My home is in a small town in rural Northern California (on occupied Pomo lands), where it’s hot and dry and populated by multigenerational families and migrant agricultural workers who toil in the drought-ridden fields. Nestled in a mountain valley among public lands and private ranches, it’s a conservative place, averse to change — the kind of town tourist guides would describe as “quaint” and “historic,” with only a few stoplights. On a Saturday night, you might catch half the town barbecuing at the city park: One of the things the town really digs in its heels about is food.
Food traditions connect us to our history and our identity as people, as families and as a town. In this place, where restaurants are only open on certain days, our tourist scene is a decades-old drive-up burger joint that serves as a remnant of the unforgotten past. Town elders argue online about whether the just-graduated high-school teens are serving milkshakes fast enough on a hot summer day.
When they argue, they say they miss the “good old days” and small-town feel of yesteryear. To the rest of us, this town feels quaint and small already — stuck in the annals of history.
This nostalgic burger joint is part of the locals’ history and identity. And that bleeds into their politics. Though they’re sought after on other menus, you won’t see a veggie burger sold here any time soon. Somewhere in this town, which loves fireworks and parades, our high schoolers and police, is a memory linking burgers with a way of life.
When we talk about food here it’s not just agriculture or the ways the wine and dairy industries drain our river dry, or how amidst historic drought famers are being told not to withdraw from our nearly dry watershed. And it’s not just the environment, or how salmon and other fish populations are at an extreme low because of the drought, because of farmers, because of climate change.
When the people in my town talk about food, they’re also talking about identity. But food changes. Traditions change. New restaurants move in. Menus adapt to local preferences. Supply chains respond to local and global pressures (economic, environmental and political). What we think of as normal is temporary, fleeting and guaranteed to evolve. We should evolve, too, and understand why and how our food changes to make sure it progresses toward a just, sustainable future in which people and wildlife thrive.
But that’s not where we are now. These days, people in the United States gobble up two to three times the global average in meat (and four times as much beef). And the memories my neighbors are hearkening back to, when they were the teens who’d just graduated high school (and when the town was still presumably white, which is implied somewhere in this increasingly Latino town): Those were the days when U.S. “traditions” around meat were just beginning.
Nowadays, at our town’s drive-up burger joint, you get out of your car, order food and sit at a table. The burgers once considered “fast food” are slow by current standards and overpriced at $20. But restaurants like this had a big impact. Parking-lot designs changed, along with roads, entry and exit ways and even the design of cars, which began to include cup holders. But most of all, fast-food drive-thrus changed what we thought of as a meal — how to eat it, where to eat it and even what we consider food.
Easy-to-eat foods like deboned chicken nuggets, hot dogs, and burgers (and whatever’s really in them) became menu specialties. It wasn’t long before these new animal-product-driven, fast, convenient meals also changed the scope of farming.
The treatment of marginalized laborers and animals in factories was already horrific and unsanitary when Upton Sinclair published The Jungle in 1906. By the 1930s antibiotics were used to limit the spread of disease in dirty, dark confinement, which led to even more closely confined animals in these facilities. By midcentury U.S. government agencies were actively promoting industrialized meat and dairy — including in advertisements targeting children.
Today we have a national food system that slaughters billions of animals annually. In addition, millions of wild animals are killed (not for food) using taxpayer dollars in federally sponsored programs to protect the interests of the meat industry. The environmental impacts of this sector lead in biodiversity loss, water use, greenhouse gas production, land and habitat use, and the overall severity of food waste.
This is a consumption issue — as a whole, people in the United States are consuming far more than their share of resources, a habit pushed on us by policies and markets that promote overproduction. The industrialized system is a result of making environmentally toxic food cheap and convenient to consumers and highly subsidized and profitable for producers.
What’s important to understand is that we haven’t always grown food this way, and we don’t have to. The beef industry’s claims that the United States grows corn to feed the cattle that feed the appetite of the nation, have it backwards. Many ag experts have shown that more cattle are raised in response to the overproduction of federally subsidized corn. That’s not a great reason for the way we grow food.
Food has emotional resonance for us — there are things we eat when we’re in a hurry, when we’re sick, when we feed our kids, when we have cookouts, or when we splurge on a fancy night out. And that emotional connection is often why we’re resistant to changing menus and foodways. But what if we considered that many our feelings about what is “normal” aren’t quite what we thought?
Digging in our heels about food for the wrong reasons can take our planet bad places. In my town, a few hot, grumpy patrons complaining about teens working minimum-wage jobs in the heat may not seem like a big deal. But it’s mirrored in complaints about the migrant workers on the front lines of food production and the climate crisis, who sleep 10 to a three-bedroom house and work 12 hours a day in 110-degree heat, with no guarantee of food, job, healthcare or security.
The food history of the past century should matter to environmentalists because these changes meant Americans started to eat a lot more meat. The amount of high-carbon, water-intensive, habitat-intensive, pesticide-crop-reliant animal products in this system exploded beyond what’s reasonable for our diets, our planet and our wildlife.
So, as we leave Independence Day behind (safely, I hope) and reel from the effects of heatwaves and climate change, let’s keep talking. What does an American diet look like?
We didn’t always eat the way we eat now, and we don’t have to eat this way in the future. If we stop believing meat-heavy agriculture is somehow natural, we can shift toward a just, Earth-friendly food system. One day we may look back and wonder why we argued over how fast our burgers were being served and instead wonder why we ate so many of them.
In the meantime, let's keep examining these issues. If you need more to chew on before our next issue of Food X, check out my recent article on the all-American colonization of food.
For the wild,