During this past month, I’ve been exposed to a lot of disturbing pieces of food production.   Most of these pieces involved the factory farm system. When people talked about how animals were mistreated, I was rather apathetic. I used to think that because I was a vegetarian, I was uninvolved and therefore blameless.

I’ve learned that being a lacto-ovo vegetarian doesn’t make me any less responsible for the inhumane situations animals are thrust into. Dairy cows and layer hens face the same, if not worse, conditions as animals raised for flesh. I still eat eggs on occasion, and I still like yogurt and ice cream. While I know I don’t want to support a system that relies on suffering, I don’t really want to give up deliciousness. I now have to deal with a dissonance between what I  feel is right and what I really like. To make matters worse, my personal decision really won’t have an impact on this system.  Even if I choose not to take part, I’d only be one person. What difference could I possibly make?

Even if my diet doesn’t change, I have grown as a result of this class. I’ve become more aware of my own beliefs and more sensitive to contemporary social issues. I’ve been inspired to critically engage with these issues in order to better understand them.

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Modern Muckrakers

In February 1906, journalist Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle hit the shelves. The fictionalized account of the meatpacking industry was massively successful, and citizens of the United States demanded higher quality food. Soon, the Food and Drug Administration was founded, and the USDA began seriously inspecting food products. The people were protected once again, and Sinclair became a celebrity muckraker.

It’s perfectly natural to be concerned about one’s food. After all, health should be a rather large concern for people. It might actually be scary not to care. So when people demanded a better, healthier product, they got it. The government even swore to protect them from the evils of the industry.

Over 100 years later, we face a similar problem. People don’t know how their food is produced, and the companies making it don’t want us to know. Worse yet, the industry has infiltrated the regulating industries and relaxing their polices as they go.

What exactly are we supposed to do about this? In the last ten years, there have been several attempts to expose the corruption in the industry, such as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. Still, a large amount of apathy remains. Is it too late to liberate us from this corruption? Can today’s muckrakers possibly produce the same amount of success as Sinclair had?

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“Real Beef”

As someone who ate Taco Bell last night, it’s pretty gross when a restaurant has to assure its customers that its food perfectly safe to eat.

In other news, the FDA just rejected the Corn Refiners Association’s request to rename Corn Syrup as “Corn Sugar.” Interesting. Maybe they are serious about helping us.

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Snack Love

Growing up, my house was rarely stocked with snack food. It wasn’t because my parents didn’t approve of it; they bought it all the time. We just ate it rather quickly. My sister and I made our school lunches each day, so whenever there were chips or Little Debbies, you could be sure they wouldn’t last very long. This was especially true because we made about ten lunches each week.

Of course, whenever there wasn’t snack food in the house (which was often, as I’ve already explained), my mom would crave something sweet. Now, I love my mom. She’s an honest and hard-working woman, so I know she would appreciate my honesty when I say that this happened at least once every week. Starting when I was ten years old, she began asking me to ride my bike to the nearest 7-Eleven to get her fix of peanut M&Ms and Diet Pepsi after school. I loved these trips. In addition to her order, I would get candy and soda for my sister and myself. When I returned, we would sit on the couch and eat our snacks while watching re-runs of Fraiser. It was fun. The three of us were bonding over doing nothing. This continued throughout high school, when I was just happy for an excuse to drive my car.

It’s easy to condemn people for eating junk. “They should know better,” people say. Of course we do. I knew it wasn’t good for me when I was ten, and I’m sure my mom did. But after being 2,500 from home, I can honestly say that I can’t wait to sit on the couch with my mom and sister while eating junk and watching The Big Bang Theory.

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In one of his TED videos, author Malcom Gladwell discusses the influence psychophysicist Howard Moskowitz  had over the food industry. He is most known for his involvement in market research for the Campbell soup company in their effort to improve the Prego brand of pasta sauce. Gladwell claims that Moskowitz revolutionized the industry with the concept of horizontal segmentation, which is essentially a wide array of available options.

The theory behind horizontal segmentation is that people crave something new and different–they just don’t know it yet. With this in mind, it is beneficial for a company to have more than one kind of a particular product. This is we can choose from 36 different varieties of Ragu pasta sauce (For whom Moskowitz also did some consulting work).

In an interview with BusinessWeek in 1998, Steve Jobs said, “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” For the past decade, this has largely been Apple’s policy. They don’t ask people what they want in their computers or phones. Instead, they dazzle people with all the things an iPad can do. The same is true with food. There was no public outcry for new flavors of pasta sauce. Nobody demanded Mountain Dew Code Red or Doritos Locos Tacos. Still, these new products are massively successful.

I’m not sure whether to be disturbed or delighted. On one hand, my unconscious desires are being met. On the other, an industry is understanding what I want before I do. Perhaps most chilling is the fact that I didn’t even notice this was happening.

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Different Strokes

I often find myself assuming that people all over the world face the same issues, regardless of their location. Of course, I understand this isn’t the case at all. Still, after watching The Hunters, a documentary about members of the Jul’Hoansi tribe of the Kalahari Desert, I was surprised by the differences between their lifestyle and that of Western civilization.

The narrator and director of the film, John Marshall, describes the gender roles within the tribe. Women spend their entire lives searching for roots for their families to eat. Every day, they dig around in the dirt, picking at the roots of plants until they find some big enough to eat. Men spend their time hunting. Boys learn from an early age to hunt animals. However, there isn’t a formal method of instruction. Instead, they learn independently, finding the best methods for themselves.

Eating is an entirely different experience for them than it is for us. For days, the men shoot their arrows at a giraffe before finally bringing it down. In the US, slaughterhouses kill thousands of cows in a single day. The Jul’Hoansi are incredibly intimate with their food. After all, most of their time is spent obtaining it. Westerners are so disconnected from our food that we need documentaries to tell us where exactly it comes from.

Initially, I couldn’t understand why people would want this kind of lifestyle. But after I thought about it, it seemed kind of nice. They’re surrounded by good people, and they don’t have any of the annoyances that accompany modern technology. Surviving on the very basic essentials is hard, I’m sure. However, I’m sure there benefits.

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Hayes Valley Farm

Here’s a link to the Hayes Valley Farm. It’s an interesting attempt to reconnect city dwellers with the fundamentals of food production.

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