Alexis Farmer: Food politics

Wednesday, March 16, 2016 - 6:53pm

The last time I ate fast food was in November. I watched the employee at Wendy’s pour frozen, asymmetrically shaped chicken nuggets into the deep fryer and my stomach churned. I observed another employee emerge from a dark, mysterious area in the back of the kitchen with bundles of buns, burgers and lettuce. The smell of grease and salt filled my nostrils as I watch french fries unthaw in the deep fryer. I gently rested my hand on my stomach, offering an apology to my body for waiting so late to eat that fast food restaurants were our only choices for nourishment.

I apologized to the chickens that were likely mistreated and fed with hormones or unnatural foods because people like me demanded it — one in three American children and adolescents receive a portion of their daily intake of calories from fast food. Most people would assume that economically disadvantaged groups make up the majority of this statistic, but researchers have noted that middle-class people are frequent fast food consumers, too — because this demographic is made up of people with increasingly busy lives who are often pressed for time, they appreciate the convenience of drive-through windows. Additionally, most food stamp programs do not permit fast food orders, though this is circumstantial on a state-by-state basis, varying by a state’s participation in the Restaurant Meal Program.

Economics are at the core of food sustainability issues. Nutritionally deprived foods are produced with less input costs and in higher quantities. Nourishing foods that are recommended by the Food and Drug Administration dietary guidelines, such as fruits, vegetables and proteins are more expensive to buy. Population studies have demonstrated the disparities between food and social class: According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, food-desert and food-insecure communities, which are often low-income, tend to consume unbalanced diets.

Food insecurity is not a natural construct; it was made by design. Certain communities are restricted geographically and economically from attaining the four dimensions of food security: availability (sufficient amount), access (physical, social and economic ability to obtain), food utilization (nutritious and safe food that meets dietary needs) and stability (available consistently over time). People should not have to choose between purchasing fruits and vegetables or a full meal at McDonald’s, yet millions of Americans must make these decisions daily. Fresh and nutritious goods have become luxury goods, which means it is “economic elitism” to advocate widespread adoption of nutritious diets without also addressing issues of affordability.

Even though economics are clearly at play here, lower-income families could also be consuming fast food simply because, just like missions of other Americans, they like the taste of sugary, fatty and processed foods. This is just as legitimate a reason to consume fast food as potential economic advantages.

The industrialization and commodification of food, paired with the on-the-go American lifestyle, has also led to an increase in engineered food in general, which ultimately impacts our health, nutrition and our lifestyles. These updates in technology and legislation have permitted the use of cheaper products, such as refined wheat, high-fructose corn syrup and artificial meats, which have proliferated store shelves, commercial restaurants and school cafeterias. Studies have shown that these foods are linked the exponential growth of health complications Americans have. A large percentage of our foods are injected with fat, sugar and artificial preservatives that some scientists argue override our appetite-suppressing hormones, stimulating an addiction to food that can ultimately lead to obesity.

A number of consumers, filmmakers and legislators have challenged the way companies process our food. But the food industry’s profits are so deeply entrenched in inexpensive production strategies that any transformative change seems virtually impossible.

Food sustainability seems to be a less politicized issue to rally around, yet food industry lobbyists still strong-arm politicians in a way that perpetuates inequities in the types of food available in communities. Eating has henceforth become a political act.

Though the food industry may not modify its practices to be more sustainable and consumer-friendly in the short term, consumers have demanded to know what is in the products they are eating. Consumer choice plays a large role in ensuring a sustainable food system for all, but in order for consumers to make informed choices, consumers need to be informed and educated about the foods available to them. Food education, therefore, is an important part of developing a knowledgeable consumer base.

The language about food has changed just as quickly as seasonal fashions. Labels such as non-GMOs,  natural, all-natural, gluten-free, organic, farm-raised, free-range, refined, enriched and fortified are just a few of the many markers on store-bought products used to both entice and inform consumers of what ingredients comprise the final product. This jargon can be bewildering, but it can also serve as a key element in building consumer efficacy in their food choices.

The distinction between “healthy” and “nutritious” is just as important in determining sustainability. Food itself cannot be “healthy.” We as humans can be healthy, but food is nutritious. “Healthy” describes overall well-being, whether that is in food or finances. “Nutritious” describes a food or drink that provides nutrients.

Adopting a nutritious diet has to begin early. Children are not born liking avocados or donuts. What adults feed their children shapes children's taste buds and their tolerance of specific foods. The food industry uses advertisements to entice children to eat sugary cereals, cinnamon rolls and candy. Parents have to be autonomous in educating their children about the variety of foods available that best support our bodies’ needs. We must not jeopardize the present and future needs of generations to come.

American food production practices obstruct food sustainability, an issue that impacts the American political and social landscape. The demand for food systems to adjust their practices is an immediate need — by 2050, the world will need to feed 9.7 billion people, evoking a consequential human and environmental cost on our Earth’s resources.

Food sustainability is not just about food. It intersects with land use, housing, poverty and democracy. Legislatures need to be more proactive in promoting food sustainability by addressing issues of nutritious food access and production. The agriculture industry has a three-part challenge, as SciDevNet outlines: “to increase agricultural production, especially of nutrient-rich foods, to do so in ways which reduce inequality and to reverse and prevent resource degradation.”

Alexis Farmer can be reached at akfarmer@umich.edu.