It is indeed heartening to see people in the streets, indignant over what the 1% is doing to the 99%. They're right to complain about such excessive and flagrant greed. But one thing they seem to be missing is that the Wall Street fat cat tycoons have nothing on the pigs at the trough of industrial agriculture. If you think bank consolidation is a problem, you should take a look at the monopolies that the likes of Monsanto have built. (My friend Dave Murphy over at Food Democracy NOW! has some great stats on this on his recent post)
To be clear, this is not to condemn farmers themselves, 99% of whom are among The 99%. They are struggling to feed their families and keep their farms and doing what they need to do. But they too are being screwed by the suits at ADM, Tyson, Monsanto, etc., who have made the proud independent American farmer into what amounts to serfs in a fiefdom, stuck selling their product to only one customer: the land barons at the major corporations, and doing it at a price those corporations set. JFK said "Farming is the only business where you buy at retail, sell at wholesale, and pay freight both ways." And he said that before there was such a stranglehold on the market by this handful of global conglomerates.
The result of doing things their way for 5 decades is a world with 1 billion people starving and 1 billion people overfed and undernourished. In 1960 the U.S. spent 17.5% of GDP on food, and 5.2% on healthcare. By 2008 that statistic had reversed itself, and we now pay 9.6% on food and 16.2% on healthcare.
Now I can yell and scream in my occasional tirades here on the internet about the excesses of these organizations, and about how it's making us all fat and sick while robbing us blind, and so can many others. I plan to keep doing so. But the fact is, in a very be-the-change kind of way, none of the efforts of Food Democracy NOW! or Slow Food USA or Food and Water Watch (worthy organizations all) are going to make any difference at all in creating a good, clean and fair food system unless we get people to cook.
After more than three decades in the foodservice business, and 2 decades working on issues of fixing our broken food system, I have reached the conclusion that what we have is not just a food problem in this country, but a cooking problem. Food marketers have been working for decades to convince people that cooking is a chore, like doing laundry or cleaning out the cat box, something to be avoided if at all possible and then done as quickly and grudgingly as possible. The result? Well if we are what we eat then most Americans are fast, cheap, and easy.
This is because we've forgotten how to cook. Or in most cases, never learned in the first place. Food cooked at home is nearly always healthier, cheaper, and better tasting. It does more than any other single activity to bring and keep families together, and when the food is sourced locally, or as close to home as feasible, it's a great way to "stick it to the Man" too.
Now I know that people will tell me that they don't have time. They are too busy with the 2-3 jobs that they're just barely holding onto to spend any time in the kitchen. But if you add up the time and money it takes to eat at a fast food joint, call it 10 minutes there and 10 minutes back on average, that's 20 minutes. If you can boil water you can make a pasta dish in 20 minutes that will be better tasting and better for you for a fraction of the price. It is a matter of priorities, and what could possibly be a higher priority to each of us than the health and well being of our families and ourselves?
I also know it seems odd for a restaurant owner to be advocating for people to dine out less, and I certainly don't want to discourage it entirely (after all I have 2 college educations to pay for too), but doing so less isn't such a bad thing. And when you do go out to eat, try finding the places that are doing right by your community, your health, and the planet. They're getting easier and easier to find, and organizations like the Chefs Collaborative are getting more and more of us chefs on the sustainable food path. But more than anything, the best way you can help improve the food system is to get into your kitchen and cook! And while you're in there, teach your kids to cook. Your health and your bank account and your sense of family will all improve as a result.