Food, Diet and Land

On November 16, after eighty years in business, Hostess Brands filed a 3rd motion in Wonder Builds Strong BodiesU.S. Bankruptcy Court. The Hostess Board of Directors did what any capitalist cluster does. They had their CEO Gregory F. Rayburn tell the Bakers, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union that their 18,500 members would be rewarded with a mass layoff for having gone on strike. Big effing surprise.

Meanwhile, Annie Rose-Strasser of Think Progress reports that “While the company was filing for bankruptcy, for the second time, earlier this year, it actually tripled its CEO’s pay (from $750,000 to $2,550,000), and increased other executives’ compensation by as much as 80 percent.” i

Does this mean a quick death to this cornerstone of weird Americana? Will Twinkies, Ding Dongs, Sno-Balls, Ho Hos, Donettes, and the rest of the gang of unfoods go the way of the dodo? With “tears,” Hostess has said they’ll keep selling until the last already-baked ring-a-ding is… (I hear taps…) gone. Until then, buy in bulk and freeze ‘em. Otherwise, you’ll find them only on eBay. Jon Stewart may have a field day. Hostess workers will not.

Bloomberg Business Week has since reported this: “C. Dean Metropoulos & Co., the private equity firm that owns Pabst Brewing Co., is considering an offer to buy Hostess Brands Inc.”

Pabst Blue Ribbon Twinkies? The situation is developing fast. Hostess workers are livid, and it remains to be seen what strategy their union will put together to fight back.

Cocina OaxaquenaIn my many years working with rural health programs in Western and Southern México, I learned that the best traditional foods (created almost universally by women) start with simple ingredients. I ate simply, and for the most part very well. Which isn’t to say that all traditional foods are necessarily healthful, or that anything corporate derived, like Twinkies or Krispie Kremes, will kill you by morning. (A Hostess worker was once asked what went into a Twinkie. He responded, “If I told you, I’d have to kill you.” Turns out that the stuff inside a Twinkie is mainly gypsum, limestone, phosphorus ore and trisodium hydrogendicarbonate dihydrate, or trona. This popular mineral from the Paleogene period of 23 +– million years ago comes from wickedly deep mines, so it’s not a stretch to say that this American treat comes partly from Mother Earth.)

The visionary Dr. Luz Calvo of Oakland, who was recently interviewed by Michelle Foy, has much to say about what we eat. Her remarkable kitchen project is to “…reclaim the heritage foods of greater Mexico and Central America as a way improving the physical, emotional, and spiritual health of US Latinas/os.” Dr. Calvo does not suggest a Whole Foods back to the earth approach. Drawing on personal experience with her own health, she argues that capitalism has colonized much of our food, and that our diet must be decolonized. Playfully but directly, she challenges people to realize that food has history, and that diet can be liberated. The joy she expresses in creating good food brought to my mind the smiles of the people of Havana who are developing urban agriculture (mainly organic) as part of their national strategy for food sustainability.ii

McDonaldization of food

Without blaming ourselves for our diet and health problems, it can be helpful to ask, “Why do so many of us eat so much caca?” In México as in the US, voracious corporate capitalism McDonaldizes the food we eat. Transnational snake oilers pay Madison Avenue MBAs and sleazy psychologists to invent slogans and tricks to maximize profit in the supermarket. For working people, shopping isn’t always fun, and it’s there that we’re hit by the drek and lies of the corporate food industry.

Michael Pollan has said, “Shop on the periphery in Safeway, stay out of the aisles.” I agree (and I try to practice this), but to change how millions of us eat means something big. We need creative, community-based mass strategies. Of course this is easier said than done. Look at what we’re up against.

In México, the capitalist class has taken many tips from their northern brethren. Mega stores such as Walmart, Costco, Comercial Mexicana, Ley, Gigante, Soriana and Sams are sprouting like brooms in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice while small stores and local businesses are going down like flies. All these places push highly sugared drinks and processed foods, and the effects of these products to people’s bodies are pathological. Méxicanas/os have fought for their culture and dignity for centuries. A few years ago my friend John Ross told the story of a people’s pitched battle against Walmart in his piece Wal-Mart Invades México. In view of the ancient Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuácan, Walmart shamelessly built yet another megastore.

Teotihuacan

The panorama of the transnational food industry in México is big and ugly. The Mexican corporation, Grupo Bimbo, formed in 1945, is now the world’s 4th largest foods corporation, just behind Nestle, Kraft and Unilever. It makes more bread than any corporation on the planet. Bimbo sells throughout México, in most of Central and South America, as well as Spain, Portugal, Asia and much of Europe. It operates 153 plants, 43 of which are in México. Their mainstay is Pan Bimbo, Mexico’s equivalent of Wonder Bread. Circling above are anti-union transnational vultures. In competition with itself, Grupo Bimbo in México owns Wonder Bread; in the USA, Hostess is the owner.

My children’s diet came mainly from their mother’s side of the family in Veracruz. I added some of my favorites, like French toast with molasses and fried banana, stuffed roast chicken and my version of baked enchiladas. Outside the house we couldn’t get away from the corporate garbage. The ubiquitous chucherías and comida chatarra that are strategically positioned at a child’s eye-level in every store made mini-arguments all too frequent. With our kids, minimizing consumption was our practice. Prohibition had the opposite effect.

The foods of Veracruz

My suegro, Ubaldo, was an albañil (bricklayer/mason) for forty years at Mexico’s second largest ingenio (sugar cane plant) in La Independencia, Veracruz. People say that the typical breakfast for an albañil is Coke and a bolillo. Despite some awful truth there, Don Ubaldo ate pretty well; his children called him Globaldo. The kitchen was my suegra’s, Doña Gala. Her garnachas, chiles chipotle en adobado, pollo en cacaguate (pipián), plátano macho frito and chile huevillo were to die for.

Their small town of Martínez de la Torre is two hours north of the port of Veracruz, Mexico’s doorway to Spanish colonizers. It is also where as many as one million African slaves, mainly Angolans, were brought to work in sugar plantations. African culture is alive in Veracruz today, and the regional cuisine is a blend of African, Caribbean and Indigenous.

While foods in México are rich with natural and cultural diversity, people’s health and diet are under assault as many traditional foods are replaced by processed foods. Basic foods are being bulldozed by capitalism. And I literally mean, bulldozers. Since food comes from the earth, it can help to first look what is happening to the land, and then ask questions.

Food, land and independence

Rural people in the 3rd World, like Black farmers in the US, have been losing their land and their power almost as fast as global warming is melting the Arctic ice.iii Land that may have been held communally (such as in ejidos in México) or by generations of families is being lost or stolen. Millions of square kilometers of jungle and rain forest have been converted to huge cattle ranches, or are soaked with toxic pesticides for corporate agriculture. Prior to the Zapatista uprising, I saw vast areas of the Selva Lacandona that looked like the moon as far as one could see. Some of those lands have been held as sacred for thousands of years by Mayan peoples.

They’re killing us

Let’s look at a northern historical reality about food and diet. One hundred years ago poor African Americans in the south ate simply, often not enough, but the incidence of hypertension and stress-related disease in their communities was far lower than today. Stress for Blacks in racist America was high then, and it is high now.

When processed foods hit the scene just before WWII, many Black people could not afford the stuff; it was what White people ate. As these so-called foods lured White tastes, diseases such as diabetes increased in their communities. While health statistics in Black communities vary today, hypertension, schizophrenia, diabetes, child and adult obesity and other health issues remain serious problems. The combination of processed foods and racism is a toxic stew that health activists and medical professionals in Black and other oppressed communities deal with day to day.

Hillside deforestation in Rio de Janeiro

As national rulers collude with or are forced to obey neo-liberal gods, and economies are bound to structural adjustment dictums and free trade agreements, such as NAFTA, increasing numbers of landless people migrate to the cities of their countries and to the US and Europe. Sixty years ago 70 percent of the world was rural and 30 percent urban. Today’s world is roughly fifty-fifty, and in 2050 it is predicted to be 30 percent rural, 70 percent urban. What’s the connection to food? Let’s state the obvious: Food comes from the land. Everyone must eat. When rural people leave their land for the cities decent food is often not available, diet is altered, physical exercise may decrease dramatically as health problems increase.

Famine? What famine?

In our lifetimes there has never been famine in the United States. Famine is something we hear about in “other” countries. Even during extreme drought, stores in this country basically remain stocked, capitalists stick to their profit margins like flies on sh** and prices go up. Meanwhile, poor and working parents count their food money very, very carefully. Some are going back to powdered milk, and vegetarianism is often more an economic than dietary choice. Something is very wrong on the richest planet on earth; it’s called capitalism.

Michael Pollan and Coca-Cola

First of all, don’t get me wrong; Michael Pollan is a friend of the movement for food justice, and he is the polar opposite of Coca-Cola and the processed foods industry. But Dr. Calvo’s criticism of him for his Eurocentrism (with respect to the tomato and corn) is on target. Michael has given us much “thought for food,” so to speak, and I’d expect that he would listen to her criticism seriously. He should. He knows about globalization and the capitalist food industry, but he could sharpen his critique by taking a better internationalist perspective. Coca-Cola is one place to start. And it’s a good place to end.

The “Pause That Refreshes” was never the “Real Thing”

Once on a hot early morning in an urban barrio I watched a very young child carrying a liter of Coke home to her family. For breakfast. It is not Marxist rhetoric to say that Coke is not our friend. It never was. Not here, not in México or anywhere else. Many years ago México was a testing ground for Coca-Cola’s predatory marketing strategy in poor countries. Price structures and hype were created to wean people away from traditional drinks so that this modern non-food (that costs next to nothing to produce) would be economically accessible to the poor. While Aguas frescas made with fruit or rice or barley or fermented sugarcane juice are popular from Tamaulipas to Campeche, México today has the highest consumption of Coke on the planet.iv

Eat shit

Coca-Cola has been around since 1886. To cement itself into Americana culture, from 1899 until 1970 Coca-Cola held fast to their 5¢ price in vending machines. It gets weird. Long ago the big boys at Coke actually requested that the US Treasury create a 7½ ¢ coin the same size as a nickel to fit right in those machines! Treasury didn’t go for it.

An intensive style of work and great ease of mind

As a political system, capitalism is maintained in part by the type of trickery that the food industry has perfected. In exposing the hype, couldn’t we incorporate a compelling health and diet component into a protracted strategy for social change? This can surely strengthen our bodies, as well as embolden our minds and revolutionary spirit.

ii See how sovereign Cuba is feeding her people in the film The Power of Community produced by Community Solution. It can be seen in its entirety on YouTube.

iii As Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association President Gary Grant has said, “Many people don’t understand that land is not only power. It is an economic base that brings about independence.”

iv For the Coke story, I highly recommend the book, For God, Country and Coca-Cola: The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It, by Mark Pendergrast.

Bruce Hobson is a member of FRSO/OSCL and board member of HealthWrights. He lived in México where he worked for many years with independent rural health programs. He still has a red car and loves red vegetables.

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