Al Krebs of the Agribusiness Accountability Project tells a story about a scene from a popular TV show. “A Fernwood, Ohio, housewife is preparing a packed pineapple filling pie for her family. As she pours the rather grotesque contents of a can of pineapple filling into the pie pan her sister Kathy, who is watching the process, wonders aloud where the pineapple is.
The housewife reads the contents as they appear on the label. Amidst the various acids and flavorings and sugar no mention is made of pineapple, except in the advertising on the label. She pauses and, looking at her sister questioningly, remarks:
HOUSEWIFE: ‘I don’t see any pineapple listed here.’
KATHY: ‘They don’t make food out of food anymore.’
HOUSEWIFE: ‘What do they do with food, if they don’t make food out of it?’
Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, that’s a good question, that’s a good question!”1
Eating is a personal activity all people share. It is an emotional, even sensuous, experience tying us to our home and upbringing and to the larger society and time in which we live.
Yet, today, we are losing control over our nourishment. Decisions about the type, form and quality of food we eat are no longer ours to make.
Control over our nation’s food system has shifted to an economically concentrated food industry. The dazzling array of food products available at the modern supermarket gives the impression of a vibrant, competitive food industry. We naturally assume that such products as Wyler soup mixes, Borden cheeses, Drake’s cookies, Wise potato chips, Cracker Jacks, Bama jellies, ReaLemon and Kava coffee are made by separate companies, while in fact they are just a few of the many products made by one corporation — Borden. Likewise, Maxwell House, Brim, Yuban, and Sanka coffees, Post cereals, Stove Top stuffing, Calumet baking powder, Bisquick, Shake ’n Bake, Jell-O, Cool Whip, Baker’s Chocolate and Kool-Aid are all made by General Foods, who also owns Burger Chef. Heinz’s 57 varieties have mushroomed to over 1,200.
Of the 1,500 new items made available to the supermarket chains by such corporations each year,2 only a few will reach your grocer’s shelf — those that are highly advertised, those with fast turnover, those with the most attractive profit margins. Competition for shelf space is fierce. Initial decisions about what we will eat are made by the supermarket chains when they divvy up their shelf space. And these decisions are based on different values than we would apply. More often than not, the result is one row of fresh fruits and vegetables and ten or twelve rows of boxes and cans. The magazine of the world’s largest agribusiness company, the Dutch-based Unilever Corporation (Lipton Tea, Good Humor ice cream, Wish Bone salad dressing, Mrs. Butterworth’s syrup, Imperial margarine and others) bluntly sized things up when it conceded that “. . . the return on investment in the basic nutrition business isn’t exactly promising.”3 This goes a long way towards explaining why the airwaves are full of commercials for french fries and potato chips rather than raw potatoes for baking at home. Junk foods are money makers. Good food is bad business.
As control over our food system has changed hands, alarming shifts in consumption patterns have occurred. From 1950 to 1970, per capita consumption of fresh fruit dropped 26%. Consumption of fresh vegetables slid 14%. In fact, Americans ate more sugar than vegetables by weight in 1970.4 Milk consumption declined 24%5 while soft drink sales doubled. Twenty years ago expenditures for soft drinks were less than a third of those for milk. Today they exceed milk expenditures.6
If “an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” we are all in big trouble. In the early part of this century, folks ate three times as many apples as we do today.7 And their total diets were better than ours. The National Academy of Sciences considers only half the diets in this country to be “good.”8
A Department of Agriculture study has concluded that better diets might reduce diabetes problems by 50%, heart disease by 20%, obesity by 80%, alcoholism by 33% and intestinal cancer by 20%.9 Recently studies have linked as much as 50% of the cases of hyperactivity in children to the heavy doses of synthetic colorings and flavorings in food.10
Never before in human history have people “voluntarily” chosen to alter their diets so drastically and so suddenly. Over half the food we eat is in processed form,11 filled with additives to change its color, smell and taste and to make it look fresh even if it’s not. Thousands of chemicals are now used in our foods and many, perhaps most, have never been fully tested.12 But all are being tested — in our bodies. There is speculation among scientists and doctors that some chemicals, while not affecting our health in ways we would immediately notice, might cause genetic damage which will appear in future generations.13 Like ancient Romans who prided themselves over their water system while being poisoned by the lead pipes, we might enjoy an unwarranted sense of security with our modern diets and the food system that provides it.
The individual should scarcely shoulder all the blame for the declining quality of the American diet. Few people, with proper regard for “food the way mother used to cook it,” could be accused of having demanded the kinds of food they now eat. The deterioration of food and the divorce of food from nutrition parallels the growth in corporate control over food production and distribution. Today, nearly 75% of all food manufacturing assets are controlled by just 50 corporations.14
Local, small farmers who once supplied our towns and cities with truly delicious produce have been pushed out of business. Today’s supermarket produce, shipped from huge corporate farms in Florida or California, is a far cry in quality, taste and price from the locally grown products we once had. Though supermarket produce, disguised by waxes and other chemicals, may look fresh, it often isn’t. More often than not, it is wilted, tasteless and nutritionally decrepit, though many of us can no longer tell the difference.
Our relation to food is no longer our relation to nature or even to local farmers and neighborhood grocery stores. We relate to food through the new suppliers. Food (most of it, that is) may still come from the good earth, but only after it has passed through the fingers of a General Foods or a Del Monte. Food has thus become just another commodity to be manufactured, altered, packaged and sold like toothpaste or razor blades. Food is no longer simply food. Manufacturers use television to teach us that certain foods, like other commodities, can “add life,” make you an Olympic athlete or help your love life. By falsely attributing such capabilities to food in order to sell high-profit items, the crucial, age-old link between food and our true, physical needs has been severed. Shall our food provide nutrition or shall it “add life”? Why should we make our own spaghetti sauce when we can buy the brand that will “take you back to old Italy”?
Competence, not only in growing but also in preparing food, is quickly being sacrificed at the altar of convenience. No one disputes the convenience of some pre-prepared foods, but the ability to buy the finished product has replaced the ability to make it. One great national taste norm is replacing regional cooking differences.
The modern American diet evidences a deep-seated frustration and no small degree of confusion about food and its proper place in our lives. The way in which people prepare and serve food says a lot about how they regard themselves and others. It tells us something about the spirit of a society and the quality of life, for food is life. Golden arches, colonels, doughboys and a host of other gimmicks have partially succeeded in distracting us from what is happening to our food. But for those of us who can remember what a truly good meal tasted like, can remember the warmth and intimacy which came with sitting down at the table to enjoy it with family or friends, a silent anger remains at the travesty. The temple, we sense, has been profaned by the money changers.
Living and eating are forever a matter of politics. We can have any kind of food policy and any kind of agricultural program we want. We can decide to eat only hamburgers and sugar, throw our good food in the ocean, starve the poor and save one or two family farmers to use as museum exhibits. Or we can decide that food being a necessity, it should also be a right, that we need family farmers to produce good food and don’t need the middlemen engaged in destroying and polluting it. We might even decide we don’t need to have ourselves and our children indoctrinated by commercials which teach us “good” buying habits in the place of good eating habits.
For a continuation, indeed an expansion of the type of food system we have now, we need do nothing more than remain passive. Creating a food system which serves both our bodily and social needs, however, will require regaining control over food from the powerful interests that are using this necessity for their own narrow purposes.
Jim Hightower, author of Eat Your Heart Out, got right to the point when he said:
Food cannot be assembled like a telephone, and there is no reason it should be. If anything ought to be real in our lives, ought to be left to nature rather than being simulated by corporate technicians, it is food. Monopolistic conglomerates cannot make our telephones work; why should they be arrogant enough to think that they can handle dinner? More to the point, why should we be dumb enough to let them?15
- “Guess What’s Coming to Dinner,” by Al Krebs. The AgBiz Tiller, No. 2, September 1976. p. 7.
- The Limits to Satisfaction: An Essay on the Problem of Needs and Commodities by William Leiss. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976. p. 14-15.
- Unilever magazine. July/August 1974.
- Historical Statistics of the U.S.: Colonial Times to 1970. U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Census. Part 1. September 1975. p. 329-331.
- Ibid., p. 329-331.
- National Food Situation. Economic Research Service — U.S. Department of Agriculture. June 1977.
- Historical Statistics, op. cit., p. 329-331.
- Study cited in Eat Your Heart Out: How Food Profiteers Victimize the Consumer, by Jim Hightower. New York: Crown Publishers, 1975. p. 76.
- “Food and Nutrition: Is America Due for a National Nutrition Policy?” by Constance Holden. Science, Vol. 184. As cited in “Toward a Better-Nourished World — Ours and Theirs,” by Douglas N. Ross. The Conference Board Record, Vol. XII, No. 7. July 1975. p. 31.
- “Are We Becoming Paranoid About Additives in Food?” by Dr. Ben F. Feingold. The Washington Post, September 19, 1974. p. 64. As cited in Hightower, p. 88 Op. cit.
- “Creating Super Foods No Answer to Bad Diet,” by Dr. Jean Mayer. The Raleigh News and Observer. May 4, 1975. p. 9.
- “Food Pollution,” by Daniel Zwerdling. Ramparts. June 1971. p. 34.
- “The Hysteria About Food Additives,” by Tom Alexander. Fortune. March 1972. p. 64. As cited in Hightower, p. 88. Op. cit.
- Hightower, op. cit. p. 17.
- Hightower, op. cit. p. 229.