The Implications of Food Access: Ben Lerner’s New Novel and the Park Slope Food Coop

by Kathleen Goodwin

Psfc_1Exaggerated concern about what one eats is predominantly an obsession of the privileged—usually the white, wealthy, and educated. Having the luxury of time to contemplate the calories in your food or the distance it traveled from field to supermarket aisle; and the money to purchase costlier foods that were produced without the aid of pesticides is one of many intractable barriers separating the rich, or at least middle class, from the poor in the United States. In this country many low-income families live in neighborhoods characterized by the USDA as “food deserts” meaning there is a shortage of proximate grocery stores—making it necessary for residents in urban areas to purchase significantly marked-up food at bodegas and generally preventing access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables. The obesity epidemic's correlation to income level is a tangible effect of this phenomenon, but even more than the connection between being poor and eating foods high in sugar, fat, and calories is the way attitudes towards food provide a rift along lines of class and race.

This meditation comes from a quick yet pointed scene in Ben Lerner's new “autobiographical novel”, entitled “10:04“. The book considers a few months in the life of a Brooklyn dwelling writer who has written one novel to critical acclaim and now is under pressure to produce another— precisely the situation Lerner found himself in until 10:04's unveiling at the end of this past summer. The narrator is a member of the Park Slope Food Coop, the nation's oldest cooperative grocery store which serves approximately 16,000 people. Presumably Lerner, like myself, is a member of the Coop, because he describes the claustrophobic aisles and the love-hate relationship all members seems to have with it with uncanny accuracy. The narrator of 10:04 is fulfilling one of the work shifts that all members are required to complete every 4 weeks in order to gain access to foods and goods that are predominantly locally grown or produced, organic, non-animal tested, non-genetically engineered, and minimally packaged; and not marked up at the same rates as for-profit commercial grocery stores. The protagonist describes a conversation he overhears while sorting dried mango: Another Coop member is explaining why she pulled her son, Lucas, out of a public school first-grade to attend a private one because the “junk food and soda” his fellow classmates consumed caused unruly behavior that detracted from Lucas's education. The narrator reflects:

“It was the kind of exchange…with which I'd grown familiar, a new biopolitical vocabulary for expressing racial and class anxiety: instead of claiming brown and black people were biologically inferior, you claimed they were—for reasons you sympathized with, reasons that weren't really their fault—compromised by the food and drink they ingested; all those artificial dyes had darkened them on the inside …This way of thinking allowed one to deploy the vocabularies of sixties radicalism—ecological awareness, anticorporate agitation, etc.—in order to justify the reproduction of social inequality”

This small scene, most likely based on actuality, brings up many of the complicated factors that permeate America's unequal society.

Particularly when it comes to the discourse on race relations that has been dominating in recent months and the geographically specific issues of gentrification that have pervaded Brooklyn in recent years. Wealthy white people, who once decamped to the suburbs are again moving to urban spaces, driving up real estate prices and pushing out the local businesses and families that have been living there for decades or longer. But while the issues of quality that separate wealthy white neighborhoods from poor black, Latino, and other immigrant communities are usually apparent—real estate conditions, schools, crime, parks, etc. the way food plays into this complicated array may be equally important and difficult to rectify as it subtly infiltrates classist and racist attitudes that perpetuate inequality.

This fictional mother of Lucas has the time to work at the Coop, which grants her the ability to feed her son exclusively nutritious food which also happen to be environmentally and small-business friendly—it appears to be an inarguably beneficial decision and who could possibly blame the mother for seeking the best for her child? But what I find both troublesome and accurate is this mother's attitude about the assumed superiority of Lucas over his peers based on his optimal diet. Concurrently, Lucas's mother is clearly able to provide access to many more quality things which will set him on a path of elite education and employment, continuing the lifestyle he was raised with. But one has to wonder about Lucas's classmates who remain at the public school he began first grade at, whose parents may not have the time to work the necessary shifts at the Coop, and even if they did, may not know the place exists. Who can blame those parents for shopping at bodegas or purchasing fast food and maximizing each dollar on quantity instead of quality? It's likely that when Lucas has children of his own he will feed them the same sort of organic produce and unprocessed foods that his mother provided for him and he will also assume that his children are in some way superior to the children of his former classmates who may or may not have graduated high school, or been incarcerated, or obtained steady employment and health insurance.

The Coop enables already well-off residents of Park Slope and surrounding areas to purchase healthier foods at a discount to what other grocery stores charge—paradoxically providing price cuts for people who for the most part would be able to afford these types of foods even with significant mark-ups at grocery stores like Whole Foods. The Coop is an exaggerated example of the issues plaguing food access in this country—a problem that is representative of the ways in which some children are disadvantaged and discriminated against beginning in early childhood and continue to be for the rest of their lives and the lives of their children.

Note: It is important for me qualify that the Park Slope Food Coop works hard to welcome members from the community regardless of socio-economic background with policies such as accepting food stamps and providing flexibility with shift-working demands. I do not know what percentage of Coop members are wealthy versus low income or people of color versus white so therefore can't comment definitively on whether or not the Coop is successful at encouraging diversity.