Monday, April 12, 2010

The High and Low Politics of Cheese

The cheese talk at the New School went great. I got great questions and examples from the students. However, I was surprised that only a bunch of them knew about production of milk by conglomerates. After all, I would have guessed that most of them would have watched Food Inc. or read one of the many popular books on food culture. My surprise was that these students are in a Food Studies program, and I would have guessed that they would be more aware of the contemporary discussions about food safety.

I cannot explain what this means, but sure I can think of a couple of reasons of why some people are so involved with these discussions, while others seem to have missed those news reports about recalls of contaminated foods. Perhaps is the fact that so far the dairy industry has been careful enough to avoid a major outbreak of listeria or other related sickness from contaminated milk. I am not saying that milk produced by conglomerates is contaminated, but that there are some cautionary warnings from the way other products in our food supply have suffered that could point to potential risk in milk production as well, including treatment of animals, feed, and worker’s rights.

Some people that I have talked about this mentioned that a lot of the discussions about food safety are perceived by a majority to be a very complicated issue better to be left to experts, while they worry about how to “pay the bills.” This I call the high politics argument (I am a PhD Politics student after all). Others have mentioned that while people are aware of the issues, there is not much that the common person can do and better not to worry about it much and hope for the best. A good friend of mine called this "the politics of consumer choice - those politics that I can only act on in the supermarket aisle." These are the "low politics of cheese." The distinction is not economic, but rather substantive about how to approach food culture.

My concern is how do we connect the two? What needs to happen / or is already happening that would allow us to connect our consumer choices with the necessary changes at the macro food level to ensure that we have healthy options for all while at the same time we provide food that is safe? Maybe the solution really is more local production, and sure I am a supporter of it.

However, the kids in my class seem unconvinced. I guess there is a lot of work that still needs to be done.

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