5.02.2015

We didn't start the fire... the suits did.
Food Issues Book Club - Stuffed and Starved, Chapter 1

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and/or my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Stuffed and Starved, Chapter 1: Introduction

Summary:

"Global hunger and obesity are two symptoms of the same problem."  That problem, namely, is the modern food industry.  Because corporate interests dictate our food choices, even the most affluent among us can access only a small variety of produce (which is difficult to ship and has a short shelf life) when compared to the seemingly boundless options for heavily processed, sugar- and fat-laden packaged foods (which can be shipped much like non-food goods and have a next to infinite shelf life) that fill the "middle aisles" of our supermarkets.

This pic comes from a really alarming article
about *employers'* rights when
their farms are inspected...
This model of food has created suffering for farmers, which goes largely unnoticed by a public still convinced that cows live next to big red barns on bucolic rolling green hills.  Rather than choosing what to grow, farmers plant the crops demanded by a global food market - and are vulnerable to its whims.  Farms are no longer really owned by farmers, but by banks and grain distributors that are quick to punish if a farmer defaults on an agreement, regardless of the reason.  In this way, farmers can wind up as laborers on what use to be their own land.

Through the tireless efforts of the food industry, "[w]e are dissuaded from asking hard questions, not only about how our individual tastes and preferences are manipulated, but about how are choices at the checkout take away the choices of those who grow our food."

Learn about coffee issues here.
The "laws of supply and demand" assume that if farmers can't make a living wage growing their crops, whey will find other employment.  "This would presuppose that there is something else they can do.  Too often, there isn't."  Unskilled labor jobs are dwindling, and frequently land can't be converted for different uses.  Coffee, for instance, is grown on land that doesn't support other crops.  If something goes wrong during the season, farmers have little or no recourse.

For such an expensive crop as coffee, it seems that growers should not struggle financially.  Yet it is the food processors and distributors, one step from the retail level, that harness enormous profits on such crops - farmers are paid pennies.  "Nestle is in the position to raise the price that its growers receive.  But why would it do that?"  Corporations do not subscribe to ideas such as fairness.  They strive only to maximize profits.

"The food system is a battlefield, though few realize quite how many casualties there have been."  Farmers worldwide have organized to fight back against the unjust system, to varying degrees of success (and danger).  Consumers also try to fight back by voting with their forks and dollars, and yet "the choice between Coke and Pepsi is a pop freedom - it's choice lite."  When the only choice is to support the food industry, choice becomes specious.

Discussion:

As any good introductory chapter does, this first section briefly touches on many topics that (I believe) will be more thoroughly examined in later chapters.  As such I'm not going to discuss each idea in depth.  I do want to address the idea of voting with our forks, though.

Not everyone sees it this way, but I have long seen veganism as an industry boycott.  For this reason, I go out of my way to purchase products which are not only vegan, but that are made by vegan companies.  I also refuse to buy chocolate, coffee, tea, or flowers that aren't fair trade certified, because if it's vegan but the product of slavery it is in no way "cruelty free."  I buy organically grown produce whenever possible - not for my own personal health, but for the health of the land, and the workers in the fields who are directly exposed to agricultural chemicals, and the people whose air and water those chemicals could affect.

The question I struggle with is, does it matter?  In the great scheme of things, does it matter if I refuse to purchase the products of oppression, refuse to hand my money to exploiters?  Will it impact anything, ever?

The short answer is no.  There is no corporation or government that will ever feel the impact of my personal grocery store choices.  But.  There's a big but!  I do think that veganism's collective choice to boycott these products can have an impact, particularly if we keep growing as a movement, and if we choose whenever possible to support truly ethical and vegan companies.  Of course not everyone has these products available to them, or has the means to buy them (rather than, say, what's on sale that week), but those of us who do must spend wisely and in an informed way for our choices to have the greatest impact.

But... there's another but.  Which is that our purchasing choices alone are unlikely to ever be enough to change the food system.  They might push things in the right direction, but until or unless animal foods become unprofitable, corporations will continue to sell them - and to abuse human labor to make them cheap.  This "purchasing power" tactic also leaves out everyone who does not have the means to "just make different choices," which in a poverty-wracked state such as Louisiana is quite a large number of people!  For these reasons, any of us who are able must also exert systemic pressure on the food industry.

How?  There are many options.  First, we should look to our local and national legislatures and pay attention whenever a bill comes up that involves food - access to it or the regulation of it or its purveyors.  Ask your legislators to support bills that strengthen SNAP and increase access to healthy food, and those that increase industry regulation.  Ask them to vote against bills that loosen regulations for food industry workers, inspections, and the like.  Get involved by talking to your city council members if there are any local initiatives on food.  For local folks, the Louisiana legislative session is currently under way, and I've put together a small list of bills that I believe are worthy of support.

More broadly, we should support efforts like the Fight for $15 - it was, after all, the fast food industry that pushed wages down for "unskilled" workers, and many other food industry workers perform difficult and dangerous work for less than a living wage.  And don't forget, the food industry pays its employees substandard wages not to keep our food cheap but to keep their profits high.

Also, we must support all anti-discrimination efforts, whether they are fighting discrimination based on age, race, gender / sexuality / gender expression; whether ableism or sizeism or healthism is at issue.  Why?  Because oppression for some is oppression for all.  What we need to create is a paradigm shift - not just in how society sees and treats animals, but how it sees and treats everyone of less than the highest ranks of privilege.

We must eradicate the idea that some beings are "less than" and therefore exploitable.  It is from this mindset that all oppression stems.  If we stamp out the fire only in one corner, yet allow it to rage elsewhere, that corner remains in constant peril of reigniting.  (Not to mention, who wants to live in the one fire-free room of a house that's burning down?)  We must stamp it out entirely.  We must learn to be intersectional.

We all get frustrated with so-called environmentalists who believe that, since they've switched over to more efficient light bulbs, they're all done, hands clean.  Veganism without intersectionality is the lightbulb-switch of food justice.  I implore you: don't assume that, since there's no animal in your food / clothes / products, you've done all there is to do.  Don't be a single-issue vegan.  Wherever and for whomever it crops up, see the fire and work to stamp it out.

And now, because how can I not make fun of myself after that lil speech:



Billy Joel - We Didn't Start The Fire by harrison73

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