The Modern American Food Pyramid

The Modern American Food Pyramid
In response to the film Food, Inc.

As young children, we are taught the basics of health by learning a proper diet using a standard food pyramid. Fibrous foods like breads and cereals are at the base because we should be eating more of those, and the fatty and sugary foods are at the top because they should be eaten the least, and so on for all that goes on in the middle. However, during the second half of the 20th century, a transformation of the term “food pyramid” took place due to the institutionalization of overproduction and overconsumption in American society. In the documentary, Food, Inc., the societal food pyramid of the modern American agricultural and meat-processing industries is brought to light, allowing audiences to recognize those few who sit at the top—reaping financial benefits, and those of us at the bottom—the masses who have been subject to health and environmental concerns.

After the construction of the fast food industry in the later part of the 20th century, the American agricultural and meat processing industries sought ways to keep up with their demand, thus creating their own mechanized system. By weeding out inefficient practices over time, what were created were a small number of crops controlled by a very small number of businesses. These very few businesses gain power within the industry, are subsidized by the government, and reap the financial benefits of being giant corporations. Just like any business, corporate farms’ success is based on the amount of items for consumption produced per employee. When employees of these farms are responsible for giant amounts of food, there is more room for error. The system has lost all sense of intimacy, forgetting the sensitivity of the product and how it affects civil society—the product being our very sustenance of life and essentially the basis of how our society functions both mentality and physically.

Corporate scrutiny has been ongoing as issues that affect majorities in American society become more transparent. Specifically in Food, Inc., this continued theme can be seen as the fact that regulatory government agencies have failed to protect consumers by not regulating the practices of corporate farms. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration were meant to protect the health and livelihoods of those all across America, but instead have lessened regulations on corporate farms. The system has failed the masses when the former Chief Lobbyist to the American beef industry is allowed to step in and fill the role of Chief of Staff for the USDA, or the former Executive Vice President of National Food Processors Association becomes the head of the FDA. These governmental agencies which hold the power to protect the wellbeing of American communities, essentially also sit on the boards of the companies they should be inspecting and regulating. In addition to the federal government not meeting regulatory standards, some state and local governments have even allowed bills to pass that make scrutinizing corporate farms against the law—such as making it a felony to criticize the ground beef industry in Colorado or making it illegal to publicly post photos of mass feedlots.

Those who are hurt by this mechanized industry are innumerable. The animals used by these giant corporate farms are subject to abuse, are put in extremely unsanitary conditions, and are basically degraded in all aspects. People who allow the treatment of the cows, chickens, pigs, and more, as just pounds of capital and not as living creatures, are also likely to treat people with the same amount of disrespect and condescension. That is just how these corporate farms have treated their employees—most of whom are disadvantaged people, coming from very poor communities or are undocumented citizens who have very few options regarding providing for themselves and their families. Corporate farms treat their employees just as they do their animals and products, as if they are dispensable and replaceable. More universally, those who are hurt are the vast amounts of people within America and even those abroad who are consumers and recipients of the corrupted industry. With outbreaks of health concerns like E. coli and salmonella in both meat and plant products, many innocent and unassuming people are left struck with terrible illness and even dead. Small farmers are also discouraged to continue businesses as government agencies see them as inefficient based on their employee to volume-of-product ratio.

It is odd that one should need to reflect on the food they eat three times a day. We all know the basics, thanks to the handy food pyramid learnt as children. However, understanding the power behind the food we financially and physically consume is something that is new to this era of a growing and interconnected world. Yet in a sense, it should not be odd at all. To put it in perspective, most Americans at the beginning of the 20th century could tell you where their vegetables came from, and maybe even knew the person who grew them—if they hadn’t grown them themselves. To produce food used to be a long and labor-intensive process, and now I could simply go to a drive-thru or microwave something for 1 minute and call it breakfast. In modern American society, food has become a business, left with having little to do with the natural world. In this sense, everyone within our society is hurt, specifically those who inherit these problems with no choice in the matter.

From the animals living in indecent conditions; to the small farmers and employees no longer able to maintain their businesses and livelihoods; to the masses of Americans subject to health concerns, all the while not understanding the extent of their purchasing power; and finally to the whole ecological world affected by the environmental impacts of these industries—the business of American food is a cruel one. It can be seen as just another corporate legacy with which the bottom of the pyramid has to do deal. But one must remember the intimacy of this particular business—that these products are physically consumed by us, changing the way we function as individuals, then as multiple societies, then as one world. The business of food is as huge as it is personal.


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