Author Archives: aeadams60

Making #DominicanFoodStudies a thing!


Latinx Cilantro

The seeds of this Cilantro were brought over by Dominican immigrants from the Dominican Republic, now it is growing and sold it locally in Providence, RI.

By Vanessa García Polanco, Michigan State University

Blog editors’ note: This is the fall 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. If you would like to contribute or know of someone who does work in this area, please contact Sarah Fouts  More details about the series can be found here. 

When I moved to Rhode Island, at age fifteen, from Moca, Dominican Republic, I was lucky. I could find culturally appropriate foods in most major supermarkets (Stop Shop, Shaws, Price Rite) close to the majority Italian-American town north of Providence where my family was one of the few from the Dominican Republic. Dominicans are the largest substantial Hispanic minority in Rhode Island and one of the top five Hispanic minorities nationwide; Dominicanidad is celebrated on Broad Street in South Providence—the neighborhood full of Dominican culture, bodegas, restaurants, fruit stands and Chimis Trucks.

Our family’s distance created a massive void within me about my culture, even with frequent trips to “la broa,” or Broad Street, and to this new status as a ‘Dominican yol” or “Dominicanyork”, Dominican slang referring to a Dominican who lives in New York or otherwise in the United States. It wasn’t until I went to college at the University of Rhode Island that I was able to find fellow Dominican immigrants to befriend. This was also hard because they were mostly Dominican American, had migrated here at a younger age, and had particular Rhode Island experiences that I did not share with them. Based on these varying experiences, I wanted to study what Dominican food meant to Dominican immigrants in Rhode Island, to understand my journey of transnationalism and immigration.

Scholars like Jose Itzigsohn in Encountering American Faultlines, Sherri Grasmuck and Patricia R. Pessar in  Between Two Islands: Dominican International Migration, and Silvio Torres-Saillant and Ramona Hernandez in The Dominican Americans explore some of these dynamics of Dominican transnationalism but barely look into food. Meanwhile, Quisqueya on the Hudson: The Transnational Identity of Dominicans in Washington Heights, a research study by the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute, showed little consensus on the core of Dominican identity. The most frequently cited characteristic was the Dominican accent in speaking Spanish, followed by standard references to merengue and comida criolla, or ethnic food. One woman in the study posited, “If you don’t eat rice and beans and plantains, you’re not Dominican.” For gender and Dominican foodways, Lidia Marte’s work adds the perspective of Dominican women in New York City to discussions on Latinx foodways and food studies, illustrating that I am not alone in my appetite to highlight Caribbean cuisines.

Building on the work of these scholars and my own blog reflecting on food, migration, gender, and race as a Dominican immigrant, I seek to develop further research on Dominican immigrants in food studies, cultural anthropology and food systems. I am on an endless search to document everything in my culture, especially food, as a way to elevate this culture while also connecting with my family. I use ethnographic questions and methods when talking to my elders, when mapping my family’s immigration history, and when trying to understand the gender stereotypes about who ought to cook and how proper it is for a young woman to know how too. The collective knowledge and memory of the women in my family is a birthright I seek to claim, so I ask questions. I ask my elders, about their foodways from 50 years ago, about plants for different uses (culinary, medicinal, religious) about transitioning from natural seasonings (things that grew up in their yards in the rural countryside of Dominican Republic prior to traveling to the United States) to what they use now: Why did you cook with abodo and sazón goya?? When did you first start using it in your cooking?  I have found this process rewarding, yet sensible and exhausting when examining traditions, habits, and memory. When trying to connect past and present patterns with theories about transnationalism, identity,  foodways, and gender my informants will normalize as it, Ha si e’ la cosa (that is how things are). Yet, as public writer and scholar, I refuse to give it up, normalize and simplify attitudes in my culture that are worth examining further.

Food for so long has been a tool to perpetuate the status quo, particularly gender and age expectations. For a long time, when I was growing up in the Dominican Republic and as an immigrant in the United States, I was not too fond of what food symbolized for me: a mandate to a domestic life that limited my ability to engage economically and politically with society.  Then, the study of food and the advocacy for sustainable food systems has in many ways liberated me from that state of domesticity, subjection, and shame that I so much feared growing up. Now, I am away from any Dominican enclave and Dominican culture as a whole. I have not even found Dominicans in my new city (Lansing, MI) or university (Michigan State University) and my research population do not include Dominican immigrants as of yet. That does not stop me, rather, it encourages me to continue to develop this field of Dominican Food Studies as a way to stay connected to my culture and fellow compatriots.

My process is uniquely autoethnographic. My results, public writings to create a platform, an invitation to explore and document our collective consciousness, and that is mutual knowledge, norms, and expectations as Dominicans, Dominican immigrants, and Dominican Americans. Many times I tweet #foodisneverjustfood because now I see food as part of the political, social, physical and psychological process to explain culture, society, and systems of power and oppression. In the end, when we study food, we examine ourselves, we consider the landscape, we review what makes us unique and that is why I try to make #DominicanFoodStudies a thing. So more Dominicans, Dominican immigrants, Dominican Americans, scholars and anyone that is interested can continue to discover who we are and who we want to be.

Vanessa García Polanco is a food system practitioner and food justice advocate. She is currently pursuing a Master in Community Sustainability at Michigan State University. You can learn more about her here. Follow her a @vgpvisions.





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Stepping into the lo‘i: On taro production and community building at Hawai‘i’s Kānewai

kanewai1\Photo by Annie Sheng with editing by Robert DeGutis

By Annie Sheng, Cornell University (The University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, Visiting Researcher)

We volunteers peel off our socks and shoes, roll up our pants, expose our legs to the morning sun, but not for long. Soon, we step into the lo‘i, the taro wet paddies, feeling the soft mud under our feet—a respite from the onslaught of small rocks and jagged hard seeds that dug into our soles on our short walk to the lo‘i. We wade through rows of mounds of kalo, taro plants with their distinct heart-shaped leaves, making sure we follow the directions of our leader Makua Perry:

               Don’t step on or over the puʻepuʻe (the mounds of kalo), don’t disrespect them.  But feel free to talk to the plants. The kalo are like people, they have personalities. After all, the Hawaiian people believe kalo is their brother.

At first, we work in silence. But, as we continue to weed, pulling the sinewy intrusive vines from beneath the murky paddy waters, detaching and pitching these away from their tenacious grasp of the kalo mounds, we begin to chat. We talk about kalo varieties, initiatives to trade kalo cuttings with others in the wider community in O’ahu, uses of taro-derived pudding-like poi. “My uncle put poi in his son’s (my cousin’s) baby formula and he grew really strong,” says Makua. Our backs bent, our legs deep in the nutrient-rich paddy water, we pull, dig with our hands and pat down and replenish the kalo mounds with fresh, hydrating mud. Later, we rest and “talk story” under the thatched hale, a work of art with its own signification of Hawaiian identity, its grand roof supported by mangrove logs, in turn held together by the lashings also used in seafaring canoes.

But there is more ahead for us during this First Saturday’s Community Workday, held by the Hawai‘inuiākea’s School of Hawaiian Studies Ka Papa Lo‘i o Kānewai  since 1980, and directed by Makahiapo Cashman as part of the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. We learn about water and reciprocity during a short educational tour of the kahawai (stream). Before entering the paddies, we trek a hidden route, balancing on rocks alongside flowing water to the poʻowai (the headwater), the part of the stream that eventually feeds water into the loʻi. The poʻowai is nestled away from the “urban jungle” and sources back to the Mānoa Falls high in the mountains. At the poʻowai we learn the history of the secluded place, the reclamation of the land from its disuse after its illustrious history of producing kalo for hundreds of years, before and during Kamehameha’s rule, by local Hawaiians, and later Chinese and Japanese residents. After we soak in the stream’s history, we follow the snaking line of water back to the paddies and immerse our feet into the paddy water.

Kānewai’s staff, such as Makua Perry, bring community volunteers to the stream because their approach to water is fundamental in illustrating how native Hawaiians interact with others and the environment as part of the food cultivation process, “to leave water for those downstream, to share and give back to the environment.” Water is pivotal to any understanding of the lo‘i system, not only the mechanics of the paddies but the ontological whole of kalo production. Without water, there is no taro paddy. The way the water cycles through the paddies serves as a moral model. The organization’s name, Kānewai, draws from stories of the god Kāne who discovered fresh water in the area.

First Saturday’s draws some two to three hundred visitors (students, service members, locals, tourists, regular volunteers) to learn traditional Hawaiian agricultural methods and immerse themselves in the Hawaiian language. The day’s activities range from cultivation and maintenance of the space itself—from plucking leaves for fertilizer, stepping on leaves in the paddy mud to submerge them, to weeding, to cleaning—, and at the event’s heart is experiencing the lo‘i firsthand.

I started this post with the volunteers’ jolt of the sensory-rich entry into the lo‘i, but our workday actually started with handling pre-boiled kalo. Volunteers, sitting on picnic benches around giant metal buckets, bent our heads together and scooped pre-cooked kalo from the water. With butter knives, we peeled the kalo, dropping the peels back into the water clouded by the corm’s hardy skin. We shaved off discoloration or bumps, revealing a light purple flesh that smelled fresh, creamy and earthy all at once—then passed the kalo to a staff member to check.

Palani Deponte, the Kānewai staff working with us, taught us the names of the skin and edible flesh while sharing more about this core starch. He looked at the last taro piece I was struggling to peel and told me to eat it. It was a rather unforgiving piece and I was whittling it away to nothing as I tried to shave this piece to perfection. I was all too happy to stop—and bite, as directed. I sunk my teeth into the kalo, chewed, and let the flavors build in my mouth: starchy, rich, with a touch of sweetness.

On typical community workdays, the staff would have prepared a meal for all, with kālua pork and other Hawaiian foods, some cooked in their imu, the steaming pit oven. On this rare small workday of only twenty to twenty-five volunteers (the majority of the University was on summer break), there was no cooking fire, but we were satiated with the taste of the kalo, the sensations of that supple mineral mud under our feet and the compelling stories that underlie and animate kalo production.

As Kānewai grows many kalo varieties, it maintains a vibrant community of cuttings exchange, a continual contribution to the diversity of kalo stock. The organization circulates knowledge and agricultural material abundance, just as the water circulates life and growth in the lo‘i system.

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Race, Food, and Rebellion: Detroit’s History and Conflicts over Food Access

By Alex B. Hill


In the City of Detroit there is a history of unequal access to quality grocery stores and discriminatory treatment while shopping. Many Detroiters continue to hold perceptions of poor quality food and discriminatory treatment in local Detroit stores based on decades of experience. Two of my recent articles address the impact of labeling Detroit a “food desert” and engage consumers in their own experiences and perceptions around food access.

The “food desert” label has been both accepted and refuted in Detroit. The majority of academic researchers lean towards labeling Detroit as a food desert; however, many have come to that conclusion without adequate assessment of community perceptions of food access or historic barriers to buying food in the city. Access is a key word when talking about food, culture, and place and is where many researchers simply tally the number of stores and measure the distance of people to those stores. However, just because a grocery store is close by doesn’t mean that people want to shop there or are treated well when shopping.

In the article, “Critical inquiry into Detroit’s ‘food desert’ metaphor” I examined how media outlets use “food desert” as a negative label, but local food advocates find the label their continuing work to address inequitable access to food in the city.

“Most neighborhoods have a grocery store and people have found ways to adapt to what they have. It’s not good, just, or fair, but they piece together family food needs in many ways. Some people see the term as a personal affront.” – Woman, 51, Local Nonprofit

The article digs into the unequal power relations in media discourse while lifting up the perspectives of local food advocates in the purported “food desert” of Detroit, using Katherine McKittrick’s discussions on the production of black geographies.

“At the beginning it had its role, but now it’s being abused, not abused, but used against Detroit. It’s been blown out of proportion.” – Woman, 33, Local Nonprofit

Community food advocates largely found the negativity of the label overshadowing the important work that they were doing. They noted that the label allowed well-funded nonprofits and media outlets to drive a narrative contradictory to what food advocates were seeing in their communities. Food advocates were seeing grocery stores and community gardens and farmers markets, but what was largely missing was opportunities linked to income, jobs, and education.

Detroit has long been supplied with food by local, independent grocers located in neighborhoods while there have only been a few chain supermarkets to ever exist within the city limits. If you lived in the segregated Black neighborhoods of Detroit, you likely would have relied on black businessmen like Berry Gordy Sr., father of Motown Records founder Berry Gordy Jr. Gordy opened a grocery store to serve the Black community in the 1920s. By 1955, there were 69 supermarkets operated by Kroger, A&P, and other small local suppliers in Detroit. In 1959, Borman Food Stores Inc. bought up smaller chains and expanded to 46 stores in Detroit. In 1966, Borman Food Stores announced the opening of three superstores under the name of Farmer Jack. The following year everything would change.

Detroit, 1967.

In our article “Detroitists: Reflections of Detroit Ethnographers at the Anniversary of the 1967 Rebellionwe explored how civil unrest was fueled by ongoing discrimination in food and retail industries. In interviews with local residents after the riots, the Detroit Urban League and the Detroit Free Press found that 54 percent of Detroiters identified grocery stores as places where they were treated badly more than any other type of establishment. The 1967 Rebellion highlighted the juxtapositions of food, power, and race in a notably black area of the city along Detroit’s 12th street. Robert Ward Jr., who witnessed the disturbance in 1967, recalled that the first business to be looted was a white-owned grocery store, while the black-owned grocery store across the street remained untouched. Discussing the rebellion, Thomas Sugrue wrote,

“Few blacks worked where they shopped. Fewer felt any loyalty to neighborhood stores.”

In group and individual interviews that I conducted across Detroit in 2014, I found that most Detroiters still felt discrimination in grocery stores and wanted to see improved customer service. One Detroiter even noted that he wanted grocers to “treat everybody right.” The majority of participants noted that they established weaving foodways through Detroit and its nearby suburbs to carry out their food shopping with the positive treatment, environment and service that they deserved.

In Detroit, race and food have been intertwined for decades. While the city is far from seeing a present-day “rebellion,” the events of 1967 demonstrate the historical basis for understanding where and how different communities and racial groups in Detroit access food today. These deep racial histories define the current food landscape more than any other factor and provide critical framing for future progress.


Hill, Alex B. “Critical inquiry into Detroit’s “food desert” metaphor.” Food and Foodways 25, no. 3 (2017): 228-246.

Hill, Alex B., and Maya Stovall. “The Detroitists: Reflections of Detroit Ethnographers at the Anniversary of the 1967 Rebellion” Anthropology News 58, no. 4 (2017).

Bio:  Alex B. Hill works to address the impacts of health disparities from chronic diseases through data analysis and community engagement strategies. His personal research is focused on food access, health disparities, and racial justice. Alex’s projects and research focus on the need for greater community involvement at all levels and specifically highlight the intersections of power, privilege, and race.

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How Bad Is Food Insecurity for Disabled Americans? It’s worse than the Census data show

Elaine Gerber

With the 2020 Census around the corner and proposed changes to it highly politicized , I want to hold up to everyone – especially my fellow food ethnographers – how important recent changes in how “we count,” count!

For example, prior to the 2010 Census, we did not know how many blind and visually impaired people were living in the US because the Census did not disaggregate “sensory impairment” data and lumped blind and Deaf people together into one category.  Yet, their needs vis a vis food access and security would be quite different, such as reading tiny nutrition labels or communicating with the cashier.  Thankfully this hard-fought change was successful, and supports the development of policy solutions for various subpopulations.

As an applied anthropologist and disability studies scholar, these issues are important to me—and many others:  approximately 20% of working-aged adults have some form of impairment or disability.  Moreover, the tight relationship between poverty and disability means that there is a high percentage of impairment (and by extension, disabled people) in the low-income and disenfranchised populations that many of us work with, even if we don’t look for it or ask about it directly.

I have been arguing for over 10 years that access to food is much harder for disabled Americans than for their non-disabled counterparts (see Eat, Drink, and Inclusion) But there were no large-scale national datasets that either collected or de-aggregated their data in such a way to prove this.  So I was thrilled to see the Census report released in 2013 that confirmed the problem of a “dietary divide.”

These census data show that nearly one-third (31.8%) of all U.S. households with food insecurity included a working-age disabled adult and nearly 38% of households with very low food security included a working-age disabled adult.  By comparison, 12% of households with no working-age disabled adults were food insecure.  The census also demonstrated that food insecurity is an issue even when disabled people were employed: over 20% of households with a disabled adult who was working full-time were food insecure.

These statistics are incredibly valuable.  Yet, these do not fully capture the extent of food insecurity for disabled people.

One, these likely underestimate the problem, as the census data cited above are self-reported.  The census numbers might not accurately reflect the number of people who have highly stigmatized conditions (such as cognitive or psychiatric impairment); mental health issues are often not acknowledged, let alone disclosed, and many other hidden/non-visible disabilities are frequently underreported.  Estimates of rates of mental illness alone range from 20-80%  of the general population, with certain segments, such as veterans and college students, experiencing a disproportionate amount of that burden.  Further, ethnographic accounts have illustrated that there are many disabled people – people with impairments that would qualify as “disabled” under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) – who do not identify as disabled, including people with everyday health problems, such as a “bad back,” hypertension, migraines, and chronic pain, as well as those whose membership in this category is temporary (e.g., see Webber et al).  These conditions will affect how often someone can get to the market or how many groceries they can carry home, yet these people most likely would not have been included in the 2013 census numbers.

Two, the data only include non-institutionalized adults, thus leaving out several key populations.  Keywords here are “adult” and “institutionalized.”  The census data does not include disabled children or any seniors (people 65 and older) – and seniors represent the largest demographic of disabled people in the U.S., even if culturally we prefer to consider these people “elderly,” rather than impaired.  Nor does it include the many disabled working-aged adults who are living in group homes, larger institutions, and nursing homes, or who are incarcerated.  The DOJ estimates that imprisoned people are 3-4 times more likely to report having a disability as the non-incarcerated population.  There is every reason to believe that food insecurity is as bad, if not worse, for institutionalized disabled persons.  Nothing about the care of people in institutions generally, nor the history of the treatment of disabled people in this country, would suggest otherwise.

These numbers are only part of the picture. These statistics do not describe the qualitative ways in which disabled people’s experiences accessing food is different from that of non-disabled people, nor does it address other aspects related to food insecurity beyond food acquisition, such as cooking and food preparation, inclusion and commensality that accompanies dining, or the development of cultural identities (e.g., adulthood status) linked to independent food choice. Yet, research suggests that disabled people experience additional barriers shopping, cooking, and dining. For more, see an executive summary of my #EatDis research, AND stay tuned to this blog.

Elaine Gerber is a medical anthropologist and disability studies scholar who works at Montclair State University.  She formerly served as the Senior Research Associate at the American Foundation for the Blind and as President of the Society for Disability Studies.


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Radio Ethnography, Restaurant Kitchens and #MeToo

Our SAFN president David Beriss has put out a call for blog posts on food workers, food service, restaurant kitchens and the #MeToo movement.

So my ears perked up during a long ice-bedeviled drive from Virginia to Connecticut when The Splendid Table’s February 2, 2018 program began to play over my car’s radio (always tuned to NPR), with a preamble introducing the issue of #MeToo. The featured theme was restaurant kitchens, their people, and their complicated communities, and the first guest was Amy Thielen, chef and author of the 2017 memoir, Give a Girl a Knife, about coming up through the ranks as a chef. (#649: Behind the Restaurant available at

The podcast will be of interest to our SAFN scholars, both for its content and as an example of ethnography. The longform interview explored sexual harassment, intimidation and quid pro quo sexual demands in food service settings. It reached a lot of people, conveyed the real-time process of thinking through and reflecting on this issue, and of course, the actual voices of the speakers, with their inflections, pauses, emphases. The same segment explored how restaurant kitchens are both high-stakes and “family,” but the speakers did not relate how those realities promote either an atmosphere in which quid pro quo sexual harassment flourishes—or in which targets of harassment can turn to resources and supports not available in other professional settings.

So, I am newly invigorated to think through and try radio ethnography again. In the 1990s, I co-developed and carried out the ethnography for a radio program series about “community” that was broadcast in southwestern Virginia by WVTF, the NPR affiliate. It was well-received and I hope to develop another on food justice and security movements and work in New England. I would love to hear other SAFN members’ thoughts and experiences with this ethnography medium, its shortcomings and strengths.

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