As food prices, both in this country and abroad, continue their steady ascent, the amount we should pay for food remains a contested issue. In a February 21, 2011, Huffington Post article, Michelle Madden posits the question: Is food too cheap? While I commend Madden for brazenly tackling a difficult and heated subject, her conclusions suggest that our food-related problems are fundamentally issues of how we have come to value food and not in the food itself. Madden concludes that, “[w]e have driven costs so far out of the food system that in so doing we have not only driven down nutritional value, but driven out the notion of food being a precious resource.” In this way, Madden seems to argue that the problems related to our poor diet, a trend I have described as a “caloric race to the bottom,” are the result of our inability to place adequate value on the precious commodity we call food. Following Madden's logic, the consequence of having cheap food is that “we over-buy because it's cheap and over-eat because we've bought it.” But is that really always the case?
More recently, in a March 31, 2011, article, Francis Lam, senior writer at Salon, also raised the question of whether higher food prices are necessarily a bad thing. Instead of focusing, like Madden, on the way in which higher food prices can make food seem more valuable, Lam sees recent studies in the physiology of hunger as indicative of our biochemical drive to mindlessly consume food. For Lam, one way our biological impulse to overeat can be effectively countered is to provide less food in ostensibly the same size packaging. Lam concludes, “[w]e eat mindlessly, as a function of habit and instinct and so with a surplus of food, we are constantly overeating.”
For both Lam and Madden, the argument over the positive effects that higher food prices can have on curbing our consumption of junk food is fraught with an overreliance on individual choice and a limited understanding of the structural inequalities plaguing our economic system. Both authors' arguments remind me of a “smoke them out” approach – where higher food prices and smaller food quantities will serve as an impetus for changing people's poor food choices. These arguments rest on the idea that since Americans spend a mere 10 percent of their income on food, the problem is one of priorities, not cost. Whether it's the way in which lower prices devalue our food or a biological drive toward eating high-fat, high-sugar diets, these authors believe that higher food prices can have a positive effect on our eating habits.
Overall, the current food movement seems satisfied with the idea that having people spend more money on food, both in percentage of household budget and overall price of foodstuffs, will be a catalyst for improved diet and general well-being. While I am not denying that there is an argument to be made for higher food prices, I rarely, which is especially troubling in these painful economic times, see an adequate critique of class inequality and poverty enter into the food debate. While I read countless articles lamenting how much less Americans spend on food than Europeans, or debating whether food security is being measured properly, people in this country – and the rest of the world – are dealing with the brutal reality of higher costs of living and diminishing wages.
If we are going to be serious about addressing the problems of food in this country, we need to discuss class inequality, the stripping of social welfare programs and the erosion of a middle-class base. Food choices, especially the ones deemed poor or nutritionally low, are not only the byproducts of choice, but the realities of a society where growing inequalities have become coupled with limited upward mobility. When Madden writes, “America has always been the land of plenty, but we have plenty of plenty,” I wonder if we are both talking about the same country.
Americans have plenty of access to low-priced commodities, but – and this is especially apt when discussing cheap food – the plenty that we value bends considerably more toward cheap goods. And this is not merely Americans making poor food-purchasing choices, but, instead, the underlying reality of a market-based system predicated on low costs and declining wages. As Truthout contributor Dave Johnson remarks, we are living in a country where “[m]any people are finding it harder to just to get by and stay even and expect that things will get worse for their kids.” We are seeing the ramifications that emerge from a society wedded to the notion that growing inequality and cheapness at all cost is somehow economically viable. Americans could probably spend more money on food, learn how to grow their own food and strengthen family and community bonds through cooking and shared meals – all things I value in my own life – but where are the time and resources for such endeavors? Unless you are of that top 1 percent of earners benefiting from the last three decades of supply-side economics, you are engaged in financial self-survival – community-building through food be damned.
Are we really a society of plenty when real median income hasn't changed over the last 14 years? And while we may spend less on food than people in other countries, we do spend considerably more on education and health care than our European counterparts. As a 2005 New Yorker article on the amount of hours that Americans work noted, “Americans spend more hours at the office than Europeans, they spend fewer hours on tasks in the home: things like cooking, cleaning and child care.” In this era of fleeting job security and decreasing social safety nets, we work more, eat worse and socialize less. And obviously we have choices in all this – the poorness of our choices seem to be an emphasis of the current food movement – but the realities of slowing down, enjoying the simplicity of a home-cooked meal and eating more expensively now to save on future health care costs, run contrary to the values of our capitalist system.
As the social theorist Zgymunt Bauman once remarked, “all addictions are self-destructive; they destroy the possibility of ever being satisfied.” Nowhere is the truth of this clearer than in our fragile system of cheap, plentiful food. We live in a society where advertisers spend billions of dollars a year to promote an ideology of fast, fun and affordable food – and it should be noted that a marginal proportion of advertising goes toward healthy food options. Even more revealing is research published in the Archives of General Psychiatry that explains how visual “food cues” (e.g. seeing an advertisement for a chocolate milkshake) can trigger responses in the brain similar to those found in drug addictions. As these relationships become better understood, the question of eating habits may shift away from rational choice explanations and instead toward food-related treatment programs.
The current food movement has succeeded in promoting a paradigm shift in the way we eat, grow and consume food, but a shallow understanding of class inequality does more harm than good for this nascent movement. If we stick to a perspective that food choices can be improved simply through higher prices or more public awareness, we are wedging a divide in a movement that should be predicated on inclusion for all. Market-based solutions cannot be the sole driving force in changing our eating habits. If economic inequality continues to grow and food-based welfare programs are cut to the bone, we will continue to see a caloric race to the bottom of cheaper food lead to an increasingly less healthy society. The culprits in our food crisis aren't merely the juggernauts of Big Ag or the octopus-like fast food industry, but a system of structural inequalities that is drowning the poor and middle class.