Going to the supermarket with Nick Turse can be a frightening experience. The author of The Complex (now in paperback), he can tell you how the Pentagon has found its way into your home through video games, clothing, books, electronics and of course, food.
Block Magazine asked him to give us a tour of our local supermarket Tops on the Waterfront to find out where Williamsburg shoppers can find the Department of Defense-sponsored products. We didn’t have to look very far. Whether you are an eco-conscious kosher-vegetarian or an earth-destroying carnivore, the American military has probably written large checks to the companies that make the products on your grocery list.
The full article will come out in the inaugural issue of Off the Block, our upcoming sister publication with a national, international and literary focus, but here are a few findings to whet – or ruin – your appetite:
• Before you buy Starbucks coffee grounds from your grocery aisle, consider this: Turse says the chain has no less than three kiosks in Guantanamo Bay, and they’re not closing with the prison camp. The military base that’s staying (Camp Delta) still has plenty of customers.
• Here’s something to think about over breakfast. Quaker Oats might be named after a Christian pacifist sect, but it’s owned by Pepsico, a large contractor. Kellogg’s is such an enthusiastic recipient of DOD largesse that its website has a military portal for their orders.
• The Pentagon has the bottom of the food pyramid covered. George Weston Bakeries owns all of the following bread companies: Arnold, Freihofer’s, Stroehmann, Entenmann’s and Thomas’ (of English muffin fame). As for rice, Uncle Ben (a subsidiary of Mars Inc.) gets paid by Uncle Sam.
• Most dairy products are also affected by the military cash cow. That includes Kraft cheeses, Dannon yogurt and butter brands owned by Dean Foods (including Horizon and Land O’Lakes).
• Lactose intolerant or vegetarian? Silk soy milk and Rice Dream are both owned by companies that receive Pentagon largesse.
Turse argues that it’s virtually impossible to avoid what he calls “The Complex,” and even he does not try to completely remove its traces from his life. He likes to point out that even his publisher, Metropolitan Books (which also has printed works by Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn), contracts with the DOD.
So what’s a socially responsible grocery shopper to do?
One choice involves taking yourself entirely off the grid, dumpster diving, joining a food coop, buying food from local farmers and growing and foraging the rest. If you don’t have the time, energy and inclination for all of that, there’s little that can be done within the system. Companies that transact hundreds of millions of dollars with the military probably won’t respond to consumer pressure.
Still, Turse believes that smaller contractors might. For example, he points out that the health food titan Hain Celestial Group prides itself on its eco-friendly and socially responsible image. It even launched a “Have a Heart” campaign to “Heal the Hearts of Children Around the World” (except, as Turse bitterly joked, in Iraq and Afghanistan). He says its total contract with the Department of Defense was $12 million, only a small fraction of its total sales.
If consumers convinced Hain Celestial to re-think its contract, he believes, it would have an immediate affect on the over 30 companies it owns, and all of their respective gluten-free products that stock the shelves of health food stores around the world. It would also open a consumer market for “War Free” products that never existed before – which could have the same appeal as an organic or fair trade label.
In fact, Turse responded favorably to Block Magazine’s idea to run a design contest for a “War Free” product label. “I think it’s a great idea,” he said. “It might make people ask, ‘How is mayonnaise connected to war?’” It may sound like a strange question, but it’s one that people may get used to asking.