Op-Ed: Hands Off My Haagen-Dazs And IKEA

Charlotte Allen's fed up with guidance offered by the "spend-more crowd," who decry inexpensive consumer goods and advocate for local food. In a piece for the Los Angeles Times, she calls out the "spending enthusiasts" for sending the wrong message in a down economy.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

In recent months, we've spoken with Michael Pollan, who wrote in his best-seller "Omnivore's Dilemma" that higher prices for groceries might, quote, level the playing field for sustainable food that doesn't rely on fossil fuels. We also talked with Ellen Ruppel Shell, the author of "Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture."

Today, the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed by Charlotte Allen, who describes them and others as self-righteous social critics who want us to pay more for food, gas, furniture and clothes. Eat all the plants you like, she writes to Michael Pollan fans, but don't try to pry me from my Haagen-Dazs dark chocolate ice cream. I bought it at Safeway, and it's sitting on my IKEA kitchen table.

Well, if you've read the critics, if you buy food, gas, furniture and clothes, give us a call: 800-9898-255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Charlotte Allen is kind enough to join us here today at Studio 3A. Nice to have you in the program today.

Ms. CHARLOTTE ALLEN (Author): Nice to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And you write that demanding that other people impoverish themselves, especially these days, in the name of your pet cause, well, it goes way beyond Marie Antoinette. Self-righteousness? Aren't these people just trying to find a better way?

Ms. ALLEN: Well, sure they are, but the things that they tell people to find a better way are basically impossible given what most people have, for example, to spend on food. We have Alice Waters, for example, crusading that everyone should buy all their food at farmers' markets. You shouldn't buy food that's grown more than 100 miles away, which is great for Californians, where everything grows everywhere, not so great if you'll live on the East Coast, as I do.

You go to a farmers' market - I found some prices, for example, at the one closest to my home. You'll pay, for example, $4 a pound for tomatoes, 2.49 at the Safeway. You'll pay an outrageous $6 for a half pint of artisanal gelato that was advertised. That's $6 for a cup of ice cream, barely enough to feed two people.

CONAN: I think I decoded the word artisanal. It means 50 percent extra.

Ms. ALLEN: Yes, it does. I think that's exactly what it means. And what's happened - I mean, it's sort of crazy. Back, say, in the old days, there have always been farmers' markets, farm stands, roadside stands where farmers have sold their produce, and it's usually, actually, been cheaper than what you can get at the supermarket, and better tasting.

Now, you've got all these artisanal, sustainable farms. I call them art farms. They're little, boutique farms that grow very expensive stuff. They have eco-conscious green names, like - they'll have a name like Eco Acres or Sustainable Hills, and they'll have some special dairy product or whatever. And they're just way out of the price range. They're great. The food's really, really good, but it's stuff that most people can't afford. What's unfortunate is that we live in a country with just a plethora of affordable food. Go to the Safeway and - good-quality beef for not too much money.

CONAN: And this is something that you seem to - you're very funny about it in your piece, and it's good, but almost resent the fact that these people want you to pay more when you could pay less.

Ms. ALLEN: When you - yeah, when you could and can pay less, especially since we've got a recession going on, the worst recession since the Great Depression. You've also got ordinary food prices going up because of fuel prices last year. And so - and to ask people who are already trying to stretch their food dollars to say, go without an extra pair of Nike sneakers or go without a cell phone, which is what Alice Waters told the New York Times, it just seems absurd.

CONAN: Other people, though, say - in terms of Ellen Ruppel Shell, one of the things she was talking about is all of these cheap products come from places - well, manufactured, many of them in China, where workers are exploited. They cut corners and - in terms of environmental effects and, of course, they cut corners in terms of quality.

Ms. ALLEN: Yeah, China does have serious environmental problems, but those are China's problems and they're not our problems. And unfortunately, that's where most stuff is made - not just cheap stuff, but high-quality stuff. Cole Haan shoes, for example, are made in China now, because the Chinese actually do have the capability of making good products.

So it's not a question of everything from China being cheap, but it certainly is less expensive because their labor costs are less. People in America just won't work for the kind of wages they pay in China that make goods affordable here. They also provide jobs for Chinese people who 30 years ago, were living on dirt-poor, collective farms.

CONAN: Many of them, 30 days ago living on…

Ms. ALLEN: Right.

CONAN: …collective farms.

Ms. ALLEN: Yeah. And they come to those cities, they flock to those cities for those jobs. Those jobs look really great to them…

CONAN: We're talking…

Ms. ALLEN: …compared to what they've grown up with.

CONAN: We're talking to Charlotte Allen on the Opinion Page this week. She's the author of "Keep Your Self-Righteous Fingers Off my Processed Food."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Thomas in on the conversation, Thomas with us from Grand Junction in Colorado.

THOMAS (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call, Neal. I just wanted to say kudos to your speaker today. I really appreciate Cheese Whiz on my Philly cheesesteaks, and it just - I have a garden at home, and I eat the vegetables out of my garden when I can, you know, have time to grow them. But, you know, there's nothing like good, processed cheese on a Philly cheesesteak, that's all.

CONAN: I did see a sign at a Philly cheesesteak stand on the Delmarva Peninsula that says, we only use genuine Cheese Whiz.

(Soundbite of laughter)

THOMAS: You know, I'd love to see a sign in a restaurant that says, you know, our food isn't necessarily good for you, but it tastes well - tastes good, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, Thomas, thanks very much for the call.

THOMAS: Thanks for taking my call. Bye.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Bye-bye.

And you mentioned - we mentioned Haagen-Dazs, but the ice cream taken out for (unintelligible) because it comes from abroad, or it's made in China, which it's not. It's…

Ms. ALLEN: It's - yeah, it's made right here. It's made from - in fact, the new, five ingredients Haagen-Dazs ice cream advertises that it's made with all natural ingredients, a very simple product. Ask Michael Pollan about it and he'll say, no. No Haagen-Dazs for you because it's commercially made. He says - his mantra now is, don't buy anything you've ever seen advertised. So it's basically not really a crusade for quality. I think it's a crusade for defining yourself as one of an elite that can afford this stuff, and then sort of trying to make other people conform.

CONAN: Here's an email from Matt in Oakland. The argument isn't that you should be paying more for your food to promote elitism. The argument is that your current diet imposes costs on other people who are as poor or poorer than you are. For example, industrial farming has created a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that's helped destroyed fisheries that used to support hardworking people there. There's nothing elitist about asking you to bear the cost of that, or better yet, pay for fixing it.

Ms. ALLEN: Well, how do you propose doing that since these are Mexican fishermen? They're not in the U.S. So what are we supposed to do about that?

CONAN: Let's see if we can get one more caller in. And let's go with Adam, Adam with us from Tucson.

ADAM (Caller): Hi, I just wanted to say I heard your guest speaking about the high food prices at the farmers' markets. And as a small farmer, I'd like to say that's well worth paying that because it helps keep the small farms alive in your area. We're about 22 miles from the Mexican border here. And there's - a lot of the food is outsourced there to Mexico, where quality is an issue, wages, fair wages to the people is an issue. And as a small farmer trying to make it, it's not cheap to produce that food, nor pay - if we try and have employees here and try and pay a living wage, that's - that ends up being pretty costly, also.

CONAN: Does it gall you, Adam, when you see what you have to charge for - I don't know what it is you grow, green beans or whatever, and strawberries, maybe. I don't know what it is. But then, you see what it costs you to grow that food, and then you see the prices in the local supermarket?

ADAM: Yeah. It does. And then - I mean, we - food accessibility is a big, you know, is something that we want to create. But at this point, you know, we're doing what we can. I'm actually on food stamps myself, because I can't earn enough money as a small farmer to, you know, to make it at this point. So - and I do agree - I don't agree with the whole thing on the idea of it being everything local. I don't think that's possible. But I do think that it is voting with your dollar when you do that, and well worth it.

CONAN: Adam, good luck to you.

ADAM: Appreciate it.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And I'm sure you wish Adam well, too. But nevertheless…

Ms. ALLEN: Oh, of course. Yes. I mean, and if his strawberries are really good, people are going to buy them.

CONAN: But in the other case, if there - difference of a, you know, a dollar a quart, you might go to the Safeway.

Ms. ALLEN: That's right. You might. And, in fact, the strawberries at the Safeway probably aren't going to be that great because they've been shipped from California. But if you don't have the money for boutique strawberries, why not have strawberries, period? They're pretty good. They're not so bad.

CONAN: Charlotte Allen, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Charlotte Allen joined us here in Studio 3A. Her op-ed is called "Keep Your Self-Righteous Fingers Off My Processed Food." It ran in yesterday's Los Angeles, Times. There's a link to it at our Web site at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION. She's also a contributing editor to the Minding the Campus Web site of the Manhattan Institute.

Tomorrow, Tom Ridge joins us, the former secretary for Homeland Security. Plus, Kim Masters on the real "Inglourious Basterd." I'm Neal Conan. Be with us then. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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