World War II, corporate food producers have systematically
violated the american food supply forprofit—and they’d rather
you not know the unhealthy details
Squanto taught the Pilgrims to plant maize, no food has been
more emblematic of the evolution of American eating habits
than corn. That’s been true from the sepia-tinged golden age
of the Midwestern breadbasket to the present day, where those
yellow kernels are lab-engineered and recombinated into a
dizzying array of futuristic foodstuffs.
Mark Kurlansky’s new anthology, The Food of a Younger Land
(Riverhead)—which compiles reportage and recipes from “America
Eats,” an unfinished venture of the Depression-era WPA Federal
Writers’ Project—we visit Pop Corn Days in North Loup, Neb.
There, fairgoers munch from “bushels of popped fluffiness”
while watching the procession of the Pop Corn Queen, “heralded
by buglers with green capes over their uniforms . . . regal
in her robes of lustrous gold satin.” We also learn how, across
the Midwest, corn was “cultivated for uses in ‘johnny-cake,’
corn mush, ‘big hominy,’ ash-cake, corn whisky, corn pone,
or the small loaves called ‘corn dodgers.’ ”
Nowadays, though, as we’re shown in Robert Kenner’s new documentary
Food, Inc., we consume corn via high-fructose corn
syrup, maltodextrin, diglycerides, xanthan gum, ascorbic acid,
calcium stearate, citrus cloud emulsion, saccharin, sucrose,
sorbital, ethyl acetate, ethyl lactate, cellulose, xylital,
alpha tocopherol, gluten, polydextrose, inositol, and Fibersol-2.
Gives the term “corn-fed” a whole new meaning, eh?
way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than the
previous 10,000,” notes Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s
Dilemma, at the outset of Food, Inc. And not for
The food we eat today is making us fat. It’s making us sick.
And the vast, government- subsidized system of agribusiness
and mechanized corporate food production is inefficient and
unsustainable, slowly ruining our environment, our economy,
and our culture.
There are few better ways to remind ourselves of what has
transpired in just a few decades than to experience Kurlansky’s
book and Kenner’s movie side by side.
The former, as its subtitle puts it, is a “portrait of American
food before the national highway system, before chain restaurants,
and before frozen food,” when what we ate “was seasonal, regional,
The latter may as well be subtitled “What the national highway
system, chain restaurants, frozen food, corporate meatpacking,
omni-vailable factory-farmed produce, laboratory-engineered
flavors, genetically modified crop seeds, artificial growth
hormones, and cloned animals mean for the future of the American
diet, landscape, and society.”
The mass industrialization of food that began mid-20th century
promised abundance and cost efficiency. By some measures,
it would seem to have delivered on that promise. Witness the
galaxy of processed, packaged snacks on brightly lit display
in your supermarket—the average of which, we’re told, holds
47,000 different items—where a two-liter bottle of cola costs
a buck while a half-gallon of milk costs $2.49.
But Kenner’s film is an appetite-killing primer on the myriad
hidden costs that make the true prices much, much higher.
Kurlansky—who previously explored the often-surprising significance
of particular foodstuffs in such books as Cod: A Biography
of the Fish That Changed the World and Salt: A World
History—learned a lesson while researching that latter
book, which traces sodium chloride’s role in the rise and
fall of economies and empires.
very difficult to grasp the notion of value,” he says. “Things
we think are valuable and are worth fighting and struggling
over could very well be not worth anything. It’s pretty arbitrary.
That’s an important lesson, I think.”
Lately we seem finally to be learning that lesson when it
comes to our food: realizing that, in the long run, so-called
value meals offer precisely the opposite.
Let’s not pretend that all those hearty, healthy, homegrown
meals in bucolic pre-WWII America were delightful and delicious.
The writers compiled in The Food of a Younger Land
set out to survey the provinces and pockets of ethnic influence
across the lower 48, and sometimes returned having queasily
sampled such regional delicacies as Scandinavian lutefisk
(a slimy, smelly concoction of codfish cured in lye) in Minnesota
and Wisconsin, and “prairie oysters” in Oklahoma (the harvesting
of which is described in one tour-de-force of dramatic narrative).
Luckily, in this 10th year of the 21st century, “I don’t think
many people are eating beaver tail,” says Kurlansky. “And
I hope people aren’t eating wildcat and cougar.”
The old days had other drawbacks, too: Eating local didn’t
always mean eating fresh. “They were very reliant on canned
and preserved food,” says Kurlansky of our forebears. “In
most of America, there’s not a lot of food produced between
November and April.”
Not to mention that it’s unlikely someone from, say, Maine—whose
clambakes, game suppers, and hot-buttered rum are all described
in the book—would ever get to taste “A Los Angeles Sandwich
Called a Taco” (as the title of one chapter describes it).
So clearly, on one level, foodies should be thankful for air
travel and interstate highways. “On my book tour,” says Kurlansky,
who lives in New York City, “a journalist in Seattle said,
‘You’re coming at just the right time, because the Copper
River Salmon is coming in!’ I didn’t have the heart to tell
him that I know the Copper River Salmon is coming in because
my local fish store carries it.”
Yet for all the gastronomic convenience of refrigerated transportation,
reading Kurlansky’s book, one can’t help feeling sentimental
for a past many of us never experienced, a simpler time when
regions had their own dishes and libations: the California
grunion fry, Kentucky Burgoo, Oregon Blue Ruin.
World War II, people were much more rooted to the place they
lived in, and that was reflected in the food,” says Kurlansky.
“Not only because the food was locally produced, but the recipes
were local, the traditions were local. People had their own
approach that varied literally from county to county, sometimes
from town to town.”
Now, as has been said ad nauseum, 50 states filled with chain
stores and strip malls have ensured that everything looks
and tastes the same. “It would be nice to travel around America
and have the food change everywhere you went,” says Kurlansky.
“I just got through doing a book tour, a different town every
day. I just struggle to find something local everywhere I
It’s no accident that the biggest predictor of obesity is
income level. According to Robert Kenner’s new documentary,
Food, Inc., the government is effectively subsidizing
The mass industrialization of food production that happened
so quickly in the middle of last century promised more choice
at cheaper prices—a better way to feed the world. But agribusiness,
factory farms, and other forms of corporate food manufacturing
didn’t quite deliver on that promise.
was accepted that there was going to be a decline in food
quality,” says Kurlansky. “In exchange, it was supposed to
end world hunger, and food was supposed to be produced more
efficiently. Well, it hasn’t made a dent in world hunger,
and it’s completely inefficient: It wastes energy, it pollutes,
it’s harmful to the landscape, it destroys cultures. It turns
out not to be an advantageous way to produce food in any way.”
This is put on vivid display in Kenner’s disturbingly dystopian
film, a whirlwind tour through the genetic laboratories, industrialized
charnel houses, and chemical-sprayed crop fields filled with
illegal immigrants that have come to characterize modern American
Kenner says he didn’t intend Food, Inc. to be a piece
of muckraking—even though, in one scene showing an overcrowded
cattle pen in which the animals wallow knee-deep in their
own feces, it almost literally is.
not Michael Moore looking to prove a point,” he says. “Really,
I had hoped simply to do an exploration of how we eat. I was
thinking I could talk to all the food producers, be they organic
farmers or agribusiness. I knew they might not let me into
their plants, but I thought they would talk.”
They didn’t. In fact, many corporations went so far as to
threaten the ranchers and farmers with retribution if they
talked. Thanks in part to those zipped lips, the film took
six years to make.
realized these guys do not want you thinking about it,” says
Kenner. “They don’t want you to crack this veil, to think
about this food. They want [to perpetuate] the myth of the
farm with the white picket fence and the red barn.”
But it’s not like that anymore: “In reality, this food has
been fundamentally transformed.”
One of Food, Inc.’s most viscerally disturbing scenes
is a peek inside a chicken house. The farmer featured, Maryland-based
Perdue grower Carole Morison, was the only one, out of dozens
asked, to allow cameras, thanks to widespread fears of corporate
reprisals. “It’s just gotten to the point where it’s not right
what’s going on,” she sighs. “I’ve just made up my mind, I’m
gonna say what I have to say.”
The coop is overcrowded, the floor a vast carpet of weakly
squawking chickens, overbred to grow twice the size in half
the time, too heavy to even stand. Here and there, birds lay
dying, collapsed under their own weight. Morison scoops them
up and tosses them with dull thuds into a pile. “This isn’t
farming,” she says. “This is just mass production.”
that scene reverberates a lot for people, but it’s not just
the chicken,” says Kenner. “It’s as much the tomato, or the
lettuce. Everything has been transformed. The tomato”—ripened
in a warehouse with ethylene gas—“has no taste and no nutrition.
But it looks red!”
Kenner describes attending a hearing in Sacramento about the
labeling of cloned meat. The debate was not whether cloned
meat was good or not. It was about whether you had to tell
the consumer he or she was buying cloned meat.
a second,” says Kenner. “I thought if you had something you
think is good, you let them know and they can choose? Isn’t
that what the free market is? Not letting us have this information
goes beyond food—it’s very un-American.”
One of Food, Inc.’s most frustrating scenes follows
a family of four to the produce section of the supermarket.
Says the mother: “Sometimes you look at a vegetable and say,
‘OK, well, we can get two hamburgers for the same amount of
As Pollan points out in the film, that’s no accident. “Bad
calories” are cheaper because “those are the ones we’re heavily
subsidizing” via farm policies that favor crops like corn
and soy. It’s no accident either that the biggest predictor
of obesity is income level. Or that diabetes is an epidemic.
not seeing the real price tag when you go to the supermarket,”
says Kenner, who points out that an uninsured person with
diabetes “could be paying $1,000 a month for medicine. Is
that ‘cheaper’ food? You can’t have health-care [reform] in
this country without changing the food system.”
But how, exactly? The population of America in 1959 was about
180 million. Today, it’s just under 310 million. It’s inarguable
that feeding that many people requires more than just a sun-dappled
patchwork of rolling green fields, like the one on the cover
of The Food of a Younger Land.
Clearly, corporations will have to continue to play huge roles
in food production. But if there’s no going back to the simple
agrarian existence depicted in Kurlansky’s book, that doesn’t
mean there can’t be serious reform.
It won’t be easy. Food, Inc. shows how agencies like
the USDA and FDA—under both Democratic and Republican administrations—are
oftentimes rife with alumni of the very corporations they’re
supposed to regulate.
Meanwhile, it introduces us to Barbara Kowalcyk, whose toddler,
Kevin, died in agony after contracting E. coli from tainted
meat. And we’re told that the FDA’s food-safety inspections
dropped precipitously in the past three decades.
all the scientific advancement, the irony is that food hasn’t
gotten safer,” says Kenner. “There’s always been food-borne
illness, but we’re probably more vulnerable to it now than
we’ve ever been.” (Lest we forget, the genetic ancestor of
H1N1 swine flu was bred and spread on a factory farm.)
Kenner sees parallels between agribusiness and another industry
that was forced to change its ways. The tobacco companies,
too, “had incredible wealth,” he argues. “Incredible power.
Totally connected to government. And they put out misleading
information about the health effects of their product. But
we beat tobacco.”
Beyond ceasing subsidies for unhealthy foods, the goal could
be to increase subsidies for locally grown produce, say, and
grass-grazed meat. Sadly—not least for the members of the
“Michael Pollan for Secretary of Agriculture” Facebook group—that
seems unlikely, at least in the near term. After all, new
AgSec Tom Vilsack comes from Iowa (“the Tall Corn State”),
and his appointment won cheers from the Corn Refiners Association
and jeers from the Organic Consumers Association.
But sooner or later, we’ll need to better subsidize our small,
sustainable farms. “For small-scale farmers to earn a living,
they have to charge a lot for their food,” says Kurlansky.
“That’s how all this bad food happened.”
have to figure out how to support small farmers,” agrees Kenner.
“And ultimately, we really need to figure out how to support
local so we can create communities that we want.”
There’s no going back to the happy, wholesome harvests that
get the mouth watering in The Food of a Younger Land.
Corporations and big-time agribusiness are here to stay. But
they can feed us better, in a healthier and more sustainable
way. We, as voters and consumers, are the ones empowered to
make sure that they do.
In the meantime, it’s clear that like “the financial crisis,
this system can’t continue,” says Kenner. “At some point,
it comes due. But we’re going to hopefully find alternatives
really quickly. I think there’s a real hunger for this.”
Miliard is a staff writer at the Boston Phoenix, where
this article first appeared.