Food Fight

A newly unified “food movement” is poised to revolutionize the American diet


| September-October 2010



Food Fight Image

Akiko Ida and Pierre Javelle / www.minimiam.com

This article is part of a series of articles on food and the American diet. For more, read In Praise of Fast Food , Waste Not, Want Not , The Rich Get Richer, the Poor Go Hungry , and The First Family’s Fallow Gardens . For more writing on food from the alternative press, visit utne.com/FoodFight .

It might sound odd to say this about something people deal with at least three times a day, but food in America has been more or less invisible, politically speaking, until very recently. At least until the early 1970s, when a bout of food price inflation and the appearance of books critical of industrial agriculture threatened to propel the subject to the top of the national agenda, Americans have not had to think very hard about where their food comes from, or what it is doing to the planet, their bodies, and their society.

The dream that the age-old “food problem” had been largely solved for most Americans was sustained by the tremendous postwar increases in the productivity of American farmers, made possible by cheap fossil fuel (the key ingredient in both chemical fertilizers and pesticides) and changes in agricultural policies that emphasized boosting yields of commodity crops (corn and soy especially) at any cost.

But although cheap food is good politics, it turns out there are significant costs—to the environment, to public health, to the public purse, even to the culture—and as these became impossible to ignore in recent years, food has come back into view. Beginning in 2001 with the publication of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and, the following year, Marion Nestle’s Food Politics, the food journalism of the past decade has succeeded in making clear connections between the methods of industrial food production, agricultural policy, foodborne illness, childhood obesity, the decline of the family meal, and, notably, the decline of family income beginning in the 1970s.

Falling wages made fast food both cheap to produce and a welcome, if not indispensable, option for pinched and harried families. The picture of the food economy Schlosser painted resembles an upside-down version of the social compact sometimes referred to as “Fordism”: Instead of paying workers well enough to allow them to buy things like cars, as Henry Ford proposed to do, companies like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s pay their workers so poorly that they can afford only the cheap, low-quality food these companies sell.

Cheap food has become an indispensable pillar of the modern economy. But it is no longer an invisible or uncontested one. One of the most interesting social movements to emerge in the past few years is the “food movement,” or perhaps I should say “movements,” since it is unified as yet by little more than the recognition that industrial food production is in need of reform because its social/environmental/public health/animal welfare/gastronomic costs are too high.

10in10Diet
10/8/2010 3:39:51 PM

The trouble with making the whole idea of cheap food wrong is that it means 'foodies' are necessarily not poor. It a jobless 'recovery' (ha, ha) people do need to spend less. They just need to know how to do get back to basics while taking advantage of things like a freezer, so we're not talking off-grid pioneer life. Just simple, mostly plant-based, real foods. Lynn Shwadchuck http://www.10in10diet.com/ for a small footprint and a small grocery bill