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Hate Eating Corporate Food? Democracy Is the Best Recipe

Wenonah Hauter discusses her new book "Foodopoly," a deep dive into our country’s history and our relationships with farmers.

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TL: When I first moved to California in 2006, we had three years of drought and now the Plains and the Midwest are experiencing quite a bit of drought. For all of our industrialization and “modernization” of our food supply, it seems incredibly vulnerable, especially considering the impacts of climate change and what we may be going through in the coming decades. 

WH: There is no doubt that we are in for some shock in production. I think California with the snow pack decreasing is really in a very vulnerable place and in fact, the droughts in the Midwest, the loss of crops this year and even on the East Cost beyond Hurricane Sandy and all of the dramatic weather, you can see the weather patterns changing. I see this in my own life, having grown up on this farm. We used to have thunderstorms during the summer. We got a lot of rain. Now we go through long periods of drought. In fact, we would probably not have vegetables on our farm if we didn't have water to irrigate with. We have springs. You just couldn't grow anymore.  

This is true out on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, Maryland and Delaware where the people who are still doing farming all irrigate and I have spent some time talking to people there who say their parents and grandparents never irrigated. We are in trouble and it's global crisis and it's one of the reasons we need to deal with climate change. I think it's also one of the reasons we need common-sense policy of having a grain reserve because we are going to see famine and the problems with the lack of production because of drought and crazy weather.

TL: You got into organic food because it was not just about food but it was linked into social issues and environmental justice and economic justice. Now so much of the organic market is dominated by big corporations — do you see this as problematic?  

WH: I think it has to do with how everything is commoditized and seen as a niche market and so the large purveyors of organic food view it as a niche market where they can charge higher prices. In the book, I talk about when I was very young and how we went back to the land, but when I was in college we grew organic food completely differently as part of a system that did look at values and social justice as well.  

Now we have the 14 of the 20 largest food companies that dominate the system. Here in the Bay Area you have some choices, but in most parts of the country there are very few choices where people can actually shop for organic food and Whole Foods dominates the market. What most people don't realize is that there is a stranglehold on the distribution of organic products and it is largely responsible for driving many co-ops and smaller natural food stores out of business. 

I was giving a book talk a couple of weeks ago in a rural area on the East Coast and an organic deli was providing some of the treats for the book signing and the owner told me that his cost has gone up 8% in the last year. They are driving up the price. What drove me to write Foodopoly was the question “why is organic food expensive?” It's not just a higher cost of labor, it's also a small number of companies that control retail sales and distribution and those companies — the smaller enterprises that produce organic products in a market place — they have no one to distribute the product. It really reflects the consolidation elsewhere in our food system. 

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