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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    You are what you eat

    Sarah Devlin columnist
    Sarah Devlin

    Thanksgiving is eagerly awaited by most college students. It’s a chance to visit home, eat extraordinary amounts of food on our parents’ dime and try to forget that finals are mere weeks away. It’s also a day, in the greeting card industry at least, to reflect on the year that has passed and be grateful for the things that make our lives so rich. Thanksgiving is one of the last really ritualized holidays in our culture – there are still definite criteria for a “”traditional”” Thanksgiving meal. To that end, as we sit down to enjoy the standard fare this year, it’s time to take a good look at the food we eat all year round – sort of a state of the union, only in this case, it’s the state of our stomachs.

    Like the Pilgrims, we students are used to pretty rotten food. Being forced to fend for ourselves usually leads to some culinary misadventures during college. Unfortunately, bad food seems to be becoming a national burden. Although we’ve increased the efficiency with which we produce food, its quality isn’t following quite the same growth curve. Not only is better food more expensive than ever, but the way we prepare it may have a lot to do with the increase in drug-resistant bacteria. Due to federal subsidies for many agribusinesses, the price of certain food items has fallen dramatically. For example, subsidies given to corn, wheat and rice under the Farm Bill are enormous, while subsidies for produce are almost nonexistent. Those industries that receive government funds are encouraged to overproduce, which has led to a staggering drop in the price of corn worldwide.

    On the one hand, this is great news. If corn was good enough for the Pilgrims, it’s good enough for us. (However, a tourism Web site for Boston is adamant that the Pilgrims would never have eaten corn on the cob for Thanksgiving, and rather would have used the crop only in other dishes. Clearly, another dastardly plot from the mighty corn lobby!) According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the amount of disposable income used by Americans to purchase food has fallen steadily in the last few decades. With staples like wheat and corn now cheaper, people can buy more food for less money. The trouble is that without an accompanying drop in the price of more nutrient-rich foods, corn and corn-based products make up an ever-larger percentage of American diets, a pattern that is disproportionately more visible in the poor. The federal dollars that subsidize farming are also bypassing average consumers and flowing into the pockets of huge agribusiness corporations. Squanto would be so disappointed!

    These corporations make heavy use of antibiotics when raising livestock, with potentially devastating consequences for the health of the people who consume their products. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimated in 2001 that 84 percent of all antimicrobials were being utilized by the agriculture industry, both to prevent animals being raised in close quarters from becoming ill and because antibiotics tend to make livestock grow faster. This practice is now being linked by scientists to an increase in drug-resistant illnesses such as MRSA, a staph infection that used to be confined to hospitals and is now present with greater frequency in communities in the United States. Now, although consuming meat of dubious quality is probably a tradition we share with the first U.S. citizens, there’s no reason for this practice to continue in the 21st century. I mean, we were able to eventually let go of the cape and the tricorn hat. I have faith in us.

    Although subsidies are intended to aid valuable industries, and although antibiotics can be necessary in raising livestock, they are also creating a two-tiered class system in our country that has verifiable effects on the physical health of the working poor, who are at a higher risk for obesity-related diseases as a result of the government’s economic policy.

    As the poor become poorer, they are losing their health, as well, while those lucky enough to be able to afford higher-quality food flood Trader Joe’s in search of $6 organic microwave meals. If our government can come up with the billions to subsidize mega-corporations that are systematically eroding the quality of food available to us, perhaps we can scrounge for some cash to make nutritious food available to poorer families. It shouldn’t be the case in a nation as developed as ours that families must pass an income litmus test before they are able to purchase the foods they need to be healthy. They also shouldn’t be forced to consume food that is a reservoir of potentially antibiotic-resistant disease.

    This Thanksgiving, we should be thankful for the food that we do have, and we should also commit to improving the quality and availability of the foods we consume all year round. As students lucky enough to go home to healthy meals (since for most of us, Ramen and beer typically make up two whole food groups), it’s important to remember that this is a luxury for many Americans.

    There’s no reason why food production can’t be efficient and superior to what came before. All that’s required is people to agitate for it.

    Sarah Devlin is a sophomore majoring in English and political science. She can be reached at

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