John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath concludes with a scene that would be unimaginable in an American novel of today. In the book’s very last lines, a starving 50 year-old man is suckled by a young mother who offers him her breast because he is too famished to keep any solid food down. The man and the woman are “Okies”, farmers driven from their native Oklahoma by agricultural practices that have ruined the land and turned it into a “Dust Bowl”.
The Grapes of Wrath’s closing scene comes to mind when discussing Ellen Gustafson’s We the Eaters because the novel was published just a year before the founding of the fast food chain McDonalds.
The burger, fries and soda diet popularized by McDonalds and similar fast food franchises is the prime target of Ellen Gustafson’s book. In 258 pages packed with eye-watering statistics, dizzying insights and pithy quotes, she unpacks the fast food meal and everything that lies behind it, from high fructose corn syrup through processed cheese and processed tomato to the ominously named “pink slime” which, as she explains, “… is the controversial additive to ground beef that amounts to a foamy pink mixture of low-grade beef parts and, typically, ammonium hydroxide … The USDA [US Department of Agriculture] buys 7 million pounds of pink slime for school lunch programs …”
Somewhere between the despair of the Great Depression and the triumphalism of John F. Kennedy’s America, something seems to have gone terribly wrong. Ellen Gustafson –“food system change advocate” and cofounder of FEED and Food Talk – puts that development quite literally on a plate. Starting with the premise that Americans love their food, she deconstructs the contents of the American backyard barbecue, tracing it back to its origins and providing an analysis of its nutritional value, economic drivers, and impact on the health of individuals and of nations. “The industrialized food system that has created all of this cheap food,” she argues, “has left over a billion of us overweight and has not managed to feed the people who actually need affordable food – the hungry.”
“Industrialized” is the key word here. From the industrialization that ran out of control to create the Great Depression to the industrialization that has run out of control in the post-modern era to create a global epidemic of obesity, man-made problems that were originally designed to create plenty seem to have created dearth. “What went wrong with corn,” observes Gustafson, “the grain known by early farmers as ‘that which sustains life’, isn’t something wrong with corn itself. It is what happened to agriculture along the way from those first farmers to the farmers of today.” She continues: “The same food technology and agricultural policy that is fueling obesity in America is simultaneously perpetuating hunger in developing countries – even as it dooms certain populations in those regions to obesity as well.”
“The same food technology and agricultural policy that is fueling obesity in America is simultaneously perpetuating hunger in developing countries”
Gustafson’s analysis of the financial gains and human damage caused by “Big Ag” and the processed food industry makes for sobering reading. However, she is an activist, and she proposes solutions to the problems she dissects so vividly – eating less meat but ensuring that it is grass-fed, buying from farmers who obtain a fair price for their produce, and growing one’s own fruit and vegetables where practicable. The dust jacket announces that “If We Change Dinner, We Can Change the World”, and the book concludes with a detailed and mouth-watering “Change Dinner Barbecue”. Why not put We the Eaters on the reading list of your book club and invite everyone to an Ellen-style barbecue to discuss the fine print?
This review first appeared in Sight and Life | VOL.28(2)|2014 (www.sightandlife.org).
Reviewed by: Jonathan Steffen
Date published: May 20, 2104
Format: Hardback (also available on Kindle)
Length: 258 pages
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