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?

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