Tuesday, March 1, 2011

"Slow Food" Consumer Movement (Response to Stephanie)

In response to Stephanie's post regarding the current revival of consumer consciousness and reforms in the food industry...

Many of you are aware of the "real food" trend that has emerged in recent years. Consumers (hippies and non-hippies alike) are starting to demand more high quality food choices with short ingredient lists and words they can actually pronounce. Several books and documentaries focusing on the current state of our food system have helped educate consumers about healthful eating and ways to bring about reform. As a result, consumers have started talking about these issues (i.e. industrialized agriculture, reliance on corn, pesticides, GMOs, animal cruelty, etc.) in public forums via networked communication-and taking action with their pocketbooks.

We're starting to see a lot more restaurants touting their local and sustainable food sources and advertising that emphasizes "real," "pure," "simple," and "natural" ingredients. (Although, we should be skeptical about whether manufacturers can truly mass-produce healthy foods without loads of processing and preservatives. Nevertheless, they're marketing them to us as such.) It is interesting to compare the current recession to the Great Depression era. Instead of demanding lower prices in tough economic times, there has been a surge in backyard gardens and farmer's markets, as well as the increased expectation that the food industry provide us with quality food without giving up convenience.

Author and food expert Michael Pollan discusses how consumers are starting to reform the food industry by voting with their dollars:

"Perhaps more than any other, the food industry is very sensitive to consumer demand. Every major food company now has an organic division. There’s more capital going into organic agriculture than ever before. If consumers make good choices, the industry will respond. Will it be everything we hope? Probably not. They didn’t come up with organic, after all. That came from small farmers and consumers working together in relative obscurity. We need to sustain a noncorporate food chain to serve as the antennae for culture and agriculture. Whatever works will be picked up by the larger companies...When Wal-Mart and McDonald’s start selling organic food, it will drive down the price to farmers and risk growing a new monoculture. On the other hand, the whole country will be educated about the virtues of eating organic food. So the center will move, which is how change always comes to this country." (source: http://michaelpollan.com/profiles/the-cheapest-calories-make-you-the-fattest-a-food-chain-journalist-looks-for-stories-in-our-meals/)

Even if this trend will not lead to large-scale boycotts of processed food, fast food restaurants, and corporate agriculture-- at least I feel we're moving in the right direction as consumers. We're starting to question whether we can sacrifice our health for the sake of cheap food. Our networked society has enabled people to spread the word about the health risks associated with our current food system via blogs, podcasts, social media, films, books, and even old fashioned word of mouth. Like Stephanie, I think that the “Slow Food” movement is more than a fad. It appears to be a revival of consumer activism towards eating real, whole foods – much like those consumers ate back in the 1930s amidst the food price protests. My question is -- does networked communication make our purchasing power more effective or does it dilute it? Even though we can communicate with each other on a much large scale, perhaps a more concentrated, local boycott of unhealthy food providers would have more of an impact on reform.

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