An interesting new book by Raj Patel, Stuffed and Starved, brings together the history and culture of the food industry through the ages, together with the complaints and challenges to consumers. I particularly like the way he brings history into the discussion, beginning with the history of tea in Great Britain.
Tea is not raised in Great Britain, of course, and neither is sugar, which Brits add to tea in copious amounts. And tea replaced a totally organic, locally produced British drink which was both traditional and popular: Beer.
But this was the beginning of the industrial age. Industrialization was moving people from the countryside into the cities, where factory and shop owners needed workers to be alert for hours on end. Beer, they noticed, made workers drowsy. Tea, with its caffeine and sugar, gave workers a little jolt with their cold breakfasts and lunches, and made workers more productive.
So British bosses promoted tea, even if their own lunches included beer that made them drowsy, and the scheme worked into industrialization quite well. In fact, todays most popular office drinks include ever-increasing amounts of caffeine. Think Starbucks, colas and Red Bull.
Seen this way, most of the modern meal can be figured as part of industrys plan. As more workers are needed, including women in the war years, food becomes increasingly a product of industrysliced bread, meats and cheese, fast food in paper sacks, frozen dinners. At the same time, we have to admit that each convenience has been embraced by consumers as happily as we chowed down on those first skinny and greasy McDonalds French fries back in the 50s.
Patel observes, as many have, that the profits from this scheme come from the processing and shipping rather than from the growing or even sales at the store. Large numbers of growers around the northern hemisphere are planting soybeans right now, and large numbers of consumers will eat them, as additives to everything from salad dressings to ice cream, baby food to feeding tube pablum. But only a few shippers and processorsCargill, ADM, Bunge, Con Agracan crush, process, ship and cook with them.
On the store shelves, there are apparently many brands, but most of these are distinct in packaging and logo only. The old neighborhood brands, like Swift and Oscar Mayer, are now owned by the giants. And the giants wield increasing amounts of political power.
We can write the next chapter ourselves. As all parts of American culture and life become privatized, which is to say owned by corporations, it is easier for corporations to network as allies. Heres an example: Privatized toll roads, like the Chicago Skyway, owned by a Spanish company, can decide which logos appear in their stores. If drivers wants to choose another, say, gas station, they have to exit the toll road, find the other brand, and re-enter by paying another toll.
OK, youre saying, too bad for those guys, but I dont drive the Chicago Skyway.
Fine. But increasing numbers of state governments, strapped for cash, are investigating toll roads that will be owned by private interests and run with their own set of laws. In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry (R) backs a plan to put 4,000 miles of private corridors through the countryside, bypassing established cities and moving the entire population to newly developed and privatized areas along the new corridor.
Amazingly, the result doesnt guarantee any benefits for the government or consumers in the long run, but it guarantees lots of benefits to the corridor owners.
So maybe thats not happening in your neighborhood, but whats going on with your schools? National tests are flunking schools where kids fall behind a supposed national average. When that happens, no matter what the reason for school failure, schools may be taken over and run by private companies. In the name of efficiency, school lunches can be replaced by fast food and local curriculum replaced by national curriculum. And how can parents participate? Where is the democracy?
And we can go on. Soldiers are getting Burger King and Pizza Hut instead of mess hall chow. Colleges are contracting with one logo or another to get a kickback in the dining hall. This puts a whole new spin on the critics that say our soldiers are fighting for corporations, not democracy.
Whats to do?
Patel says we need to get politically active, and thats for sure. But we also need to figure out the alternatives to the industrial pap. Every successful movement from Womens Rights to Civil Rights to Consumers Rights begins when people decide to abandon the old path and take up something new. And we can all do that, even in a small way.
Eating local and supporting our local producers was once sort of a fun game. Looking at the long run, however, the survival of democracy depends on it.
Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email: email@example.com.
From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2008
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