Dec 172011

This is almost bad as "Guiness for Strength," except it's not an ad, but a government poster (Image courtesy of the U.S. National Archives)

What has been the U.S. government’s influence on American diets and the practices of the food industry? And what has been the food industry’s influence on the U.S. government? The first question is discussed at length in the National Archives’ special exhibit “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam: The Government’s Effect on the American Diet.” The second question is not addressed at all, but subtly communicated by who sponsored the exhibit, Mars, Incorporated and Mars Food.

Truthfully, considering who paid for the exhibit, I’m surprised by how much good information is included. Lots of great history, critique of some of the more ridiculous recommendations of the past—like telling children to eat “Vitamin Donuts”—and some strong analysis of the early abuses of the food industry. Fun fact: did you know that Upton Sinclair wrote his classic expose of the meatpacking industry, The Jungle, in order to reform labor practices not the meat industry, but as he notes to President Theodore Roosevelt, while he was aiming for the nation’s heart, he hit their stomach instead. Oops: too bad for America’s workers, but good for America’s meat eaters.

But along with interesting stories, there is also something strange about the exhibit. It stops abruptly at the start of the 1980s. Nothing of the past 30 years is included. Surely, the creators can argue that the reason behind this is that the last 30 years is not history but current events so shouldn’t be included, but now that I know the sponsor, perhaps the real reason is that the critiques about today’s food system would hit too close to home for Mars, Incorporated.

Consider the major critiques raised with food throughout American history and we see while some of the most egregious abuses have been addressed, the underlying problems continue.

The exhibit examines food adulteration at length, and how formaldehyde, coal tar, and other chemicals were used in food. There is even a picture of a product displayed called “Bred-Spred,” which was a mixture of “pectin, coal tar, and grass seed,” and strawberry flavoring. But this is all discussed like it was part of a distant past, but in reality, we’re still dealing with these issues, as the meat industry adds ammonia to the pink slime that comes out of the production process to turn it into “hamburger,” as salmon farmers add chemicals to the feed to make the fish still look like it used to when it was a wild product,  and as microwave popcorn makers add the toxic chemical diacetyl as “butter flavoring” to their product instead of butter or oil.

The exhibit also looks at the school meal program and its value in reducing childhood malnutrition (though ignores the influence of the farm lobby in shaping this program in part to create a market for surplus farm products). And it also draws attention to an effort in 1981 to label ketchup and relish vegetables to save the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) $1 billion in costs. But there was no discussion of whether the food industry played a part in this relabeling, as it did a few months ago in blocking new school food rules that would have added more fruits and vegetables to the school menu, at the expense of french fries and frozen pizzas.

Overall the exhibit did show the power of the government to shape food norms, whether intended or not. Food culture changed dramatically after World War II because of what the army served to the troops—the army was at part responsible for normalizing the meat, potatoes, vegetable-side formulation of the traditional American meal. And wars also led to intentional shifts in other food habits. During World War I, the government encouraged people to eat less sugar—in sweets, in coffee and tea, in preserving, on cereals—but not for health reasons, but in order to save it for the troops. The government also encouraged “Meatless Mondays” during World War I, an idea now resurrected by The Meatless Monday campaign, a health-initiative to help reduce obesity (but that also helps the planet). Also, impressive was the role of World War II in encouraging gardening. One statistic noted that 40 percent of vegetables were grown in home gardens for personal consumption during World War II. This is a figure regularly pointed to today by environmentalists who would like to get Americans to once again grow and prepare their own food, which would help combat obesity and ecological problems (like pesticide use—both by farmers and by homeowners on lawns), while also creating a more resilient localized economy that’ll help us get through the coming climate crisis.

If only we could resurrect this effort so all the front lawns of America became gardens, food insecurity would quickly end as would much environmental pollution. (Image courtesy of the National Archives)

If government entities like the USDA once again got behind this, they could really help transform the food system of the U.S., especially if they used the robust strategies they used in World War II. As one display notes, to shift Americans’ diets, “the battle was fought with squadrons of celebrities, anthropologists, and cartoon characters, and a flotilla of films, radio programs, pledge drives, and posters.” Too bad the U.S. government has ceded most of these strategies to food marketers today.

Is it possible that Mars Food would sponsor a food exhibit and not influence its content? An important question for viewers of the exhibit to ask.

Of course, the difference between then and now is how deeply interlinked the food industry is with the government today (or in other words, how captured our government is by the industry). Is it possible to combat obesity and plan for an ecologically constrained future, when candy makers, like Mars, sponsor educational exhibits (in this case donating $100,000 to the National Archives) and spend $1.8 million a year on lobbying the U.S. Congress? Or when big food companies, like Coca-Cola, spend billions of dollars a year in marketing their products around the world? Or when companies, like McDonald’s, hook young children on their products by giving them free toys and by using the very cartoon characters that have been shown to be effective since at least the 1950s?

But considering how deep the influence of this industry is on the government, I guess I should be pretty impressed with how good the exhibit was. But that doesn’t reduce the sadness I feel knowing that most viewers will walk away thinking that the early problems with the American food industry have been resolved, that the food system today is in fantastic shape, and that we’re heading for a healthy, sustainable future. When in reality, the food system may be the most corrupted and most fragile it’s ever been, where 7 billion people, a fleet of motorized vehicles, a livestock population of over 100 billion, and a pet population in the hundreds of millions all rely on a corn-wheat-soy industrial farming system that is dependent on massive amounts of petrochemicals, abundant freshwater supplies, huge government subsidies, and a stable climate, all of which are drying up and may disappear over the next few decades.

What kind of changes will these disruptions bring to America’s food system? Hopefully nothing worse than what is portrayed in the exhibit with the 1970s global food crisis. Poor little Boy Scout Jamie Bates wrote to his senator in 1974, telling him that the biggest global crisis he is aware of is that “You can not buy much candy for a nickel now. I like sugar. But mother can not buy it because it is to high [sic].” If that’s the worst the future brings, all but Mars Foods will surely be pleased. But don’t count on it.

And a note to those of you in the DC area, it’s not too late to check out the exhibit, but as the opening sign notes in food expiration terms, the exhibit is “Best Before January 3rd, 2012.”

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