Commodities Index—is bad for everyone and everything involved. There is, to be sure, profit in keeping people sick. But there is profit—emotionally and financially—in keeping our families, our communities, and our land healthy through the cultivation of local, organic agriculture (not to mention tremendous potential tax revenue).
Instead of the city or state supporting the supply side of food, therefore reversing the metastasis of commodity crops, they support the consumption of imported food at places like the St. Roch, Dryades, and French Markets. The combined millions that went into those buildings’ renovation, as well as the $1 million forgivable grant for the Broad Street Whole Foods, should have been steered towards growing local food to put on those shelves. I believe this is a gross misplacement of good intentions on the part of the city and developers. Local food in local markets is a great idea. But the fact is there is hardly any local food to go around, no matter how many new buildings are renovated and no matter how many new markets open. The prices for organic, local food (when it’s available) and the abysmal shopping options at our farmers markets for the past ten years corroborate this reality. We are importing the vast majority of our food simply because our farmers are encouraged—by LSU, by the state, and by the federal government—to grow food for the Commodities Index, not the farmers market. We have, as anyone can see, infrastructure investments into those grain elevators and seafood ports, engineered specifically and solely for the export of food. Value should, instead, be kept where it’s produced.
Misguided public policies of cheap, commodity food perpetuate the continued exclusivity of healthy, organic, and local food. Louisiana has a slightly smaller population than Alabama, yet twice as many Whole Foods markets. Auburn, the state agricultural school, actively supports and encourages sustainable and local food production, research, and direct marketing. To me, the proliferation of multinationals selling food to a state with four growing seasons confirms our awful inability to feed ourselves. Fresh food—whole grains, vegetables, fruits, proteins—which is healthy, organically, and local/regionally grown will always remain boutique and inaccessible so long as less of it is made. There are few Whole Foods or other boutique organic markets in places that have a tremendous local/regional food system supported and encouraged by the government on a policy level; see Italy, France, Mexico, Japan, or Senegal for examples. Places without an entrenched commodity system don’t have stark binaries of plenty and paucity because the viability of local markets and regional agriculture continues to be the quilt threaded by generations.
The hubris is that we are economically, culturally, and nutritionally disenfranchising the very people who created and cook the cuisine of New Orleans. We are in the gears of the grinding commodities system. Our River is choked with its traffic and our Gulf is asphyxiated by its dead zones, due to industrial agricultural runoff. In a city with America’s richest culture, it’s no wonder we are, in the words of Raj Patel, stuffed and starved.