Distinguished Undergraduate Thesis: Kerri Cavanaugh on the Social Implications of Factory Farms in Contemporary USA

AMS::ATX asked the two Dean’s Distinguished Graduates from the undergraduate American Studies program to write a blog post about their research for their senior theses. Today, we feature Kerri Cavanaugh’s description of her work on the wide-ranging power and social implications of the American factory farm system, and its intersections with US educational policy, nutritional recommendations, and the entrenched stratification of US society by race and class.

I remember the first time I saw Food Inc., a documentary that explores food production in the United States. The film looks specifically at factory farming, a way of producing food (primarily meat) in factory-like setting, where efficiency and speed are priorities. It was in my high school AP Environmental Science class. I was horrified by the images shown in the film; shocked at how little I knew about where food really comes from; disgusted by the inhumane nature of the food industry. At UT we watched and discussed Food Inc. in four of my classes. With each of these screenings, I engaged with a different aspect of the film: foodborne illnesses, animal rights, economic impacts, and subsidies–and each time I wanted to learn more. In the spring of 2017, I began organizing my research on the effects of factory farming on the self-identification of marginalized groups.

My research looks at dominant ideas about food and nutrition and how those affect different populations. For example, if you grew up going to public school in the United States, you might remember the Food Pyramid, a nutritional guide created by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This infographic was used to teach children all over the country about how to eat a healthy, balanced diet. Then, in 2011, the Food Pyramid was replaced with MyPlate (different graphic, same concept). This image is pushed by the USDA to encourage people to eat a certain way. But what if you can’t afford to eat that way? How does that affect someone’s perception of themselves? This is a problem faced by a large number of Americans, and it’s because the U.S. government does not put their money where their mouth is.

The U.S. government heavily subsidizes the production of corn, which is used to produce high-fructose corn syrup and many other ingredients common in junk food and soda. Subsidized corn is also used to feed animals on intensive feedlots before they are slaughtered for meat production. As a result, the animals bodies get fat very quickly, which means more meat per animal, and in turn more profits as the production costs per pound of meat are reduced. Improper diets lead to problems with the animals’ digestive tracts, creating new virus strains like E. Coli 0157:H7, which you might remember from the 1993 Jack in the Box outbreak or the 2006 spinach scare. And since corn is subsidized at a much higher rate than fruits and vegetables, unhealthy, high-calorie foods composed of sugar, fats and corn syrups are a lot cheaper to purchase than foods that are healthy for you. This is not ideal since MyPlate is composed of 50% fruits and vegetables. For a lot a families, especially people of color and low-income families, the high costs of fruits and vegetables makes it nearly impossible for them to eat how MyPlate tells them to.

So how does all of this affect those families and individuals? I’m still working on that part–but so far it does not look good. Factory farming, which is how the vast majority of meat in America is produced, has negative consequences on pretty much everyone. People who work in factory farms are often mistreated by employers. In fact, the agriculture industry (statistics also include statistics for the forestry, hunting and fishing industries with the Bureau of Labor Statistics) industry is the most dangerous job sector in America. These employees are often underpaid, have little collective bargaining capacity, are frequently injured on the job, and are often emotionally traumatized by this work. Animals raised in factory farm settings face horrifying conditions. They are beaten, fed improper diets, denied room to move around, and denied sunlight. Even people who do not eat meat or animal products are affected through their taxes.

These subsidies are what allows the fast food industry to make billions of dollars in profits by supplying low cost, high calorie foods to millions of people. Since meat from factory farms is so cheap, fast food restaurants, like Burger King and McDonald’s, are able to sell entire meals for $1. When you compare that to a carton of strawberries for $4, its easy to see why families and individuals on a budget rely on these establishments. It has become the most economically sensible option. On top of that, many low-income families live in areas with no access to grocery stores–where fast food is the only option. Unfortunately, this has helped produce and rising rates of obesity in America. The harsh reality is that many of the people, regardless of their weight, who cannot afford healthy food also cannot afford health insurance. Their subsequent medications, doctors visits, etc. are paid for with government health insurance, increasing taxes across the board.

One of the main things I am interested in uncovering is how all of this affects people’s relationships with the government. Are people who cannot afford to eat the MyPlate way more likely to vote and raise concerns with the government? To speak out and point to the ways they are being unfairly treated? Or are the less likely to engage in civil action? Do they feel that no one will listen? Just last week I sent out surveys to neighborhoods in Austin that are classified as food deserts, or areas that have limited access to grocery stores, and therefore, limited access to healthy foods (an issue that disproportionately affects people of color, especially in a city like Austin that was purposefully divided with the 1936 City Plan). And during the next couple of weeks I will be conducting focus groups with people who either currently, or at some point, have lived in an area classified as a food desert.

Watching the realities of our food production system in films like Food Inc. can be traumatic. As horrifying as the kinds of images depicted in the film may be, it is more horrifying to turn our backs on these issues. My goal in writing my thesis is to face these challenges head on and help create awareness of our current food production system. Hopefully as more people become aware and outraged at how the food they eat everyday is created, we can put a fork in factory farming.


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