As I slowly make my way through The Nation's Sept. 11 food issue (apparently not hitting actual newsstands until Tuesday), an idea jumped out at me from Michael Pollan's portion of the "One Thing to Do About Food" forum. It's about framing, and I think it's something we need to get straight.
His suggestion is that we start caring now about the Farm Bill, that "obscure piece of legislation" that accounts for why public schools serve lots of feedlot beef and dairy products, why a Coke and a Whopper are so cheap even as small farmers struggle to break even.
The problem with getting Americans to care about the Farm Bill, Pollan posits, is the name: "How many people these days even know a farmer or care about agriculture?" Instead, he proposes, let's call it what it really is, "the food bill" — and start letting our legislators, especially ones in non-farm states, know that we voters are paying close attention to the upcoming revision in 2007.
This is genius. One of the reasons that Republicans control all three branches of government today is partly because they figured out in the '70s that manipulative , shorthand wording matters. "Pro-life," "tax relief," "death tax," "family values" — all are masterpieces of framing. (Democrats do it too, just not nearly as well.)
Already we're seeing push-back on the food movement from conservative pundits and counter-propaganda from big business. (Check out this "facts about high-fructose corn syrup" website.) They dub anyone who questions America's current way of eating "the food police," with all of the attendant liberty-depriving associations.
We need some alternate framing. "Food detectives" is nice, á la Pollan, but I think "food patriots" has more of a stirring, revolutionary ring. This country was built by small farmers, and it's time that we stopped driving them into the ground through government handouts to Big Agribusiness. Big Ag? Just this generation's equivalent to Big Tobacco. And it's making us just as sick, in the name of corporate profit.
So what kind of food are we fighting for, anyway? A few months ago I floated the idea that we need a name for our food, as "organic" just doesn't encompass all that what we're talking about. Readers wrote in and suggested "clean food" and "real food" (which Nina Planck uses), as well as "post-organic" and "sustainable."
I like "real food" vs. "fake food," as it does a good job of conveying the Nature vs. Factory element inherent to the battle of tomatoes against Twinkies. In the same vein, I think we could use "traditional food" and "factory food" and everyone would get what we meant, and what our opinion was of each.
And you know what? I'm not an "elitist" because I ask whether my $24 restaurant steak was grass-fed and -finished. I don't want a pastured chicken in every pot — I want food justice for every single person in this country, including those living on food stamps. I want a real free market, where corn and soy are no longer subsidized so that Lucky Charms are cheaper than apples, where small meat producers aren't forced topay a government tax that goes to "Beef: It's What's for Dinner" and other multimillion-dollar, Big-Ag ad campaigns.
Vote with our forks, indeed … but perhaps we can put them down occasionally, swallow, and raise our voices as well.