Bat Sparrow’s The Politics of Food in America

Bartholomew “Bat” Sparrow is a professor in the department of government. A political scientist with wide-ranging interests and interdisciplinary proclivities, we sat down with Professor Sparrow to discuss his undergraduate course, “The Politics of Food in America.”

When did you begin teaching this course, and how did it come into being?

Sparrow: I first taught the course in 2007. I was looking for a new topic to teach, and was discussing this with my wife, Polly, who had worked for Whole Foods for eight years, and she suggested doing a class on the food system. This immediately struck a chord with me, since my mom was big on the importance of organic and unadulterated foods. She read Adelle Davis and believed in the idea of eating your way to health. We never had soda at home and she baked all her own bread, for instance, so I grew up being very aware of the importance of food (although us kids also thought she was just a little crazy).

I found that studying food provided a lens on the entire political system, a comprehensive look at the whole political process in a way students could immediately relate to and appreciate. How the food system works politically is not all that different from how politics, government, and the regulatory system operate in other sectors of the economy, but food has an immediacy that was very appealing to me as a teacher. It touches everything: producers, retailers, and consumers; the legislative branch (Congress) and the executive branch (the USDA, the FDA, and other regulatory bodies); the courts (for example, genetically modified organisms are patentable and constitute a legal form of property); public health (school lunch programs, food stamps, food safety, obesity, WIC); energy (corn and ethanol, petroleum-based fertilizers); the environment (with air and water pollution, erosion, and so forth), and international relations and the global political economy (with trade policy, food aid). But political science as a discipline is almost completely silent on food. So in the course, we learn about the food system in the United States, the policies, rules, and decisions that got us to where we are, and how it all comes together.

One of the readings you assign is an excerpt from John Hansen’s Gaining Access, which is an exception to the dearth of political science treatment of agricultural politics. What’s currently going on with national agricultural politics?

Sparrow: The big thing today is the unraveling of the bipartisan consensus that dominated during the second half of the 20th Century. You had a grand bargain struck around 1965 where farmers would get subsidies and direct payments and the poor, mostly in urban districts, got food stamps. So there was a continuation of the agreement struck between members of Congress representing rural constituents and those representing more urban populations. Now this bipartisan and cross-regional deal has effectively unraveled and crop subsidies, food stamps, health issues (such as obesity), environmental concerns and other issues bundled up in the Farm Bill have again become the subject of partisan fights.

One book you have assigned is Timothy Pachirat’s Every Twelve Seconds. What can you share with us about this book?

Sparrow: The book is largely about the politics of concealment, the idea that consumers do not see how their meat is made into a commodity. The background to Pachirat’s study of a huge, industrialized Omaha slaughterhouse, is that American meatpackers implemented a deliberate strategy to get out of the cities, such as Chicago, and move their plants into the countryside where they would be out of sight, where there was no unionized workforce, and where they could hire cheap, immigrant labor to work on a semi-skilled (dis)assembly line. And Pachirat brings attention to what we do not normally see—the workplace conditions and what happens to the cattle—though I think there is likely also some willful non-perception going on in the public: consumers do not really want to know how our meat arrives in its nice cellophane packaging. People have a good sense of where their meat is coming from and how it’s produced, I think, but they do not necessarily want to know or be confronted with the details. The author’s intention is to show the public what is going on, with the expectation that if consumers knew more they might modify their eating habits. While that may not be a bad thing, we as a class also think critically about Pachirat’s own argument.

Part of the course is about raising students’ food awareness, correct?

Sparrow: I have students conduct an exercise specifically designed to increase their awareness of what they eat and of the ways in which what they eat is conditioned by the political system. They keep a 48-hour log, or journal, of everything they eat and then turn in a four-page analysis of what they ate, finding out the exact ingredients and where those ingredients came from. One thing they learn is just how many ingredients are in many of the foods they eat and how incredibly difficult it is to know where those ingredients came from or, indeed, even what they are (since many are complex chemical compounds). It would be easy for me to get on a soapbox about the food system, but that is not my purpose. There are real conversations to be had about the many costs to our current food production system, which are often out of plain sight and not factored into the price of food. We think of our food system as being highly efficient and excelling at producing affordable food. While this is not false per se, when we look at all the externalities—soil erosion, toxicity, water usage, nutrition, and health, to name some—that accompany our current food system, they are not factored into the price that companies pay farmers and that consumers are paying in grocery stores and restaurants. Our food would be a lot more expensive if we took all these costs into account. So we are producing lots of cheap food, but there are clear problems. These are not the problems of emaciated children starving to death, rather they are of the relative prices of meat, grains, and fruits and vegetables in our system, with the result that many of the less affluent are not getting good nutrition, the right mix of proteins, vitamins, and minerals, because of the kinds of food they are able to afford. With less and less arable land available, a growing population, and the existing farm policies, crop subsidies, and environmental regulations, we have a food system that is not sustainable. And my students and I explore the political processes and government structures behind the food system we have today.