Food fascinates me. Food is a blend of art and science, with a big dose of anthropology, farming, and politics thrown in for good measure. It’s a complex global issue that affects our most intimate times together at the dinner table. Everyone needs to eat, and access to food has been a big deal throughout all of human history. We have a role to play in the impact of food in our world, and it’s a powerful role.
Unless you are a homesteader, it’s likely you buy rather than grow or hunt most of your food. For better or worse, we get our food from a shrinking number of companies. As these companies shrink in number they tend to grow in size, which means they exert an ever growing influence on what is on our plates. They are powerful. This week I read with interest OxFam’s recent Behind the Brands report. This is a well researched effort to change the ways the biggest food companies in the world do business, most particularly in ways that affect the poor*. Oxfam interacted directly with the companies to influence their practices, usually to little effect. They have also launched a PR campaign to harvest the power of you — the consumer.
When we set the table dinner we aren’t just having dinner. We are making claims about what we believe. (OK – so I may be getting all Berkeley on you here, but it’s true.) Do we recognize our power as consumers? I admit it’s a challenge to envision the power in my mundane food purchases. It’s just a box of cereal — where’s the power in this? Well, it may not be very impressive to imagine the impact of one item, but when you add up all the purchases made by all of us, the overall impact on the food world is considerable. We begin by imagining the power we wield. And then in laying claim to the responsibility to use this power wisely and justly. This isn’t about looking impressive to the phantom Martha Stewart or Michael Pollan lurking behind your shoulder. It’s not about PC foodie bragging rights. It’s about realizing and taking action on the very real power that you wield in what you choose to serve to your family and friends at the dinner table.
How we exercise our purchasing power is an important part of the equation, and Oxfam recognizes this. I applaud Oxfam’s efforts to make the impact of our food choices clearer, and also for providing us with a simple tool to influence the companies responsible for an ever larger share of the food our world consumes. Check this site out for an engaging way to exert some influence on our food company titans.
*True to Oxfam’s purposes, this report did not examine the nutritional qualities of the foods these companies make, but instead focused on the direct effects of these company practices on the societal issues immediately affecting the poorest citizens of our world.