How Food Became a Weapon in the Right’s Culture Wars

How Food Became a Weapon in the Right’s Culture Wars

On August 7, National Review published an article lambasting the US Department of Agriculture’s decision, announced in May, to broaden the prohibition of discrimination in federally funded nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch Program, to include sexual orientation and gender identity. The writer’s argument centered on a Christian school in Tampa, Fla., that, he wrote, was being “forced by the government to choose between adherence to the laws of man and those of God.”

There is disagreement over what the broader prohibition actually means, with the department insisting it is aimed only at ensuring that LGBTQ+ students and others are not denied access to these nutrition programs, either explicitly or through intimidation. But many conservatives say the change opens up schools and other institutions to lawsuits for not having gender-neutral bathrooms or for using pronouns that correspond to biological sex.

There is much here to unpack, but that’s for another day. The relevant story, for our purposes, is in the op-ed’s headline: “A New Low in the Radical Left’s Culture War: The Weaponization of Food.”

The “weaponization of food” is nothing new, of course. For as long as there has been human conflict, food has been used as a weapon. The Romans starved Carthage. The Germans starved Leningrad during World War II. The CIA force-fed hunger-striking prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. And just this year, Russia bombed the Ukrainian port of Odessa to disrupt grain exports.

National Review, though, was getting at something different: food as a front in the nation’s ongoing culture war, a proxy for larger issues of character, morality, and patriotism.

The magazine’s finger-pointing at “the radical left” notwithstanding, it was the right that pioneered the use of food to smear its opponents—in this case, to frame liberals and progressives as “elite” pushers of the nanny state. The strategy took hold in the 1990s and evolved over the ensuing decades, as what we eat and how it’s produced became a national debate, and as culture clashes—over affirmative action, gay marriage, school curricula, abortion, and so on—seeped into every corner of our lives.

As the final decade of the 20th century dawned, the nation’s politics were changing. There was a growing clamor on the right, led by Georgia Representative Newt Gingrich and firebrand pundit Pat Buchanan, to abandon what they described as the “morning in America” pragmatism of the Reagan era and exploit the cultural divides that had opened up a generation earlier around the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the environmental movement.

Buchanan summed up the sentiment in 1988: “The Republican moment slipped by…when the GOP refused to take up the challenge from the left on its chosen battleground: the politics of class, culture, religion and race.” Buchanan’s GOP convention speech in 1992, in which he invoked a fight for the “soul of America,” is often cited as the opening salvo in the modern culture war.