Food fights exploit class, income splits

Food is a weaponBy Robert Becker

As epic battles brew between sustainable, organic and non-renewable industrial farming, the politics of food surround our every bite. That’s a good thing, driving better assessments of actual food costs while factoring in enormous, perpetual farm subsidies and government supports. What we eat, and deem worthy for others to digest, has as much to do with class, income, family, and status as with packaging, nutrition and health.

Hardly going down as a high point is the latest skirmish from Mayor Bloomberg of New York, defying logic and common sense by asserting smaller soda containers will automatically reduce consumption of sugary drinks. Talk about vulnerable liberal tunnel vision and over-reach, this notion skims the surface of obesity, empty calories, and unhealthy eating habits. Chew on this indigestible morsel, Mr. Mayor:

The average American eats 29 pounds of French fries, 23 pounds of pizza, 24 pounds of ice cream and consumes 53 gallons of soda, 24 pounds of artificial sweeteners, 2.736 pounds of salt and 90,700 milligrams of caffeine per year. Do we really think we can create health in that toxic environment?

And Dr. Mark Hyman bypasses other average annual intakes: 632 lbs of dairy, 85 lbs. of oil, and 63 lbs. of beef alone. If food fights obscure air, soil, water, media and mind contamination, this liberal “toxic environment” will draw out the wingnuts, yapping loudly: “keep government out of my gullet” or “give me calories or give me death.”

Forever seeking wedges

Food fights loom because gay rights and abortion, even “gun control” folly, have lost electoral clout. Gun sales lag only the ultimate rightwing juggernaut: lying by design. Likewise idiotic defiance of climate warming, tempered by fierce storms and sizzling temperatures. Momentarily, even varieties of born-again fundies most resistant to logic have receded, perhaps split over Romney’s cultish Mormonism. Few voters wonder where Obama left the womb, to which sovereign state our Lord of Drones pays homage, or how he displays his good Christian faith: decimating Muslim wedding parties obliterates that canard.

No, expect the benighted to rally against liberal do-gooding. I hear diabetic Tea Partiers bellowing, “Save our Freedom Fries.” Joining the fray comes corporate food money, already grumbling over Disney’s recent junk food ban on kiddy TV channels.  And towns like Richmond, CA. with more poor people than decent supermarkets, will be targeted for simply considering taxation of sugary drinks – and with such nefarious ends: reinstate phys ed, nutrition classes and local vegetable gardens.

Food battles, part of health wars

Yes, food wars will come into their own, riding the absurd debate whether elected officials can govern something called “public health.” The cost already for diabetes, now hitting teens who aren’t oversight (simply junk food junkies), stagger budgets: one Medicare dollar in three deals with diabetes, with predictions of “$3.4 trillion over the next 10 years to treat pre-diabetes and Type 2 diabetes.” Heck, that’s comparable to what we spent on WWII, or will on Iraq+Afghanistan.

At stake isn’t only “regulating” eating habit for those “lacking self-control,” but denying the link between poverty and bad eating, indeed the entire junk food-genetics-race-diabetes-obesity syndrome. It’s another version of blaming/shaming the victim, as if obesity tracks only ignorance or sloth, when it’s mainly about location, location, location: “Obesity, Diabetes and Poverty Share a Common Zip Code” headlines this typical medical summary. A Daily Kos blogger details the poverty-stress-obesity linkage for, under stress, “your body produces a chemical known as cortisol [causing] individuals to gain weight.”  

The Big Food Picture

A new book, White Bread, A Social History of the Store-bought Loaf, by political scientist Aaron Bobrow-Strain, offers a far more comprehensive viewpoint, reminding us that food debates are also inevitably about class, income and social status. What reaches our plates depends less on healthfulness or personal choice than environment, promotion, and values from family and ethnic backgrounds – and food follows fashion. Item: white bread by the 1930s was emblematic of purity, progress and modernity, delivering food marvels immortalized by the cliché, “the greatest thing since sliced bread.” High status plus convenience for working mothers, supplemented with (depleted) vitamins and minerals, established permanence to this day.

Yet early coded messages pushing industrial sanitation, “untouched by human hands” weren’t only about purity: they talked up abandoning the less sanitary (immigrant) hands that filled local bakeries. Now, tables turn and bland, empty white bread is trashed as nutritionally empty, identified with poor, ignorant folk and scorned by modern foodies. Though denuded white flour (plus chemical additives) still dominate ready-made, industrial buns, cakes, cookies and crackers, the whole wheat revolt (“don’t eat white, eat right”) made a social point (public health) and a private one (smart folks pay the whole wheat price to stay healthy). Insubstantial “white bread” now epitomizes top Republican panderers.

Everything is political

Bobrow-Strain further argues when food choices are politicized, good intentions reinforce social divides: righteous know-it-alls try to fix the poor, pitiful, ignorant, or oblivious, with mixed results. The tested, underlying dynamic is that income dictates the quality of what we eat; with per capita real income frozen for decades, poorer minority urban and rural folks flock to the cheapest, calorie-rich, nutrient-light industrial pickings. Compare how far $20 goes at the subsidized, corner fast-food trough (dinner for four) vs. travel to grocery shopping, time and costs to cook, then badgering tired kids to clean-up. The industrial food machine obliterates home-cooked meals (plus self-reliance and family togetherness) for wide swathes of America, thus our obesity-diabetes epidemic and more.

Bigger implications extend beyond eating, as Donna Shalala, ex-Clinton cabinet member, declares obesity a national security threat because so many military-age prospects are overweight, the first generation “to come through without mandatory physical education in their schools.” Could it be that inactivity plus dreadful government food-farm policies are both coming home to roost?  Imagine the irony of an empire desperate for soldiers to defend the very system that produces so many unfit prospects. Rome, here we come.

Bottom line: the linkage of food and health and fitness is complicated, resistant to isolated notions like mere container size. Forcing sugar addicts to buy two containers of sugary liquid is pandering, serving mostly the container industry. Surprise, unlimited factory food money saturates politics and that means sponsored profits that don’t serve customer nor community health nor fitness.

Life becomes a giant pot-luck, favoring the affluent but not protecting them from their own “affluenza,” as in diabetes, alcoholism, and cancer. But solutions must defy our predominant planning-allergy, just as we deny the full dimensions, especially externalities of energy, education, transportation, or environmental impacts. So much for self-flattery we are the vaunted “problem-solving” species. Why, all this could drive one to drink – or the comfort food of a Big Mac and chocolate shake.

2 replies »

  1. Ugh. this debate drives me nuts on a number of levels, not the least of which is the great liberal scam of “public health” as a good reason to go around banning this or that. I see it as no different than conservatives wanting to ban abortion or make me pray.

    Anyway, i eat plenty of junk food because i work too much. I also eat plenty of very good food because i garden extensively and my best friends farm (so like i haven’t bought a jar of spaghetti sauce or a chicken from the grocery store in years). I also spent five years in professional horticulture.

    I believe in local food. Organic, however, is a monumental crock of shit. I know the OMRI list and i know the exceptions. I also know what you can get away with so long as you throw the USDA the huge licensing fee. And i also know that all fruits and vegetables imported into the US are heavily fumigated to stop horticultural pests.

    So the “we’ll all live happily ever after once we eat local and organic from our quaint little groceries” are fucking full of it. First there will need to be a massive change in how much, what, and when Americans eat certain things. Second, there’s a good chance that we’ll all have to pitch in and grow as much as we can to achieve that dream, but Americans hate work. And third, that quaint little grocery that soothes the liberal conscience is a crock of shit.

    Yes, the package of “free range” eggs is designed to make you feel good and the blurb about the family farm is well written. “Free range” only requires the hens to have “access” to the outdoors, which usually means a concrete pad in the sun reached through a little door in the hen house. If no one puts feed and water out there, the hens aren’t going anywhere near it. But they’re free to if they want and that’s good enough for the USDA.

    And “organic” … is it significantly better to pay a Mexican starvation wages to bake in the sun while he operates a propane weed burner than it is to use an herbicide? Is it “organic” if the fertilizer used on the organic factory farm is waste from confined animal feed operations?

    Fuck people who insist on organic. Feed yourself organically and then start demanding it. My vitriol is based on how inflexible and political the organic evangelists are, basing their beliefs on biased studies of nutritional content that compare the worst factory farmed produce with fresh organic produce. The people who would rather see a farmer fail than use “chemicals” to save his crop. The people who know so little that they are incapable of differentiating between pesticides/herbicides and fertilizer because they aren’t smart enough to know that plants don’t process “organic” matter at all. They only take up pure elements/ionic forms of the elements. Chemical fertilizer production just does the work of soil biota, the same way the “organic” fertilizer they buy at the garden center is nasty farm waste with a whole lot of fossil fuel input to process it into something plants can actually use.

    I could go on, but next i’d end up telling the story of the vegan who got mad at me for not having cotton seed meal for her organic, vegan vegetable garden … hurray, bitch, you’re using a heavily modified organism that’s drenched in fertilizer and pesticides so you can be vegan organic. You probably think you’re smarter than the rest of us too. Or the laughable number of times people looked at me and believed that the pallets of cow manure sold at the nursery came from “organic” cows because it used the magic word on the plastic bag. Fuckers, organic beef farmers let the cows shit on the pasture and use it to fertilize the grass the cows eat. They don’t sell it dumb fucking wannabes.

    I’m gonna go eat a frozen pizza and drink a coke. I had homemade, organic, from the garden kimchi for breakfast and the rest of the garden is just starting to produce.

  2. Whatever the downsides to the “organic” movement (and that covers a wide swath, since I have friends who honorably do organic for a living and are careful), the issue you don’t address is what are the alternative to totally non-sustainable, incredibly damaging corporate-industrial farm factory system. That “organic” done badly has its own problems doesn’t mean it won’t presage some decent changes over time. I am no fanatic and my issue is sustainability, not purity of thought or chemistry. But impugning all organic farming, as you imply and treating it as no improvement in theory, seems over the top.