Maverick libertarian economist and author Tyler Cowen argues in his book Average is Over that in the coming years, American society will deeply bifurcate into Haves and Have-Nots. The lucky Haves will become (or remain) quite wealthy by developing tech-based skills that allow them to partner with intelligent computers. This will enable them to work in some of the few remaining good jobs that the economy will have to offer, after we have offshored and automated away the livelihood of the vast swath of average workers who now populate the offices, factories, trucking lines, and other jobs that support a middle class existence for now. The unlucky Have-Nots will have to make do with a drastically reduced standard of living, inhabiting tar-paper shacks, off-grid mobile homes, and shanty towns in the warmer parts of the United States, such as Texas. But all is not lost in Cowen’s dystopia! The poor will have access to loads of cheap technology, and while they might be reduced to eating poverty food such as cans of beans, at least they will be able to watch movies and surf the internet while doing so.
In a similar prediction, blogger Ran Prieur mused back in 2013, “Extreme poverty will cause political upheavals, but not such a deep political collapse that you won’t have to pay taxes. And I expect little or no technological collapse. Even energy-intensive technologies like cars will not disappear, just shrink to serve the elite. And I think information technology will continue its present course, so people with gadgets out of Star Trek will be digging up cattail roots for food.” (Emphasis mine.)
So, it’s interesting to see these scenarios slowly beginning to play out around the margins of civilized life. For the people that the “recovery” isn’t helping and who have begun to get used to the new normal of the gig economy, temp jobs, and freelance work, it pays to figure out the best poverty food that money can – or often, can’t – buy.
One option that is very accessible and local is urban foraging. The same weeds that homeowners try mightily to eradicate from their yards are often more nutritious than a lot of the food available at the corner convenience stores that feed urban food deserts. UC Berkeley ethnobotantist Thomas Carlson researches the nutritional value and potential toxicity of edible urban weeds, sometimes leading students on walks to find these wild foods in their unnatural habitat. With co-researcher Philip Stark, he has established an open source record of Bay Area edibles online at inaturalist.org. One can easily imagine those cattail hunters recording their locations via the iNaturalist mobile app on their Star Trek device!
For folks who like their vegetables a little tamer, urban ag (really more like horticulture) has been building into a mainstream movement. In Chicago, Stephanie Dunn, whose day jobs are teaching piano and working as an independent contractor for the Illinois Department of Agriculture, has started three tiny urban farms to provide economic opportunities and fresh, nutritious food for people in the area. Meanwhile, Big Muddy Urban Farm’s Aspiring Farmer residency program in Omaha, Nebraska is attracting applicants from as far away as New York. From Seattle to Detroit and beyond, people are taking the power into their own hands to produce some of the healthiest poverty food available.
It’s not all vegetables, though. Some folks like meat with their potatoes, and hunting as a way of providing nutritious protein is becoming popular among some unexpected demographics. The fastest growing demographic of new American hunters are women. Surveys suggest that these new female hunters, along with Gen X’ers who do not come from hunting backgrounds but are drawn to pick up a bow or gun in the search for nutritious poverty food, are hunting more for sustenance than for sport or trophies. One item on Indiana’s ballot this November is a proposed change to the state constitution that would affirm the right of citizens to hunt, fish, and harvest wildlife. If it passes, Indiana will join 19 other states that consider hunting and fishing, often for poverty food, to be more than just a privilege.
As we grow closer and closer to Tyler Cowen’s vision, it will be necessary for people excluded from the formal economy to find new ways to provide for themselves. Charity is as unreliable as the economic tides, and may not be there when it’s needed most. Although the idea of a Universal Basic Income is being bandied about, there’s no guarantee that it will happen, either. The success of these hunters, gathers, and growers of poverty food should be supported as a way to build resilience in the face of an uncertain future.
Seedfolk: Overcoming Food Deserts in Rochester NY, by Alex Freeman