Sunday, June 12, 2011


I've been hearing a lot about our broken food system lately and haven't responded because I've been a little confused over the panic.   

It seems at the very least to be hyperbolic, and at most, a counterproductive and misinformed characterization of something somebody never actually understood in the first place.  Here is every article on 'Our Broken Food System': 

This one issue is happening.  This other person had this horrible or unfortunate thing happen. Our food system is clearly broken...

Major supermarket chains moved out of Detroit(gee, I can't imagine why...).  You can't get fresh tomatoes in this one place.  People still get food poisoning and people still die from it. We have fat people!  Did you hear me?? They're faaaaat!  Our food system is clearly broken.

I've had quite a bit of car trouble in the past year, but I don't flatly declare that automobiles are inherently designed wrong.  The thing is that people have their pet cause and that cause must compete with someone else's wacky theory, so they all must hitch their wagons to the 'Our Food System Is Clearly Broken' meme in order to make their pet cause seem relevant.

Our food system is not broken, but there is certainly room for improvement. Let's start with the issues I named; lack of access(food deserts), food safety, and obesity.

Yes, Grocery stores have left Detroit, but do you blame them?  It's a business and not a charitable organization, despite what you would be led to believe after watching Extreme Couponers.  There is a ton of overhead in running a grocery and you need a diverse group of customers to sell through the stock on the shelves while minimizing what they call 'shrink', which is waste from spoiled unsold, or out of date items.  This is a community problem, though, and not a sign of some foodocalypse.  What you should be seeing there are community gardens and farmer's markets popping up to fill the demand, if there is a demand.  Of course, they may have to deeply discount their overpriced food, but you'll never hear the foodies complain about that... it's always the big ominous corporations that gauge the common man.

Consumers also tend to get what they demand.  It's not unheard of for convenience stores to carry ripe fruits, some ripe veggies, and fresh frozen veggies or canned veggies.  That probably isn't good enough for modern Food Hysterics that believe organic food has greater nutritional value, but these are poor people, and they can't afford your snooty, over-priced food anyway.  It may be a challenge, but it is technically possible to get complete nutrition from 'C' stores and quick service restaurants.  As the city recovers and businesses start to return, so will grocery stores.  

 As far as food safety goes, it's been increasing steadily since the mid to late 90's.  We have the safest food supply in the world.  What we are outraged about and base a claim that 'Our Food System Is Clearly Broken' on, is the 1% to 2% that still has issues.  I agree that we should never stop improving in this area, but you are beyond delusional if you think that we will ever be 100% safe.  That is impossible under any system.  Even if you could theoretically guarantee 100% safety of all food that leaves food producers and processors, you still have ourselves to blame for poisoning each other.  We routinely paw at lunch meat in our refrigerators with hands we didn't wash, and the cold environment selects for things like listeria, which causes miscarriages in pregnant women.  We have manly men that insist on eating medium rare hamburgers.  We have raw foodists... and well, I really don't need to say anything more about them.

But hey, Sam, what about the fatness!?!  Look how fat everyone else is.  Hey, here's a fat picture of you I found in a Google image search, enjoy your shame, fatty!  Well, there are quite a bit of fat people in this country and I'm certainly no exception.  This is due to eating too many calories and not exercising enough, creating a caloric imbalance that resulted in steady weight gain over the years.  What it wasn't, was a some vast conspiracy to fatten America by the food industry.  How can I be so sure?   Well, the food industry makes Hot Pockets, but they also make Oatmeal, and veggies.  We have thin people that eat hot pockets and we have fat vegetarians.  You can lose weight eating potatoes, or snack cakes, or even McDonald's.  It's our choices, actions, and genetics that determine our waistline, not some evil cabal among major players within the food industry.

I've heard other arguments claiming that 'Our Food System Is Clearly Broken', like the fact that we don't have a regional food system and the unsustainable number of food miles that our groceries travel.
  Those assertions are either untrue or misleading, depending on the argument.  Take a look at breweries, bakeries, and dairies for example.  Anheuser-Busch has 12 breweries spread across the U.S.  Kroger has more than a dozen creameries and dairies in the U.S. as well as several bakeries.  McKee and Bimbo also have many bakery facilities.  In the meat industry, you find poultry, beef, and pork processors in every part of the U.S.  Regional food?  Yeah, we've got that.

Food miles and our carbon footprint is a legitimate concern, but the issue is distorted by people who barely understand it.  Let's take an honest look at the buy local movement and economics.  Advocates say that by supporting small, local farms, we can better impact the community.  Instead of going to the hypermarket to buy your peppers and tomatoes, you decide to go to your local farmer's market.  You feel the food is better, the economy is better served, and you are doing your part to reduce the carbon footprint.  The farmer you buy your tomatoes and peppers from brings about 30 lbs of each in his pick-up truck, along with his table, tent, and a chair.  He lives nearby, only 12 miles away and gets 12 mpg out of his truck.  You buy $6 worth of veggies and drive home.  Ok, he spends 2 gallons of gas to transport 60lbs of vegetables.  The semi that delivers the produce order to the hypermarket traveled several hundred miles to make the delivery and probably got 6mpg.  

So at first glance, it seems that the semi has made a much bigger impact on the environment, but did it really?  Let's assume the semi brings 1,000lbs of produce for a total round trip of 600 miles and gets 6mpg.  That means that each pound of produce at the hypermarket is responsible for .01 gallons of fuel.  The farmer's produce is responsible for .03 gallons of fuel per pound, or 3 times the amount of fuel per pound.

Now let's take a look at the economic impact.  In the community, the local market pays more because the money goes directly to the farmer, but is that really a greater economic benefit? Stay with me here... ok?  When you buy your produce at the farmer's market, you support the local gas station, shops where the farmer buys his stuff, and the help he may or may not pay.  When you buy from the hypermarket you support, the store employees, waste management services, utilities that the grocery uses, the driver that delivered the produce, the truck stop he fueled up at, the distribution center he picked the goods up from, the distribution center employees, the growers that sell to the produce buyer, the grower's local grocer, gas station, staff, places he/she shops, etc.  While the farmer's market certainly concentrates the funds from your purchase, the broader system supports many more jobs much more efficiently.

We have challenges every day when dealing with food.  We need solid regulations as well as a well staffed regulatory agency to ensure safety and to make sure all the major/minor players are playing by the rules.  We have problems that occur that we must deal with from time to time and long term goals we must work towards.  That in no way means 'Our Food System Is Clearly Broken'.  Don't buy into that doomsday speak, because it simply isn't true.

1 comment:

  1. I like your thinking, Sam. Especially about being fat. The existence of fast food and increasing amounts of processed foods don't make us fat. I find it hard to believe that the average person wouldn't know how to lose weight if they wanted too. I'm 30 and at the end of 2009 my doctor thought my cholesterol was somewhat high, and I was about thirty-five pounds heavier than I was my last year of high school. Well, I made better food choices and exercised and guess what? I lost twenty pounds in a few months, and I've been eating and feeling better ever since. Good food isn't hard to find, and if the market demands more healthy foods, the food system will deliver.


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