New York Times Magazine, Civil Eats take on “Big Food” and the Food Movement…


“Then we found the unlocked door in the castle wall… It was the corporate brand.”

As the Wendy’s Boycott picks up steam across the country, the CIW and the Campaign for Fair Food took center stage in two timely articles this past week — one from Michael Pollan in the New York Times Magazine and another from Elizabeth Grossman in Civil Eats — asking key strategic questions about how best to create meaningful, transformational change in the food system.

First up, Michael Pollan set the scene in his big thought piece last week, “Big Food Strikes Back,” tracing the recent history of the uphill battle of the Obama administration in their efforts to confront “Big Food.”  Right off the bat, Pollan’s article — which is well worth a full read from anyone seeking to understand the underbelly of our food system — paints a picture of the corporate system that politicians, food activists, and everyday consumers are up against:


… Simply put, it is the $1.5 trillion industry that grows, rears, slaughters, processes, imports, packages and retails most of the food Americans eat. Actually, there are at least four distinct levels to this towering food pyramid. At its base stands Big Ag, which consists primarily of the corn-and-soybean-industrial complex in the Farm Belt, as well as the growers of the other so-called commodity crops and the small handful of companies that supply these farmers with seeds and chemicals.

Big Ag in turn supplies the feed grain for Big Meat — all the animals funneled into the tiny number of companies that ultimately process most of the meat we eat — and the raw ingredients for the packaged-food sector, which transforms those commodity crops into the building blocks of processed food: the corn into high-fructose corn syrup and all the other chemical novelties on the processed-food ingredient label, and the soy into the oil in which much of fast food is fried.  At the top of the Big Food pyramid sit the supermarket retailers and fast-food franchises

Pollan goes on to catalogue the crushing lobbying power of these industry actors and their quest to produce, without restriction, the cheapest food possible — almost always at the expense of small farmers, consumers, animals, and of course, food workers.  But the article discusses not only Big Food’s strengths, it also delves into its vulnerabilities:

Battling against transparency is bound to sow seeds of distrust, potentially undermining the most precious pieces of cultural capital Big Food owns: its brands.

These battles have exposed weaknesses in the facade of Big Food’s power, soft spots that some grass-roots food activists have recently figured out how to exploit. One example: Since the 1990s, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been organizing the tomato pickers of South Florida, some of the most underpaid and ill-treated workers in the country. In their decades-long quest to improve pay (by 1 cent per pound) and working conditions (until recently some Florida tomato pickers were effectively enslaved by their employers), the coalition tried every strategy in the book: labor strikes, hunger strikes, marches across the state. But the growers would not budge.


“Then we found the unlocked door in the castle wall,” Lucas Benitez, the farmworker who helped establish the coalition, told me. “It was the corporate brand.” Instead of going after the anonymous growers and packers, who had nothing to lose by rejecting their demands, the coalition trained its sights on the Big Food brands that bought their tomatoes: McDonald’s, Burger King, Chipotle, Subway, Walmart. In 2011 the coalition drafted a Fair Food Agreement guaranteeing a raise of a penny per pound and spelling out strict new standards governing working conditions. They then pushed the big brands to sign it, using the threat of boycotts, marches on fast-food outlets, even the public shaming of top executives and their bankers. One by the one, the Big Food brands have given in, signing the agreement and, for the first time, accepting a measure of responsibility for the welfare of farmworkers at the far end of their food chain. The coalition achieved victories that never could have been achieved in Washington. […]

[…]  [Big Food’s] vulnerability is the conscience of the American eater, who in the past decade or so has taken a keen interest in the question of where our food comes from, how it is produced and the impact of our everyday food choices on the land, on the hands that feed us, on the animals we eat and, increasingly, on the climate. Though still a minority, the eaters who care about these questions have come to distrust Big Food and reject what it is selling.

He concludes by lifting up the CIW’s strategy as an approach worth replicating across the food industry:

[…] One future of food politics may lie in grass-roots campaigns targeted not at politicians in Washington but directly at Big Food and its consumers, taking aim at its Achilles’ heel: those precious brands.

Just the day before Pollan’s article hit newsstands, Civil Eats — one of the key hubs of conversation about the food movement itself — published an article on the upcoming James Beard Leadership Awards, which will be honoring not only the CIW but the Small Planet Institute’s Anna Lappè and renowned author Raj Patel as well, among others, at a ceremony in New York City next week.  In the article, entitled “These Food Heroes are Fighting Hunger and Promoting Justice,” writer Elizabeth Grossman also takes a strategic look at the fight for justice in the food system, this time through the eyes of the groups and individuals that have brought about change.

Here’s a brief excerpt from Grossman’s interview with Greg Asbed and Lucas Benitez, who will be receiving the James Beard Award next week in recognition of their efforts as two of the CIW’s many co-founders:


[CIW’s Asbed and Benitez:] “The inequalities we see in today’s food system are rooted in the consolidated market power of the multi-billion dollar retail food corporations that purchase the products that we, as farmworkers, harvest—whether it is meat, dairy, fruits, or vegetables… This concentration of purchasing power allows major food retailers to demand ever lower prices from farmers. In doing so, they have put real pressure on the farm’s profit margins.”  This “downward pressure,” they explained, “has resulted in falling, sub-poverty wages and abysmal human rights standards in the fields.” 

[…] “The most important first step for consumers in the 21st Century is to leverage their own market power for food labor justice,” said Asbed and Benitez. “Tell the retail food corporations how they want [workers] treated in the production of the fruits and vegetables they buy.”  It is critical that consumers support efforts to “change the abusive conditions and poverty that workers continue to face in global supply chains,” they added.

Make sure to check out both the New York Times Magazine and Civil Eats articles in full, if you haven’t already!  And keep an eye out for more news on the horizon from the current fight to curb corporate irresponsibility, which is alive and well on the road with the ‘Behind the Braids’ Tours