P. has developed a teensy obsession, lately, with the Berenstain Bears. He “bought” L. an anthology of the bears’ beginner stories for Christmas (more like picked it out, and had Mommy give the nice lady $15) and promptly commandeered the thing, memorizing the stories in it after only a few readings. He takes it to bed with him at night, “reads” himself to sleep with it, and usually falls asleep with at least one appendage draped over the cover the way most children snuggle their teddy bears. Apparently, P. likes his bears more on the literary and hapless side.
I was thinking about those Berenstain Bears tonight as I lay in his little bed with him, listening as he “read” me the story of Small Bear’s new bike. In that story, as with many Berenstain Bears tales, Papa Bear is determined to teach Small Bear several important life lessons; he accomplishes his goal mainly by accidentally showing Small Bear what NOT to do. It occurred to me, as I listened to P.’s little voice squealing its way through the book, that in the past few days, many of us in the food-advocacy community have probably been more like Papa Bear than we care to admit.
We started, all of us, with good intentions. And I can say tonight, with news having come at last of a resolution of sorts — the USDA’s agreement to allow voluntary labeling of Lean Finely Textured Beef (known to the public as “pink slime,” though I’ve been trying hard not to use that particular terminology as I’ve debated the issue, since I realize it’s inflammatory to those who support LFTB) — that hopefully our good intentions are still intact as we reach the potential end of this contentious national debate. But on both sides, there was so much pure emotion invading the conversation that the behavior I witnessed among people espousing every possible point of view…well, let’s just say it left quite a lot to be desired.
There were insults, ridicule, epithets, profanity. There were put-downs and mean-spirited comments and inappropriate sarcasm (and this comes from me, someone for whom sarcasm is routine). There were even threats, both of lawsuits (predictable) and — shockingly and sadly — harm to others. I think it was the threats that really pushed me over the edge to write this post, because never. Ever. EVER. Should such behavior be perpetrated by grown human beings. What I’ve witnessed these past several days has been nothing short of cyberbullying, and to know that there are so many individuals out there who can’t see how to have a difference of opinion without resorting to schoolyard tactics or worse has bothered me deeply. So much so, in fact, that I actually asked the congregation of my church to pray for people on BOTH sides of this debate.
Please don’t misunderstand me — there were also plenty of gracious and intelligent commenters on both sides. There have been people going out of their way to thank others for being respectful and tolerant. And while certainly the whole subject of what goes into our food inspires deep feelings for many of us, I do think that there was a lot of restraint shown by the majority of people who entered the discussion. The problem is that it’s hard to see those good things amidst such ugliness.
It’s easier, in some ways, to understand why hostilities were aroused in supporters of LFTB and of the corporation, BPI, that has ended up at the heart of this issue. For a number of those people, the cost of the debate has been very real — jobs lost, communities beleaguered, the prospect of another blow to hard-working middle-class Americans at a time when they hardly needed yet more bad luck. When things get that personal, it’s hard to speak, think, and interact with reason and measure, especially if you’re being confronted by people who APPEAR to have nothing but your worst interests at heart. I’ve been out of work, and had kids to care for, and lost my medical insurance at the least opportune time. I know some of you share that experience as well. So I’m sure we all not only understand the desperation and anger, but can forgive it. I do. I have.
And on the other side of the debate? On — I hesitate to call it this — “our” side? Those of us who have been wanting LFTB off the lunch trays of school children and sold under proper, clear labeling in our stores don’t appear to have an emotional thread to bind us to our arguments, I’m sure. After all, we’ve been called out as nothing but “elitists,” “liberal foodies,” “snobs,” and worse. Our jobs aren’t at stake. Our families aren’t at stake. We just want to eat fancy food and jack up prices on those who can’t afford good food to begin with — right?
I won’t respond point by point to these portrayals of transparency-in-food advocates; for one thing, anyone who reads this blog or knows me or many of my compatriots personally knows how untrue they are, and for another, I’m not sure being called a liberal foodie elitist is all bad. What I think it really means is that I’m a person who thinks freely, cares deeply about social justice, invests time and energy untold to make sure that my family can eat the things I think are best for them, and that I won’t settle for subpar — not for me and my family, and not for ANYONE’S family. So a liberal foodie elitist (or, as I suggested to a commenter the other night with my tongue firmly in cheek, a “Nosy Meddling Damned Crunchy Hippie Intellectual”) I may be. I can be okay with that.
And that IS personal. Why have people on this side of the fence gotten so riled over the lack of labeling of LFTB? Simply put, I don’t think it’s the LFTB itself at all; it’s what the LFTB represents that has gotten many Americans so upset.
Yes, for me and for many other advocates of “real” food or “clean eating” or whatever else you want to call it, the LFTB is reason enough to be disturbed. But what I don’t think many pro-LFTB folks understand is that it’s not their product, in a vacuum, that gets us going. We’re ready to get passionate and emotional about LFTB partly because we have already had to buck the trend of what many mainstream Americans believe and accept about the food we eat and feed to our children. Many of us have had to endure conflict with families, friends, and others in our communities just to get the space to actually make the choices we think are necessary about feeding ourselves and our kids. We may find that each day is a challenge in just guarding the health and well-being of our children if they have food allergies or intolerances or special dietary needs of any kind that put them (and us) outside of what is considered to be “the norm;” we have to worry constantly about how to help them navigate and do the simple task called eating in a world that wants to override our better judgment and feed our kids things that aren’t right for them, that we don’t approve of, or that may even harm them. For those who don’t have children with medical needs that are being managed by diet, the possibility of “harm” may be less imminent, but long-term consequences to health brought about by a very broken food system don’t feel any less real.
We’re people who have done so much reading, so much research, on every angle of food and its production and its role in our bodies and lives that whereas the simple hamburger might just be a burger to most of the American public, it’s much, much more complex to us. Far from being “undeducated” about LFTB, as many of us in the debate were accused of being by pro-LFTB individuals, we’re TOO educated — about everything that it takes to raise a cow, slaughter it, and get its meat onto our tables. We’ve had to make serious choices about burgers since well before this controversy even got started, and frankly, there are times when I’m sure I’m not the only one who wishes I could stare down an industrial patty and feel absolutely nothing but hunger. But I know too much, and my fellows know too much, and that burger patty will never look right to us again. Already many of us may have given up burgers altogether because we can’t afford to purchase ones that were farmed and produced in a way we can accept; many others among us have learned to stretch our dollars, endlessly, finding creative workarounds that we never before would have thought existed to make 1/2 pound of grass-fed organic beef feed a family of four or six comfortably, teaching our children to eat rice and beans and plain oatmeal so we don’t have to spend our meat money on non-essentials. These are not complaints, but they are facts; and while pro-LFTB folks feel the immediacy of fighting for their children’s lives, here on the other side of the argument, we are fighting for our children, too.
Somehow this fight, which until recent days has felt so personal and so confined to a particular group of people, went viral. It’s not the work of a petition — internet petitions, for notable causes, fall by the wayside every day because people just don’t care enough to sign them and share them. No, a petition didn’t do this. And neither did rumor, or speculation, or innuendo, or even fact. What did this was a sudden dawning of public awareness that LFTB represents the breakdown of our entire food system, and that where a situation can exist of not being able to know QUITE precisely what we’re eating when we make meatloaf with our kids, there are likely many, many other sins of omission being committed against us all on a daily basis by the people who produce and sell us our food.
People got mad because they realized suddenly that, at some level, in even the smallest of ways, the Nosy Meddling Damned Crunchy Hippie Intellectuals have been correct in saying that we all need to pay much closer attention to what is going into our food and into our bodies. It wasn’t the LFTB itself, it was the IDEA that LFTB could exist without every red-meat-eating American knowing precisely how much of it was in that meat — or that it was even there at all. And ultimately, whether or not they might have decided after looking further into the matter that the product in question was okay to eat, the people who were awakened to the problem of opacity in our food supply became no less outraged by the fact that they HAD to do their own reconnaissance rather than receive the proper information in the first place.
I’m happy, in a way, that this awakening has occurred, because I think it’s the kind of Pandora’s box situation that may drive some necessary social changes — now that people are aware that food cannot be taken at face value, perhaps other, more significant problems in our food supply can be addressed. But the thought of these other issues also worries me now, having been through the process of witnessing and, to an extent, participating in the upheaval. See, if the kind of bad behavior that’s been going on with the LFTB scandal is the way we all relate to one another when we disagree about the labeling on our burgers, I’m terrified of finding out what we’re going to do to each other over things that matter even more.
Just three weeks ago or so, as this petition gained traction and it started to look like some wheels of change might move swiftly in a direction I considered relatively positive for our society, I was excited to watch a cultural shift in action. Now I’m afraid I didn’t learn much, in those three weeks, about the process of change — other than that it’s messy, and loud, and contentious, and that it brings out the absolute worst in a whole lot of people. I’m afraid we’ve reinforced for ourselves the idea that it’s not possible to disagree without hostility, or to voice a dissenting opinion without personal attacks. I’m afraid we’ve forgotten, or worse, never cared to understand in the first place, that we are all in this for the same reasons — both sides entered this fray, and will enter the next one and the next and the next, because we want desperately to take the best possible care of ourselves and our children and our communities. The fact that we disagree on the methodology is nothing but details. Important details, yes; but not so important that they should ever obscure for us the humanity of the people on the other side of the argument.
We’ve reached a point of, if not total resolution, if not truce, then at least pause. It would be wonderful to feel good about that, if we hadn’t reached this point not because of our good intentions, but in spite of our worst impulses. In the coming months and even years, as we have the good fortune to be able to undertake more and greater debates about our food system and how it nourishes every person in our society, let’s remember this opening battle — and remember that Small Bears really do learn best when Parent Bears teach instead of getting in their own way.