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May 20th, 2008


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12:18 am - The politics of food
talheres posted a link to an absolutely first rate article about food, wealth, class, and nutrition. The article is in part focusing on the book Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System by Raj Patel, which looks well worth reading.

There are a number of particularly illuminating quotes from the article:
OR: Can you talk about how the individualizing of obesity and health problems is problematic?

RP: The first edition of the Atkins diet had a long tirade against the sugar industry. Atkins was saying that we're being poisoned by the sugar industry -- they're putting sugar in everything. But then Atkins makes the turn that is very common in America: It's a problem of the industry, it's an economic problem, it's a political problem, and the solution has to be individual. The solution is not to confront the sugar industry, not to legislate, not to use government to change that, but to exercise an almost Puritan control over the will as a way of getting out of a situation that has everything to do with politics.

That's why the diet industry is so very big. It is a particularly American solution to the problems of obesity. Why is it that 20 percent of fast food meals now are eaten in cars? This is a figure that you get from Michael Pollan's work. He bemoans the fact. But when I explain to people outside America that 20 percent of fast food meals are eaten in cars, they are blown away. It's inconceivable to them. They wonder whether it's because Americans like their cars so much.

Here, we understand that this isn't some preference for the dashboard; it's because Americans work much harder than any other industrialized country to be able to have healthcare, to have the promise of a pension. In particular if you're from a working family, your income has been dropping in real time since the 1980s. Chances are you live far away from where you work because you can't afford to buy land or buy a house there. So you spend a long time commuting, and if you're in a community where people are of a lower income, you'll find less access to fresh fruits and vegetables, less access to green space. Is it any wonder that so many meals are eaten in cars? Is it any wonder that across the industrialized world, we're seeing levels of obesity in communities of poorer people going up so fast?

All of the reasons I've given for why people are forced to eat bad food have nothing to do with choice. Choice is almost entirely absent from any of these calculations.
This is a perfect example of the same sort of foolish and dangerous reliance on individual solutions to large-scale problems. As I mentioned in that post, I think the focus on individual solutions that has been common since the early 1980s is no accident, I think it's being deliberately encouraged by right-wing ideologues who were threatened by the collective action of the 1960s and 70s.

In any case, from a wide range of sources, including both the growing height gap between inhabitants of the US and Western Europe, to figures on diabetes and similar medical problems, its clear that the US diet is substantially inferior to that of much of the rest of the First World, and the reasons for that are (as mentioned above) not because people are choosing to eat bad food nearly as much as they are the ubiquity of bad food, and the expense and difficulty of finding good (or even remotely real) food. teaotter mentioned to me going to visit her family in Conway Arkansas, a city of 50,000. She wanted to cook a good meal for her family (who normally eat very bad food) and understood the problems they had after going to several grocery stores. Even buying a can of plain (not even organic) beans that were devoid of all manner of adulterants, flavoring, and in many cases trans fats was exceptionally difficult. It wasn't just a question of price, but of even finding food that was not in some way pre-prepared and highly adulterated. So, while I agree with many of the basic recommendations and theories of Michael Pollan his recommendation to Americans to "eat healthier" are useless and elitist blathering if they are not also coupled with an active program to modify US laws to encourage, or preferably mandate the production of real food instead of adulterated, pre-processed junk.

Near the end of the article was a quote that both surprised and pleased me:
It's interesting to me that when the Italian Communist Slow Food movement gets talked about in America, the first bit gets dropped off. But they are communist, and they have this very radical question: Why is it that only rich people get to have pleasure? Why is pleasure not the birthright of everyone? The rich and radical moment is when you take this idea that pleasure should be the right of everyone, and you go do something about it The slow food movement was responsible for helping to drive up agricultural wages and instrumental in creating a two-hour lunch break. They did this, not through individual shopping choices, but through concerted political action and working with people, organizing, being democratic, and then taking on power.

I think this emphasis on joy and reconnecting with our joy can actually be very political. Obviously, it's been derailed in some ways by the bourgeois circle jerk of olive oil and red wine enthusiasts, but it can be very radical.
As a socialist with a moderate amount of sympathy for the more sensible sorts of Marxist thought, I am very pleased to know this and unsurprised that I've never heard of this connection between progressive thought and the slow food movement in the US mass media. Every few years, the Federal government passes a massive Farm Bill. There is no reason that the next such bill should not include laws mandating increased organic farming (and subsidies that further encourage it), as well as laws creating a system of benefits and penalties to encourage crops to be used to make healthier food (higher taxes on corn sold to make high fructose corn syrup is only one of many obvious examples). It's far from impossible to make healthy food that is also inexpensive. In fact, in my quest to find various forms of dairy-free snacks, I'd often discovered that small, low status brands of food that are actually slightly cheaper than name brands actually contain fewer dubious ingredients like trans fats than higher prices name brands. Once again, the best way to tackle society-wide problems is with mass action and legal changes, which is a lesson that is now far too often forgotten or ignored.

(23 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


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From:baxil
Date:May 20th, 2008 07:44 am (UTC)
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Damn good post. I've got nothing to add, but that needed to be said.
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From:autopope
Date:May 20th, 2008 09:27 am (UTC)
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As I mentioned in that post, I think the focus on individual solutions that has been common since the early 1980s is no accident, I think it's being deliberately encouraged by right-wing ideologues who were threatened by the collective action of the 1960s and 70s.

e.g.: "There is no such thing as society" -- Margaret Thatcher.

You hit the nail spot-on: the idea that there might be any form of social organization that exists and functions outside the market contradicts free-market orthodoxy. Even the idea of family groups or collectives, operating on the basis of "to each according to their needs, from each according to their abilities," is profoundly subversive to this world-view. Because it implies an alternative organizational model that might side-line the market, and the right wing ideologues in question do indeed feel threatened by this (because they're generally rich and have become so by vesting themselves in this orthodoxy).

NB: this problem isn't unique to capitalism in the USA. The East German Stasi -- and other Communist bloc governments -- had a similar problem with non-state organizations and social structures.

Edited at 2008-05-20 09:28 am (UTC)
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From:dulcimergoddess
Date:May 20th, 2008 09:48 am (UTC)
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Amen.

In my other life, I maintain one of two blogs on health and fitness. The other blogger, bless her heart, is constantly harping on the "it's *your* responsibility to make healthy choices!" bullshit. That's really tough in a Dollar Store town where the average income is $26K and people are buying their food at WalMart. A good chunk of my blog tries to get people *not* to be ashamed of themselves because shame is not part of the solution.

I hate high fructose corn syrup, but it's in everything and I'm on a budget -- there's no avoiding it. You can buy a tiny jar of jam without it, or a giant jar of jam with it for cheaper. Same with bread and everything else.

This stuff has to be changed on the regulatory level.
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From:alobar
Date:May 20th, 2008 11:38 am (UTC)

the buck stops here!

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For me, the individual solution is the only one I see as workable. The government is owned by big business. Agitating for change may eventually result in change, but it will be a hard one and protracted battle.

In the meantime, I eat no fast food. I eat in restaurants very infrequently. I make meals at home and carry them with me to work. I buy grass fed beef, free range chickens and eggs, butter from grass fed cows. I buy local food when I can. I buy organic veggies when I can. I am willing to spend 25% of my monthly income on food, even if it means no high-tech toys, no movies, no vacations, no plane trips, and owning no car.

Without good healthy food, I have very poor chances of living a healthy long life. So, for me, the cost is worth it.
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From:alobar
Date:May 20th, 2008 10:39 pm (UTC)

Re: the buck stops here!

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Unfortunately, rent + utilities eats of half my monthly income, and most of the rest of my income goes to vitamins and supplements
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From:heron61
Date:May 20th, 2008 06:48 pm (UTC)

Re: the buck stops here!

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For me, the individual solution is the only one I see as workable. The government is owned by big business. Agitating for change may eventually result in change, but it will be a hard one and protracted battle.

You should know far better than I how well political solutions worked in the late 60s and early 70s. From the Vietnam War protests to desegregation, ending the use of DDT and the creation of the EPA, these were all inspired by large and powerful political movements. We need to somehow rekindle that sort of activism on a large scale. In part I see this as both eliminating the idea that conservative economics is in some way natural or best and to utterly discredit the idea of libertarianism (because it is a political ideology that says that political solutions are both impractical and wrong).
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From:alobar
Date:May 20th, 2008 10:35 pm (UTC)

Re: the buck stops here!

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Back in "the old days" the Democrats did some good. Both parties are firly nested in the pockets of wealthy corporations these days. The FDA gives blessing to all sorts of toxic shit. Small farmers are persecuted by Monsanto. Corporate welfare is rife. And we have imperialist wars with no real hint of impeachment.

I need healthy diet NOW, not after I am dead from crap food. The only way I can get that healthy diet is to pay for it.

People tell me they cannot afford a healthy diet. Yet they spend several thousand dollars a year on tobacco, even more on vacations, high tech toys, restaurant food.

Many people work far too many hours, force themselves into chronic sleep dep, etc.

Big corporations are indeed the cause of the problem, but the solution must be an individual one.
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From:alobar
Date:May 20th, 2008 11:54 pm (UTC)

Re: the buck stops here!

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I agitate for political change, but I am very despondent over political change in the US. And I know lots of poor folk with money for toys, tobacco, alcohol which they could apply to eating better.
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From:dulcimergoddess
Date:May 21st, 2008 09:57 am (UTC)

Re: the buck stops here!

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Thank you for this. I agree.
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From:heron61
Date:May 21st, 2008 12:21 am (UTC)

Re: the buck stops here!

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Many people work far too many hours, force themselves into chronic sleep dep, etc.

Very true, but in almost all the cases I know of (I don't know all that many members of the upper middle class) this is due to necessity not choice - either because they need the money or because their job demands manditory overtime and they are uncertain (especially now) of their ability to get another job. No amount of individual choice is going to solve that problem, since the answers are either insuffient sleep or dire poverty.
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From:cusm
Date:May 20th, 2008 01:29 pm (UTC)
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The individual solution is the first step in the political solution. Atkins is right in that the battle is first one through individual choices, but you have a point in the larger solution requiring political action. The missing element to both is that the political solution begins with individuals making better choices, and then organizing to promote them with others. You have to start somewhere, and the best place to start is with you.

Good article. I may have to look up the book in question. The brokenness of the food industry is something that has bothered me for some time now, and its only likely to get worse with tightening costs to come.
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From:heron61
Date:May 20th, 2008 06:27 pm (UTC)
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The individual solution is the first step in the political solution.

I don't see that at all. What I see is individual solutions are presented as the solution to all manner of institutional problems and political solutions are usually ignored or dismissed as impractical or wrong. I very much see the focus on individuals solutions are a dodge to keep people from looking to political solutions.
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From:alephnul
Date:May 21st, 2008 06:25 am (UTC)
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The best place to start is with organizing your neighbors. You can spend your entire life time making yourself better than your neighbors and free of the impurities of the world, and when you die, you won't necessarily have done a single thing to slow the machine that makes the world a horror and a pit. Ten million people eating Arbey's and demanding better food regulations can change the world. Ten thousand people eating whole grain home baked bread won't do anything to help the other 9,990,000 people have access to better food.

Nothing wrong with avoiding crappy food, but it isn't a first step to changing the system.
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From:heron61
Date:May 21st, 2008 06:55 am (UTC)
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Very well said indeed.

Ten million people eating Arbey's and demanding better food regulations can change the world.

Which is precisely why McDonalds no longer use syrofoam packages.

Edited at 2008-05-21 06:56 am (UTC)
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From:cusm
Date:May 21st, 2008 02:04 pm (UTC)
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Where does 10 million come from if not 10 thousand? You have to start somewhere, and continuing to eat Arbys and complaining about it is not it. But regardless of if its 10 million baking bread or 10 million signing petitions, you still need 10 million. 10 thousand can organize 10 million. Set an example if you ever hope to lead.
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From:alephnul
Date:May 21st, 2008 05:45 pm (UTC)

but the example that needs to be set...

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Certainly, the vanguard of the consumers needs to set examples, but the examples that they need to set are more examples of activism than examples of purity. If the point is that the structures of society need to change to make better food, then demonstrating that an elite can get good food now doesn't actually point in the direction of changing the structures of society, it just demonstrates a divide between good food haves and have nots.

If you hope to lead, lead.

If you want good food, structure your personal life so you can have good food.

If both, do both, but don't mistake one for the other.
From:nancylebov
Date:May 20th, 2008 02:20 pm (UTC)
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I agree that the personal leads the political. Thanks for the information about the Communist Slow Food Movement-- what I'd heard about the SFM made it sound as though they were insisting on such expensive food that practically no one could afford to eat that way regularly.
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From:heron61
Date:May 20th, 2008 09:02 pm (UTC)
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*nods* that's also largely been my experience and it's very nice to know that the reality is very different indeed.
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From:kitten_goddess
Date:May 20th, 2008 07:23 pm (UTC)
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"I think this emphasis on joy and reconnecting with our joy can actually be very political. Obviously, it's been derailed in some ways by the bourgeois circle jerk of olive oil and red wine enthusiasts, but it can be very radical."

Huh. Politics can be joyful and help us reconnect with joy??? How can it do that? Heron61, I am asking this as a real question.

I have never heard this concept before. I was taught that politics is something to be avoided at all costs, except for dutifully voting on election days or writing one's representative, because it is inherently nasty or joy-suckingly dull.

Individual solutions appeal to me because when I hear the word "collective," I picture endless meetings full of negotiations about processing, proper communication protocols, and waiting until the end of my lifetime or beyond to make even incremental progress, and endless sacrifice of time, money, and energy doing work.
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From:heron61
Date:May 20th, 2008 07:43 pm (UTC)
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Huh. Politics can be joyful and help us reconnect with joy??? How can it do that? Heron61, I am asking this as a real question.

I was a child during the late 60s and early 70s, but I remember how politics could be about joy, hope, and optimism. People can write letter and march in the streets and stop a war (Vietnam), greatly reduce air pollution, or end legal segregation in the South (as MLK and his many allies and followers did).

Everyone does what they can and want to. For some this is devoting 20+ hours a week, for others it's showing up for marches and writing a letter or two a week - it's about what you can and wish to do.

This is our government, that's what democracy means, and the late 60s and early 70s means that the people can fill the government with terror and make vast changes. As Alan Moore wrote in V for Vendetta (written during the dark and evil days of Margaret Thatcher's rule of the UK) "it is not the people that should be afraid of the government, the government should be afraid of the people." This is not merely a line in a comic book or a meaningless statement, it is true, and I've seen it be true.

We see it true here in the way that the fundys have twisted our government, while the libertarians counsel everyone else that having the people attempt to mandate institutional chances through collective action is both wrong and ineffective.

All it takes for this to work is for more progressives to try to make a difference. At this point, the joy is watching your ideas and hopes become reality.
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From:alephnul
Date:May 21st, 2008 06:27 am (UTC)
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Wow, that is about the most optimistic thing I've ever heard you say about politics.
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From:heron61
Date:May 21st, 2008 06:54 am (UTC)
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I'm rather impressed with the above comment myself - chalk it up to my memories of the early 70s, when progressive ideas were mainstream and not fringe. I'm not certain how to get from here to something like that again, but if I ever saw a way, I'd definitely help out.
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From:cusm
Date:May 21st, 2008 02:07 pm (UTC)
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Amen to that.

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