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Friday, September 20, 2013

Chef Michael Leviton: Cheap Food ‘Is Actually Killing Us’

(Thomas Hawk/Flickr)

(Thomas Hawk/Flickr)

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.

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.

– Michael Leviton

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.

Chef Michael Leviton of Lumiere and Area Four in the Boston area. (chefscollaborative.org)

Chef Michael Leviton of Lumiere and Area Four in the Boston area. (chefscollaborative.org)

“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.”

  • Note: Here & Now co-host Jeremy Hobson is moderating a panel with Michael Leviton tomorrow, Saturday, Sept. 21, at Boston University. More info here.

Guest

  • Michael Leviton, chef and owner of Lumière and chair of the Chefs Collaborative Board.

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Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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