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How Technology Pulls Back the Curtain on TV Food Commercials

08/27/2014 12:34 EDT | Updated 10/27/2014 05:59 EDT

The Slow Food movement, which advocates for local and regional cuisines and methods, began in Italy in 1989. It was a reaction to a certain fast food chain setting up shop on the Spanish Steps in Rome; a proud historical plaza. Back in the late eighties, the fast food chain shrugged off these protests and opened anyway, but the clash gave rise to a global movement that now spans 150 countries. Imagine for a second that you're the senior fast-food executive whose decision spawned a global anti-fast food movement.

But if the Slow Food movement is urging us back to some baseline, how did we get so far away? And how do we go back?

On reading "The Values Ratchet" (The Guardian, June 11, 2014), I couldn't help but feel the same principles apply not just to politics but to food as well. British author George Monbiot contends that political movements need to understand two basic principles to be successful: Shifting Baseline Syndrome -- biologist Daniel Pauly's term for how we perceive the environment of our youth as normal regardless of how relatively extreme it may be (think 12 year-old Somali militia) and the Values Ratchet, which posits that your political system's policies will reinforce that baseline and even drive prevailing mores.

These two principles are also at work in our food systems. As a child in the 70's and 80's, a normal dinner from my mom -- daughter of Scottish immigrants -- consisted of the staples present at any UK-inspired table: some form meat (often a "loaf"), mashed starch, and a steamed vegetable, with a cheese sauce if we were lucky. Terms like organic, free-range, artisan, and heritage were used to describe visits to the Highlands, or Middle Earth, not food. Our pantry was a who's who from popular day-time TV commercials of the day: Kellogg, Kraft, Hershey, Heinz, Dole. Today, they are names I associate with political and social prowess - industrialists, not nutritionists.

On the weekends, we'd get a fast-food combo after our Saturday morning soccer game. That was a "treat". Of course, as time went on and I had money to provide my own "treats", fast-food became a bigger and bigger part of my daily diet.

So this is my baseline. It was gradually introduced to my grandparents -- name brand processed foods were marketed as a sign of affluence -- increasingly to my parents and then completely to me through the dominant media of the period: television. Let's be frank: corporate advertising funds television.

Corporations, like political parties, exhibit similar extrinsic values as those Monbiot lists in his article: lower empathy, a stronger attraction towards power, hierarchy and inequality, greater prejudice towards outsiders and less concern for global justice and the natural world. And so what came of these entities setting society's food baseline, and shifting it over time toward their most profitable segments? Primarily highly-processed and preserved foods.

This has been ratcheted, to borrow the term, by food policy-makers, with high subsidies to the corn and dairy sectors (two important ingredients for processed foods) and bungled nutrition debates that have led to such fantastical headlines as: "Congress declares pizza a vegetable."

It's within this context that technology is fuelling the slow food movement. We've seen change in every segment of the food chain. In the past year VC's have invested a record $486mm in Food-tech companies, many of which aim to disrupt existing systems. AGLocal, for example, connects sustainable meat producers directly to customers. Harvest Power, BrightFarms and Farmland LP all take aim at different problems in our food distribution chain.

At Foodee, we connect the city's best restaurants that don't deliver to corporate offices. Our restaurant partners are similar slow-food advocates and as a co-operative we function as a virtual best-in-class corporate caterer with shared values. We employ "the mesh". As Lisa Gansky outlines, "Mesh companies create, share and use social media, wireless networks, and data crunched from every available source to provide people with goods and services at the exact moment they need them, without the burden and expense of owning them outright".

Zipments, for example, allows us to leverage the emerging sharing economy, so we need NO fleet of catering vans, NO assembly-line catering kitchens. Our clients spend less, but get more. And as such, we've enabled the decoupling of the economic buyer and user buyer; once the corporation is satisfied on price, the individual is free to make values-aligned buying decisions on buying good, quality food for their staff.

The food business is tough -- margins are very thin. Large restaurant chains prefer big advertising and construction budgets to buying quality ingredients and paying decent wages: both of which create truly awful externalities. But, technology has been a great leveler. Social media has allowed proprietors to build their own following. At Tacofino, we've witnessed this at our food truck in Tofino where the surfing community, families and visitors all come together (more often than not in the pouring rain) over shared values. These include both the love of good food, and a respect for the process: fast slow-food. And now anyone with a small stake and talent can start their own following.

Big Food has been acquiring companies that more accurately capture this sentiment. McDonald's divestment in Chipotle Grill netted them just north of $1bn (Hefferman, Margaret (2010-09-14). "Chipotle Grill's Secret Ingredient: Obsession". BNET). Between 1995 and 2007, 66 of the 81 independent organic processors were acquired by large multinationals. ("Consolidation in the North American Organic Food Processing Sector, 1997 to 2007" International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food, Volume 16, issue 1 (2009), pages 13-30; Author: Philip H. Howard). There are a variety of ways Big Food can profit on society's shifting values, but it is losing its power to set our baseline expectations.

Technology is allowing us to peer behind the veil of TV commercials; it is connecting us in real, authentic and meaningful ways to the food we eat. It is creating communities of like-minded consumers and producers. This week, the FDA issued an industry-wide mandate to lower sodium in processed foods. Has the ratchet changed direction?

We have access to information, new ways to connect, and the buying power to be heard. Technology has given us the tools, and it's up to us now, to use them.

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