Activist Chefs and the Food Movement

David Beriss
University of New Orleans

A few weeks ago, Greg de St. Maurice wrote an intriguing piece on this blog about chef activism. He drew on the case of Chef Daniel Giusti, chef de cuisine at Noma, in Copenhagen, who is starting a company that will try to improve food in American schools. Greg raises questions about the ways in which we should evaluate chef activism, as well as about how that activism relates to other social movements. Reading both Greg’s piece and some of the links he provided, I was struck by two things, one related to the idea of a food movement, the other about Giusti’s specific approach.

The idea of a food movement has been discussed a lot in recent years. There has been significant scholarship on activism around food, including a very useful book edited by Carole Counihan and Valeria Siniscalchi, “Food Activism: Agency, Democracy and Economy” (Bloomsbury, 2014). There are a lot of other publications, too many to cite here, focusing on different ways in which all kinds of people are trying to change food systems, ranging from broad questions of science and sustainability, to workplace issues on farms, in processing plants, grocery stores, and restaurants. There are also many efforts to address the ways in which food is processed, distributed, and consumed. It is incredibly hard to summarize all the different kinds of food activism that exist, because there is so much of it (here are three sites that can give you a sense of how much activism is out there: Civil Eats, Food Tank, and Slow Food USA; add more in the comments section below if you want).

Because of this, many people were surprised when a Washington Post writer recently asserted that there really isn’t a food movement. The writer, Tamar Haspel, drew on some studies of consumption as well as surveys about attitudes toward food in order to argue that people’s behavior has not changed significantly enough for her to be able to perceive a food movement. This is an odd way to measure whether or not a movement exists. If Haspel is measuring anything, it is the effectiveness of the food movement, not its existence. In fact, some food activists responded to Haspel’s article with different ways of measuring the success of the food movement. They demonstrate some notable successes.

Yet I wonder if that is the best way to measure the existence of a food movement. Since the 1930s, I am pretty sure that unions never enrolled more than 30% of all American workers. Should we conclude that there has never been a labor movement in the United States? Of course, the labor movement has been very effective at changing the American workplace and in introducing many ideas that we now take for granted, as well as setting the framework for debates about work even today, when few Americans are union members. Along with some very real successes in changing how food is produced, distributed, and consumed, the food movement’s existence can be measured by the ways in which its ideas have come to permeate our public discourse. It is easy to find areas of life where public debates have been influenced by the food movement. Whether we are discussing questions of equal access to healthy food, living wages for food workers, or the availability of organic or local produce at stores and farmers markets, the existence of a food movement—or many food movements—is demonstrated by the ways in which its terms and concepts have become part of how we think and talk.

Which brings me back to Chef Giusti. As he readily acknowledges, the groundwork for reforming school lunches has been laid already by a lot of other activists, including a number of professional chefs (Alice Waters and Jamie Oliver come to mind, of course, but there are many others). Some of the efforts to reform school lunch have focused on trying to get kids to eat healthier foods, while others have tried to get schools and governments to support the schools more, so they can produce better quality food. Giusti is bringing something of a distinct model to this effort. He is creating a for-profit company, Brigaid, that will bring professional chefs and kitchens to schools. Giusti is trying to make working in school cafeterias an attractive career choice for professional chefs. As he comments in his Lucky Peach interview, “The whole point of this is to make it a more attractive space for people who are passionate about food to join in.”

No doubt some people will see this as an effort to bring a kind of privatized for-profit ideology (aka, “neo-liberal” ideology) into the public sphere. I do not think it is necessarily helpful to frame it that way. On one hand, Giusti is trying to make a profit. Yet school cafeterias are already run by big corporations, with a focus on maximizing profits instead of on making an attractive workplace and producing quality food. Giusti wants his approach to be focused on making people—the cooks, the kids—happy first and on making profits second. Maybe we no longer have to choose between doing good and doing well. In a world that sets its priorities differently—do good for people, then make profits—you should be able to do both.

Can that sort of model be sustained? It appears to be the principle behind a lot of people in the food movement. It certainly seems to be at work in farmers markets, which are often a combination of nonprofit organizers and for profit farmers, bringing improved food that makes people happy. I think there are a lot of small food producers that are also engaged in similar activities, especially among those who promote local foods. It seems to be at work in restaurants that try to pay their workers a living wage. If this is the food movement, then the kinds of metrics invoked by Tamar Haspel will not be very effective in measuring its success or, frankly, its very existence. Understanding what food activists—including activist chefs—are doing, may require rethinking what an activist actually is, as well as paying attention to what they say and what they actually do. This may just be a different sort of movement.

2 Comments

Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, chefs, food activism, Food Studies

2 responses to “Activist Chefs and the Food Movement

  1. Pingback: Around the Web Digest – Week of February 14 | Savage Minds

  2. Pingback: Slow Fish Report: On Value Chains, the Privatization of the Seas, and the Food Movement | FoodAnthropology

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