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The Dinner Party


Last weekend, another smart and provocative article from Michael Pollan appeared in the New York Times Magazine.  It was about the upcoming vote on California’s Proposition 37, which would require that all genetically modified foods carry a label, really a warning label.

Pollan understands, of course, that this referendum is potentially about so much more food packaging.  As he says, it could change the
“politics of food not just in California but nationally.”  And this is because, as he rightly observes, “a market and sentiment are not quite the same thing as a political movement – something capable of frightening politicians and propelling its concerns onto the national agenda.”

Walter Reuther addressing a crowd of auto workers.
(Photo credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Pollan is right on about the nature of politics and political power. Walter Reuther — the longtime and legendary head of the United Auto Workers of America – defined power as, “the ability of a labor union like the UAW to make the most powerful corporation in the world, General Motors, say, ‘Yes’ when it wants to say ‘No.’ That’s power.” And it is that kind of power over the Big Food and multinational like Monsanto and Pepsi that Pollan envisions when he implores readers in this rather disconcerting electoral season to “Vote for the Dinner Party.”

In the rest of the article, Pollan envisions what the Dinner Party might accomplish.  It might get some transparency at the supermarket for consumers, give farmers some choices about what to grow, stop the rain of pesticides over our crops, regulate and tax soda, eliminate the use of antibiotics in animal feed, and bring an end to the environmentally destructive practices of the factory farming of hogs, beef, and chicken.  It might, he continues, help to create a more sustainable agricultural system and insure the humane treatment of animals.  “Yet,” Pollan cautions returning to his idea of consumer choices and power, “this sort of soft politics, useful as it may be in building new markets and even new forms of civil society, has its limits.  No everyone can afford to participate in the new food economy.”  What’s the point of building a “Dinner Party,’ Pollan asks, if it will only serve the interests of elites?

Right.  As Pollan recognizes, class matters.  But amazingly, while Pollan makes a bold call for the democratization of good food, he says nothing about work or about laborers.  He talks about the condition faced by animals, but not workers stuck in hot, monotonous, low-paying, unhealthy, and dangerous jobs.  You can’t have cheap food without cheap labor, so why create a Dinner Party with workers left out?

Think of the power of a political movement that linked up consumption and production, shoppers and workers. What if this new political force took head on the questions of the low pay of slaughterhouse and fast food workers and how much access their wages gave them, in Pollan’s words, to “the benefit of good food”? A party that did could do more than shake up Big Food, it could shake up Big Politics – that thing we have right now that seems to thrive on style over substance, sound bites over real debate, and cheap calories, to use a food analogy, over full taste and actual nutrition. That would be a Dinner Party with real power, one that Walter Reuther could certainly get behind.