Author Archives: Jo

What Foodanthro is reading now, February 27, 2018

A brief digest of food and nutrition-related items that caught our attention recently. Got items you think we should include? Send links and brief descriptions to or

Got some coffee on hand? It’s hard for me to imagine spending $18 on a cup of coffee, but still, growing coffee in California under a canopy of avocadoes is a really happy image. As we move into new food territory with climate change, it’s interesting to hear of how people experiment, adapt and also push the fringes of what can be grown where.

Science recently published an article about the alleged “sugar conspiracy”, suggesting that the jostling of different nutrition ideas evolved over time in the context of postwar nutrition. It highlights the social forces that shaped discourse at the time, in a way that seems to suggest introspection, as well as a degree of humility and openness (which seems to be what foodanthro is all about):

But ahistorical accounts thwart our ability to critically evaluate the often long and zigzag process of scientific conjecture and refutation. They provide spurious cover for changes to policy by suggesting that old ideas are illegitimate. And, they advance a false impression that doing the “right” kind of science will somehow avert the messy business of making policy based on incomplete evidence, public values, and democratic politics

Another article from The Atlantic asks us whether the planet can feed 10 billion people, talking about the “moonshots” of the wizards (interested in technological fixes) and the prophets (interested in ecological sustainability):

Although the argument is couched in terms of calories per acre and ecosystem conservation, the disagreement at bottom is about the nature of agriculture—and, with it, the best form of society. To Borlaugians, farming is a kind of useful drudgery that should be eased and reduced as much as possible to maximize individual liberty. To Vogtians, agriculture is about maintaining a set of communities, ecological and human, that have cradled life since the first agricultural revolution, 10,000-plus years ago.

Over at EcoWatch, one farmer , growing hydroponically in containers, says that the way you feed a growing population is:

to make millions and millions of people into successful farmers.

This food interview over at the Guardian was just fun, and worth reading for the comments, and this description of soup:

like an enormous vat of what appeared to be water with one chicken claw in it.

I appreciate this column of everything the Guardian loves “about food right now,” for what it says about what is currently perceived as cool, and how distant all these places feel from here in South Africa. I followed a link on the column and learned about Kaki tree project, which sends persimmon saplings of a tree that survived the Nagasaki bombing to sites around the world). It also led me to Ruby Tandoh’s  slightly dated Guardian article, where her baking for an eating disorder outpatient ward was heartfelt:

Those with eating disorders feel the significance of this junction all too clearly, and a mouthful can easily become a transgression. Every single bite opens us up to the world. No woman is an island, as long as she eats.

Big news in global food systems (?): Unilever is sharing it’s supply chain for palm oil. There’s a move towards greater transparency and fewer middle men in a lot of supply chains, it seems.

Lastly, this article about eating pigeons. I appreciated how theoretically the one farmer should be getting lots of pigeons… and wasn’t.

Still, it’s clear that some of squab’s inconveniences are also a part of its charm. Because it’s hard to produce and familiar primarily to foodies, it’s treated with more reverence than a chicken. While this keeps squabs out of the mouths of the masses, it’s actually great for business.

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What Foodanthro is Reading Now, February 6 2018

A brief digest of food and nutrition-related items that caught our attention recently. Got items you think we should include? Send links and brief descriptions to or

Maybe you’re eating this at lunch time. If so, how does your lunch break compare to workers around the world? This story was interesting for the ways it resonated with the narrative of lack of time given the number of hours taken up by work, and also the idea of “junk” and “fast” food around the world.

Civil eats had a story about the nuances that need to be added to the narrative of “Eat less Meat:”

For me and many like me, grazing is our art form—it’s our best tool for breathing new life into neglected land.

While at times it may be important to struggle over what kind of food is the most morally righteous– sustainable or ethical or healthy, Ariel Greenwood makes points about levels of deep investment in food systems:

…few environmentalists who are opposed to grazing animals and eating their flesh have demonstrated either the degree of embodied affection, personal risk, and deep practice or the knowledge of grassland dynamics, plant succession, and wildlife movement that I’ve seen among the graziers in my life. So I urge those who care about the meat industry’s impact on the environment to bring more curiosity and humility to the discussion.

(Also, where was I when “woke” became an adjective?)

As a counterpoint, The California Sunday Magazine ran a fascinating, lengthy article on Steward Resnick, the biggest farmer in the United States, with startling photos of bare-grounded orchards. It’s worth the time to read. From the ability to shape entire communities of labourers (a major public health intervention?!), to thoughts about the productivity of the land, this is a powerful article about big agriculture. When the scale is so large the productivity per acre is no longer important:

“These trees are pruned by a machine that hedges one side and then the other,” he says. “But the smaller farmer still uses a pruning shears to make his most important cuts. If he knows what he’s doing, the shears can make a thousand more pounds an acre.”

And water is at the centre of it all. Water is on everyone’s minds here in Cape Town, too, where we’re facing the worst drought in living memory, our taps are at risk of running dry. Guess who is coming to the rescue? Yup. Coca Cola.  And South African Breweries. I’m skeptical whenever these companies start feigning altruism, but I’m overly cynical. It’s striking that, in a drought, the largest farms (and the largest companies) seem to be above the immediate impact.

I didn’t know Ruby Tandoh before this interview, but now I really want to read her books. Of Samin Nosrat’s book, she says:

It’s about the basic elements of good cooking, but I’ve been reading it like a novel. Everything I’ve been doing so far in the kitchen has been wrong, it turns out, but I’m fine with Samin telling me I’m a fool. I would put my life in her hands.

I also thought her reflection on the global discourse around food was apt:

I think there’s too much focus on hardcore foodie stuff – being preoccupied with provenance and so on. Or else focusing on nutrition. These things are actually pretty interesting and useful in themselves, but what we’ve lost is the focus on just enjoying food. I want to remind people that it’s actually fine to enjoy a ready meal. We live in a time when you can get a macaroni cheese and it’s done in four minutes – that’s pretty amazing.

While it is amazing that you can get macaroni cheese cooked in four minutes, there’s some question as to frequency: Check out this article on ultra-processed food in Europe for a sense of just how ubiquitous these foods are:

Eating biscuits or crisps or drinking cola occasionally does no harm, he says, but these foods are designed to make us want more of them. “It is beyond liking. We are entering the world of craving,” he said. They are also universally available and cheap. The key ingredients are refined flours, cheap oil and fats, sugars, starches, protein isolates and salt.

“We are moving further and further away from food that nourishes us,” he said.

In this article, Hawkes is quoted as saying that our collective taste culture(s) need to change, which seems to be fertile ground for food anthropologists.

Lastly, the labels we give food— “mainstream” and “alternative” food necessarily shapes who consumes it, as well as the direction of the system itself:

The links that surplus food has with waste and commercial loss cause us to see surplus food as inferior food, despite its edibility. For example, some attempt to shame governments into changing social policy by calling it “leftover food for leftover people”. While I agree that austerity and welfare policies are causing great harm to families and communities, I also know that donated surplus food is a resource that supports the resilience of organisations aiming to help struggling communities and households.


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What FoodAnthro is Reading, December 14, 2017

A brief digest of food and nutrition-related items that caught our attention recently. Got items you think we should include? Send links and brief descriptions to or

There is a need for continued land reform in South Africa, and for transformation in the farming sector. Yet having good quality agricultural land with ready market access is often still not enough to make ends meet, which points to broader problems in pricing and the value chain:

Crime costs him dearly. “I haven’t had a salary in the last 12 years. I am living off my savings,” he says.

Yet apparently it is the beginning of the end of Big Food in South Africa?!

Cuba is everyone’s favourite example of a well-developed organic agicultural model. This article describes Cuba’s current food system. While Cuba does not supply all of its own food, it has a large and growing set of farmers using organic practices:

“Organic farming does not bring the kind of large yields that will solve all our problems. But it solves many of our problems, and it is starting to become important,” said Juan José León, an official at the Ministry of Agriculture. “Ecological farming arose as a response to a reality that smacked us,” he continued. That reality was the collapse of the Soviet Union. “They were difficult years. We had to produce food somehow, somewhere.”

Of course, now, Cubans navigate food production in a context where fertilizers and machinery can (and are) once again imported.

The NYTimes ran this article on obesity in Mexico, where free trade is named as an underappreciated cause. Interestingly, the experiences of the sugar tax in Mexico is not discussed in the article:

Since then, the Ruizes have become both consumers and participants in an extraordinary transformation of the country’s food system, one that has saddled them and millions of other Mexicans with diet-related illnesses.

In Paris you can get publicly supplied sparkling water. I’m insanely jealous, not only of the sparkling water and the croissants, but also jealous of a city where this makes it to the top of a to-do list.

In a world where fewer crops are feeding more people, food Policy Councils play a growing role in shaping food systems. This story focuses on the slow, plodding, and important work in building food systems:

“These women don’t give up,” says Ostrander. “They are cooperative, putting aside their egos to walk across the aisle to work with people with different agendas. They are leading from the middle.”

Slow and cumbersome, this is not the food revolution Pollan and other leading food activists advocate. But in the absence of a national food agenda, local food policy councils are meeting immediate needs to improve access to healthy food. They might just build an army of dedicated folks who believe they have a right to healthy food and know how to fight for that right and make those changes stick.

The G7 acknowledged Food Systems at their recent meeting in Milan:

9. We acknowledge that food systems have a huge impact on human health. Therefore, in the context of the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition, we advocate for food systems that support healthy and sustainable diets, ensuring food security, safety and nutrition for everyone, including vulnerable and marginalized populations.

On a similar note, the Rockefeller Foundation had an article that claimed that food was at the core of the global agenda. This past week also saw the Food Security conference here in Cape Town. This article summed up the challenges of insufficient focus on maldistribution and processing:

The question of why those calories aren’t equally distributed, or what happens to them once they leave the farm gate, did not get equal airtime at the conference, which failed to capture how much the food system has changed in recent decades, and the resulting explosion of poor health outcomes.

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What FoodAnthro is reading now, October 17, 2017

A brief digest of food and nutrition-related items that caught our attention recently. Got items you think we should include? Send links and brief descriptions to or

National Geographic had an article about the Netherlands’ phenomenal agricultural outputs, which complicated some binaries for me: for example where Greenhouse grown doesn’t have to mean energy intensive or unsustainable, or even high-tech. Though sitting here on our little farm in South Africa, the approach still doesn’t ring as necessarily helpful:

But not every strategy is necessarily high-tech. Some tap the power of nature. To reduce the use of pesticides, many growers have turned to what’s known as “biocontrol” to protect their crops, using insects, mites, and microscopic worms to feed on damaging pests.

In The Guardian, there was another call for technology and modernisation in African farms. In South Africa, there was this article about the food sovereignty movement, who are not calling for technical solutions, but for:

the deep transformation of our food system by breaking the control of food corporations and repositioning the state to realise the constitutional right to food, and ensure the creation of conditions and space for the emergence of food sovereignty alternatives from below.

The Guardian tells us that we may not eat chicken again after we read this article. I think they don’t realise the many reasons people eat chicken.
On the subject of meat consumption, here in South Africa the low-carb Banting diet is a big deal amongst the middle-class, led by celebrity academic Tim Noakes, who has said that we need to be eating meat to save the planet. There was at least one response to this, entitled, What does Tim Noakes think cows eat? Not everyone is buying into the meat craze– check out this story about a Cape Town business based entirely out of spinach and spinach products. The spinach story seems to be a helpful contrast to the massive growth of supermarkets and fast food chains in South Africa.
The Lancet is joining the chorus focusing on food in 2018, after the FAO report on The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World recently came out. The intersections between hunger and conflict, between rapid increases in obesity and stunting, and between food security and climate change all seem very important points of research for food anthropologists; the human experience of these intersections is so difficult to capture in these (still very helpful) reports.
On a more hopeful note, check out this video from NPR about a biologist and master forager. And finally, on Saveur, this story of a cooperative, where growing crops on ex-mafia land represents:
 the tool of a movement against intimidation, an artisanally extruded counterpunch against corruption, a noodle in the eye of organized crime.

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What FoodAnthro is Reading Now, September 15, 2017

Jo Hunter-Adams

A brief digest of food and nutrition-related items that caught our attention recently. Got items you think we should include? Send links and brief descriptions to or

To begin, Raj Patel writes of the devastation of industrial agriculture. Local is one important avenue in the face of industrial ag, and Strongtowns is an interesting place to go to find stories of strong local food systems: Firstly, this article describes some of the challenges of building local food systems to the point where they actually provide significant calories (and the long years of hard work and no income that often precede this point). Also on Strongtowns was this piece about nuns running a farm in western New York, which offers a glimpse at the many ways that small farms can be transformational. Brian Williams also offered some very helpful ways of thinking about local food in the context of food systems. Citiscopes also had this article on building resilience into local food systems in Baltimore and Washington D.C.. Across the world in Australia, Karenni refugees are showing what is possible by cultivating food in suburban spaces. Perhaps a little tangentially linked, insects continue to be a very hot area of (local) food systems change, as described in this NPR article about teaching kids about entomophagy.

I’m always struck by the various food “worlds” we’re trying to make sense of, and our role as food researchers showing how these worlds are connected and influence one another. For example, check out this video on surviving on R1000 ($74)/month in South Africa. This is juxtaposed with the power of South African breweries (SAB) and the recent StatsSA article in honour of our national beer day, which tracked spending and told us that we’re spending more on beer than on vegetables. In Venezuela, chronic hunger is currently affecting large portions of the population, and this in-depth article frames hunger politically.  Which is not to sidestep the persistent issue of hunger in wealthy countries, as described in the U.S. context here.

There are so many people working on food and nutrition, and here are just a couple of stories about food educators: Forbes interviewed Tambra Raye Stevenson about her work bringing together different threads of food activism. There was also this NYTimes article about nutrition education as a medical intervention.

As always, the medicalization of food and the quest for the perfect diet can lead us astray. This article in The Atlantic examines misinterpretation of nutritional studies:

When measuring diet, for example, lifelong randomized, controlled trials are impossible. Even if people would volunteer to change their diets for a decade or so—a period long enough that rates of death and cancer and heart attacks could be meaningful—it would be impossible to keep the research subjects blinded. Our perceptions of how well we’re eating change how we behave in a lot of other ways.

Relatedly, Bee Wilson had this excellent article about the [debunked but cultlike] phenomenon of Clean Eating :

But it quickly became clear that “clean eating” was more than a diet; it was a belief system, which propagated the idea that the way most people eat is not simply fattening, but impure. Seemingly out of nowhere, a whole universe of coconut oil, dubious promises and spiralised courgettes has emerged.

It’s in this world that dieting remains a big business, and now Oprah’s has some big stakes in the business.

I’ve been reading my way through the long list of food histories recently, and this article about strawberries caught my eye. It’s always a bit startling to see how much science is involved in growing and transporting just the right fruit.

Lastly, this article was a beautiful view of how daily acts of love are enacted in food:

There are so many different ways to show love through food — you can cook for someone, you can feed them.

Or you can just make a little room at the table for what they love to eat.

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What Foodanthro is Reading Now, August 3, 2017

A brief digest of food and nutrition-related items that caught our attention recently. Got items you think we should include? Send links and brief descriptions to or

In South Africa, efforts to resist the mining agenda continue, in part through using the land for agriculture:

Living on the northern-most portion of the Wild Coast of South Africa, the coastal Amadiba villages have been resisting the proposed Xolobeni Mineral Sands Project for over ten years through directly confronting attempts to mine, and have also used the very land that is under threat of destruction as a weapon in creative ways. These tactics show us powerful forms of resistance to the state’s political project from above.

If you don’t have space but want to farm animals, would you consider dormice?

There’s dormouse stuffed with pork and its own trimmings, then pounded out with pepper, laser (the juice of a giant fennel plant), broth, and nuts; after, this concoction is put in a casserole dish, roasted, or boiled. Not a bad way to chow down—especially considering the mice were extra-succulent after hanging out in their own special jar.

Here’s an article about really old potatoes. Apparently North Americans were eating potatoes 10,000 years ago! On the subject of potatoes, there was this recent celebration of Eva Akblad:

Today Google’s Doodle – which is visible all around the world – is celebrating the relatively unknown Eva Ekblad, the Swedish scientist who rescued the spud from being the rarefied preserve of the aristocracy and made it into the useful and common stuff we know today.

On the subject of UK farms, there is the challenges of surviving brexit and supplying more of it’s own food, combined with the imperative to supply food with a low carbon footprint:

So carbon footprinting is a blunt tool, but it still has much to recommend it (when combined with environmental subsidy based on outcome, as per above). Anecdotally, producers have told me that the process of engaging with it, and therefore of trying to enable a smaller carbon footprint, has led to greater efficiencies across the food chain. Examining one element of environmental cost leads to an engagement with all of it.

Also in the context of Brexit, this article in the Guardian talks about the rise of mega farms:

Leaving the EU provides us with an unprecedented opportunity to shape our farming industry so it works for the UK and helps our farmers grow more world-class food. We are determined to make a success of it, but we will not compromise on our high animal welfare or environmental standards, and we will always protect our proud and varied farming traditions.”

This article about Princeton’s “farminary” was beautiful and reminiscent of Wendell Berry:

The physical labor of farming provided respite from all that talking and feeling—and offered new lenses through which to process it.

Although the writer’s qualify their results quite a bit this article about the Mediterranean diet, it’s super interesting that experiences of the diet differ by socio-economic status:

The researchers tracked participants in the Moli-sani Project for an average of four years, and found that adherence to the Mediterranean diet was associated with an approximate 60 percent reduction in risk of cardiovascular disease – but only for those who had education beyond high school or a household income greater €40,000 (approximately US$47,300) annually.

Over on NPR’s The Salt, a chef presents a compelling picture of the glaring blind spot in the farm-to-table vision:

Farm-to-table’s sincere glow distracts from how the production and processing of even the most pristine ingredients — from field or dock or slaughterhouse to restaurant or school cafeteria — is nearly always configured to rely on cheap labor. Work very often performed by people who are themselves poor and hungry.

Lastly, over at vice, one of my favourite articles this week was about clean eating and the ways it reinforces diet culture. There’s a lot of great lines, but here is just one:

And yet throughout these books – the very same ones that tell us to locate our self-worth not in how we look but in who we are and how we feel – there is a consistent, entrenched fear of fatness. When Deliciously Ella allays our fears that “things like avocados and almonds will make you fat,” she leaves that foundational anxiety around fatness intact as a valid concern.

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What FoodAnthro is Reading Now, July 11th 2017

A brief digest of food and nutrition-related items that caught our attention recently. Got items you think we should include? Send links and brief descriptions to or

Alex de Waal wrote recently about famine as a weapon of war, in historical context:

Drawing on a long Anglo-American tradition of economic warfare and blockade, the counter-humanitarian trend in London and Washington is both morally distasteful and practically stupid. When international aid fails to feed the hungry and treat the sick, extremist projects flourish. If security strategists and xenophobes think that humanitarian crises will burn themselves out at a safe distance they are mistaken: the biggest demographic outcome of famine has always been migration

Roxane Gay’s moving piece on her size is taken from her recent book Hunger: A Memoir Of (My) Body  :

Today, I am a fat woman. I don’t think I am ugly. I don’t hate myself in the way society would have me hate myself, but I hate how the world all too often responds to this body. It would be easy to pretend I am just fine with my body as it is. I’m a feminist and I know that it is important to resist unreasonable standards for how my body should look.

This piece of research on junk food challenged the stereotype that the poor are eating more junk food (at least in high-income countries). The not-so-great finding is that, in fact, everyone is eating lots of junk food:

the guilty pleasure of enjoying a McDonald’s hamburger, Kentucky Fried Chicken popcorn nuggets or Taco Bell burrito is shared across the income spectrum, from rich to poor, with an overwhelming majority of every group reporting having indulged at least once over a nonconsecutive three-week period.

Sometimes regulated away, deemed unsafe, or forced into various grey areas, one of the most important sources of food here in South Africa, and across much of Africa, are informal. This recent article highlighted the vital role of informal traders in supplying African cities with both food and employment:

The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that the average size of the informal market as a percentage of GDP in sub-Saharan Africa is 41%. This ranges from under 30% in South Africa to 60% in Nigeria, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. The informal market is also one of the biggest employers, accounting for 72% of non-agricultural employment in Africa. It is therefore an important source of income for many and enables financial independence, especially for women.

I am always amazed by the complexity of global food systems. This recent report from Chatham house represents a major piece of work on “chokepoints” in the food system, points at which disruptions in the food supply potentially affect how food moves around the world:

Moreover, these risks are increasing, driven by three distinct trends. First, dependency on chokepoints is growing (see Figure 2). For example, in the past decade and a half the share of internationally traded grain and fertilizers passing through at least one of the maritime chokepoints has increased from 43 to 54 per cent. A smaller but nonetheless significant share – 10 per cent – now depends on transit through one or more of the maritime chokepoints as the only viable shipping route, up from 6 per cent in 2000.

The report fails to make any mention of increasing food sovereignty, or instituting policies that reduce dependence on a handful of crops. They do mention the need for developed countries:

to reform trade-distorting farm support. Such support promotes systemic reliance on a handful of mega-crops and a small number of grain-exporting regions. Instead, public funds should be directed to supporting alternative sources of grain production around the world, in order to diversify global production and reduce import dependence elsewhere. A priority should be to direct such funding to farming in sub-Saharan Africa, where yield gaps remain while cereal demand is growing rapidly; this could be complemented with funding to support production of alternative crops.

Some challenges of farming organically are shared in this story from Northwest public radio. One question that comes up for me after reading this article is to what extent it really is possible to farm multi-acre monocrops organically:

“You have to be more persistent than the weeds, and we know they are really persistent,” says Ian Burke, a professor of weed science at Washington State University. “It’s all about having the people to be out there and be actively managing.”

It’s a bit hard for me to be convinced he had anything more glamourous than a pre-industrial diet shared, until recently, by most people across the globe; still, over at the Salt is an article about Henry David Thoreau’s diet:

By today’s standards, the polite vegetarian didn’t have the most balanced diet, but he did have remarkable foresight. Long before Pollan penned his popular dietary prescription, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” Thoreau was doing just that.

Amazon continues to pursue some kind of food takeover, receiving permission to stock and sell food in India!?

Check out this floating food forest New York, created as a provocation to New York’s policy prohibiting foraging in public parks. Imagine how much could be grown in New York City’s 30,000 acres of parks:

But compared to the concrete pier, Swale’s blueberry bushes, sage, and apple trees provided an island of green. I tried a blackberry from the garden, as well as a bright orange daylily that Gallahan promised me was edible. (There was a little bug inside it, and I ate that, too.) The produce tasted fresh and sweet — if only it didn’t cost so much to grow.

The Guardian had this moving article about the culpability of employers when it comes to consumption of junk food:

In fact, it’s employers who steal billions from workers every year by refusing to pay minimum wage or overtime. Wage theft causes hundreds of thousands of employees to fall below the poverty line and into the food stamp program. Forced to work 14-hour shifts without any breaks to eat, these underpaid workers get by on cheap candy bars and energy drinks that lawmakers then call them irresponsible for purchasing on their benefit cards.

In the UK, they are asking whether to have a traffic light labeling system on supermarket receipts. They admit it won’t end obesity, but I’d be more worried about implementation, and whether the information it provides really leads people in the right direction?:

“Labelling is not the solution to the obesity crisis,” says Anna Taylor, executive director at the Food Foundation. “But what’s important about the traffic lights system is it encourages businesses to reformulate because they don’t want to have a product with lots of reds.” As Morrow puts it, whether or not it makes people eat more healthily, “it’s still important to have the information in terms of consumer rights. The traffic light system is a massive improvement because it’s accessible to everyone, not just those who are nutritionally literate.”

Lastly, this fascinating story of Eva Braun’s food habits brings the contradictions of food in the third reich into sharp relief:

At the very outset, Shapiro highlights the “moral distance” between Braun and her other five subjects. She sets the story of Braun’s appetites – and Hitler’s food oddities – against that of the war and Holocaust, intertwining the two narratives into a penetrating essay that neither romanticizes nor gratuitously indicts Braun.

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