In 21st-century America, our mainstream foodways are fragile: Either we can buy anything we want, whenever we want, for cheap, or supply shortages portend total catastrophe. As the winners of the Cold War, we feel entitled to fresh avocados in December no matter where in this vast national tapestry we live. And if you don’t like squash, you don’t have to eat it. That’s what globalization was supposed to mean. A couple years of pandemic later, a diet built on an intricate transoceanic logistical system doesn’t seem like quite the prize it once did. With prices and supplies unpredictable, and a world situation that promises more of the different, Americans are going to need to get less picky.
The national parenting injunction to “eat your vegetables” is about 100 years old—the same age as the country’s processed food system, itself an outgrowth of the factory infrastructure built to supply soldiers fighting World War I in Europe. When the fighting stopped, large producers held on, and the consumption of refined sugar (for example) shot up vertically. Beef and chicken consumption followed after World War II, as animal husbandry, slaughter, and distribution rationalized and scaled. Looking at the data, we seem to have reached a new turning point: Per capita consumption of caloric sweeteners peaked in 1999; according to the National Chicken Council, per capita meat and poultry consumption hit a ceiling across all subcategories in 2019.
If we’re in the early days of a major transformation, the conversation is not going great. Eaters face a morass of information about how the supermarket-based system is failing; President Biden warns of “food shortages.” The full grocery shelves that are so important in our culture lay disconcertingly bare. Beef prices jump an incredible 20 percent. “There’s an ambient awareness that things aren’t right,” food writer Alicia Kennedy tells me. “We know there’s something going on with wheat and Ukraine, but people have a lack of usable information.” The action items we do get are suspicious, like when Bloomberg promoted an opinion piece suggesting that people who make under $300,000 a year should “try lentils instead of meat.” Not a bad idea in general for a society that eats far too many animals, but hard to stomach from a publication whose billionaire namesake once told the press that his favorite vegetable was “steak.”
Price signals can be hard to interpret, but I wondered if, in light of skyrocketing numbers in the corporate aisles, small-scale farmers were finding themselves more competitive. I asked Nathan Brophy, who with his wife, Emily, runs Spring Hollow Farm in Benton, Pa., where they raise animals for meat and eggs. “With certain items, we may be less expensive than grocery stores now,” he says. “We haven’t raised our prices.” Brophy expects that hikes in fuel and feed will show up in his bottom line eventually, but he’s just not as vulnerable to the global supply chain as the big guys, which means his customers aren’t either. “The stores have a lot of middlemen involved,” he says, “I only have the butcher shop.”
Neighborhood farmers’ markets featuring sellers like the Brophys are only a tiny part of the US food system. Their association with bougie liberals and their affected eating patterns seems indelible, but there are signs that the customer base is expanding. An analysis published in the Journal of Agricultural and Applied Economics last January found that seven Washington, D.C., markets increased sales by almost 50 percent between the winter 2019 and ’20 seasons, which is in line with hazier national estimates. During the first year of the pandemic, when many people suddenly found themselves food-insecure, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) redemptions grew faster at farmers’ markets (44.6 percent) than overall (39.9 percent), even though not all markets are authorized to accept SNAP. For some of us, local independent farmers and farmworkers have cushioned the blows of global strife and disease during the last couple years—something I never previously considered part of their job description.
There’s no such thing as a one-person food system, and shifting dependencies from the global supply chains to local ones does pose challenges. Even if historic supermarket inflation reduces the sticker shock on some direct-to-consumer farm products, there’s still the question of how to use many of those products. Given the dominant culture’s “end of history” diet, the farmers’ market never seems to have the things you need. Local ingredients are for fancy chefs who cook tiny dinners that leave you hungry, not for weekly meal planning. When the pandemic hit, I did my best to do my shopping at my neighborhood’s newly year-round market. But eating local takes some getting used to, especially if, like me, you grew up in the age of Wild Berry Pop-Tarts. There is a lot of squash.
I’m not too proud to admit that I did not grow up liking squash. I didn’t like the steamed yellow chunks served with pasta or the zucchini strips dressed up to look like pasta. It wasn’t a problem; I just ate something else. A vast archipelago of capitalists, workers, processors, shippers, and sellers allowed me to be picky, and for some strange reason my preferences lined up pretty well with industrial agriculture’s outputs. (I came of age during “peak sugar”; quitting candy was much harder than quitting cigarettes.) But if you’re shopping at the farmers’ market and you live in North America, then for many months of the year you’re eating some squash, because it grows here. That’s what it has meant to eat food on this continent for almost the entirety of our history, and the more squash I ate, the more foolish I felt for imagining I was an exception.
America’s farmers’ markets aren’t prepared to feed the country. But if the president is on TV warning us that the global industrial agriculture system might not be prepared to do it either, then we need to start thinking realistically—and collectively—about how eating is going to change. There’s probably going to be more squash.
• “Squash kind of has a bad name,” writes Emily Meggett in her forthcoming cookbook, Gullah Geechee Home Cooking. “People don’t know just how many varieties exist, and the few they do know don’t get cooked the right way.” Meggett, the “matriarch of Edisto Island” off South Carolina, includes recipes for squash casserole and stuffed zucchini, traditionally made with produce from the home garden plot.
• Alicia Kennedy’s newsletter is an example of the kind of honest thinking we need about the future of the American food system. Her “On ____” series probes concepts we take for granted, like “limits” and “regionality.”
• In 1925, the American Red Cross Junior Newsletter published an early pro-veggie didactic play called “Midnight in the Vegetable Garden” in which vegetables come alive and, informed by gossiping birds, confront a group of children for their unbalanced diets. The play concludes with all chanting the garden’s nighttime slogan together: Less meat, more vegetables.