One morning this summer during a sleepy Chemistry lecture, I was sitting next to my lab partner, a young man from Myanmar via Singapore, and I asked him what he thought about his job: Stacking fruits and vegetables into neat pyramids for eight hours a day at a large grocery store in Rainer Beach. Did he ever think about where all this produce came from? How it was grown? Whose hands tended it? I wondered all of these things.
He was amused. Answering with gently incredulous “No?”, capped with an upward lilt and a questioning smirk, — the same one he often used to ridicule me for not knowing better when I got an answer wrong on our homework. Albert, whose real name is Phyo Pyae, is 21 and doesn’t have much space in his mind for thinking about the origins of food.
I guess this isn’t so atypical for the average college student. Despite the fact that food is a key element to sustaining life, is the fuel that powers our bodies, fends off disease and guides the development of our cells from genesis through maturity to death, this detachment from food production, politics and philosophy prevails. Despite the fact that food is a cornerstone of cultural identity, a form of expression and labor of love, a builder of communities, a starter of conversations and a relationship platform like no other, we remain disconnected. Despite the multitudes of people, young and old, who are increasingly cognizant of and active in local and global spaces concerning food, I don’t think there are enough of us yet.
It’s shifting. But not enough, not yet.
Having such immutable significance in our daily lives, one would think that the way food is produced, regulated, distributed, and consumed would occupy more space in citizen discourse and in the attention of voting publics. Americans will literally fight tooth and nail, often elevating their discourse to the level of disheartening violence, over topics like abortion and the sexual preferences of others. People are willing to take up arms over issues that have little direct affect upon their own health, safety and family function. Yet we will all but ignore most of the news and legislative decisions related to food that direly need more public input.
Caring about food quality, its origins, production and preparation is to some extent still seen by many as a form of snobbery—those who do are ‘foodies,’ ‘hipsters’, ‘hippies,’ ‘health freaks,’ or the like. It used to be merely a human quality. Now, it’s elitism, or niche. And this prevailing attitude is hurting not only our planet, but our entire way of being on this earth.
For example, see Roger Cohen’s sneering reduction of eating organic food to a highbrow obsession fueled by “affluent narcissism.” Cohen makes it sound like the desire to put things into our bodies that are free of dangerous toxins and that were harvested by safely- and fairly-treated workers is a modern manifestation of Renato Rosaldo’s imperialist nostalgia. As though even an appeal to caring about health, at the cellular level, is the same as stomping on another’s, less-fortunate-than-you, ability to do the same. Do we really still have to deal with these kinds of ridiculous arguments?
Yes. Because actually, the opposite is true: when organic food is purchased en masse, the price drops for everyone and farmers with gentle, sound ecological practices can do more. Greater acceptance means it can go from being an elite privilege to an accessible norm.
So, avoiding this is to the benefit of industrial-scale agriculture and other food producers and all the other players who are interconnected within the web of food, nutrition and health: pharmaceutical companies, oil companies, health care providers, insurance companies, etc. The web is intricate, and overwhelming to navigate.
As a result, the battles regarding food, nutrition and food-related social services that should be driven by more public outcry in our political arenas are mostly played out quietly among senators and representatives who carve legislative deals around the demands of industry lobbyists and, when necessary for votes, their constituents in the Corn/Soy Belt.
The farm bill you’ve never heard of
This summer, North America got slammed. The United States experienced the worst drought since 1956, Mexico had its worst in 75 years and, for parts of Canada, it was the driest in more than a decade. The droughts devastated crops and forced farmers around the Midwest to slaughter their livestock because the grains needed to feed them had died in the parched earth.
This coincided with an intense battle in U.S. Congress over the five-year review of the 2012 Farm Bill, a key piece of legislation that was supposed to help farmers weather the financial blights caused by the drought, while ensuring that federal assistance for food-insecure households would continue to reach millions of struggling Americans.
The Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management (FARRM) Act, the 2012 version of the bill (which Congress reviews and renews every five years), began as the Food and Agricultural Act of 1965. It was originally intended to provide agricultural subsidies to farmers.
Today, however, it looks quite a bit different than its predecessors. As Food and Water Watch explains, the bill is now
“a sprawling piece of legislation that covers commodity program payments, nutrition programs (primarily the new version of the food stamp program), ethanol and biofuel policy, international food aid, agricultural research grants and rural development programs. The 2008 Farm Bill directed about $307 billion in federal spending between 2008 and 2012.”
I first learned of and wrote about the Farm Bill six years ago, and from what I can tell, the overall level of public attention to the bill remains about the same – unfortunately low, considering the sizeable role it plays in our lives. The bill influences the prices of various foods we buy, the products that end up in our school lunch programs, and especially this year, the number of households who will be able to depend on SNAP—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program better known as food stamps—to keep food on their tables during hard times.
Traditionally, nutrition has made up three quarters of the Farm Bill’s overall budget, which is why this piece of legislation plays such a central role in the policies and funding allotted to food production, nutrition, food assistance and more in the United States.
The changes legislators are proposing for this year’s revision, however, include potentially devastating cuts to SNAP (up to $16 billion) that could leave anywhere from 2 to 3 million Americans without direly needed assistance.[i] This includes an estimated 280,000 children who would lose their enrollment in free school lunch programs.
For comparison, the US military’s requested (and approved) budget for defense-related expenditures in 2012 is $1.030–$1.415 trillion. A single Lockheed Martin F-22 fighter jet costs about $150 million.
Meanwhile, extreme poverty rates in the US have doubled in the last 15 years, from 636,000 to 1.46 million between 1996 and 2011. In 2010, some 48.8 million Americans lived in food insecure households, 16.2 million of whom were children. During that same year, 59.2 percent of those food-insecure households participated in at least one of the three major Federal food assistance programs—SNAP, The National School Lunch Program, or the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).
If you count food stamps as income, in 2011, SNAP was responsible for reducing the number of American children living on less than $2 per day by half (from 2.8 million to 1.4 million).
The bottom line is that SNAP assistance has for years been supported by both sides of Congress because it has been so key in reducing the severity of poverty across the country. Especially in times of more extreme economic hardship, food stamps have typically been lauded as a program which lessens the struggle of poor families to get back on their feet.
But when choices have to be made between buying healthful, nutritious foods, and paying for other crucial needs like preventative and emergency health care, the absence of this government assistance pushes already vulnerable households onto even shakier ground. As I’ve traced before, poor nutrition and lack of a healthful diet increases susceptibility to illness and disease. This makes it harder for bodies that are already fighting unhealthy conditions to repair or maintain themselves.
Still, the nation is fairly divided in terms of those who support welfare-esque programs like SNAP, and those who believe it is absolutely none of their responsibility to give a shit about other people going hungry. Usually this goes along with some belief that the conditions which put that person and her household into a precarious state of poverty occurred in a vacuum, untouched by the societal frameworks that serve to perpetuate inequality. That is, poor people didn’t try hard enough to put healthy food on their tables.
Giving a shit
Having the capacity to care, collectively, about the impact of our food system on the health of the poor and food-insecure is still a radical notion. A view of public health as a common good is definitely radical. We are an individualistic society, and this is not our way. And it’s killing us, literally.
Our view of the commons and the ways in which we can or cannot protect them have changed significantly since the days of the Magna Carta; capitalism’s rise swiftly made it such that the health of the dollar and of a corporation’s annual profit is more crucial to protect than the health of a population, society, nation.
I mean, we live in a world where vending machines kill more people each year than do sharks. Shouldn’t that be reason enough to eliminate them from schools, let alone based on the fact that their contents are literally poisoning school children with substances that directly connect to the diabetes and obesity epidemics plaguing the West? Lest you’re a heartless, miserly weasel, let me reiterate the fact that you should still care because these problems COST YOU MONEY.
All joking aside, the typical public response regarding food-related politics and policies is confounding to me: there is uproar when the government tries to institute policies that are designed to make us healthier and less reliant upon a severely convoluted health care system. Collectively, we freak out when governing structures make deliberate attempts to change our behaviors for the better—even when we know, intrinsically, that these behaviors are unhealthy. Yet we allow multinational corporations who place our health and nutrition at the absolute bottom of their priorities to have such free reign within the system we depend on for food—for what reason?
In many arguments, freedom. And as far as red herrings go, this is a big one. Americans tend to take as a serious affront the idea of being denied anything, because our cultural history tells us to stand up proudly and resist (We can fuck up our health if we damn well please, because our founding fathers yadda yadda yadda…). Take, for instance, New Yorker’s current battle over Freedom Soda.
Yet we lack, quite dishearteningly, the conviction to stand up to deceitful powers that are even more nefarious because they seek to control us from the inside out.
If we actually pressured the government to hold agri-biz accountable for its methods of production and the impact of its products on our health (socially, physically, ecologically, economically), it would create more opportunities for free choice. That is, if our democracy prevented industrial lobbyists from interfering in legislation, then corn, soy and wheat wouldn’t comprise the vast majority of available, cheap food. More people in need of nutritious food could actually afford it. And more growers who want to provide nutritious food would be economically supported in doing so.
We would be free to spend our $1 on a great salad OR a cheeseburger, because the cheeseburger wouldn’t be the only thing you could afford with $1. That would be real freedom.
My point, if you’re still reading this far down (thank you), is to emphasize that our engagement with and acceptance of the systems that create and control our food—and thus our health—are so deeply tied to the economic, social and ecological vitality of our communities. Locally, regionally, globally. So why don’t we care more, in an outward manner?
Why aren’t we willing to get radical, on a big scale, in our approach to food and protecting it for all the importance it has in our lives, health-wise and otherwise?
Our engagement with food can actually be a very powerful form of nonmonetary resistance to these systems of oppression, if we choose to use it that way (i.e., growing even a portion of your own weekly food needs).
So instead, why are we still sneering at each other for wanting to eat purely good, healthy things? Why do we allow a system to prevail that produces enough food to feed 12 billion people (DOUBLE our global population, mind you), while leaving over 1 billion around the planet hungry?[ii] Why do we continue to let Ban Ki Moon and the Gates’ tell us in grave tones, as they have for years, that we’re on the brink of reaching a food production catastrophe where billions will die unless we figure out how to grow more. Why, instead, do we just remain complacent with a system characterized by incredible maldistribution and waste while Glencore rubs its hands together in glee?
Let’s not forget that farmers were feeding their cows candy (discounted thanks to being deemed unfit for human consumption) mixed with ethanol this summer to deal with the drought-induced grain shortage.
Gross. Morally reprehensible. Toxic. I could go on.
We simply must care more. We must view the health of others as important (and connected!) to us all as individuals. If there is a hope of ensuring greater food security, it will not be a matter of growing more, more, more.
It will be achieved through some still-radical, yet crucial movements:
(1) expanding local food production and legitimizing its integration into the greater system of distribution,
(2) recognizing environmental stewardship and climate change mitigation as integral to the food production system, its markets, and vice versa, and
(3) viewing food, nutrition and health as intimately symbiotic with each other and equally with economics—locally, nationally and globally.
[i] Some additional (and important) changes that the new version contains include removing words like “fresh” from school lunch program requirements (so peaches preserved in tip cups of corn syrup can still count as fruit servings), exempting GMO crops from environmental review and the sale of biotech foods from USDA approval, repealing organic certification programs for farmers who want to apply this label/standard to their crops, and finally, blocking individual states from setting their own standards for how crops and livestock can be produced (i.e. preventing them from choosing to apply more humane standards for raising animals to the meat products that cross their borders).
The bill also cuts 95 percent of the previous version’s international food aid programs:
These programs target the nutritional needs of those at risk of life-threatening hunger and malnutrition, including children in the critical 1,000-day window between pregnancy and a child’s second birthday. Last year, 66 million people suffering in food emergencies around the world depended on U.S. food aid.