Is the “good food” movement morally superior and elitist?

| July 7, 2016

Information overload and conflicting information around food leaves many people confused. Russ Grayson says food choices and claims about them can create social divisions.

Is the fair food movement inadvertently being elitist and morally superior? Does it position its participants above people who do not share its food values?

Yes, says Rachel Ankeny, a history professor at the University of Adelaide in South Australia in an article originally published in The Conversation and picked up by the ABC.

The good food movement - too morally superior?


Rachel comments on the moral superiority of some good food aficionados and their judging others when she writes that “(our research shows that) parents in particular are increasingly overwhelmed by pressure to eat ‘ethically’ and feel judged”.

I inhabit a number of fair food venues online and, like Rachel suggests, I sometimes find a sense of moral virtue and superiority around food choices being:

  • local — a term capable of various definitions
  • organic — there is a national Australian Standard for organic and various certification schemes to validate organic status
  • ‘nutrient dense’ — which sounds good but is rarely, if ever, defined.

Rachel suggests this is elitist because, presumably, it excludes foods — and the people who eat them — that lack those characteristics. Thus, the good food or fair food movement can be inadvertently exclusive.


On the affordability of good food and having time to prepare it, Rachel reports respondents to her research ” …ask how they possibly can do the ‘right’ thing on a restricted budget and in extremely limited time: not everyone can grow vegetables and fruit or raise their own chooks, only shop at expensive farmers’ markets, or go to many outlets in order to buy only ‘ethical’ products”.

She reiterates points that I have come across in my work in food advocacy. One of these is that despite the continuing interest in people growing their own fruit and vegetables and in keeping chooks, not everyone is able to do this. Yet, on social media I find statements like ‘everyone should grow their own food’ and similar unrealistic comments that seem to position those with the resources to do this as somehow more virtuous.

Those with the time and space have created something of a subculture around urban homesteading with its domestic food gardening, keeping chooks, rainwater harvesting, solar energy production and food preserving. You can now do workshops and courses in these things. They are all good, of course, though their primary value is individual and household rather than social. The interest in these things has revived the practice of home economics — household management — with people like Sue Dennett, the partner of permaculture design system co-inventor, David Holmgren, being recognised as a leading exponent.

But the opportunity to do these things, as Rachel suggests, is limited to those with a suburban house with sufficient land and time to engage in it. With more and more Australians living in apartments in denser urban areas and with the smaller size of many of those apartments the opportunity to engage in urban homesteading and domestic food production is limited. Statements positioning home food production as more virtuous ignore the reality that a growing number have neither the land nor the time to practice garden agriculture.

On reading Rachel’s article I found I couldn’t really agree with her allegation of farmers’ markets being expensive. I have bought from farmers’ markets in Brisbane, Byron Bay, Sydney and Tasmania, and although I have not made a deliberate comparison, it is my observation that they are no, or sometimes only a little more expensive than supermarkets for Australian produce. Their food is fresher and buying from them supports the regional economy around food production. I’m talking about fruit, vegetables, bread and the like here, not gourmet foods.

Her source’s comment about how you buy good food on a limited budget, especially if your choice is organic foods, gets at food affordability at a time of employment and income uncertainty and the growth in casual and part-time work with their limited incomes. If these grow, it will be interesting to see how they affect food choices.

The source’s comment about visiting several retailers to buy good food is also true. Near where I live, for example, if you want to support smaller food retailers rather than Australia’s supermarket duopoly there is a Harris Farm store. But if you want to buy organic milk then you have to visit Woolworths as Harris Farm doesn’t sell it. It you want any other specialist organic products you have to walk to the small street front organic retailer. All that back and forth is a bit of a disincentive to shoppers laden with their purchases.


On being confused by the deluge of competing information about food, Rachel reports: “The sheer amount of information available can cause paralysis. As one participant noted — ‘There’s a lot of people who point out different things about, you shouldn’t buy this, you shouldn’t buy that, but then you can’t keep up with what’s good for what and what’s bad for what.

“As another said: ‘It gets to the point where it’s just too hard, you just buy it, and you turn into a creature of habit … I just can’t find myself analysing all this stuff… you give up, it’s just too much information’.”

The comments reflect the information overload and conflicting information around food and how it leaves people confused. You encounter this on social media especially, with claim and counterclaim about particular foods and health, some the work of those with commercial interests in foods, others the work of people themselves confused, some suggesting the virtue of buying Australian or buying local to support Australian farmers, some promoting organic or vegan. No wonder people are confused and just buy what they feel like buying irrespective of all these claims.

The promotion of ‘superfoods’ is an example of creating confusion. Superfoods, of course, are mere marketing. There are no superfoods. Some foods might have more nutritional value than others but that does not lend them some esoteric quality to qualify them as superfoods. It is just another term that confuses people.


On what to do, Rachael says: “Let’s eliminate judgemental language from our conversations about food policy, but most importantly, let’s stop bringing it to the kitchen table.”

She says nothing about what language we would replace it with. Technical language — terms like ‘nutritious food’ or ‘nutrient-dense food’ are no use because they are as exclusionary as those terms Rachel highlights — they therefore suffer from the same elitism Rachel alleges ‘good food’ brings.

I was told by Janette Longfield from Sustain UK, the food educational and advocacy organisation, that descriptive terms like ‘good food’ were better than technical terms like ‘nutritious food’ because they have emotive appeal that technical terms lack.

Jeanette’s selective use of language comes from the real world of advocacy work and is the more credible for that. It is about using terms that trigger an emotional response because emotion is our primary mode of reaction to something. It deals with perception rather than fact because perception is what leads to the formation of opinion and belief. Politicians and advertisers know this. A publisher I worked for, who was once an editor at a major newspaper, said: “Perception, not facts, is what matters”. He was saying that it is perception that creates personal understanding rather than fact. Fact might modify perception later but people often fail to go beyond initial perceptions.

Terms like ‘good food’ have instant appeal because they trigger emotional response, often subconsciously.

If Rachel is right, then her assertion that the “judgemental language” that she says signifies social class, educational achievement and a sense of virtue, is something for fair food advocates to look out for. In linking language to social class and education she makes sense because the main agent of social change, and of new food choices, is Australia’s middle class. This is the class with the education and disposable income to spend on foods that match their moral motives. The choices of low income people are governed by their limited spending power and even if they want better foods they might not be able to afford them.

Rachel’s article is of value to the fair food movement because it questions some of what it does and says. It links good food choices to education, social class and spending power and shows that food is more than a moral choice, it is as governed by economic issues as much as anything else in society. The article also shows how food choices and claims about them can inadvertently position those making them as morally superior and more virtuous. This, though, seems a good way to create social divisions and set up a two-tier food system based just as much on income and wealth as on health and nutrition.

NOTE: My support for fair food is based on improved economic and opportunity benefit to farmers, food processors (canning, baking, bottling, preserving etc) and affordability and high nutritional value for eaters, and on the development of viable regional economies based on regional foods.



  1. Max Thomas

    Max Thomas

    July 11, 2016 at 8:04 am

    My apples is gooder than your oranges.

    Ever attended environmental activist group meetings, Russ? Listening to people outdoing each other as to who is the most virtuous and environmentally conscious can be very tedious. Elitism is a close relative of prejudice that manifests in many ways. "Perception, not facts, is what matters." The publisher you once worked for might have coined that slogan for The Greens or the food police. One of the great lessons of history, the last century in particular, is to be wary of those who presume to dictate "what matters" and what is best for others.

    • Russ Grayson

      Russ Grayson

      July 13, 2016 at 3:35 am

      Response to Max

      Thanks for your comment Max. Yes, what I've attended are mainly meetings of permaculture or Transition Town groups who seem to have a firmer footing in social reality than some in the environment movement, the latter especially thanks to their socially-broader constituency. I touched on elitism that you mention, without calling it that, in an earlier Open Forum article about Australia's milk wars, cheap supermarket milk and the moral superiority (didn't call it that either) of people confronting cheap milk buyers in the shops. The difficulty is that, often anyway, those criticising people with limited funds for food purchases and their choices have never experience poverty (as I have not) and then condemn how they make their food choices. Just to make it clear, I'm with Australia's dairy farmers on this issue. I'm unsure what the Greens' policy on food production and food security is, so I can't comment. All I can say is that food security as well as peoples' right to choose the foods they want to eat is affected as much by systematic issues as by personal. The only solution I can see to those claims about nutritional value is to employ the standard skeptic's approach of asking for evidence of the claims. That way we will see which are true and worth adopting and which not.


      December 5, 2016 at 11:19 pm

      Dictates of the market.

      Max, much of what you are saying I agree with. It may even apply to many other sectors of our society than the greens or the food movement. Extremism in any field is – well, a bit extreme. I have attended quite a few 'environmental activist meetings' over my 64 years and have not witnessed what you describe. What I have witnessed is a commitment to caring for country: our habitat and the habitat of other species. My personal view is that sustainable change is evolutionary in nature, and further that it is often a compromise that reflects a consensus of some sort. There are over 6 billion perspectives in this shared planet, and all are valid. And who can judge which of those are correct? With regard to food, I guess I have some background to comment: my family come from a long background of family farms going back to the Crofters in northern Scotland. Importantly, like all people, I consume it. I have owned to farms in my life, and achieved what I regard as the pinnacle in 'good' food production: grade A Biodynamic certification. Today, I am involved in sustainable urban food production. In my lifetime I have witnessed huge changes to food – its growing, its production and the methods by which it is sold and consumed. Many of those concern me, and when I can I choose to avoid them. Many of them are also not black and white – nothing is really. In this county, a couple of hundred years ago, the whole place was a food supermarket with no cash register. You took what was needed, and shared. Times have changed. We can't go back to that, although we can evolve to a contemporary system where similar values apply. In some ways we are already travelling along that path (soup kitchens, community gardens, food vouchers, etc). I, and my son, were lucky to have no shortage of good quality food in our lives. Not all kids in our society are that fortunate. I am happy to go out on a limb that you may think is dictating 'what matters' and 'is best for others' – the need for all on this shared planet to have access to 'good' food. I will go even further – it is a basic human need and right.