Mark Bittman is one of my favorite people working in the US food system. It started six years ago with his cookbook, How To Cook Everything Vegetarian – I purchased it at a time when I was just starting to enact the changes in my diet prompted by my introduction to our food system. I took the book with me when I began a farming apprenticeship, and when I was whittling down my possessions for my move to Colorado (everything had to fit in my minivan), the book made the cut. It’s still the cookbook I use more than any other.
And when I discovered his columns in the New York Times, I was very excited – here was someone writing, in our nation’s paper of record, about the issues that were at the heart of the alternative food systems movement – the meat industry’s awful ethical and environmental practices, the problems with GMO crops and industrial fertilizers and pesticides, the inability of low-income Americans to afford the kinds of healthy foods we all need, and the hope and progress that some of us are making toward changing the status quo.
Mark Bittman left the New York Times in September. I was saddened to lose the weekly voice of reason and accountability in the food system I’d gotten so much from. But he announced that he had a new project coming up, one that would “make it easier for people to eat more plants.” This was exciting – given all the areas of food-system-improvement he’d written about, where would he jump in? A low-income cooking class curriculum? An organic farm? More selfishly, what about an organization to foster the next generation of food and farm writers? I didn’t know, but I was sure it was going to be good.
This morning, I read that he’s shilling prepackaged convenience food to the upper-middle class.
What a waste.
Technically, he is making it easier for people to eat plants, I suppose – it is easier, in a very surface-level way, to eat them if they’re pre-sliced and -portioned and delivered to your door. But, easier for who? Affluent, mostly white, tech-savvy Americans. Sure, everyone needs to eat healthy. But this company, Purple Carrot, seems to be catering to the demographic with the most potential to make it money. And that customer base has all sorts of options already – our supermarkets (for those of us who have access to them) are crammed full with options already, not to mention local farmer’s markets in nearly every affluent neighborhood, and CSAs which will deliver to your door. But of course, this is where the money is.
And while some folks will clearly be eating less meat and more plants because of this company, it’s not those who really need it. Purple Carrot charges $74 to feed four people two meals a week. Were those four people in an average family on SNAP benefits, they’d be using over half of their monthly budget on just eight meals. We need to direct some innovation towards getting healthy food to those who can’t afford the current system, not towards giving yet another convenience option to those who can.
Something else troubling about Purple Carrot – there’s very little information on the actual food in these meals. Aside from saying that it’s vegan, and that they’re using Mark Bittman’s recipes (which they say over and over again), the website contains one sentence that I could find about their food’s sources: “Our state-of-the-art packaging guarantees freshness and our ingredients are of the highest possible quality, often organic, always non-GMO, and ethically sourced.” Non-GMO and organic have technical definitions, but notice how vague the rest of it is: “highest possible quality,” “often,” “ethically sourced.” These terms don’t mean anything on their own, and there is no definition or standards. Is it local? Is it sustainable? Are they paying farmers fairly or buying wholesale closeouts? Is the organic food from another country, off-season? Who knows? The FAQ section on the site is no help either.
One place the website does have a flurry of information is the “About Us” section. The staff bios are each individually longer than any description about the food they sell (I learned the name of the CEO’s pet fish, but not of the farms where he buys his food), and they contain (apart from Bittman’s) lots of business credentials that do nothing to convince me that they care about changing the food system whatsoever. I have a hard time believing that these folks have any driving interest beyond making money in a trendy food start-up.
I hope that they do, but if not, I hope that they fail. I hope that this frivolous and privileged food business loses just enough money where no one gets ruined, but everyone sees their shortsightedness. At the very least, I hope that Mark Bittman has a change of heart, leaves the capital to the capitalists, and uses his considerable knowledge and influence to help people who don’t have as much privilege as he does. I still look up to him, and I hope that if I’m ever as successful and influential as he is, I would feel ashamed for squandering that success and influence on those who need it the least.