Two Stories about American Food

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TOAST OR CEREAL? Pop-Tarts or fruit? Every day starts with a decision. For a few at the crossroads of history, like Rosa Parks, a single action is defining. For the rest of us, life is comprised of numerous little decisions that add up to something significant. Culture is constituted both by rare, big choices and common, ordinary activities. Either way, we all play a part in constructing society. And for that reason, the way we start each day matters.

Each meal is a moral statement. What other elemental, biological act involves such a public expression about ourselves and our relationship with the world? What we put in our mouths literally shapes who we are. We are what we eat. But we are also how we eat: the content and process of our consumption help define us.

Hermann Dittrich / Arif Qazi

Eating recklessly has consequences. But consuming consciously is no simple matter. Issues of health, nutrition, sustainability, labor, politics, profits, availability, affordability, taste, and religious observance together constitute a kind of culinary maze that has become known as The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The title of Michael Pollan’s excellent book highlights one part of the problem.

We members of a species that can eat many different plants and animals have enormous flexibility that constitutes an internal dilemma. But the external context is highly varied for humans: some who live in abundance have too many choices; some who live in scarcity have too few.

With that in mind, there are two stories about food worth pondering: one ugly and one beautiful. The ugly story is old, familiar, and powerful. The beautiful one is new, fresh, and inconclusive. For a lot of us, these two stories are in tension. But we must decide which will guide us through the moral maze of eating. 

The Ugly Story

First, the ugly one. The logic of the capitalist market has pushed beyond the appropriate boundaries of the economic sphere to every part of society. There is little time when Americans are not thinking about their jobs, paychecks, portfolios, shopping, or consumption. The result for some is abundance, which leads to other kinds of less acknowledged problems, including workaholism, overscheduling, anxiety, stress, marital disruption, narcissism, and waste. For others, this expansive market culture results in familiar problems of scarcity, which ripple throughout their lives. Recent research suggests that material scarcity involves such a heavy psychological burden that it generally leads to intellectual and emotional scarcity. Ironically, in the most prosperous country in human history—one that produces and consumes more calories than we collectively need—some 49 million Americans do not have a reliable source of healthy food, let alone abundant options.

The ugly story is constantly polished for our consumption. We are inundated by the efforts of savvy advertisers who know that reaching young people is a winning strategy. American children annually view some 40,000 advertisements, Juliet Schor estimates inBorn to Buy, and the average first grader can identify 200 brands. It works. “I love Pillsbury!” my daughter exclaimed when she was seven. Although generally a healthy eater, this bright kid, who is now twelve, remains a devoted disciple of the doughboy.

Children in low-income families face the same consumer pressures as affluent kids. In the absence of fresh produce or sound medical care, however, the effects of such pressures related to food are inordinately damaging—not least because the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, commonly described as “food stamps”) was reduced by some $8 billion through the Agricultural Act of 2014. This same Farm Bill continues the longstanding corn subsidies that brought us high-fructose corn syrup and other processed foods that contribute to our nation’s obesity epidemic.

In the ugly story, the value of food is based on whether you can get people to buy it, not whether it serves a human need for nutrition, or even taste. “Those on the left backed by NGOs will say that access to air is a human right,” Nestlé CEO Peter Brabeck declared in a moment of candor. “However, oxygen is just like anything else. It’s a commodity. People want it. And a market value should be ascribed to it.”

This logic is partly how we ended up with beef from cornfed cattle—the production is environmentally harmful and the consumption is nutritionally dubious. The ultimate problem with this ambitious form of runaway commodification is that it puts a price tag on human beings. If you have no value—no capacity to buy or sell—then you are not worthy of investment.

Since it is not easy to put a price on an empty stomach or contaminated air, these things don’t matter. So it’s not surprising that, as Natasha Gilbert reported in Nature, recent research indicates that the global food system is responsible for as much as a third of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. Our consumption thus contributes to extreme weather patterns, including heat waves, storm surges, and other effects that are deleterious for a broad range of species, including humans.

The Beautiful Story

That is the ugly story. But there is another story, a beautiful one. Every once in a while, seemingly against all odds, good things happen. What can I do? How can I help? How can I make a difference? These are questions I hear all the time from students in my classes, parishoners in my church, and neighbors in my community.

In the actual history of making a difference, someone always started with one of these simple questions. And the asking was sometimes contagious, as it has been for me. As a result, I recently found myself standing somewhere I never thought I would be: the organic section of the grocery store.

I grew up in a family energized by conversation and social justice. But we never talked about the value of animals or the viability of natural resources. Like most American families, we weren’t concerned with where our food came from. Yet somehow, during the last decade, I became more aware of how people, plants, animals, air, water, and the sun are all connected. Hence my arrival in the organic section.

And I wasn’t alone. Lots of other Americans—some enlightened for much longer than suburban latecomers like myself—developed this same consciousness. Some are just pragmatic. We don’t want to eat garbage. Health and taste matter.

It didn’t just happen, though. This young social movement has been led by prophetic voices like Pollan, Wendell Berry, Bill McKibben, and Andrew Weil. And it has been advanced by other social movements (including the environmental, consumers’ rights, children’s rights, vegetarian, and labor movements), health organizations, schools, religious organizations, and other nonprofits. Although this story is still being written, its substantial momentum is unmistakable. Analytical evidence throughout our economy indicates that the market is responding in all three phases: production, distribution, and consumption.

Shifts in Production

Even among the big guys, production is shifting toward more responsible processes. Organic food sales have leaped from under $3 billion in the early ’90s to nearly $40 billion in 2014. What “organic” really means with respect to bureaucratic regulations, manipulative marketing, and corporate dissembling, is complicated. But at the very least, the symbolism indicates that certain ideals used to apply pressure—by consumers and the social movements that inform and motivate them—matter. Organic production involves a concern for the long-term well-being of natural resources and the communities they feed.

More significant is the move toward local sourcing. The USDA reports that the number of locally oriented farms grew by 17 percent between 2002 and 2007, and another 5.5 percent between 2007 and 2012. Community gardens and urban gardening are on the rise, too. Local enterprises use less fossil fuels for transportation and are more accountable to those who buy their products. It’s hard to imagine producers selling toxic products to their neighbors and staying in business for long.

New and Revived Modes of Distribution

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is an ancient concept. Tribal cultures often had a certain division of labor which involved shared resources, bartering, and reverence for their agricultural practices and rituals. In the United States, the first modern CSA organizations were started in the 1980s. Today there are thousands.

Farm-to-table programs are also growing in schools. The USDA reports that in 2011–2012, about 40 percent of American schools had such a program. This new form of distribution affects production by drawing from farms that generate fresh foods, and it changes consumption habits by improving students’ choices. It provides the most basic foundation for learning—a stomach full of nutritious food—and thereby represents a powerful response to the devastating effects of food insecurity. It’s not a comprehensive solution, but a meaningful intervention.

Farmers’ markets are also proliferating. The USDA’s directory of self-reported listings numbered 1,755 in 1994. By 2013, that figure had reached 8,144. A precise count is difficult, because the definition of a farmers’ market is evolving. Does the vendor have to be a farmer? Does the product have to be organic? Local? What is local? What do you do about nonorganic farmers, local potters, or nonlocal fish mongers? What role do other stakeholders in the community have in shaping their farmers’ market? What does a local, grassroots farmers’ market do about corporate farmers’ market chains setting up shop nearby? How do people who know about soil, weather, crops, and livestock negotiate all these questions? None of this is easy, but it reflects something central to the beautiful story: these thorny questions result from communities’ active concern for their natural and human resources.

These new (or in some ways old) forms of distribution represent a triumph of the neighborhood. CSA relies on a transaction among neighbors who are accountable to one another. Mobile food providers bring nourishment to food deserts. Farmers’ markets involve a new sense of the commons: our land, our market, and our relationships. In this sense, every time the opening bell rings at 9:00 am on Saturday morning in my town’s farmers’ market, something subversive and empowering unfolds. For people who find it easier to envision the end of the world than reigning in corporate power, this is big.

Changing Patterns of Consumption

Nutrition scientists keep tabs on the Alternative Healthy Eating Index (AHEI), an aggregate measure of how healthy our population’s diet is. Research now shows that the AHEI is actually improving. We are eating less fat and sugar, and more grains and vegetables. This is predominantly true for affluent families who have the time and money to devote to such concerns. Like wealth, the distribution of healthy calories is intensely unequal, which is why the obesity epidemic is getting worse at the same time.

But the concern for healthier consumption is spreading. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that daily consumption of soda by children in Philadelphia dropped some 24 percent between 2007 and 2013. What are they drinking instead? Good old water. In response to this concern for healthier consumption, fast food chains are making forays into healthy foods. Inroads made by Chipotle and other restaurants with healthier and more environmentally sound ingredients are reshaping the market.

Don’t get me wrong. Agribusiness and food corporations command vast resources and are not about to disappear. But if I were an executive at McDonald’s, I would worry about parallels between Big Macs, seat belts, and cigarettes. For a long time, safety didn’t matter. And then it did. 

Change Through Possibilism

The dominant tale of our time, the ugly story, is biased in favor of market-based themes of efficiency, profit, consumption, individualism, competition, and short-term thinking. The alternative narrative, the beautiful story, entails the resurgence of different moral aspirations: a concern for meaning, need, creation, community, cooperation, and long-term thinking.

Meaning is made by neighbors involved in new forms of distribution, as their transactions encompass nonmonetary relations and mutual concern. Need is addressed through farm-to-food programs in schools as well as urban agriculture, community gardens, cooperatives, and other innovative programs. Creation becomes an intimate encounter for anyone who puts their hands in the earth or pays close attention to where their food comes from. Cooperation is unavoidable for any group devoted to protecting its natural and human resources. Likewise, long-term thinking is evident in any expression of stewardship.

These values are not categorically correct compared to the market-based themes. It is a matter of balance. The beautiful story is about a growing concern for such balance and doing what we can to achieve it in each decision—and at every meal.

The desire to effect progressive change is often bound to an aspiration for comprehensive transformation, not a change in the system but a change of the system. Nibbling on the edges, according to this radical view, only protects the status quo. Genuine change requires a break from the past. Anything less is probably selling out and is doomed to failure. In advanced capitalist countries, this suspicion is of course resonant because the establishment has a remarkable capacity for absorbing, co-opting, and even profiting from attempts to reform.

However, the problems with “ruptural transformation,” as Erik Olin Wright calls it, are substantial. For starters, the historical record of social revolution is covered in blood and full of unintended consequences. In addition, our current moment reveals little indication of social movement activity that is sufficiently radicalized to affect total system change. Needless to say, an ambitious, countercultural narrative for social change must be nurtured. We have to be stewards of imagination. For some, however, including many of my colleagues in the academy, the failure to generate a cohesive and viable theory for such ambitious change has proven to be a rationale for standing on the sidelines.

So, what is the alternative? The current reframing of food politics in the West brings to mind what the polymath Albert O. Hirschman called “petites idées.” They are, he explained, “small ideas, small pieces of knowledge. They do not stand in connection with any ideologies or worldviews, they do not claim to provide total knowledge of the world, they probably undermine the claims of all previous ideologies.” They are feasible and promising, here and now.

After extensive experience in facing genuine challenges—including the horrors of Nazi Germany and failed efforts to foster development in Latin America—and a lifetime of reading widely, from Machiavelli to Marx, Hirschman was neither uninformed, naïve, nor disinterested. Over time, he became attracted to what he called “possibilism,” which is “the right to a non-projected future.”

A lot of what is going on in the sustainable food movement fits this bill and is comprised of small ideas. “Better than any argument,” says Wendell Berry, “is to rise at dawn and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup.”

(To return to the Spring 2016 Table of Contents, click here.)


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