BIG FOOD wins – we lose

Where does our food come from in the U.S?  BIG FOOD!

I’ve been writing about the “battle” between the Industrial Food System (big food) and the sustainable, local alternative for years.  This post was triggered by a new (and very well-researched) book titled “Foodopoly: the battle over the future of food and farming in America.”  It’s a pretty good survey of the problems with “big food.”  I’ve presented a few facts from this book below.

As I talk with many of my friends who grow food and sell at the local farmers market or our food coop, I’m reminded that this “battle” is hardly a fair fight.  Government policies over the past 60 years have made the playing field tilt dramatically in favor of the Industrial Food System (defined as consolidated, integrated and mechanized).

The fact that there is a resurgence in local food is a testimony to the perseverance of people who dare to dream and work for a better quality of life.  But before we celebrate the growth of local food too much, lets look at some numbers!

  • In 2008, direct sales of food from farmers to consumers hit a high of $4.8 billion
  • Total sales in grocery stores was approximately $1.23 trillion that same year
  • Local sales represents less than 0.5% of the the money spent on food in the U.S.

So, what about this “battle”?  It seems like it is already lost!  BIG FOOD won….

A few more facts:

  • Americans spend 90% of our food budget on processed food
  • We eat half of our meals and snacks away from home
  • One of every three dollars spent on groceries in the U.S. goes to Walmart
  • For every $19 bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken sold, the farmer makes 25 cents

Everything about the Industrial Food System stinks (except for the retail price of food).  Americans spend less than 10% of our annual income on food because our food system has been industrialized – consolidated, integrated, and mechanized.  We have traded the potential for safe wholesome food, good local jobs, quality of life for all, and vibrant communities for cheap food.  And this tradeoff won’t last.  As energy prices go up so will the price of food, since the industrial system is built on cheap oil.

My response to this crisis has always been to “buy local” and invest in a better world.  In fact, my last blog was about the International Year of the Family Farm.  However the authors of Foodopoly have me convinced that “we can’t shop our way out of this mess.”  Policy changes are needed to encourage the growth of family-managed, local farms, but where do we begin?

Well, maybe we start by acknowledging the positive and negative consequences of industrializing the food system.  Next, perhaps we begin to feel sad.  But eventually we’ll need to find a source of motivation to begin to  “join the battle.”   I’ll end with this clip from the classic film Network as a possible source of motivation.

And then take an action!

Here are some suggestions.

I’d love to hear from you in the comments box below – especially if you disagree!


Please check out my Just Food Now Resource Page and see our Sustainable Food and Farming Bachelor of Sciences degree program and our Online Certificate Program at the University of Massachusetts.


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