How Complicated Can A Slice of Pizza Be?

Alicia Kennedy recently reached out to me to discuss the nature of class and its intersection at the discussion of food culture and food systems more broadly, namely the sort of point-counterpoint-missed the point nature of so many discussions that occur in food media. The most recent article reviving this particular style of debate is courtesy of Bon Appetit, bringing us uproar over four-dollar slices from smaller artisanal purveyors of pizza being superior replacements for the dollar slice. In turn, many raised up to decry the piece, both for its eyeroll-emojicon worthiness of its shitty rhetoric as well as many anecdotes about the wonder of the dollar slice for students, young arrivals to New York City, and impoverished workers of this fine city. 

There’s a multitude of truthy kernels in the morass of the BA piece and its responses. The four dollar slice represents good possibilities — qualitatively better ingredients (helping sustain local agricultural economies or better ecological practices, building new supply chains and opportunities), ostensibly better pay for those making it (or is it paying for increased rents of those workers or the business itself? i digress) — but couching it in the terms of moralism (four dollar slices inherently better than dollar slices) tends to ignore the reasons — structural, qualitative and otherwise — that people tend to frequent the dollar slice joint rather than the alternative. It could be the ability to pay and the financial access of the dollar slice; it could be the social access to the four dollar slice (or lack thereof) which keeps people at bay (as four dollar slice places may be perceived as “fancy” or unwelcome spaces for those of lower economic means or people of color). And this doesn’t even touch on the nature of the dollar slice — how it came to be, how its ascension in NYC may have destroyed the New York pizza as we know it, whether or not the cash-only nature of the business leads to underpaid (and under the table) workers with little to no benefit or recourse. And to touch on the very personal nostalgiamancing that happens around food, personal and historical? Gevalt. 

In this one example, its easy to see the myriad intersections and issues that confront questions on food. Questions of healthcare, environmental policy, or foreign affairs don’t tend to raise these kinds of complexities (or at least, the number of clades and digressions that can exist within them tend to be more directly binary than not). Food is, predictably, plenty personal; and that complicates matters because it effects all of us in very real and very different ways. And therein, as the bard says, lies the rub: it makes reading, evaluation, and the reporting on it all the more fraught than reporting on any of those other topics tends to be. 

When working for the Greenmarket, we held a number of field days where we held stakeholder evaluations of the grains project, which yielded a lot of different data about a number of clades of stakeholders: we had farmers, breeders and researchers, extension agents, millers, bakers, and consumers in the same room for evaluating what their needs and agencies were. And within each of those groups, clades broke out pretty readily: were they large farmers or smaller ones? Certified organic farms or practicing in other methodologies? Co-op or single grower? bread bakers or pastry makers? Looking for higher resiliency to disease, yield, or flavor of the grains being cultivated or all of the above? How much could one pay — and how much did one need to cultivate to sell it at that price? Is there a middle ground between those spaces? What was the capacity window between production and need? Small farm program or large-scale agriculture interest? A small local bakery or a large wholesale bakery? Home baker or someone who used whole grains? High income? Low income? Person of color or not? Stone miller or roller miller? Willing to pay more? Less? Each of these items changed and showcased how many differing interests were at play, many overlapping and worded differently, some in contest to the other. But it was never as simple as an up or down on a given topic; there were distinctions in how each stakeholder viewed the process and its outcomes, and how each one presented those viewpoints mattered, as it impacted how each other stakeholder felt about their role and priorities in the outcomes of these meetings. 

The difference is, in these meetings, the outcomes mattered to all participants, so coming to shared expectations, outcomes and appreciating each parties needs mattered; that’s now how food media tends to frame or look at these topics. And so thusly, nuance gets lost, as do the questions about the beneficiaries of certain moves, those who can and cannot have entry to these changes, and even how it effects the broader survey of people who work in these given areas (the way in which sustainable food advocates are often framed by the words or actions of Michael Pollan or Dan Barber, regardless of whether or not their work is actually promoted or engaged in the ways those two men aspire to, is a key example). Food media tends to take the various issues at play in the food system and simplifies them, sucking the air out of the room and inflicting on public opinion bad frames of what the food system has to offer. 

Or rather, I should say, what one system has to offer; when we tend to talk about food systems, it tends to be a desired outcome — a move to fresher foods and more access for them, more options for lower income communities and culturally appropriate foods, and revitalizing local and regional food economies. But there is also a a debate about the food system we want versus the food system we have, and within that, commentators also get lost; to some in the latter camp, the food system we have is immutable, the result of some longstanding measures of policy and historical outcomes that is unchangeable or so hard to change that to talk about changing it is tantamount to naivety and unthoughtful hubris. And those voices, in the occasional horserace-style reporting on food issues, tend to also bifurcate voices, taking those looking at systemic change as not understanding “real food” or “real agriculture” and using selective examples to downplay issues in food; much of it can be seen in the way certain actors portray food access issues, and how sustainable food systems advocacy of fresh fruit and veg is “irresponsible” due to low nutrient/high cost considerations and how really the poor should just eat more oats (which is a fine, and laudable goal from a number of ways, but more often than not, taken with other conjoining pieces on the topic, tend to have a “let them eat cake” kind of vibe). Rather than resolve to rectify the issues around food access in lower income communities (and often times POC communities) studies about what poor people purchase are lauded about as immutable facts about consumer habits and that to change those things is an impossibility. Local food economies and the like are a historical relic, and should be relegated to being the equivalent of public parks for large urban centers of the future. While not uniform in its composition, these expressions of the food system we have tend to be as harmful as the eyerolliness of the Dan Barber pronouncements that small scale sustainable ag should just focus on rich people. While these are expressions of particular ways of moving food systems along, I wouldn’t see them as equitable, just, or looking at bigger picture ways of moving processes along to a desirable goal. 

What most of this comes down to is the necessity of letting a thousand visions bloom; food systems change is complicated, non-binary, and never a clean narrative. There are plusses and minuses to much of the work, and like all sorts of social and political change, many of these things take time (though lord and lady know that climate change will make many of the changes necessary much more immediate and much more radical than what we anticipate). Food media would do better to be open to that messiness, in short and long form work, and diversify the base of people who are go-to’s as contacts or spokespeople for a variety of movements and activities (less Dan Barber and more Quiana Mickie, please), and for digging deeper when it comes to reporting on issues that will touch on lots of hot spots. But further, there is no view from nowhere when it comes to food — we’re all very much rooted in the experience of it and its impact when we’re without it. And in that sense, trying to root more reporting in the lived experience and desired outcomes of the food systems we want to see — and the types of desired outcomes, expectations, and externalities that come from those systems — could be investigated better and do more service to all of us, polemic, reporting, or even in lifestyle pieces. 

Because in the end, it’s not about a one dollar slice or a four dollar slice. It’s about finding a slices that meet the conditions of affording convivia and nutrition, along with being considerate to a host of externalities that we are both aware and in control over. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s a thing we must do — which means trying to get away from binaries, and in the case of media, to have an expansive notion of who the audience is, not just who particular media want their audience to be. It’s not easy — trying to make a lot of this stuff sexy to an audience that just wants to eat can be a lot. But in the face of our political and ecological climate, questions of equity and access matter. Questions about who benefits and who doesn’t matter. And questions about how everyone can get to afford a qualitatively and quantitatively “good pizza” should be ones that matter to everyone. And when there’s a failure to do so, the question becomes, why not?