Category Archives: disaster

The Flint Water Disaster: A Perfect Storm of Downplaying, Denial, and Deceit

Gregory V. Button

Flint, Michigan, the city portrayed as the embodiment of a rust belt city abandoned by deindustrialization in Michael Moore’s allegorical documentary, Roger & Me, has recently become a morality play of a different sort as it captures national headlines highlighting a controversial series of decisions creating a major public health crisis that threatens the health of Flint’s children.

After numerous complaints of the rising costs of the City of Detroit’s water and sewerage system, which the city had been dependent on for decades, the City of Flint’s controversial, non-elected, state appointed emergency manager decided in 2013 to switch from Detroit’s water system, and obtain water for the city from the Flint River until an alternative source could be developed.  The decision insured, if nothing else, that banks and bondholders to which the city is indebted, would be paid.

The decision ended up being a tragic mistake of major proportions. After the switch was made in April 2014 problems soon developed because the Flint River’s water proved to be highly corrosive, releasing lead from the old plumbing fixtures in Flint’s homes, factories, and schools. The water was so corrosive that the local GM engine plant switched their plant’s water system to another supplier because the automaker was concerned that the Flint River water would corrode their auto parts.

Tragically, the situation could have been avoided if the state had followed the EPA mandate to install corrosive preventative measures when lead levels in drinking water exceed recommended levels.  State officials further undermined the state’s integrity and the public’s confidence by claiming they were not required to install mandatory corrosive controls.

As lead levels rapidly rose to levels far exceeding the U.S. EPA’s recommended lead levels in public drinking water, Flint residents complained of malodorous, darkly colored water flowing from their home faucets, hair loss, headaches, and itchy eyes. Eventually some residents, including children, were diagnosed with lead poisoning.

Local officials downplayed the residents’ complaints and insisted that the water was safe to drink. For over a year, during which a series of mind-baffling decisions were made by the state, officials continued to downplay and deny the existence of a crisis. In an effort to avoid the scrutiny of the public, researchers, and federal authorities, state officials seemed to have chosen state and bureaucratic interests over and above the public good, creating a vortex of uncertainty and unnecessarily and inexcusably prolonging the crisis. The river water increased the exposure of Flint residents to lead, a potent neurotoxin that crosses the brain’s barrier and can adversely affect nearly every system in the body. Lead endangers the health of both children and adults causing slow growth, learning disabilities, anemia, and hearing problems. Children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable to the adverse effects of lead.

As evidence continued to mount that there was a serious public health problem, local and state officials continued to downplay the situation, deny that there was a problem, and deceive the public even when scientific evidence emerged contradicting their claims .  Residents were stunned when documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) revealed that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and state public health officials had, in an effort to deceive the public, altered documents contradicting the officials’ claim that the water was safe to drink.

In the ensuing months as state officials continued their denials and cover-ups local residents and independent public health researchers accused officials of hiding data, misleading the public and ignoring solid scientific research that clearly demonstrated the public was at risk. Independent researchers from the University of Virginia provided robust evidence demonstrating that lead levels in sampled city water exceeded 100 parts per billion.

This was a staggering finding: the EPA allows only 15 parts per billion in drinking water and, in reality, there is really no level that is considered to be safe. Additionally, a team of physicians and public health researchers published a report that showed that elevated lead blood levels increased after the water switch from 2.9% to 4.9% and in some neighborhoods rose as high as 6.3%.

Residents were further shocked when it was eventually revealed, through yet another FOIA request, that city, county, and state officials believed in the aftermath of the water switch that a deadly Legionnaire’s disease outbreak, resulting in the death of ten people, may have been attributable to the switch of the city’s water to the polluted waters of the Flint River.

Outrage continued recently when it was revealed that top administrators in the EPA’s regional Midwest office were aware, as long ago as last April, of Flint’s failure to install mandatory corrosion controls and the potential for adverse public health effects. Instead of informing the public of their concern, they delayed releasing the information to the public for several months while they battled with the state over EPA’s legal authority to enforce the federal mandate requiring Flint to install corrosion controls.

Over a year and a half after the crisis began, the state finally relented. Governor Snyder tardily apologized for the tragedy to the citizens of Flint, declared a state emergency, called out National Guard troops to distribute bottled water, and eventually asked President Obama to declare a national emergency, which would enable the state to receive federal assistance. On January 16, 2016 President Obama declared a ninety-day federal emergency, thereby qualifying the city of Flint to receive bottled water, water filters, filter cartridges and other items. Unfortunately, the declaration does not provide the state of Michigan with an estimated $600 million dollars necessary to replace Flint’s deteriorating water system, which may be the only way to fully alleviate the problem in the long-term.

Local and national media coverage of this tragic event has garnered considerable national attention resulting in calls ranging from a demand for a federal investigation to the arrest of Governor Snyder (a man whose corporate approach to government and reliance on unelected, state appointed emergency managers is thought by many to undermine local democracy). There are even some people who embrace a conspiracy theory that the children of Flint were poisoned intentionally.

Outrage has been propelled not only by what some believe to be gross malfeasance but also because of the fact that Flint, one of the poorest municipalities in the State of Michigan, has long suffered from racial discrimination, and ranks at the bottom of the state in rates of childhood poverty – as well as the glaring fact that 41.5 % of its residents live below the poverty level and nearly 60% of Flint residents are African American (see  Hanna, A. J. Le Chance, R.C. Sadler, A. C. Schnepp. 2015 “Elevated lead levels in children associated with the Flint drinking water crisis: A spatial analysis of risk and public health response.” American Journal of Public Health. Available online: http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/pdf/10.2105/AJPH.2015.303003); all of which, even upon initial observation, makes a compelling case for a  morality play about structural violence.

The author has been investigating the Flint water crisis since its inception and is currently writing a journal article and a report on the ongoing crisis. He can be reached at gregvorybutton@mac.com and 734-417-3371.

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Filed under anthropology, disaster, Flint, food security, neo-liberal public policy, water

Street, Neighborhood, City in the New New Orleans

David Beriss
University of New Orleans

Brocato sign

Old and new, Brocato’s and El Rinconcito.

When Angelo Brocato’s gelato and pastry shop reopened in September, 2006, it seemed like a beacon of hope in a neighborhood that was still very much on the mend. I don’t think there were very many other businesses open yet on that stretch of N. Carrolton Avenue. I do remember the large crowds that gathered to get some gelato or cannoli, the band that played as we waited on line, and the sense of happiness at having Brocato’s century old shop back in business. Located in a diverse Mid-City neighborhood, Brocato’s is the kind of place frequented by people who live here and its rebirth suggested that maybe the city would return to some semblance of what it had been.

Within a few years of the 2005 floods, however, the debate began to shift away from recovery to the future. The city’s demographics were changing. Many people could not return to the city, public housing was being destroyed, and the cost of living in New Orleans started to rise. Many Latino workers, having arrived to help rebuild, decided to stay and make lives for themselves here. Young college educated people—often white—were moving to New Orleans and moving into neighborhoods that had previously been mostly black. Now the concern was whether or not the neighborhoods of New Orleans, the site of vibrant cultural life, would survive these changes. New Orleans leading thinkers have developed a cottage industry explaining this situation, either decrying the threats to local culture, celebrating the “resilience” of any surviving parts of it, or arguing that everyone has misunderstood the central issues.

Starting in the summer of 2010, I gathered a group of UNO students to study the restaurants clustered around the intersection of N. Carrolton Avenue and Canal Street, in New Orleans. This area is a kind of microcosm of the transformations that have marked the city since 2005. For a long time, most of the restaurants were local businesses, with very few national chains, although that has changed significantly in the past 2 years. Some of restaurants rebuilt after the floods, while others were replaced by new businesses. There are even a few upscale restaurants in the neighborhood. The changes seem to reflect deeper trends in New Orleans business and consumption patterns.

A number of commercial districts in the city have had remarkable rebirths since 2005. Historian Rien Fertel has written about rediscovering Broad Street, making an interesting case for why that road represents some of the city’s demographic and culinary trends. Freret Street, a commercial strip in uptown New Orleans, has an interesting pre-Katrina history and, in the years since, has become a kind of hipster mecca, but one that some think represents a good side of gentrification. Oak Street, home of the Po’Boy Festival, has also been the site of significant redevelopment in recent years. St. Claude Avenue, at the center of historically black communities, has become a center for controversy about gentrification and redevelopment, but is also home to a lively new array of eating and drinking opportunities. Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, in Central City, has become the site of a distinct combination of restaurants and cultural institutions, including the new home of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. Williams Boulevard, in the relatively distant suburb of Kenner might be the best index of the city’s future, with an array of restaurants representing the diversity of the populations in New Orleans today.

empty block

Scars of disaster, 2010, the site is now home to a shiny set of national chains.

My students tried to trace out the commercial history of the Carrollton/Canal area, interviewing owners, workers, and customers. In 2010, the scars of the 2005 floods were still visible, with at least one former strip mall still standing in ruins. The BP oil spill was an ongoing problem and the local seafood purveyors expressed deep concerns for their future. What was particularly striking, however, was the dominance of local businesses. We found interesting stories—how Doson Noodle House, a Vietnamese restaurant, evolved from Oak Street’s wonderfully named Chinese’s Chinese, for instance, or the sad story of Chef Michel Foucqueteau, whose last New Orleans restaurant, Chateaubriand, did not survive the floods. We heard about the changes in the kinds of businesses in the area, as beauty salons, hardware stores, car dealers, and pool halls, gave way to more and more restaurants.

doson

Doson Noodle House

I have been especially happy to see my students enthusiastically embrace this research. I regularly teach a course in applied anthropology that has a methodological focus. By picking one area, I can treat the class as an applied research team, giving them an opportunity to produce a series of reports that can resemble a real applied project. The students tend to take this project personally, because they live or work in or near the area, have family history there, or frequent the restaurants themselves. The project allows students to learn about a wide range of methods, starting from developing a sense of how to observe the organization of the street, to conducting interviews, oral history techniques, archival research, and more. They also learn about teamwork and about how to put together both written reports and visually interesting presentations.

This is an ongoing project. We will start updating the blog again this spring, when a fresh group of students will return to document changes in the area. There are some important questions we need to answer. The empty lots that marked the area in 2010 have been replaced by a shiny cluster of national chain restaurants. What impact will these new places have on the local businesses? The Lafitte Greenway, merely a dream for activists and planners in 2010, is now open, providing a bike path directly from the neighborhood to the French Quarter. How will this new amenity impact the community? Will the enormous new medical complex—not far from our area of study—change the neighborhood and the businesses in it?

There are also some deeper issues that our research can explore. Why have food (and drink) businesses become so central to reviving (or gentrifying) urban neighborhoods? What does the particular mix of restaurants and people in the Carrollton/Canal area tell us about the future of New Orleans distinctive culinary culture?

The neighborhood itself never stops changing. We have seen a few restaurants come and go, including an outpost of the local pizza chain Italian Pie (replaced by Milkfish, a Filipino restaurant), as well as Juicy Lucy’s, a stuffed hamburger joint that had itself replaced Fiesta Latina, a Central American restaurant (still open in Kenner!). The former Kjean’s Seafood, maker of po’boys, boiler of crawfish, and seafood retailer will soon be replaced with Bevi Seafood, a slightly more chef-driven version of the traditional New Orleans seafood joint (that makes po’boys, boils crawfish, and retails seafood). The announcement that “legendary barman” Chris McMillian will be opening a new restaurant in the Carrollton/Canal area could be a sign that hipster dining is arriving in the neighborhood. According to nola.com, the menu will include “pretzel brioche sticks, bulgogi wraps and chicken chimichurri kebabs” and, in the same article, McMillian states that “Mid-City is ready for craft cocktails.” Maybe. Julia Yocom, longtime neighborhood resident and one of the original members of our research team in 2010, told me that the area is more of a “High Life and a shot” sort of place. Whichever it is, our students will be there to document it.

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Filed under anthropology, disaster, Food Studies, New Orleans, SAFN Member Research

Katrina Fridges, 10 Years After

Photo by Donna Bonner

David Beriss
University of New Orleans

It would be hard to not notice that the tenth anniversary of hurricane Katrina is upon us here in New Orleans. I have been trying to think of ways that this blog might be used as a platform for thinking about the last decade. What is it that anthropology—specifically, the anthropology of food—might have to say about how things have turned out here? I am going to try to write a few short blog postings that can help answer that question. These are mostly personal reflections, but there is also some actual research behind some of my observations. I will try to indicate when that is the case.

Mostly, I want to evoke some of the scenes that have shaped the experience of the last decade in terms of food in New Orleans. I could start, for example, with the sublime meatball sandwich I had at the Italian Pie (a local chain) at the corner of Magazine and Joseph streets in mid-October 2005. Sublime largely because it was there and available in a city in which most of the restaurants were still closed. Or the stunningly good shrimp po’boy I ate at Crabby Jack’s soon after I returned, possibly in the company of my colleague Martha Ward. To this day, that post-exile shrimp po’boy stands out in my mind as the best po’boy ever. Eating in restaurants then was an opportunity to reconnect with friends and with strangers while getting a sense that the city was really coming back to life. But there was also a practical reason why people, even people who did not live in flooded neighborhoods, had to eat out in the beginning. There simply was not a lot of food available in stores (if the stores were open).

And whether or not your house flooded, in all likelihood, you did not have a refrigerator. In 2006, in an online discussion, someone posted a very theoretical query about refrigeration and technology. I was inspired to write a very short (not very theoretical) response that summed up our refrigeration issues. In thinking about the “Katrinaversary” (a word I did not make up), I remembered that note and dug it up. Given the importance of technology like refrigerators for making our contemporary food system possible, I think it is worth recalling what the failure of that technology meant back in 2005. Here is the note, more or less as originally posted, with a few additional thoughts:

Photo by Donna Bonner

Photo by Donna Bonner

Here in New Orleans, refrigerators became, after Katrina, the site for many reflections on identity, decay and waste.  They stank and were teeming with maggots.  Several weeks without power, it turns out, reveals that your refrigerator is not actually well sealed against bugs.  It also reveals that things like meat eventually turn to liquid if left to their own devices, without refrigeration.  Actually, many other things concerning the place of refrigeration in our lives were revealed that most of us would have been happier not knowing.

Anyhow, most people (and many restaurants) found it impossible to fully clean the refrigerators, so that even in the unflooded parts of the city, all last fall the streets were lined with hundreds of thousands of discarded refrigerators (I am not exaggerating — scale is important to this story), most of them duct-taped closed, in order to prevent the putrid contents from walking off.  The mostly white exteriors proved to be an irresistible canvas for commentary about everything from FEMA and President Bush, to Saints owner Tom Benson (who had threatened to take the team from the city permanently), the mayor, and, of course, the general funkiness (not the good kind) of the fridges themselves.  If you search on Google, you will find many collections of photos of these fridges available on the web.  Here are a few links to some collections of pictures:

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Fridges_damaged_by_Hurricane_Katrina

http://www.flickr.com/photos/84995794@N00/sets/1733550/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/unapologetic/sets/1092465/

One thing that is hard to express in writing is the overwhelming smell that hung over the city during most of the fall of 2005.  We call it the Katrina smell and, if you were here, you recognize it immediately.  I guess it is the smell of death and decay on a large scale.  It is not a nice smell.  It was accompanied by large numbers of what I am told are called “corpse flies” buzzing about the city and even inside your house (if you had one).

Those of us who have houses mostly have new refrigerators by now.  Our relationship to those beautiful new machines has been transformed, I think.  At least mine has.  But that is another story.

Mardi Gras, 2006. Photo by David Beriss

Mardi Gras, 2006. Photo by David Beriss

Let me conclude with a sense of how that relationship has changed. Before 2005, I suspect I was like a lot of other Americans, using the fridge and freezer to store a lot of food, some of which we might not get around to using for quite a while. No more. In the last decade, we have become very much of a “just in time” family, keeping only enough food around for the week. There is too much danger of having to toss the entire contents of the fridge (and waste both food and money) to keep much more than that around. What we do have in terms of surplus, we are quick to share with our neighbors when the power goes out. The last time we had an extended power outage here (Hurricane Isaac, 2012, I believe), we had a series of dinners and parties with our neighbors over a few days in which we all tried to exhaust the contents of our refrigerators. Then we threw the rest out, unplugged the machines, and left the doors open. When the power eventually returned, the refrigerators mostly worked. And they were maggot free. Which is priceless.

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Filed under disaster, katrina anniversary, New Orleans, refrigeration, technology

Diet for a Big Storm: Reflections on Food, Waste and Hurricane Sandy

Post Storm Trash, Manhattan. Photo by Diana Mincyte.

Diana Mincyte
Assistant Professor and Faculty Fellow
Center for European and Mediterranean Studies
New York University

One of the most fascinating articles on food that has been circulating in post-Sandy New York was the New York Times piece that introduced the concept of the “Sandy 5”, referring to 5 lb that the inhabitants of the Eastern seaboard are said to have put on as they grappled with challenges and losses brought about by the storm. This was due to the larger than usual amounts of food acquired and consumed before and during the storm. Not an avid blogger myself, on the day of the storm, I obsessively followed food blogs, Twitter and Facebook where my food loving friends reported how they poured themselves into preparing elaborate meals, from boeuf wellington to home made pasta to Brasilian quindin. Even more interesting was to hear about the indulgence in alcoholic drinks, ranging from the obscure mid-nineteenth century cocktails to cheap wine, a phenomenon that was evidenced in the empty shelves at wine and liquor stores across post-Sandy Brooklyn. As the storm descended upon the city, our kitchen counter too became a non-stop food assembly line, churning out new dishes every hour or so. When the winds calmed down and left behind a devastated landscape, interrupted lives and severed power lines, many shared stories of rushing to the fast food chains to eat “fast” and “bad” foods in search of comfort. As the aforementioned New York Times article documents, the power-have-nots acted “like post-apocalyptic survivalists,” compensating for losses, stress, cold and darkness.

But these stories of indulgence, abundance and over-consumption also have a darker side. They reveal a complicated relationship that our modern societies have with food and waste management infrastructures. In this sense, what Sandy did is expose a particular organization of social and economic relations as well as render the material infrastructures that support these relations visible. It threw into sharp relief the unequal distribution of risks when repair and service teams were sent to the most affluent areas, while the people who manned these teams came from the places that were ravaged and destroyed by the storm. Many in the most devastated communities waited for weeks for the power to come back, and without power there was no water, no heat, no refrigerator, and in many cases, no stove. Stepping up full force, the Occupy movement with its anti-establishment critiques and mutual aid principles brought fresh blood and organizational skills into coordinating relief efforts and delivering food, water and other resources, propelling the questions of justice, morality and responsibility into the public discourse.

Sandy also showed that the early fears of mass food shortages were unfounded. In this sense, drinking water supply and food deliveries seem to have worked surprisingly well. With an exception of several larger supermarkets, most notably in Red Hook, Brooklyn, the low-lying areas of Manhattan, Staten Island, the Rockaways, Queens, and parts of New Jersey that were badly damaged and flooded, food markets opened without major delays and were well-stocked and capable of continuing service.

But while Sandy’s impact on food and water deliveries signaled the resilience of New York’s food delivery infrastructures, it is the removal of waste and recycling materials that stalled. Walking in post-Sandy New York meant not only maneuvering around fallen branches, displaced household objects and crushed cars, but also around the garbage and recycling bags filled to the brim with cans, bottles, milk cartons, food delivery containers and pizza boxes. The first picture I include here was taken from my office window in Manhattan exhibiting a line of black trash bags next to the clear recycling bags on the street curb. Classified as a potential hazard to public health, waste collection was considered a priority and garbage was picked up within two to four days after the schedule. It should also be noted that garbage pick-up trucks were out and collecting garbage even as the storm started in earnest in order to prevent it from flying away.

The second picture is of a street in a Brooklyn neighborhood capturing the

Recycling, post-Sandy. Photo by Diana Mincyte.

ubiquitous piles of recycling materials that accumulated after the storm. These recycling materials are here because the city workers and vehicles were diverted to work on other, more pressing tasks. After missing just one pick up of recycling, the piles of recycling materials often reached four or five feet in height in front of every residence and business.

It is these delays in collecting waste and recycling due to Sandy that made the wastefulness of the post-industrial consumer lifestyles acutely visible. While the city has one of the oldest and best organized recycling infrastructures in the country with the recycling rate between 16% and 18%, the issue that begs the question is just how much food packaging is necessary. As Susanne Freidberg, Julie Guthman, David Goodman, Melanie E. DuPuis, Zsuzsa Gille and Andrew Szasz, among others have shown, “freshness,” “hygiene” and “quality” have reshaped the ways in which food is produced, transported and distributed, leading to the increased reliance on elaborate and costly packaging technologies. And then there are the water bottles, soda cans, disposable cups, shopping bags and a wide range of produce such as grapes, tomatoes and zucchinis sold in styrofoam trays covered with plastic to make them into fresh-looking display items.

In addition to the packaging materials, a large proportion of food has been wasted. An earlier post on this blog by David Giles, tells us a story of recovering through dumpster diving. And even the city recognizes it as a problem. A study sponsored by New York City finds that almost 18% of all residential refuse is food and food scraps. Another recent study by Kevin D. Hall et al.  shows that one quarter of the total freshwater consumption goes for the production of food that ends up in the trash can.

As we reflect on the piles of waste and recycling materials that dotted New York City after the storm, it becomes clear that the abundance and diversity of food culture that makes this city into a thriving culinary center cannot be understood without the work that goes into maintaining its infrastructures and the large footprint that it leaves on the environment. In this sense, it is ironic that the storm that transformed several New York neighborhoods into a heap of trash was itself fed by the wasteful culture of post-industrial consumer society that defines this city. To put it differently, the sophisticated gourmand and consumer culture and a dizzying array of delicacies available in New York are also its worst enemy that makes it vulnerable to the changing climate.

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Filed under anthropology, disaster, Food Studies, Food waste, garbage, protest, sustainability

Eating in Times of Financial Crisis

File it under “strange and unusual.” That’s what Reuters did in putting up the photo of one of many Yemeni protestors who made the link between food and politics explicit. The usually stuffy journal Foreign Policy was also taking notice, as a “first-ever food issue” featured articles on “The Baguettes of War” and “Eat, Drink, Protest.” shows how unstrange and usual are the actual connections between food and protest.

Theodoros Pangalos, via http://en.contrainfo.espiv.net/

This is a picture of Thedoros Pangalos, the portly deputy prime minister of Greece who recently claimed that all Greeks have to pay for the current financial Crisis because “we all ate together.” This expression intrigued me, as it showed the different metaphors used in different countries in Europe to express the idea of sharing the blame. In Ireland, the claim was “we all partied,” whereas in the U.K. it was the more anodyne “we’re all in it together. The food theme, however, resonated in Greece. In Athens in May of this year protest over the so-called “debt crisis” was not framed explicitly in terms of food issues. Taking their inspiration from protestors in Spain, Greeks gathering in the central Constitution Square dubbed themselves the “outraged,” to express their frustration with a political system and a global economic system that had led the country to hopeless solutions that punished ordinary people without touching the wealthy that had brought the system to its current state. But protestors were quick to respond to Pangalos’ claim: after a man wearing a mask of the deputy prime minister repeated the line to the crowd of thousands, their response barely missed a beat: You lying bastard!” They roar back. “You’re so fat you ate the entire supermarket.”

During this time I was involved in my ongoing  research project on changing cooking practices on the island of Kalymnos, one of the Dodecanese islands in the Eastern Aegean. While there were not protests in the streets of Kalymnos as yet, the financial crisis was much on peoples minds as they commented sardonically on the exploits of Dominique Strauss-Kahn as Kalymnians went about their daily cooking,and shopping, or held debates via Facebook about the implications of the “Argentinian model” for Greek default. The implications of the crisis for food practices was seen in debates over whether “tradition” could see them through hard times, with some suggesting that a return to the “old days” of beans 5 days a week and everyone gardening was the proper response; and indeed, rumors were in the air that many Athenians were returning to their natal villages (or their parents or grandparents natal villages) to go back to the land. Others insisted that Kalymnians were now too addicted to meat to contemplate a different diet, but that the circulation of cheap cuts of meat due to the growth of multinational supermarkets on the island meant that people needed to be more calculating shoppers. This intrigued me because shopping  has always been a moral act on Kalymnos in which one balances obligations to friends and neighbors and the specific circumstances of shop owners—at this store, the parents were trying to send two kids to University, at that store the owners are Communist so they should/shouldn’t be supported—with a sense that good shoppers don’t allow themselves to be taken advantage of. Was a different social morality of shopping in the process of emerging? Not everything was “new” however, as many Kalymnians pointed out to me that the financial crisis had led to the return of the “debt” (verese)  system of keeping books of accounts at small grocery stores, indeed this helped those smaller stores compete against the big supermarkets that didn’t offer such amenities. Debt with a small “d” meets debt with a capital “D” in contemporary times. Both for Kalymnians and for the Athenian protestors food remained a key idiom and practice to think through some of the outrages of our contemporary political-economic system, even sometimes in cannibalistic terms. As The Guardian reported:

Politicians now walk around with bodyguards,” says Aris Chatzistefanou, the co-director of Debtocracy, a film about the Greek crisis that has become a sensation. He quotes a newspaper report of how restaurateurs are taking down those cheesy framed photos of dining politicians, of how one government spokesman went to dinner a few weeks ago only for the rest of the restaurant to start shouting “You are eating the blood of the people”.

Comments by David Sutton

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Filed under anthropology, culture, Debt crisis, disaster, economics, food security, Greece, SAFN Member Research

Seafood Solidarity

Even before I wrote up the restaurant guide for the upcoming AAA meeting in New Orleans, people were asking me about what they can eat here.  My advice has been to eat local (no chains!).  Many New Orleans restaurants—and not just the high end ones—work hard to source their products locally.  You can get food from regional farmers all over town.  New Orleans is one of the last places in the United States where you can eat local seafood.  If you eat locally here, you are very likely to eat well.

However, the BP oil spew from last summer has people concerned about the safety of our seafood.  The government has tried hard to certify that safety and assure people that they can eat the food.  This is problematic: decades of pathetically bad government oversight in nearly every industry has led many of us to be skeptical of their judgment.  After all, it seems that lax government oversight was partially responsible for getting us into this mess in the first place.

So what should you do?

I know what I will do: I will continue to eat Gulf seafood.  Despite my misgivings about food regulation in the U.S., Gulf seafood is under more scrutiny now than most of the rest of the food—including, no doubt, imported seafood—that you will find at your local grocery store.  I also believe that we need to make a commitment to local seafood (and to local food in general) if our food system is going to be sustainable over the long term.  We need to make it possible for people to make a living in the seafood industry in this region.  Frankly, I also trust the fishers, shrimpers, oystermen, seafood retailers and chefs who provide these products locally.  I hope you will eat Gulf seafood while you are here.  You also need to be an active voice for strong regulation of the industries that bring us these disasters and for real regulation of our food system.  We need to work to insure the safety of our food.  We also need to make sure that the people who provide us with that food can make a good living.

Meanwhile, here are a few links to thought provoking material on the web that may help you think about these issues.

One place to start is this fascinating article from the Times-Picayune about how the oldest oyster processing business in the U.S., the 135 year old P&J Oyster Company, is adapting to the situation.  Brett Anderson, the paper’s restaurant critic, has produced a number of thoughtful and moving pieces on the topic.  Here is another one, this time on the impact of the spew on the crab market as far away as Maryland.

This article on the problems involved in restoring the oyster industry while simultaneously trying to save the wetlands is fascinating.  Our problems are deeper than just this oil spill.

If you are interested in the latest reports on the status of fisheries, take a look at the USFDA web site on the topic or at the latest news from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.  Here is a press release from the Dauphin Island Sea Lab about research showing that the oil was consumed by bacteria and may, as a consequence, have entered the food chain in the Gulf.  How far it goes—and what the consequences might be—is still unclear.  The Times-Picayune has reported on this as well.  Here is a link to a group that is very skeptical about the safety of our seafood and about claims that the Gulf has been cleaned up.

Our chefs think you should eat the seafood.  I know they are interested parties, but they also eat the seafood themselves.  Here is a moving piece from Chef Stephen Stryjewski of Cochon and Cochon Butcher.

posted by David Beriss

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Filed under AAA 2010 New Orleans, anthropology, disaster, economics, food policy, food security, gulf of mexico, seafood, sustainability

City of Gastronomy

Louisiana bumper sticker

The BP Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico (named, it seems, for the fictitious town invented by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude”) has been capped, top-killed, sealed and may be bottom-killed as well. Last we checked, the government and BP were looking into adding a new blowout preventer to the well. We have a whole new vocabulary that we can try to work into class lectures, articles and blog entries. However, this new set of oil spill words should not distract us from a simple fact: the Gulf Coast remains in danger.

Gulf Coast seafood producers find themselves in a paradoxical situation. On one hand, the end of the spew and the reopening of many commercial and sport fishing areas means that seafood from the Gulf will once again be widely available. The seafood producers, including the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, have worked hard to build the local brand, trying to assure people that food from the Gulf is not only safe, but extraordinarily good. Obviously, the BP spill tarnished that brand, so their priority now is to resurrect it. The government has been testing the seafood extensively to show that it is safe to consume. The future of the seafood industry on the Gulf Coast—the way of life for thousands of people—is at stake.

At the same time, residents of the Gulf Coast want to remind you that the end of the oil spill is not the end of the problem. There is still oil on the beaches, in the wetlands, maybe under the sea. Seafood producers, processors, restaurant owners and workers and others involved in the Gulf Coast tourist industries have all lost income in the last few months. Cleaning up the damage and making people whole will take time and money. They do not want to be forgotten. Of course, calling attention to this also calls attention to the damage the oil and dispersants may have done to the environment and to the seafood. Which, of course, raises further questions about safety.

Another bumper sticker

A paradox, indeed.

Food activists are using ideas about food culture and heritage in one of the more interesting efforts to address this paradox. A group led by the food activist Gary Nabhan has recently published a collection outlining reasons why we should look at the Gulf of Mexico as both a biological resource and as a key part of America’s cultural heritage. The pamphlet has short articles by food activists in the New Orleans area—people you should read if you are planning on visiting the city for the AAA meetings in November—who explain clearly what is at stake in cultural terms in restoring the health of the Gulf of Mexico.

The problems go far beyond the immediate oil spill. They are biological, of course, but also social and cultural. The articles show what kinds of species are endangered, not just by the recent oil spill, but by other longer term problems. These include the destruction of the Louisiana coast due to oil canals, pipelines and the efforts to control the Mississippi river, all of which have rendered the region vulnerable to salt water intrusion, eroded wetlands and increased the area’s susceptibility to hurricane storm surges. It also includes the huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that is created every year by farm runoff from America’s heartland spewing out from the Mississippi. And it is not just seafood that is at stake. The Gulf Coast is home to plants such as mirlitons (known also as chayote squash) and many other vegetables, to heritage cattle breeds and other kinds of livestock, all of which are in danger of vanishing as the coast disappears and as the pressures of the American food industry and of culinary homogenization press in.

One group is working to have UNESCO designate New Orleans as a “City of Gastronomy.” This includes several of the authors from the Nabhan’s collection, other New Orleans food activists, representatives of the city government and the author of this post. The City of Gastronomy designation is currently held by only three cities (Popayan, Colombia, Chengdu, PRC and Östersund, Sweden). It is part of a broader “creative cities network” that UNESCO has created to promote social, economic and cultural development in cities around the world. This meshes with the emphasis in Louisiana on the “cultural economy” and is understood by our group as a means toward legitimizing the city’s claim that it is home to a distinct culinary heritage. This is not merely an historical artifact: the foodways of New Orleans and the surrounding region, from the waters of the Gulf and the people who work them, to farmers, gardeners, home cooks and restaurant chefs, is indeed a living creative culture. Insuring the health of the Gulf Coast is a key part of making sure that that culture can be sustained. We want to remind you that buying and eating the products of the Gulf is not just good eats. It is also a key part of keeping a way of life alive.

Posted by David Beriss

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Filed under AAA 2010 New Orleans, anthropology, culture, disaster, economics, food policy, heritage, media, sustainability