Identity, consumption, and the politics of food in the Occupy Wall Street movement

by Alyson Young

An excerpt from the upcoming January 2012 SAFN column for Anthropology News

Photo credit: David Shankbone

By now most readers are likely familiar with the Occupy Wall Street movement. What few are aware of, however, is the central (yet contested) role that food has come to play in the identity of this protest movement.

Anthropologists and other social researchers have long understood that the relationships between food identity, and politics are complicated. Such is the case with the Occupy movement as well. As Carey Polis points out in her Huffington Post piece on food, politics, and Occupy Wall Street, “like the sometimes nebulous demands of the protesters themselves, there is not a consensus in regards to how food should be eaten, prepared, or even protested against.” (www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/12/occupy-wall-street-food_n_1007172.html)

With companies like Ben and Jerry’s and Katz’s Deli among the companies providing food to support the protests, the movement is increasingly becoming known for the quality and quantity of food available. For example, in an October New York Times article the author stated, “The makeshift kitchen has fed thousands of protesters each day. Along the way, it has developed a cuisine not unlike the Occupy Wall Street movement itself: free-form, eclectic, improvisatory and contradictory.”

Discussions about Occupy Wall Street’s food consumption are often highly politicized, however. While supporters of the movement say that the availability of locally grown organic produce, and the movement’s ability to create diverse meals out of donated food represents a response to genetically modified and processed foods (see www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/10/occupy-wall-street-zuccotti-food-activist_n_1085111.html); detractors highlight the hypocrisy of anti-corporate protesters who gorge on pints of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, eat at McDonalds, and use the free bathroom at Starbucks. In the midst of this debate, the multinational companies marketing fair trade and social responsibility have an opportunity to bolster their public relations campaigns by affiliating with the Occupy Wall Street movement, and may benefit from the lack of an organized response to their affiliation by protestors.

The relationships between food, identity and the Occupy movement will surely evolve quite rapidly over the coming months. What are your perspectives on the role of food and consumption among the various Occupy movements? Do you think that multinational corporations are using the Occupy movement to market their products?

5 Comments

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5 responses to “Identity, consumption, and the politics of food in the Occupy Wall Street movement

  1. Emily

    During my brief stay (four days) at the Occupy Nashville movement, I was fed a variety of food from hot oatmeal and fresh fruit to homemade spaghetti and meatballs to delivery pizza (from a local company) to leftover bagels from Panera. While the types of food varied, it was my impression that most of it was either cooked or purchased by local people who supported the movement but couldn’t contribute with their presence at the movement (obviously Panera is an exception). Maybe it’s a different situation with the higher profile branches of the movement where more of the food is donated by larger companies.

  2. I’ve been working at OWS in the kitchen for two months now. Let me start by saying that the issues with food are far more complex than this article states for many reasons. Allow me to brainstorm a few now:
    1) We operate entirely on donations therefore we don’t get to choose what kind of food we serve. If someone gives us homemade lasagna we serve homemade lasagna. If someone gives us peanut butter, another person gives us bread, and another person gives us jelly we throw it together. If someone gives us cans of beans and soup we throw that together. If someone gives us ice cream, and they happen to be a CEO with a long history of activism, we serve ice cream. To deny a donation would be wrong to the one donating as well the hungry people who gave up everything to live a life of activism.
    2) We also receive monetary donations. The money donated to the kitchen goes to the general OWS fund and is redistributed as the GA and spokescouncil decide through consensus. Kitchen receives a set budget. There is not currently a procedure for how that money is to be spent. When I have the time, the money, and the volunteers I buy food from farmer’s markets or ethically run businesses and cook it in a kitchen off site. That’s not always an option. Circumstances are always changing and things are very chaotic. Sometimes the only option is to buy some pizza and pass it out.
    3) Much of the food is donated by local farms and cooked in a kitchen off site by volunteers. We never know what we’re going to get so the menu is improvised.
    4) Everyone is involved in OWS for different reasons and have different backgrounds. Some people are interested in nutrition, some people have restaurant experience, some are farmers, some are into home cooking, we have vegetarians, vegans, and meat eaters, some people have specific food allergies, etc. It’s not possible for us to consens on a policy about food and the way it should be used politically because we all believe different things.
    5) Most of the actual feeding is done through autonomous action by individuals who are passionate about certain things. Nobody tells anybody what to do and everyone gets to do what they want. As it should be.
    6) Most of what I’ve covered here has to do with the supply side of the kitchen. The most contentious issues among occupiers are on the distribution side. The question being who do we feed? Before the eviction it was simple. We brought food to the park and gave it to anyone who waited in line. We also delivered the food to those working for the movement or attending meetings which prevented them from coming to the kitchen. Now that we no longer have a centralized distribution location we have to bring the food to many different locations all over town where occupiers may or may not be. This takes a lot of work and coordination. As of a week ago, people were not stepping up to get the food to all of the locations resulting in many hungry and very angry occupiers.
    7) I left NYC a week ago to work on a farm as a part of our Occupy-Farms working group. Looking towards the future we hope to find a sustainable way to feed the movement using little or no money but rather labor exchange. There are a lot of exciting things happening on this front that I can’t divulge as they are currently developing.
    I’m sure there’s a lot more I could share, but I’ve got a lot of work to do. Revolutions don’t just happen on their own.

  3. KishinD

    @Eric Alexander Occupy Farms is going to be an increasingly important part of the movement as the impending monetary collapse shuts down food distribution. We have a real potential to create a long-term working economy through the ParEcon model, and if this be a revolution, not a simple protest, then we will need to replace the current screwed-up economy with an economy of our own. Food shortages in the crony capitalism model and food surplus under #Occupy ParEcon would be the best motivator for ordinary people to help us overturn the status quo.

    @Alyson Young I think people have got a misperception about #Occupy. We’re not opposed to the production or consumption of goods. There’s no hypocrisy in protesting crony capitalism and corporate greed while owning things that were produced under a corporate label. If there was no corporate greed hurting people, and no cronyism with Washington, you would still have people making, buying, and using factory-made products with a label indicating the manufacturers. Capitalism would work fantastically if people were naturally benevolent when granted “power over” other people. But we know this is not the case.

    In addition to the views I’ve aimed at Eric, I think food and consumption will become a major issue for the #Occupiers as they seek sovereignty from an oppressively centralized system – much like the colonists who struck a European foothold in this land. Control over a food supply is essential. It will allow us to experiment with alternative trade systems and generate methods of managing and balancing labor, supply, demand, and opportunity costs*. By adapting the GA into a nested councils format (similar to how working groups report back to a GA, but with more iterations), we can create producers’, consumers’, and facilitation councils, formed through a combination of non-local assemblies(internet) and single-“term” delegates to “higher”** councils, whose procedures and deliberations are entirely transparent. By limiting our initial self-management procedures to a single, universal commodity (food), we should be able to hammer out the difficulties and details before we expand our organizational model. Food is the ideal commodity to begin with, as it is perishable and consumable. With few exceptions, the demand for food is only slightly greater than the tangible need for it, so there will be very few individuals who seek to artificially inflate their demand in an attempt to hoard. Thus, the demand for a general supply of food will be quite steady, but may vary significantly in the types of food – some people prefer pasta to potatoes, for example. So all the specific obstacles to introducing this idea to the economy at large will be encountered through the self-management of a single commodity.

    Well, that’s probably much more information than you were looking for, Alyson. But #Occupy is more than a “unique protest”. It’s the launching point for a new way of living and organizing with other humans. As to your second question, multinational corporations will do LITERALLY ANYTHING to increase profits. They would arrange human sacrifice of thousands of children if they thought it would improve this year’s bottom line. While these organizations are primarily made up of moral, caring individuals, their underlying structure is that of a rapaciously greedy sociopath. So yes. They are trying to use #Occupy for marketing. But #Occupiers seem to have developed a resistance to marketing, like an immune response to being drowned in advertising at every turn.

    *Opportunity cost is that which you give up in any choice. In a choice between a steak dinner and a chicken dinner, the opportunity cost of the chicken is the steak, and vice versa. If you have a pound of copper, making it into wire means you’ve given up the opportunity to make it into roofing.

    **In a nested council system, a “higher” council makes decisions for more people in a larger area geographically. In a general sense, each council is roughly 20-50 people, and sends a delegate to the next council up to relay their concerns for a larger geographic area. So a city of 300,000 people would have roughly 10,000 neighborhood assemblies, who send delegates to roughly 500 area assemblies, who send delegates to roughly 25 sector assemblies, who send delegates to the citywide assembly. Each assembly is autonomous in decisions that affect only themselves and their branches. Although the councils make decisions, they can also receive active feedback during assemblies from any of their branch’s members, through the magic of teh interwebs. So they are partially hierarchical because 300,000 people is too many to have a coherent discussion, and partially anarchic to maximize consensus and input. Through regular rotation of delegates, you prevent the creation of a “delegation class”.

    Sorry for the lengthy reply. I feel obligated to be as clear as possible.

  4. Not related to current post, but wanted to let you know FoodAnthropology is included in an attempt at comprehensive anthropology blog list and through 31 December, can vote for 10 best anthropology blogs.

  5. Pingback: Anthropology News

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