Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Stable Commodities, Changing Values

This summer, I have the pleasure of reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, which tracks the connection between the foods we eat and how it's produced (or manufactured, in some cases).

To be sure, this book has opened my eyes about our eating habits. One point I recently learned was about the business strategy of pairing commodies (i.e., corn) with values (i.e., health) in order to make money.

Take General Mills, for example. When this business first began, it initially sold whole wheat.

To increase profits, General Mills began processing its wheat into flour. And to promote the sale of flour, they marketed this product by attributing the value of good health and purity.

Sold! Who doesn't want to miss out on those virtues?

What's most interesting to me was how these values have gradually changed. Not long after, General Mills began processing their wheat to create cake mixes and cereal.

Instead of pairing these products with good health and purity, General Mills promoted the value of convenience. It seems as though this has been our mantra for some time now. It's got me thinking: Given the obvious benefits of having convenient products, what are its negative side effects?

From a cognitive standpoint, I know that having these products at my disposal means I don't have to think about where these products come from. This is not a matter of being forgetful; I'm blithely ignorant of this information. The underlying issue is that the value of convenience disconnects me from my place in the food chain. I'm so disconnected that I have to remind myself that Lucky Charms are partially made from whole wheat!

The take-home message is that while commodities are here to stay, our values will change. Which value could possibly trump the value of convenience?


Experimentaholic said...

I'm interested in the social dimension of the increase in convenience. Back in the day, you would go to the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker. Information would be exchanged among people, and social relationships formed. Today, at the local supermarket, they were installing self-service checkouts. So now, you can go to the store and conveniently not speak to anyone. And buy items like onions grown in China, or pork chops from pigs raised in Oklahoma, butchered in California, packaged in Florida, and sold in Philadelphia. Think of all the waste in terms of energy that went into the movement of these products to us. The jet fuel used in sending that sushi from Tsukuji to Chicago, then the diesel used by the truck from Chicago to Indianapolis, then the gas used in the truck bringing it to youor local sushi shop in South Bend - what is the energy costs of food? I worry about the internationalization of food as well, as the recent pet food scare illustrates. We don't just have to worry about where are food comes from, but what the hell is actually in it. But returning to my main point - I feel that something is lost in the disappearance of the local distribution of food. We are becoming a culture of increasing social isolation (I'm thinking of Putnam's book Bowling Alone) in which we wear our iPods everywhere in a solipsistic universe. This is one of the reasons I love Philly (not to plug Philly, but there has to be more to Philly than statistics books and yours truly) - the Italian Market is a street where there actually are local bakers, butchers, grocers, and fruit and vegetable stands. When I buy a steak, I know it was cut in the back of the shop. And I talk to Joey Esposito, the guy who actually cut it. And he tells me about this great new Italian place opening up that I have to try. It is refreshing because it feels as if this must have been how it once was before the term supermarket entered the lexicon and became the artifactual category it has become, but in the process of suburbanization and conveniencification (I like making up words) from the 1950s onwards we lost that truly social dimension of being a consumer. I like to take my time when I shop, thank you. Oh - Philly also has amazing Pretzels. Last night at midnight I went over to the pretzel bakery and bought a few right out of the oven. Delicious.

Michelle Verges, Project Director said...

Very good points!

Yes, it's an understatement to say that we live in an individualistic society. And there's nothing wrong with that, per se, though it seems like we're too skewed in that direction.

Where's the balance, where's the connection with other people?

This is one of the reasons why I like riding my bike to work. I actually have the opportunity to smile and say hello to other pedestrians. Not so when I'm driving my car.

You raise another good point about not knowing what's actually contained in food. Not only have we recently dealt with a pet-food scare, there was a recent report about poisonous chemicals being inadvertently mixed in toothpaste and cough syrup.

Turns out, China was blamed for these mistakes. To "remedy" the situation, their Chief of Food and Drugs was sentenced to death!!!


Here's a link to read more about China's involvement concerning the food scare: