It’s been nearly 20 years since Rolling Stone magazine serialized Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, Eric Schlosser’s story about how franchise food chains and their fake food were taking over Colorado Springs. From appearances, not much has changed: There is more fast food here than ever; farmers, ranchers and food workers are worse off; animal cruelty and valuable soil loss continue.
A stunning number of once-private brands, like Colorado’s Coleman Natural Beef, Maverick and Niman, have either failed or are now owned by big food companies, which are simply slapping these iconic names on the same old production practices. More large chain grocery stores are closing due to predatory competition from Walmart. Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods Market promises more consolidation and centralization, offering even less market access for producers and fewer choices for consumers.
Forty years ago, it was inconceivable to most that small farmers, ranchers and other independent food producers would vanish, but that’s what has been happening in every sector of agriculture and our food system. Despite Schlosser’s warnings, not only has our food system continued to deteriorate, but our nation’s food security is increasingly at stake.
As corporate-controlled industrial farming and food production takes over, a small but committed community struggles to support the values of a local food system. What is fresher, healthier, better for people, animals and the environment is becoming more expensive and increasingly harder to find.
It’s not just happening at fast food joints. Restaurants, food retailers, purveyors and institutions of all sizes are getting away with slick and misleading marketing, claiming to provide local products when they don’t. Few people know enough to question what they see and hear. There’s a need to verify that what’s on the menu or on the shelf really is “local,” rather than an impostor. For example, JBS, the Brazilian meatpacker, wraps its product in the local-sounding name, “Aspen Ridge.”
Powerful global food companies, from slaughter to food service to retail, are positioned between the world’s farmers and ranchers and the consumers. They continue to pay less and charge more, leaving bankrupted farms, worn-out soils, and dead rural communities behind. Individuals and independent small businesses are no match for the monopoly forces consolidating food and agriculture. Recent data provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows farmer suicides at nearly five times the national average — more than people from any other occupation, and twice the number as suicides seen among our returning war veterans.
It’s no wonder the average age of a farmer is approaching 60. It’s no wonder why young people cannot make a living income from farming. Since 1980, we’ve lost nearly half our nation’s ranchers, over 90 percent of our pig farmers, and over 85 percent of our dairy farmers, with the numbers continuing to worsen. Rural poverty rates are currently 30 percent higher than urban, with a 55 percent drop in net farm income since 2013. We’re now a net importer of food on a value basis and fully dependent on big corporations and foreign food.
In the Colorado Springs community, a 25 percent shift to local food would increase local income by $100 million per year, and tax collection by $25 million per year, on top of reducing social costs. Industrially produced, highly processed food is making us sick. Our youngest are less healthy than previous generations. Additionally, the threat of antibiotic resistance is real and serious due to the overuse of drugs in industrial livestock production.
In today’s food economy, captured government agencies, like USDA and FDA, work for the global food monopolies and against local food. Anti-monopoly antitrust laws, designed to control market predators, are ignored. It’s up to consumers to support local through conscientious spending and by advocating for better local food policies.
Remember: Every dollar spent on food is a vote for the kind of food system you want. While shopping and dining, ask where the food comes from, don’t be fooled. Hold the restaurant or retailer accountable. Eric Schlosser sounded the alarm; it’s well past time we listen.
— Mike Caliicrate
Mike Callicrate owns Callicrate Cattle Co. and Ranch Foods Direct. He’s a long-time advocate for fair markets and local food systems and has advised writers like Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan on books and films, including Fast Food Nation, Omnivores Dilemma and Food Inc.