Food Chains

Who doesn’t know what a food chain is? We’re taught in elementary school a very simplified version of food chains, but the truth isn’t really beyond what an elementary school child could assimilate.

Food chains have, at their bottom, species of animals that eat no other species and ends, at the top, with a species that is eaten by no other species. So considering, for instance, domesticated cattle – they’re the bottom of their food chain. They eat no other animal species. Humans, by contrast, are considered the top of every food chain because it’s put forth that we eat all, but are eaten by none. Let’s disregard the tales of tigers, leopards, lions, crocodiles and alligators, sharks, bears, and so on. We like to pat ourselves on the back and declare ourselves so much bigger, better, meaner, and brighter than the animals around us; thus, we declare ourselves the top of the food chain.

The question becomes, what does it matter? If you consider the science of the question, invariably you have to state, we are just another link in the food chain. But because we have opposable thumbs and the ability to lay waste to the entire biological kingdom of this planet, we are capable of preparing for defense against any of the predators natural to our world, and further we are capable of killing any animal, any component, really, of the biological kingdom of this planet, including ourselves – because of these facts, we’re the Apex Predator.

Tracie McMillan wrote an incredibly insightful, and painfully harsh, book called “The American Way of Eating.” In the book she describes her curiosity about how our food goes from the field to the table, and the investigation she undertook to learn this. She worked in the fields of California gathering produce; she worked in Wal Mart in the produce section; she worked in food prep in Applebee’s. She literally followed food from the field to the tables in this book, and what she learned was astounding. For the purposes of this blog, I want to focus on two items she brought to light:

  • Logistics drive grocery chains, not offerings of food
  • The “food desert” of Detroit – and what lead to it

Once upon a time, we were hunter-gatherers. With the advent of knowledge relating to producing crops, we began settling in towns, later in cities. Until roughly the 1700s, the amount of arable land equaled the needs of humans to feed themselves; in other words, we weren’t having a major impact on the lands around us, and were sustaining our own growth on locally available arable land.

Our population began increasing dramatically, as indicated below:

  • 1350 – world population around 370 million, following Black Death
  • 1825 – world population reaches one billion
  • 1927 – world population reaches two billion
  • 1960 – world population reaches three billion
  • 1980 – world population around 4.2 billion
  • 2000 – world population around 6 billion
  • 2020 – estimated world population around 8 billion

In 33 years, between 1927 and 1960, the world population grew by one billion people. One billion people in 33 years. We’re showing population increase trends, now, of about two billion people every 20 years.

The question this raises is, if there’s not more land being produced, how are we feeding all these people? The answer comes in a couple of creative ways:

  • GMOs, or Genetically Modified Organisms, have paved the way to greater crop production per acre of land. These organisms do everything from producing hardier crops to making them more resistant to the weather, insects and pests, and so on
  • Growth hormones and promoters, in the form of steroids and antibiotics, are used to increase production of livestock for grocery shelves
  • Grocery chains which are heavily invested in infrastructure – transportation and power grids, to name a couple – to ensure their products reach the most people

In essence, specifically in the United States of America, people can live pretty much anywhere and find a way to purchase nearly any foods. Tropical fruit? No problem! It’s been shipped up and is waiting for you to buy it! Want buffalo? Just hop on the internet and you’re sure to find someone nearby selling it! A simple search took me to www.thebuffaloguys.com, which turned in results of 13 retailers in Tennessee, eight in Connecticut, none in California and  Oregon, and 30 in Ohio. However, fear not, you can place your orders online!

What all this means is that we don’t really have any idea what it takes to get the food on our plates, which we consume with abandon and glee. Our farms are huge industries selling crops and livestock for big-buck companies who are heavily invested in infrastructure which leads us to … politics. Lobbying. A person in Georgia is likely to pay roughly the same price for chicken breasts as a person in California, because the grocery chains have ensured pricing by cutting out smaller markets. And that means that if you don’t make enough money, you’re left to hit the cheap shit on the shelves in the interior of the stores. Susan Powter, back in the ‘90s, urged people to stay away from boxed, packaged foods. There’s been debate and controversy over whether she was serious in her urgings to get people to eat healthier, or if she was just in it for the buck, but her message was a good one regardless. Want to know how grocery stores determine what goes where? Check this out – http://read.bi/njIBhK. The bottom line is that a great portion of our population can only afford the cheap, fast foods, prepackaged and canned and filled with who-knows-what. Their cost determinants include not only the cash price of items, but also the time investment in obtaining and preparing foods.

And this means increased obesity, higher-than-good-for-you sodium consumption, and escalated medical costs associated with food-related illnesses. We won’t even get into the controversy over whether genetically modified or antibiotic-infused foods are good for you. More and more of our society is being plagued with one form or another of gluten intolerance; interesting, isn’t it, that in the last 50 years our wheat use has expanded to become one of the primary fillers in many foods? I mean, who’d think you’d have wheat in hot dogs, right? Yeah, check in to “cereal binders.” Or “extenders.” Both cereal-based, both containing wheat. There are some natural products (latex, anyone?) which generate allergies with use – it’s possible wheat is one of them. But wheat is so cheap to produce, and it certainly costs less than the food it’s being used to “fill” or “extend!” Using fillers like this, producers are able to get more bang for their buck, thus earning them more of the almighty dollar.

Now, let’s look at Detroit. Between heavy governmental mismanagement, auto unions that refused to budge on their demands, taxes that kept rising as the population kept decreasing, we now have a city that is, literally, in ruins (http://content.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1882089,00.html has a fascinating and saddening slideshow about this). Detroit has also become what’s called a food desert. What’s a food desert? I’m glad you asked! A food desert is essentially an area where healthy, sustaining food is difficult to obtain, and even more difficult for people without access to automobiles.

Tracie McMillan outlined some of the problems facing Detroit, and that led me to a somewhat intensive research program online, learning about some of the issues facing Detroiters. Here’s a summation of what I found:

  • Grocery chains have determined that more stores in the heavily-hit and poorest parts of Detroit would be financially unfeasible; the cost-to-profit ratio is too high for them to wish to place their stores
    • Much of Detroit is inner-city roads, inhibiting easy access for transportation
    • Abandoned auto factories and homes are unsellable in many instances, as their “ownership” is currently in question, which makes space for placing supermarkets or chain groceries at a premium
    • The city of Detroit has obtained the title on many of these properties via tax defaults as their owners abandoned them and fled the city
  • Fringe stores such as convenience stores, liquor stores, party stores, dollar stores, and other such retailers have enabled themselves to accept food stamps by offering a comparatively small selection of canned and prepackaged foods high in salt, fat and sugar – this boosts their overall sales
    • Fringe stores and fast food stores proliferate, they’re very nearly on every corner
    • Food costs of food items in fringe stores are higher than their counterparts found in supermarkets and grocery chains, as the fringe stores buy in lower bulk
    • Foods in these stores can sit on the shelves forever, or until they’re sold, regardless of perishable dates
    • Detroit is one of the most expensive places, anywhere, to own and operate a vehicle, leaving nearly one-fifth of the entire population on foot
    • Detroit has not, since they dismantled their railcar system in 1956, had a good, fully functioning public transit system

In short, it’s nearly impossible to find good food for an amount most people can afford in Detroit. But the residents of the city are taking matters into their own hands. On abandoned automobile lots, many residents began creating gardens, planted in raised beds to keep them off the floors where toxic fluids had spilled and collected. Many of these gardens are and were begun as cooperative efforts; you work, you benefit. But Detroiters involved in these efforts also sold some of their produce to local residents. Naturally the government got involved; because these foods weren’t being taxed, the government responded by passing laws that no new structures could be built on these old factory floors.

It goes on. In essence, Detroiters have responded to their crisis of low-cost access to healthy foods by dedicating themselves to becoming a giant urban garden. Many projects are underway to kick this off, including but not limited to initiatives by Greening of Detroit, Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, the Detroit Eastern Market, and others. Michigan State University has even donated money, payable over a three-year time period, for a “food system innovation program that would promote economic development, land recovery, and food security.” (http://www.urbangardensweb.com/2013/01/19/will-detroit-get-worlds-largest-urban-farm/)

What is the point of all this rambling? Simple.

We’re killing ourselves, in yet another way, so that big companies can make a buck. We’re willfully ignoring food-production practices that have, in some cases, been proven harmful, all to grow food faster and provide more – more that grocery chains can “corner the market” on, by managing the transportation and logistics of food distribution. And let’s not even talk about the people involved, the ones out in the fields picking the foods, and how their diets are, by and large, less nutritious and more costly for them. We’ve been shown by the city of Detroit, if not others, that urbanization of food production can work, and can benefit the community.

In the rambling above, I’m making the argument that, in our food production and consumption, grocery chains are the Apex Predators. And I’m saying that we need to wise up. We need to be seeking local alternatives to shopping in these large chains. Initiatives are under way in many communities to “vote with the fork,” or to only purchase foods from local garden cooperatives. That’s a start. But we need to be tracing back the politics behind these mammoth institutions, and find ways to dismantle them. Mom & Pop shops are largely a nostalgic item from a past era; yet these shops were once a cornerstone of communities. They were the places where Joe Average got to hang out a bit with Jane Anybody, chatting about the weather, the family, so on and so on. They were the places where youngsters began learning about responsibility, being hired on to sweep, or stock shelves, or make deliveries. In short, it is my surmise that they were the parts of the communities that made the communities. In addition? We ate better!

Folk, there’s a lot of information out there. Do the research for yourself. Understand what you’re putting on your fork, and thereby into your mouth. Open your mouth, where you feel it necessary, to invite change. I say growth can relearn a pattern from an earlier era. Growth can embrace something that worked, giving over convenience for a stronger community. Really. You need to check into this.

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