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.


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.


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:


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:


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.


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.

Something’s Fishy Here…

Not gonna to lie–I was definitely not expecting to find anything remotely related to new food activism amidst D.C.’s ruckus St. Patrick’s Day festivities, but there it was, literally staring me in the face:


I spotted this car in the middle of Adams Morgan–a neighborhood in the District notorious for its bar scene and therefore a destination of choice to properly commemorate the Irish holiday. Needless to say, I was pretty surprised by its presence, and a little unsure of whether it was parked there to make a statement, or simply because its owner was joining in on the day’s celebrations. Either way, my first instinct was: “I can blog about that!” (I realize this is not a normal reaction)

This car represents some pretty interesting topics. Clearly it is a statement about genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, which are a very hot-button issue in food activism these days. While proponents of GMOs claim that they are the future in terms of combatting food insecurity, people remain skeptical not only of GMOs’ ability to generate higher crop yields and withstand adverse weather (as promised) but also their basic health and safety for consumers. According to the Non-GMO Project, “a growing body of evidence connects GMOs with health problems, environmental damage and violation of farmers’ and consumers’ rights.”

Interestingly, as of right now, the main battlefront seems to be playing out only over the issue of labeling. As the car I spotted proclaims, anti-GMO activists are mostly concerned about knowing whether or not their food has been modified, and less concerned about stopping the process of genetic modification altogether.

Beyond the message it sends, the car itself is a great example of public art which, according to Lucy R. Lippard, is an essential facet of activism (“Looking Around: Where We Are, Where We Could Be” 1995). A vehicle as eye-catching is this one will certainly stand out in the sea of neutral-shaded diplomatic sedans that is D.C. The clever morphing of an ear of corn into a fish visually depicts for the viewer what it is that so many people find unsettling about GM foods–namely, the unnatural merger of plants and animals that have no business mating with one another, let alone the physiological capability to do so. However, I find the choice of medium to display this protest at least slightly ironic. Some of the strongest adversaries of GMOs cite the environmental risks they pose. It doesn’t seem too petty to point out the irony in driving a fossil fuel-consuming vehicle to protest an environmental hazard, does it?


Despite the growing distrust in genetically modified foods, there are of course still pro-GMO fighters out there. As argued in an article by Cameron English on PolicyMic, genetically modifying plants and animals is nothing new–we have been cultivating crops for centuries and the intentional act of breeding is in fact manipulating the genetic process. English goes further to suggest that the fear of ‘foreign microbes’ which is the basis for demanding GMO labels is unfounded, seeing as how “all the plants we eat, genetically modified or not, are loaded with bacteria, viruses, and other living organisms — and their DNA.” This links up in a curious way with my previous post discussing interspecies ethnography. While it is true that bacteria and microorganisms exist harmoniously with flora, fauna and humans alike, proponents of GM foods claim that we are in fact taking a greater risk ingesting these unknown additives than the ones intentionally spliced there by geneticists. Paraphrasing agricultural scientist Steve Savage, English claims “the only difference between the foreign genetic materials found naturally in plants and the genes we intentionally add to them is that we know more about the latter.”

To me (and I’m sure many others) this defense seems more than a little absurd. We’ve heard this story before–just check out these advertisements to get a darkly humorous glimpse at what was believed to be beneficial to our health not so long ago. We’ve learned (or at least been shown) the lesson the hard way that sometimes developments that look great and fool-proof at first turn out to be disastrous in the long run.

Sure, questioning the validity of seemingly unnatural innovations might be viewed by some as an illogical barrier to the benefits of modernity; and undoubtedly some technological advances have vastly improved quality of life. But this does not place categorical immunity on any and all newly developed techniques. This is precisely the philosophy held by adherents of the Back to the Land movements studied by Dona Brown, who questioned the necessity for technology in order to fully embrace the challenges of modernity.

There may be a compelling argument to be made that we have been knowingly modifying foods since Gregor Mendel (or even earlier),  but we have to be willing to draw the line somewhere. As Lippard notes, “nature includes everything, even technology, created by humans, who are a part of nature,” but just because GMOs may be seen as ‘natural’ in this sense of the word, doesn’t mean we get a free pass to start injecting tomatoes with fish genes and expect there to be no significant consequences. Perhaps we should start taking a serious look at the bigger structures that are causing all this food insecurity in the first place…but that’s a topic for another day.

Coffee Talk

Working in a café for 5+ years has left me with many invaluable life skills and experiences (mostly related to the fact that I now know that I do not want to work in a café for the rest of my life.) I’ve learned all about the art of pulling a perfect shot of espresso and have tentatively mastered latté art. Yet despite my relatively intimate and longstanding relationship with making and serving coffee I am still hopelessly disconnected from its production.

Unlike some foods that we unnecessarily purchase from far off lands simply for the sake of convenience, cost, etc., coffee is one that cannot simply be grown in the inhospitable climate that is New England. In fact, coffee that is suitable for today’s coffee-literate society really can’t be produced anywhere in the U.S. That is why we see names of entire countries becoming representative of certain roasts: Ethiopian coffee is known for its mild, medium flavor; Guatemalan for its fruity undertones; and French roast has become nearly synonymous with “large black coffee.” But what does this really mean? Who are the people and what are the processes involved in getting my coffee from there to my cup?

The coffee industry has taken an interesting and rather progressive foray into food activism in this sense. Perhaps this is due to a critical mass of socially conscious (…hiptster….) consumers, maybe the caffeine just makes people want to do things!! or perhaps the industry has genuinely identified a need to create more transparent and responsible supply chains. For example, Counter Culture has taken on a policy of Direct Trade, rather than Fair Trade, in the hopes of sustaining more personal, cooperative, and  equitable relationships with their suppliers. There are even activists guides  being produced in order to engender a more progressive base of consumers.

While studying abroad in Uganda I got to see coffee in its natural habitat for the first time, but that’s about as close as I’ve come to having any connection at all with the plant or people (not that any significant amount of coffee I have consumed in my life has even come from Uganda…) who supply me and millions of others with such a tantalizing addiction.

Our guide in Uganda shows us coffee berries right off the tree

Our guide in Uganda shows us coffee berries right off the tree

I wish I could buy coffee from Farmer Joe down the road, but Farmer Joe doesn’t have the capacity to grow the coffee I crave. So  I need to find a more meaningful way to interact with people halfway around the world who do have this capacity. After all, the coffee industry is a huge economic force in countries like Uganda, where other exports are slim–especially ones that can be produced by average citizens, as coffee can. Right now I feel the best I can do is make a conscious effort to research where my coffee comes from; not just the country, but the modes of production that actually get it to me. Is the farm family owned or corporate? Are the farmers given adequate share in the profits? How do fair trade/free trade regulations factor in? Similar to the growing number of people who demand to know where their meat is coming from out of concern for the ethical treatment of animals, I want to know where my coffee is coming from out of concern for the ethical treatment of farmers.

So this is a dilemma I still face. I strive to have a deeper connection with what I consume, but how can I do that when there really is no way to connect me to the root of the coffee plant, save traipsing around the world gathering beans and speaking with farmers myself? I’m sure there’s a compromise in here somewhere, maybe I just need one more cup of coffee to help me figure it out…

Anxious Appetites

We generally think of eating healthy as being, well, healthy! We applaud our comrades who are so brave and  focused to take on the task of paying attention to their diets for the betterment of their personal well being. We congratulate friends on their self-control when we notice they have been losing weight, and we may even feel a twinge of guilt for not committing to treat our own bodies with more respect.


Click to enlarge all your secret eating anxieties

But sometimes a desire to be healthy can transform into an obsession with counting calories and politely refusing even the occasional offer of candy or chips. In recent years, medical specialists have noticed a rise in a new eating disorder known as Orthorexia Nervosa. Similar to the more well known struggle of Anorexia Nervosa, Orthexia stems from a desire to control one’s diet that is taken to the extreme, but is centered, ironically, around an obsession with eating healthy.

Like most eating disorders, the origins of Orthexia are foggy at best, but it seems likely that it is at least somehow connected to the rising condemnation of obesity in America, the unrealistic images of celebrities who claim to have the ‘new wonder diet’, or simply the trendiness of eating healthy in general.

If we think nailing down the causes is complicated, perhaps even more so is the task of offerring relief. Of course there is an element of counseling or therapy that is most likely required for severe cases, but health and food enthusiast Tori Gartner offers another interesting angle on how to combat Orthexia. She believes that fostering a deeper relationship with our food can in fact help us to better understand what it means to be healthy, while simultaneously helping us to appreciate eating in a healthy fashion.

So it seems that paying attention to our food can be more beneficial than simply offering spiritual insight. It can in fact help combat real medical and psychological issues. As Gartner observes,”When we are in tune with what pleases our palate, when we provide ourselves with the time to cook or chop or shop, when we respect food preparation as something that deserves some time (just like sleep) then perhaps it will be easier to establish and maintain a healthy relationship with food.”

The Baker’s Daughter

I will always associate the smell of freshly baked bread with my dad. He would often come home from work, bread in hand and patches of flour dusted about his shirt. Call me biased, but I whole-wheat-heartedly believe his bread is really the best of the best–he didn’t just stop at plain old run of the mill varieties, he devised delicious concoctions like cheddar onion, olive and thyme, and asiago with roasted garlic and parmesan. Needless to say, with a master baker as a father, I developed a passion for carbs at a very early age, and I’ve never looked back.

Father and daughter in the café he owned and managed while I was in high school

Father and daughter in the café he owned and managed while I was in high school

Bread has been a huge part of my life. I’ve learned to shape dough, to watch as it rises, to wait impatiently as it bakes to just the right golden brown, and to eat it like a pro. It was always a special treat when my dad let me come in and bake with him, although I never really could have handled the true baker’s schedule; during the years when he was actually in the business of bread-selling he would go into bake, alone, at 10:30 pm…bake all night, then start the deliveries at about 8am (that’s usually when I would reluctantly roll out of bed to go on the delivery rounds). Admittedly, I never really understood how or why he would submit his body to such a grueling schedule, but I’ve realized over the years that he did it because he truly believes in the craftsmanship of baking.

Bread is a curious food. It’s certainly a staple of many American diets, and the quality and varieties available abound (I feel comfortable claiming that some are undeniably better/worse/not even really bread *cough*”Wonderbread”*cough*) but what I have learned to be the most fascinating is the stories it can tell. Most people don’t realize that all bread really is is salt, water, flour and yeast and that yeast–this most crucial ingredient–is in fact a living organism that needs feeding and nurturing and can carry a story in its existence.

The story of my dad’s bread starts in a small town in Wisconsin, where my grandfather grew up. His mother (my great grandmother) was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in the early 20th century. When my dad went to visit the birthplace of his father, he found grapes growing along the side of the schoolhouse. Like several other fruits, grapes produce a thin layer of yeast around their outside (that’s what makes them so much fun to shine up).

don't you just wanna grab some and rub 'em on your shirt to make them sparkly?

don’t you just wanna grab some and rub ’em on your shirt to make them sparkly?

My dad gathered this yeast and used it in his first batch of sourdough starter. Every loaf of bread he’s made since sprang from this original batch, and therefore has a connection with his own roots.

It is interesting to ponder the ways in which the food that ends up in our mouths connects us to a broader meaning. Anna Tsing’s fascinating work with mushrooms has illuminated whole new ways in which people can be seen to relate to their surroundings. She argues that “human nature is an interspecies relationship” and that the interdependence that exists in this world is often overlooked in the name of human exceptionalism. We are unwilling to acknowledge that our dependency on plants, animals, minerals, etc. extends beyond a biological need that we can in fact conquer through control and domestication. The cyclical nature of dependency should be recognized: grapes need yeast to protect their nutrients, yeast needs grapes to thrive; man needs yeast to produce delicious and sustaining bread, yeast needs man to continue to thrive in an artificial yet mutually beneficial environment. In any of these situations individual actors (grape, yeast, man) could be seen to be taking advantage or exerting control over the other for selfish gain, yet it seems more productive to acknowledge the interdependence and learn from the unique symbioticism.

My dad’s bread connects me to grapes in Wisconsin, and to ancestors I never met. It gave me my first job (as a bread sales girl at my local Farmers Market) thus guiding me into the world of adult socialization and commerce. I’ve learned that in order to produce something that people will enjoy eating, you have to enjoy making it. Being connected to our food reminds us not just where it comes from, but what it took to get from there to here and how that journey is but a thread in a never ending web of interdependence.