MIDDLEBURY — Montpelier is the only state capital in the country without a McDonald’s restaurant.
But Vermont did not escape admonition from journalist Eric Schlosser, who encouraged people to think hard about their food’s origins during a recent talk at Middlebury College. The author of “Fast Food Nation,” a popular exposé on the food industry, informed a packed auditorium in the McCullough Student Center last Tuesday that Vermont’s strong track record on supporting local farmers and celebrating unique, fresh food is no excuse to rest easy.
“At its worst, this current food sustainability movement sometimes seems to care more about taste of some organic pinot noir than about the plight of the migrant farmworkers who picked those grapes,” said Schlosser of the growing pushback against factory farming. “There is nowhere near enough emphasis on social justice.”
And Schlosser would know. Ten years ago almost to the month, ‘Fast Food Nation’ hit store bookshelves, offering views into the huge feedlots that ultimately produce hamburgers and the New Jersey factories that concoct the chemicals to ensure that McDonald’s French fries taste the same in California as they do in Vermont — and views of the workers injured in the meatpacking plants and sickened by fields of chemical fertilizers.
“Meatpacking used to be a solid middle-class job,” said Schlosser. “In a 30-year period, one of the highest paid industrial jobs in the United States is one of the least paid, most dangerous jobs. Workers are completely disposable.”
Since he published “Fast Food Nation” in 2001, Schlosser has been active in the local, organic food movement. He said he believes the movement has an important role to play in the fight against an industry that has billions of dollars in advertising and little nutritional value associated with it.
He described that fight as making available to the consumer food grown in a way that doesn’t deplete soils, and where animals are raised in a place where they have space to move, aren’t pumped full of antibiotics and don’t spend a lifetime standing in their own manure.
Schlosser emphasized that it’s not a matter of fresh food tasting better, and it’s not an animal rights issue. The widespread, anonymous factory system means that one cow infected with E. Coli can make its way not just to several people, but worldwide to thousands of mouths.
“Outbreaks of food poisoning aren’t localized now,” said Schlosser. “A typical fast food hamburger patty has pieces of thousands of cattle in one small patty. And those pieces can come from as many as five different countries. It’s like globalization in every bite.”
This differs, he said, from a hamburger in the 1950s, which could be traced back to just one or a couple of cows.
“It’s kind of like the difference between being in a monogamous relationship, where your chances of contracting a sexually transmitted disease are low, as opposed to being in contact with thousands on a daily basis. That fast food hamburger is the equivalent of being insanely promiscuous. Your odds of catching something nasty are enormously increased.”
Schlosser also pointed to the proportion of obese children in the country, which has tripled over the past 40 years, right in line with the growth of fast, cheap food as an American staple. And as a result of the high sugar content in foods found at fast food restaurants and on the shelves of grocery stores, he said one in every three American children born in the year 2000 are expected to develop diabetes in their lifetime — a number that falls to one in every two for low-income children.
But, said Schlosser, those low-income children are not the voices of the food movement that we hear — much as nobody heard the chirping of the songbirds killed off by pesticides in the 1960s, the subject of Rachel Carson’s landmark book ‘Silent Spring.’
“Unfortunately, today’s food movement and sustainability movement, like the environmental movement, is marked by a similar kind of silence,” said Schlosser. “It’s the absence of voices of those who are being hurt most by this system — farmworkers, meat packing workers, restaurant workers, and the urban poor.”
This was just one parallel Schlosser drew between the current rise of the ‘food movement’ and the worldwide environmental movement that started 41 years ago, on Earth Day in 1970 — just as fast food chains and consumers were beginning to demand cheaply produced produce and meat.
And environmental reforms that nobody believed would happen, including pollution controls and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, are proof that the movement did have national and international effects — though with a nod to local activist and writer Bill McKibben, Schlosser pointed out that there is still room for environmental reform, and still many members of the environmental movement who are fighting hard for that reform.
Much like environmental reform, said Schlosser, if industrial producers are forced to take on the cost of transportation, production and health problems and government subsidies for grains are altered, the price of the healthy, sustainably produced food will be much more attractive.
“(Right now,) the cost of the dialysis isn’t included in the cost of the triple cheeseburger,” he said.
BRINGING IT HOME
Vermont is not immune to any of the problems Schlosser highlighted, he said, explaining that he had lived in the state for seven years.
“We have this image of a pristine, environmentally friendly, environmentally and socially conscious state,” he said. “But there is another Vermont, very different from the one that I'm standing in right now. About one out of every six Vermonters right now is on food stamps. About one out of every five children in Vermont lives below the poverty line. And now Vermont has its own set of migrant farmworkers from Mexico, a few thousand, many of whom are working 70-80 hours a week.”
“I would argue that a back-to-the-land, environmentally friendly society cannot include (migrant farmworkers) living isolated on dairy farms in fear of arrest, often being exploited,” said Schlosser.
But the state’s small size can allow for big change, he said, in areas where Vermont is already coming along — support for local, small-scale production, processing and distribution.
“There are four times as many people in Queens as there are in the entire state of Vermont. But that’s what can make it so useful and important, as a social laboratory for the future. Change can happen here fast, things can be tried here and when they work, they can be adapted elsewhere.”
Schlosser next addressed the students in the audience.
“If you’re at Middlebury, you’re at the very top of society in Vermont,” said Schlosser. “The typical household income for a family of four in Vermont is lower than one year’s tuition for you at Middlebury.”
This, he said, wasn’t a ploy to make the students in the audience feel guilty — just one to encourage them to put that education to use, and to be active in the fight for sustainable food systems.
“I’m trying to stress how you are connected to all of this,” he said. “All of the problems I mentioned today about our food system, this kind of social injustice, can be solved.
“My study of history led me to believe that nothing is inevitable. And if things aren’t inevitable, then things don’t have to be the way they are,” said Schlosser.
And if nothing else, Schlosser encouraged the crowd to simply be conscious of their food and its connections to the land and to other people. The greatest danger to the food movement, he said, is apathy. To finish, he quoted the Buddhist philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh:
“Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what’s the point of seeing?”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at email@example.com.