Postcard from Orlando I: Your tax dollars at work

I have just returned from three days in Disney theme parks in Orlando. (No snarky jokes please, at least not from those of you who have yet to push a human out of your nether regions only to discover that children now emerge from the womb begging for a trip to Disney World.)

Disney is a fascinating place, as detailed by Seth Stevenson’s terrific recent story in Slate. One thing is certain: though: you walk through those gates and you expect marketing. You expect princesses. You expect pirates. You expect Winnie the Pooh dolls and hats with ears and people offering you timeshares so you can spend even more of your free time with the Belle and Ariel.

You don't, however, expect advertisements for our broken agricultural policy.

Oh, but you get them. Among the dizzying number of Things to Do while at Disney is to visit Epcot Center’s Innoventions plaza. To children, Innoventions looks like a wing at a science museum, with hands-on, interactive games and activities. To a slightly more cynical eye, it looks a bit like, um, prostitution a huge exhibition hall filled with the best marketing efforts of companies like Waste Management, Liberty Mutual, IBM, and the Society of Plastics. One such exhibit, The Great American Farm, is proudly sponsored by the Farm Bureau, the self-described voice of American agriculture.

The Farm Bureau’s exhibit was designed to help Americans think more about the connection between agriculture and the food on the table — an admirable, Ethicurean-friendly goal, to be sure. It includes the Great American Pizza game, a memory-style matching game where families can compete to see who can remember what pizza ingredients are grown in which state. There are booster-ish messages promoting corn’s role in biofuels. There’s a demonstration on biotechnology that deserves its very own post (oh, that’s coming...).

Today, though, let’s talk about the Farm Bureau’s simple touch-screen video game. The game displays cartoon images of major commodities crops and other agribusiness products (corn, soy, cotton, cows, or pigs). You choose one, and then watch as the product is dropped into a machine. That machine loads three images, jackpot style, and you guess which of those items is made from the crop you chose. Take corn, for example. Drop corn into the machine, you get to choose which of three items is made from corn. Your options: a dress, a glass, or a golf tee.

Hold on a moment. I thought this exhibition was to help me connect the farm with my food. Yet the options are a dress, a glass, or a golf tee. Huh.

A reminder at this point that corn is one of the U.S. commodity crops under the farm bill, which means that tax dollars — my tax dollars, and many of yours — subsidize corn. The Farm Bureau supports unlimited subsidy payments, even when that means $8 million checks to large businesses. These subsidies make corn and all the products that stem from it — from high fructose corn syrup, to E. coli-promoting cattle feed (PDF), to Cheetos — artificially cheap.

Apparently those artificially cheap products also include either a dress, a glass, or a golf tee. But which one? Let’s take a look at the answer.

It’s not a dress…

It’s not a glass…

It’s…

…Biodegradable golf tees! That is so exciting! I'm really very, very glad that my tax dollars are going toward golf tees. Because, you know, I've met some golfers. And they need the help. All those polo shirts...the 9-irons...the five-to-six-figure costs of joining a golf club. These things add up. So, yes. Let’s definitely subsidize golf tees.

Can you guess the biggest client of biodegradable golf tees? It's Disney! Apparently Disney’s use of the product has the potential to save the company money on the maintenance crews that would otherwise have to pick up the pesky little objects. Now I am really feeling good. I handed over an obscene amount of money to be here at Disney, it’s good to know that my tax dollars are also helping to defray Disney's maintenance costs.

You can learn other things from the video game, such as how marshmallows — hardly a reliable source of nutrition — are made from soy:

The whole thing may get you wondering, "Isn't this exhibition supposed to be about how American agriculture is connected to American foods?" Not confections, not sports accessories. Food. And then you remember: 77% of the edible products in American grocery stores contain no nutritional value. Just like marshmallows. And, well, like golf tees.

Huh. Maybe the exhibition makes the American agriculture-food connection pretty well after all.

8 Responsesto “Postcard from Orlando I: Your tax dollars at work”

  1. MamaBird says:

    That is one heck of an amazing birds-eye view of Disney you've shared. I have not been since I was 9 and my kids aren't aware of it yet. Whoa, nelly, am I hoping that day is long in the future!

  2. Debs says:

    How very disturbing and yet strangely unsurprising.

    Food Is Love

  3. Migraineur says:

    I escaped Disney until the ripe old age of 36, when I was forced to go there by my employer for a conference. Then again, I never wanted to go, even as a tiny child. Even then, I was vaguely embarrassed by the thought of grownups walking around wearing giant cartoon character heads. I don't have children yet, but I am hoping this embarrassment is genetic and the kids get it from me. (Then again, I don't remember my husband ever saying that he had a) ever been to Disneyworld, or 2) ever wanted to go to Disneyworld.) So maybe we stand some kind of chance of Disney-avoidance.

    This all reminds me of a fellow blogger mentioning that her son's gym teacher is telling the kids to eat fat-free everything, blah blah blah, and her son is coming home saying, "Mom, why are we eating butter?" Excuse me, a gym teacher? Aren't they busy enough teaching kids how to pick other kids last?

  4. oh my god. I am going to Disney World in about three weeks... I've been wondering exactly how I got roped into spending my few precious vacation days in the magic kingdom surrounded by princesses, pirates, and giant mice, and now I've got farm bureau propaganda to look forward to -- hooray!

  5. Bob says:

    I was just down there a week ago myself. Did you happen to notice the "all about allergies" walk to the butterfly garden, conveniently and repetitively sponsored by Claritin?

    To me, Disney should mean fantasy and wonderment. Exposing the whole family to marketing seems to detract.

    @Jen: There is a whole lot of beautiful flora and fauna in the various Disney parks. Epcot and the Animal Kingdom have some fascinating plants. Treat it like a photo plant safari.

  6. pattie says:

    Listen, I'm with ya' on the marketing. But take a look at Disney's sustainability report on their website and I'm sure you'll find at least a few things about which to feel good. I tried to focus on those things when I visited in January, and it helped. :)

  7. Sadly, the Farm Bureau, of which I am a member, does not actually represent farmers but rather Big Ag and money. I would like to see all subsidies eliminated so we could all sell on a level playing field instead my having to compete against Big Ag players who get subsidized with yours and my tax dollars. Unlikely to happen because they have the money to buy the lobbyists who do oh, so good a job of buying the legislative and regulatory votes to give them every advantage.

    So, we'll just have to be better and settle for that. Fortunately, many consumers recognize quality.

    Welcome to Ethicurean as a writer, Ali.

    Cheers,

    -Walter
    in Vermont

  8. ExPat Chef says:

    Ah, see the slot machine is WRONG. I was just drinking from a biodegradable cup makde from corn at Wild Oats. Doesn't that help?? Ugh. Now, I am going to have to escape the whole Disney trip, too. I have a brief year to plan this. :)