The Military Pantry Complex

Ah, modern supermarkets. Where can you find such a vaster array of more brightly colored and oh-so conveniently packaged foodstuffs all jockeying for your attention, screaming “Buy me! Consume me!”

With the supermarket as our temple and the singing commercial as our litany, are we likely to fire the world with an irresistible vision of America’s exalted purpose and inspiring way of life? – Adlai Stevenson

I always thought of the American supermarket as the domain of pure capitalism. In Economics 170, the supermarket was a commonly used backdrop to theoretical analysis, for example the question “Are chicken and beef perfect substitutes?” However, the supermarket might be more of the domain of the American Military-Industrial complex than pure, wholesome American corporate capitalism. The thumbprint of the Military-Industrial complex? The shelf stability of foodstuffs that pervade our supermarkets and our lives. The 99% Invisible Podcast put out an episode on this topic entitled: War and Pizza. (The link is to a blog summary, so you can page through it with no listening required). The gist of their argument is that huge amounts of nonperishible food is necessary for effective warfighting (fun fact: the Mongols stored meat under their saddles to preserve it with horse-sweat) and the US government therefore has an interest in making sure that the means of production for nonperishible foods exist. Ramping up production for World War II from near nothing to meet the needs of total war was a nightmare. Thus, it allows access to many of the culinary technologies and recipes it develops so that instead of starting from scratch, production lines can just be switched over to make Meals Ready to Eat. It is in the interest of national security to have these means employed in private industry. According to 99% Invisible, military technology is behind TV dinners, freeze-dried coffee, semi-moist cookies, and condiment packets. Even instant Mac and Cheese has military roots. So, to some extent, you eat a lot of the foods that you do because the military wants them produced so that, if World War III were to break out, we would be ready to feed a conscription army. The shelf-stability of our diet is at least partially due to national security interests. The wacky cartoons on your cereal box intended to snare parental wallets through children’s imaginations, though? Good ol’ plain capitalism.

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