Category Archives: anthropology

Review: Food Justice and Narrative Ethics

Media of Food Justice and Narrative Ethics

Food Justice and Narrative Ethics: Reading Stories for Ethical Awareness and Activism. Beth A. Dixon. Bloomsbury Academic. 2018 ISBN #9781350054561. 192 pp.
Megan B. Hinrichsen (Monmouth College)

In Food Justice and Narrative Ethics: Reading Stories for Ethical Awareness and Activism, Beth A. Dixon explores the paradoxes of our contemporary food system through the stories told about hunger and scarcity contradictorily coexisting with stories told about rising rates of morbid obesity. Her book covers the narratives constructing the collective understandings of contemporary food system and societal injustices that interest those studying the anthropology of food: food insecurity, the “voluntary” migration and naturalized oppression of farmworkers, and obesity. Each of these topics not only has a clear connection to food and the food system but is tied together through master narratives related to personal responsibility. Food justice narratives can undermine the power of these master narratives by positioning “us to make more accurate and nuanced appraisals of moral responsibility” about individuals who struggle with problems related to food injustices (113). Throughout the book, Dixon demonstrates how philosophical and ethical reasoning are activities that are deeply connected to everyday lives. Readers learn how we – philosophers and “ethical novices,” anthropologists or those in other fields, students and professors, experts and non-experts alike – can use the tools of ethical awareness to shape our knowledge of food justice and inform our activism.

Dixon’s goals for this work are clearly lined out. She presents case studies of food insecurity, farmworkers and farm labor, and obesity as representations of a narrative methodology informed by the concept of ethical perception. Ethical perception is an idea borrowed from Aristotle (and others) that conveys that ethical expertise has to be obtained in a developmental process, incrementally. Therefore, Dixon proposes that realistic narratives about our food system can guide readers to ethical conclusions that orient them towards activism. A compelling and precise food justice narrative “profiles individual people, social groups, or communities that suffer injustice and aims to make visible why we should classify their circumstances as unjust” (2). These are stories that are increasingly familiar. These stories tell us about who is hungry and why they go hungry. These are stories about our roles as consumers in an increasingly complex and hidden food system. There are stories about who is planting, picking, processing, and selling our food. There are also stories about the consumption of food and when it becomes problematic and marked as unhealthy. Dixon argues that the analysis of food justice narratives should position us to identify structural conditions that lead to some of these injustices. Dixon views these food justice narratives as “counterstories that correct the way in which master narrative implicitly disguise the identities and background circumstances of those who seek to nourish themselves” (9). Master narratives about the food system in the United States, according to Dixon, place an excessive burden on the individual person to bear responsibility for their position in society. She recommends that we adjust our “ethical lens” to focus on structural injustice and oppression that constrain people’s choices (10). The consideration of structural inequalities has been central in anthropology for decades, yet it remains an essential concept as we consider how people’s choices are constrained and opportunities are limited for individuals and groups of people in a variety of contexts.

We anthropologists and students of anthropology may be some of the ethical novices (defined as people who are developing ethical expertise on a topic) who can work to develop food justice narratives as counterstories that resist master narratives. Dixon argues that learning to “see food justice is part of a more general strategy for acquiring ethical expertise” (41). Dixon provides almost step-by-step instructions for how to develop narrative skill in the book’s second chapter. In one of the personal vignettes used to open and close the book’s chapters, Dixon describes working at a food pantry called Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard (MHC). In this section, the author herself explains how she began to acquire ethical perception as she volunteered at MHC and had to navigate the uncomfortableness of the situation of knowing a person using the food pantry and wanting to hide to prevent embarrassment for her acquaintance. Dixon described the situation, writing that “food insecurity is taking shape for me in a concrete way – individual people with faces and names, in a variety of circumstances, and with particular stories to tell about what they need to stand in line at the MHC food pantry” (59). Anthropologists accomplish a similar goal though applied research and through our teaching.

This book is especially beneficial for those of us who teach anthropology and food justice and want to develop the ability to see the structural conditions of society that create situations of food injustice without losing sight of the particular stories and circumstances of people who suffer these injustices. Dixon includes examples of constructive and destructive stories that can either disrupt master narratives or work to sustain them in our collective imaginations, respectively. Stories that attempt to show us “the faces of hunger” often represent a “complex tangle of moral concepts about accidental bad luck, personal responsibility, deservingness, and justice” can contribute a damaging master narrative about food insecurity as an individual character deficit or personal misfortune (61). People in the narratives are often cast as archetypes like the “pathetic victim” worthy of our sympathy or the “heroic victim” who is worthy of our praise for overcoming obstacles (66). These narratives create a high standard of “moral innocence and deservingness” that would be difficult for most people to meet (74). Anthropologists, philosophers, students, non-profit leaders, social workers, volunteers, and other professionals need to consider how the stories they tell either contribute to false master narratives or help situate the experience of food injustice in the context of systemic injustices that have generated and perpetuated experiences of poverty and inequality.

But how can we work to make sure our stories address these broader structural issues? Dixon answers this question throughout the second half of the book beginning with Chapter 4, entitled “Rewriting the Call to Charity.” This chapter argues that food justice narratives need to profile people who are food insecure and include descriptions of “social, political, and economic background” conditions (77). Using accessible and academic examples of good food justice narratives like the documentary A Place at the Table (Silverbursh and Jacobson 2013) and the ethnography Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies (Holmes 2013), Dixon demonstrates that good food justice narratives resist damaging master narratives and allow those that see them to identify the conditions that disadvantage certain populations of people. In these situations, food injustices are not accidents that befall people nor are they somehow justifiable due to a moral failing. Food injustices become social problems, not an individual misfortune or fault. Finally, an effective food justice narrative inspires “ordinary citizens to undertake individual or collective action on behalf of food justice by shaping our moral imaginations about what is possible” (89).

The food injustice issues that Dixon addresses are all situations in which we can find moral fault and suggest easy answers and simple solutions. The strength of this book is that Dixon not only explains what food justice narratives and narrative ethics are, she also explains why and how they should be developed to be accurate representations of people’s experiences within social structures and to motivate people to act. This is primarily a book about skill development, so it is especially relevant for educators and practitioners who want to educate about these issues and change the status quo. It would be a useful book for advanced students, researchers, practitioners, and academics interested in food justice issues in fields like philosophy and religious studies, anthropology, sociology, communication studies, and media studies. The creation, use, and understanding of food justice narratives should ultimately, according to Dixon, create a drive for more sustainable change rather than a call to charity alone. Though not specifically about anthropology, this book could be a valuable tool for anthropologists and social scientists who want to know more about narratives and ethics and how we can incorporate these ideas to refine our work. We, too, are storytellers. We tell stories in our classrooms, in our presentations, and in our written work about the people with whom we work. Food Justice and Narrative Ethics is a good reminder for us consider how we present these stories and who these stories serve. We should strive to write, tell, and pass on stories that aim towards increasing ethical awareness and food justice activism.

 

Bibliography

Holmes, Seth M. 2013. Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Silverbrush, Lori and Kristi Jacobson, dirs. 2013. A Place at the Table. New York: Magnolia Pictures. DVD.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, food activism, food education, food pantries, food systems, hunger, obesity

Review: The Way We Eat Now

The Way We Eat Now

Bee Wilson The Way We Eat Now: How the Food Revolution has Transformed our Lives, Our Bodies, and Our World.  Basic Books. New York. 2019. ISBN 978046509377

Richard Zimmer (Sonoma State University)

Bee Wilson’s central message in The Way We Eat Now is that since most of the industrialized world now has enough food to eat, it can change its eating and cooking patterns to prevent health risks, particularly diabetes and obesity. She offers a comprehensive solution: eat more tasty vegetables, more complex starches, less meat, snack less food, eat less food overall and on smaller plates and drink alcohol in smaller glasses. And eat with other people as much as possible. A food historian and writer based in England, Wilson discusses these “modest proposals” in a lively and readable fashion for the average reader. She uses research drawn from experts in various fields, supplemented by interviews with other people and recollections from her past. Her analyses are multi-faceted, comprehensive, and provocative enough to encourage more discussion and research among anthropologists and other social scientists interested in all aspects of food.

We are in the fifth stage of food, Wilson argues, one where the average person has not only enough food but an overwhelming array of foods from which to choose. She notes that mega- supermarkets may contain up to fifty thousand items (p.201.) So many overwhelming choices that competing less-choice alternatives such as Trader Joe’s still offer four thousand items (p.210.) Moreover, many of the choices that the shopper confronts in the supermarket, Wilson argues, are filled with sugar and carbohydrates, dangerous nutrients that promote weight related issues in children and adults: “…billions of people across the globe are simultaneously overfed and undernourished: rich in calories but poor in nutrients [sic.](p.5.)” As she notes and as others have noted, there is an increasing risk of Type II diabetes because of these eating patterns (see, for example, https://diabetes.diabetesjournals.org/content/66/6/1432

This all happened in the period since the end of WWII, in part inspired by Norman Borlaug’s “miracle wheat” (Wilson’s term) and “modern farm methods”, which allowed more people world-wide to be fed (p.3.) More food was more available–but at a nutrient and taste price. As with other food writers, Wilson also notes that as people became more “modern,” more attuned to international trendy food consumption patterns, they became more obese and more malnourished (see her comments on South Africa as one example: (pp.13-15.)        Furthermore, major international corporations used this opportunity to promote more sugary, starchy, and salty foods. Children are socialized to begin their consumption of these foods, often starting with cartoon characters on the cereal boxes. Chile, as Wilson notes, banned the use of cartoons in 2016 so as to stop what they saw as a slide to obesity (p.269.)

Wilson contends that many changes in food choices and in how we consume those food choices promote obesity and Type II diabetes. Many people snack more (p. 143, et seq),   and the snacks they eat are often salty high calorie and without much nutrient value. Parade Magazine, a color Sunday supplement available in American newspapers, ran the recipes for three “Slam Dunk Snacks” served in National Basketball Arenas in the country: Cheetos popcorn, Chicharonnes [Fried Pork Belly or Rinds] Nachos. and Crab Fries with Cheese Sauce, (Ashton 2019:14.) The article also featured a website for more “game-day snacks. (ibid.)”

Furthermore, many people have replaced regular meals with snacks (p.143 et seq.) They eat high calorie energy and/or granola bars. And they no longer sit down to a regular meal with family or friends, In Chapter 4, “Out of Time,” Wilson laments the loss of family and group meals and notes how many people squeeze in eating. Within two generations in this new world, people have gone from families eating the same foods to each person eating on her or his own schedule whatever she or he wants. The eating patterns and rituals that served to promote social solidarity have disappeared.

One snack example is instant noodles (ramen.) Wilson notes that despite their variety, they basically have the same ingredients –wheat, salt, and vegetable oil (pp.81-2.) As Han has noted, people in South Korea, especially children, often just eat the dry spices of the noodle packages and eat them alone, and they get them in convenience stores ( 2018:102.)

Of particular interest are some of the points Wilson makes about obesity. India has a diabetic epidemic. People there have experienced a speedup of time to becoming undernourished–within a single generation. Best put it in her words: “…[the thin-fat] babies grew inside their malnourished mothers with phenotypes for hunger but–thanks to the huge changes in India’s food supply between the 1970’s and the 1990s-found themselves eating an unexpectedly plentiful diet (p.57.)”

Similarly, people consume beverages that are filled with calories, often with no other food value. They may be alcoholic or non-alcoholic. They may be milkshakes or huge cafe lattes. Unlike food, these beverages do not satisfy any hunger. Wilson notes that in some countries, such as Mexico, bottled drinks are necessary because of the uncertain water supply. But “[w]ith certain exceptions, our bodies simply do not register the calories from liquids in the same way that we do with solid food (p.64.)”

As noted in the beginning, Wilson does offer both hope and concrete solutions to the problems of obesity and malnourishment. We should eat less meat, more vegetables, less or no sugar, drink more water, and eat more foods from a “traditional” past when possible. We should use smaller plates and glasses. We should eat more communally and snack less. And we should take the time to enjoy our foods. Her final chapter: Epilogue: New Food on Old Plates, sums it up best: “Try to relish a range of tastes that go beyond sweetness…Come to your senses (p.306.)”

This book is useful for undergraduates who would benefit from a comprehensive view of changes in world eating patterns. It is particularly useful for graduate students in anthropology, sociology, economics, nutrition studies, and public health, for the same reasons and for ideas for future research in all aspects of food and nutrition.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

2019

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3068646/ Accessed Nov. 5, 2019

2019

https://clindiabetesendo.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40842-016-0039-3 Accessed Nov. 5, 2019

 2019

Alison Ashton. What America Eats: Slam Dunk Snacks. Parade Magazine. Oct. 20.:14.

2018

Kyung-Koo Han. Noodle Odyssey–East Asia and Beyond. in Kwang Ok Kim, ed. Reorienting Cuisine: East Asian Foodways in the Twenty-First Century. Berghahn Books. New York. 91-107.

 

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Filed under anthropology, diabetes, food and health, food education

SAFN Members will be busy at AAAs in Vancouver!

2019 Annual Meeting Logo 300

Jennifer Jo Thompson

As always, food serves as an interdisciplinary site for investigating a wide range of urgent social issues. This year’s SAFN menu at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association is no different – with nine panels focusing on food and health, tradition and identity, and climate change. There’s a full SAFN schedule, if you want it. This year’s conference, jointly organized with the Canadian Anthropology Society, will be in Vancouver from November 20 to November 24.

Wednesday, November 20, features a double panel entitled Syndemic Vulnerability and Entanglements of Food, Nutrition, and Health, with Part One co-sponsored with the Society for Medical Anthropology. These two panels examine the many intersections between food, health, and society—through biocultural, political ecological, and public health/nutritional lenses—and aim to identify “next steps” for advancing anthropological work in this interdisciplinary domain.

On Thursday morning, check out Crafting Cuisine: Changing Cultures of Apprenticeship, Production, and Value, which investigates the “cultural economy of craft” in contemporary foodways. Mid-afternoon, join us for Changing Climate, Changing Agriculture: Anthropological Contributions to the Study of Agriculture and Climate Change, where presenters (including myself) demonstrate the ways that anthropology is uniquely-situated to bring individual and highly-localized eco-social knowledge to global-scale efforts to combat climate change.

Friday, November 22, promises to be a busy day for SAFN members. The day begins with Terroir in Translation: Food and Identity in Changing Climates, co-sponsored with Culture & Agriculture (C&A). This panel re-conceptualizes the notion of terroir as a lens for examining social, political, and environmental change. Midday, join us for the SAFN Business Meeting. We have a few surprises up our sleeve for that meeting, but you’ll have to join us to find out what we’re planning. In the afternoon, panelists on Time for Change: Temporal Struggles in Contemporary Food Systems (co-sponsored with C&A) will argue that temporality has been under-theorized in anthropology by offering papers that demonstrate the importance of this dimension in the anthropology of food.

On Friday evening, we celebrate. We are again partnering with Culture & Agriculture to host a joint Distinguished Speaker and Awards event on Friday night. Our Distinguished Speaker will be Dawn Morrison of the Secwepemc Nation. The title of her talk is “Indigenous Food Economies and Cultures: Key Ingredients for Climate Justice.” Ms. Morrison has a background in horticulture and ethnobotany, and she is the Director of the Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty; the Founder, Chair, and Coordinator of the B.C. Food Systems Networking Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty; the Co-Founder and Curator of Wild Salmon Caravan; and a Community Self-Development Facilitator within her Secwepemc community. We will also announce the winners of the Christine Wilson Undergraduate and Graduate Paper Prizes and the winner of the Thomas Marchione Award.

Immediately following the Distinguished Speaker and Awards event, SAFN and C&A will host a joint reception at the nearby Pacific Rim Hotel. Join us to connect over hors d’oeuvres and drinks with a beautiful view of the city and waterfront.

But don’t stay up too late on Friday, because you won’t want to miss four more panels on Saturday, November 23. At 8am, you’ll have to choose between two sessions that feature recent anthropological writing. American Chinese Restaurant: Society Culture and Consumption is panel based on an edited volume of the same name in press with Routledge. Hungry for Change: Critical Interventions in Contemporary Food Studies is a roundtable, co-sponsored with C&A, featuring authors of recent critical ethnographies focused on food and agro-environmental justice. Midday will feature Changing Terroir, Tradition, and Identity, a panel with papers examining shifting food cultures in the US, Europe, and Japan. Finally, presenters on Critically Examining the Reproductive Politics of Nourishing Substances, shed light on a largely unexplored area of anthropology through ethnographic papers focused on the social lives of a wide range of “nourishing substances.”

We hope you’ll join us for all these great sessions and events. See you in Vancouver!

 

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Intercultural Learning Community on Food, Culture and Social Justice

Group photo at Oregon Food Bank Farms

Group photo at Oregon Food Bank Farms

Joan Gross
Oregon State University

I spent two very intense weeks at the end of September leading the lntercultural Learning Community on Food, Culture and Social Justice (ILC) through various interesting sites of food production and consumption in Oregon. In December we will visit parallel sites in Ecuador. The ILC was developed jointly by food activists in Ecuador and Oregon in 2013 to de-colonize the typical study abroad program. We do this by forming an international, multicultural group of people from both Oregon and Ecuador who are invested in some aspect of the food system and feel that humankind can do better. We look for ways in which the practice of sustainable foodways can address some of today’s most pressing concerns, such as environmental degradation, climate change, the proliferation of ill health and marginalization of people. Through cross-cultural dialogue, collaboration, and experiential learning, participants further develop their knowledge, social networks and their capacity for engaging with food practices as global citizens, rooted in local realities.

We have an excellent group of participants this year, including professional chefs, farmers, food activists, and multidisciplinary graduate and undergraduate students. We began the tour in Portland with a visit to the Oregon Food Bank (OFB). The OFB is at the forefront of state food banks in taking a food systems approach to hunger, but they are still a dumping site for commodity goods that recent tariffs have left without a foreign market. OFB advocates for changes that address the root causes of hunger and they work hard at building community-based food systems. We saw evidence of this in the farms next to the warehouse where we spoke with Latina, African American and Native American farmers who were given plots of land to plant to grow culturally important foods that they share with their communities. Later in the trip, we spent time at the Warm Springs and Grand Ronde reservations and learned of their efforts to revitalize traditional foodways on land that was already full of invasive species. We also spent a morning with Latinx activists and heard about the challenges and successes of forming the farmworkers union in the Northwest. Later, we had a conversation in Spanish with the women’s field crew at a local organic farm. Twelve hour work days seemed abusive to many of the group members, but the women explained that they had to leave their children back home in Mexico and Guatemala and appreciated every extra hour that they could work.

We spent a fair amount of time visiting various OSU agrifood research sites (naked barley; whey vodka; black tomatoes; bacon-flavored algae) and also talked to breeders who are adapting Andean crops to the Willamette Valley (quinoa, amaranth, mashua, oca, melloco, uvilla, achoccha). We also spoke to an extension agent working with SNAP outreach. She showed us a photograph of a school lunch tray with a bag of Doritos on it. We were all shocked to see a branded product on the tray and even more shocked to find out that industries altered their products to meet the latest requirements and then bid to have their branded products included in the school lunch program, but that it was illegal to sell branded products in school vending machines in Oregon. An even stranger incident came to light later at the capitol in our discussion about the Farm to School program. We asked about culturally appropriate foods and were told a story about a Latina mother who wanted to get tamales into the school lunch program. She was told that any grain product had to be at least 50% whole grain and since the corn for masa is treated with lime or lye to make it more digestible (and nutritious) it is no longer considered whole grain. Several of our group members spoke up about the ancient technique of nixtamalization that made niacin available to corn eaters and prevented pellagra, but rules are rules, even when ethnocentric and lacking in historical perspective. Luckily the administrator was able to work with the mother to come up with a tamale that fit the requirements. We wonder how it tastes. (While on the topic of ethnocentrism, we could also mention the “American Grown” label, which the Ecuadorians were told meant that it was grown in the USA, not anywhere else in the Americas.)

As we drove around the verdant countryside, favoring agroecological, diverse production sites, we whizzed past giant fields of monocultures —not the corn and soybeans of the Midwest, but hazelnuts (now that OSU has developed a blight resistant variety), wine grapes (as California gets too hot and dry) and the recently legalized hemp. It has been called marijuana’s no-buzz cousin and has created a gold rush (or shall we say “green rush”) among farmers. But every silver cloud has a toxic lining. The original gold rush left arsenic in the land; the pollen from industrial hemp threatens to infect not only its increasingly designer high cousin, but also the taste of neighboring wine grapes.

Dessert preparation at the Ecuadorian Dinner

Dessert preparation at the Ecuadorian Dinner

One of the aims of the ILC is to engage physically as well as intellectually with the food system. We did this in the course of many meals made by local chefs with local ingredients, but we also lent our 34 hands to the Linn Benton Food Share to pack food boxes for hospital patients; to the OSU Organic Growers’ Club to weed the brassicas, and to the Food for Lane County Youth Farm to trim harvested garlic. In addition, we cooked an excellent Ecuadorian meal for Slow Food Corvallis and several of our presenters and host families. We were lucky to have two professional chefs in our group and they coordinated beforehand to bring ingredients like lupin beans (chochos) tostados, chifles, and a rare white cacao-like bean called macambo.

Interviewing at the Corvallis Farmers Market

Interviewing at the Corvallis Farmers Market

It’s difficult to find the time for people to pursue individual research interests in such a packed agenda, but we managed to do so at the Corvallis Farmers Market. We first had an introduction to the market on Friday by its manager. Then we discussed questions we were interested in asking vendors and buyers at the market. We formed pairs of researchers and spent the next day wandering the market, observing, and asking questions. We got back together after lunch to discuss what we had learned. First of all, the Ecuadorians were very impressed with the Corvallis market. Several of them who sell at markets talked about ideas that they would try to implement back home. One pair documented ways in which vendors brought people into their booths. Another interviewed women producers about challenges they have faced in this work. Land access was another topic and one pair focused on Latinx shoppers asking what drew them to the market. Everyone was impressed with the number of times that “community” arose in their conversations. Here are some things that surprised the Ecuadorians: that the meat stands were so neat and sterile, no sign of whole animals either dead or alive; that amaranth was being used as a flower in bouquets; that the prices were fixed and posted; that most of the vendors had finished college; that some vendors had photographs of their farms; that there was a booth for children to be occupied while their parents shopped; that there were musicians and artists making the market an attractive place to be.

The trip left us satisfied and exhausted and ready to explore similar themes in Ecuador in December.

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Review: The Other Milk

The Other Milk

Jia-Chen Fu. The Other Milk: Reinventing Soy in Republican China. University of Washington Press. Seattle, 2018. ISBN: 978-0-295-74403-2. 276 pp.

Juliet Tempest (SOAS, University of London)

Ambivalent Modernities

An historian by training, Jia-Chen Fu retells the story of soy in China—an account otherwise taken for granted. We may have been correct that soybeans enjoy a long presence in the region, but their forms and meanings in Chinese diet(s) have evolved over time. Fortified soybean milk became popular only following the efforts of Republican-era scientists, social workers, and producers, whom Fu calls “nutrition activists.” More than a readily digestible history of soybean milk, or doujiang—itself indigestible prior to the advent of modern processing technology—The Other Milk presents a case study on the drink as a modern, science- and nation-building enterprise for these nutrition activists. In so doing, it seeks, and, I would say, succeeds, to problematize narratives of Western science’s inevitable naturalization in China by revealing the context-specific development of Chinese nutrition science amidst dialogue with research abroad.

Propagation of soybean milk during the 1930s and 1940s as “traditional, modern, and scientific” epitomized this process, according to Fu (2018, 5). Nutrition activists employed scientific discourse to mobilize the materiality of such protein-rich “milk” to strengthen the population, as dairy was perceived to have done for the West. The author concludes that Chinese activists constructed the problem of population health in such a way so as to necessitate soybean milk as the solution, particularly in refugee aid projects. Yet the question of whether this discourse actually reached consumer-citizens on the ground, especially outside a Shanghai milieu, remains open. The Other Milk is thus a well-constructed and written resource on the biopolitics of soy and the epistemology of nutrition science for this period in China, even if it does not capture how the target demographic actually interpreted soybean milk messaging.

Bookended by an introduction and epilogue, each of the seven chapters builds towards Fu’s thesis—of an aspirational Chinese modernity as expressed in a homegrown nutrition science supporting consumption of soybean milk—by addressing an assumption underpinning it. Following the introduction, the book begins with anticipating the question of soy’s modern status through depicting the transformation of the Chinese soybean industry (Chapter 1). Such a development occurred in the wake of Western and Japanese economic growth and military defeats around the turn of the twentieth century, which Fu highlights to establish the latter’s national imperative to modernize, a project that manifested in both the development of domestic nutrition research and its application to “improving” individual bodies, thus the nation (Chapter 2). As for why diet became a site for intervention, Fu addresses this assumption just as nutrition activists did before: through portraying Chinese dietaries as the alleged key to unleashing the nation’s economic potential (Chapter 3). In extant diets, it was the lack of protein, especially animal-based, that compromised Chinese nutrition and bodies, which justified supplementation with “milk” (Chapter 4). Although preferable, cow’s milk was cost-prohibitive if not totally inaccessible for most, inspiring an alternative in fortified soybean milk marketed as a hybrid Western-Eastern product: a scientifically modernized version of traditional soy (Chapter 5).

The arguments of every chapter scaffold onto those preceding, with the exception of the fifth. There, Fu breaks away from discussing how nutrition activists conceived their object to analyze soybean milk advertisements. Fu explains this decision in terms of evaluating how producers theorized “the social” as a site of modernity negotiated for the public (111), but the link to nutrition activists discussed elsewhere remains tenuous. While soybean milk advertisers functioned as discourse-makers in addition to—and occasionally in cooperation with—nutrition researchers and aid workers, they did not operate in the same way or in the same field as these activists: in blending Daoist approaches to health with concerns about protein and hygienic manufacturing, the former treated biomedicine and Chinese medicine as “apparently complementary knowledge systems” (114) for the public; whereas the latter sought an epistemological break that would parallel and precipitate a new era of Chinese prowess that deprecated without vitiating earlier knowledge claims within the scientific community. Granted that such ambivalence characterized Chinese nutrition science in general and soybean milk advertisements in particular, this chapter implicitly shifts the scholarly gaze onto the public, about whose receptions to these communications and the products they advertised we can say little given the methodology.

I have interpreted this attitude among nutrition activists as characterizing their concept of “modernity,” this crux of Fu’s argument that is only ever defined indirectly, in relation to a “traditional,” “Chinese” identity. The equation of “traditional” and “Chinese” is in fact one assumption that Fu does not tackle head on, although the language nutrition activists employed substantiates this position. Similarly, Chinese society’s juxtaposition against the “modern” West remains implicit throughout The Other Milk, through references to “a polyphonic, hybrid modernity” that “combin[ed] elements from China and the West,” for example (110). On the other hand, that nutrition activists did not reject China’s capacity to become modern emerges from their choice of a soy product as the nation’s deliverance. Such complexity in their relationship to a modern, Chinese identity features within the tales of nutrition activists Fu tells. The lack of explicit definition of modernity, then, follows from Fu’s awareness of its situation in a unique context—that it is, indeed, a relative term. At risk of failing in the task that Fu smartly avoided, I take modernity in The Other Milk to mean nutrition activists’ aspiration for a stronger China in the future, modeled on the West’s and Japan’s perceived progress and so involving struggles with if and how to incorporate cultural aspects that have served as a source of national identity.

Compelling narratives about the work of individual nutrition activists culminate in a two-chapter discussion of Fu’s primary case: the efforts of the Refugee Children’s Committee to distribute soybean milk during the Japanese Occupation, and in the process promote a healthier, modern citizenry. Addressing why and how this aid organization focused on distributing soybean milk (Chapter 6) allows Fu to assert that technocrats like Nellie Lee and Hou Xiangchuan “situated nutrition as the crucial site for the dissemination of modern knowledge and values” (174; Chapter 7). Fu’s tone alternates between sympathy for and criticism of their sincere but misguided motivations, given the prevalence of hunger. The modern construction of hunger in Republican China paralleled developments abroad, where it also became quantified, hence solvable, in biomedical terms. The state’s historical obligation to feed the populace in times of famine (yangmin) consequently transformed into a responsibility to nourish, which nutrition activists like the medical researcher Wu Xian understood as seeking the “optimum” rather than the “minimum” (66). Consistent with denigration of Chinese diets for their “inadequacy” and backhanded compliments around their “potential to change” (179), that nutritional interventions were seen to offer the greatest return for economic growth continues as a mainstay in international development today (e.g. IFPRI 2016).

Such observations on cultivating modern subjects through self-governance recall the ever-growing literature on biopolitics in China. To wit, the anthropologist Susan Greenhalgh (2010) has documented the intersection between individual fitness and population governance in state policies. Although Greenhalgh’s research principally concerns socialist and post-socialist China, the construction of inferior diets as a “social problem” (Fu 2018, 60) and the promotion of soybean milk as the scientific and obligatory solution prefigures more recent debates—that also sometimes err disturbingly on eugenicist rhetoric—about raising low “quality,” or “suzhi,” at both the individual and population levels.

Although Fu does not reference Greenhalgh, nor for that matter Foucault, the author makes excellent use of anthropological literature on colonial medicine and diets in China (to which Fu thanks Judith Farquhar for having introduced her). In particular, interrogation of the epistemological privilege granted “biomedical” nutrition science in China “owes much to the work of medical anthropologists Arthur Kleinman and Margaret Lock” (220). Along with the historian Michael Worboys, these scholars demonstrated conflicting views on the comparability of foreign bodies and diets in medical research during the colonial era and since. Chinese nutrition activists seem to have variously and selectively appropriated these ideas for the purpose of recasting food, like soybean milk, as a mechanical input for nutrition. Fu can therefore argue that this ambivalence permitted the ontological flexibility requisite to domestication and exploitation of the science, to build a modern nation of citizens nourished scientifically with Chinese foods. Although undeniably a historical monograph, The Other Milk thus offers an example of how interdisciplinary research can tell a more complete version of the story.

Much still remains untold, however, particularly for this anthropologist-reviewer. For one, it is unclear to what extent Fu’s findings may be generalized outside of urban, coastal China, given how most Republican-era nutrition activists appear to have operated within Shanghai and its environs. To the extent these places served as a locus for building such scientific worlds, the focus of Fu’s study, the distinction may be moot. For another, Fu’s treatment of materiality alongside discourse, while admirable, nevertheless glosses over the sensory qualities of soy—and milk—and their effects on bodies, the site of these modernist aspirations and interventions. The book argues for soybean milk’s promotion as evidence of a uniquely Chinese nutrition science and identity, so then what of Chinese tastes? Fu alludes only once to taste as a criterion “distinct from economic supply and demand” (143), which must have played a role in soybean milk’s dissemination, particularly in comparison with cow’s milk; if it did not, that is something worth noting.

These critiques revolve around a desire for more information about how the public consumed soybean milk and ideas about it. As such, they are perhaps unfair, because addressing them was not Fu’s intention and would have required different kinds of data. Fu acknowledges this shortcoming: “it is not clear that nutrition science in early twentieth-century China achieved this same kind ideological hegemony over the ways in which Chinese people thought about food and eating [sic]” (9). The Other Milk is therefore an excellent resource for research on soy, vegetarianism, and scientist modernity in China, even if its authoritative scope should potentially be confined to urban areas of Republican China and to answering questions other than (albeit relevant to) the meanings consumers assigned to soybean milk. Notwithstanding these significant contributions, the methodological choices directing attention to elites’ discourse-creation in this process of nation-building—Fu’s subject—imply a specific directionality for the construction of modern Chinese identities, namely as top-down and not bottom-up.

The nutrition activists who constitute The Other Milk’s explicit concern are, indeed, often elites. They operate outside formal state organs, whose involvement in rice distribution makes the grain a more appropriate lens through which to study the state, Fu suggests (16; see also Ohnuki-Tierney [1993] on Japan). It is perhaps due to the state’s more tangential role with respect to soy that Fu does not adopt a Foucauldian framework to analyze—what I understand to be—the biopolitics of soybean milk; because Fu does not invoke the concept of biopolitics, it is therefore implicit to the author’s analysis as well as the activities of nutrition activists to which it refers. In this way, Fu’s treatment of soybean milk offers a novel approach to understanding how the discourse and resources of non-governmental organizations nonetheless intersected with state power: nutrition activists deployed scientific research, especially social surveys and controlled experiments, as the arbiter of truth to summon legitimacy for their interventions, which would improve the nation’s (nutritional) status.

It bears noting that these nutrition activists did engage with the state, however, just as Fu’s argument dialogues with the historian Mark Swislocki’s (2011) work on “nutritional governmentality” in late Imperial and Republican China. In fact, Fu situates the book as a response to a question that Swislocki posed elsewhere: “How did nutrition become ‘an authoritative idiom in China for understanding the relationship between food and health?’” (Swislocki 2001, in Fu 2018, 9). In providing “one answer,” Fu sets out to complement Swislocki’s excellent work on the Chinese state’s interest in improving nutrition. Though it begs the question of whether the choice to downplay the state’s role in The Other Milk is justified when Swislocki argues the opposite, albeit not for a specific food like soy. Besides researchers’ personal ambitions—to produce advanced science as much as belong to a modern nation (Fu 2018, 11)—it would seem important to consider the state’s influence on the development of a nutrition science, given the mutual imbrication of the public and private spheres in China that both Fu and Swislocki acknowledge.

Rather than nutrition science per se, The Other Milk is a book about ambivalent modernity. Not only were China’s nutrition activists navigating between two poles of scientific authority in the East and West, their strategies betray resistance to abandoning everything traditional for something modern. Fu suggests that “expediency” motivated the unique blend of considerations in the research, production, marketing, and distribution of soybean milk (181). To the extent we subscribe to Fu’s argument, which I do, it is important to reiterate that activists advocated soybean milk for nutrition not as a humanitarian end, but as a means of building up the nation, to vie with the West and Japan for “wealth and power” (121). Unfortunately, this discourse around China competing with the rest of the world possesses great salience today—at least from where I write in the US.

Lest we fall blindly into this ideological trap, let us end by paying attention to other constructive lessons from The Other Milk. The power of soybean milk—in terms of its nutritional discourse and materiality—testify to a long history of globalized trade in goods and ideas. Many of Republican China’s nutrition activists had trained in the US (Chapter 2). An increasing interest in consuming milk occurred almost simultaneously in the US and China; the Chinese did not always drink soybean milk, nor did Americans regularly consume cow’s milk before the twentieth century (Chapter 4). Just as “milk” had to become a part of modern diets, so too did soy emerge as a global commodity when China started exporting it to fill a 1908-1909 shortage of vegetable oils in Europe and North America (Chapter 1). Now China’s relationship to soy, once a famine food, has changed again, as production has shifted overseas and the population has grown wealthier, consuming more meat, at times imported from the US (Epilogue). We may thus all benefit from reflecting again on how ideas and practices we take for granted are historicized products of local and global trajectories. And given that industrialized foods are now pitted against “traditional” foodways in the opposite direction to what Republican-era Chinese nutrition activists imagined, perhaps we, too, ought to approach modernity with a bit more ambivalence.

Works Cited

Greenhalgh, Susan. 2010. Cultivating Global Citizens: Population in the Rise of China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ProQuest Ebook Central.

International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). 2016. Global Nutrition Report 2016: From Promise to Impact: Ending Malnutrition by 2030. Washington: IFPRI.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. 1993. Rice as Self: Japanese Identities through Time. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Swislocki, Mark. 2011. “Nutritional Governmenality: Food and he Politics of Health in Late Imperial and Republican China.” Radical History Review 110 (Spring 2011): 9-35. DOI: 10.1215/01636545-2010-024

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, China, Dietary guidelines, nutrition, public health

CFP for the Best Annual Food Studies Conference in North America

Note: This is the call for papers for the best annual interdisciplinary food studies conference in North America. You can meet leading food scholars, have great discussions, probably eat some nice food. Also, this conference is very much open to work by students. SAFN members! SAFN is a sponsor and you may register for this conference at member rates.

asfs afhvs 2020 athens

2020 AFHVS/ASFS

Cultivating Connections: Exploring Entry Points Into Sustainable Food Systems

Athens, Georgia

May 27-30, 2020

https://cultivatingconnections2020.uga.edu/

The University of Georgia’s Sustainable Food Systems Initiative is pleased to host the 2020  joint annual meeting of the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society (AFHVS) and the Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS).

The Abstract Submission Portal is now open. We invite the submission of abstracts for organized paper sessions, individual papers, lightning talks, roundtables, posters and exploration galleries, and working sessions.

The 2020 conference theme, “Cultivating Connections: Exploring Entry Points Into Sustainable Food Systems,” is an invitation to envision a more sustainable and equitable future by critically engaging with the histories and legacies that have framed agricultural food landscapes over time. Cultivating connections means that we are active participants, called to dig in for the preparation of building fruitful relationships with one another to foster greater sustainability within the food system. The food system is an intricate web of social connections, with each node of the web shaping how food is regarded, how it’s grown, how it will be distributed, who will buy it, and what its overall significance is within communities. These elements provide entry points for conversation, reconciliation, and action toward building stronger, more sustainable connections within the food system. Participants are invited to engage in conversations about changes to the current agri-food paradigm to better represent and advocate for a more just and equitable food system – from farm to fork – that strengthens community viability, food security, and the sovereignty of all people.

Abstracts can be submitted at https://ugeorgia.ca1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_9H7Xy41kEjn0n1H

Abstract submissions are due by January 31, 2020. Authors will be notified of acceptance by March 15, 2020. All presenters must be registered for the conference by May 1, 2020 to be included in the conference program.

Questions can be directed to cultivatingconnections2020@gmail.com

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About the Societies:

The Agriculture, Food, & Human Values Society (AFHVS) is a professional organization which provides an international forum to engage in the cross-disciplinary study of food, agriculture, and health, as well as an opportunity for examining the values that underlie various visions of food and agricultural systems. From a base of philosophers, sociologists, and anthropologists, AFHVS has grown to include scientists, scholars, and practitioners in areas ranging from agricultural production and social science to nutrition policy and the humanities. AFHVS encourages participation by the growing community of researchers and professionals exploring alternative visions of the food system from numerous perspectives and approaches, including local and regional food systems; alternative food movements; agricultural and food policies, agricultural sustainability, food justice, issues of local and global food security, and food sovereignty. The organization publishes the journal Agriculture and Human Values.

The Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS) was founded in 1985, with the goals of promoting the interdisciplinary study of food and society. It has continued that mission by holding annual meetings and working with Routledge Publishing, the organization produces the quarterly journal, Food, Culture and Society. Members explore the complex relationships among food, culture, and society from numerous disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences, as well as in the world of food beyond the academy. ASFS encourages vigorous debate on a wide range of topics, such as cross-cultural perspectives on eating behaviors, gender and the food system, recipes, cookbooks, and menu as texts, politics of the family meal, malnutrition, hunger, and food security, comparative food history, and the political economy of the global food system.

  • In the meantime, check out some of the most popular local restaurants and attractions to enhance your visit to Athens: https://www.visitathensga.com/

 

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Messer’s Postings

Ellen Messer, Ph.D.
(Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy, Boston, MA)

What’s new in food and nutrition research and policy in the world, the US, and sustainability?

1. State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) 2019. This report, released in July 2019 (as contrasted with its usual October, World Food Day release date) gives governments and everyone much to ponder. Key findings indicate hunger numbers are increasing, not declining. Prevalence of undernourishment, the least exacting measure, affects close to one billion people; experience of food insecurity (not sure where your next meal is coming from) affects more than a billion more, including those suffering hunger in industrialized countries. This year’s themes, in addition to addressing conflict, climate change, and economic inequalities as causes of hunger, considered paths to recovery from economic downturn and the challenges of structural inequalities that lead to hunger. You can download the report, its executive summary, or in its entirety, here.  For a quick overview (especially to start off discussions in classes or presentations), access FAO’s (3+ minute) video, summarizing major numbers and themes here.

2. 2020 US Dietary Guidelines for All Americans (DGA) face substantial political challenges in the run-up to the Committee’s report. The White House administration has banned any discussion/recommendations regarding environmental impact (sustainable food systems), health impacts of red meat or processed meats, or ultra-processed foods and sodium. It has also disallowed reference to any research studies published before 2000, and reference to any non-USDA scientific studies (!). You can read the Washington Post summary here. My authoritative Tufts colleagues add: Nutrition scientists and policy makers need to change the term “plant-based” “foods or meat substitutes” to minimally processed plant foods, as many of the ultra-processed foods are plant-based!

3. Meanwhile, what’s new on the planetary health and diet front are new microbial “meat” substitute start-up’s (carbon footprints of these highly processed food operations still need to be scrutinized), and a report that the Swiss-based corporate giant Nestlé, along with other major food industry conglomerates, is taking steps to make its supply chains carbon-neutral by 2030. You can read more about the Nestlé’s initiative here or on the company’s website and more about the hype surrounding soil microbes and their potential to feed the world here.

4. Synthesizing discussion of all three above themes, Frank B. Hu (Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health) published a “Viewpoint” perspective in JAMA, pointing out the mixed environmental and health impacts of more or less processed plant-based foods that are meant to substitute for meat. An easily accessible interview on the major takeaways is here.

Reminder: SAFN members recently received an announcement from David Beriss regarding a new on-line journal, Nature Food, which is actively soliciting brief commentaries, opinion pieces, literature reviews, and original research articles from food professionals across many disciplines, including anthropology.  The editor-in-chief, Anne Mullen, intends to include anthropological materials of interest to a wider range of scientists in every issue.   You can find at more on the website.

Related Reminder from SAFN President David Beriss: If you are not a SAFN member and wish to receive our occasional updates via email, be sure to join the association, which you can do here. Once you are a member, you can receive communications via the new American Anthropological Association Communities communications system, here.

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Filed under anthropology, Dietary guidelines, food security, nutrition, sustainability