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Now on the campaign menu: food choice as a political weapon

My neighbors are getting together for a midsummer barbecue this week, and as we gather around the grill, I plan to pass along this neat little fact: Americans eat more meat than anybody else in the world: about 219 pounds per person each year. FYI, we are closely followed by our fellow carnivores, the Australians and the Argentinians. Only about 5 percent of Americans claim to be vegetarian, and 3 percent take the label of vegan. Yes, we will not go gently if we are asked to hand over our Whoppers and Quarter Pounders With Cheese.

One reason for that, it turns out, is politics: What we eat, like practically everything else in our country, has become partisan. It’s a pretty good indicator of the way political identity is seeping into every aspect of our lives.

Back in the middle of the Trump administration, The Economist magazine surveyed Americans’ eating habits, and found that Democrats were 1.8 times more likely than Republicans to say that they wanted to reduce their meat consumption.

Maybe those Democrats were simply turned off by Donald Trump’s well-known appetite for fast food. When the Clemson Tigers won the national collegiate football playoffs in 2018, they were invited to the White House, and Trump served them what he called “great American food” — from McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Arby’s and Domino’s. It might have disappointed the young athletes who probably had only one chance in a lifetime to get a swell White House spread, but it shouldn’t have come as a surprise: In a book published the year before, some former aides had said that Trump’s favorite meal on the campaign trail was this: Two Big Macs, two Filet-O-Fish sandwiches and a large chocolate shake. You know, Mike Pence might have been closer to the presidency than we imagined: That one meal is 2,381 calories, by McDonald’s measure, which experts say is more than even a moderately active male in Donald Trump’s age group ought to consume in a whole day.

Of course, Trump is not alone in what we might call “gastronomic neopopulism.” As if to suggest that no true patriot would show up at a Nancy Pelosi dinner party, some Republican politicians have stretched their imagination to denigrate green food. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, for example, has often bragged of how much he loathes avocados, seeming to suggest that eschewing the flavorful big-seeded fruit is a right-wing credential. Florida Senator Marco Rubio not long ago spoke sneeringly of people whose mornings include, in his words, “drinking your caramel macchiato, and then you’re reading The New York Times as you’re eating your avocado toast.” Not to be outdone, the senator from Louisiana, John Kennedy, deplored what he called “cosmopolitan, goat’s milk latte-drinking, avocado toast-eating insider elites.”

So you Republicans who are listening, the clear message is that the avocado is food for lefties. You Trumpsters, don’t you go dipping your nachos in the guacamole dip!

Just to be clear, food as a tool of political branding isn’t a new thing. In the late 1980s, George H.W. Bush tried to shed his image as a New England prepster by asserting that he loved pork rinds and hated broccoli. And in 1972, when Richard Nixon visited the Texas ranch of John Connally during his re-election campaign, an elite crowd of 200 invited guests enjoyed juicy steaks washed down by Moet et Chandon champagne – while a few miles away, Democrats sought to make the point that they were the party of ordinary working folks by featuring their vice presidential candidate, Sargent Shriver, at a $5-a-head street party around vats of tamales and kegs of beer.

But efforts to use food to establish a candidate’s identity as an ordinary person — by chowing down on hot dogs at the state fair, or sampling pizza at a local pub — aren’t the same as what we see nowadays, which is a branding of voters by diet. I mean, are conservatives really supposed to avoid vegetables, because Donald Trump does?

This is not the way that food ought to figure in American politics. How we produce, process, pay for and distribute food in this country deserves deep scrutiny at government’s highest levels, but it’s overshadowed by the topic of the day, which never seems to involve that basic issue of what we eat.

We need to be discussing issues like this: Tax policies encourage corporate ownership of farms, and low commodity prices for years have driven out of business millions of small farms, the kind that tend to better conserve the land. And our federal standards for what’s called “organic” products are so lax as to be laughable. So rather than using food preferences as a cudgel, politicians could view food policy as an environmental issue, or a rural development issue, an immigration issue or a foreign policy issue.

But that requires the kind of long-term thinking that is hard for a public official to embrace when an election is just around the corner, as an election always is. So food has become just another way to divide up Americans. That approach to our politics has become, sadly, as American as a juicy burger and fries.

Rex Smith, the co-host of The Media Project on WAMC, is the former editor of the Times Union of Albany and The Record in Troy. His weekly digital report, The Upstate American, is published by Substack.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

Rex Smith, the co-host of The Media Project on WAMC, is the former editor of the Times Union of Albany and The Record in Troy. His weekly digital report, The Upstate American, is published by Substack."
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