In the battle for American stomachs, Big Food still wins

On 5 August, the US deputy agriculture secretary, Kathleen Merrigan, announced that the number of farmers' markets in the country had jumped by 17 per cent over the past year. The way she did this reminded me of the stilted yet gushing New Labour style that we miss so much.

“As the weekend approaches, there are things we all look forward to - sleeping in late, spending time with family, splashing in the neighbourhood pool and picnics with friends," Merrigan wrote on her blog. "I look forward to visiting my local farmers' market. It is a time for me and my urban-raised children to connect with local farmers and thank them for their hard work in providing the food we eat every day."

The grass-roots movement represented by the farmers' market is more genuine than that prose sounds. Largely unsubsidised and driven by local demand, it is the American consumer's way of fighting back against the junking of real food by giant US corporations. The campaign against gloop, led by writers and academics such as Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle, has been such a success that in Colorado, for instance, one small suburb now offers three different varieties of supermarket - Walmart, if you don't care; Whole Foods Market, if you do; and Vitamin Cottage, if you're a bit of a health-food obsessive. The natural food lobby is making progress in the American heartlands.

Chain reaction

It's not quite the reverse of McDonaldisation, the process by which consumer experiences - from buying books and coffee to childcare - become predictable, production-line events and your burger tastes the same from Kansas to Korea. Whole Foods Market and Vitamin Cottage are chains, too, but complementing them are the dietary specialists, 'erbalists and farmers' markets, offering boutique gastronomic experiences including liver-cleansing and consuming stomach-churning armies of gut bacteria.

I left for California with a shopping list of unpasteurised milk products (it's one of the few states to allow shops to sell raw dairy). Check out something called kefir: it "cleanses the intestines". And you can cultivate it at home.

These natural food movements are the antidote to McDonaldisation. They can become personal nutrition programmes: each follower with a cupboard full of their own selection of herbs and vitamins. It is an individual-by-individual protest against the corporatisation of food.

It all begins with babies. Research has shown that by the time they reach 24 months, American children are brand-aware and will begin
to pester their mothers for products, usually in supermarkets and mostly for cereals (47 per cent) - Trix, Froot Loops and Lucky Charms - followed by snacks and drinks (30 per cent).

The marketing bombardment continues at school. Over a third of elementary schools, half of middle schools and almost three-quarters of high schools have contracts that give companies rights to sell soft drinks in their buildings, in return for a percentage of the revenues for most of the schools. Around a fifth of high schools also offer brand-name fast foods, such as Pizza Hut or Taco Bell (for more on this, see The companies with the contracts can place their logos on school grounds, buses and sports equipment.

Then there is Channel One, a current events programme that is broadcast in four out of every ten middle and high schools. Twelve minutes
long, it features two minutes of adverts, including those for food and drink. In return for airing the show, schools receive free video and other technical equipment but - get this - they have to agree to make the kids watch it almost every day. Not even textbooks are immune. A company called Cover Concepts distributes, to 43,000 schools, free textbook covers, lesson plans and posters, carrying popular superhero characters and corporate logos from sponsoring companies such as McDonald's, Pepsi, Kellogg's and Wrigley.

They even operate in daycare centres. No wonder kids in the US get hooked on fast food so early. The web-based marketing of McDonald's now starts with children as young as three at And from the McDonald's McSpellit Club to Domino's Pizza's Encounter Math: Count on Domino's, they are subject to marketing even inside the classroom.

Burger battle

With a nation weaned on burgers and pop and obesity-related health problems accounting for almost a tenth of the US health budget, the burgeoning farmers' market movement is a positive sign of resistance to the McDonaldisation of the food chain. It has a battle to fight; a study from Yale's Rudd Centre for Food Policy and Obesity last year reported that the fast-food industry had spent $4.2bn on marketing in 2009 ($660m of this to children and teenagers). The US agriculture department's Centre for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, which promotes healthy diets, has a total budget of $6.5m.

“I find strange and luscious heirloom tomato varieties in the farmers' market that I never see in my grocery store," Merrigan writes. "The farmers cheer as my children try new fruits and vegetables." They might cheer more if federal Democratic Party candidates had not taken over $160m in donations from agribusiness in the past 20 years.

The US government subsidises industrial agriculture to the tune of $14bn a year to produce all that corn for ubiquitous high-fructose corn syrup, the sugar replacement that many believe is contributing to the obesity epidemic. Democrats receive substantial funding from the PepsiCo, McDonald's, Kraft Foods and Coca-Cola political action committees (as do Republicans). The annual lobbying bill for those four food and drink companies in 2010 amounted to $17m - nearly three times the healthy diet budget. That's a hell of a lot of lobbying for an heirloom tomato to fight.

This article first appeared in the 29 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Gold