Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Guest Post: Companies Vs. Consumers: A Manifesto

Today's guest post comes from Daniel Koontz. Dan is the author of Casual Kitchen, a kick-butt blog that helps readers cook more, think more, and spend less. It's my (Kris') favorite food blog. Er, beyond this one.

Why are so many people convinced that all food companies and retailers are evil, greedy, and exist solely to exploit their customers?

If you hold that kind of simplistic, generalized world view, you are committing an act of personal disempowerment. You may not know it, but you are willingly giving your power away to these companies.

This is not to say that some companies aren't greedy. And it's not to say that consumers aren't at times unfairly separated from their money. But it is the height of enfeebled hypocrisy to whine and complain about "greedy companies" when they merely make and sell the very products we consent to buy.

I will not allow my readers to give their power over to companies like that. No way.

The truth is this: big business (or Big Food, or Big Retail, or Big Auto, or Big Pharma--go ahead and take your pick) has absolutely no power over us unless we willingly choose to be disempowered first. There have never been more companies competing for our consumer dollars, and there have never been more consumption choices available to us--including the easy-to-forget option not to consume at all.

Just walk into any standard supermarket, and you'll find at least 50,000 products--three times what you'd find 30 years ago--all helpfully arranged throughout the store in the hopes that you'll make a purchase.

And sure, among those 55,000 products there are lots of unhealthy foods. But an unbiased walk through any grocery store will reveal an extremely wide array of healthy, laughably cheap foods too.

If you decide to eat unhealthy foods in the face of all of those choices, you are the one making that choice. No snivelling marketing executive from Big Food forced that overpriced and heavily-advertised bag of potato chips down your throat. (PS: uh, if this actually does happen to you, please put down this blog and call 911).

Sure, the food industry may have made those chips hyperpalatably salty and tantalizingly delicious. But you picked the bag off the shelf, you carried it to the counter, you paid for it with your money, and you took the bag home, opened it and consumed the contents.

If you think it's reasonable to blame Big Food for that sequence of events, then you're beyond help. You've already given away all of your power.

~~~

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11 comments:

Kim said...

I so agree!!!! Thank you so much for this. I am so tired of certain companies being called evil when consumers are the ones choosing to buy the products.

Cathy said...

Massively powerful statement! I have said to my husband, "Just don't buy it" a thousand times. I feel for the people who consume these things thoughtlessly, but the information IS available, mostly for free, if they are willing to put the time in to educating themselves (for example, this blog!). It is usually cheaper, healthier, and delicious to cook better food. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

This is a really simplistic argument without a lot of information to back it up.

Yes, there are 50,000 items in the supermarket, but a small number of companies produce a large percentage of that food. How many options do you have to choose GMO-free products? Packages aren't even labeled to show which use GMO products and which do not!

And, with regards to hyperpalatible foods, increasing evidence shows that they are just as addictive as cocaine (see David Kessler's The End of Overeating). Your simplistic admonition to "just say no" to unhealthy food is ignorant. What about low income people living in food deserts? What about the advertising of junk food that has shaped our food views since early childhood? What about the addictiveness of that junk food? Would you tell a drug addict that it is that simple? Or would you shift blame to the drug pushers who profit from our collective ill health?

Daniel said...

Thank you for the feedback so far--I'm happy to see this article resonating with readers.

Just a quick response to Anonymous: Your comment suggests that you've entirely missed the point of this post. I'm not shifting any blame, I'm asking you to take action. Don't give your power away to the food industry like this.

I'll borrow an example from your comment to illustrate my point yet again: If you're unhappy with the food options in your supermarket, why are you still shopping there? Even more importantly, why are you whining in the comments of Kris' blog when you could be seeking out and supporting other food sources in your community--and sharing your solutions with others?

And please don't tell me that's beyond your power, because it isn't.

Dan @ Casual Kitchen

Kara @ Karacooks said...

I have to agree that the thought is simplistic verging on naive.

"The truth is this: big business (or Big Food, or Big Retail, or Big Auto, or Big Pharma--go ahead and take your pick) has absolutely no power over us unless we willingly choose to be disempowered first. "

Big [Name Your Industry] has it's fingers sunk into our government up to the elbows. They have more power over us than most of us know or will ever know.

Personal choice in where you shop, what you buy, and what you eat is only a small part of the overall picture.

Until we removed Big Business from government, they will continue to control us and our choices in a million ways.

Diane said...

There are worthwhile points in Daniel's article, but there are also some reality-check points that Anonymous raises.

I'm privileged enough to be well educated about food and other life skills (budgeting, nutrition, economics, organic foods). I don't have to participate in any subsidized food programs because I am employed, albeit with a very modest income. In this sense I am very free to choose what goes into my reusable shopping bag, into my kitchen, and into my body. To that end, I'm totally behind what Daniel has to say. HOWEVER....and this is a BIG however that supports the points Anonymous raises...

I also work with economically challenged populations in areas where growing seasons are very limited and food shopping requires much more than just hopping in a car (if they had one) or getting a bus (there might not be public transportation) to the nearest Farmer's Market, co-op, or even grocery store. I teach ESL and Life Skills to adult refugees and immigrants in the mid-west...one of the units I teach is on food labels, but my students are also trying to learn English, so nutrition information is doubly hard for them to digest (no pun intended). Can I really look the other way and say it's up to them after I make my "choices" knowing my students don't have the language skills to do so as easily?

Here's another example, I've done volunteer work on one of the poorest Native American reservations in South Dakota where it's nearly impossible to grow food. Going to a grocery store might be several hours off the reservation, and if they are lucky enough to have a "convenience store" on the reservation, I can pretty well guarantee it's going to be stocked with a VERY LIMITED NUMBER of healthy or nutritious foods.

Daniel, you may want to debate that people living on the reservation still have a choice, and in a VERY LIMITED sense you're right...they could choose to not buy anything from the convenience store which would effectively put it out of business so that they wouldn't even be able to buy the very basics like milk. And we haven't even gotten to the snow storms that shut everything down because there isn't a Public Works Department to snow plow the roads (often dirt) that are common on the res.

Daniel, I do understand the point you are trying to make about choice, and I do think a MAJORITY of people in the U.S. could make better choices - including the most important choice - STOP BUYING CR*P. But I also think those of us who have the education, economic security, and privilege to choose, must also work to ensure that the companies who make unhealthy food products (and our government agencies who sanction and subsidize these products...can you say corn syrup?) are held accountable so that those with fewer buying privileges have a safer and healthier selection of foods to choose from.

Thanks to Daniel and Anonymous for raising the discussion. I hope this makes sense to someone besides me. Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving!

Diane said...

There are worthwhile points in Daniel's article, but there are also some reality-check points that Anonymous raises.

I'm privileged enough to be well educated about food and other life skills (budgeting, nutrition, economics, organic foods). I don't have to participate in any subsidized food programs because I am employed, albeit with a very modest income. In this sense I am very free to choose what goes into my reusable shopping bag, into my kitchen, and into my body. To that end, I'm totally behind what Daniel has to say. HOWEVER....and this is a BIG however that supports the points Anonymous raises...

I also work with economically challenged populations in areas where growing seasons are very limited and food shopping requires much more than just hopping in a car (if they had one) or getting a bus (there might not be public transportation) to the nearest Farmer's Market, co-op, or even grocery store. I teach ESL and Life Skills to adult refugees and immigrants in the mid-west...one of the units I teach is on food labels, but my students are also trying to learn English, so nutrition information is doubly hard for them to digest (no pun intended). Can I really look the other way and say it's up to them after I make my "choices" knowing my students don't have the language skills to do so as easily?

Here's another example, I've done volunteer work on one of the poorest Native American reservations in South Dakota where it's nearly impossible to grow food. Going to a grocery store might be several hours off the reservation, and if they are lucky enough to have a "convenience store" on the reservation, I can pretty well guarantee it's going to be stocked with a VERY LIMITED NUMBER of healthy or nutritious foods.

Daniel, you may want to debate that people living on the reservation still have a choice, and in a VERY LIMITED sense you're right...they could choose to not buy anything from the convenience store which would effectively put it out of business so that they wouldn't even be able to buy the very basics like milk. And we haven't even gotten to the snow storms that shut everything down because there isn't a Public Works Department to snow plow the roads (often dirt) that are common on the res.

Daniel, I do understand the point you are trying to make about choice, and I do think a MAJORITY of people in the U.S. could make better choices - including the most important choice - STOP BUYING CR*P. But I also think those of us who have the education, economic security, and privilege to choose, must also work to ensure that the companies who make unhealthy food products (and our government agencies who sanction and subsidize these products...can you say corn syrup?) are held accountable so that those with fewer buying privileges have a safer and healthier selection of foods to choose from.

Diane said...

I don't have to participate in any subsidized food programs because I am employed, albeit with a very modest income. In this sense I am free to choose what goes into my reusable shopping bag, into my kitchen, and into my body. To that end, I'm totally behind what Daniel has to say. HOWEVER....and this is a BIG however, Anonymous raises some good points.

I work with economically challenged populations in areas where growing seasons are very limited and food shopping requires much more than just hopping in a car (if they had one) or getting a bus (there might not be public transportation) to the nearest Farmer's Market, co-op, or grocery store. I teach ESL and Life Skills to adult refugees and immigrants in the mid-west... I teach a unit about food labels, but my students are also trying to learn English, so nutrition information is doubly hard for them to understand. Can I really look the other way and say "every man for himself" knowing my students can't?

I've also worked as a volunteer on one of the poorest Native American reservations where it's nearly impossible to grow food. Going to a grocery store might be several hours off the reservation, and if they are lucky enough to have a "convenience store" on the reservation, I can pretty well guarantee it's going to be stocked with a VERY LIMITED NUMBER of healthy or nutritious foods.

Daniel, you may want to debate that people living on the reservation still have a choice, and in a VERY LIMITED sense you'd be right...they could choose to not buy anything from the convenience store which would effectively put it out of business so that they wouldn't even be able to buy the very basics like milk. And we haven't even considered snow storms that shut everything down because there isn't a Public Works Department to snow plow the roads (often dirt) on the res.

Daniel, understand the point you are trying to make about choice, and I think a MAJORITY of people in the U.S. could make better choices - the most important choice - STOP BUYING CR*P. But I also think those of us who have the education, economic security, and privilege to choose, must also work to ensure that the companies who make unhealthy food products are held accountable so that those with fewer buying privileges have a safer and healthier selection of foods to choose from.

Diane said...

I'm in favor of most of what Daniel has to say. HOWEVER....and this is a BIG however, Anonymous raises some good points.

I work with economically challenged populations in areas where growing seasons are very limited and food shopping requires much more than just hopping in a car (if they had one) or getting a bus (there might not be public transportation) to the nearest Farmer's Market, co-op, or grocery store. I teach ESL and Life Skills to adult refugees and immigrants in the mid-west... I teach a unit about food labels, but my students are also trying to learn English, so nutrition information is doubly hard for them to understand. Can I really look the other way and say "every man for himself" knowing my students struggle?

I've also worked as a volunteer on one of the poorest Native American reservations where it's nearly impossible to grow food. Going to a grocery store might be several hours off the reservation, and if they are lucky enough to have a "convenience store" on the reservation, I can pretty well guarantee it's going to be stocked with a VERY LIMITED NUMBER of healthy or nutritious foods.

Daniel, you may want to debate that people living on the reservation still have a choice, and in a VERY LIMITED sense you'd be right...they could choose to not buy anything from the convenience store which would effectively put it out of business so that they wouldn't even be able to buy the very basics like milk. And we haven't even considered snow storms that shut everything down because there isn't a Public Works Department to snow plow the roads (often dirt) on the res.

While I understand the point you are trying to make about choice (I think a MAJORITY of people in the U.S. could make better choices or stop buying at all), I also think those of us who have the education, economic security, and privilege to choose, must also work to ensure that the companies who make unhealthy food products are held accountable so that those with fewer buying privileges have a safer and healthier selection of foods to choose from.

Daniel said...

Some more good points. Uh, except for the part about my thoughts being simplistic verging on naive.

Kara, even an industry with "its fingers sunk into our government up to the elbows" cannot earn a profit if we do not buy what it sells. We have an important obligation to use our personal choice to its maximum effectiveness.

Diane, thanks for the input. Agreed 100% that there are people out there with disadvantages, although that conversation is perhaps beyond the scope of this post.

What I don't want to see is that fact used as a reason for inaction. You are clearly not doing this, but over my years of blogging I've seen too many readers whine about the injustice of it all and then go right back to their normal buying patterns. That's just giving your power over to--as Kara says--Big [Name Your Industry]. (I've written about this subject in detail at Casual Kitchen by the way.)

What this really means is our consumption decisions carry even more weight because they can result in better foods and better choices for those with fewer advantages. This is all the more reason why we need to weigh our choices carefully and why we cannot afford to give our power away. Other consumers are depending on us.

Dan @ Casual Kitchen

Priyanka said...

Daniel points out what has been lingering in everybody's head--we like to blame people. I have a slightly different view on this article.
A lot of us have been holding others responsible for the obesity epidemic in this country. Perhaps we fail to recognize that we really do have control over our health and well being, and our finances. Especially through the decisions we make. I have worked with a few patients (dietetic intern) and during the consultation I ask, "What are the reasons behind your weight gain, why do you feel you need my help?"
Many have said, "The food companies in America are the ones to blame. They keep selling crap food."

Maybe not saying all the time, but I have noticed that the first instinct of the patients I have worked with is to blame someone else.

Yes, there are many barriers like your budget, availability of fresh produce, lack of knowledge in nutrition, etc.

That was me 8 years ago.

If you care, if you're motivated, or if you are truly invested in your health, then I strongly believe that you will not get hung up on the barriers. You do what you can, and the best you can, with the resources you have available to you to make better choices. Choices that don't rack up your grocery bill and subsequently your waist line.

--Priyanka

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