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Twilight of Twinkie Capitalism

January 04, 2013 By: NCVeditor Category: Devon G. Pena, Ecology, Economy

Transforming the Food System and Honoring Workers’ Demands

by Devon G. Peña

The Twinkie® I will admit is one of those quintessentially ‘American’ foods that I did not get to eat as a child. We never bought junk food in our home and so I was in college before I tasted something that my peers swore was a classic guilty pleasure. I was not impressed when I finally ate one, but then again I grew up savoring pan dulce, including the inimitable pan de semita, from La Superior Bakery in Laredo, Texas. To me, the Twinkie tasted like Elmer’s Glue with sugar encased in a squishy sponge or pound cake. It was too chalky and gooey all at once. Hmm. Must have missed out on the Leave it to Beaver upbringing required, I imagine, to love a quasi-food like that.

[I use the term quasi-food here to refer to what is typically called “processed food.” My choice is based on recognition of the fact that many wholesome and organic foods are processed and so I feel that is an inadequate and misleading concept. For e.g., to produce our farm’s chicos del horno (adobe-oven roasted white flint corn) requires that we process organic heirloom white flint corn in a labor-intensive artisanal practice involving no less than 19 distinct steps. Quasi-food implies that the food is processed through various steps before consumption but also that it incorporates numerous non-food chemicals and additives, thus rendering the product more of an industrial quasi-food item rather than a processed food.]

The Twinkie and vulture capitalists

The Twinkie, of course, has been in the news, of late, because of its threatened demise due to the speculative pursuit of predatory profit making by the hedge funds managers behind the acquisition and apparent on-going liquidation of Hostess, the producer of this iconic staple of American fast food cuisine [sic].

Last month, right before Thanksgiving, the news broke that the hedge funds that owned Hostess Brands were closing the famous bakery operations. A report in Salon delivered the ugly news with a nod to the heroic but rather powerless unions fighting the plant closings and a stern eye cast at Ripplewood Holdings and its other hedge fund partners, which were decried as iconic exemplars of “vulture capitalism.”

The narrative was one made familiar during the election cycle when attention was focused on Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital, another exemplary member of the vulture capitalist class. The unions, as per the Wall Street Journal line, got the bum rap but it was the executives taking million dollar bonuses while the workers cut themselves up in unending rounds of concessions. In the meantime, a report for the HuffPost noted that, “money taken out of workers’ paychecks, intended for their retirement funds, was used for company operations instead.”

Of course, from my vantage point, all capitalists are vultures to the extent that the existence of surplus value is based on unpaid surplus labor time. But this is not the point of my take on this entire affair illustrative to be sure of managerial tyranny against the gravely weakened capacity for the working class to struggle.

Toward more radical workers’ movements?

My point is a bit more radical and critical than simply declaring my support for workers’ rights to unionize and strike; of course I support working-class self-organization when it is proven as genuinely autonomous. However, this struggle may have succeeded against the odds had the workers organized to transform the foods they are producing into more healthy alternatives for themselves, their families, and communities across the planet.

The strike — justly waged by the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union — resonated with a limited public, drawing the attention of consumers who waxed nostalgic about the pending demise of their favorite junk pastries. But this sort of longing-for some never-existed idyllic past will not revive or sustain workers’ struggles for very long. Bear in mind that the origin of Twinkies, Cupcakes, and Ding Dongs is also a period of Jim Crow segregation and exclusion of workers of color from the very unions that organized these trades in the first place. You surely cannot build effective struggles or generate networks of solidarity based on a nostalgia that turns a blind eye to racism.

This union could have generated a much larger response and support network had it followed the model pioneered by the Latina/o worker-led Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), which recently won a major strike against Chipotle and its suppliers by organizing to transform not just what we eat but how it is produced — that is, in a manner that is good for the earth and the entire spectrum of workers who labor across the entire supply chain.

There are challenging strategic and technological conditions facing unions in the mass production sector that urgently need to be recognized and transformed: The workers themselves need to re-imagine alternatives to making Twinkies and other quasi-food items that are part of the obesity-spawning junk food industry. Moreover, these Hostess Brand products are all produced in a manner that has a massively destructive social and ecological footprint, especially in other places far removed from the Twinkie, Cupcake, and Ding Dong assembly lines located in Irving, Texas and other cities.

I’ve been meaning to do a story about Twinkies ever since Steve Ettlinger published his authoritatively researched yet surprisingly shallow book, Twinkie, Deconstructed (2007, Plume Books by Penguin Inc.). This book is authoritative in the extent that Ettlinger pursues research on each and every ingredient in a Twinkie, but it is surprisingly shallow in failing to engage in a critical analysis of the social or ecological footprints associated with the production line and its global supply chain. This was a great missed opportunity.

The political ecology of a limited shelf life

What Ettlinger found was that the modern industrial Twinkie contains some 35-37 ingredients, most of which are not produced on farms or dairies but are mined — that’s right, mined, as in excavated or dug up from beneath the Earth.

It was not always this way and the original recipe — before the Twinkie went national and then global — was fairly simple, consisting mostly of eggs, lard, milk, water, butter, and sugar (Twinkie, Deconstructed, p. 7). The problem with this traditional, more natural recipe — close to anything a home baker making sponge cake in a kitchen might have used at the time — was that for the larger, more geographically dispersed marketplace, it had a very limited shelf life. Now, that is a concept that has wreaked more havoc on our recipes and taste buds than anything else, really, resulting from the full-scale capitalist takeover of the agri-food system.

To avoid spoilage, the modern ramped-up recipe called for the use of a wide range of new emulsifiers (forget eggs or lard) as well as artificial preservatives (e.g., Polysorbate 60), food colorings (e.g., FD&C Yellow #5), and flavorings. We thus ended up with this ever-changing but quite lengthy list of ingredients:

Enriched wheat flour, sugar, corn syrup, niacin, water, high fructose corn syrup, vegetable and/or animal shortening — containing one or more of partially hydrogenated soybean, cottonseed and canola oil, and beef fat, dextrose, whole eggs, modified corn starch, cellulose gum, whey, leavenings (sodium acid pyrophosphate, baking soda, monocalcium phosphate), salt, cornstarch, corn flour, corn syrup, solids, mono and diglycerides, soy lecithin, polysorbate 60, dextrin, calcium caseinate, sodium stearoyl lactylate, wheat gluten, calcium sulphate, natural and artificial flavors, caramel color, yellow No. 5, red #40.

His book does not tell us much about the social and ecological footprint of these ingredients. For example, one of the ingredients in the Twinkie recipe that is mined — phosphate — comes from strip mines in Wyoming, Idaho, and Florida that are notorious for causing grave damage to the environment including mined waste tailings that contaminate rivers and water tables. In fairness to Ettlinger, his book provides a detailed account of these ingredients, outlining what they are, why and how they are used to produce the Twinkie, and where they come from. But that’s about it.

Indeed, studies suggest that mined-waste tailings that leach into rivers can cause carcinomas and mutations in fish and other water fauna: The real threats were obscured with a blown-out-of-proportion controversy over a poorly-researched New York Times story about two-headed fish, which were allegedly found downstream from the Simplot Mine in Idaho but were not from that river. Instead, the photos had been included in the mining company EIS to suggest that such mutations are natural, which is a rare incidence (most such mutations are due to anthropogenic causes). However, as a more sober assessment in the Daily Kos found, the mine defenders conveniently ignored the scientific consensus that too much selenium (or phosphorous) in the water is bad for the reproductive health of most aquatic species.

So, while we find out neat [sic] stuff like: “Phosphorous was formerly used to treat rickets and degenerative disorders…also in incendiary bombs and tracer bullets…” (p. 9), we don’t learn a lot about the impact of the mining operations or the systems that must bring these mined materials to the Twinkie bakery [sic] or the casualties associated with the weapons of mass destruction like those phosphorous bombs used by the Israeli Defense Forces in occupied Palestine.

The most critical line you’ll get about mining from Ettlinger is: “It’s a pretty big leap to mentally link the humble Twinkie to a mountain-size mine, as well as to accept the rather incongruous fact that leavening for feather-light cakes comes from heavy, dirty hard substances and comes from deep mines out in Wyoming” (Twinkie, Deconstructed, p. 133). [Even while in the midst of Monsanto’s Enoch Valley Mine in Wyoming -- where the bulk of the phosphate-derivatives used to make the Twinkie come from -- the author can only muster a sense of being dazzled and impressed by the enormity of the “big scooper machines” and “huge eighty-five and hundred-ton Caterpillar 777B and 777D trucks” that are the principal earth-moving equipment at the mine; see Twinkie, Deconstructed, pp. 153-68.]

This seems typical of the sort of narrative that passes for a critical analysis of mass-produced quasi-foods, and which the mainstream media and press adoringly celebrate in their mostly glowing reviews. Of the 40 reviews of Ettlinger’s book I have found and read on-line not a single one objects to this erasure of environmental and social impacts.

Ettlinger’s awe-inspired descriptions of mining consist of a series of detailed observations that are actually quite devoid of meaning — i.e., they are made without the least bit of awareness of the absurd ironies involved, given the failure for the author to link the mines in Wyoming to the legacy of environmental racism at the salt reduction [sic] plant on the South side of Chicago, in which a predominantly African American and Latino community has had to weather the constant threats posed by air pollution, scattered garbage and spilled wastes, constant truck traffic, and toxic releases from the plant processing the mined materials into powder form that can be used by the ‘bakeries’ to make Twinkies.

The ingredients that went into ‘baking’ a Twinkie wreak havoc on other peoples’ environments across the planet, and not just in welcoming Wyoming where the idea of an environmental ethic is too often defined by ‘dominionists’ who never saw a canyon, river, or mountain they thought was well enough left to other-than-human beings; or in South Chicago, where communities have long battled toxic racism of the sort unleashed by the factories that produce the leavening agents or preservatives for a Twinkie. Did the workers know? Did they care? We know how the executives felt.

The end of Twinkie capitalism? 

So, this brings us to the challenge of linking working-class and environmental justice movements with the local, slow, and deep food movements that have become so fashionable of late. But that is part of the problem, no? These new sustainable, organic agriculture and slow food movements are too fashionable and therefore inaccessible; they are too often elitist and thus tend to dismiss, overlook, or marginalize working-class needs and demands. Which of these foodies is going to want to support industrial assembly line workers producing junk food that is harmful to people and the environment?

The workers at Immokalee understand this quite well and so they are focused on organizing in those sectors and among those companies that emphasize sustainability and healthy food alternatives. They get the connection between food justice and working-class power and autonomy. This is the challenge for the old-line workers’ unions such as those that seek to organize mass production assembly-styled bakery or tobacco industries. They need to adapt to the changes occurring across the entire spectrum of the working class, which also wants to eat more healthy food and is trying to quite smoking.

There are precedents for this sort of radical transformation — and the workers can either demand it or do it themselves. The example that occurs to me is the case of the Lucas Aerospace workers in the U.K. who decided they were tired of making weaponry for the military and instead did a work-to-strike action focused on designing and assembling new buses for public transit to serve the needs of the elderly and low-income patrons.

There are other examples, but the time has come for those workers seeking to organize their own struggles in the mass production food industries to challenge the structure of the corporate model, reinventing their workplaces and the foods they make for the rest of us in a manner than reduces the impacts to the planet and improves our opportunities to eat healthy food. Imagine that — a slow food whole-grain, vegan version of the Twinkie?

But this will not be a struggle worth our efforts or expressions of solidarity if it fails to involve a radical workplace democracy — one complete with community-based cooperative-styled ownership and worker self-management of the process of production — so long as it is also based on radically reducing the length of the working day so that people can have more free time for life and conviviality. It can be done, and when it is, we will be approaching the twilight of Twinkie Capitalism.

Devon G. Peña, Ph.D., is a lifelong activist in the environmental justice and resilient agriculture movements, and is Professor of American Ethnic Studies, Anthropology, and Environmental Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. His books include Mexican Americans and the Environment: Tierra y Vida (2005) and the edited volume Chicano Culture, Ecology, Politics: Subversive Kin (1998). Dr. Peña is the founding editor of the Environmental & Food Justice blog, and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.

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