Can you imagine 1.48 million square-feet of boxes upon boxes of frozen seafood, cheese, flatbread, candy, energy bars, tomato sauce, pretzels and olive oil?
The majority of all food delivered to commercial food operations in the U.S., such as restaurants, grocery stores and even our very own College, goes through one of nine distribution centers located across the nation – all of them are owned by Dot Foods. The toast you ate this morning came from a Dot distribution center. The Honest Tea you purchased at Eco Café did too. Interestingly, even veterans in the food service industry are oftentimes unfamiliar with the name of our nation’s largest food redistributor.
The conventional industrial model of food production has increased crop productivity and decreased costs for farming; however, along with these benefits have come many consequences, which include the domination, commodification and monetization of one of the basic necessities of life – eating. Power over the food industry has been concentrated into the hands of select groups, leading to the politicization of the food industry, commercialization of health and nutrition and proliferation of marketing campaigns that reinforce social and economic inequality.
The preeminence of Dot Foods distribution centers is yet another example of this concentration of power accompanied by an increasing dependence on processed foods. I was at a problem set help session a couple of days ago with a professor who brought his daughter along. Although she couldn’t read, the child was able to immediately recognize Chester Cheetah on the bag of Cheetos lying on the table.
Our cultural desire for branded, processed foods is a habit very carefully crafted by commercial food corporations. In the documentary Serving up Superbrands, a spokesperson from Coca-Cola talks with the director of the film and tells him that the “key to Coke’s success is teen recruitment.” Dr. Gemma Calvert, a British neuroscientist, analyzed fMRI data to discover that a brand image elicits the exact same patterns of activity as a religious image in the human brain. The indoctrination of America into these brands of nutritionally-poor snacks, cereals, candies and other foods with high fat, sodium or added sugar contents comes from the increasing levels of exposure that adolescents experience in the form of advertising on TV, on the internet and at school.
Companies are able to extract surplus value (e.g. money paid and spent on advertising, packaging, transportation, etc.) from these highly processed foods by compromising nutritional content for costs. Lowered production costs not only make these cheap foods more accessible, but also create surplus money that can then be spent through marketing to ensure that those products are accessible and that young people are enticed into becoming lifetime consumers.
Monopolization of food redistribution has many other more direct, tangible impacts as well. In the early 2000s, Whole Foods shifted from “backdoor sales” to a regional distribution system which made it much more difficult, if not impossible, for small, local farmers to sell their produce directly to Whole Foods stores.
For some farmers who are already ingratiated into the industrial food system, this may offer greater opportunities, but for the many small, local farmers – such as many based in the Berkshires – who may not be able to grow enough to supply a distribution center or are located too far away from the centers, this system will shut them out. Even a chain as notorious as Whole Foods for its declaration of support for local farmers has compromised such values for convenience and lower costs.
Many of our individual, natural relationships to food have been stolen and sold back to us in the repackaged form of consumer products so that we are now dependent on strangers and strange places, like 1.48 million square-feet of storage space, for things few humans ever paid for until recently: shelter, clothing, entertainment, child care, cooking — and food. Life itself has become a consumer item.
Crystal Ma ’21 is from Seattle, Wash. Her major is undecided.