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Seeing Through Industrial Food’s 'Personal Responsibility' Smoke Screen

by Rob Smart

I grew up in a home where family meals were the norm. Nearly every night, nine of us would crowd around the kitchen table to enjoy a home-cooked meal together, recount our days, laugh and argue, celebrating each unique personality's contribution to the whole. Each meal made the fabric of our family stronger. Those experiences have stayed with me as I've grown and started a family of my own, where I happily continue the tradition of sitting down together nightly to share a meal and exchange stories.

For us, food is at the core of what makes us strong, happy and healthy as a family and as individuals. It isn't about calories, nutrients, micro nutrients and so on. It's about engaging our senses, strengthening our community by buying local foods whenever possible and sharing with our friends and neighbors. It's about creating a healthy foundation for our growing children.

We knowingly spend a greater portion of our income on food than the average American household, which works because we forgo things that bring us less value, e.g., cable television, new cars, fancy vacations and more. This sort of conscious decision making is at the core of personal responsibility, and is something we work hard at every day. Living in a rural community, surrounded by farms and dairies and being outside the reach of most mainstream media surely helps.

But today, the individual's ability to exercise personal responsibility has been severely compromised by our industrial food system. Yet defenders of the status quo consistently use "personal responsibility" as a smoke screen to cover the tracks of industrial food, tracks that run roughshod over the mirage of choice and personal responsibility.

It is clear that industrial food knowingly develops and promotes food-like substances that make us fat, spread diet-related diseases and disregard unsustainable impacts on our environment. Backed by hundreds of billions of dollars in product development, marketing, advertising and lobbying, along with government regulations favoring industrial food, there is seemingly nothing standing in their way.

Except for those who believe it is time to rein in processed foods. Our numbers are rapidly growing, making us increasingly capable of driving real, meaningful change, especially through entrepreneurial means (see Pro Food). These changes will take many forms, but here is one that I find particularly compelling.

First, we significantly reduce the number of highly processed food-like products (and the many empty calories they deliver). Next, we repopulate those now-empty shelves with whole and minimally-processed foods. Finally, with fewer processed foods, which take up considerable floor space in today's supermarkets, we begin replacing these unsustainable retail dinosaurs with intimate, community-oriented food stores (<5,000 square feet), designed from the ground up, to help consumers expand in-home food preparation, what we used to call "cooking." And with triple-bottom-line operating models (see Pro Food advantages), these new stores will sustainably balance people, planet and profits, something industrial food unfortunately can't do without ultimately destroying itself.

Clearly, such changes would rock today's industrial food system, but leaving it as is perpetuates the problems we face. As most major food companies are publicly traded they must increase sales, reduce costs or both, quarter after quarter, to increase shareholder value or face the consequences (Note: shareholders (owners) are not the same as stakeholders, which would include eaters, whose interests, beyond food expenditures, are secondary). This singular bottom line focus drives them to do whatever is necessary to maximize profit, which they typically achieve through sales of new products with high initial profit margins. That is upwards of 17,000 new "food" products are introduced every year.

These highly processed, engineered foods, never before seen, but often extending an established brand name, are not guaranteed financial success, so food companies invest tens of billions of dollars every year in sophisticated marketing programs and advertising campaigns to build demand, with a heavy emphasis on hawking heavily sugared wares to children and convenience to their ever more harried parents. Undeniably, these highly sophisticated product development and demand creation engines are significantly influencing consumers; worse, these campaigns are often coordinated to affect us in subconscious ways: the potent combination of food science and marketing at work!

Without continuous financial improvements, the value of food companies would suffer greatly. That isn't happening. Consider that since 1979 (30 years ago) General Mills stock price is up 577%, while Wal-Mart has registered an astonishing 420,000% increase (from less than $0.12 per share to $49.14; hasn't always been in food retail, but rapidly ascended to #1 in category). Then there's Cargill with estimated revenues at $120 billion, which would make it a Top 10 publicly traded company. Clearly, food companies are meeting shareholder expectations, which doesn't bode well for consumers, who are largely "responsible" for this financial success.

As for the significant financial pain and organizational upheaval the changes Pro Food envisions will have on the industrial food system, while the transition will be difficult, not sudden, America's entrepreneurs will get a running start. And if there is one thing we can count on, it's our entrepreneurs: the best in the world at picking themselves up, brushing themselves off and getting back to work.

The results of such a revolution in how we grow, process and consume food will be significant. Sustainable businesses will become the norm, offering rewarding careers for people interested in more than a single bottom line. Regional economies will begin rebuilding after being decimated for decades by large food retailers. Our food system, through hard work, sustainable technologies and a longer-term perspective, will regain its balance with nature. And, most important, food will become an enjoyable, enriching part of our daily lives, rather than just another accessory.

Join the Pro Food Revolution...already in progress.

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