Does America have the food system that we deserve?
McDonald’s is on a roll. Says the NYT:
Six years into a rebound spawned by more appealing food and a less aggressive expansion, McDonald’s seems to have won over some of its most hardened skeptics.
The chain has managed to sustain its momentum even as the economy and the restaurant industry as a whole are struggling. Month after month, McDonald’s has surprised analysts by posting stronger-than-expected sales in the United States and abroad.
I’ve been won over all right. Won over to the argument that changing food policy in this country is a quixotic proposition. The article presents as progress that McDonald’s responded to flattening beef consumption by going, quoth one executive, "at chicken hard."
Firstly, um, ew? And secondly, learning that McDonald’s now sells more chicken than beef worldwide doesn’t quite feel like the revolution is right around the corner.
Indeed, are we supposed to cheer the fact that McDonald’s offers bits of lettuce and cheap lattes to go along with its burgers, fries, shakes, and chicken nuggets? Forgive me a certain lack of élan at the news. The fact is that, at root, what McDonald’s is selling isn’t really meat patties or battered and fried "pieces of minced chicken breast and mechanically separated meat held together with phosphate salts and some chicken skin," as Wikipedia so poetically put it. (As a sidenote, I highly recommend the photo of mechanically separated chicken on Wikipedia. If that doesn’t cure a person of a desire ever to eat a McNugget, nothing will.)
What McDonald’s sells is convenience. As does General Mills. And Wal-mart. These are the companies that effectively dictate food policy. While they are aided and abetted by other big players all the way back up the supply chain, as the ultimate buyers of most of the world’s agricultural output, they are the prime movers. These companies may have been made possible by the agricultural innovations of the early 20th century, but by the 21st century, they succeeded in flipping the causal arrow — we have the system they need to survive.
When we talk about reform, about shutting down CAFOs, stopping GMOs, eliminating harmful pesticides and increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables — all of which we must do — we still have to operate under the pestilential threat of "convenience." Americans’ time and inclinations, not to mention income inequality, already conspire against food. It’s not that Americans (or anyone else for that matter) want bad food. But if offered convenience in exchange, they’ll often take it.
Fighting the USDA and the companies that have built our teetering food system is one thing. While it may be very hard, at least they will give a bit when pushed. But fighting convenience? How do you do that?