Thursday, April 10, 2014

How capitalism made a "socialist" ideal come true

In the supermarkets we find a large supply of fully prepared meals, including ready meals of all types and take away food for consumption at home. There are also partly prepared meals consisting of several meal components, such as wet and dry sauces. In one week, 45% of Europeans and Americans prepared such meals[i]. The British seem to be world leaders in convenience food. Between 1994 and 2004 the sector grew by 70% and in 2006, the sales were almost as big as the sales in the whole of the rest of Europe[ii]. As younger customers buy more ready-made meals compared to older, the trend is likely to continue[iii]. And it is spreading rapidly to emerging economies where consumption of convenience foods is increasing due to among others an increasing urbanization rate. For example, retail sales of ready meals in India and China grew 26.9% and 11.8% respectively from 2003 to 2008[iv].

The increased industrialization of food, i.e. that we let corporations do a lot more of the job for us, can’t really be explained by that we don’t have time. The time spent in front of the television, in front of the computer, the game console or in the gym are all habits that have expanded enormously parallel to the commercialization of eating. Many people clearly have chosen not to cook. Anya von Bremzen tells us about how her grandmother – a carrier woman in the Soviet Union – says “Why should I bake, when I can be reading a book?” preferring a dinner made from frozen dumplings[v]. Interestingly, parallel to that less time is spent on cooking and real meals, people actually spend more time eating, albeit mostly as a multitask; eating while driving, eating while watching TV, talking on the phone or walking to work. A study shows that Americans spend almost eighty minutes per day on “secondary eating[vi]”.

Food preparation has undergone big changes both in palaces, restaurants and homes. The fast-food trend, eating out of home, the ready-made meals for home consumption and the industrialization of home cooking are strongly related and mutually supportive even if they also compete for our preferences. Interestingly, the difference in food from the various sources is often small. Instead of benefitting from the increased opportunities offered by eating out or buying ready made food or cooking some semi-processed components, many seem to prefer the same food in all cases, for instance a pizza or a salad. The trend is more easily understood if seen also in the context of changed living and work place conditions and not only as a result of aggressive expansion of capitalist companies. Urbanization, overcrowding in cities and many single person households also contributes to this trend of “eating out”.

Fast food and convenience food are, as expressed by sociologist Georg Ritzer in his book The McDonaldization of Society, efficient in the sense that it is the fastest way to get from being hungry to being full. The food is also highly predictable, standardized and controlled, basically built around the same logic as other industries[vii]. Food away from home and fast food and the snacks at home has enabled a much higher degree of individualism in what we eat. Before, even if there certainly were parents (mainly mothers) trying to accommodate a wider selection within the family, today food is selected individually. An increase of food allergies and intolerance, real, perceived or just a result of more choice, also makes the notion of “sharing a meal” has got a new meaning, or no meaning, as the meal itself rarely is shared. The microwave oven represents in a way one of the most groundbreaking inventions in food preparations after boiling in water. It has largely facilitated and driven the spread of ready made convenience foods, and it has made the individualization of “cooking” possible. In this way it also eliminates the essentially social aspect of eating; the bonds created by more than hundred thousand of years of time spent around the campfire. “It reverses the cooking revolution, which made eating sociable, and returns us, in this respect to a pre-social phase of evolution” in the words of historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto [viii].

The individualization and commodification has also been a bonanza for, and perhaps the result of, the food industry. Commercial actors can now earn money from activities that earlier were out of reach of the market (as they were done within the household), including cooking, preparation, processing of food, feeding infants and brewing. The vision of socialist utopians such as Edward Bellamy[ix], and the Soviet Union and Israeli kibbutz was that we would not cook at home. Either we would get ready made foods from factories or eat in collective kitchens. In some Israeli kibbutz not even individual tea kettles were allowed[x]. 

This vision is now materialized as the capitalist food industry take over of food.

(extract from Global Eating Disorder - the cost of cheap food)

[i] Consumer Trend Report —Convenience, Market Analysis Report , Government of Canada 2010.
[ii] Hungry City, Carolyn Steel, Chatto & Windus 2008
[iii] Who feeds Bristol, Joy Carey, Bristol City Council
[iv] IMAP, Food and Beverage Industry Global report 2010
[v] Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, Anya von Bremzen, Crown publishers 2013
[vi] Cooked, a natural history of transformation, Michael Pollan, Allen Lane, 2013
[vii] Ritzer, George (2009). The McDonaldization of Society. Los Angeles: Pine Forge Press
[viii] Food, a History, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Macmillan 2001
[ix] Food, a History, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Macmillan 2001
[x] Food, a History, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Macmillan 2001

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