Category Archives: media

Smokin’ Fish, Smokin’ Culture

by David Beriss

Is it possible to be an authentic Indian in a society overrun with tourists who want to buy bits and pieces of Indian culture? Are those bits and pieces authentic if they are manufactured in Asia? How can people maintain their traditional foodways if the government forbids them from catching enough fish? Can a balance be found between the needs of native fishers and public policies designed to preserve fisheries? Is there room for any kind of distinctive cultural identity in a globalized, touristic, heavily regulated society like that of the contemporary United States? Also, are salmon some sort of deity?

Cory Mann. Photo from Native American Public Communications.

These are the kinds of questions raised by the fascinating film “Smokin’ Fish.” The documentary is the result of a collaboration between Luke Griswold-Tergis and Cory Mann. Having finished an undergraduate degree in anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, Griswold-Tergis set off to Alaska, where he met Mann. Mann is just the kind of person who makes it hard to define culture. He is Tlingit and an entrepreneur with a business designing tchotchkes based on native Alaskan designs. His products are manufactured in Asia for resale in Alaska. Yet even as he pursues his global efforts at mass marketing native culture, he is also deeply engaged in exploring his own cultural identity. The collaboration between Griswold-Tergis and Mann has produced “Smokin’ Fish,” a documentary that explores the connections between native culture, global capitalism, colonialist exploitation of indigenous people, the environment, sustainable fishing and entrepreneurialism. Oh, and smoked salmon. And bears.

Smoking Fish. Photo from Native American Public Communications.

Mann seems to be quite a dynamic entrepreneur, pursuing several different business ventures at any given time, most with some sort of tie-in to Tlingit culture. But for a few months each summer, he closes things down in Juneau and heads back to Klukwan, where his extended family lives. There he works with members of his clan to catch and smoke salmon. The fish, both alive and smoked, are central to the film’s story. Mann asserts at various points that Tlingit worship the fish. The smokehouses they build seem central to their foodways. But this is not all about subsistence fishing. Some Tlingit engage in what appears to be commercial fishing. The smoked fish are also used in trade with other native Alaskans.

The film subtly weaves in the kind of ethnographic details that highlight what is distinctive—and unexpected—about contemporary Tlingit life. Mann explains that his mother took him to San Diego as a small child, where they lived what seems like a counter-cultural kind of life, more hippy than Indian. He never knew his father, who was white. At some point an aunt retrieved him and brought him back to Alaska, where he was raised by a large group of female relatives. This makes sense since, as Mann points out, the Tlingit are matrilineal. It is that kind of detail, along with discussions of clans and houses (Mann is a member of the Eagle Thunderbird Clan) and about the ways in which people build and maintain relationships (by helping build and maintain smokehouses, for instance), that remind us that even in a society heavily dominated by Euro-American values, groups like the Tlingit retain at least some aspects of cultural distinctiveness.

At the same time, the Tlingit continue to struggle with their relationship with non-native authorities. They must deal with the limits on fishing imposed by the state of Alaska, including both licenses and limits that would make it impossible for them to catch enough fish to meet their needs (these are very much ongoing debates, if recent news out of Alaska is any indication). The conflict here surpasses any kind of stereotypes about native relationships with the environment vs. rapacious outsiders. The Tlingit are presented as complex people with interests in salmon that are both traditional and commercial, not as natural environmentalists. Mann also must struggle with federal tax authorities, who do not seem to understand the unusual way in which he runs his business. He has to deal with border officials, as he goes to visit and trade with other natives in nearby Canada. I should note that he does all this while displaying a wry sense of humor and while using an astonishing array of vehicles, all of which appear to be in dire need of repair.

Filmed mostly in Alaska, much of the movie is quite breathtaking. Mann does his fishing from a canoe, in areas of stunning natural beauty. There is an amazing number of eagles flying around the region, as well as both brown and grizzly bears competing with the people for the fish. In addition, members of Mann’s extended family provide a wide range of additional voices, commenting on the history of native/nonnative relations, the exploitation of Tlingit lands, and the challenges they face in maintaining any kind of attachment to their heritage.

The movie is currently traveling around the U.S. Details on where it may go next can be found here. The filmmakers have a Facebook page as well. “Smokin’ Fish” would make a very useful addition to a variety of anthropology courses, including any food and culture course, as well as introductory cultural anthropology classes, courses on indigenous cultures or even on globalization. It can be used to start discussions on food, kinship, identity and, of course, culture. I recommend, however, making sure you have some smoked fish on hand when you show it. The audience will be hungry.

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Filed under Alaska, anthropology, culture, economics, film, fish, food security, hunting, indigenous people, media, 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

Evolution and Meat

Smoked chicken!

There was a fascinating piece on the National Public Radio news program Morning Edition (on the August 2, 2010 show) regarding the links between human evolution, meat eating and cooking.  Naturally, this caught our attention here at FoodAnthropology.  It featured insights from several anthropologists and was about food.  What more can one ask from a news story?  Read and listen to it here.

There are several points of interest.  First is the idea that eating meat allowed humans to develop the kinds of brains that we have now.  A good idea, but apparently eating the meat raw was not sufficient.  In fact, eating most things raw was more difficult and, in some cases, less nutritious than eating the same things cooked.  Of course, this adds culture to evolution.  Fascinating aspect of adaptation, really.  This is precisely the kind of thing that makes evolution so amazing.  This may be an old insight in anthropology (Claude Lévi-Strauss made some observations on cooking, culture and evolution, for example), but it is not really appreciated by non-anthropologists, I think.

Now, I can imagine that all of this could be considered controversial from some points of view.  Folks in the vegetarian, vegan and raw food camps probably have interesting things to say about this.  They might assert that pre-historic diets of nuts and fruit, eaten raw, were really all our (very distant) ancestors needed.  So why should we need more?  They may make strange assertions about what our guts are designed to digest and suggest that we avoid meat, milk, cooked foods, etc.  The archaeologists and biological anthropologists can show that their view of our ancestors is incorrect, but that may not matter.  They will invent new ancestors.  People love to legitimize their positions through imagined ancestors.

In addition, if you read the comments at the end of the NPR piece, you will see people grappling with another kind of issue: if our ancestors developed big brains by eating meat, they seem to ask, does that mean my kid will get a big brain if he or she eats steak?  Well, no, not exactly.  There is a misunderstanding here between the idea of what is adaptive for populations and what is healthy at any given time for individuals.  Here too, people are looking for legitimacy in ancestors, but the problem is that the units of analysis are off.

The links between diet and evolution—including the choices to eat meat and to cook—were probably not well understood by our ancestors, but they did prove to be adaptive.  Are they still adaptive?  It is hard to tell.  Are they healthy for us as individuals?  You can’t really read that from the evolutionary record.  That said, it seems likely that the manner in which we produce most meat today is not sustainable.  And by sustainable, I mean that it harms the environment in ways that may harm us.  Does this mean we should cease eating meat?  Eat less of it?  Produce what we do eat differently?  I like some of those ideas, but not because I know they will prove to be adaptive in an evolutionary sense.  You can’t really make sense of the world that way—it is too abstract.  Our ancestors started at some point to eat meat and later started to cook it, along with other things.  This proved to be a great idea at the time.  I love grilling meat, so I think it is still a great idea.  But you’ll notice that one of the anthropologists cited in the story is a vegetarian (that would be Richard Wrangham, author of the very interesting book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, 2009, Basic Books).  He understands the adaptive nature of meat eating and cooking in the past.  So what does his choice mean now?

You can’t really plan an evolutionary strategy.  You can only tell that what your ancestors did worked at the time.  If our choices are adaptive today, we will have descendants who can look back and appreciate those choices.  I guess that is why it is evolution, not revolution.

posted by David Beriss

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Filed under anthropology, evolution, food security, media, nutrition, sustainability

BP Gulf Spew and the Future of Seafood

New Orleans Jazz Fest Seafood

When you see the words “spew” and “seafood” in the same title, you can assume things are not good.

The enormous and ongoing oil spill/leak resulting from the destruction of BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico has created a sense of imminent catastrophe in New Orleans and the region. The city has been flying high lately, cheered by the election of a new mayor, by the Saint’s Superbowl victory and by dozens of smaller success stories that all suggest we had turned a corner and started, maybe, to put the floods of 2005 behind us.  New Orleans was—and still is—in the process of becoming one of the great urban experiments of the 21st century.  It has become a model of how to turn a city around by focusing on the local, on making things human-scaled, all the while building on a very distinctive local culture.

That culture includes food and foodways in which seafood plays a central part.  It is on the menus of nearly every restaurant in the region, from fried seafood platters and raw oysters to the most elegant plates in white tablecloth restaurants, as Chef John Besh points out.  Seafood is a way of life along the Gulf coast, supporting generations of fishing families.  From roadside stands, to farmers markets, grocery stores, home kitchens and restaurants, everyone in this region eats seafood.  You can get affordable oysters, shrimp, crabs, crawfish and fin fish.  It is not frozen (one local restaurant’s advertising slogan is “Friends don’t let Friends eat Frozen Fish“) and it is not imported.  It is what people talk about too.  When I did jury duty last winter, we talked fishing and seafood in the jury room.  Women and men, black and white, we all shared our best places to fish, our recipes, our stories.

The BP disaster threatens to destroy that, maybe forever.  It is terrifying…and it was probably avoidable.  There have been plenty of warnings about how we set ourselves up for environmental disaster, some specifically about the oil industry, others more general, including work by anthropologists on oil and chemical spills, mining destruction, environmental justice and threats to our food supply that are too numerous to cite.  We have allowed industries to regulate themselves, claiming that enlightened self-interest would result in safety for workers and the public while freeing up the dynamic energy of the market.

At what point will we question this perspective?  How many lives are worth sacrificing—not just in West Virginia mines or Gulf of Mexico oil platforms, but in China, Angola, Nigeria, Russia, Mexico, Iraq or India?  The production of energy and food are both fraught with risk, of course, and it is futile to demand that we eliminate all danger from those processes.  But we do have to recognize the potential consequences of the choices we make.  We have to understand that decisions to “drill, baby, drill” can quickly result in the destruction of an entire industry and way of life.  And we have to recognize that it is possible to make different choices.  We can produce energy and food in ways that are both sustainable and affordable.  Maybe New Orleans will lead the way there too.  But I will save that for a future blog entry.  Meanwhile, Gulf coast seafood is still safe.  Show some solidarity with our fishers and go eat some!

Posted by David Beriss

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Filed under disaster, economics, media, sustainability

The Naked Chef Exposed! (Part 2)

Jamie Oliver in the news… stirring up a storm on the food listserves! (Part Two)

So, the Jamie Oliver message seems to be causing great consternation amongst food scholars and activists. Both the ASFS and Comfood crowds have been batting the show about most unmercifully. Their comments fall into several broad categories; I haven’t statistically analyzed the content, so be kind and understand this is a method-free overview. However, given the sheer volume of Listserve posts, I COULD HAVE used any standard text analysis software, which in and of itself is something to ponder. As I do here.

The primary thread on ASFS started off with this subject line title: “’Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution’ regurgitates the worst of reality TV pap” which certainly set the tone for the many posts that followed. The broad themes are as follows:

“We don’t need no stinkin’ advice”: By far the greatest volume of complaint is within this category, and perfectly summed by this quote, which occurred midway through the fray: “But judging from others’ takes on it, this program seems to be one in a long line depicting self-righteous British experts coming into Americans’ lives and homes and telling us what we’re doing wrong.” This was reiterated by a Guardian columnist, and refuted by a number of folks on the lists who insisted they had no trouble being told how to live by Brits, Italians, Outer Mongolians or any other group of foodie dogooders.

It’s not Feminist or Politically Correct: A theme built upon the chosen film site (a Southern, working-class town), linked to the funny hick accents of the townspeople, and bolstered by Jamie’s habits of calling people – especially the Lunch Ladies – by neo-disrespectful terms such as “hon” and “girls”. This was defended by several posters with the argument that Jamie is a product of his nation and class, which considers those phrases acceptable. If still annoying.

Various ad hominem attacks, from generalized Jamie-fatigue to critiques of celebrity chef hubris: this category mostly focused on queries about what and why a ‘celebrity chef’ (clearly written with dripping ichor) thinks he has the right to critique food use of children and families. See #1 above, add a soupcon of envy, and you’ve nailed the tone.

Queries about if he is successful: this set contains quite a lot of extraneous pro-and con information relating to research about school food, working-class diets, and the tyranny of health education. Various side posts about schools, class, food change and global media culture definitively ran the thread(s) right off the rails.

The need for more information about what people really do and really eat before we espouse change While most posts of this type blithely ignored the data pertaining to the subject already in existence (in the vein of ‘what do we really know about food use anyway?”), some (on ASFS in particular) pointed out where data are missing and called for more targeted studies.

Critiques of his message, largely relating to his insistence that ‘fresh and easy’ is easy to accomplish if you know how, including why is it or isn’t easy (with renewed divagation into contemplation of working-class lives and time budgets). The best part of this thread was the comparison of cooking from scratch to good sex and fast/frozen food to masturbation (it gets the job done, but….).

Discussions about how valueless reality TV is, and why this isn’t a good medium for creating real food use change, or that it is a good venue because: “unfortunately western culture is inspired by sound bites, celebrities and brands…if the message comes from ‘Victoria Beckham’ it has far more impact than Joe Schmoo who is an MP and has worked tirelessly on the same issues! I suppose the same can be said for the masses…who prefer entertaining reality TV over listening to a doctor or nurse ‘drone’ on about nutrition….”. Which neatly reified the condescending tone of the whole taradiddle.

And of course, the many additional posts to confirm that one already did do, or didn’t do, what Jamie espoused. Many of these were solidly self-congratulatory and (back to back) usually contradictory. The highlight was a link to a youtube video that lauded the work of the poster and dramatically asked why Jamie’s Food Revolution “didn’t teach people to cook”… thereby ignoring his “Pass it On” campaign, community education kitchens (Food Centres), and solid record of really quite good (and endearingly simplistic) cookbooks assuring readers that ‘cooking is easy, and you can do it!’

The most trenchant complaint was that by stating that the “Food Revolution Starts Here!” Jamie ignores all the important work done by other schools, groups and individuals around the country. Since this is a very legitimate gripe, I was surprised to see that it didn’t have legs in the thread wars. However, the obvious reason for this omission –  reality TV thrives on manufactured drama and dichotomies – was mentioned, although on the Comfood list there was some consternation that the producers hadn’t reached out to members of the school-food-change community before the show was filmed. However, as a result of this complaint the producers did invite various activists to participate in the last episode. We shall see what happens.

Many writers popped up to support him, and to remind others that he did indeed cause positive change in British schools. This encouraged a new set of posts, which questioned any changes, and cited studies demonstrating the opposite. Which led to posts citing studies that demonstrated that other methods like Jamie’s methods work, and can be linked to any number of positive outcomes. Further posts ensued, mentioning studies demonstrating a correlation between children preferring and eating fresh food and doing better in school. Today, one writer explained that Jamie’s Britishness was the reason for the hostility, and that “It’s a shame though because borders and nationality don’t really have a lot to do with all this, and what’s being missed here – and it worked in Britain – is a prime opportunity to overhaul some food habits that are simply killing people. What’s revolutionary about Oliver is that he’s a celebrity chef who’s genuinely interested in helping people and his track record is good.  Ah well, you can lead a horse to water…”

My take on this extended commentary and controversy will come in Part Three…. And in the meantime, don’t miss Episode Two: http://www.hulu.com/watch/138201/jamie-olivers-food-revolution-episode-102#s-p1-so-i0

Posted by Janet Chrzan

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The Naked Chef Exposed!

Jamie Oliver in the news… and stirring up a storm on the food listserves! (Part One)

Last week provided a watershed moment in my inbox volume as message after message about Jamie Oliver’s new campaign for US school lunches clogged the box day after day (and still more today!). Both the ASFS (Association for the Study of Food and Society) and Comfood (Community Food Security Coalition) lists were abuzz about that cheeky lad Jamie Oliver and his TED talk (http://www.ted.com/talks/jamie_oliver.html) and new TV show, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution (Episode One can be found here: http://www.hulu.com/watch/136381/jamie-olivers-food-revolution-episode-101). Building on the success of his British school reform he is starting off in Huntington, WV, the unhealthiest town in America (according to recent national mortality statistics), to bring rational eating patterns and healthier school lunches to the land of the deep-fried hushpuppy. The show is standard low-budget reality TV fare, with a sharply dichotomized problem (unwillingness to change habits vs. the realization that those food habits are causing obesity and morbidity), the usual crowd of emotional and supposedly self-reflective protagonists, and a fair bit of emotionalism from both Jamie and townspeople – all set in a post-industrial Southern blue-collar town. In addition to the supreme villain of entrenched food exceptionalism (who does this British kid think he is anyway, to come tell us in the US how to eat?) there are grumpy and offended lunch ladies, winsome children throwing away school lunch apples (but eating the chicken nuggets!), a family that eats nothing but fatty processed food, and grandstanding gestures such as lard in wheelbarrows and the ceremonial funeral of a deep-fat fryer. It’s the “A Team”, applied to food, and with only one team member – Jamie.

Quotes from the show will hopefully illustrate the tone:

Jamie:

“I’m talking about causing a big fuss and changing things. Change”

“The food revolution starts here”

“I want to be the polite English guy, but the first thing I see is pizza for breakfast”

“It tastes like starchy fluff with nuts in it – absolutely awful”

“The freezer was an Aladdin’s cave of processed crap; I didn’t know what most of it was, and when I don’t know what something is…”

“The bread the one thing that was made from scratch today and none of them are eating it”

 Or, this exchange between a Lunch Lady and Jamie:

“We have something wonderful called potato pearls” (LL)

“Is it really potatoes?” (JO)

“I hope so” (LL)

And this set of statements, between the mother of the family profiled and Jamie:

“I want my children to succeed in life and this isn’t going to get them there”

“Seeing that food scares me that I am opening my kids to a world of failure”

And the response, from Jamie: “She’s not a bad mum, she just needs help”

And Jamie is there, to provide the help; he immediately informs Mum and the kids that he is going to teach them to cook healthy affordable meals from scratch, and emphasizes the importance of taking responsibility for meals and cooking by telling the eldest son “You’re a man now, you can get there in that kitchen and you can knock out a dinner”. That might be a transgressive gender role instruction for a blue-collar town, but it certainly illustrates the importance of learning how to cook.

And he’s got additional help, in the form of Parson Steve Willis, who is tired of seeing his parishioners die young from nutrition-related disease. He’s got the school district on his side, allowing him to commandeer school kitchens to serve food from scratch, and he’s got his boundless high spirits and sense of doing good to nurture him in the dark hours, when his adversaries attack. Allied against him are the Lunch Ladies, a comically hick local radio jock, and a school filled with willful imps who prefer processed food to fresh, whole ingredients prepared from scratch. After contemplating his ‘haters’ Jamie cries in a playground, overwhelmed by the reality that they don’t see how much he cares.

So yes, it’s standard reality show pablum, except…except…except…. that Jamie is right.

The school food is processed, low-nutrient junk, the profiled home’s cooked meals contain nothing but copious amounts of fat, low-end meat protein, sugar, and starch, the town is filled with obese people, and the health statistics demonstrate a dire present and even more doomed future. So why is everyone up in arms about this show? 

Coming soon, in Part Two of The Naked Chef Exposed I will examine the food world’s Listserve responses….

Posted by Janet Chrzan

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Food Fight

This is a very partial history of 20th century wars (starting with WWII) through food.  Quite astonishing, really, to see what you can do with animated food.  Or, rather, what Stefan Nadelman can do with animated food.  This is his film.  He is not an anthropologist and, honestly, this is not an ethnographic film.  We are posting it here because we think it is cool and we feel we have a license (as food anthropologists) to determine when food-related things on the web are cool.  This is also a public service.  You could use this in a class to provoke students into discussion.  Many of us are even now thinking of ways of working it in to whatever we are teaching.  If food can illustrate wars, what else can it do?  More on that soon.

Just in case you have trouble identifying some of the countries involved, there is a cheat sheet here.

Posted by David Beriss

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The Ten Most Inspiring People in Sustainable Food

I just finished reading this post, “Eat-onomics: the ten most inspiring people in sustainable food”, and its got me thinking of who would be on my list of inspiring people. I also started to wonder what the list would look like if it were focused on concepts. If I can sum it up briefly, the central themes of this list were urban agriculture; creating connections between eaters and the people who produce their food; farmers who have broken from the industrial mould; and visionaries who are outspokenly contesting the political and economic status quo when it comes to food in the Western world.

First of all, what happened to the developing world on this list? What about the countless individuals who are working to help people face problems of drought, food shortages after political upheaval and natural disasters (to name just a face cases)? Although America and Europe face some serious food issues, we also need to think about sustainable food systems with a worldview—in the end, I hate to say it, we are all connected by global trade and politics.

I will take my hat off to any individual who raises awareness about food, nutrition and health. However, we are wise to focus on issues and concepts. Understanding how the world’s food systems are both unique and interconnected will take us further than lauding Jamie Oliver and Michael Pollan.

Who or what would be on your list?

Posted by Rachel Black

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Behavioral Economics, Food and Culture

Picture courtesy of Emily Yates-Doerr

Try this as a thought experiment: Imagine a store that sells broccoli and doughnuts, along with everything else a grocery store sells.  Now, let’s manipulate the prices of those two items to see whether or not we can get people to buy more or less of each.  Why?  Well, we are going to assume that broccoli is healthier than doughnuts and we want to find out if we can get people to buy more of the former than the latter.  Of course, we can probably use price to influence these purchases.  But wait, you might say, that is silly.  Nobody substitutes broccoli for doughnuts.  People buy them for entirely different occasions.   And you might add that just buying them doesn’t tell us much.  Do people who buy broccoli actually eat it before it rots in the fridge?  Do they smother it in butter or cheese?  Is there someone out there who ponders whether or not to have doughnuts rather than broccoli with their steak?  Clearly this experiment leaves a lot of relevant information out of the picture.  We probably would not want to use this sort of experiment to figure out how to address obesity in the U.S.

One of the key insights of nutritional anthropology—of all anthropology, really—is that human behavior can best be understood holistically.  This means that food consumption choices, for example, can rarely be explained by only one thing, like price.  To understand why people purchase items at a grocery store—and why they later consume them, assuming they do—we need to look at the social relations those items help create and maintain, as well as the meanings people attach to particular goods.  We also want to put the whole set of transactions and meanings into historical and political-economic context.

In other words, when you buy broccoli or doughnuts, there is a lot of explaining to be done.  And if we, as a society, decide that we are too fat, we need to look very carefully at the whole context of fatness in figuring out what kinds of policies might help address the problem (for one good take on that, check out the wonderful book Fat: The Anthropology of an Obsession, edited by Don Kulick and Anne Meneley).

About a week ago, National Public Radio ran a story on an effort to encourage grocery store shoppers to buy healthier food.  The journalist, Allison Aubrey, cited a study by researchers at the University of Buffalo who set up an entire fake supermarket and then recruited some mothers to shop there.  They supplied the mothers with money and then manipulated prices on items they (the researchers) decided were healthy and junk in order to see if they could influence choices.  They discovered that prices can have an impact, although they also found out that the mothers would still buy “junk” if they had money left over after purchasing reduced price broccoli.  The reporter also found a “behavioral economist” who, citing a “theory of loss aversion,” said he found this behavior (by the mothers, not the researchers) unsurprising.

As far as I know, they did not study whether or not anyone ate any of the stuff they bought.

This is stunning, you have to admit.  No, not the price sensitivity.  I think that is pretty obvious.  Rather, the idea that researchers would set up an entire fake grocery store.  Why not study how people really shop, in real stores?  Why not see what they do with the food they buy?  And find out what their families do with it?  Maybe even ask them about it.  No, not in a survey.  Not even in a focus group.  Go watch them.  Hang out with them.  Follow them around.  Check out differences between what they think they do, say they do…and really do.  The fake grocery store merely allows researchers—perhaps this is what behavioral economists do—to assume away big chunks of social, cultural and historic context.  It turns out, of course, that there are anthropologists who have studied consumption practices in a more holistic manner.  Daniel Miller and colleagues (check out the Material World blog) have done some great work in this area, for example.  And read this brilliant story about what happens when an anthropologist observes a family actually eating breakfast.

The vigilant team here at FoodAnthropology has found even more fantastic recent work by anthropologists that help put these choices in context.  Amy Paugh and Carolina Izquierdo recently published work on the battles between parents and children over what constitutes healthy dining in the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology (“Why is This a Battle Every Night?: Negotiating Food and Eating in American Dinnertime Interaction,”2009, vol. 19, number 2).  Joylin Namie has produced some very useful recent work on the role children play in family food choices, writing recently in Anthropology News that “When it comes to food in US households, children may not be driving the car, but they are often driving the cart” (“The Power of Children Over Household Consumption,” 2008, volume 49, number 4, pages 11-12).  Price, it turns out, is only one factor in determining why people buy food.  We need, as these anthropologists (and many others) show, to pay attention to what people really do and to why they do it if we want to develop policies that will really address obesity.

Otherwise we may as well be comparing broccoli and doughnuts.

Posted by David Beriss.

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Filed under economics, media, nutrition, obesity