The consumer city: make America natural again

It would be a mistake, to think the nickname ‘The Big Apple’, was in reference to NewYorks’ abundant supply of fresh fruit and vegetables. However, instead of orchards and apple trees, Manhattan is more likely to greet you with a line of AppleBees, the meat filled fast food restaurant chain or an Applejack cocktail. However, the city is becoming sick.

Seven in ten deaths are as a result of chronic illnesses such as heart disease, hyper-tension and diabetes, which can all be sourced to issues of a poor diet and malnutrition (Chronic Disease, 2020). The body of New Yorkers has arguably come to reflect the commercial food systems which dominate the food landscape. This plays into question whether citizens of New York have become detached from the very ‘nature’ of their food, under a capital ruled by commodity.

The Guacamole has secrets

To tell a story, I first discovered the commodified falsity of the New Yorks’ food industry during a hunt for guacamole. A simple dip, typical to the Manhatten dinner party, consists simply of avocados and various salts and spices. Confusion came however, when the tub of ‘Trader Joes own Guacamole’ contained over 11 ingredients, mostly in the form of various numbers, and two days’ worth of salt intake. Frustrated at the lack of green stoned fruit in the dip, I continued the search to three other local convenience stores to the Manhattan East side, only to find the same outcome.

Source: https://unsplash.com/

The land of the (more than) plenty

To create a vision of the New York food landscape, we can look at two Cs – chain and convenience.

Dunking Donuts, Subway, Starbucks and the golden arches of McDonalds, are the four top food chains in New York, totalling over 1,500 spots for a fast grab and go lunch during the famous New Yorker minute (NYC Food Policy Center, 2020). Fast food is also fast growing – the total number of stores increasing by 50% from 2008-2012, 2,400 alone found in Manhattan (NYC Food Policy Center, 2020). Meanwhile, inside the US store, the sale of processed foods account for 82-92% of food sales (NYC Food Policy Center, 2020).

Source: https://unsplash.com/

Its’ unsurprising therefore, that the linings of New Yorkers’ stomachs are predominantly a cocktail of sodium, sugar and saturated fat. To dissect the average daily calorie intake, 40% alone is made up of sugar and solid fats (Facts & Statistics, 2020), while only half of the population are managing to consume more 2 than servings of fruit or vegetables in a day and 90% are overloading on salt intake (Li, Zhang and Pagán, 2016).

Average US intake

Source: (health.gov, 2020)

With a cheap Sub only around the corner, the concern therefore for NYC residents isn’t the food bill, but the cost to health. While projections estimate over half of residents will be Obese by 2030, 75% of the money spent on healthcare, goes towards treating chronic diseases linked to a poor diet (Linge, 2020). The vulnerability of having such diseases only exasperated by the recent COVID-19 pandemic; 89% of total mortalities linked to these underlying conditions (Linge, 2020).


Its not you New York, its’ me (capitalism)

It would be incorrect to imply that these worrying health statistics were purely a form of American greed. New Yorks’ ‘Big Problem’, is beyond a poppyseed bagel obsession but reflective of the political and economic powers which govern the food network itself. Marx would argue that in order to understand this new commercially driven landscape, we need to look no further than the capitalisation of our food systems (Heyen, N et. Al, 2006).

In the case of New York, 1980s Neoliberal society saw president Reagan completely alter anti-trust enforcement laws, allowing food companies to merge at free will (Pollan, 2020). The result is a market completely dominated by a few oligopolies where only 4 companies supply 80% of Americas beef supply, and 50% of US supermarket shopping can be sourced to the aisles of just five companies (Singh, 2020).

Source: GuestofaGuest

Not only does this place the majority control of food into the hands of corporate bodies, but the motives of supply are inherently financial. The ‘pile it high and sell it cheap’ mentality of the American food system, lacking sufficient forms of governance and food council, has left profitability a higher priority than nutrition (Pollan, 2020). Instead of a source of nourishment, food has become part of the urban commercial landscape.

“The performative activities of body are not independent from the cultural, technological and socio-political structures “

In the Nature of Cities
Nik Heynen

New Yorks’ Metabolism

What is important to consider, is that the city is an interconnected set of flows through which food and resources go through, before landing on our plates (Keil, 2020). The metabolism of our body is not just a metaphorical description of how our cities manage resources, but a direct mirror of the city itself. Suffice to say, as New York’s metabolism digests a concoction of highly processed foods, corn and carbs, so do the bodies of New Yorkers themselves.

 Issues of food democracy in cities are highlighted by political Ecology writers such as Heynen, who point to how new, urban financially driven food systems have complicated the traditional flow from farm to fork (Heyen, N et. Al, 2006). In so, both control and understanding of what we are eating is far from what originally is grown in the ground (Keil, 2020). Trends of poor public health are not signs that New Yorkers are turning their noses up at carrots for carrot cake, but point to a wider issue that what flowing through our cities, flows through us, and that control is not necessarily ours.

You are what you eat, but you are also where you live.

Word Count: 891


References

Health.ny.gov. 2020. Chronic Disease. [online] Available at: <https://www.health.ny.gov/prevention/prevention_agenda/chronic_disease/&gt; [Accessed 27 October 2020].

HHS.gov. 2020. Facts & Statistics. [online] Available at: <https://www.hhs.gov/fitness/resource-center/facts-and-statistics/index.html&gt; [Accessed 27 October 2020].

Heynen, N., Kaika, M. and Swyngedouw, E., 2005. In The Nature Of Cities. London: Routledge.

Keil, R., 2020. An urban political ecology for a world of cities. Urban Studies, 57(11), pp.2357-2370.

Li, Y., Zhang, D. and Pagán, J., 2016. Social Norms and the Consumption of Fruits and Vegetables across New York City Neighborhoods. Journal of Urban Health, 93(2), pp.244-255.

Linge, M., 2020. America’s junk food diet makes us even more vulnerable to coronavirus. New York Post,.

NYC Food Policy Center. 2020. NYC Food By The Numbers: Fast Food – NYC Food Policy Center. [online] Available at: <https://www.nycfoodpolicy.org/nyc-food-numbers-fast-food/&gt; [Accessed 27 October 2020].

Pollan, M., 2020. The Sickness in Our Food Supply. The New York Review, [online] 10(LXVII). Available at: <https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2020/06/11/covid-19-sickness-food-supply/&gt; [Accessed 27 October 2020].

Singh, A., 2020. Choice At The Supermarket: Is Our Food System The Perfect Oligopoly?. [online] Forbes. Available at: <https://www.forbes.com/sites/csr/2012/08/06/choice-at-the-supermarket-is-our-food-system-the-perfect-oligopoly/#452f281c334e&gt; [Accessed 27 October 2020].

3 thoughts on “The consumer city: make America natural again

  1. I love the way you flip the big apple metaphor on it’s head to explore urban metabolisms! Very creative. I also think the statistics you’ve used are so interesting, and often pretty shocking. I’d love to hear more about the guacamole thread – is it even possible to find proper guacamole? Is that unique to New York or a broader American thing?

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  2. I really enjoyed the comparison between urban metabolisms and human metabolisms. It’s a great way of helping to conceptualise what can be at times quite an abstract theory! The statistics are shocking! But I think the way you have used them really help to contextualise the conversation. I think it’s interesting that the health of New Yorkers is not only impacted by the way they metabolise food, but also the way the city metabolises them. In other words, how they move through the city and how transportation options impact New Yorkers every day. When I visited I remember thinking how uncommon it was to see cyclists, for example. Maybe this could be another way of looking at health in future blogs? Loved this post!

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  3. Hi! I really loved reading this post – wow!

    “The metabolism of our body is not just a metaphorical description of how our cities manage resources, but a direct mirror of the city itself.” –> I liked this sentence a lot, it shows how you explored human metabolism and contextualised this with the urban flows.

    Something came to mind when you were talking about capitalism, corporations, and highly-processed foods. I remember reading about how vegan diets are actually not friendly for the environment and pockets and I looked into it. A lot of people continue to purchase these products despite their price (found out that vegan “eggs” cost ~5 times more than normal eggs) and costs (the high prices of such products are due to sourcing and distribution (i.e. hidden transport costs) which can impact the environment and perhaps people outside of the city). Just thought that this might be another interesting avenue to apply UPE lenses to! (‘:

    Thanks for this amazing and thought-provoking post!

    Like

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