Julie Guthman on cheap food and the economy

Julie Guthman explains a key difference between her position and Michael Pollan’s:

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan argues that those crop surpluses end up in our bodies; subsidized crops like corn and soy are most likely to go into the processed foods that have become a mainstay of American diets. In turn, these processed foods may contribute to fatness (although not necessarily in the ways he discusses). But he pretty much leaves it there. My argument is much more expansive. I argue that a much broader set of food and agricultural policies are implicated in fatness–but also thinness, and a host of other health conditions that may not manifest in either direction. The food economy, that is, mirrors the larger economy: it is full of contradictions, some of which are literally embodied. But I take it even a step further, to consider policies not even directly related to food and agriculture, such as taxation, financial regulation, and economic development policies that have created huge disparities between rich and poor. To the extent that socioeconomic status and body size are associated, these policies must somehow be implicated in fatness and thinness. Part of this inverse association between size and class status appears to rest on cheap food and the need that neoliberal policy has created for it. (173)

Whereas Pollan is troubled by our dietary habits and argues that we should eat differently, Guthman believes that the problem lies with the structure of our economy:

The decline in family wages…has pushed many women into the workforce, and many household providers hold multiple jobs to make ends meet. Having to work several jobs has surely increased the need for fast and convenient food and contributed to the decline of the much-lauded (and perhaps overly romanticized) family meal. Snack foods, heat ‘n serve meals, supermarket takeout, and eating on the run are not just “lifestyle choices” or, for that matter, signs of the failure of women to fulfill their familial duty. For many, managing jobs, children, and elderly parents and taking time for the most minimal self-care are real challenges that no amount of cajoling about how we should cook our own meals is likely to solve.

The point, though, is not only to defend those who cannot follow the food gurus. It is to note that these ways of eating are central to the current economy. If anything, fast and convenient food has been a triply good fix for American capitalism. It entails the super-exploitation of the labor force in its production, it provides cheap food to support the low wages of the food and other industries by feeding their low-wage workers, and it absorbs the surpluses of the agricultural economy, soaking up, as it were, the excesses of overproduction to keep the farm sector marginally viable. (174)


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