RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

In Food, Big Money Still Goes to Middle

The media is enjoying a feeding frenzy—no pun intended—on hunger. Investigative reporters are discovering that people have to choose between eating and feeding their kids, between medicine and food, or between utility bills and meals. The media mantra updated: If it feeds, it leads.

In my county, nearly half the kids are on government-subsidized school lunches. That means they go hungry in the summer when school’s out.

The majority of workers at our largest employer, a state hospital, qualify for food stamps.

So the attention is finally on hunger, although farms are rarely included in the discussion. Instead, the focus of hunger is money. Why are food prices so high? Is it the higher price of gasoline for shipping? Is corn going for biofuels? Is it the weather? The commodity traders?

There’s enough blame to go around. Our system is geared to make money for industry. Shipping from around the world, our system takes advantage of shortages. Here in Missouri, we raise a lot of soybeans and corn. Nobody eats these, but they can be stored for a long time, then ground up by industry to make something quasi-digestible. So, most of the soybeans and corn we raise are sold to commodity traders and re-sold to industry.

To make sense of this, visualize all the corn, beans, pork bellies and wheat going into a giant funnel marked “industry.” Out of the funnel comes hot dogs, ice cream, ranch dressing and everything else you buy in packages at the store.

But, as incessant rain has kept the farmers from planting their soybeans and corn or even harvesting hay, predictions are for some harvests around half of the usual amount. Smaller harvests mean that traders can make money by charging more to industry because industry will bid more for corn and beans to feed their extruders. Higher inputs for industry become higher prices at the checkout counter.

My farm, a sustainable vegetable and animal farm, is surrounded by my neighbors’ gigantic corn and bean fields. Compared to my neighbors, we don’t make much money, but my neighbors won’t win even if they managed to get their crops in the ground between the cloudbursts. The clear winners are industrial traders and processors feeding the funnel. Ho hum.

You might think that the solution for the high cost of food is to ban the traders from benefiting from shortages. Expose the Chicago Board of Trade as a high-price gambling casino that plays with the future of food. Close it.

OK. Stop dreaming. When it comes to challenging business to cure hunger, our government won’t ban trading. And banning commodity trading won’t improve our ability to get food from farms to eaters. This is because we need factory food as long as the problem solvers and the media continue to insist that it’s not food until it gets into a package with a logo.

Now that the funnel is in your mind, picture the other end—a reverse funnel feeding billions of consumers—us. It’s kind of like an hourglass. Many farmers feeding in, a narrow passage created by industry, packages coming out to feed all the consumers. Us.

Packaging is a fairly modern idea. Before packaging, moms baked brownies for school parties instead of buying cookies in cellophane. Grandmas made roasts on Sundays instead of warming dinners in a microwave. Sometimes, people even made their own ice cream for special occasions. And, they peeled their own carrots and ate them without ranch dip. Trust me on that one. It happened.

In the last 20 years, there has been a huge cultural shift. Almost everybody buys their foods at the market, in packages with logos.

People have stopped raising food. Americans raise lawns with borders of flowers. These are beautiful, but not sustainable. An old friend of mine, a gardener, was forced to retire from his flowers, but he’s rich enough to hire a full-time caretaker for his 20-acre place. This caretaker needs 3 days per week to mow around the trees and flower beds. He needs another 3 days to pull weeds and pinch dead blooms off the thousands of flowers he planted last spring in the flower beds.

On the seventh 10-hour day, he sprays for bugs.

While this guy is in a class of his own, there are thousands of acres of carefully-tended lawns and flower beds in my county, and probably in yours. Schools, churches, golf courses, home gardens. Some of these within easy reach of the hungry.

But we have hunger. Our newspapers report on it every week. And our farmers are raising things we can’t eat.

So how can we fight this battle?

We need to change the culture, start celebrating local production and local food. We need to distance ourselves from the packages and logos.

We need a huge cultural shift.

Please start now. People are hungry.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2008

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