Food Economics v. Food Policy

Tale of the Tape in the Kitchen

By Steven Gdula

As a writer who earns a portion of his daily bread by writing about food and food-related issues, I spend a lot of time reading about cooking trends, researching different ethnic cuisines, and thinking about ways to make ordinary ingredients extraordinary. I also pay close attention to topics relating to organic gardening, government regulation of the food industry, the food served in our public schools as well as the problem of hunger in America.

From this perspective it has been encouraging to see the number of Americans recently rallying to make sure their voices are being heard by the current administration in Washington regarding issues such as former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack’s appointment as secretary of agriculture or regulation of factory farms. Now, an impressively long list of signatures has been collected expressing apprehension over the Obama administration’s consideration of Dr. Mike Doyle as one of the helmsmen of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. This anxiety is valid. Doyle’s support of the use of human antibiotics in livestock is a potential conflict of interest considering that he holds patents on a number of anti-E.coli agents.

Putting Doyle in the position of undersecretary at the FSIS would give factory-farm proponents a strong ally at a time when public opinion of the hazards of this type of industrial animal confinements was beginning to change. This change, one that was decidedly not in the factory farming industry’s favor, was brought about by two simple words: Swine flu.

In interviews promoting his new book, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, Dr David Kessler, the former FDA commissioner whose tenure spanned two administrations, has stated that the conditions of overcrowding that exist in factory farms can aid the creation of viral strains like N1H1. The use of human antibiotics in animals then only gives the germs an even more frightening edge by—if you’ll pardon the expression and metaphorical species switch—beefing up their immune systems. Soon after exposure the viruses develop a resistance to our primary ammunition. Animals become infected, foods get recalled, fear spreads, prices go up, and the public panics.

Opponents of organic farming practices successfully use incidents like these to promote their agendas, pointing to the danger of an organically oriented agricultural system. And when they’ve grabbed public attention through that argument they then rely on the strongest weapon in their arsenal: Cost.

As proponents of a safer agricultural system, and as individuals who chronicle food trends in web columns, newspapers, magazines and in blogs, the issue that many of us food writers neglect time and time again is the financial one. We focus on the effects of overeating, the potential dangers of chemicals and genetically modified organisms in our foods, but until we effectively focus on the discussion of how to lower the cost to the consumer, and help bring that change about, the Franken-farmers will always have an advantage.

I experienced this firsthand about a month ago when, along with other food writers, I decided to take the Food Stamp Challenge. The “challenge” is to feed your household on the budget allocated for its size— I have a household of two—according to the Food Stamp program in your area. Since the United Way in Seattle organized the challenge I was participating in, I used their guidelines. This meant I had $12 to feed my family for the entire day. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. Because I keep a vegan diet a few days a week, I assumed this was going to be easy. I was wrong. The rules for participating in the challenge require that you use only the financial means available to you, in this case the stamp budget, and they further ask that you refrain from using credit cards. Even without buying meat products, I was hard-pressed to create three healthy, balanced meals on that budget. Organic beans, grains, fruits and vegetables are not cheap.

At the end of the day, I was hungry.

While I couldn’t add additional funds I could have easily added calories to my diet, subtracting from the actual monies used, by simply going to any number of fast-food places or by relying on pre-packaged, frozen or canned meals from the grocery store. Those venues and those products tend to offer inexpensive and filling options. The fact that I didn’t trust their contents, though, prevented me from making that choice.

During the brief challenge I had the luxury of knowing my meager means were only temporarily imposed. Eating a healthy diet is expensive in America, and it shouldn’t be. But it will stay that way as long as supporters of factory farming and chemical gardening have the winning numbers: They’re easily found on the receipt at the grocery store’s checkout.

Steven Gdula is a writer in San Francisco, Calif.

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2009

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