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When Arugula Became a Thing: How to Tell a Food Fad from a Revolution

When $9-a-pound tomatoes signal a broader shift in growers, pickers, and bakers

Zócalo Public Square Up For Discussion • June 2, 2014

It’s easy to confuse a food fad with a revolution. Restaurant and food media exist to cover new food fads much as TMZ exists to cover celebrity snafus—trends must die, or there will be no news. But a food revolution? That’s harder to market to viewers, because it requires a fundamental shift in our relationship with food.

Take the local food craze that seemed to spring from nothing but the pages of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma in 2006. The tone of the book made it tempting to dismiss the “locavore” trend as nothing more than out-of-touch urbane shoppers placing $9-a-pound tomatoes into their eco-hemp totes at farmer’s markets. That was a fad, and it would have stopped there if Pollan had simply been proclaiming a standalone new idea and winning over only consumers.

Pollan was giving voice to a nascent, scattered movement that had already been building for well over a decade. He was clueing readers in to the start of the latest food revolution, which had gotten under way entirely without him.

Last week, I met some of the people involved in Detroit at the Food and Community Conference, which gathers W.K. Kellogg Foundation grantees and interested parties to talk about changing the food system. I’m as tempted as anyone to scoff at the fad of locavores—and even the touchy-feely name of the event. But it’s difficult to remain wholly cynical after spending a few days amid 700 activists—ranging from black chef-farmers from Georgiastart-up bakers from Detroitfarmworkers from Florida, and agricultural extension agents from California—all of whom work pretty hard to push for healthier, regional food systems.

Where Pollan urged the affluent to change the world by shopping, these are folks that change the world by doing.

And that, really, is what separates a fad from a revolution: It doesn’t just inspire shoppers. It has ground troops.

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