Category Archives: protest

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

Strained Yogurt and People In Greece

by Leo Vournelis

The former district governor Macedonia escorted away after having yogurt thrown at him in during a public speech.

This past weekend another prominent politician became the victim of “yaourtoma”. This time it was the minister of the Department of Interior, Haris Kastandidis. The minister was at a movie theater in his district in Thessaloniki (Greece’s second largest city) and was watching a movie when a group of angry college students burst in on the theater and threw yogurt at the minister protesting the government’s austerity measures and handling of the economic crisis (click here for video footage). The minister attempted to confront the students without success and had to be escorted away by his security guards.

Even though there is no cultural tradition of “food fighting” in Greece, the act of throwing yogurt at people is not without precedent. Rebel youths in the early 60s in Athens were infamous for throwing yogurt at unsuspecting bystanders. The act became known as “yaourtoma”, and to “yogurt someone” meant to hit someone (usually in the face) with a small yogurt cup. It became such a wide spread phenomenon that harsh laws were passed in an attempt to stop it. The State voted the notorious “Law 4000” that penalized the act with public humiliation. The perpetrators, referred to at the time as Teddy Boys,

Youth being made to march under police escort in the streets of Athens carrying a sign that identifies him as a “Teddy Boy” guilty of throwing yogurt at people (circa 1960).

had their heads shaved and were paraded in public holding signs proclaiming their “crime” for all to see. The act of “yaourtoma” was featured in the Greek cinema of the time, with most movies portraying those engaging in such behavior as alienated youth in need of a more traditional moral code.

During the past few decades “yaourtoma” had become a rare phenomenon. When committed it was usually against a public figure, and media, politicians, and public opinion most of the time condemned it as an inappropriate act committed by fringe elements.  The last 2 years, however, throwing yogurt at representatives of the government has taken on epidemic proportions. The vast majority of the cases involve politicians, mostly from the ruling party. A traditional variety of Greek yogurt, made from sheep’s milk, is the most common food item used in public acts of indignation and resistance, although occasionally eggs and tomatoes have been used in a similar manner. Unlike the rebel youth in the 60s, modern yogurt throwing is popular with Greek men and women of all ages.  It is not uncommon to see students marching with bags of yogurt cups ready to be thrown at a politician or at a police officer. Quite often retirees indignant at the government’s austerity measures that have had a significant negative impact on their pensions use yogurt against politicians and members of the Greek security forces. At the height of the Greek economic crisis “yaourtoma” went mainstream. It has become so common an act of public indignation that this past week, Socratis Ksynidis,  the vice minister of the Department of Development and Competition, in an interview in one of the most popular radio stations argued that “yaourtoma” is an appropriate “punishment” for the government’s (failed) policies. In addition, the archbishop of the city of Giannena –one of the largest cities in Greece- gave his blessing to those who engage in “yaourtoma” arguing that it is a just course of action. There is even a Facebook page called De-criminalize Yiaourtoma and a word search on Greek online Press reveals a great number of “yaourtoma” incidents this past year, almost all involving either politicians or members of the Greek security apparatus (police officer, special strike forces etc.).

To understand why yogurt is the favorite item to be used as a projectile we need to look at the association it has with Greek ethnic identity. The sheep’s milk yogurt in question belongs to a category of objects (feta cheese, olive oil, etc.) that are strongly associated with rurality and by extension with Greekness. Rurality has long been a target of objectification and fetishization in the service of national identity projects. Moreover, certain food items through everyday practices lend themselves to closer associations with ethnicity. We saw that in the incident in the Greek Parliament last week discussed in my previous post, the Chairman in his comment associated milk and bread with rurality but the MP’s actions linked those very same items with gender and class identity.

The polluting power of food running down someone’s head and clothes identifies “yaourtoma” as a symbolic act of indignation that aims to ridicule and punish those whom the public considers guilty of government cronyism, incompetency, and the continuing mismanagement of the Greek economy. Paying attention to what the demonstrators themselves have to say about the economic crisis brings us closer to understanding why yogurt is the preferred food to be used as projectile. During the past year the crisis deepened and it became increasingly obvious that the austerity program was not working.  The government responded with more and stricter austerity measures, under the direction of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), its European equivalent, the EFSF, and the European Commission, the three agencies in charge of the Greek bailout program headed by the IMF. Since the beginning of the crisis these agencies have pressured the government towards a restructuring of the Greek economy based on classic neo-liberal economic principles: reduction of the welfare state, privatization of public services, market deregulation, and lowering wage labor cost. This has been presented to the public as strategy to make the Greek economy more competitive by increasing its exports and revenue and eventually reducing its deficit to manageable levels. In fact these policies, along with the over-taxation of the working class, have led to a deeper recession and reduced standards of living for millions of people. Although, the three agencies in charge of the bailout program have come to be called the Troika, most people refer to the functionaries of these agencies as Troikanoi, an adjective that indicates a person of foreign ethnic or national origins.

During the past year, more and more people who had never before protested in public are finding themselves in the streets demonstrating against the austerity measures based on IMF policies. They are also protesting against a neo-liberal vision of society that they judge to be foreign and incompatible with the local moral economy. Many do not share the IMF’s vision of a country with flexible labor laws, low wages, and high unemployment always ready to provide a work force at a very low cost. The fact that yogurt is strongly associated with ethnic identity has its significance since the victims of “yaourtoma” are the representatives and implementers of policies and ideologies considered to be hostile and foreign. Furthermore, the physicality of the contact between yogurt and the bodies of those doing the throwing and those getting targeted is one way to engender resistance to the foreign and hostile nature of the IMF’s vision for Greece, by literally covering the representatives of these policies in the viscous Greekness of sheep’s milk yogurt. In the video footage showing the students throwing yogurt at the minister of the Department of Interior Affairs the students’ angry comments are clearly audible: “You have ruined our lives! You have condemned us to unemployment! Aren’t you ashamed? You need to leave Greece! All of you need to leave Greece”. A type of yogurt with strong associations to ethnic identity, Greek rural life, and social values embodies the radical clash between the protesters’ vision of a growing economy regulated by a competent and just welfare State and the IMF’s vision of Greece, which as the adjacent political cartoon published this week indicates, is for many Greeks alien and monstrous.

“Do not open the door. The milkman migrated to Australia yesterday”. The alien monster at the other side of the door bears the name “Troika” on its head and the word “Government” on its tail with the head of the Greek Prime minister at the tip of the tail.

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Filed under anthropology, culture, Debt crisis, economics, food policy, food security, Greece, protest