We Are What We Eat

The Politics of Oil—and Groceries
© Brian C. Howard

From my bedroom window I can hear the sounds of traffic streaming by on Interstate 25, carrying folk around the last corner down from the pass through the Sangre de Christo foothills at Glorieta and the Pecos River, toward Santa Fe, New Mexico. They descend the mountain toward their jobs or they come down to vacation from points north, crossing a gateway where populations and commerce of the great Midwestern plains pass into a strange and almost alien country of the southwest, where civilization appears to change in some subtle manner, just like the landscape.

Attitudes and practices of management are a long way from giving the rather progressive lip-service to community and healthy practices that one encounters in most of the natural foods business. The employer-employee relationship appears to harken back to the ancient “patron” system more indigenous to New Mexico. By and large the awareness of food is governed solely by the bottom line, and my role is seen by management and many of my fellow employees as the “weird foods guy.” With the attraction of new customers the bottom line works in my favor, but the task is a relatively lonely one, and I feel that I run an almost independent entity encased within the shell of a traditional supermarket.

For anyone who thinks that food isn’t the stuff of politics, let me tell you that the grocery business is as political as it gets. Every inch of shelf space in your local store has been fought for or negotiated. The feeling of being the “weird foods guy” in a hybrid store is akin to that of the Wild West; of being at the edge of a frontier (or a wasteland), battling for a few acres of land, or a few feet of space, in order to prove myself and the viability of the products that I stock.

As I listen to the swoosh of traffic, a sound that’s like an intermittent river, breaking the otherwise peaceful atmosphere of these old hills, I think about how this road connects us, and how my life has once again brought me to serve at the concrete and asphalt edges of our world, on the boundaries between rich and poor, Anglo, Spanish and Indian, urban and rural.

Early in the morning, three mornings every week, I meet a truck out of Denver, full of products I’ve ordered from our wholesaler (a natural foods conglomerate that scooped up the company I once worked for and helped to build, along with most of its former coast-to-coast competition). I often think about those times, when we were creating the business, making up rules as we went along, expanding from small food cooperatives and buying clubs and vitamin stores into the next generation of mainstream upscale grocery stores and suppliers. In those days we mostly thought of ourselves as revolutionaries, our enterprises having grown out of cooperatives and communities that wanted to change everything in the world we found to be wrong and out of balance. Deep down, we all felt that something in our humanity was being threatened by untamed profits, although we were unclear of either the scope of the danger or of the alternatives.

At this stage of the struggle, however, it all looks like a game, a battle for “market share.” The natural foods business increasingly imitates the traditional market. Large national distributors often make up for the deep discounts they provide their large chain customers by overcharging their smaller accounts. More and more of the business has shifted toward the marketing of “fast” and “convenience” foods in order to keep up with the often-hectic lifestyle of its mostly middle-class adherents. We now buy most of our water off the shelf. We consume inordinate amounts and varieties of snack foods and chips. Do we need 12 different varieties of corn puffs?

Indeed, water, sodas and chips are my fastest-moving items. Next comes frozen entrees and prepared meals. We pay the highest prices for bath salts and body lotions in stunning array. Every month I’m approached by industry reps with a dozen new products straining for differentiation from those that have gone before. The corporatization of the industry has moved us once again from a sense of community and connection toward the desire for convenience and speed, and the eternal availability of that which will satisfy our every appetite. The natural foods business has continued to depend on cheap transport, and grown as dependent on processing and exotic packaging as any other part of the food business.

Still, we tell ourselves there is a growing awareness that it makes a difference how our foods were grown and prepared. Until the government manages to dilute the meaning of the term “organic” to something as meaningless as the word “natural,” there is a growing demand for foods that are not produced in a way that harms the Earth. The “revolution” is presently confined largely to the well-heeled and highly educated, and the pricing structure of an industry in hoc to Wall Street will keep it so for the foreseeable future.

There are encouraging signs in the industry of a return to the desire for the “neighborhood” store. This is accompanied by a revitalization of the inner cities and the peaking of the trend toward uncontrolled suburban sprawl. Stores like Trader Joe’s and local cooperatives like The Marketplace in Santa Fe have not only succeeded, but thrive in the presence of large national chain stores by offering people a familiar and intimate environment and being responsive to the needs and desires of particular communities. The growth and popularity of local farmers’ markets is another indication of this trend. Over time, as the increasing cost of fuel puts pressure on the industry to turn more to commodities that require less processing and transport, businesses with the ability to respond quickly to changing local market conditions are most likely to succeed.

All of this will require changes in the way we view our lives and the importance of the connections we have with one another. For me, this job provides a unique opportunity to know a community by what it eats. I don’t know yet whether the experiment will succeed, but I know its success will be in direct proportion to our ability to respond to that community’s perceptions of itself. The task of drawing connections across all of the frontiers of class and consciousness and economic reality, from management to employees to customers, is a daunting one. It may be that this particular business isn’t ready to make the best use of the opportunity, and I’ll find myself looking toward a different frontier. One thing I’ve noticed in almost all of the people I’ve met in the food industry is that they are uniquely devoted to serving other human beings. This is one thing that makes any struggle for the future worth the effort. Ultimately, we are all what we eat, and the politics of food are close to the root of whatever kind of society we wish to be.

RALPH MELCHER is a writer living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His essays have appeared in Annals of Earth, ctheory, The Journal of the Association for Humanistic Psychology and Fish Drum.

© Brian C. Howard