Food and Class, Culture and Education

One of the better food articles of the year can be found on grist’s website. The piece entitled Food and class was written by Tom Philpott and discusses, not coincidentally, food and class.

The thesis of his post is that thanks in large part to a Food Industrial complex that is focused on delivering calories cost effectively rather than nutrition, the lower class is now dependant upon non-local foodstuffs, rather than local foods from local farms (which is how the lower class has historically been fed in the past).

Another way to put it is in the two different philosophy at odds. The first philosophy is on the one that’s currently in place, and the one advocated by the corporations of the country: “Cheap Food”. The second philosophy is one that’s advocated by the Slow Food and organic groups: “Good Food”.

There’s several points made in his post which can all lead to posts of their own, but I want to focus on an angle that’s brought in the comments – Culture and Education.

Tom writes:

Another factor, as you write, is culture. And with several billion per year in marketing cash to burn, the industrial food system has done a pretty good job of lining up that factor on its side.

There are many, many issues to be addressed if our food culture is to be changed from a calorie based system to a nutritional based system, some of which are discussed in the article. But the one aspect which frustrates me the most is how the corporate machinery uses its wealth to affect food culture, chiefly in the use of advertising, but in other ways as well. As Tom notes:

Industrialization, mass culture, wage stagnation, and Puritanism (e.g., prohibition) have almost completely destroyed traditional foodways here, allowing McDonald’s and the home convenience-food industry to fill the void. A bad-feedback loop thrives; the food industry shovels billions of dollars into marketing and controls school lunches, leaving vast swaths of the population innocent of alternatives and ignorant of what real food tastes like.

It’s clear that many of these companies encourage both ignorance and confusion. Marion Nestle, in her book Food Politics, talks about how much influence the Sugar Lobby had over the wording surrounding the Food Pyramid as it was developed in the early 1990′s. The cattle industry has enough influence that it affects how the USDA is approaching Mad Cow disease. The Fast Food industry has a lobbying firm tasked with confusing the issue surrounding food nutrition versus personal and corporate responsibility.

Then there’s advertising. Take a moment to watch popular afternoon programs for children and note the food products being pimped. Then do the same with popular sporting events. Aside from the products themselves, note how slick these ad campaigns can be.

In both of these approaches, the “good food” folks don’t have an equitable method of affecting the discourse. Sure the proper information is available if you look for it, but often the lower class doesn’t have the resources (in primarily time, but also in money) to go searching for it.

Instead, what we get are chefs at four star restaurants and some of the clientele at Whole Foods advocating for “good food” while often forgetting the “cheap” variable needs to be addressed as well. This gives the “good food” crowd the appearance of being bourgeois along with all of the negative connotations that this label implies.

And I say the above paragraph as a huge fan and proponent of both 4-star restaurants and Whole Foods.

The model for delivering the meme of “Good Food, cheap” is currently flawed. My evidence for this is purely anecdotal, but it includes the dozens of e-mails I get from people asking for advice, wondering about food additives, or outright admitting their ignorance on certain topics about food (I could list out dozens of e-mails containing the phrase “I had no idea” somewhere within their body).

The answer for this problem comes down to this – effective education throughout the entire class system. What should be taught can be ironed out later, but the phrase should come down to the three words that I’ve been repeating in this post:

“Good Food, Cheap”

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