Final Thoughts

My original goal with this blog was to “investigate the invisible chains that connect people with their food.” If I’ve learned one thing over the course of this semester, it’s that there are many more of these chains than I ever realized. People are not only disconnected from their food in terms of production, there is also a general lack of connection in terms of being mindful of what we are eating and how it is influences our bodies. While I would conclude that this is overall a negative trend in thought and practice, all is not lost. People are pushing back against this disconnect, and striving to reverse it in its many forms. I have learned just how pervasive food-related issues are, and how they are in fact inextricably linked to issues of race, class, gender, and many other forms of inequality that are constantly tearing at today’s society.

Starting small, Anna Tsing’s work with microorganisms and interspeciality is attempting to combat the notion of the self as normative, and food as ‘other.’ In the days of fast food restaurants and microwave dinners it is apparently becoming increasingly difficult for people to recognize the very real relationships that exist between their bodies and the food they ingest. At the microbiological level there is a constant give and take in terms of energy and nutrients. There is a fascinating biochemical relationship that occurs starting with taste buds, and working its way through our digestive track.

Without the relationship between our tongue and food, eating would be a much more boring experience!

Without the relationship between our tongue and food, eating would be a much more boring experience!

Even before the food reaches our mouths, we have already influenced its production, and it has influenced our actions. Scaling up, we must recognize that we are not only impacted by our food, but that we impact the food as well. From cultivation to pollination we are constantly shaping the outside world while it is simultaneously  shaping our inner systems.

From the micro level we zoom out to the personal/social. Food is a means of personal expression, but can also be personally limiting. Food can connect people while simultaneously dividing them. Coming together to share a meal is a tradition which has been honored and valued throughout the majority of human societal interaction. Food provides an opportunity to build family units and pass on customs. ‘The table” is a place to share the stories of the day–another practice which is sadly being worn thin in some households with the rise of television, personal electronics devices, and increased work hours that prevent the facilitation of ‘family dinners’ (however family may be defined). And are we also seeing a rise in social anxieties which manifest themselves in a wide rang of eating disorders. Food is a fundamental unit essential to human (and all) life. I am fortunate enough to have never known the pangs of food insecurity, however in my other activities outside the New Food Activism classroom I am significantly involved with humanitarian issues in places such as Sudan and Congo–areas of the world that certainly suffer from lack of access to safe food. And I would be doing my social justice self a disservice to ignore the fact that for millions of Americans food insecurity is a daily reality. Food related issues span across the globe and touch families in America in just the same ways they touch families in Sudan.

Rachel Slocum’s article (footnote 1) about race and food really highlighted the ways food is used like so many other commodities, “both to solidify group membership and to set groups apart” (Slocum 4). She  touches on how food can represent different things to different communities. As mentioned above, food serves a purpose that is very deeply communal. This can be on a familial level, or a societal one, and can be both beneficial and detrimental. For example, “embracing soul food is a statement of racial pride because it reclaims foods previously despised…people of color have often rejected vegetarianism and veganism as choices of the privileged” (Slocum 5). So while food may seem to be an innocuous aspect of life that is merely a necessity, it can in fact be a very real driving force behind many of the broader social structures people struggle against daily.

From interpersonal we move to societal. As the focus of this class suggests, food presents countless opportunities for active engagement in terms of public activism. From GMO awareness to animal rights activists, food and food production has wide societal implications that people oftentimes are not happy about. I think this is the level I was initially concerned with when I began this blog, even though I ended up focuses more heavily on other levels. I have been fascinated for quite a while with the huge gaps in time and place that are associated with the food we eat. The fact that I don’t know where 99.9% of my food comes from is pretty disconcerting. Of course there are ways to mitigate this, but it takes effort. Since food is a basic unit of life, it seems as though its production should be basic as well–but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that capitalistic forces have co-opted it like so many other of our basic needs. I really identified with the frustrations expressed in Dona Brown’s book, Back to the Land (see footnote 2). For centuries, people have found food as a frontier for resisting the normative industrial complex of modernity and capitalism. It can’t be merely coincidental that we have had so many waves of this back to the land movement, even just within the past century of American history. Clearly there is something people feel inherently uncomfortable about when it comes to mass production of food and the shift away from the idyllic subsistence farming life. The problem is that often this type of life is characterized as unrealistic or naive in the context of the modern world. However, as we saw especially with the back to the land movements of the 1960s and 70s, activists with this frame of mind locate food activism in a much broader set of structures that are also oppressive. Since food is–as I keep mentioning–such a fundamental necessity, they find it a natural fulcrum on which to balance their more overarching social criticisms. I think I sympathized with the frustrations of the back to the landers before ever really knowing they existed. There is something inherently disconcerting about not knowing where your food comes from, and feeling like modern life does not afford one the time that would be necessary to invest in becoming completely food-aware. But I think there are ways to be mindful and intentional when it comes to eating that do not necessarily require a complete overhaul in terms of commitment.

Clearly none of these categories is absolute or exclusive. The omni-presence of food (or lack thereof) in our daily lives means it is something that will pervade our thoughts and actions in ways we may not even realize until we take the time to identify them. full_1299282820naiveburgundyPierre Bourdieu elaborates on this notion of intersectionality in his writing on taste and class (see footnote 3). He contends that while most people assume ‘taste’ is set a deeply personal preferences dictated by biology, all of us are in fact biased in our tastes due to our unique geographical, social, and economic positions. We learn to like certain things because that is what we are ‘supposed’ to like, similar to how Rachel Slocum describes food as a means of group definition. Just as we must fight against institutions of oppression such as racism and sexism, so too must we be able to recognize the ways these institutions are deeply enmeshed with basic issues such as food security and access to healthy meals. We shouldn’t assume that people in some communities which struggle with higher levels of obesity are completely at fault, but should rather examine the socioeconomic frameworks at play–such as Food Deserts–that can be corrected at a policy level if there is greater attention to their implications.

Personally, I feel this class is only just the beginning. I know that I have barely begun to scratch the surface in terms of building my knowledge base of food and food-related activism. I may not foresee myself ever becoming any sort of great champion for these types of issues, but that’s one of the great things I have learned about food activism, and is what I have tried to articulate in this final post: you don’t have to devote your days solely to food issues in order to be an informed actor who is working to make a difference. Unlike other causes that require a great deal of commitment in terms of knowledge, time, and persistence, food activism is something you can do on your own, because you are ultimately at the endgame of your actions. While there are admirable efforts to be made in terms of restructuring the broader social impacts of food-related issues, you can make a difference just by choosing to stay informed and make a conscious effort change things you find troubling about your own diet and purchasing habits. I think food activism offers several fascinating entry points for activists, and the more you learn about the issues, the more you realize just how often food issues connect to the other issues you undoubtedly care about in your life–whether that’s concern about the availability of green spaces for your children to play in your neighborhood, or concern for humanitarian situations in Sudan. The knowledge I have gained in this course will certainly carry through to other aspects of my life in ways I never could have anticipated.

Footnotes:

1-Slocum, Rachel. “Race in the Study of Food.” Progress in Human Geography. La Crosse, WI: University of Wisconsin, 2011.

2-Brown, Dona. Back to the Land: The Enduring Dream of Self-Sufficiency in Modern America. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, 2011.

3-Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. Harvard University Press, 1984.

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Full Circle

Since this is the photo that inspired the theme for this blog, I figured I would revisit it again  at the end of the semester:

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This is my Ugandan host sister, Michelle, looking on as my host brother, Brian, prepares a chicken he had just slaughtered. Michelle’s relationship to her food is clearly different than that of many American children–minutes earlier she had been chasing the chicken around the yard, and minutes later she would be playing with its severed foot like a puppet. But that doesn’t make her relationship to food inherently better than the American child whose parents buy frozen meat in the grocery store. One of the biggest takeaways from this blog for me has been the realization that there are many different ways to ‘connect’ with food, and as long as it is being done mindfully and intentionally it is headed in the right direction.

And just for fun, here’s me cooking the aforementioned chicken:

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Edible Taste

I’ve heard a lot about The Edible Schoolyard Project over the years. In fact, my dad worked at Chez Panisse in Berkley, CA for a brief period of time–Chez Panisse was founded by Alice Waters, who also founded the Edible Schoolyard Project. The concept is intriguing:

The mission of the Edible Schoolyard Project is to build and share an edible education curriculum for kindergarten through high school. Our vision is for gardens and kitchens to become interactive classrooms for academic subjects, and for every student to have a free, nutritious, organic lunch. If this program is integrated into schools, the curriculum could transform the health and values of every child in America.

As someone who was lucky enough to have benefited from such a food-friendly education (although not explicitly a part of the Project) I completely endorse this initiative. It’s an innovative approach to the growing blight of cafeteria lunch mandates, and will hopefully teach children the value of what it means to produce food.

So this cause appears worthy enough–seems that it was conceived in a well-meaning place with wholesome intentions that were thoroughly considered before implementation. However, like so many good causes, it looks as if it is turning to the more shallow venue of wealth and stardom in order to stay afloat. Alice Waters herself is somewhat of a celebrity, especially in the cooking world, so she has no problem making savvy connections when they are prudent. But the question arises of whether or not commercializing the Edible School Project is in fact doing it a disservice.

I came across this article in the New York Observer recently. Ostensibly, the article is covering the “Edible Schoolyard NYC’s inaugural spring benefit,” however, there is barely any mention of what Edible Schoolyard actually is. Instead, the main thrust of the story revolves around which celebrities were there, what their favorite foods are, and how much they were willing to pay for a plate at the benefit. Sure, it’s cool to learn that Jake Gyllenhaal (my longtime celebrity crush) isn’t a picky eater, but that doesn’t really help readers engage with the issues Edible Schoolyard is trying to mitigate.

Jake Gyllenhaal dines at the swanky Edible Schoolyard NYC benefit

Jake Gyllenhaal dines at the swanky Edible Schoolyard NYC benefit

This article immediately reminded me of Pierre Bourdieu’s theory about the links between taste and class. According to Bourdieu: “Taste is a practical mastery of distributions which makes it possible to sense or intuit what is likely (or unlikely) to befall — and therefore to befit — an individual occupying a given position in social space.” In other words, our social class/socioeconomic status determines our tastes and dictates the ways in which we interact with food and food-related spheres.

At first blush, The Edible Schoolyard Project seems noble and even humble in its pursuits. But teaching children about food production, the values of the outdoors, and what it means to have a healthy meal doesn’t really seem to mesh well with the notion of spending $48,000 on a meal, even if it is for charity. Many of the schools that have a problem maintaining a healthy nutritional balance can be found in socioeconomically depressed places, yet here are these celebrities talking about how they just love anything “fresh from the garden” and paying a pretty penny for that fulfillment. In this case the ‘taste of luxury’ is truly just the ability to pay more for what other people have in order to help them continue having it.

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I get that there’s an aspect of marketing that is unavoidable when it comes to initiatives such as The Edible School Project. It’s just unfortunate that reporters capitalize on the celebrity aspect, and completely ignore actual cause of the charity. I’m not trying to demonize the efforts of people who use their position to enhance the greater good, but rather am commenting on the social structures that force coverage of such events to focus on the flashy lifestyles, rather than the substance of the cause. Perhaps it should be seen as a positive thing that ‘taste’ in the Bourdieu sense of the word is being adapted by those in the upper classes to aid those who are less well off, but one has to wonder just how authentic that adaptation is, and whether it is truly beneficial to those it claims to be helping. Instead of eating multi-thousand dollar meals, the Project may in fact be better off advocating for food and nutritional awareness at a broader policy level, rather than relying on donations to be sustainable.

Water, Water…Everywhere?

It makes sense that food activism would focus its efforts on, well…food. But recently I have been reading a lot about water, and the ways it impacts the food movement.

Water is something most of us living in this country are able to take for granted. If we turn on the faucet we are pretty much guaranteed that something potable will come gushing out. I never really thought twice about this luxury before travelling to Uganda, where drinking straight from a well or faucet is actually one of the most dangerous actions you could take–and this is a country that is no stranger to violent/physical crime. I spent 4 months either drinking from sealed water bottles (which contribute HUGE amounts of environmentally-harmful plastic) or from jerrycans filled with water that had been sufficiently boiled. This means that if you ran out of water bottles after the dark, and you didn’t have the time to start a fire and boil water (about an hour-long process, at least) you didn’t have any water until the stores opened up again in the morning. I also had to be wary of any foods that might have come in contact with unclean water–say buh-bye to salad for 4 months.

Now, I don’t claim to be any sort of expert on water security, but after looking at the map below I think it’s pretty obvious something needs to be done:

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The fact that such large swaths of people face water insecurity simply due to economic factors is horrifying. And it’s not surprise that these at-risk regions are found exclusively in the global South.

Interestingly, one of the solutions suggested by the blog Nourishing the Planet is to support small-scale farming. While this is just one more bone to pick with industrial agriculture in developed nations, it is also an intriguing arena we could use to engage local populations in more rural nations–especially the ones facing economic water insecurity. Small-scale farming is already a way of life for many of these people (it certainly is in Uganda) and if efforts are made to educate farmers about water conservation and management, a more efficient system could be built.

Of course, the problems I mentioned above about the lack of potable water won’t be solved merely by conserving resources. There will also have to be significant political will in order for adequate safety and distribution methods to be implemented.

Obviously all of this is wrapped up in the complex political, economic, and social forces that are globalization, and coming at it from a food activist perspective won’t solve everything (wouldn’t that be nice?) But I think it’s fascinating to consider these less obvious avenues for engagement when it comes to alleviating some of the world’s most pressing issues. It is becoming ever more apparent to me just how far-reaching the effects of the food movement have the potential to be.

I Should Really Know Not to Judge A Book By Its Cover By Now….

While sauntering through downtown Boston on a lovely Easter Sunday morning, I passed by two men sitting on a bench holding cardboard signs. At first I thought nothing of it, assuming they were simply panhandling, but as I glanced at their signs I noticed one of them read: “need help starting a farm” and the other: “Freedom Farms Foundation on Facebook.” I wasn’t able to snap a picture, but I did write down the name of the Facebook profile.

At first the impression I got from these two men was definitely not an overtly positive one. It looked as if they were just two bums smoking cigarettes who probably didn’t really have any goal in mind of actually starting a farm. As I thought about them in relation to food activism, I thought they were actually doing a disservice to the movements by presenting themselves in such a way that would lead people to have a negative opinion about the types of people who work on farms these days.

Then I got home and looked up Freedom Farms Foundation on Facebook. Turns out they are actually a coalition trying to start a farm with the hopes of giving homeless people alternative options for their lives and livelihoods. So it seems that my impression of the two men as street ‘bums’ may have been correct, but my judgement was sorely misplaced (as most judgements are). They actually represent a lot more of food activism than I originally noted. They see the farm as ‘one way out’–a way to combat the misfortunes that have befallen them, either due to their own actions or to the oppressive realities of our capitalist system. They also offer self-defense classes and other practical tips for people who live the unfortunate circumstances of homelessness.Screen Shot 2013-04-01 at 12.02.02 PM

Additionally, I found the communal aspect of their project the most intriguing. Not only is the Freedom Farms Foundation proposing a communal living and working space once their farm is established, but they are in fact relying on the community to help them get there. Of course, many people have (legitimate) critiques of asking for money on the streets, but I think it can also be used constructively–as in this case. Employing techniques that are generally connected with notions of laziness, lack of self control, etc. for a cause so different from those of most panhandlers gives Freedom Farms an interesting edge. While their members are homeless, they are using their homelessness as a way to engage with the community. Asking for money with the express purpose of starting a farm intrigues the passerby–raising questions of what farming can mean today, who is drawn to the farm today and why, and even helps elevate the hugely problematic issue of homelessness.

In short, this was a learning experience for me. I wish I had taken the time to stop and speak with the two men when I had the chance. I wish I hadn’t judged them–both before I knew the farm connection and after, when I assumed their project was illegitimate and just a front for collecting money. But I hope this isn’t the last time I’ll have the opportunity to engage with such innovative forms of activism.