April 27, 2012

Sustainable Food Systems for the 1 Percent

Jared Margulies, MS

Jared Margulies, MS

Guest Blogger

Center for a Livable Future

Chicken coop, circa 1939, Florida

Let me begin by saying I would love a mobile chicken coop in my backyard. In fact, I plan to build one this summer, hopefully for less than 100 dollars. I’m lucky enough that with an afternoon of work and a trip or three to the hardware store, I think I can accomplish this.  But although it would be wonderful if more people raised healthy egg-shaped protein in their backyards, this isn’t feasible for everyone.

Cue Williams Sonoma’s new “Agrarian” line.

For those less fortunate souls with little time but oodles of money, Williams Sonoma can provide you with a pre-assembled chicken coop for a mere $879.95 (1). Better yet, you can also purchase lettuce seedlings for just $16.95 each! (Yes that is the price for ONE seedling. But of course you’ll probably want 20 so that’s 339 dollars—but they come wrapped in burlap fabric with a cute bow!).

Thanks to Williams Sonoma, you can now be a proud backyard chicken farmer, beekeeper, vegetable gardener and even Kombucha maker (2), all while reinforcing your stylish, rustic-chic aesthetic and promoting conspicuous consumption (3).  You can be the proud neighbor on your block who not only raises his own eggs, but can afford to look really good doing it.

Sustainable food movements (I’m being inclusive here of local and regional food systems, too) have struggled to shake off stigmas of elitism for years But in the past year or two it seems America’s fixation with sustainable foods has jumped from fringe to mainstream, persistent, and omnipresent—suddenly everyone cares about healthy, sustainable food.  Is this a sign that the United States is finally undergoing a transformative shift? Is a broad spectrum of society, and not just the urban cultural elite, re-thinking and re-valuing our food systems? Is the “Agrarian” line a bellwether for a future Target Brand line of urban chicken coops and beehives, sold at prices accessible for the 99 percent?

I doubt it.  Especially if companies like Williams Sonoma aren’t willing to acknowledge and engage with the underlying politics preventing transformative breakthroughs in creating a sustainable food system, the mass marketing of raising chickens in very expensive coops next to very expensive raised garden beds (4) reinforces the idea that sustainable food is still the domain of the 1 percent (or maybe 5-10 percent).  Perhaps it is unfair to take aim at a company that specializes in over-priced home wares.  But if Williams Sonoma is going to brand their products with the phrase “take charge of your life from the ground up—cultivate a healthy awareness of where your food comes from,” then they should be obligated to educate their audience about why this matters and support those who are fighting the uphill battles in the halls of government and in agricultural fields across America to change the landscape of food.  I am afraid of the message a $879.95 chicken coop sends to would-be consumers—if growing your own food and doing so, informed by Leopold’s “land ethic,” (5) remains tied to the same exclusionary messaging that caring about food and the environment is the privilege of the elite, then the sustainable food movement will be just as forgotten and irrelevant in the next decade as the “save the whales” and “save the Amazon” campaigns of the 1990s are today.

Nobody is going to stop a company from selling over-priced lettuce seedlings if the market demands it. But that doesn’t mean Williams Sonoma can’t Do the Right Thing (6) and get involved in bringing about lasting change in US food policy by putting their money behind the “Agrarian” slogan. Meanwhile, as advocates, researchers, and citizens wage the struggle for a sustainable food system—in our Farm Bill, in rural America, and against monolithic ag-industry giants like Monsanto and pharmaceutical companies that have vested interests in supporting industrial food animal production—isn’t it also time to occupy our own backyards, chicken coop or not?

(1)   $399.95 coop run sold separately. Assuming the owner of a Williams Sonoma coop and run will never again purchase eggs and previously always bought free-range eggs at a cost of $4/dozen, not including the cost of chicks and feed it would require raising 319.975 dozen eggs (3,839.7 total eggs) to pay off the initial cost of the coop/run combo. Assuming you raised 4 laying hens (maximum allowed in Baltimore City without an additional permit) with very good laying rates (250 per hen per year) for 1,000 eggs a year, it would take you about 4 years to pay off the price of your coop in egg equivalency not including cost of feed, unexpected chicken death, etc.

(2)   “Kombucha is an effervescent tea-based beverage that is often consumed for its anecdotal health benefits or medicinal purposes. Kombucha is available commercially and can be made at home by fermenting tea using a visible, solid mass of yeast and bacteria which forms the kombucha culture, often referred to as 酵母 (kombo, lit. “yeast mother”).” Thanks Wikipedia!

(3)   But wait, there’s more! You could buy a copper hand trowel for a mere $58.95 and a lemon tree in a 6” pot for a princely %69.95!

(4)   $299.95.

(5)   “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

(6)   Thanks Spike Lee.


  1. could we try to factor in unexpected chicken death? I feel like you should expect to lose at least 1 every 2 years, between death and running away and thievery.

  2. Posted by Jared

    Megan, your assessment is probably fairly accurate. I will set a team of statisticians on this to work up some new numbers for you, though they may be fairly unremarkable, given the average price of a new heritage breed chick is less than 5 dollars.

  3. Posted by Tarsh Thekaekara

    I can even buy them over in India! The coop and run comes at a discounted INR 75,000 or so. I can almost buy a whole chicken farm with that!

  4. Pingback: Williams-Sonoma Drops Out, Moves to Rural Pennsylvania | Stan Fairbank

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