Don't Fall Victim to False Logic With the Food Industry

I've been extremely happy with the candid and generally constructive dialog here at Casual Kitchen since my last two posts on The Worst Lie of the Food Blogosphere, and The "It's Too Expensive to Eat Healthy Food" Debate.*

But I feel I must respond to the most common objection I'm seeing to these two posts, which can essentially be reduced to the following three-part syllogism. Here's the logic that I'm seeing from commenters:

1) Casual Kitchen claims that people have power over their decisions about food.

2) However, there are people out there who don't have power, choices or options (examples: schoolkids who don't have a say in what their school serves them for lunch, people who live in inner cities, people with limited means or limited education, etc.)


3) I have no power. I should go back to wringing my hands and feeling bad about the current state of the food industry and take no action.

This, dear readers, is what they call a false syllogism. Don't generalize from the exceptions. There are exceptions to everything in the food industry, and there will always be people who, for whatever reason, are unable or unwilling to make good choices.

But don't let this fact fool you into giving up your power to help drive the food industry in the right direction. The real question is, what choices are you going to make with the power that you have?

Let's tackle some of the details of this syllogism one by one: First, when it comes to schoolkids, how powerless are they, really? What about this powerful post about middle school students from New Orleans who convinced their superintendent to change his foodservice contract to include fresh, local produce at least twice a month? And what about the high school students from Vermont who advocated for--and got--local vegetables on their menus at school?

Hmmmm. Maybe schoolkids aren't quite as powerless as we assume. And if they can take power into their own hands and bring about positive change, why are we using them as just another reason to whine?

Furthermore, there are lots of people with limited means and limited education who manage to cook exceptionally healthy meals for very little money. I know this because many of these people are regular readers of this blog. And, as commenter Consciously Frugal said, to presume other people are powerless smacks of condescension.

Look, I'm not trying to make the case that the food industry in its current state is some kind of a fantasy land. Anyone can see that it's not.

But my point is this: What good does it do to complain? Instead, ask yourself this: what are you going to do about your food industry, given your situation and the range of choices available to you right now?

That's how to address a situation from a position of power. That's what I'm getting at when I encourage my readers to take power back into their own hands rather than giving it away by whimpering and complaining about Big Food.

If there is any concept that you MUST understand after reading this post, it's that you have the power. You can make a difference in the world by acting on your power and only buying the products that have real value from the stores that you believe are worthy of your business.

I'll say it once again: if we took these steps, the food industry would break its own back bending over backwards to meet our demands.

Until then, however, we will get the food industry we whine about.

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Julia said...

Yes, yes, yes! I very much enjoyed reading your earlier post, but felt you covered my opinions pretty well. Yet again, I agree, but alas, don't have a lot to add to the discussion.

I would like to point out a wonderful non-profit that I volunteer for -- Share Our Strength/Operation Frontline. They recruit chefs and nutritionists to go into local (low-income) communities to teach about cooking, nutrition and food budgeting. It's a way to give power and education to those with limited means and/or education.

Diane said...

I guess I don't see it as an either/or. I absolutely have power over my own decisions, and use that to make good food choices, actively support my local farmers, and avoid processed and packaged foods whenever possible.

But that doesn't also mean that I therefore should stop calling out food companies for doing things I think are wrong or point out that there are places of powerlessness. Advocacy isn't the same as merely complaining. The danger in just acting individually without also talking up & highlighting bad practices is that awareness of the bad practices remains limited. And talking up the bad practices doesn't mean that I think these companies are "evil."

I agree with both very-thought provoking posts about 95%. Just wanted to state some other POV's to get the dialogue going.

ConsciouslyFrugal said...

I can totally get behind this idea. I would take it one step further, because I am bleeding heart liberal and all. We have the power to make choices for ourselves and the power to make life a little easier for our global human family. (Oh, and thank you for giving a shout out to my disdain for the belief that po' folk are powerless.)

We need to change the farm bill. We need to make poor neighborhoods better with farmers markets and grocery stores etc., etc. I don't think that calling a spade a spade is whining, but I do agree that if you're not out there DOING something to remedy our jacked up food system, you should probably just shut it.

Jaime G said...

We are living proof that you can eat healthy on a budget. I don't usually spend more than $65 a week on groceries for our family of four, and some weeks I can get away with spending only $50. It can be done with a little planning and effort, especially if you utilize "real" whole grains and cut out the processed garbage! Keep it up, CK! :o)

Stephanie from Juicy Fresh Bites said...

Very valid argument! I am also a big believer in that as long as we try our best to choose healthy, then our actions will inevitable influence others around us and eventually, this will cause a ripple effect and we will one day see dramatic changes in the food industry.

It is not so much about how much we can influence, as long as we are trying our best to do what we can within our power.

Daniel said...

Thank you for the comments so far, and again for the civil discussion.

I'm definitely interested in more thoughts from readers who don't agree with me. Are there sides of this conversation that I've missed so far?


Anonymous said...

My room mates would disagree with you. They buy what they want,when they want it, and moan about the cost of food. When I've pointed out how much cheaper it is to buy fresh produce in season, and use it quickly and efficiently, they reply that opening a tin is much more efficient for them, as they haven't "the energy" to cook properly. They also have a very, very narrow range of tastes, which hampers them in eating inexpensively - soup, for example is "not real food", nor is a meatless meal satisfying. Folks like these will always claim that the food companies conspire to keep prices high and good nutrition out of range. For myself, I am armed with a few good cookbooks - "The More with Less" cookbook is the very first one I bought, more than thirty years ago, and they have helped me eat well and cheaply over the years.


Cheryl said...

Hi Dan, thanks for linking to my post about kids advocating for change in their schools. If your readers are interested, they may want to check out the website for the Real Food Challenge (, a wonderful organization run by youth for youth that's dedicated to improving access to fresh food on college campuses. Sorry for the PSA, but it's a nonprofit (& I'm not related to it in any way), so I figured you wouldn't mind.

Daniel said...

Anon: thanks for your comment. I don't know--to me, that kind of thinking from your roommates is just standard excuse making.

Why bother to figure out something when there's such a convenient excuse available? [Once again, let's say it with feeling: Food companies are evil!] The fact that it's a disempowering excuse isn't a concern I guess.


Daniel said...

Cheryl, thanks for your input, I'm always happy to support organizations like this. And thank you for writing that post, it's inspiring.


ConsciouslyFrugal said...

Well, I would add this note of disagreement. You said, "Don't generalize from the exceptions and let that trick you into missing the point of the post."

I would argue, then, that you shouldn't generalize from the anomalies and let that trick you into solving a complex issue with bootstraps ideology or negating the validity of the argument. I call this The Oprah Effect (no, this is not about megalomania. bwhahahaha), which is it's own form of a false syllogism (actually, it's a hasty generalization fallacy):

1. Oprah was raised in profound poverty.

2. Oprah became the wealthiest and most powerful woman in media.

3. Therefore, all people raised in poverty will become uber rich and powerful.

It's the My Personal Experience is Universal Truth myth. Although "the American Dream" and magical thinking do support the notion that everyone can make it big, it's not an economic reality. Our current system cannot sustain masses of poor becoming wealthy, given that most wealth is built upon poverty structures. But that's a whole other argument.

What I see you doing is taking anomalies and then generalizing from them. If A can do it, so can B. Well, yes, in theory. But life doesn't really happen in theory and turning the anomaly into a standard by which all can and should adhere is...well, generally the method by which bootstraps ideologists negate any responsibility to the collective. It works in the theoretical but is deeply damaging in practice.

Having said that--I get what you're saying. Even the mother working 2 shitty jobs can toss in some frozen veggies. But is that really the sole solution we want to go for in this debate?

Does the fact that personal choice exists in the face of a system that is, on virtually every single level (no safe place to play, food deserts, unknown food content, GMOs, false advertising, blah blah blah), set up to make good choices a monolithic hurdle actually affirm your position of "the worst lie in the blogosphere?" Really?

It's the black and white thinking and the bootstraps ideology of your assertion that irk me. I'm not saying that your assertion of all folks have choices isn't true, because it is. But to equate the opportunity for choice, particularly when the choices available are vastly different, somehow negates the argument the food industry is evil just doesn't cut it. Both are true--one doesn't negate the other. The food industry is evil and we have choices. I, of course, would hope that we would fight the systemic issues while making better choices for ourselves.

Daniel said...

Thanks for the insights ConsciouslyFrugal!

I hear you. My point was to get people to stop complaining and get active. And my point about this particular logic error is that many people, rather than getting active, simply engage in complaining by proxy: citing less fortunate people, powerless schoolkids who get exploited by Sysco, those living in food deserts, etc., as evidence that nothing can be done.

That kind of thinking is effete and unproductive. The vast majority of my readers are quite capable of taking effective action. And if my readers become active, and encourage others to do so too, we can help everybody get a food industry that does its job better.


Christine said...

Again, Consciously Frugal wrote exactly what I was thinking. (What a fantastic writer - I'm going to read that person's blog.) I don't think that it's either/or. You can make good choices for yourself and still complain about the food industry. And I don't think putting people down as whiners helps anyone very much. But then, this blog is not about helping anyone, is it...

ConsciouslyFrugal said...

Dan--thank you so much for bringing this whole issue up. It's made me realize that folks find motivation in completely different ways. You mentioned that you find labeling food companies evil to be disempowering, whereas I find it a call to action. It never occurred to me that some would find it as anything else. Such an eye opener.

Viveca from FatigueBeGone said...

Excellent post. I am anti-regulation and pro-power to the people.

Seems to me the people who love regulations are the same ones who won't lift a finger to help themselves or support their cause.

My cause at the moment is eliminating my plastic container waste. Bought aluminum water bottles and asked my husband to just say no ...

These steps like this really add up. Thanks for the topic.


Marcia said...

I have to say that I agree with most of what you've said. I consider it my duty to cook healthy meals, and shop with my values.

I want everyone to have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. So I buy mine at the farmer's market to encourage them to remain affordable for everyone else.

It's tough though. A lot of people just aren't interested in eating healthfully, reading labels, or thinking about their source of food. Even some of my relatively informed relatives fall into that category. So...I guess that's how it is.