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Illuminating the Black Box of our Food System: How Every Calorie is Built on the Lives of Others

By Lauren Chuhta

Your food is made in a black box. Computer scientists know the term: in a black box system, the inputs and outputs are visible, but the process in between is unknown. Such is the way with our food. What happens in order for soil, oxygen, and water to become your holiday meal, a quick breakfast on your way to class, or a snack from the dining hall? There’s technology involved, sure, and economic principles, too. But the cornerstone of our modern food system isn’t human innovation–it’s human lives.

Take a look at Tyson poultry. Workers are held to strict, borderline-inhumane conditions. An employee can miss only so many days before termination. During the pandemic, this meant risking the health of themselves and their families in order to keep their jobs: even though personal protection equipment was poorly accessible, employees still had to work in crowded assembly lines and risk contracting the virus. Tyson is the predominant employer in many southern counties, particularly in Alabama, and this monopoly allows these conditions to continue. For many employees, this lack of leverage is compounded by undocumented status. They cannot advocate for personal safety, adequate work breaks, or sick days without high risk of losing employment. Read this article for personal accounts.

Corporate power in the food system extends beyond the exploitation of laborers. Brazil is undergoing a major obesity crisis as Nestle, an enormous processed food conglomerate, saturates the food market with cheap, high-calorie, low-nutrition foods. As the market potential of developed nations like the United States reaches a maximum, large food corporations are turning to developing countries to sell their products. Watch this video to see how Nestle capitalizes on food insecurity and economic hardships to increase profits.

As Brazil’s impoverished feed themselves from candy and pudding, the country develops long-term health consequences in growing rates of obesity, diabetes, and impaired cognitive development. While recognizing systematic nutrition disparities in Brazil, it is imperative not to construct this as a foreign problem. Food deserts are abundant in the United States, primarily in communities of color. The term refers to areas with limited access to nutritious food. This may look like an absence of grocery stores and farmers markets for miles, an overabundance of convenience stores, or a combination of both. In this interview, Karen Washington argues the need to reframe food deserts as food apartheid because of the racially disproportionate impacts. Only by recognizing their true nature can we begin to take action against them.

The food system encompasses us all. It is built on the lives of others: exploited laborers, manipulated consumers, repressed communities, and more yet to be acknowledged. As consumers, we are participants in this system, and as participants, we have an obligation to recognize the lives risked for the gears of this system to keep on turning. Here’s the thing about black boxes–obscurity only persists as long as ignorance outweighs comprehension. By seeing the human lives behind your turkey, the corporate exploitation perpetuated by your candy bars, and the privilege behind an accessible grocery store, we can begin to illuminate the crimes of the black box and counteract them.

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