Can Debate Over Raw Milk and Food Rights Move Beyond Stereotypes?
Holding onto expectations can be a setup for disappointment.
You start exercising, expecting you will improve your health, and instead you sprain an ankle and are out forced off your feet for a couple weeks, getting even more out of shape.
You go on a diet expecting to lose 20 pounds in two months, and when you only lose 5, you feel badly.
You try to apologize to someone you insulted, and instead of being welcomed for your humility as expected, you are rejected of hand.
The list of ways in which our expectations can be dashed is endless.
I know some people here were expecting good feelings and mutual enlightenment from the engagement here with public health people, as a result of my previous post….for example, with the food safety professors, Don Schaffner of Rutgers and Ben Chapman of North Carolina State University. After a couple days, several here indicated their frustration, and disappointment, when the dialog didn’t go as smoothly as they might have expected.
If you take away the expectations, things often look different, and more encouraging. I’d just like to say I appreciated Schaffner’s comments following my previous post—not so much for anything specific he said, but for the fact that he was willing to sincerely engage, discuss, even mix it up with some of the readers here. That he didn’t throw his hands in the air when the discussion frustrated, swear he was done trying to communicate with the wackos here (as some have done in the past) was important, and appreciated.
It all gets back to expectations. I’m not sure exactly what will result from the dialog on this blog, and in the hour-long podcast interview I did with Schaffner and Chapman. It could be that it leads to some kind of panel discussion at an industry trade show or health organization event on how to build bridges.… or it could be that nothing happens for several years.
Without getting myself bogged down in expectations, my prediction is that we’re more likely to experience the former outcome than the latter.
The simple fact that a few people from the public health community around the country have begun what I referred to as very preliminary negotiations over raw milk standards, and are willing to let their preconceptions go long enough to engage in various ways—via the Raw Milk Institute (RAWMI), at a Pennsylvania sustainable food conference this past weekend, here in the last few days—is a change in atmosphere, no matter where it ultimately leads.
A big part of any movement toward improved understanding will require letting go of stereotypes. Both sides in the struggle over food rights have created their share of stereotypes. The public health agents as heartless enforcers of food regulations is one type of stereotype.
I came across some other ones recently, in a new book by New Yorker writer Dana Goodyear, Anything That Moves. It includes a chapter, “The Rawesome Three”, about the events around Rawesome Food Club. It is based heavily on an article she did for the New Yorker in 2012, with a similar title.
The book chapter is a more personal account of her investigation of the Rawesome events (which are also heavily covered on this blog and in my book, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Food Rights). It is engaging and entertaining reading. Two anecdotes in that book chapter are worth noting, since they contribute to stereotypes.
First, Goodyear recalls attending a 2011 conference in Las Vegas sponsored by the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, which I was at as well. “I kept looking for signs of the culture clash between the raw-milkers and the antigovernment extremists, but I couldn’t get purchase.,” she states. “The raw-milkers claimed to be on board with everything, from putting a stop to roadside sobriety tests to ending seat-belt laws.” The imagery was clear: the raw milk supporters attending the conference were a bunch of libertarian antigovernment nut cases.
I was at that conference, spent a lot of time hanging around with people Goodyear identifies, like Rawesome owner James Stewart and food rights lawyer Ajna Sharma-Wilson, and heard little discussion about the politics of “the antigovernment extremists.” People were pretty preoccupied just getting to know some of the sheriffs, and seeking out tips on how they could protect their farms and food clubs from ever-more-aggressive government raids. (Goodyear also quotes Mark McAfee of Organic Pastures, Michele Jay-Russell of the University of California at Davis, and me in the same chapter.)
Second, Goodyear recalls attending a “Primal Diet Potluck”, a raw-food get-together sponsored by the late Aajonus Vonderplanitz in Los Angeles—to visit with existing clients and attract new ones. Goodyears says Vonderplanitz “introduced me to his friends, two heavy-browed body-building brothers in their twenties and the 19-year-old girlfriend of one of them, who was a personal trainer. They told me that, on Vonderplaintz’s recommendation, they had started eating rotting meat, though it was sometimes hard to do…I let that sink in for a second: these middle-class kids were deliberately eating like the survivors of an apocalypse.”
The end of the anecdote has Goodyear reacting to Vonderplanitz questioning her as to why she wasn’t eating any of the raw food at the event. “ ‘Are you in any way connected with any government agency?’ he asked. I reassured him, breathing through my mouth, that I was not, and got out of there before I embarrassed myself by throwing up all over the faux fur” on the couch. The underlying message? Vonderplanitz’s views on food were totally bizarre, hence Rawesome Food Club, which he had promoted, was equally bizarre.
Now, I attended one of Vonderplanitz’s potlucks, and didn’t meet anyone eating rotten meat. I recount in my book that, while Vonderplanitz made some outrageous statements, as was his tendency, the people I spoke with who consulted with him about nutrition felt their health had improved eating such items as raw fresh meat, raw milk, butter, and various fermented foods. Did he sometimes suggest rotten meat to certain clients? Yes. But I never got the feeling he did it all that often.
Unfortunately, Goodyear took the always-tempting journalistic route of seeking out the most outrageous scenes or events, and suggesting they were the norm. That’s how stereotypes are created.
Hopefully, individuals on both sides of this struggle over food rights will begin to see through the stereotypes. Discussing and debating issues tends to do that to people.