Occupy’s Message to the Food Movement: Bridge the Class Divides

"Occupy the Fertile Ground Beneath this Pavement"

Farmers gather in New York in December 2011 to demand an end to fracking and factory farming. Creative Commons/Mike Fleshman.

Occupy Wall Street is about nothing if not about class politics in America. Class has long been the submerged topic—it seems to make most Americans uncomfortable while at the same time defining many of our social structures and personal interactions. We often discuss race and gender inequalities, but discussions of class seem to be almost taboo outside of an academic setting. Sure, politicians will use code words for talking about class (“working people”), but there is no explicit mention of the strict class lines that divide and segregate people in this country. What Occupy Wall Street has succeeded at is opening up this dialogue and bringing the question of class to the foreground.

And from where I stand, nothing is a more deeply felt and lived indicator of class in this country than food—this is why the question of global food systems must be addressed within the framework of Occupy Wall Street.

For all the talk of Occupy having a vague message, I find the message quite clear and compelling: it is a dissection of American class politics rooted in calling out the corporate control of our democracy and our everyday lives. As such, dismantling our corporate-dominated food systems and replacing them with local, sustainable alternatives will play a crucial role in getting corporations out of our food supply. The challenge will be getting the majority of Americans to agree with this idea.

The food landscape and its correlation to class is complicated and rife with contradiction. This is partly because our modern-day American food system is brand new—it’s only been in existence for about sixty years. Compared to our agrarian past, which is at least 10,000 years old, sixty years is a blip. But the past sixty years of industrial food systems have come to define American food as well as the global food economy. Much remains to be seen about how this new global food economy and new food products will ultimately affect our world.{{{subscriber|2.00}}} [trackrt] But as the food movement has been pointing out for the past thirty years, many negative effects on our environment and our health are already quite clear. What’s less easy to identify and understand are the complex webs of social relations that have developed around our food and food systems.

To consider the real implications of our food system, we must first understand how deeply corporations control our food supply; at this point, there is a near monopolization. Just four companies—Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, and Louis Dreyfus—control 90 percent of the global trade in grain. In the United States, three firms process 70 percent of soybeans and 40 percent of wheat. Three companies now process more than 70 percent of all beef, and four firms slaughter and pack nearly 60 percent of all pork and chicken. By 2002, the USDA reported that four companies made 75 percent of breakfast cereal, 75 percent of snacks, 60 percent of cookies, and 50 percent of ice cream.

This monopolization is taking the ultimate toll on our environment and our health. While large-scale industrial food production results in vast quantities of food, these systems are inefficient in managing their own waste. Long-term environmental damage is the consequence. Runoff from industrial agriculture is the biggest source of water pollution in the United States, according to the EPA. Likewise, the food produced in these systems is often of poor nutritional quality, resulting in an overfed but undernourished population. Currently, 75 percent of the population is obese or overweight, and many are chronically ill from diet-related diseases.

This is a systemic problem, but the solution has come to be framed as one of personal choice. Much of the discussion thus far has focused on people making healthier food choices and exercising more often. While these two pieces of the puzzle surely play a role, there are deeper and more complex mechanisms at work. But these are often hidden.

Children with Michelle Obama in a garden

Michelle Obama harvests vegetables from the White Hourse kitchen garden during a "Let's Move!" event in June 2010. Credit: Lawrence Jackson (Official White House Photo).

Many Americans are not convinced that food has anything to do with politics while at the same time much of our cultural identity is tied up in an affinity for processed, industrial foods. This phenomenon is a testament to the work of Big Food and its partner, the advertising industry. Together, they have succeeded in creating a familial loyalty to big brands and corporate foods that is unprecedented.

Witness the concept of the “nanny state” purported by conservative Republicans and Tea Partiers like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. The concept took hold at the time Michelle Obama introduced her “Let’s Move!” campaign to encourage healthier eating habits, like eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, among our nation’s youth. Palin, Bachmann, and other conservative pundits immediately accused the first lady of telling our nation’s children what to eat. They decried her efforts as anti-American, invoking the notion that Americans have a right to eat whatever they want without any government interference. Trouble is, the government is not telling Americans what to eat. Big Food corporations are.

While Palin and Bachmann claim to be defending the family and American values, they are really defending corporate control over the food supply—a monopolization that severely limits people’s ability to make healthy choices for themselves. All the while, they ridicule the first lady and accuse the Obama administration of socialism. But what is it called when corporations owned and run by a few control what the vast majority of the population eats?

Big Food is not just feeding low-income communities its cheap, processed foods; it’s also reinforcing class divisions in our society with its slick, billion-dollar marketing campaigns. And Big Food has succeeded in this goal—much as Republicans have succeeded in getting working-class and middle-class Americans to vote for the Republican Party against their own interests. Not coincidentally, these two trends are connected, since Republicans are the party most beholden to Big Food. So far, for the 2012 election cycle, Republican candidates, parties, and outside groups have received 71 percent (or $13,205,208) of the total donations from agribusiness. Sixty years of these marketing campaigns have created unquestioned loyalty and fused American identity with products like Coke and the Big Mac. Big Food is taking advantage of the widening gulf between lower- and upper-income classes—it’s getting average Americans to view healthy foods as elitist and to embrace processed, industrial fare as real, American foods.

It’s clear that this is not about personal choice or individual freedoms, as both sides of the political spectrum contend. The charge on the left that what’s needed is better access to whole foods is limited; it focuses solely on the supply side of the equation without acknowledging the deeply embedded cultural and political identities implicit in food choice. The charge of infringement on personal freedoms made by critics on the right is a fallacy since our “choices” have already been limited to foods controlled by a handful of corporations. The solution to this problem is not one that the capitalist economy that created it is capable of solving. Indeed, the phrases “individual choice” and “personal freedoms” are the language of our neoliberal economic policies.

Occupy’s challenge so far has been getting average working- and middle-class Americans to identify with the 99 percent—so far it has done this, with the majority now in support of the movement. A crucial part of the success of Occupy will also depend on getting Americans to understand corporate control of our food supply and the way in which, over the past sixty years, industrial food has come to dominate our food choices.

So how can we do this? It is no doubt a daunting challenge when we consider the large sums of money invested in Big Food corporations and the power that these corporations wield. We can’t simply continue to individually buy better foods and think this is enough. We need collective action. The current model of the food movement says: if those who can afford to buy better foods do, this will eventually affect those who currently cannot by creating more demand for better foods and lowering their prices. But this is akin to the “trickle-down” theory of the neo-cons. Trickle-down is a fallacy in that context, and it is also a fallacy in the food movement.

Philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek—an outspoken supporter of Occupy Wall Street—has said that in our capitalist economy we often engage in “low-level, self-satisfying consumerism,” such as buying organic versions of food. This might make us feel good but actually undermines any real move toward radical change in our food system. Žižek says we need a more radical rethinking of our entire way of life, not just on an individual level but collectively.

Just like Occupy has exposed the underbelly of our corrupt economic system, the food movement needs to employ similar cross-class tactics to expose the greed and financial gain that structure our food system at the expense of our health, our environment, and human and animal welfare. But the key here is unifying people across class lines. How to do this?

Here are a few ideas for starters: Unite well-heeled professionals with farm workers, factory workers, and food service employees and ask them to march in solidarity in coordinated strikes. Organize potluck think tanks in underserved areas coordinated with community leaders, local farmers, and food activists to engage various neighborhoods in conversations about Big Food and its consequences. Current food co-op members can invite low-income residents of neighboring communities to join their food co-ops, and then coordinate the ordering and distribution of bulk ingredients to make them as affordable as processed foods. Create “mobile” co-ops that bring food to people without reliable transportation. And finally, call on artists across the nation to launch a coordinated “culture jamming” effort to alter all corporate food billboards to show how Big Food companies do not have our best interests in mind.

Occupy Wall Street is already bringing people together across class lines—and we in the food movement need to follow suit. The food movement needs to present an aesthetic “brand” that will inspire Americans to band together and uproot the warm feelings many Americans have toward Big Food. If we collectively demand healthy, affordable food, fair wages, and non-destructive farming and production practices, we might just have a real movement to Occupy Big Food.


(To return to the Spring 2012 Table of Contents, click here.)


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