We Can’t Eat Our Way Out of This

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Studies have shown that many fruits and veggies that we grow today have less nutritional content than they did 70 years ago.
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“Formerly Known as Food” by Kristin Lawless sparks a passionate debate over food politics and their impact. It calls for systemic change as well as individual focus on a simple, yet healthy, food philosophy.
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Kristin Lawless lives in Brooklyn with her family where she writes and works with doctors as a nutrition consultant. She has had pieces appear in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Newsweek, VICE, The Huffington Post, Civil Eats, The Black Scholar, Critical Quarterly, and The New Labor Forum.

Formerly Known as Food (St. Martin’s Press, 2018) by Kristin Lawless picks apart the false sense of security with the food and agricultural industry – even organic and whole foods – and replaces it with a realistic perspective of the state of the plate as the deterioration of nutrition progresses. Lawless is a certified nutrition educator, author, and independent journalist whose works have been published in prolific newspapers and academic journals, including The New York Times. The following excerpt examines the state of the food industry and suggests how to address the problems.

Large-scale boycotts are far different from the food movement’s advocacy of voting with our dollars. In many cases, pressure from consumers results in only superficial victories that only perpetuate the destructiveness of the larger industrial system. These changes are often meaningless and sometimes actually strengthen the opposition. If we are satisfied with small tweaks to existing industrial products, the system continues to run and profit as is. For example, in April 2016, Walmart announced that it would only sell eggs from cage-free chickens beginning in 2025. Joel Salatin, a farmer, writer, and activist, relayed an important point in a Facebook post following Walmart’s announcement. He said that instead of changing its suppliers to local and regional farmers who are already raising chickens humanely and sustainably and could immediately supply Walmart with eggs, the company was going to retain its suppliers but give them time to adjust the way they house the chickens — hence the 2025 deadline. Yet we know that “cage free” means next to nothing if huge suppliers own the chickens. It means only that chickens are crammed into open-air barns, and each chicken has one square foot of space as specified by the regulations on cage free. The chickens still do not have access to the outdoors, which means no pasture, no fresh air, and no sunshine. Yet Walmart’s self-congratulatory announcement will lull consumers into the belief that significant change is afoot. Or, as Joel Salatin wrote, “The biggest problem with this is that thousands of people will feel like they’ve arrived at animal welfare nirvana, which will make consumers more lethargic about seeking out the real deal.”

Such announcements can trick consumers into thinking they have done the right thing based on marketing and label claims and not much else. Sadly the food movement has been integral to the creation of the entire industrial organic food industry, which profits off the cursory knowledge of many consumers about food, health, and animal welfare. We must remember that tweaking around the edges of an unsustainable food industry is a grave tactical mistake. Negotiation cannot replace mobilization.

Can we agitate to radicalize the existing food movement? That will be a key question as we move forward because, despite my criticisms of this movement, many people operating under the rubric of the food movement have helped to effect change. Indeed, this book builds upon the awareness around food and health that the movement has already raised. Even those I criticize for their shortcomings have had a large influence on how Americans now view and talk about food. But the food movement is still too narrowly defined and not inclusive enough.

That is why it is crucial that we continue to change the culture around food and that we continue to bring more and more people into the fold. This will mean that you, the readers, must demand better from our government and our food producers. It also means that you need to reach out to people across all socioeconomic, political, and geographic barriers to stress that a healthy food system directly benefits all of us. One way to frame this is that it is about protecting the young. Feeding our children healthy foods, breast-feeding them, and teaching them cooking skills has become nothing short of political work. This is work that protects our children and serves an enormous public health interest. Selma James made the important point that, given how our culture functions today, there is no sense that protecting the young is a crucial part of what our society should be doing. “Women are fed up and exhausted in industrial countries, and they want another kind of life and another kind of recognition, not only the recognition of pay equity, which is tremendously important, but also the recognition for caring as the priority,” she said. Wages for Housework and my proposed program, Pay People to Cook at Home, can help reframe the importance and value in the work of raising children and all that it entails — especially the work of preparing healthy meals for our families. James told me that men’s ability to spend time with the family and to acquire and use skills like cooking needs to become a priority as well. “Wages for Housework represents an anticapitalist framework in the sense that, instead of the market being central, which we all are slaves to, people have to be central and the market must answer our human needs rather than the other way around,” she said. “People have never even considered that they could organize their own lives in a collective way.”

Both mothers and fathers will need to be engaged with their families and engaged with the important skills of cooking for their families. Remember that this is not new — men, women, and children all were involved in and responsible for household work until fairly recently in our history. Yet we also know that the challenge moving forward will be to create a society in which actual family values matter, and household work, especially cooking, will not be based on regressive gender roles.

Collective action is also vitally important for demanding a say in the production of our food. Without food autonomy, creating change will be difficult. This does not mean we all need to grow our own food, but we do need to engage with our food supply and support those who do the growing. A large part of that engagement will be direct action protests to demand that Big Food and Big Ag respond to the needs of people before profit and stop producing harmful foods that are reliant on harmful chemicals. The reemergence of protest across the country (and world) is encouraging and a sign of an engaged populace fed up with the status quo. The protests at Standing Rock, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the counterprotests that have emerged in response to white nationalists and neo-Nazis serve as key examples of the tactical importance of direct action in the current political climate. It is becoming ever more apparent that we will need to organize and resist the status quo for real change in our food supply.

Member-owned and-run food cooperatives are an excellent model for collectivizing, and the Park Slope Food Coop provides a blueprint for doing so successfully. What other creative cooperative ideas can we come up with? How can we collectivize housework, cooking, and child care? These are questions we must seriously engage if we want to change our day-to-day lived realities.

Here is what we need to remember moving forward:

  • Calls for better access to food and food education do nothing to address the predatory nature of Big Food and Big Ag marketing and the normalization of their unhealthy products.
  • Calls to buy organic do nothing to alter the production and use of dangerous chemicals that lace the majority of our foods.
  • Providing recipes for quick and easy-to-prepare meals does not address the problems of gender oppression, poverty, overwork, and too little pay.
  • Pushing the food industry to make minor changes often undermines the possibilities for real, significant change.

The vast changes to our food system, and by extension our bodies, represent one of the biggest problems that we as a species must confront. Environmental and public health disasters are already upon us, and continuing on our current path is no longer an option. What we need is nothing short of a societal transformation — placing human needs above the needs of the market — and true human needs for good health are part of preserving and protecting the natural world. Adrian Parr, a professor of environmental politics at the University of Cincinnati, has said that climate degradation is akin to crimes against humanity, and one of the biggest perpetrators is the fossil fuel industry. “A crime against humanity is an action that causes severe and unnecessary human suffering, and environmental destruction unquestionably degrades the quality of human life,” she said.36 I would expand that definition to include the destruction of our food supply, which is ultimately destroying our bodies. Thought of in that way, Big Food and Big Ag companies are guilty of the same kinds of crimes against humanity as the fossil fuel industry — which, not coincidentally, enables both Big Food and Big Ag to function as they do.

Our efforts to “fix” the food system as it is will be futile — buying organic, pressuring food companies through what we buy individually, or making healthier individual choices to avoid various toxic environmental chemicals will never bring about real change. If using the existing framework of the current system to effect change is not possible, the only other option is to work together and demand it through direct action protests, large-scale boycotts, and rebuilding our communities. And we must do so while also figuring out how to restructure our day-to-day lives to include growing, producing, distributing, cooking, and consuming our foods, as well as feeding and interacting with our families and communities. We must begin to act as if our lives depend on it.

Excerpted from Formerly Known as Food: How the Industrial Food System Is Changing Our Minds, Bodies, and Culture by Kristin Lawless. Copyright © 2018 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.

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