The Ancient Future of Food

5 01 2008

By Jill Ettinger

Food is an enormous industry, and like all typical ticker-trading businesses, it follows the mantra of cost-cutting-bottom-line-gross-profit-margin-gains. This is measured most often not by the actual nutritional, social or ecological benefits, but by success in the stock market and with satisfied shareholders. Sales bonuses and market share are more significant than the number of people actually fed, or the sustainability of the farming and packaging practices, transportation or storage methods.

The industrial factory hit its stride during World War II. Food soon fell into the cycle of neatly packaged mass production, dictating to the urban world exactly Who, What, How, Why, When and Where we eat. The grocery store has morphed from a source for staples into a competitive marketing arena building “customer loyalty” first, and a healthy community a distant second. The hurried agendas of mega corporation brand building has resulted in supermarket chains charging expensive slotting fees that only the food giants can afford, and so justify in order to get their products premier shelf space. This reverse appetite is what makes virtually every grocery store in America look identical, with minimal local or regional product selections. Instead, they’ve become corporate showrooms. Greeted by colorful produce sections vaguely resembling a farmers market or fruit stand, aisle upon aisle quickly turns into gaudy advertisements housing “enriched” processed food products.

Supermarkets keep their prices low on “commodity” loss leaders like soda, milk and cereal, profiting on the slotting fees and marketing dollars the big-brands are happy to pay in building their bandwidth of religious supporters, who become so dedicated (dare one say addicted) to the product image and effects of the questionably nutritious foodstuffs. Customers are outright evangelical about their preferred brands, often without realizing the competing product is actually owned by the same parent company.

Why are we so fanatical about processed food? People are consumed by the role of being consumers. They rally behind brands like they’re family members. They even become incensed at a ten-cent price increase, a temporary out-of-stock item, packaging changes, or heaven forbid, the discontinued slow-selling item that may have been favorite to a handful of customers, but too risky for the corporation to continue producing as it can marginalize gross profits. Our nation was once divided by The Pepsi Challenge and again by the emergence of “New Coke.” Was a sandwich not a sandwich without Hellman’s or Miracle Whip? Is tonight a Domino’s or Pizza Hut night? Which is more popular, the Whopper or Big Mac, Lay’s or Ruffles, Milky Way or 3 Musketeers? What really is the difference? Why are we not as insistent about our carrots, romaine lettuce, or bag of rice?

To read the full article on Reality Sandwich click here.

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