by Will Sutton
In a previous article, I’ve written about how the food we eat is so much more than what’s on the plate. Food binds us to one another. It is a sensory connection to both past memories and current community ties. I’m not the only one who has made this observation; Kevin Pang, for example, beautifully described a similar experience in his 2016 essay “My Father, The Youtube Star”, and anthropologists like David E. Sutton, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Mary Douglass have sought to decodify the cultural implications of what, how, and when we eat.
This scholarship is fascinating and extensive, but it points to a rather simple conclusion: food is a form of community knowledge. The what, how, and when of our meals is tied intrinsically to the communities we belong to; our food and consumption habits are both influenced by, and influencers upon, the values, norms, and biases of our surrounding community. By eating, we subtly and tacitly confirm our own membership in a community.
At least, that’s how it used to be. Today, a tremendous amount of food the world over is distributed by multinational corporations. This prepackaged, pre-made food has become a convenient source of quick nutrition for many in developing countries-- but at a huge cost. A 2017 New York Times report on Brazil, for example, found that Nestlé’s huge marketing push in that country has displaced smaller food providers, destroyed local food systems, and adversely affected the health of many of Brazil’s poor-- all while working with the government to secure preferential treatment. That same report disclosed that more people globally are now obese than underweight, as the crisis of starvation is slowly replaced with the crisis of malnutrition.
Big Food is displacing food systems the world over. Large companies benefiting from economies of scale can price out local food providers, especially when their processed and sugar-rich snacks create a dependency in consumers that local vegetables and starches do not. Producers, facing decreased demand in their local communities, may work with-- or be absorbed into-- these multinational companies. In Brazil, ranchers supplying meatpacking giant JBS have been destructively deforesting the Amazon rainforest, likely at the behest of the company itself.
The physical and environmental health costs of Big Food are tremendous. But to focus only on rising obesity and deforestation would be to overlook the profound impact of multinationals like Nestlé on community health.
As I explained at the beginning of the article, food can be classified as a form of community knowledge. It connects us to one another, and to a broader sense of community. Techniques and traditions surrounding food are often ancient and important parts of community life. But Big Food actively dismantles food systems and changes what and how people are eating. In years past, a dinner in Brazil would have entailed a trip to the market to buy local food, facilitating social connection, binding consumers to their local economy, and sustaining local foodways. Now, a dinner in Brazil can be a prepackaged snack from one of the door-to-door Nestlé salespeople. Physical connection with the community is not necessary, and the generic food consumed doesn’t do much beyond temporarily filling a belly. The profits from the sale go to shareholders instead of back into the community.
The rise of multinational food providers has made getting food easier and cheaper, and that is a laudable development. But displacing local food systems deconstructs local communities. Connection-- both physical and emotional-- is disrupted as companies distribute cheap and generic packaged items. Whereas food once bound together communities, Big Food is uprooting local systems, and with them community knowledge and intimacy.
The struggle against Big Food is becoming an increasingly prominent social justice issue, with groups like Uprooted and Rising and Slow Food USA (to which Foodlyn belongs) leading the charge for change at home and abroad. These groups seek to build affordable, environmentally sustainable and healthy foodways, providing the access to sustenance that Big Food claims to provide while preserving the benefits of local systems. The fight against Big Food is about the physical health of communities and the sustainability of our environments, but it is also a fight to reconstruct community.