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Kristin Lawless on the Corporate Takeover of the American Kitchen


The American kitchen.

And how corporations have taken it over.

That’s the story that Kristin Lawless tells in her new book – Formerly Known As Food: How the Industrial Food System is Changing Our Minds, Bodies and Culture.

Lawless challenges the modern food movement for focusing on individual choice – made famous by Michael Pollan’s prescription – eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

Lawless might revise it to – challenge, as much as possible, corporate power and the corporate takeover of the kitchen.

Flip to the back of the book to see how Lawless differs from Pollan and the food movement’s focus on the individual.

Instead, she targets corporate power.

Stop predatory marketing of poor quality industrial foods. Stop the marketing of infant formula to parents. Place warning labels on all industrial food packaging – “these foods may be harmful to your health.” Stop the use of thousands of chemicals in and on our food supply.

Create a federal urban farm program. Demand nutrition and cooking education in all public schools. Demand a universal basic income. Demand payment for cooking and other household work. Demand six months paid parental leave – insuring the option to breast feed as a right.

Lawless writes that ten companies control nearly every large food and beverage brand in the world – Nestle, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Unilever, Danone, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Mars, Associated British Foods and Mondelez.

And still the food movement focus is the individual, not the corporation.

“When the food movement leader Michael Pollan says – eat food, not too much, mostly plants – his most famous catchphrase – he and others like him fail to acknowledge that doing so is an exercise in privilege and power in more ways than economic and access,” Lawless writes. “The vast majority of school age children do not eat healthy school lunches designed by Alice Waters, as kids do in Berkeley, California, where real food is the norm.”

Lawless quotes Waters as telling 60 Minutes in 2009: “We make decisions every day about what we’re going to eat, and some people want to buy Nike shoes – two pairs – and other people want to eat Brock’s grapes (a special variety from a farmer near San Francisco) and nourish themselves. I pay a little extra, but this is what I want to do.”

Lawless says that the Waters comment “shows just how out of touch many in the food movement are when it comes to issues of income, race and so-called food choice.”

In a nutshell, Lawless says – we can’t eat our way out of this.

“When food movement leaders say the solutions are to eat whole foods and buy organic, they leave out the crucial fact that we need to collectively reject the production of poor quality processed foods and stop the production of dangerous pesticides and other environmental chemicals that contaminate many foods,” she writes. “Critics do not often articulate this omission, but it is largely why the movement is perceived as elitist – and rightly so. If the food movement’s solutions are market-based and predicated on spending more for safer and healthier food, they ignore how impossible these solutions are for most Americans. In fact, this agenda serves the agendas of Big Food and Big Ag quite well.”

Lawless says that she critiques Pollan and Waters “lovingly.”

“They have raised the consciousness around these issues,” Lawless told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “As a result, people are attuned to healthy eating. My main critique of the food movement is that it is largely a consumer based movement. It often echoes the food industry. The food industry is often saying – it’s all about personal responsibility. Everything in moderation. That lets the food industry off the hook from actually changing the formulation of the food. The food movement is echoing this sentiment by saying – go buy organic, go to your farmers markets.”

“Consumer based solutions don’t make real change. The vast majority of Americans don’t have access to organics or sustainably raised meat – the items the food movement lauds as important. And they are important. But that’s not going to make real change.”

“We now have two food systems. One for the people who can afford these foods and the other one – the regular conventional, big food big agriculture, industrial food system food that most people in this country rely on.”

“Much of the feedback I’m getting is coming from people who have listened to Pollan and others and thought that they were doing the right thing. And then they realized they weren’t. We need to regulate these companies. And that is not going to come from individual choices we make in the store. We have to demand from our politicians that the regulatory agencies – the FDA and the EPA – that they actually regulate these companies. What I uncovered in my research is that in many cases, they are not regulating these companies carefully enough and protecting the public. We need to regulate at the point of production. It’s not just about individual choices.”

Lawless says the corporate takeover of the household was portrayed as a move toward women’s liberation.

“In pre-industrial times, the work centered around the home,” Lawless said. “Men and women and children were always in the home or on the farm. And men were always nearby. That doesn’t mean men and women were equal. The work around the home didn’t fall solely on the shoulders of women. There was more balance.”

“When men left the home to go to work in factories, it left women at home doing all of that work. The burden shifted onto women’s shoulders. And that is persistent to this day.”

You can anticipate that the women’s movement will not be happy with this analysis.

“Why is it not feminist to argue for payment that work that women are now doing in the home? It was a mistake to argue that our liberation as women would come from getting us out of the home and into the workforce. The rates of breast feeding are coming up a bit now, but they are still way down. When women left the home and went into the workforce, and we didn’t have paid maternity leave, we didn’t breastfeed, we had to rely on fast food and processed food and that undermined our health.”

“My critique is the more radical feminist critique. I see my argument as pro-feminist. Why is going to work into the corporate world more important than taking care of babies and children and doing the important work of breast feeding and cooking in the home? Men can do the cooking and shopping. It is a feminist argument to shift that thinking.”

When we went to school, there was a course in high school called home economics.

“When I was in school, I remember it. But it was just industrial food. We made Pillsbury pre-made rolls that we stuck in the oven. It wasn’t like we were learning skills about how to cook whole foods. I make the argument in the book about a return to a real education around how to shop for food, how to cook food, understanding nutrition, understanding about where food comes from. We could make it part of the curriculum.”

“We need a complete re-education of the entire population from growing the food to cooking. There is no knowledge base. We have lost all of that. And it is something so vital to our survival. It is amazing that it has been completely taken over by industry.”

[For the complete Interview with Kristin Lawless, see 32 Corporate Crime Reporter  29(13), Monday July 16, 2018, print edition only.]

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Russell Mokhiber is the editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter..

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