The Global Citizen is a joint project of New Voices and the American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Throughout the year, a group of former AJWS volunteers will offer their take on global justice, Judaism and international development. Opinions expressed by Global Citizen bloggers do not necessarily represent AJWS.
In 1977, there was a famous boycott on Nestle products throughout the United States and Europe due to their unethical marketing practices for infant formula in the developing world. It was believed that formula over breastfeeding could lead to infant deaths, and while this claim ultimately went unsubstantiated in court, it was still duly noted that Nestleâ€™s marketing practices were unethical. Nestle would have families believe that formula is the better option over breast milk, which is blatantly false. In 1981, the World Health Assembly (WHA) adopted the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes, which puts a halt to its marketing and ensures that health workers will properly advise parents on the options. In 1988, it was found that Nestle had once again been flooding the developing world with free baby formula samples and low cost promotions, both violations of the marketing restrictions. The International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN), an umbrella with over 200 groups in 200 countries, reinstated the ban, and until today in 2009 it is still an ongoing battle.
This type of food marketing and exploitation in the developing world is not unique to Nestle. Michael Pollan, a famous author and critic of the Western way of eating, calls most of what is consumed and produced in the modern world â€œfood-like substances,â€ not to be confused with eating real food. While living in the village of Ramogi, Uganda, the bread our group ate in the morning was the whitest of whites and the â€œbutterâ€ was a product called â€œBluebandâ€ that is a margarine made from vegetables oils by Unilever and requires no refrigeration. Every lunch and dinner, although they had veggies and grains, was complemented with a big â€˜ole pot of white rice. A typical meal of many community members would be beans with cornmeal leavened with water. And at trading posts, soda by distributors like Coca-Cola are available for sale and are a constant presence at festivities along with sugary, packages cookies and roasted ground nuts.
Not that I am not very grateful for the warmth and hospitality of our host community, but all these modern-world food products signaled to me a larger problem. In a rural village, wouldnâ€™t you say itâ€™s peculiar to have staples such as white bread, white rice, soda, Blueband, and cornmeal? Strange, I thought, for a place with no manufacturing plant or sophisticated grinding mill in site. I know that in developed countries, the norm is that almost no staples are grown or manufactured near consumers. But in a place where most community members have never been to the nearest town, and many are subsistence farmers themselves, this reality seemed particularly peculiar.
To make matters worse, the market of “food-like” goods in the developing world is about to grow exponentially. Most recently, Cadbury has agreed to be taken over by Kraft and will “create the worldâ€™s largest confectioner,” according to The New York Times. Cadbury, the maker of Trident gum and Dairy Milk chocolates, and Kraft, the maker of Oreo cookies and Ritz crackers, will now be one conglomerate flooding domestic and international markets will their artificial, low priced, and sugar laden wares. This will also expand the market of cheap, artificial goods in the developing world, as”Kraft will be able to push its products through Cadburyâ€™s distribution network in the developing world.”
As is often the case in the developing world, raw goods are sold abroad and make their way back in when they are bought back in various new manufactured forms. According to a 2009 summer issue of the Monthly Review, â€œin country after country in the developing world, there has been a diversion of land under the neoliberal paradigm of free trade, from food grain production to export crops.â€ It continues, â€œThe objective of promoting free trade under IMF/World Bank-guided economic reforms, strengthened by the WTO discipline, has been to bring about an intensification of the international division of labor in agriculture, where tropical lands are increasingly required to produce the relatively exotic requirements of advanced country populations, keeping the supermarket shelves in the North well-stocked with everything from winter strawberries to edible oils and flowers. The resulting food grain deficits of developing countries, as they divert more land to export crops and specialized crops for internal consumption by the wealthy, are supposed to be met by accessing the global market for grainsâ€¦â€
Food quality and fresh food access are also critical issues domestically, especially in inner cities. For those who have not heard of â€œfood deserts,â€ it is the term given for communities with no grocery stores for buying fresh and wholesome foods, thereby leaving residents to travel far or to settle for buying groceries in the corner liquor store. Often in poverty, there is not only a poverty of money, but also in time. When working multiple jobs to stay afloat and relying on public transportation, there is not enough time for traveling far for groceries consistently to be a viable option. And to make matters worse, convenience stores overcharge for their meager wares, which pushes those down on their luck even further down the rabbit hole.
Unfortunately, food deserts aren’t the only places suffering a lack in fresh, wholesome foods in the United States. In this burgeoning economy, with the gap between the rich and the poor growing wider and wider, this unjust inequality is hitting working and middle class folks as well.In the recent Wall Street Journal article “Tighter Belts Mean Thicker Waists,” it reveals: “In an online survey this summer of 1,200 people about food affordability, conducted by food-industry research firm Technomic, 70% of respondents said healthier foods are increasingly difficult to afford.” Increases in the consumption of processed food, which have artificially deflated prices primarily from corn subsidies (and is a whole other topic), and microwave meals, translated into obesity in the U.S. rising a ful percentage point since September 2009.
While I understand that alleviating hunger, malnutrition, and starvation and the first and foremost food issues in the developed and developing world, it would be wrong to assume a position of complacency so long as people get food, with no regard for the quality, nutrition, or sustainability of the source.
In both Judaism and Islam, it is considered imperative for people to avoid eating that which is not fit for being sacrificed to G-d. I discovered this in a recent Discussion Over Coffee, a series of events hosted by the Jewish-Muslim Community-Building Initiative (JMCBI), a creation of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (JCUA) in Chicago, IL. By focusing and interfaith commonalities, such as strong tenets regarding food purity and rules for consumption, JMCBI seeks to build bridges and open dialogues between the two communities. The topic of this meeting in particular was â€œWe are What We Eat? Jewish-Muslim Discussion on Food and Ethics.â€ So many attendees surrounded the two discussion facilitators, Imam Abdul-Malik Ryan and Rabbi Avi Finegold, that there were barely enough chairs or mugs in the cafÃ©. Imam Ryan is among the founding members and is a past president of the Inner City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), serves as a Muslim chaplain at DePaul University, and works as an attorney on behalf of children within Chicagoâ€™s foster care system. Rabbi Finegold currently works at the Hillels at both the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), and is the co-chair of Limmud Chicago.
Imam Ryan began the conversation illuminating the differentiation between Halal and Tayyib; the former being lawful foods and the latter being good or pure foods. Simply put, one is technically allowed while the other is on a higher ethical plain. â€œSpiritual filth,â€ he said, may exist within foods where there is oppression in the source, and these foods are not Tayyib. Imam Ryan challenged the group by asking, how can one expect Allah, who is good and pure, to answer their prayers if their consumption is not good and pure? You are what you eat is a strong value within Islam and Judaism alike. Rabbi Finegold, in describing the practice and ideas related to Kosher, also discussed tenets within Judaism pertaining to the relationship between physical consumption and spiritual well being. According to Jewish tradition, and you will take on the characteristics in the source of your food.
The two Abrahamic religions share a strong belief in the source of food affecting those who ingest it. Additionally, both speakers described the details of Halal and Kosher meat respectively, and the proper animals and methods of slaughter that make the meat acceptable for consumption. Although the food guidelines have differences, such as in methods of slaughter, types of meat allowed, and the allowance of alcohol, both traditions value the necessity of limits in food consumption. People have the moral and ethical imperative, to themselves and to the international community, not to eat just anything. As one attendee at the discussion aptly noted, the title of Michael Pollanâ€™s most recent publication, â€œFood Rules: An Eaterâ€™s Manualâ€ seems to indicate that society at large is moving towards embracing the value of food guidelines as well.
The impact on oneâ€™s character, community, and environment should not be ignored, as they have been within Western food quality and production. Animal treatment, environmental protection, worker rights, and quality food access are all facets in the sources of our food. And their roles in our foodâ€™s production effect who we are and who we become. In the Global South and inner cities, people have the right to food from sources and circumstances that nourish and not just sustain their whole being.
——For more information on food issues, a good place to start is by watching the documentary â€œFood Inc.â€ It supplies a great overview of many of the modern food issues. Other good documentaries, which are free to watch on Hulu.com, are â€œThe Future of Foodâ€ and â€œSuper Size Me.â€ For more about his philosophy on â€œfood-like substances,â€ read â€œIn Defense of Food.â€ Some more great books for foodies include â€œThe Omnivoreâ€™s Dillema,â€ â€œEating Animals,â€ â€œFast Food Nation,â€ “Food Matters,”â€œGood Calories, Bad Calories,â€ and â€œStuffed and Starved.â€