Despite greater knowledge of its costs, ‘fake food’ still dominates, and lawmakers can help to change that.

Is real food – fresh, local, organic, healthy – elitist? This is a question my students and I have struggled with in a class I teach in the new food studies program at the University of Southern Maine. Some of my students grew up on farms, many worked in restaurants, others worked in family businesses that cater to health foods and a few have worked in homeless shelters and food banks. They know real food. But …

Michael Pollan

Real food is what the activist and writer Michael Pollen defines as basically unprocessed, a commodity rooted in the soil, not created through chemicals. Its opposite is what Pollen calls “food-like substances.”

Unlike real food, fake food is easy to find – and remarkably popular. If the list of ingredients is impossible to pronounce, your food choice is probably not real food.

But it is cheap. Today Americans spend less than 10 percent of their income on food, much less than the almost 18 percent our parents and grandparents had to fork over in the 1960s. If we ignore the long-term effects of fake foods on our health, medical bills and quality of life, then real food is expensive. In a state like Maine, where food insecurity is a problem for one in six families, questions of macro-economics pale in the face of everyday choices: one whole pineapple for $2.99, 2 kiwi for a buck, and a lime for 40 cents, or a sugar-saturated juice drink that sells at $1.49 for two quarts.

The good news is that activists of all kinds are putting food politics on the public radar screen: there is nothing natural or inevitable about food prices that make a head of broccoli more expensive than a chemically-infused candy bar. Politicians have begun to challenge these policy choices, illuminating lopsided farm subsidies that make fake foods cheap and available while keeping real food expensive and hard to find.

But price, my students rightly point out, is only part of the problem when it comes to eating real food. In recent years, whole foods and fresh ingredients have carried with them the whiff of cultural imperialism. Organic, locally sourced this and that, and even small town farmers markets, are seen by some not just as expensive, but as irrelevant and elitist, part of an imaginary divide in Maine between “the people” and the privileged from away.

In some ways, this is a holdover from the dismissive attitudes of early fresh-food pioneers like Alice Waters, who in 2008 defended the high costs of real food on the television news show “60 Minutes” this way: “Some people want to buy Nike shoes, two pair,” the California restaurant owner snapped. “Others want to eat Bronx grapes and nourish themselves.” To Waters, making real food accessible was simply a matter of personal choice.

More sensitive to the race and class issues that Waters’ comments raised, Pollen nevertheless also reduced the issue to a matter of free choice. “We vote with our forks three times a day,” he noted in his best-selling “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.” Then he offered up beans as a real food everyone can afford.

“Freedom like the doors of the Ritz Carlton,” the historian Christopher Hill once quipped, “available to rich and poor alike.”

Politicians, of course, deepened the divide. If President Obama famously snacked on almonds at midnight, Donald Trump campaigned with a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket on his lap.

In truth, there is nothing new about the elitist card. In 1840, Martin Van Buren lost his bid for re-election in part because he hired a French chef and favored exotic foods and expensive wines. In America, food has always been part of the culture wars.

What is new, however, is the increasing distance between real food and the many Mainers who either cannot afford it, or do not have access to it. Not only is real food hard to find in places where food deserts reduce shopping to “convenience” stores, but many consumers don’t know how to cook it even when they can find it.

This too, is no accident. The verb “to cook” was systematically attacked in the 1950s and ’60s, when the makers of prepared and “prepackaged cuisine” advertised their wares as creative meals homemakers could simply “doctor up,” “sophisticate” and “glamorize.” Mothers now “fixed” dinner, they did not cook.

Today, that distance is most evident in a generation with limited cooking skills. Two of my students learned to cook because their parents did not know how to prepare real food. Even the basic steps of cleaning, chopping and sautéing were beyond the family skill set. At food pantries, consumers struggle with fresh produce, opting out in favor of canned foods they know how to fix.

While many of us find hope in CSA shares (community supported agriculture), craft brewing and a new generation of foodies, we kid ourselves if we think these changes have brought better food closer to home.

Indeed, if celebrity chefs and James Beard awards have escalated in Portland, so too has food insecurity reached new heights. What once looked like temporary relief in food pantries has grown into a major service that more and more Mainers depend on.

But solutions exist. USM students not only volunteer at food pantries, they also teach cooking in low-income housing. Others glean fields and work on food access issues in more rural districts. They are eager to find solutions, but the Legislature also needs to do its part to bring real food back to the Maine table.

Recent legislation (L.D. 412), myopically voted down by the Education Committee, requires schools to offer a half-year of home economics along with industrial arts as a requirement for graduation. As its sponsor Rep. Tom Saviello recently remarked, “It’s a no brainer.”

Bringing home economics back into our schools is not a step backwards, nor is it a luxury. In a society where cooking seems increasingly remote from home kitchens and real food too difficult to cook, home economics offers a powerful and very practical way to bring healthy, fresh, whole foods back onto Maine plates.

If we are serious about reducing food insecurity, eliminating food-related diseases like diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers, and supporting Maine farms, we need to bring real food home again. No one can afford to ignore the long-term costs of fake foods.

Ardis Cameron is professor emeritus of American and New England studies and a visiting professor of food studies at the University of Southern Maine. She holds a PhD in history and was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship. Her recent book is “Unbuttoning America: A Biography of Peyton Place.”