Yesterday, I wrote about a confluence of factors that helped create the substantial sustainability problems our food system now faces (see “The Rise and Fall of Nutritionism Ideology“). The post’s title suggests that the “Fall” has occured, but we know better. I was simply setting up today’s post which describes one coordinated strategy for accelerating what I hope is nutritionism’s eventual decline.
My suggestions primarily focus on the marketing side of food, since people like David Murphy at Food Democracy and others are attacking food related issues at the legislative and policy level. There are obviously overlaps where lobbying Congress and the Administration will be required, and I look forward to joining coalitions of sustainable food advocates fighting for the necessary legislative changes.
Rather than wade into such political battles, my focus is on a “death-by-a-thousand-cuts” strategy, where regions, retailers and consumers have the power to ultimately rule the day. The following list outlines the major components of that strategy. I strongly encourage any and all comments, suggestions, etc. to these recommendations, especially if you see something missing!
- Food Labeling – Reinstate the Food, Drug and Commerce Act of 1938’s “imitation” label requirement, which may be the most important label for consumers since it instantly identifies fake food. Taking the food industry head-on faces steep odds, so I am recommending a new breed of food retailers applies such labels on its shelves, moving consumers’ focus from products and packaging.
- Industry-Sponsored Research – Outlaw the use of nutritional claims from “independent research” funded by corporate interests, unless the sponsoring companies are listed as the lead in the study. As long as industry is able to regularly shift its “nutritional orthodoxy” using the sophisticated marketing of these studies, consumers will be kept off balance and less able to make informed decisions on a regular basis.
- Regional Food Systems – Accelerate the development of regional food systems that expand the production of sustainable crops and livestock, and allow for affordable local and/or regional processing of those foods, e.g., slaughterhouses. States and regions should also evaluate land use laws, land trusts and other measures to preserve (and hopefully expand) valuable crop land.
- Consumer Access – Rapidly expand consumer access to regional and other (e.g., Fair Trade) sustainable foods, including raw foods and lightly-processed products. While farmers markets and CSA programs are very popular right now, we must develop new retail formats that bring food to a greatly expanded customer base (see Why Community Supported Agriculture Isn’t Enough). One caution: This may require some regional foods be temporarily diverted from restaurants and institutions (except K-12 schools) until supply can catch up. A happy problem to solve!
- Food Experiences – Create intimate food buying experiences to build consumer confidence in cooking at home and positively reinforce such behaviors over time. For example, many farmers market shoppers state that they enjoy talking to the farmer that grew the food they are buying. It gives them confidence in the food and makes them feel good at the same time. Now imagine replacing the farmer (who I hope will grow even more real food) with chefs and cooks capable of creating similar positive experiences around cooking that same food.
- School Kitchens – Bring cooking back to every school kitchen in America and utilize as much local food as possible, including food harvested from edible schoolyards. This will help reacquaint a generation with real foods and where they come from, and will be made even more powerful if it is accompanied by a creative and fun “farm-to-table” curriculum.
- No Food Marketing Zones – Progress is being made in some school districts already, e.g., NYC, but what I am recommending calls for the removal of all branded food products and related advertising from K-12 schools (exceptions: branded foods used in school kitchens). Our children need “safe zones” where industry can’t reach them, and where they can objectively learn the pros and cons of different types of foods. District by district we can do this!
- No Fast Food Zones – Ban fast food restaurants within an appropriate distance from schools, making it inconvenient or impossible for kids to get there and back during lunch time. The more we can do to “expand” healthy food options for the children the better.
- Low-Income Programs – Provide financial incentives for low-income households to purchase sustainable food by making benefits go further when making such purchases. While this may require additional funds be made available up front, improving the diets of children and parents in these households offers significant returns on the investment, e.g., better health, better grades, etc.
- Food Pyramid – Tear down the long standing food pyramid, which simply repackages the food industry’s play book, and replace it with a message that encourages people to eat less, which is what the U.S. Senate initially recommended in 1977 before an onslaught of industry pressure got them to back off. We could also channel Pollan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Or we might consider Harvard’s alternative Healthy Eating Pyramid.
The common theme running throughout these recommendations is improving how consumers (households, really) interface with food at the point of purchase. Currently, the typical American consmer is at the mercy of the “nutritional industrial complex” that Pollan describes. What I am envisioning are innovative retail experiences that answer to consumers, not food giants or the government (except as required by law, of course), thus giving consumers back the control over their experience with food.
Thanks to Foodimentary (via Twitter), I have a new favorite quote from J.R.R. Tolkien that sums up this post rather nicely…
“If more of us valued food and cheer above hoarded gold, it would be a much merrier world.”
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Posted in Cooking, Eating, Fast Food, Food, Food Systems
Tagged Business, Community Supported Agriculture, Cooking, Eating, Fast Food, Food, Food Marketing, Food Retail, Home Cooking, Industrial Food, Innovation, Labeling, Lobbying, Local, Michael Pollan, Nutritionism, Real Food, Retail, Schools, Sustainable, USDA
We should have known we were in trouble regarding our food system when in 1973 the Food & Drug Administration repealed a section of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 that dealt with “imitation” foods. According to Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food:
The 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act imposed strict rules requiring that the word “imitation” appear on any food product that was, well, an imitation. Read today, the official rationale behind the imitation rule seems at once commonsensical and quaint: “…there are certain traditional foods that everyone knows, such as bread, milk and cheese, and that when consumers buy these foods, they should get the foods they are expecting…[and] if a food resembles a standardized food but does not comply with the standard, that food must be labeled as an ‘imitation.'”
Hard to argue with that…but the food industry did, strenuously for decades, and in 1973 it finally succeeded in getting the imitation rule tossed out, a little-notice but momentous step that helped speed America down the path of nutritionism.
There you have it. This relatively simple change allowed Sara Lee’s engineered bread-like edible substance to compete with the freshly baked bread from your local baker (see ingredient comparison). More important, it allowed manufactured foods to take on the “nutritional orthodoxy” of the day and compete effectively against traditional and real foods on the grounds of latest nutritional fad. I highly recommend reading Pollan’s In Defense of Food to get a better understanding of the “Age of Nutritionism.”
While I may be stretching the importance of this single event,when combined with other forces you can see with near clarity how we got into our current mess. Just consider this short list of things that have also been happening over the last 30 years:
- Concentration of agriculture around large-scale feed and live stock (consolidation of acres and influence)
- Proliferation of monoculture crops to serve as low-cost raw ingredients in food manufacturing (esp. sweeteners and oils; consumed acres)
- Federal policies and regulatory frameworks that favored monoculture crops and large-scale food production (pushed small, specialty crop farms to edge)
- Tens of billions of dollars spent annually on marketing by leading food companies, as well as millions more on lobbying (convinced consumers to buy fake food)
- Nutrient-based research providing health claims for “imitation” food products and fad diets (kept consumers from easily understanding what they should eat)
- Plus…those things highlighted in previous posts on unsustainable food and industrial food
What you end up with is concentrated power in agriculture and food, the rapid proliferation and marketing of “edible foodlike substances” (thanks Mr. Pollan), a confused consumer base, and a complex problem to solve.
The question is what can we do about what appears to be daunting odds. Tomorrow, I will post 10 Ways to End the Ideology of Nutritionism, which I hope us test more boundries and identify where we can concentrate our energies to have the biggest positive impact.
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Posted in Eating, Food, Food Systems, Supermarkets
Tagged Business, Farmers, Farms, FDA, Food, Food Marketing, Industrial Food, Lobbying, Local, Michael Pollan, Nutritionism, Politics, Real Food, Regulation, Sustainable
Over the weekend, I finally had the opportunity to watch King Corn, a documentary following an acre of corn. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend you do. Like Michael Pollan’s books, especially The Omnivore’s Dilemma, it helps connect the dots regarding U.S. food policy, industrialized food, fast food, and more.
King Corn also inspired me to dust off my copy of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, the book that in many ways sparked my interest in sustainable food systems. As a history of the fast food industy, I am hoping a reread will help me better understand fast food’s role in creating today’s unsustainable food system, especially before the early 1970s when U.S. agriculture policy took a 180 degree turn.
At this point, here are what I believe are the major contributors that have created the food “mess” we find ourselves today (What’s missing?):
- Urban Sprawl – The U.S. interstate system, cheap oil, and the rapid growth of the auto industry contributed to a significant migration of people out of America’s cities to the suburbs. I am sure there were other contributors. Regardless, this exodus provided the perfect accelerator for a young fast food industry to move beyond its humble roots to the mainstream. Soon, fast food joints were popping up at every interstate exit. With such significant growth opportunities in sight, fast food industry leaders recognized the need for even cheaper food to fund its expansion.
- U.S. Agriculture Policy – In the early 1970s, under Ag Secretary Earl L. Butz, and as pointed out in King Corn, the U.S. shifted from a policy of paying farms not to produce, to subidizing over production. According to the New York Times, “Mr. Butz maintained that a free-market policy, encouraging farmers to produce more and to sell their surplus overseas, could bring them higher prices.”
- 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act – This Act of Congress required that any food product that wasn’t the real thing must include the word “imitation” on its label. Around the same time that Secretary Butz was moving agriculture through its 180 degree swing, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) quitely repealed the Act, thus giving food manufacturers something they had been lobbying for for decades. Without such labeling, something like Sara Lee’s Soft & Smooth Whole Grain White Bread, along with its very long list of ingredients could be classified as “real” bread the same way as freshly baked bread with 4-5 whole food ingredients. [Thanks to Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food for pointing out this critical policy change (quote).]
- High Fructose Corn Syrup Industry – In my recent post titled Is Industrial Food Stealing Farmers Lunch Money?, I highlighted a 12-cent shift in the allocation of consumer expenditures on food since the early 1980. That 12 cents of every dollar now goes to the “food marketing system” instead of farmers who saw their share go from 31 cents of every dollar to 19 cents (a 40% decline). What I learned from King Corn is that this shift began around the same time that significant corn surpluses motivated large investments in developing cheaper high fructose corn syrup, which was helped by declines in corn prices.
The result of all of this is an abundance of cheap food in America, much of which would be better defined as fast or fake cheap food. Of course Earl Butz, during an on-screen interview in King Corn, was proud of the fact that we can now feed ourselves with 16-17 percent of our take-home pay, leaving us more money to spend on other things. On the surface, this makes a lot of sense.
Unfortunately, increasing amounts of our money now goes toward rapidly increasing health care costs, which in large part are due to our deterioting health caused by what we eat. If it hasn’t happened already, I’m betting before too long that consumer spending on food plus health care will leave us pretty much where we started – tight family budgets and a lower quality of life.
Seems like the perfect time to shift from our “Quantity Economy” to one of quality. Granted it likely means eating less and paying more, but the alternative is not sustainable.
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Posted in Fast Food, Food, Food Systems
Tagged Business, Consumer Food Expenditures, Eric Schlosser, Farmers, Farms, Fast Food, FDA, Food, Food Policy, HFCS, Industrial Food, King Corn, Labeling, Lobbying, Michael Pollan, Politics, Real Food, USDA