From field to supermarket, things are amiss

Road Trip USA was envisioned to serve a number of purposes, one of them to visit small, rebel farmers who are concerned enough about the impact of large industrial agriculture to participate in system-wide change through sustainable practices on their own farms. Those we have visited have been generous with their knowledge, and certainly fit Joel Salatin’s criteria that farms should be ‘aromatically and aesthetically pleasing’ – I’ll be posting on some soon…

The first farm we visited was in fact Polyface, which I’ve already detailed. It is a wonderful place, and an inspiration to many new and aspiring farmers such as ourselves. Salatin is not just farming, he’s also combating complacence and acceptance of industrial agriculture as normative through his many books, workshops, and what seems like a lot of time on the lecture circuit. I recommend reading a great post over on ‘Good Cooking for Hard Times’ that outlines some of the consequences of our faith in industrial ag and gives further detail to Polyface.

But I should begin at the beginning. For Road Trip USA, we packed the essential reading for our continued research into sustainable farming, then prepared ourselves for the Land of Processed Food.

When we encountered initial difficulties with the RockVan, you can imagine our surprise in the rather uninspiring town of Springfield, Virginia to find a little diner promoting itself as ‘Farm to Table’ just around the corner from our freeway hotel.

Turns out the Silver Diner is a regional chain that is ‘locally owned and operated’, and while it’s nice to see the interest and effort around sourcing produce locally, I’m really not sure about the ‘natural’ claims nor their ethical credentials after checking out their egg and milk suppliers.

The food we were served fit the bill of most chain fare in the States – large servings smothered in cheese, tasting of, well… fat. Vegetables were in short supply, the pancake breakfast managed to look as though there’s nothing local or natural about it – just what people want, right? I don’t want to knock Silver Diner for trying, but I was struck by how the commercial imperative to cater to the mainstream desire for sameness and quantity seems to be hampering their efforts at really tapping into the ‘farm to table’ movement. Less generously, these people are opportunists dressing up (relatively) local produce as ‘natural’.

But that’s just the first day.

As we’ve traversed thousands of miles across this vast, beautiful country, two of our most common interactions with food and agriculture have been amongst farmlands and supermarkets. Restaurants, while revealing what people eat outside the home, don’t tell you as much about their everyday existence as supermarkets do, and while supermarkets completely obscure their products’ sources, just drive through rural America and you’ll see the often-sad source for yourself.

Much of what we’ve seen evokes a bit of the nostalgic rural idyl – neat rows of corn bursting green across the horizon, the glimmer of red capsicums peeking through deeply verdant fields, circles of golden hay tidily surrounding a homely barn. In Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina, it’s the cavernous old barns in varying states of decay or fresh repair, and if the mid-South is barns, Texas is windmills.

 

Yet if you drive through these fields day after day, week after week, and you have your sustainable and fair-trade agricultural lenses on, what you see is monocultures, dead and dying soils, rubbish-strewn poverty in small farming communities and field-workers’ cottages, and pastures decorated with billboards advertising casinos or treatment for Lupus.

The Mississippi Delta’s relentless monotony of cornfields made me wonder at the outcry against palm tree plantations in Malaysia, when our own backyard is so untidy. Not that I’m suggesting we shouldn’t protest the destruction of rainforests for monocultures, but that we should scrutinise the practices of our own countries more closely (who, of course, are also hugely reliant on palm oil for the gargantuan processed food industry). In case the monocultures don’t give you a touch of dysphoria, there’s the poverty – from run-down trailers to shotgun shacks held together with little more than a Southern Baptist’s prayers, rural Mississippi (which is pretty much all of Mississippi, the poorest state in the US) is poor – like, Flint, Michigan poor.

In Mississippi, what really struck me was the exploitation of labour, as it was pretty obvious that it wasn’t the farm owners’ houses we were despairing at.

But when you get to west Texas, where broad-acre cotton and wheat dominate the landscape, it gets harder to tell who owns what, and our sense was that the mid-sized family farms were the ones under enormous threat from long-term unsustainable practices and the current drought.

There’s spirited debate amongst the farming community here over when they can start calling it of a scale of the Dust Bowl of the 30s, but whether what we’re seeing is that bad or not, it’s very very bad. Whole wheat crops have been ploughed under, cattle sold early, and grain elevators gone bankrupt.

Even the rivers have up and left the state.

 

The detritus of industrial agriculture gone wrong is everywhere – from dead soils to deserted farmhouses, the dust devils are closing in.

Let them eat air - wind farms may be the real future of Texan farming

But from wind springs new life, and just across Interstate 40 from the sad and stinking feedlots outside Amarillo are some of Texas’ many wind farms, a hopeful backdrop to the crumbling disasters of industrial agriculture in America’s midwest. Even the private oil derricks seem relatively harmless as they dredge the last of the land’s lifebloods from under its withering skin.

Lone oil derricks feature in Texan pastures

Yet many argue we must have these monolithic systems in order to feed the world. But what that attitude has given us is a system so broken farmers pay enormous sums to Monsanto to grow tens of thousands of acres of Round-Up-Ready corn to feed ruminants who live out their lives in malodorous CAFOs so we can have 24oz steaks on our plates – in Amarillo your super-sized steak is accompanied by the smell of their excrement in the feedlots just west of town.

You smell the feedlots many miles before you can see them.

And I will point out the obvious – we’re over-feeding the so-called global north, or what used to be called the First World, where now we’re mostly just first in diseases of affluence.

In many of America’s supermarkets, you can’t miss the ‘mobility scooters’ as you collect a trolley. The prevalence of obesity in America is no secret, and the majority of those we’ve seen using the scooters have fit the description. I’m not remotely interested in joining others in fat-shaming – I see no shame in obesity, just higher risk for disease and a diminished quality of life. Yet I can’t help but ponder the motive of supermarkets full of 85% highly-processed food in providing mobility scooters for their customers?

Once inside, you could follow Michael Pollan’s advice and stick to the outer aisles and produce section. And regular readers of my blog will know we go a step further and avoid big chain supermarkets entirely, but for the purposes of research and creativity, we’ve not only gone in, we’ve gone deep.

It starts with a game – try to find a food you know in its original form. Butter? No – oh, wait, yes, some.

'I can believe it's not butter'

Rice? Sure, but almost all instant and flavoured. Cheese? Over there in the dry goods ‘shelf-stable’ area.

Yoghurt? Of course, but I hope you don’t mind artificial flavours and sweeteners, and of course you’ll be delighted it’s all fat free.

Right, so dairy is fat or even dairy free, rice is instant and ‘value added’, and there are typically 3-4 times as many processed meat products as whole. And that’s mostly around Pollan’s supermarket periphery – you should see what’s in the middle. Oh, you’ve been there? So you know there is nothing whole in the middle – it’s entirely made up of ‘ingredients’ created by the wonders of science to befuddle our senses into thinking it’s actually food, marketed as healthier than what we might grow in our own backyards.

The fabulous Zoe recently said on Progressive Dinner Party, I don’t accept that the leap from wheat kernel to bread is the same as the leap from bread to McDonalds‘.

It’s not full-cream dairy making you fat, America. Putting excessive amounts of ‘cheese product’ on highly processed meat products wrapped in highly processed ‘bread’ products served with a side of… well, I don’t know their scientific names… yeah, that and the super-sized sodas and high-sugar cereals, that might make you fat. When even the deli potato salad has High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), you’re going to get fat.

These processed foods will make us all fat while we blind ourselves to the exploitation of workers who grew and harvested the ingredients that made these ‘foods’ whose origins are no longer recognisable nor traceable. Meanwhile, the workers will continue to die the illnesses of poverty and over-exposure to chemicals, and everyone will get fatter and sadder and act like nobody knows why. And more farmers will continue to leave the land because where is the dairy farmer’s dollar in a product so ‘value-added’ by others down the supply chain it’s no longer primarily made from milk anyway?

Surely the fact that we can eat at the Silver Diner should make us happy? And not having to grow our own tomatoes, add seasoning to our rice, or fruit to our yoghurt – no need to pop our nachos in the oven to melt the cheese? Isn’t it marvellous that we not only don’t have to bake our own bread, we don’t even have to slice it? Those benevolent corporations will even boil your eggs for you.

I guess there really are people who 'can't even boil an egg'. 🙁

Industrial agriculture has made all of us so much happier, hasn’t it? I mean, just look at these tomatoes, right?

This post is linked to Fight Back Fridays – you should check out some of the other Food Renegade posts!

 

Published by

Tammi Jonas

The infrequent and imperfect yet impassioned musings of a farmer, meatsmith, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and cultural commentator with a penchant for food and community…

22 thoughts on “From field to supermarket, things are amiss”

  1. Holy canole! Precooked eggs? Tubes of orange cheese? Scary. You know, at Icons SA at Adelaide Aiport (on my way home from Perisher) I bought some ‘instant’ risotto (green pea, mint & lemon) out of curiosity – surely the Oz gourmet capital of South Australia wouldn’t stoop so low as to over-produce food? All I had to do was add water, cover, and simmer 15 minutes. All flavours & seasonings (including parmesan cheese) were already added in the factory production process. Sure, it tasted relatively palatable – that is, when compared to tinned spaghetti or canned tomato soup. But it lacked complexity, freshness and, most importantly, heart & soul. Memorable only for being the least palatable food I’ve ever had from South Oz. If this is the only way I can get food across borders into (heavily import-regulated) Western Australia, I’d rather save my pennies and invest in a week-long holiday of fresh culinary indulgence in South Oz. And surely there’s a greater return per dollar on investment in marketing your food producing region on the basis of its FRESH food, than its factory food? Food tourism is more sustainable for local economies and the environment than high tech processing too. Je despair!

  2. oh, tammi…

    far out. it’s shocking. shocking in an “i knew that it was gonna be awful, but it’s even more awful than my over-active imagination could imagine” kind of way.

    my bloke was in nashville last year for work and couldn’t find anything he could actually, ya know, eat at breakfasts. all fake-cheese covered and chocolate-flavoured stuff.

    hmm. much to think on.

  3. I think the only positive thing I learned from this post is that hard boiled eggs are a 70 calorie snack.

    That truly is a sad state of affairs in America.

  4. I can’t believe you can get eggs pre-boiled!

    That poverty is what makes me really sad. That little house looks so desolate and depressing.

  5. I remember the look of disbelief on the supermarket manager’s face when I asked (in Fremont CA, about 15 years ago) for yoghurt with fat in it. A great post, Tammi, and your LOOOONNG trip is giving you a really good perspective on what is happening in the farmlands of the USA.

  6. I hear ya, Linda. In Ohio years ago, I asked in a stupormarket for prunes (for a chicken stuffing”, and was told IF they had them they’d be in the “nutrition” aisle – even then, you has to go out of your way to find actual nourishment. How sad that in a world of a thousand choices, 999 are crap. And how sad for farmers doing the right thing that they have to fight these expectations.

    Brilliant post, Tammi .

  7. Oh, Adele – I hear you! We’ve picked up a couple of ‘convenience’ meals in the past couple years, and not one has been memorable except to remind me what cardboard tastes like. Oh, or bucketloads of fat/grease, and not in a ‘that’s super delicious fried food’ way.

  8. As my son is getting older, and mixing with more people that aren’t the children of our friends, I’m having all the processed foods in our stupormarkets brought to my attention more often. It’s not like American supermarkets (I can buy real food, relatively easily) and I can’t buy pre-boiled eggs here, but there’s no shortage of pretend yoghurt, pretend cheese or supersized ingredients lists. It’s becoming more obvious how much I put the blinkers on when I shop to exclude most of the crap from my view at my local independent supermarket.

  9. Lucy – every time I come back, which is every couple years, it gets noticeably worse. For example, our last trip was two years ago, and people were still making their own iced tea (usually as ‘sun tea’) – only those without taste would by the cans of Lipton iced tea, which are uniformly disgusting. This trip, we see gallon jugs (like milk comes in) of iced tea everywhere. The eggs are new to me too, but that may be an eastern/southern thing that’s been going on longer for all I know? I’ve never seen it in the west, so our time in Oregon will tell.

    Oh, and the fake cheese has also got a lot worse. I’d never encountered it in a Mexican-run joint until Texas this trip. So. Utterly. Disgusting. 🙁

  10. I agree, Melissa. And that house was by no means the worst – but the most stark examples had people outside them and I feel too intrusive and rude to photograph people unless I can ask them, which is hard to do between 20 and 60mph. The conditions of the workers and the owner/farmers have given me strong cause to rethink what I’m willing to eat – it’s worse here than Oz, but I’ll be investigating and writing a lot more on this topic I suspect.

  11. The lack of full-cream yoghurt is driving me mental, Linda. Antigone (10) is particularly put out by it, but then, she’s pretty keen on anything I cook with pork fat… 😉 And yes, the longer we’re here, the broader my perspective is getting – very helpful for sure!

  12. One thing I should clarify – there are amazing supermarkets in the States full of delicious, local, organic, seasonal, fair trade, etc food. I’m hoping to do a post on these, but it will be complicated by my concerns about the inherent class issues with such stores- they’re mostly in solid middle class and up neighbourhoods, they’re expensive, and they often do that frustrating thing of encouraging more consumption by greenwashing every potentially saleable product. So while I love to wander breathlessly through my favourite such grocer in Santa Cruz, CA (New Leaf), I’m conflicted about who has access and what wankery such places are also encouraging ‘conscious’ and affluent citizens to buy. But I’ll leave that for another post…

  13. I *love* going overseas and shopping for food. My dear Tammois, that is indeed “foreign” food!

    You did see this article “Access to grocers doesn’t improve diets, study finds” http://lat.ms/qQunb8 ?

    It touched on the difference in supermarkets in underprivileged areas vs. middle-class.

    And Jamie Oliver’s apt comment at the end: “If you go into most grocery stores across America, the majority of the store is chock-full of processed food calling out to you from the packages, ‘Pick me! I’m tastier and more convenient,'” Oliver wrote. “And ringed around all this are good old veggies, with no instructions.”

    They should be regulating what they call “food”.

  14. Tammi,

    While this is an interesting post, it’s less journalistic than op-ed. You mention an attempt at balance in your comment, and I look forward to seeing that post. Another interesting phenomena I’ve noticed is the number of “enlightened” middle to upper classers (people who are usually quite left in their thinking) touting their perfect willingness to pay more for their food in order to have it meet the “green” standard. While in America it seems the real quandary is how to make healthy foods affordable to the masses. Why do you think these processed/packaged/petrified products are so popular? They’re cheap. And when the choice is between food and medicine or food and electricity, the food budget is most often what gets cut. I grew up in an area of rural Alabama similar to the one you picture for “depressing” Mississippi. The luxury we had was land. My parents kept 1 to 2 acre garden that kept us in fresh goods all summer and frozen/canned ones in the winter. We also farmed our own beef. Yet still, spam and spaghetti were weekly staples to make the money last. Something I’d love to see you address is how the tough new immigration laws have led to crops rotting in the fields in GA which will lead to even higher prices thanks to the shortage. And for all those who say, “Hire American!” try to explain how no Americans were lining up for backbreaking work in southern heat for $8 an hour. Then juxtapose the fact that the farmers CANNOT pay more than that without bankrupting themselves. A lose/lose situation as been created partially because of the rush to abandon all things George Bush, when — in fact — his guest worker program was one of the best initiatives ever. Just some thoughts, but interested to hear another voice delving into these extremely complex issues.

  15. Hi Jodi – thanks for your comments, which raise so many more issues than I was able to cover in this post. I don’t aim for journalistic – I’m an academic – but you’re right, this post is far more op-ed as it’s really a narrative based on my observations and supported by a long interest in sustainable food and social justice as well as my academic research.

    As for the processed food being cheaper point – I’ve read a number of studies debunking that assumption, though in fairness, it would certainly depend on which processed foods people are buying, right? If it’s Spam, it’s surely cheaper than frozen pizzas? And I’ve been stunned at the cheapness of fast food here – we can feed a family of five for under $20 on burgers & drinks!

    I love your point about the land you had and the fresh foods (which you then preserved, I understand?) as well as the processed. I’m hoping to also write about my wonderful uncle in Mississippi who has kept a garden his whole life, and certainly doesn’t fit the stereotypes of the poor South with his masses of tomatoes he preserves every year.

    Finally, your point about itinerant migrant workers is really important, and sadly I can’t do justice to it without a lot more research as I’m not across the policy or legislative context in the US in any meaningful way. I’ve really been grappling with the conundrum of needing to ensure whole foods are affordable for all Americans (or Australians back home, for that matter), but also seeing changes to the system that ensure workers are paid a living wage, and that farmers are not amongst the poorest in our nations? As you say, it’s very complex – and incredibly frustrating. What I found depressing in Mississippi was that there are people who can easily afford to pay more for their food demanding that it remain cheap while the producers and their labourers remain in poverty (unless they’re mega-corps, where the owners are just fine but the workers not so much).

    I have a number more posts ahead of me on these questions, I know!

  16. I read your eloquent expose of the food and agriculture industry in the US, with shock and dismay! And it all seems so entrenched and hard to arrest.

    Without sounding too pompous, we try to only real food. If it’s in a packet or bottle with lots of writing and numbers on it, forget it!

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