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Foodie Inc-ie

March 3, 2010

Well I did it.  I went to see “Food Inc.” yesterday.  My room mates, tuned to my sensitivities, knew it would come to no good.  It was shown at an event hosted by the Bushwick Food Coop and held at Tandem Bar.  The food coop is searching for a physical home and the human resources to manifest itself into a real cooperative food store.  The night started with started a couple of presentations.  One from Ecostation:NY and one from a representative of Diana Reyna, the City Council member of the 34th District.  Props.  They both support the work of the Bushwick Food Coop and other efforts to improve the quality of life in Bushwick.  It was a well attended community gathering of like-minded citizens and it seemed to portray a swelling of ground support for local green initiatives. 

As you might have guessed by the name, “Food Inc.” is a movie concerned with the industrialization of our food.  The over-arching narrative maintains that a handful of companies have come to control an overwhelming majority of our nation’s food production and processing.  In their never-ending quest for profit and efficiencies they have created a system and products that are unhealthy for the workers, consumers, and our environment.  The problem is compounded when the power that these corporations wield is able to sway the one organization that has the capacity to regulate them: the U.S. government.

 Most of the information was not necessarily new or surprising, but when packaged with some revealing behind the scenes footage of farms coupled with human interest stories, it was pushing all the right buttons.  Even the crying mother telling the story about her child who died from food poisoning had my support in her efforts to affect U.S. Law.  Let me explain.

I am guarded against the easy emotional ploy of a documentary maker interviewing a mother who has lost a child.  I do not think there is a faster way to get an audience to be empathetic to your cause.  It made me a little suspicious and I did some research after the movie to put her story into context.  I wanted to see if the most emotional story was conveying the most pressing issue.  According to the Center for Disease Control E. Coli rates are down 25% since 1996, though there were sharp increases between 1996-1999 and 2004-2006.  Over the same period, some foodborne illnesses have increased and some decreased.  The volatility and a reported lack of progress to meet targets over the last three years would suggest she is right in her prescriptions for more regulation of the food industry even though a clear trajectory of decline in food safety is debatable.  I could not find data from 1950 to 1996 as this would be enlightening to the look at information for the entire time period with which the film makers were concerned. 

There were many other instances of abuse by the wielding of might of the few most powerful meat producers and packagers as well as a seed distributor.  They hire illegal immigrants but face no legal repercussions, they shut down small businesses they deem a threat through expensive litigation and provide the food that is a source of obesity and diabetes.  Through their associations and organizations they are able defeat any legislation designed to regulate them and through their dollars are able to undersell or acquire any competitor.

I’ll admit, this at times seems to be an untenable situation.  After the movie I was instant messaging a friend in Alabama who is a lawyer for death row inmates.  I told her it seems like a waste of time for people to work towards issues of social justice or human rights.  The odds are stacked in the favor of those in power, whether it be large multi-nationals or their partner governments.  I explained that efforts to address injustice looked at from a wider perspective never seem to change the status quo.  She represents death row inmates and helps them in their appeal process, but that will never change the fact that the death penalty is codified in our justice system.  We may address a symptom but the overall system remains intact.  I even feel that the work she does and that I do can legitimize the very systems we work to change.  At that pessimistic moment I told her I felt like a kind of sad clown that leaders of our country can drag out on stage in order to defend our governmental and economic structures.  “Look at this guy blogging about injustice; this is exactly this kind of freedom that makes our country great!  I’m so proud to be an American!”  But it is only a show; he knows I have no real power.

She reminded me of the small victories that we have to hold on to, that keep us going everyday.  That I should remember that I had just met some inspiring members of my community who have the ability and desire to create change locally.  Even though we may live in the shadow of others we can grow, and with that growth comes hope.  I’m sure one day civil rights seemed as far away as eradicating extreme poverty in the world seems today, but luckily times do change.   

At the time of watching the movie I was too crestfallen to take to heart in the market-based directives for change it supported even though I do agree that this is the way to change these industries; we can shape them by the way we spend our money.  Stonyfield was one of the companies portrayed as the alternative back-to-basics kind of farm and organization that had made it mainstream.  They produce organic milk products and treat their animals ethically.  They can now be found in Wal-Mart.  I know some anti-capitalists and environmentalists who would say they have sold-out, but I think this kind of movement of the conscientious business into the larger marketplace is our only hope for change in an increasingly global capitalist economy. 

The capitalist system is bereft of values except for the numerical kind.  It can only compute inputs as they relate to numbers.  If a company is going to save a tree in the process of creating its product it needs to know how much it cost them to save the tree and how much the customer will pay to have that tree saved.  Businesses are machines; their beauty is in efficiency.  They do not have board meetings for the purpose of discussing morality but to discuss earnings and profit.  This singularity of purpose also means they are easy to manipulate.  In order to change how they operate and what they produce we only have to pay them.  They make what we want and what we pay for.  The onus lies on our shoulders, so lets put our money where our mouths are and support local producers and businesses that are socially, economically and environmentally responsible.

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