With Food Prices Rising, People Revolting, Is Wal-Mart Really the Answer to America’s Unhealthy Food Crisis?
- a commentary by Cynthia Thomet
A recent Bloomberg report entitled, “Mexico prices rose more than expected last month [December 2010],” confirms a feeling that I couldn’t quite put my finger on until I read this piece—an increasing and incremental sour pinch on my pocketbook every time I go to the grocery store.
My HUMNews editor suggested I write about lemons for this PeaceMeal story. It is a food that is enjoyed by numerous cultures all around the world, she said. I started to dream about it as the ingredient that could unite us as a people. That is, if we could all afford it this year!
Yes, my friends, food prices are on the rise. So, it seemed only appropriate to write about this other food-related issue that we all share in common: inflation.
Back when I wrote my last PeaceMeal column, there were rumblings about this becoming a serious issue in 2011. Like clockwork, the Guardian reported in our first week of 2011 that “soaring prices of sugar, grain and oilseed drove world food prices to a record in December, surpassing the levels of 2008 when the cost of food sparked riots around the world, and prompting warnings of prices being in ‘danger territory’.”
January 2011 has not even ended, and we are witnessing protests and riots in Algeria , Tunisia, and Jordan In northern Nigeria, the prices of onions have more than doubled – ditto for India! And UNICEF reports that the number of mothers bringing their severely malnourished kids to feeding centers in Niger has spiked in recent weeks – due, in part, to higher food prices.
Back here in Atlanta, where I live, I have begun to see prices rising significantly at the local restaurant supplier that sells bulk produce, grains, packaged foods and beverages to area restaurants, bodegas and local merchants. And it’s been making me feel particularly vulnerable to all the forces that are out there: mother earth and weather, political forces here and abroad, economies local and distant.
Rising food prices is what political revolutions are made of. The French revolution was catalyzed by famine and hunger, and now we’re seeing some of the same scathing language from Jordanian protesters: “Unify yourselves because the government wants to eat your flesh.” (It’s enough to make you skip the meat aisle.)
At the same time, I couldn’t help being caught up (and even a little distracted) by the public relations partnership between Wal-mart and Michelle Obama for their healthy foods initiative Yes, obesity and unhealthful eating are major problems in the United States. Yes, there are many “food deserts” around the country where low income peoples have little access to unprocessed foods. And, yes, Wal-mart is promising to change the quality of processed foods so they are healthier. But it ignores the fact that Wal-mart still wants consumers to purchase processed foods, because, frankly, that’s where the money is made.
My opinion: it’s just a PR initiative designed to secure a consumer body for a billion-dollar big box business that needs tax breaks and a seat at the government dinner table. I have always had the hunch that the very processing of foods is what diminishes the value inherent in any food, and I have recently found that there are scientists who have been researching this phenomenon. (Visit this article to kick-start any research in the issue. It’s fascinating!)
But in the greater scheme of things, I think the Wal-mart initiative is really missing the mark, as far as true change is concerned. The PR rhetoric sounds almost like, “Why don’t they eat healthier cake?” when some of the major food issues facing the regular American public include:
- How global food production is run, managed, controlled and directed by a small number of major international food corporations.
- How food distribution and pricing is controlled by a small number of major international food corporations.
- How the major food corporations want to create a deeper dependency on processed foods, because of their greater profit margin returns.
It just seems that simplifying and downscaling the food production process could be the better way to go.
So, while President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia freaks out from the cresting wave of protests and flees Tunis (and packs up his gold bars and family , I’m turning a lemon around in my hand wondering whether the First Lady is conscious that even a fresh lemon as a garnish in water is a luxury many Americans could never afford—even if purchased from Wal-mart.
Seriously though, it is hard for me to listen to Wal-mart’s commitment to pass on its best prices to the consumer without thinking that their negotiation strategy doesn’t involve bullying local farmers into bending to the big box’s exclusivity will.
Cynthia Thomet is a humanitarian, a food lover and co owner and doyenne of the award winning downtown Atlanta, Georgia; US restaurant, Lunacy Black Market. http://www.lunacyblackmarket.com/. You can find Cynthia's own blog here: http://thoughtfulcyn.wordpress.com/. Her pieces for HUMNEWS search for the intersection between food and humanity, and how meals unite us.