As I was eating a grass-fed burger the other day, I paused from enjoying its ground-meatness to contemplate how sweet a person I am. After all, the nearby table tent informed me that, with this brave act of carnivory, I was helping to “recapture something that was lost: food security, stable local economies, lower fuel use, and the taste of food that comes from honest connections to our communities and to the land.”
As I savored that meaty, delicious honesty, and my own honesty by association, I felt like the sickest dude in the room — like I was 10 feet tall and had just chest-bumped the Kool-Aid Man and then we’d fought but I’d won. I would have exchanged congratulatory high fives with my roommate, but he was eating something mass-produced, and therefore dishonest, just like one of the peasants. Gross. I patted my own back as I basked in my conscientiousness and connection to the land, like one of those Native American tribes about which I know very little but which I still like to romanticize. Of course, by the time I was through with my moral onanism, the burger was cold — but it had been worth it.
Or maybe I was actually savoring a thick, handmade patty made with decent meat instead of one of those thin, pre-formed patties. Maybe, just maybe, instead of appreciating the statement that I was making with every bite of ground-up delight, I was appreciating a good burger. Maybe I didn’t care about the ramifications on local farmers and agreed with what Freud (inexplicably) says on the YSFP poster announcing a so-called Pleasure Principle: “Sometimes a hamburger is just a hamburger.”
Sure, I like YSFP food. It’s better than the rest of what we get, even if it’s not any healthier — a fact obscured by its irresponsible lack of nutritional information, as Robert Nelb pointed out (“Organic doesn’t always mean low-calorie,” 9/20). But the self-congratulatory posters (har har, “Chicks Dig It,” good one) and table tents all over our dining halls make me want to eat a Ho-Ho while choking a seal with the wrapper and setting fire to an oil spill, just to watch it burn. One of these little blurbs actually has the nerve to be titled, “Reinventing the Wheel,” as if buying gourmet ingredients is a brand-new idea. Apparently, it’s why “Yale has become A MODEL FOR OTHER INSTITUTIONS.” The capital letters are a reminder of how forward-thinking we are. Here’s my idea for a table tent write-up: “We pay more, so we get better food.” That’d probably make for a pretty sparse layout, but they could just make the picture of the wheelbarrow huge. The other side could say, “SUSTAINABLE FOOD IS EXPENSIVE FOOD.” Catchy, right?
As good as this food is, we need to hang onto our perspective and realize that it’s what the rest of America calls a luxury good. Attaching this bogus moral component to it is like convincing yourself you’re a better person because your Lexus has more of an honest connection to the road. Contrary to what a table tent might tell you, eating sustainable food does not make you a humanitarian — maybe I’m a terrible person, but I really don’t care if my drumstick had “access to the outdoors.” When you can detach something’s head and watch it run around the room, I somehow feel less of an empathetic connection to it. It doesn’t make a difference to me whether or not my chicken nugget was “confined to 72 square inches” and whether, when it was slaughtered, its death mask was debeaked.
There’s a reason those dastardly “factory farms” treat their livestock like this: It saves money. These savings are passed on to the consumer so regular people, who don’t have sustainable food projects, can afford chicken dinners. Eating supposedly inhumane food doesn’t make them worse people, it just means they don’t have the disposable income to pay extra for food that comes with posters telling them how good it is.
Fortunately, it seems like Yale’s getting a little extra quality out of its deal with local suppliers, whose selling point seems to be that they’re less efficient and capable of utilizing their industry’s economies of scale. I wonder, of course, about what quality of inhumane, dishonest food we could have if we were willing to spend the amount of money on it that we spend on YSFP. But in the meantime, we can hopefully enjoy our grass-fed burgers with our heads on straight, and maybe the YSFP can turn out a new poster with my slogan: “GET OVER YOURSELF.”
Sam Heller is a junior in Pierson College.