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The Military-(Food) Industrial Complex

Aug. 4, 2015

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How does a CSA-loving, home-cooking mother of three turn into a documentarian of the impact of 70 years of military preparedness on the country’s food system? By looking very closely at a sandwich.

Cooking has always connected me—to myself, to my family, and to the rest of the world. So I’ve always made the extra effort to put a from-scratch dinner on the table. And I gravitated to the Slow Food movement, a few years ago becoming a leader in the Boston chapter, where I did such things as organize huge potlucks to pay homage to the humble bean, throw a Brazilian cocktail bash to celebrate local immigrant culture, and teach Boston school children how to make vegetarian burritos from scratch.

And yet. As a working woman whose household includes three daughters, a husband, and a disabled mother, and later, as a writer with a real book contract and a real deadline, there have been many times that I relied on packaged items, especially for out-of-home lunches, snacks, and my weekly night out. Deli meat. Sliced bread. Energy bars. Ready-to-eat cereal. Snack foods. And frozen dinners, especially pizza.

I always felt a pang of guilt as I tore open the plastic packages and cardboard boxes, and, like most people, I blamed the food industry for my paucity of good choices. The convenience foods we ate were stored for months or years; swaddled like mummies; made mostly from cheap grains, low-value proteins, and a lot of fat; and, worst of all, brimming with ingredients that either I knew to be unhealthy or had never before been used in food.

This unease came to a head one day as I was irritably slapping together bread, cheese, and cold cuts for “homemade” sandwiches for my kids’ lunch boxes. Nothing remotely fresh or healthy about this, I grumbled. Which led me to research each ingredient and to a startling discovery. At the origins of two—the bread and the deli meat—were references to work done by an obscure U.S. Army base, the Natick Soldier Systems Center.

What was it? And what was its relation to the foods Americans eat every day?

The answers to those questions ended up becoming a book,Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat, which unravels the handiwork of the armed forces as it’s worked for three-quarters of a century to create and improve battlefield edibles. After World War II, when the Army had to go from feeding 400,000 to 11.6 million troops—in the process creating a food research laboratory that increased from three to 300 staff members and zero university and industry contracts to hundreds, the government decided never again. To ensure that it has the production capacity, or better yet, equivalent consumer items, should it ever need to ramp up for another mammoth war, the Department of Defense is charged with seeding in the food industry the science it uses to make rations imperishable, durable, affordable, and palatable.

Does that mean the army, not the food industry, is responsible for the poor American diet? No. The military may be at the forefront of many of the big questions in food science, but that doesn’t excuse the food industry for its role in creating and marketing shoddy foods for and to the American public. But it does complicate the narrative. For how can we truly improve the food system when there’s a shadowy player with an overwhelming interest in promoting food science that—albeit for the legitimate reason of nourishing soldiers—doesn’t have long-term human health and environmental sustainability at its core?

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Anastacia Marx de Salcedo is a former leader of Slow Food Boston. Buy Combat-Ready Kitchen at any major and indie bookseller, or online at Amazon. And if you know of any additional military influences that could be added to the (just begun!) inventory on her website or want to set up a discussion on the topic of military involvement in the food system, email her at anastaciamdes@gmail.com.

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