Messer’s Postings

Ellen Messer, Ph.D.
(Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy, Boston, MA)

What’s new in food and nutrition research and policy in the world, the US, and sustainability?

1. State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) 2019. This report, released in July 2019 (as contrasted with its usual October, World Food Day release date) gives governments and everyone much to ponder. Key findings indicate hunger numbers are increasing, not declining. Prevalence of undernourishment, the least exacting measure, affects close to one billion people; experience of food insecurity (not sure where your next meal is coming from) affects more than a billion more, including those suffering hunger in industrialized countries. This year’s themes, in addition to addressing conflict, climate change, and economic inequalities as causes of hunger, considered paths to recovery from economic downturn and the challenges of structural inequalities that lead to hunger. You can download the report, its executive summary, or in its entirety, here.  For a quick overview (especially to start off discussions in classes or presentations), access FAO’s (3+ minute) video, summarizing major numbers and themes here.

2. 2020 US Dietary Guidelines for All Americans (DGA) face substantial political challenges in the run-up to the Committee’s report. The White House administration has banned any discussion/recommendations regarding environmental impact (sustainable food systems), health impacts of red meat or processed meats, or ultra-processed foods and sodium. It has also disallowed reference to any research studies published before 2000, and reference to any non-USDA scientific studies (!). You can read the Washington Post summary here. My authoritative Tufts colleagues add: Nutrition scientists and policy makers need to change the term “plant-based” “foods or meat substitutes” to minimally processed plant foods, as many of the ultra-processed foods are plant-based!

3. Meanwhile, what’s new on the planetary health and diet front are new microbial “meat” substitute start-up’s (carbon footprints of these highly processed food operations still need to be scrutinized), and a report that the Swiss-based corporate giant Nestlé, along with other major food industry conglomerates, is taking steps to make its supply chains carbon-neutral by 2030. You can read more about the Nestlé’s initiative here or on the company’s website and more about the hype surrounding soil microbes and their potential to feed the world here.

4. Synthesizing discussion of all three above themes, Frank B. Hu (Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health) published a “Viewpoint” perspective in JAMA, pointing out the mixed environmental and health impacts of more or less processed plant-based foods that are meant to substitute for meat. An easily accessible interview on the major takeaways is here.

Reminder: SAFN members recently received an announcement from David Beriss regarding a new on-line journal, Nature Food, which is actively soliciting brief commentaries, opinion pieces, literature reviews, and original research articles from food professionals across many disciplines, including anthropology.  The editor-in-chief, Anne Mullen, intends to include anthropological materials of interest to a wider range of scientists in every issue.   You can find at more on the website.

Related Reminder from SAFN President David Beriss: If you are not a SAFN member and wish to receive our occasional updates via email, be sure to join the association, which you can do here. Once you are a member, you can receive communications via the new American Anthropological Association Communities communications system, here.

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Review: Reconstructing Obesity

Reconstructing Obesity: The Meaning of Measures and the Measure of Meanings

Megan B. McCullough and Jessica A. Hardin, eds. Reconstructing obesity: the meaning of Measures and the Measure of Meanings. Berghahn. New York, 2015. ISBN: 978-1-78533-028-5. 245 pp.

Richard Zimmer (Sonoma State University)

Megan McCullough and Jessica Hardin have compiled an excellent series of essays as to how different societies and professional groups define and evaluate obesity. Briefly, the writers of these essays, including the two editors themselves, make several points. First, measures of obesity are not standardized, nor are they reliably accurate. Second, people from different societies, for historical and contemporary reasons, do not define obesity as do many Western health professionals. Third, the implications of the aforementioned mis-measurement and varying definitions of obesity affect how people do or do not receive services and how they may come to think and feel about themselves regarding weight. Consequently, “erroneous measurement” and “stigmatization” may affect the health of individuals and groups of individuals. Lastly, an important strength of the book is that the literature on this subject is well-reviewed and ample.

McCullough and Hardin set the stage in their introduction, showing how cultural assumptions about health and obesity distort weight understanding and services provided. As with the other contributors, they deconstruct the cultural assumptions behind the characterization of obesity: “The underlying message from popular media and health studies argues that there are direct, easily identifiable links between obesity and ill health. (p.7.)” They conclude that “…[a]pproaches to obesity should expand the scope of health intervention, promotion, and intervention beyond the individual to engage deeply with culture to account for gendered dynamics, models of embodiment, histories, globalization, and a host of other factors. (p.17.)”

Part I concerns itself with the measurement of obesity.

Anne E. Becker details different “fatness” and “obesity” measures. These measures, she contends, are culture-bound to Western ideas of agency.. Weight loss programs, however, focus on what the person “should be.” Most important, and this is a recurrent theme throughout the book, health care professionals expect the “overweight” person to accept an overweight characterization and to address by herself prescribed “necessary” remedies to lose weight—often, despite cultural pressures to the contrary. (pp.31-2.) I specifically use “herself” here because more pressure is put on women than on men. As Becker and the other authors suggest, this way of proceeding generally causes failure to lose weight, with serious other consequences, both medical and psychological.

Emily Yates-Doerr reviews and critiques in detail the measures used by health professionals to characterize obesity. One example she offers is the use of the BMI. Yates-Doerr relates how public health professionals in Guatemala would subtract the weight of the outer garments the women wore from their measured weight. But they would vary in terms of how much they estimated those garments weighed (p. 52.) Consequently, the BMI measures can be seriously misleading. She concludes: “How are risk of morbidity and mortality determined; what remains unspoken and what concerns are not attended to by using weight as a key determinant of health? (p. 67.)”

Darlene McNaughton focuses on the relationship in terms of health programs between diabetes and obesity. She terms this focus “diabesity.” Drawing on feminist theory and other perspectives, she says: “Overweight and obese people are imagined either as diabetic or becoming diabetic. (p. 77)” McNaughton couples these perceptions with a generalized fat prejudice, particularly in countries like Australia—because “fat” is visible (pp.78-82.) “Fat” people thus are stigmatized and experience the consequences of that judgmental stigmatization.

Part 2 focuses on Histories of “Fat”

Hannah Garth looks at the history of food scarcity in Cuba after the Revolution . She cites a previous study by J. Alvarez from 2004: the Cuban government instituted a system of food rationing “…because of an increase in the need for food due to increased purchasing power and decreases in domestic food production resulting from the shift towards state ownership of farmland and food production enterprises (p. 90.)”   The collapse of the Soviet Union brought in the “Special Period,” where there was even less food than before. Many people remember when there was very little or no food. In the present, they feel insecure about the availability of food. Thus, any program that addresses dieting and obesity runs into difficulties because people resist changes to their food consumption and eating habits. As Garth notes about several of her informants, people eat when they find food available (p.98.)

Jessica Hardin explores obesity and disease in Western Samoa, analyzing how culture and cultural/religious contradictions affect obesity determination and health programs in the area. Western Samoa is often thought of as one of the most obese areas in the world.   In the past and in the present, many Samoans feasted at important family occasions, consuming large amounts of food. Moreover, higher status Samoans tended to eat more, and their size was a measure of their importance (p.110, et seq.) In addition, they tend to eat processed and fast food and other nutritionally deficient food. Trying to introduce dieting runs counter to this value and practice. Since many Samoans are Christians, many fast as part of their religious practice. They do so, however, in church, which contradicts family social practices and weakens family ties. Furthermore, fasting by itself is not necessarily healthy. Hardin concludes by saying that programs that focus only on a metric basis for health must be replaced by a more sophisticated understanding of the “…intersections of health and religious belief [are] critical domains for use in health interventions, but they may provide new ways for thinking about the multiple meanings o f health and alternative modes of measuring health. (p.125.)”

Part 3 Focuses on How Different Cultures Address “Fat”

Rochelle Rosen draws important lessons about caring for diabetes and obesity in American Samoa. To best address the two conditions, she contends that health practitioners must incorporate each society’s often multiple cultural understandings of both conditions. Otherwise, the focus is on the person or client’s individual agency and individual responsibility to change. In particular, she notes: “Where health is communal, interventions predicated on individual self-care may fail to help. (p.142.)” Anthropologists and behavioral scientists, she contends, should continue to elicit these behaviors from the “…emic perspective of the people who engage in them …(p.142.)” to be effective.

Sarah Trainer examines the ways in which modern women in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) think about the categories of “fat” and “thin”, nutrition, their concerns about them, and how to address these concerns. Emirati women, she says, are concerned about being ” thin, but not skinny” , using a variety of weight loss aids and exercise (pp.152-156.)   But the focus is not always maintained and consistent. In one of her studies, she notes “…sedentary patterns…coupled with nutritionally poor diets among the participants (p.156.)” Continuing with the critique of using standardized measurements, such as BMI and body fat percentage data, she says that “…none of these possible threats to health, nor the verbally expressed stress of many young women, would be obvious…[from the aforementioned data.] (p.156.)” As a result, public health, she contends, is not getting better (p.162,), despite increased governmental surveillance–because women want to be thin, regardless of many of the consequences of doing so (p.162.)

Tracey Galloway and Tina Moffat explore the efficacy of school-based childhood obesity preventions in Canada. Many of these programs originated in the United States. They are largely behaviorist based, and often very strict. Children’s self-reports included the following: not being allowed to get up when eating, having to eat at one’s desk, and having food inspected and “unacceptable” items removed, to be returned at the end of the day (p.174.) Furthermore, girls and boys differed both in their perceptions of foods and the restrictions placed upon themselves.   Girls saw more restrictions on what they should and should not eat, while boys saw more restrictions on where they could move within the classroom (pp.174-5.) Galloway and Moffat go further: “…very few of the rules, restrictions, and rewards around food and beverage consumption in schools are related to nutrition or health…But it is surprising that these [positive] messages about food [issued by the Ontario Ministry of Education] are largely absent from the children’s perceptions of the rules and regulations governing their lunch and snack times (p. 178.”) They also note that children are rarely consulted in the design of programs. In addition, children’s privacy itself is invaded in the program process. Following the above genderization of food programs, they cite a previous study which shows that “…teachers socialize girls early into the idea that boys should be fed to satiety while girls should exercise restraint (p.183.)” Nevertheless, according to relatively recent research on school diets in Canadian schools, children are eating more healthy foods (https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/public-health-nutrition/article/examining-differences-in-school-hour-and-school-day-dietary-quality-among-canadian-children-between-2004-and-2015/EE852354AB74B07F23B88313348084AE/core-reader

Lisa Rubin and Jessica Joseph examine what it means to be “fat” or “thin” in the United States, among girls and women, and especially among African American women. Starting with the statistics on being overweight and obese, they note the result—a “war” on obesity (p.200.) The programs that have developed to address these issues focus on individual action and on “…biomedical intervention or surgery” (p.201.) This focus persists despite the evidence they cite from earlier researchers that suggests “…poverty, stress, and discrimination contribute significantly to the onset and maintenance of conditions often associated with obesity (p.201.)” Reviewing the literature on African American women, they note that these women saw that attempts to redress their weight and obesity issues were “…’part of an effort to diminish black [sic] womanhood.’ (p.209.)” They conclude that “…[m]ore research is needed to examine concerns about eating disorders, overweight, and obesity among Black women from their own perspective. Rather than one imposed by a dominant medical, or eating disorder establishment P. 211.)”

Megan McCullough starts off her essay this way: “I am a fat anthropologist and not an anthropologist who is fat. (p. 215.)” She then stated that if someone had seen her, that person would have decided that she was fat or obese (p.215.)   McCullough put out this preface because she will then take us through her experience with her pregnancy as she encountered the medical establishment’s treatment of her. She felt stigmatized, judged, misjudged, and shamed by medical personnel throughout. She quotes a nurse who said to her: “’I don’t have any extra large robes in here so you will have to make do with this and a sheet…’ (p.213.)” As a result of these experiences, and acknowledging that there are dangers in terms of obesity, McCullough raises larger questions: “ What kinds of care are obese African-American or Hispanic women receiving?   What about obese lesbian mothers? P.230.)”

Stephen McGarvey, in his Afterword, restates the central concern of these essays—mismeasurement, stigmatization, medicalization, focus on individual agency, and a failure to address historical and cultural circumstances. What he proposes is that attention must be paid to the effects all of these have on research, program, and treatment (pp.235-237.) The Afterword’s and the whole book’s focus on individual agency is itself of particular importance because ” A survey of more than three hundred international policy makers found that 90 percent of them still believe that personal motivation-a.k.a.–willpower–was a very strong cause of obesity. (Wilson 2019:21.)” McGarvey intends to have the issues he delineates addressed in a more sensitive and successful fashion.

As I have noted, the book is an important contribution to addressing what is a significant concern in the understanding of weight issues. I would like to address the issues raised from a somewhat different angle, hoping to add to future research, program, and treatment. In terms of my background, I am an anthropologist. I am also a psychologist. One of my specialties is that I assess clients who are going to get gastric bypass, laparoscopy, gastric band and gastric sleeve surgeries. The stated purpose of these surgeries is to enable a person who has had significant difficulties in losing weight to lose weight. These clients have tried diets, often to no avail. They are at risk for Type II diabetes and other medical problems, including heart conditions, etc. The purpose of the assessment is to make sure that the client has no underlying psychopathology or substance abuse that would prevent her or him from understanding the nature of the surgery and following the doctor’s post-operative orders.

My role is to assess, not say whether the surgery itself is indicated. Generally, the population I see for gastric bypass surgery is severely [ the preferred term] obese, even considering the issues of mismeasurement raised by many of the essay writers. The laparoscopy and other surgeries population is severely overweight, but not necessarily severely obese. Laparoscopy and the other mentioned surgeries is a less invasive surgical procedure, which is why it is used for this condition. All the patients I have seen have had difficulties with different diets. Approximately 70% have Type II diabetes. About 60% have either been molested or raped, equally across categories of their gender, sexual identity, or sexual preference.

The surgeries for severe obesity are often successful for reducing the presence and risk of Type II diabetes (see, for example, https://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/34/Supplement_2/S361. The site offers a useful description of the measures used to determine severe obesity and the different types of surgeries considered.) The surgeries do entail risks, including rupture of the surgery area. The person must be careful in following all the post-operative instructions, including changing long-term eating patterns. Those receiving gastric bypass surgery can no longer drink carbonated beverages and must eat very small portions of food.

The physicians for whom I do the surgery assessments run support groups for their patients. Many of their patients have talked to family and friends who have had the surgery and they get ample visual and written material as well. As noted above, my “sample of clients” shows a high level of being sexually abused. Rarely have they gotten therapy for that abuse. I do recommend that they see a therapist. Depending on the circumstances, I may set this as a precondition of the surgery. My statistics may be slightly higher than other studies, as, for example:” Obesity rates were not different across groups in childhood or adolescence. By young adulthood (ages 20–27), abused female subjects were significantly more likely to be obese (42.25%) than were comparison female subjects (28.40%). Hierarchical linear modeling growth-trajectory analyses indicated that abused female subjects, on average, acquired body mass at a significantly steeper rate from childhood through young adulthood than did comparison female subjects after controlling for minority status and parity. (https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/120/1/e61?download=true.)” Other researchers have also seen the link between being sexually abused as a child and obesity, as, for example: https://www.obesityaction.org/community/article-library/sexual-abuse-and-obesity-whats-the-link/

There may be other co-occurring [the preferred term] conditions that may require stronger interventions than dieting and/or exercise. I also treat clients from Workers Compensation or with disabilities from non-work-related accidents. Many of them can no longer move easily and are often depressed as well. They often gain large amounts of weight, some moving into the category of severely obese. One client was hurt on the job so that he could not walk or move easily. Before the accident, ironically, he had the gastric bypass surgery, because he weighed 350 pounds. After the accident, he could barely move. Furthermore, his weight climbed to 450 pounds. He did not want to take medications and he did not want to come to therapy, either—even after the risks were explained to him. I offer details about these cases because I think the book should help further address how to best address populations with these kinds of issues.

Some of the essays specifically concern how weight issues affect African American women.      The American Psychological Association issued a report on ideas and changes that should be made concerning this population: https://www.apa.org/pi/women/resources/reports/obesity.pdf

As the book recommends, more research should be done and greater sensitivity should be shown to this population and to similar ones as well (2014: 14.) Often, however, external factors, such as no place to exercise, family dysfunction for some, lack of money—cannot easily be addressed in programs.

In sum, this is an excellent, well-written book that is useful for anthropologists, public health and policy makers, and practitioners working in the field of obesity. It would also be useful for graduate students in these same areas.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

2019. Bee Wilson. The Way We Eat Now. Basic Books: New York.

https://www.apa.org/pi/women/resources/reports/obesity.pdf 2014 (Accessed August 26, 2019.)

https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/public-health-nutrition/article/examining-differences-in-school-hour-and-school-day-dietary-quality-among-canadian-children-between-2004-and-2015/EE852354AB74B07F23B88313348084AE/core-reader 2019 (Accessed August 27, 2019)

https://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/34/Supplement_2/S361 2011(Accessed August 26, 2019

https://www.obesityaction.org/community/article-library/sexual-abuse-and-obesity-whats-the-link/ 2019 (Accessed August 27, 2019)

https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/120/1/e61?download=true 2007(Accessed August 26, 2019)

 

 

 

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Thesis Review: Food in the Making

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A cook has shaped  a daily bread dough and is sprinkling semolina grains on top so it doesn’t stick when she places it under a cloth to rise before she brings it to the nearby public oven for baking. (Photo: Katharina Graf)

 

Food in the Making: Food Preparation, Material and Social Change in Urban Morocco. Katharina Graf. PhD/MPhil Thesis, SOAS University of London, London, UK. 2016.

Maria Carabello (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA)

In this thesis, Katharina Graf engages with and explores the daily acts and rhythms of food preparation in lower income households in Marrakech, Morocco. Taking a phenomenological approach to ethnography, Graf assumes the role of an active apprentice in the homes of three Marrakchi women (Fatimzahra, Rachida, and Aicha). She uses her position and the multi-sensory experiences it affords to pursue two central aims—first, to understand the embodied knowledge and processes of reproduction that underlie daily acts of Marrakchi cooking; and second, to probe and expose the changing material and social context of an urbanizing Morocco. Thoughtful in approach, rich in description, and insightful in its analysis, her work contributes meaningfully to the increasingly intersectional fields of food and gender studies, and to the anthropology of knowledge, learning, and the senses, within and beyond Moroccan borders.

In pursuit of these stated aims, Graf leans upon the ethnographic experiences of provisioning, processing, cooking, baking, and sharing meals with her research participants, as well as several key strands of social theory that lend both depth and context to her research. For example, using Ingold’s (2001) concept of an education of attention to frame the process of learning to cook as multi-sensorial and continuous; bringing in Bourdieu’s (1977) notion of habitus to recognize how repetitive practice gives rise to internalized structures that guide acts of Marrakchi cooking as they unfold as a dialogical exchange between cook, food, and environment; and engaging with Sutton’s (2006) view of cooking as a skillful practice, which helps to bridge the materiality of food production with the social nature of its consumption. By weaving together these and many related anthropological, sociological, and philosophical concepts Graf provides a sound theoretical foundation from which to present her empirical work, and effectively recalls key ideas throughout the thesis to note areas of resonance and distinction with her own findings.

The thesis itself is structured around five central chapters, which loosely track the natural sequence of food preparation—from provisioning and processing, to cooking and baking, to sharing and eating food. At the same time, they also follow Graf’s own experiential trajectory from a novice cook primarily tasked with provisioning at the market to an expert entrusted with the preparation of full dishes. The body chapters are bookended by an introduction which lays out the aims of the thesis and introduces its theoretical foundations, and a conclusion framed around the case study of Ramadan—“a month when boundaries are made and unmade and both continuity and change asserted” (p. 228)—that is used to tease out the main findings from her fieldwork. Although innovative and largely effective, an extended conclusion would have afforded an opportunity to remind readers of the key findings from earlier chapters and to also reflect more deeply on the ways in which this thesis confirms and challenges prior research. Graf also artfully intersperses each section of the thesis with a series of six reflective interludes derived from her fieldnotes, providing a nice contrast to the analytical passages of the thesis while also effectively underscoring its phenomenological methodology.

In the first chapter, Graf introduces the historical and geographic context of her fieldsite in Marrakech, using the preparation of bread to illustrate how the city’s foodscape is made (and re-made) through the movement and interactions of cooks and ingredients. In Chapter 2, she shifts her focus to the economic dimensions of cooking, and explores how cooks make decisions about how to source and process ingredients that are good for themselves and their families in a largely unregulated and unstandardized food environment. She articulates two vernacular indices of quality that cooks and consumers in Marrakech use to categorize food items; beldi (‘from the country’) and rumi (‘foreign’). However, origin alone is not the sole criterion evoked by Marrakchi consumers when they make use of such terms. What makes food good (or, beldi) in Morocco involves “a cook’s multi-sensory and ethical assessment . . . relate[d] to taste, provenance, context of production, health and well-being, safety and food security (p. 117).” While this may call to mind similar concepts such as “taste of place” (see: Trubek 2009), Graf argues that a beldi designation is more contingent on personal context and evaluation. For example, a woman would be likely to judge meat from her hometown as beldi even if other products with similar, or even preferable, sensory characteristics were available closer to her current location. In this way, it can be seen that Moroccans have come to rely on a deeply personal and sensory-based evaluation schema for what constitutes good food and good cooking in the absence of externally imposed standards and regulations, thus posing a challenge to the possibility of a shared social context for quality designations.

Chapters 3 and 4 constitute the core of Graf’s thesis and interrogate, in turn, what constitutes cooking knowledge and how girls and women in Marrakech come to acquire and hone it. These explorations give way to Graf’s central argument, which is that cooking and taste knowledge are inherently multi-sensory and synesthetic, and thus learning to cook entails a tactical education of all the senses. These findings largely resonate with Sutton’s (2014) ethnography of home cooking on the Greek island of Kalymnos, yet Graf notes an intriguing difference in the circumstances by which Marrakchi and Kalymnian women learn to become cooks. While older female relatives often coached along young cooks in Kalymnos, the Marrakchi women underwent a “lifelong multi-sensory immersion” yet only truly metamorphosed into active cooks when called to replace the lead food preparer in the household. While the two contexts clearly afford women different opportunities to enact—and thus, embody—their cooking knowledge, the basis of that knowledge in both cases is rooted in continuous exposure to the sensory, material, and social culture of preparing and sharing food.

In this thesis, Graf provides a detailed and multi-dimensional study of Marrakchi home cooking knowledge and its reproduction, while also recognizing the window this topic provides into a changing, urbanizing Morocco. As Marrakchi women increasingly have the opportunity to study and work outside the home to gain financial independence, shifts in the constitution of an ideal family have begun to veer away from larger multi-generational households towards more intimate conjugal dwellings. While Graf suggests that young Marrakchi women still derive a deep sense of identity from preparing food for their families, it stands to question whether this will continue if they struggle to balance the independence achieved from working outside the home with the dependence now placed upon them as the primary food preparers for their immediate households. This study alone cannot provide any certain resolutions to such questions. What this work provides instead is a clear indication that so long as Moroccans continue to value the preparation of foods in the home, there will continue to be people in those households that rise to the occasion of making the meals that are so central to their social and material lives.

References

Bourdieu, Pierre, Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1977.

Ingold, Tim. “From the Transmission of Representation to the Education of Attention.” In The Debated Mind: Evolutionary Psychology Versus Ethnography. Edited by H. Whitehouse. Oxford, UK: Berg. 2001: 113–153

Sutton, David E. Cooking Skill, the Senses and Memory: the Fate of Practical Knowledge. In Sensible Objects: Colonialism, Museums and Material Culture. Edited by E. Edwards, C. Gosden, & R. Philipps. Oxford, UK: Berg. 2006: 87–118.

 Sutton, David E. Secrets from the Greek Kitchen: Cooking, Skill, and Everyday Life on an Aegean Island. Oakland, UK: University of California Press. 2014

Trubek, Amy B. The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir. Berkeley, CA: University of California. 2009.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, cooking, gender, urban

The Market as a Village

Blog editors’ note: This is the summer edition of the Latinx Foodways in North America series, which looks at different approaches scholars use to analyze foods and food production with Latinx communities. Latinx is broadly defined to include the United States and other regions in North America. If you would like to contribute or know of someone who does work in this area, please contact series editor, Sarah Fouts: sfouts@umbc.edu

Tiana Bakic Hayden

“This is like a village,” said Toño, a lime merchant in Mexico City’s main wholesale food terminal, La Central de Abasto. “Everyone knows everyone, everyone gossips.”

If La Central is like a village, it bears little resemblance to the pastoral imaginary of small houses dotting crop-covered hills and domesticated animals milling about. Inaugurated in 1982, La Central covers over 300 hectares of land in the southeastern Mexico City neighborhood of Iztapalapa. It is a sprawling, modernist complex of concrete warehouse and storehouse spaces, divided in grid-fashion by roads and alleys, which are invariably clogged by produce-laden cargo trucks. A purely commercial space, nobody lives—officially at least—in La Central, but the market is alive day and night, every day of the week, all year round. Inside, there are restaurants, shops of various kinds, banks, a day care, an art gallery, conference spaces, administrative buildings, garbage processing facilities, and much more. Daily, between 300,000-500,000 visitors are estimated to come to La Central, searching for the best deals on kilos or even tons of watermelons, blackberries, avocados, or dried spices.

mexico market

A street shot of La Central. Photo taken by author.

Food markets are often thought of and represented in largely visual and sensory terms, and indeed, La Central is a place that is striking for the senses. The sight of tons of fruits, jostling bodies passing money, an endless line of vehicles, the smell of putrefying produce mingling with exhaust are all part of La Central. But what interested me was the sorts of networks, informal rules, and vernacular mechanisms according to which the market worked. How, I wondered, were prices set? How was commerce regulated in a space where so many transactions—between employees and employers, buyers and sellers—were in cash and left little in the way of a paper trail? What sort of culture of commerce existed in La Central?

I quickly found that, while merchants and administrators were generally open to interviews, these tended to be stilted, bureaucratic affairs where I learned little in the way of how things actually worked. In a particularly memorable interview, the president of the produce wholesalers’ union UNCOFYL, simply read to me fragments of the market’s and the union’s Reglamentos (internal statues) in answer to my questions about the day-to-day operations of the market. Merchants were usually happy to complain at length about the administration, the nation’s political or economic climate, or share their ‘origin stories,’ but extremely reluctant to speak about who they bought produce from, how much they paid per kilo, or how they dealt with bureaucracy like paperwork and inspections.

Moreover, since wholesale food markets are centralizing nodes in larger commercial networks, communications with sellers in rural areas—large and small agricultural producers, packing plants, rural traders and brokers—are largely carried out over the phone or via email, and there was not much that could be observed. My questions about pricing were often answered in generalities about “supply and demand” and the “laws of the market”, or simply avoided altogether. Often, I would spend all day with a merchant, only to have him (for it was almost always a man) step away discretely to take phone calls, make deals with regular customers, or talk to the accountant working upstairs.

mexico market men

Merchants hanging outside of their storefront in the market. Photo taken by the author.

Slowly, I realized that my frustration around lack of access to information was in fact a reflection of my interlocutors’ own experiences as they navigated the market. Merchants had to gather and then piece together information from different sources, to come up with an understanding of the market’s potentials and risks. One banana merchant, for example, told me that he paid a monthly sum to a “runner” who would go around the terminal each morning and manually count the number of trucks carrying bananas and their state of origin. From this information—scribbled on a scrap of paper—the merchant would try to get a sense of how much his competitors were selling, from where they were sourcing their goods, and how much they would charge that week. Another regularly asked his employees to go and get gossip from the employees in other parts of the market to get a sense of how much their competitors were selling, about their health, and other goings on. Meanwhile, being too forthright with information could be seen as suspect. One day, while I was speaking to a watermelon merchant, his neighbor and competitor came over and started telling him about a shipment of watermelons he was waiting for which he had acquired for a good price from a new producer. When he left, my interlocutor was suspicious and kept making comments out loud, wondering why his competitor had told him what he had told him, asking himself why it might be so.

I realized that merchants, while reluctant to speak of their own finances and dealings, were often eager to speculate and gossip about their competitors. La Central was indeed like a village in this sense; everyone was interested in everyone else’s business, and gossip was the only way to access this information, since there were no real official channels to do so, and since direct conversation was mistrusted. For merchants in a perishable food market, gossip is an essential resource for piecing together the contours of the commercial landscape in which they participate with partial knowledge. As Clifford Geertz wrote of another market in a different time and context:

…the search for information—laborious, uncertain, complex, and irregular—is the central experience of life in the bazaar. Every aspect of the bazaar economy reflects the fact that the primary problem facing its participants is…not balancing options but finding out what they are. Clifford Geertz (1978).

This is a useful insight for ethnographers doing research in food markets to keep in mind. Behind the conviviality of these spaces, their sensory pleasures, their photogenic qualities, food markets are spaces in which information circulates among many different channels. Following our interlocutors’ own struggles to navigate these networks is important, and gossip is a tool in piecing together knowledge which can only ever be partial, but which shapes the circulation of foods in the bazaar and beyond.

Reference

Geertz, Clifford. 1978. “The Bazaar Economy: Information and Search in Peasant Marketing.” The American Economic Review 68(2): 28–32.

Tiana Bakic Hayden is a researcher at the Instituto Gino Germani in Buenos Aires. She received her PhD in sociocultural anthropology from New York University in 2019. Her work is broadly concerned with understanding the interplay of political, sociocultural and technological factors in the production and regulation of urban food systems. She has conducted research in Mexico City and Buenos Aires on street food markets, wholesale food terminals, and the relationship between food security and everyday mobilities.

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Review: Food Anxiety in Globalising Vietnam

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Food Anxiety in Globalizing Vietnam. Judith Ehlert and Nora Katharina Faltmann eds. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019. 330pp. ISBN 978-981-13-0743-0

.Shao-Yun Chang (Tulane University)

In 2018, Vietnam battled outbreaks of African swine fever, a highly contagious disease that prompted concerns over poultry products especially from China. A Vietnamese coffee manufacturer reportedly used batteries and dust in its production. Food anxieties are rampant in Vietnam, reflecting concerns over national security and expressing worries in more intimate realms around health and consumption. Food Anxiety in Globalizing Vietnam addresses these issues by contextualizing rapidly changing politico-economic dynamic around food in the socialist state.

Food Anxiety in Globalizing Vietnam is divided into three parts: Bodily Transgressions, Food Safety, and the Politics of Food Security. The authors come from multiple perspectives, ranging across development studies, sociology, economy, history, and anthropology. This multi-disciplinary approach provides a comprehensive outlook on food anxiety, addressing both state-level policies and developmental projects, but they are also attentive to everyday practices and discourse. The three parts also follow a scaler approach, moving from micro-processes to the macro, from private realms to public sphere, and from Vietnam towards larger regional interactions with China and Southeast Asian countries.

In their introduction, co-editors Judith Ehlert and Nora Faltmann position food anxiety as processes of incorporating food into the physical body. These processes involve boundaries – boundaries between inside and outside and between the self and the world, emphasizing how anxiety reflects “questions of integrity in terms of material ‘realities’ but also regarding the transgression of discursive structures” (15). Food transgresses not just in the visceral sense as people ingest what they eat; it also transgresses boundaries of class, gender, and capitalist relations, especially in Vietnam where economic reforms or Đổi Mới have exacerbated people’s concerns with food because of the country’s rapid and compressed modernization. In this volume, the individual authors trace historical trajectories from the precolonial era to the contemporary period. They focus on recent state-level projects intended to ensure food security by integrating food production into the global capitalist system and welcoming neoliberal agricultural practices.

The first part, “Bodily Transgression,” situates class, gender, and familial dynamics in socio-political implications of food consumption across different historical periods. Erica Peters shows how in both precolonial and colonial periods, people with power and command were most prone to anxiety when their power seemed most vulnerable. For instance, Minh Mạng, the second ruler (1820-1840) of Nguyễn dynasty, established culinary methods to institutionalize wet rice cultivation, which alienated non-Việt practices. Anthropologist Nir Avieli depicts ambivalence of consuming jungle meats and goat meats in present day Hội An, showing how ritualized public killings are tied to asserting cultural intimacy. Judith Ehlert focuses on a gendered phenomenon – mothers’ food network and emerging public debate around child obesity. By focusing on discussions of food anxiety and motherhood, Ehlert argues food anxiety arise through women’s ambivalence with being caring mothers and feeding practices.

The second part of the volume, “Food Safety,” addresses the emerging and evolving power players of food production in Vietnam, including state, private sector, and the consumer. Muriel Figuié et al. lay the groundwork for understanding shifting food systems in relation to modernization processes in which consumers are now distanced from food production, generating anxieties around delocalized food and “unidentifiable edible object[s].” (145) Nora Faltmann dives deeper into the issue of distanciation by showing how the niche market of organic foods in Vietnam is still largely controlled by foreign corporations and governed by neoliberal logics. But citizens’ quest for organic and safe food is not limited to the niche market as Sandra Kurfürst shows in her chapter on urban gardening and rural-urban supply chains of food. She plays on the longstanding dichotomy between urban versus rural. Food anxiety disrupts the usual dichotomy of urban and rural, putting more trust in food from countryside as opposed to prevalence of polluted and alienated food in the city.

The final part, “The Politics of Food Security,” shifts towards national and transnational level of politics involved in food security. At the state level, Timothy Gorman examines Resolution 63, a legislative mandate targeted at food security and increasing rice production. Gorman shows the emphasis of food security is on food production instead of access to food. The fixation on the supply side intensifies agrarian transition, favoring large-scale mechanized production over smallholder farmers. In the last chapter, Hongzhou Zhang examines the dialectical relationship between Vietnam and China, a recurring theme in food anxieties discussed throughout the volume. In recent years, food security strategy in China has promoted imported foods and expanded overseas agricultural investment, giving rise to exponential increase in trade between the two countries. However, consumers are mistrustful of low-quality food from China, suspecting illegal chemical additives or containing gutter oil.[1] Interregional exchange further complicates issues of trust in food and edibility. Jean-Pierre Poulain closes the volume by foregrounding the idea of “compressed modernity” proposed by Kyung-Sup Chang, which describes evolving socio-economic dynamics happening in condensed time and space and pertinent to fast modernization of Asian countries such as Vietnam (303). The intensity of modernity threads together discussions throughout the volume, underscoring the evolving relationships in households, private and public sectors, and neoliberal logics in a socialist state through the consumption and production of food.

The volume provides multi-dimensional approaches for understanding food anxieties in contemporary Vietnam. Anxiety around food production, consumption, and exchange is neither a localized phenomenon nor situated outside of socio-cultural histories. Authors discern nuances at the individual level (should one consume goat meat which is rumored to provide aphrodisiac effects), the household level (what feeding practices make a good mother), the state level, and lastly, international projects of food security and organic production. The volume powerfully penetrates the surface of food-related outbreaks, which have dominated the news. Authors contemplate the multiplicity of relations involved in production and consumption, scrutinizing the implications of neoliberal governance and global capitalist structures specifically within food anxieties. However, several authors point towards food anxieties derived from the relationship between Vietnam and China. It would be interesting to see how food anxieties speaks to political tensions between two countries. Do issues of national security exacerbate food anxiety, particularly discourse around interregional exchange?

The volume will appeal to range of academic audiences. Authors speak to social scientists who are interested in understanding growing food anxieties in Asian countries that have experienced rapid modernization. The edited volume is also a great resource for classrooms to provide students insights into how neoliberal projects shape conceptions of food and how food is politicized in daily practices. Each chapter approaches food anxiety from a specific angle, presenting qualitative findings and interpretations on food anxiety in Vietnam.

[1] Gutter oil refers to sourcing oil from restaurant waste, sewages, and grease traps. Recycled oil is processed and sold as cooking oil.

 

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Review: Organic Sovereignties

Organic Sovereignties. Struggles over Farming in an Age of Free Trade. Guntra A. Aistara. University of Washington Press. 2018. ISBN: 9780295743110.

Laura Kihlstrom (University of South Florida)

Guntra A. Aistara has written what the foreword of the book describes as the ‘first sustained ethnographic study of organic farmers outside the U.S.’. Organic Sovereignties is a multi-sited ethnography placed in Latvia and Costa Rica, countries described as regional peripheries in the European Union (EU) and Central America, respectively. I approached this book with great interest, given the lack of multi-sited ethnographies in food studies, as well as the frequent focus of books on organic farming exclusively on North America.

 One of the fastest growing sectors of the global food industry, organic agriculture is now an 82 billion industry. While 90 % of all sales are made in the Global North, 89 % of all organic products are produced by farmers in the Global South, the industry reflecting longstanding inequalities in the food system. How are these contradictions solved among organic farmers in two countries? How do Latvian and Costa Rican actors in the organic agriculture movement negotiate, create, and maintain sovereignties while their countries promote free trade?

The backdrop to the book is Latvia joining the EU in 2004 and Costa Rica joining the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in 2007. Through utilizing a multi-sited approach, Aistara demonstrates how seemingly different localities are in fact part of a broader global neoliberal system, and heavily influenced by their powerful neighboring countries, whilst having their own unique agrarian and political histories in how organic agriculture has developed. Similar to the approach of Alyshia Galvéz in her book Eating NAFTA (2018), Aistara follows free trade agreements at the micro-level to deepen our understanding of food sovereignty. The result is a rigorously researched ‘ethnography of frustration and resurgence’.

Chapter 1 follows the personal stories of organic farmers and those involved in the organic agriculture industry in the two countries. While the practices of Latvian organic farmers mimic the country’s agrarian past through so called quiet sustainabilities on subsistence farms, Costa Rican organic farmers associate their actions with democratic ideals and principles of agroecology. Despite these differences, organic actors in both countries have asserted their sovereignty not independent from the state but in relation to it. And in both cases, small-scale farmers frequently share an experience of being perceived as impediments to progress and modernity by political elites in power.

Chapter 2 is an exploration into the events leading the countries to EU and CAFTA. In Latvia, reactions to a potential EU membership were built around a general narrative of correcting a Soviet history of collectivization and confirmed in a referendum in 2003. In Costa Rica, membership in CAFTA was resisted loudly and openly, and ultimately decided upon in a referendum. Eventually, both countries have had to deal with the built-in inequalities in the trade deals. In EU, eastern member states still receive fewer subsidies than member countries in the west. In CAFTA, Costa Rican small-scale organic farmers were up against an unfair advantage against farmers in the Global North, as well as wealthier farmers in the middle parts of the country.

Chapter 3 focuses on the symbolic importance of landscapes for organic farmers as sites of memory, pain, loss, but also resistance. For Latvian farmers, organic landscapes have been designed by drawing from the past to which they share a deep connection. In Costa Rica, organic landscapes can be seen as a means to protect biodiversity and as a response to the history of colonization in the region, which has resulted in deforestation and chemical-heavy farming of export crops. In both places, organic farmers develop new models for farming and assert their sovereignty through maintaining and altering landscapes.

Chapter 4 weaves together organic farming and biodiversity. Aistara challenges the notion of biodiversity as a list of species and re-conceptualizes it as something that can be both created and maintained by organic farmers. She uses the concept of networked diversities to describe new forms of diversity that emerge from interactions between organic farmers and nonhuman actors in lived landscapes. For example, organic farmers in Latvia use their informal social networks to diversify their livelihood options, such as by inviting tourist groups to the farm to see grazing wild horses in the adjacent meadows. The positive feedback they gained from this experience further encouraged them to protect the biodiversity on the meadows. In other words, networked diversities demonstrate that new forms of diversities do not always emerge from conscious action but from a combination of informal social connections and multispecies interactions In Latvia, diversifying has been a way to expand livelihood options, while in Costa Rica informal seed exchange networks have been a way to conserve agrobiodiversity as a means of political resistance.

Chapter 5 is an overview of the challenges that organic farmers have dealt with since becoming part of transnational trade deals. In both countries, the process of ‘harmonization of legislation’ in EU and CAFTA has challenged the sovereignty of farmers. In Latvia, organic farmers have been discouraged by a surge in surveillance and inspections on their farms, while in Costa Rica seeds that had historically been managed by farmers have risked becoming the property of a privileged group of breeders.

Chapter 6 focuses on the failed promises of trade deals for small-scale organic farmers and businesses. Rather than becoming managers of supply chains, both Latvia and Costa Rica have remained in the margins and continue to mainly produce raw materials for European and North American processors. Aistara explains this as the result of a process of conventionalization in which small businesses are taken over or grow into the organic industrial complex (Guthman, 2014). Farmers in both countries have had challenges in being able to afford the expensive certification process, in not being able to meet strict hygiene standards for export products, or not having the resources to increase the value of one’s products.

Chapter 7 focuses on the tensions within the organic movement itself. This chapter demonstrates that organic farmers are indeed not a homogenous group of people. In both Costa Rica and Latvia, within the movement, amateur and small-scale farmers have often been marginalized. At the same time, as the movement aims to achieve recognition as well as to produce enough food to meet the demands of the industrial food systems, organic farmers in both locations have shifted their focus from values and principles to giving primacy to funds and resources available for them.

Is it possible for organic farmers to maintain their sovereignties while being shaped by free trade agreements and globalization? The book Organic Sovereignties is an ethnographic exploration of the frustrations and agency of organic farmers in two countries that are considered regional peripheries. By following two countries, Aistara demonstrates that there are similarities in how organic farmers and actors become disadvantaged by free trade policies, while their acts of resistance and resurgence build upon each country’s individual agrarian histories, as well as forms of political or colonial oppression.

The book makes several noteworthy theoretical contributions. It challenges the concept of sovereignty and describes it as something that is not necessarily free of the state but exists in a dialectical relationship with it. Aistara also conceptualizes biodiversity not as something in juxtaposition with farming activities, but as something that may be maintained and created by organic farmers. She concludes that conservation efforts geared towards protecting biodiversity may be unsuccessful if they discount farmers’ knowledge on the topic. Third, this book highlights that organic farmers are not a uniform group of people but have different subjectivities which are affected by histories of colonization, oppression, class, race, and geographies.

My one critique for the book is that the multi-sited approach makes it difficult at times for the reader to remain connected to both localities. Focusing on a couple of characters in each chapter throughout the book might have made some of the book’s themes more digestible. I recommend this book to graduate students in the field of food studies, agronomy, anthropology, sociology, and political sciences.

References

Gálvez, A. (2018). Eating NAFTA : trade, food policies, and the destruction of Mexico. University of California Press.

Guthman, J. (2014). Agrarian Dreams : the Paradox of Organic Farming in California. University of California Press.

 

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Filed under agriculture, anthropology, food security, food systems, Latin America

Alaska Grown

Abigail Adams

Central Connecticut State University

Our plane descended for landing in Anchorage, which was fully visible at 10 pm in  June’s Alaskan midnight sun, and I stored my book:  Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, about the young man who starved to death four months after he entered the Alaskan “wilderness” alone. The book squared with what I expected from Alaska: an environment that suffers no fools, where the distance between life and death is obvious and narrow, where humans have no illusions about their place in the food chain. I had begun my trip twenty hours earlier with DEET, a reservation for REI’s bear and moose safety class, a broken foot (bad),AA Foot provisions (Cheetoh’s—good!), and my 12-year-old son, who was reading Jack London’s White Fang. We were headed to a land where every other descriptor seemed to be “harsh,” “stark,” “extreme.”

But our strongest experience over our two weeks’ visit were of a gentle generosity. This does not erase very real harshness, including harsh human realities: our visit, anchored by the Association for the Study of Food and Society/Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society conference, “Finding Home in the Wilderness,” hosted at the University of Alaska Anchorage, came a month after US Attorney General William Barr toured with Alaskan Native Villagers and brought attention to the nation’s highest levels of domestic violence. And over our two weeks, the weather swerved from un-seasonally balmy to uncannily harshly scorching and smoking.

Which made how Alaskans (gently) introduced us to their home eye-opening and imperative. Their welcome immersed us in a critical environmental Alaskan resource: the matter-of-fact and constant rhythm of alerts, heads-up, survival tips:

“You only have two minutes, maybe three, if you fall in the bay.”

“Always lean back on snowmobiles, so you don’t go through if the ice breaks.”

“Cotton kills” (Wet cotton clothing is dangerous in the cold).

“Pre-act, don’t react”

“It is easier to stay warm than get warm.”

Some of the tips were direct instructions about the food chain reality:

“If you run into a bear…”

AA Aaron and Bear[

“If you run into a moose…”

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“If you run into mosquitoes…”

illustration-of-a-mosquito-biting-royalty-free-illustration-1124679781-1556840632

“If you run into cow parsnip (Alaskan “nettle”)…”

cow parsnip

Others were directly related to food, and there too, Alaskans gently alerted us:

“The long summer days here raise oxalic levels in broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage.”

“We have over forty varieties of rhubarb; three are poisonous.”

“Reindeer meat does better with high heat, but moose needs low, slow heat.”

“When you kill your fish quickly after landing it, it’ll taste sweeter later.”

I wasn’t expecting such a culture of generosity in a state renowned for self-reliance and survivalists (“Preppers,” people gently corrected me. “Preppers, not survivalists.”): which reflected my ignorance. Old-timers, skilled, experienced and knowledgeable people, know that self-reliance depends on good information, adapting and re-skilling. They include newcomers (even tourists like me) in the “tips” and “alerts” economy, quietly, and not pedantically. Newcomers, after all, can turn into old-timers, and will also depend on re-skilling, receiving and swapping alerts and information.

All around us, I met people learning to adapt and re-adapt, skilling and then re-skilling. Getting ready to hike a popular trail near Anchorage, I met Johanna, who had moved her family from their coastal Native village, so her younger sister and her daughter could continue high school. My 12-year-old hiked with the girls and her boyfriend, and she and I fell behind in a comfortable, companionable pace.  I was limping with the broken foot and she was hampered by overweight that came on quickly since their move and her office jobs; the sedentism brought her through the nutritional transition abruptly. But she made me a walking stick, and though she apologized over and over for being out of shape, we finished the three-plus mile hike.

She was so much more fit than I, in the larger sense. As we walked and talked, I learned about her life on the coast, about locating, catching and preparing different kinds of fish. About hauling fuel and supplies for miles. About harvesting and preserving wild fruits and plants. She hunts, handles firearms, can butcher moose and seal. So can her girls. Her mother showed them all how to improvise and survive when weather blocked supplies. Her father grew a garden every summer, a skill his native people had adopted from European settlers. When he married Johanna’s mother and moved to her village, he experimented with gardening in the new conditions, and fed his growing family. When the permafrost started thawing, and the village laundromat and other buildings “tore themselves apart,” the villagers had to re-think hunting seals over winter ice.

AA Organics

Through the conference field trips, we visited with Alaskan organic farmers, who are constantly learning, adapting and re-skilling: extending the seasons through high tunnels, meshes, different varieties; harvesting at high speed around the solstice when broccoli and herbs will bolt in a matter of hours; reveling in Alaska’s few pests but confronting invasive species; re-inventing composting [photo]. The farming scene in Alaska is dynamic and the state claims the highest rate of new farmers, including women farmers, in the nation! Farmers rely on their networks and exchanges of information and techniques: Alaska has only four extension agents for the entire state.

We met some of these new farmers during another conference field trip, women and men re-settling after violent displacement from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bhutan, Nepal, Somalia, Guatemala. They showed us how they were re-inventing farming in urban Anchorage and shared food they adapted with Alaskan ingredients. I highly recommend the tamales filled with grapes and sorrel.

In Alaska, everyone seems to be involved in moving food from the raw to the cooked. When I chatted at a Friday evening reception with conference organizers about Alaskan hunting and fishing traditions, I realized that these women, these men–fashion forward and expert schmoozers –they hunted, fished and gathered.

AA Smoke

I went “North to the Future,” as Alaska’s state motto encourages, while Alaska’s fires, heat and smoke made national news. The climate change peril was palpable as the warmest spring ever crossed the solstice and became the hottest summer ever.  We are all facing harsh, stark, extreme environmental change, and Alaskans may be well-positioned to weather the Future that is coming. I, a returned traveler, am Alaska Grown now as well.

 

 

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