When I wrote “Setting the Table: Historians, Popular Food Writers, and Food History” for the Journal of American History, the seemingly interminable 18-month campaign for the White House had just begun. As a consequence, I had the privilege (or horror) of watching the phenomenon of Donald Trump intersect with food related topics at numerous, curious points over the time of my writing.
Now that we are here, in a post-Truth, pre-Trump presidency, I am compelled to do as one of the subjects of my article, Michael Pollan, had done on the eve of President Obama’s ascendency to office. In a now-famous op-ed in the New York Times, Pollan challenged the incoming “Farmer In Chief” (as he called him) to think and plan beyond the conventional wisdom about food. He warned that the era of cheap and abundant food was ending, that a health crisis would overwhelm us, and that a new policy on how to secure healthy, affordable, and accessible meals would be upon him. Pollan’s prediction turned out to be an exaggeration though the call seemed to get our First Lady’s attention. The ever-wise Michelle Obama made exercise and health her primary mandate. She seemingly followed Pollan’s advice by creating a FLOTUS garden that echoed Eleanor Roosevelt’s Victory Gardens during WWII, and hit the road to do push-ups with Ellen. Although food prices today are about even with where they were in 2008, we have become a much more health-conscious society because of Michelle Obama and the persistent problem of chronic disease related to our diet.
It is hard to imagine the future first lady putting her hands in the soil but we must consider what Trump will do about food. The persistence of food-related illnesses, food insecurity among the poor, and uncertainty about everything from the origins of food to the labor it will require to deliver it to our tables makes it necessary. If we take seriously Trump’s words and actions, we get an idea of how his policies will likely hasten some of the problems in our food system.
Trump’s penchant for fast food was made evident throughout the campaign, from his tweet of him eating a “taco bowl” on Cinco de Mayo and KFC chicken on his private plane, to his testimony of the safety of McDonald’s and Wendy’s hamburgers on CNN’s Anderson 360. On CNN, he told Anderson Cooper “I think you’re better off going there than some place you have no idea where the food is coming from.” As my article demonstrates, food writers and scholars have shown that the question of what is “in” our food goes well beyond whether there is real pork in a “McRibb” or chicken feet in a “McNugget.” Michael Pollan and Julie Guthman don’t agree on much, but they both have shown that it is at least equally important to know what the pig and the chicken ate on its way to becoming these menu items. Unfortunately, Trump seems to have no interest in knowing this. And, if he is true to his word, he is likely to slash the budgets of the Food and Drug Administration whom he derisively called the “FDA Food Police.” In such a world, incidents of obesity and diabetes will continue to grow in America, especially among the poor who have no other choice but to depend on fast food for their meals.
Trump’s blanket opposition to free trade may trigger crises that not only jeopardize our agricultural economy but even the fast food he professes to love so much. In my article, I discuss the mixed blessings that have been delivered by the North American Free Trade agreement, a tri-lateral pact that he called the “worst trade deal ever” during the first presidential debate. I discuss the findings of Robert Alvarez, who argues that, while the agreement has led to more aggressive intrusions in Mexico by the USDA and a reduction in crop diversity, it has also increased the presence of inexpensive food items that make Trump’s beloved taco bowl or hamburgers possible. For example, half of the tomatoes consumed in the United States now come from Mexico, where a good portion of the labor and know-how resides. NAFTA has made these tomatoes (and avocadoes, limes, lettuce, and chiles) affordable. A withdrawal from the agreement would certainly disrupt a well-established cross-border system that has helped to hold down costs and increase accessibility to food.
The most disruptive and, frankly, ungrateful aspect of Trump’s campaign is his proposed immigration policy. His commitment to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants includes a good portion of the workers who have harvested the crops, milked the cows, and cleaned the kitchens of the United States. Trump’s immigration policy would likely create a labor shortage in agriculture and dairy farms, which would push food prices higher. Even if he were to expand the current guest worker program—despite its historic exploitation of workers—it would not meet the demands of a modern agricultural economy that cannot survive on a temporary or seasonal labor force. In the dairy industry, for example, the National Milk Producers Federation worries that a mass deportation would lead to the doubling of milk prices.
In the end, what might provoke the greatest outrage against Trump’s presidency is the effect he will have on the most “American” of meals: tacos. As Robert Alvarez, Mark Padoongpatt, Jeffery Pilcher and others have shown, immigrants have made our meals more flavorful by creating a market for foods and cuisine that did not exist, at least in its current incarnation. The taco truck has radically improved upon the “Taco Bell” tacos of the past, introducing deshebrada, al pastor, and carnitas to our national palate. When a Trump surrogate, Marco Gutierrez, warned of “Taco trucks on every corner” as a bad thing, twitter erupted in memes and laughter. The joke is not so funny now, as there seems to be a real possibility that our cuisine, if not our culture, will “go back to the 1950s.” Under these conditions, I can imagine a much shorter shelf life for Trump whose policies will provoke a backlash not just from Mexicans but the average American who will quickly realize what has been wrought when they sit down to their meals after inauguration day.
Matt Garcia is a Professor of History at Arizona State University. He is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.