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The United States is one of the richest countries in the world, yet American families spend a smaller percentage of household income on food, compared to other countries.
Thirty years ago, Americans spent 17 percent of household income on food. Today, it is down to 11 percent, according to The Atlantic.
Michael Leviton, the chef and owner of Lumière and other restaurants in the Boston area, who is also chair of the Chefs Collaborative Board, says “cheap food” has changed the way Americans eat, and it hasn’t been for the better.
“I certainly cannot begrudge anyone pinching pennies and saying this food is inexpensive,” Levitton told Here & Now. “At the end of the day, for me, it comes down to looking at the true cost of our food and our food system.”
Leviton says government agriculture policy in the 1970s that subsidized the production of commodities such as corn, has allowed for the proliferation of cheap but nutritionally empty food. And the subsidies continue.
“This food, while cheap, is actually killing us,” Leviton said.
Sustainability is the model behind Leviton’s restaurants, but it’s a balance between locally sourcing food and accommodating demands for exotic foods that Americans take for granted are always available.
“I have restaurants where we, in general, try to do the right thing,” he said. “I would love to be completely locavore, but at the end of the day, my restaurant isn’t going to survive if I don’t have chocolate, if I don’t have coffee, if I don’t have lemons…. As an industry, we need to try to find a balance between those efficiencies, and then also the idea of trying to do the right thing.”
Leviton recognizes that affluent people are able to spend more money on better food, but he says everyone can do their part by being more knowledgeable about their food.
“Sustainability is very different depending where you are on the proverbial food chain,” he said. “A lot of it comes down to asking questions about how things and where things and why things were raised in a particular manner. The more questions you can ask, the more you can begin to understand the value inherent in certain products, and not inherit in others.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. The United States is one of the richest countries in the world, but you would not know it by how much we spend on food. As a percentage of our income, we spend 11 percent on food compared with, say, France, where they spend twice that, and India where they spend four times that.
Michael Leviton is concerned about the consequences of that for our health and our environment. He's the owner and chef of Lumiere and other restaurants in the Boston area. He's also chair of the Chefs Collaborative Board, a national organization that promotes sustainable food. He joins us in the studio. Michael, thanks for being here.
MICHAEL LEVITON: Pleasure to be here.
HOBSON: And I have to start with what is right in front of me, which is a supermarket, we'll leave it unnamed, but one of these coupon things that everybody's seen, comes in the newspaper, and right on the top: boneless half pork loin, $1.99 a pound. And 99 cents for apples. We've got - on the back there is peaches for $2.99 from California. Is this the problem, basically, that we can just buy anything extremely cheaply?
LEVITON: Yes and no. I mean, it is a problem in that a lot of this stuff is produced in a way that is unsustainable at best and unhealthy and not advantageous to our economic system and so on and so forth. But there are things like the apples right now would be local to here in New England. So if those were in fact New England apples, that would be great.
You could also be getting local nectarines or local peaches from here in New England, but the fact of the matter is generally it's cheaper to produce them in an industrial agricultural model somewhere else.
HOBSON: And of course in a time like this, when the economy is still just bumping along, not doing that great, why should people spend more money than they have to on food?
LEVITON: Part of it, at the end of the day for me, comes down to looking at the true cost of our food and our food system. And I certainly cannot begrudge anyone pinching pennies and saying you know what, this food is inexpensive, and great, I'm going to go buy that. I think the taste bears out the lack of expense in that, you know, these things are produced in a model that allows them the greatest efficiency.
And that's wonderful; it produces an awful lot of food, way more calories than we need at a relatively cheap price. Those efficiencies, though, are bogging us down in many ways. If you look at where we've come in the past 40 years or so, we are in now a nation of, you know, 33 percent obese people, all of our health issues are - you know, seem to be on the rise, whether it's, you know, diabetes or cancer or everything else related to obesity.
We also have great problems with our environment, whether it's a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico or other water runoff issues, at the end of the day are costing us in the long term.
HOBSON: Well, I want to get to the environmental issues, but I first want to ask: What has happened in the United States because 30 years ago, the average household spent 17 percent of its income on food. Today it's just 11 percent.
LEVITON: Right, simultaneously if you look at our health care costs, they've pretty much flipped, as well. Now correlation doesn't, you know, equal causation, but...
HOBSON: There are other factors, obviously, involved there, yeah.
LEVITON: Right, there are lots of other factors. But if you look back to the '70s when the corn subsidies started, we had a very definite change in our governmental agriculture policy in terms of what's growing and how it's being grown and how much of it is being grown.
You can sort of tie the rise in obesity to that point. And this food, while cheap, is actually killing us.
HOBSON: But it's policy. It's not our choice, you're saying, or it's not all our choice.
LEVITON: It's not all our choice. Those of us who have certain levels of disposable income have a lot more choice, right.
HOBSON: And spend a lot more on their food in many cases, I think it's up to five times as much as the poorest.
LEVITON: Can choose to, right. Yeah, I'm still impressed, though, that, you know, people who - you know, look, I'm very fortunate, I live in Lexington, but I'm still impressed that a lot of people around me are still buying crap for food, even though they both should know better and certainly have the economic wherewithal to buy better.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
We're talking with Michael Leviton. He is a Boston chef and restaurateur, and you're listening to HERE AND NOW. And let's listen to some of the advertising that's out there because it is not just, as you say, government policy or even our choice. It is also what is being told to us by companies that sell food.
(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: An entree plus an appetizer, pick two for just 10 bucks.
That's 24 feet of mouth-watering goodness. We're talking never-ending pizza, salad, pasta and dessert for just $5.
The classic American meal deal for just five bucks. Our legendary blank angus classic steak-burger, crispy fries, 20 ounce drink and an eight-ounce mudslide with your choice of topping for just five bucks. Now that's a classic.
HOBSON: All you can eat, $5 to feed your family.
LEVITON: Isn't it amazing? Talk about efficiency, right. It's incredible.
HOBSON: Well, what do you think of when you hear that?
LEVITON: I'm horrified. You know, I have restaurants where we in general try to do the right thing, try and serve good quality food that's good for you, that's good for the environment, that's good for the economy and to pay people decent wages. And are we perfect? Absolutely not.
But there's no way I could do any of that, the kind of food that I think we should be putting on people's tables.
HOBSON: Well, let's talk about what you are doing, and I want to read from the statement at Lumiere. It says we at Lumiere believe that great food comes from great ingredients, and those products that are raised and harvested locally in a sustainable manner will not only taste better but will also be better for the environment, the local economy and our health.
Talk about what you mean by better for the environment.
LEVITON: The Commission on Sustainable Development defines sustainability as the ability to provide for the needs of the present without compromising our ability to provide for needs of the future, which is a great definition. It's pretty nebulous, but it gets at the heart of the matter.
If we continue to do things like put all these petroleum-based inputs into our soil and hit it with a ton of pesticides and things like that, we're not doing anything to replenish the quality that should be inherent in our soil. If we over-fish, if we pack tons of animals into a very confined area, feeding them things that they're not supposed to be eating and them pump them full of steroids and hormones, you know, it kind of gets to the idea of crap in, crap out.
HOBSON: Is there any fish that you have stopped serving at Lumiere because it's not sustainable?
LEVITON: There's a lot of fish I don't serve. But I have taken a rather unique view of the whole thing, and I really try to, to the best of my ability, with a few possible exceptions, stick within the boundaries of, let's say, Nova Scotia and Maryland.
HOBSON: Well, and I know that one of the top restaurants in the world, Noma, in Copenhagen, I think everything comes from within 35 miles or so from the restaurant itself, although it's going to cost an arm and a leg for anybody to do that.
LEVITON: Right, and that's part of the - look, I would love to be completely locavore, but at the end of the day, you know, my restaurant isn't going to survive if I don't have chocolate, if I don't have coffee, if I don't have lemons, things like that that are just part of what we as a culture have come to expect as sort of our birthright. As an industry we need to try and find a balance between those efficiencies and then also the idea of trying to do the right thing, not just for ourselves but for future generations.
HOBSON: Well, for people that are listening to this, what can they do themselves right now, as ordinary people, to help deal with this problem?
LEVITON: I think that sustainability is very different depending where you are on sort of the proverbial food chain. If you are someone on food stamps living in some of the less advantaged neighborhoods in the city, and you might have very limited options in terms of what you can reasonably buy. So depending on where you are on that proverbial chain, a lot of it comes down to asking questions about how things and where things and why things were raised in a particular manner.
The more questions you can ask, the more you can begin to understand the value inherent in certain products and not inherent in others.
HOBSON: Michael Leviton is the chef and owner of Lumiere and a number of other restaurants in the Boston area. He's also the board chair of the Chefs Collaborative, which is working on issues of sustainability. Michael, thank you so much.
LEVITON: Thank you very, very much.
HOBSON: And Michael and I will be talking with other experts on this topic tomorrow. Details at hereandnow.org. We'd also like to hear your thoughts on this, and what are you doing to be more sustainable. Latest news is next, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.