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Eric Schlosser: In the Food Wars, Don't Forget Low Income People

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Eric Schlosser: In the Food Wars, Don't Forget Low Income People

The "Food Inc." filmmaker and author suggests critics of today's industrial food system should focus more on social justice.
Eric Schlosser

Is the food movement in danger of becoming elitist? That was the critique given by Eric Schlosser, author of the book Fast Food Nation, and co-producer of the documentary "Food Inc." March 14 at Stanford GSB. Schlosser's talk, "Environmentalism, Elitism, and Food," was this year's Conradin von Gugelberg Memorial Lecture, honoring the environmental commitment of a member of the MBA Class of 1987.

Schlosser is an investigative journalist whose bestselling book, Fast Food Nation, was an expose of the fast-food industry, and he followed up with "Food Inc.," a film about corporate control of the American food supply. In his lecture he compared the current food movement with the environmental movement, looking at the history of each and warning that the food movement, like the environmental movement before it, risks losing touch with its democratic roots.

"At its worst caricature, the environmental movement sometimes seems to care more about endangered snails than about human beings," Schlosser said. "And at its worst, the sustainability movement and the food movement sometimes seem to care more about the taste of some Napa wine than about the migrant workers who harvested those grapes."

Schlosser's talk came at a time of increased interest from students in food and agriculture issues.

"I assumed I would come to business school and be one of the few with an interest in food and agriculture," said Ruthie Schwab, who is pursuing an MBA and a master's degree from the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources. "But I'm one of many. It's really exciting."

The Food and Agriculture Resource Management Club, or FARM Club, was started by a small group of business school students in spring 2010 and now has dozens of members, said Michelle Paratore, MBA '12, who has been one of the club's leaders. Students are finding agricultural internships, such as working at the sustainability department of a large berry farm.

The annual Food Summit at Stanford, which began in 2010, has promoted interdisciplinary discussions of food issues.

And Sarah A. Soule, Morgridge Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford GSB, is planning to co-teach a course on sustainable food in the fall.

"We plan to cover a variety of issues related to the U.S. food system, including the loss of small farms and farmland, organics, the health ramifications of the American diet, food deserts, and more," Soule said. "Some of the things that Schlosser touched on, we will be discussing in more detail in the seminar."

In his lecture, which was supported by Stanford GSB's Public Management Program and Center for Social Innovation, Schlosser traced the history of the modern environmental movement, noting that it has been 50 years since Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring, showed how businesses imposed their external costs on the rest of society; for example, by dumping chemical waste in rivers.

Over the years, however, the environmental movement became increasingly upper middle class and white. "Its focus on preserving wilderness sometimes seemed to be motivated by preserving wilderness for recreation or preserving wilderness right next to second homes," Schlosser said.

He said that today's industrial food system presents the same problem that environmentalists faced decades ago: "corporations imposing externalities on the rest of society — and making a great deal of money by doing so."

In the 1960s, for example, a hamburger came from a small butcher shop or processing plant and contained meat from just a few cows. Today, a typical fast-food hamburger contains pieces from more than 1,000 different cattle, often from several countries. "This is a fundamentally new thing, and to me it's actually a pretty disgusting thing," Schlosser said.

It is also, he said, a reason for the increase in food-borne illnesses. "You would think that, as the technology was getting more advanced, food-borne illnesses would be declining, but what we have now is a system that's a perfect vector for spreading diseases," Schlosser said. Even if the small local shops of the past weren't clean, they couldn't spread an illness to very many people.

Another cost of industrialized food, Schlosser said, is the obesity epidemic. "These companies have done a very good job of not taking responsibility for what they're imposing on society."

Schlosser warned that the food movement risks becoming too narrowly focused. "In my view there is nowhere near enough emphasis on social justice," he said. The poor and working class "need a strong environmental movement and a strong food movement more than anyone."

These concerns are similar to those of students and faculty involved in food issues.

"One of the challenges is that there's not much information about production methods, but there's even less information about the social side of production," Schwab said. This makes it difficult for consumers to consider, for example, how workers are treated when they make purchasing decisions.

Paratore said the FARM Club has tried from the beginning to cover a wide range of topics. "We didn't want to limit ourselves to holding events, for example, dedicated to celebrating local organic produce," she said.

Soule pointed out that there is a substantial body of research looking at issues such as food deserts; for example, areas where people do not have enough access to healthy food, as well as labor issues in the food industry.

"Thus, the concern amongst upper middle-class people about pesticides and chemical fertilizers is really only a tiny slice of what is wrong with the food system in the U.S.," Soule said. "I think that the most important thing that Schlosser talked about was the need for a Food Justice Movement, which would help guard against the possibility of the movement becoming elitist."

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