Share This

Bookmark and Share


Our Word is Our Weapon, if you have anything you would like us to publish please send us an email @


The four food groups of the apocalypse

What are Americans still buying? Big Macs, Campbell's soup, Hershey's chocolate, and Spam - the four food groups of the apocalypse.

-Frank Rich, New York Times (Feb 1, 2009)

Shoreline, WA. Throngs of cold, hungry working-class men and women waiting in soup lines were commonplace during the Great Depression. Now, during the "Derivatives Depression," plenty of people are going hungry. Many are turning to stressed-out food banks that are distributing grocery bags not quite filled with dwindling foodstuffs of lower nutritional value. Indeed, those bags are now more likely filled with Spam, Campbell's soups, which I like to call "sodium in a can," and Hershey's chocolate bars.

Yet, there are also more creative and collective responses to hunger including "freegan" emergency kitchens in some communities that recycle dumpster food to help homeless people feed themselves (see the blog of June 4, 2008).

Some pundits see "hungry people" as merely "unfortunate" souls, as if this were simply a matter of "bad luck" and all it takes is a few donations to the food bank and we will all have met our responsibilities as a "public." Or, the "hungry other" is simply viewed as a casualty of needed "structural adjustments" that must take place on the "high road" to some imagined future free trade nirvana.

The public invisibility of neoliberal hunger

So far, during the early onset of the Derivatives Depression, we are seeing "less hunger" in the "public sphere." This, despite the fact that we are in the midst of actually spreading hunger. But the media present this ultimately as a condition of individual experiences, the "private" and "hidden" stories of food deprivation. This line of thinking is compatible with the bureaucratic mindset that gave us the substitute term, "food insecurity," as a stand-in for the more visceral term, "hunger."

Just because fewer people appear to be waiting in soup lines out on our streets and sidewalks, does not mean that hunger is decreasing. Hunger, and our inadequate public response to it, is rendered invisible, opaque, and undifferentiated as a pure form of structural violence.

Emergency food systems and informal practices are thus forced to adapt to the new political economic and symbolic structures and discourses that are mediating the struggle for food sovereignty.

The hungry are disappearing, at least symbolically. Urban policing makes certain the hungry are not out there on the streets where they get in our faces. I am compelled to ask, rhetorically and sardonically: Did hungry people suddenly just become autotrophs, self-nurturing organisms?

The apparent invisibility of hungry people is one result of an ill-advised tendency toward exaggerated self-reliance as a quality of public perceptions of the American "individual." Too many of us don't know how to be "we." This is definitely an "I" society, as Richard Rodriguez has observed. I am not demeaning "identity" politics as such. Indeed, the most ubiquitous identity politics in America, since at least the "rugged individualist" days of Manifest Destiny, are the politics of the cult of "individualism." Everyone is supposed to be a fully-functioning, self-provisioning automaton. This is sometimes even said to be God's gift to the self-destructive.

Self-reliance, especially community-based autonomy and resilience, is certainly a virtue. But I draw an exception when structural violence has robbed persons of capacities to exercise such freedoms. Instead, those many Americans who are unprepared to engage in cooperative efforts to avoid hunger cannot but flail about all alone, with no communal, kin, or friendship supports.

This is not self-reliance, it is isolation and deprivation. People too often go at it alone: they borrow, beg, steal, or line up at the food bank. Increasingly, they turn to their reserves of the four food groups of the apocalypse, which they may have accumulated over the years, in anticipation of economic displacement and hardship.

In more inspired cases, hungry persons grow their own food or dumpster dive with a collective sense of purpose. We should not forget that the emergence of organizations like the South Central Farmers Feeding Families occurred as a community-based and collective response to hunger and malnutrition.

Around the Puget Sound, despite the fact that this is the heart of Pacific Northwest urban farming, CSAs, and food system councils, I am more likely to see hungry people going at it alone. It is almost as if accepting handouts is considered a sin or a sign of the failure of the individual self, and that organizing oneself along with the others who are the growing ranks of the unemployed and displaced is something only the homeless and mentally infirm might do. I long for the days when the unorganized folks in soup lines understood the importance of organizing themselves to demand and create justice.

Instead, while the government may be thinking about going Keynesian, a large sector of the public is still versed in the neoliberal ethics that gave us the "Age of Individual Responsibility" to go along with our "Ownership Society." This neoliberal ideology is finally revealed to have a banal and morally bankrupt core. Sadly, people are somehow motivated to be patriotic individualists and go hungry on their own, lest they be accused of lacking personal responsibility, forsaking the iconic core American virtue of individualism, which is actually a misperception and projection of selfish atavism. You're on your own, buddy.

Shopping for apocalypse comfort foods

Observing grocery shopping patterns in the north-end neighborhood surrounding our Seattle-area home is not exactly one of my more pronounced habits. Nonetheless, as an anthropologist, I am prone to "observe" my surroundings. That said, I have noticed a trend of late involving a growing number of consumers purchasing, not fresh fruits and vegetables, but canned and processed foods. The ubiquitous Spam, bought in quantities of a dozen or more at a time, seems to be making a serious comeback as a favored "comfort" food in distressed economic times.

This is how the neoliberal individual responds to the crisis, by turning to familiar "comfort" foods that represent a grander, more secure past. It seems pointless, then, to deconstruct each spritely-colored tin of Spam, without also understanding why contemporary consumer identities fetishize a processed food product that is not really nutritious or healthy "good eats." Of course, the symbolic regime of the food system renders these "consumer choices" sacred and inviolable.

Various studies of patterns in the consumption of processed foods, undertaken for American grocers, show that uncertain economic conditions, with growing unemployment and lost wages, are associated with growing consumer demand for "comfort foods" such as Spam, Hershey's chocolate, Campbell's soup, and Mac-and-cheese.

Why do so many consumers purchase highly processed food or for that matter, fast food? [Sales of fast food, the ubiquitous $1 cheeseburger, also increase during recessions.] Desperate people turn to the four food groups of the apocalypse. That much is clear, and why they feel compelled to make choices that harm their well-being is also not really a mystery.

The neoliberal individualist does not go hungry. She maintains personal esteem by going "retro" and finding the 20 best recipes for Spam casserole spiked with Campbell's Cream of Mushroom. This is both "creativity" and "acquiescence."

The question is: What will she do to transform the energy invested into culinary creativity, undertaken to adapt to deprivation, into conscious political resistance to the circumstances that forced her, in the first place, into marginality as inventive force in the face of hunger?

No comments: