Some time ago, I found myself in a buffet line around piles of inedible looking grains, greens and grassy-smelling gratins at an alternative food cooperative’s Sunday dinner. No part of this meal, I was assured, had been touched by the corporate food chain, the Big Ag puppeteers with their taxpayer-subsidized toxins.
The evening was all very yeasty and dreadlocky, as you would expect. The food was – I’m sorry – wretched. I didn’t see it then, but I understand now that many social movements start on the fringe frontier, where earnestness ultimately wins out over the skepticism of people like me.
It’s no secret that Whole Foods, the $13.7 billion acquisition of Amazon, took the “business” model I found in a leaky old loft in Port Townsend, Washington, long ago, and gave it a profitable corporate sheen.
But what’s less well known and somewhat surprising is how that same food ethic drifted over into the paranoid world of the far right, where no truth is self-evident and the apocalypse is always imminent. At the dark confluence of hippie and Hitler, you can buy a year’s supply of Earth-friendly quinoa.
What’s sad, and indicative of the wretched Trump era, is how something that started in a wave of hope and optimism migrated to closed-minded, mercenary quarters.
You can trace a bit of this transition to John Mackey, the Texas co-founder of Whole Foods. A libertarian and admirer of Ayn Rand, he once lived in a vegetarian collective. “I thought I’d meet a lot of interesting women,” he told The New Yorker. “And I did.”
By the time Whole Foods had purchased Wild Oats, the communal ethic had been overtaken by imperial ambition. But that was nothing compared with some of the current peddlers of alt-foods.
So, in between rants about how Ku Klux Klan members are “just Jewish actors,” Infowars conspiracy theorist Alex Jones sells an exhaustive line of strange food. His market is “preppers,” people who’ve been preparing for the End, for some time.
Jones’ website urges fellow knuckle-draggers to “secure your food independence” with his organic-sounding Patriot Pantry. From “fluoride-free mouthwash” – the better to secure precious bodily fluids, one assumes – to “strawberry fields cream of wheat,” he assures his followers that his “non-GMO meals have a 25-year shelf life.” Plus, no added MSG!
Over at The Blaze, Glenn Beck’s soft-rock version of the hard right, a targeted demographic is the grumpy Trump supporter who wants to Grow Your Own. The site’s story diet is heavy on the threat of transgender kindergartners. But with food, Beck is closer to that co-op I visited.
One of Beck’s sponsors promotes “better ideas for off-the-grid living.” Another offers “next level gardening with a geodesic greenhouse.” These items would have fit, years ago, into the Whole Earth Catalog, a must-read for the no-deodorant set.
One side, now, is heavily armed, and the other seems friendlier, the products named for Burt and Annie, Ben and Jerry. A consistent thread through the years is distrust of institutions, of the Man. Another shared belief is self-sufficiency.
The 1969 Whole Earth Catalog heralded the “power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment and share his adventure with whoever is interested.”
This sentiment heavily influenced Steve Jobs. The catalog, he said, “was one of the bibles of my generation.” In his famous 2005 Stanford commencement address, Jobs compared the Whole Earth Catalog to an early version of Google – “idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools.”
There was a brief, shining point when we seemed to have reached a national consensus in the politics of natural food: Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden. It was simple, instructive and Jeffersonian, backing the notion that there’s an easy alternative to all the awful additives at the American table.
But even something as wholesome as a healthy diet message got dragged through the right-wing swamp, prompting a defiant Sarah Palin to offer sugar cookies to students living through an obesity epidemic.
One of the first acts of President Donald Trump’s administration was to reverse an Obama era proposed ban of chlorpyrifos, a pesticide shown to cause brain damage in children. Trump has also rolled back new food rules designed to reduce sodium levels in schools and give consumers more nutritional information.
Trump’s supporters live, disproportionately, in the Diabetes Belt, as the Centers for Disease Control labels parts of the country with highest percentage of people made ill by an excess of the awful American diet.
And while Trump’s most fervent supporters in the hard right are preparing for End Times with chemical-free freeze-dried and other pseudo organics, their man gorges himself on Big Macs and slabs of well-done steaks and tries to keep the rest of us in the dark. The food message from this White House: Eat your poisons, and don’t ask where they came from.