“Pandemic as a portal”: a reflection on COVID-19 and the food-delivery industry

Ana Carolina Nunes
Oregon State University

I live on the second floor of an apartment complex. The two big windows in my living room and kitchen give me a privileged view of the life that happens outside. Through my windows, I observe many workers delivering food to other people living in the apartments right in front of mine. Just yesterday, I noticed a lady with white hair leaving her car, an old Corolla, with a DoorDash catering bag. I observed as she went upstairs to deliver food to a neighbor and then returned to her car with a seemingly lighter bag, probably getting ready for her next job. That image followed me till the end of the day, as I was curious to know what had led that lady—part of a demographic considered vulnerable to COVID-19 due to her age—to become a delivery driver during a global pandemic. When my partner got home from work, I told him about the scene I had seen earlier. My partner is also a food industry worker, one of the lucky ones who hasn’t lost his job due to the pandemic. 

DoorDash Catering Bag

I’m a Ph.D. student in Applied Anthropology. I research digital technologies, but because of my partner’s job, I’ve become closer to the topic of food chain workers in a time when digital technologies occupy every minute of people’s lives. The food delivery industry isn’t a given or stable object, and I’ve chosen to look at it through the lenses of hope, hope that the pandemic can work as a portal to transform it.

I first heard about this metaphor from Ruha Benjamin when she cited Arundhati Roy’s The pandemic is a portal essay, in which she writes:

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

Following Arundhati Roy and Benjamin’s steps, I also want to see the pandemic as a portal. This portal can lead to changes in the structure of a capitalistic system that exploits essential but devalued food workers.

The tech companies and the food delivery industry

At the beginning of the pandemic, many people became enthusiastic about cooking at home, even baking loaves of bread that looked beautiful on Instagram pictures that I vividly remember seeing during several hours of doom scrolling. But as there is no end in sight, and the situation has been going on for a while, some people are getting tired of cooking, and that’s when the food delivery system becomes an option. 

Many tech companies portray the uberization of the food industry as a desirable future. You can look at your phone with any culinary craving in the world, and a few minutes later, the food conveniently arrives at your door, even during a global pandemic. For those who own the technology, CEOs and tech venture firms, and for those who occupy the top positions in such companies, the service-oriented platforms are the best thing that happened to food. Yet behind the apps is a world of unsustainable exploitation in desperate need of governmental regulation.  

Gig work is not a new invention from Silicon Valley, but a practice that has kept temporary workers doing a significant amount of the American industry jobs for a long time. This working system took off in the period following World War II. It was developed to help companies when their permanent employees could not work for short periods; it has also altered America’s corporate culture throughout time. Uberization is, however, a recent invention, and its story traces back to the beginning of the transportation service company, Uber. 

Uber started as UberCab, offering a luxury transportation service in 2009. The innovative factor behind Uber was the idea of paying individual contractors through an app. Companies win because they don’t have full-time employees, only independent contractors. Uber moved into the food industry in 2014, when it launched its UberEats. Amazon has also gotten into the food system, and it now owns Whole Foods and Amazon Fresh, a 2-hour delivery service for Prime members in selected cities. At the same time, Walmart has partnered with Instacart to compete with Amazon’s Whole Foods. Even before the pandemic, some restaurants were making more money from food eaten outside the restaurants than inside it. Take Grub Hub, now a giant in this market, as an example. The company started its operation on a local scale in Chicago in 2004 and was already processing more than 500,000 transactions per day in February before COVID 19’s social isolation measures were implemented. Since then, the market for food delivery through apps has become a billion-dollar industry in the US. 

The money tech companies now make through their platforms for food delivery doesn’t translate into better pay for the people actually delivering the food. Nor, does it bring much benefit to small restaurants that make the food since they have to pay as much as 25% of every order they receive to such platforms; restaurants also lose important consumer data, and have to pay extra toa search optimization engine,which means that if you want your restaurant to have higher visibility on a website, you need to pay more for it. Otherwise, your restaurant will appear at the end of the list, invisible to clients.

As for the deliverers, they need to use their own vehicles for deliveries and sometimes buy their own equipment, such as thermal bags, with the delivery service logo. Since they’re individual contractors and not employees, they don’t have social security, health insurance, insurance of any kind, no sick pay, no holiday pay, and no vacations. In offering the platform/technology that connects seller, buyer, and delivery, tech companies present their products as an opportunity for the driver to be their own boss, deciding their working hours and living a good life afterwards. But in the end, gig-workers aren’t making $400 a day. Instead, most people get into these precarious jobs because they don’t have another option.

Uberization of work is a form of capitalism that fragilizes labor laws as it favors company shareholders and leads to increasing precariousness of work. From an economic and social perspective, it’s a massive movement backward in time to what researcher Adam Arvidsson calls a feudalization of digital capitalism. That can be illustrated with the case of prop 22, a ballot measure passed in California at the beginning of November, allowing tech platform companies to hire drivers as independent contractors. Scholars and activists have raised concerns over this measure, highlighting that gig companies invested over $205 million into propaganda that misled voters. The fragility and vulnerability of workers in the gig industry is a worldwide phenomenon. However, the good news is that there are examples of workers developing their own workers-owned technology, also called platform cooperativism, and organizing to subvert the order imposed by the gig-economy.

Entregadores no Brasil

Antifascists Couriers: I don’t want cattle (mindless workers). I want to train thinking deliverers.” Screenshot from an interview from A Publica with Paulo Lima

In Brazil, a movement formed by delivery workers has received national attention as the cases of COVID-19 soared worldwide. They claim living wages, better working conditions, and demand to be seen as workers. The crucial moment was June of 2020, when a delivery worker’s moving and emotional video gave rise to this movement. In the video, Paulo Lima, who became a leading voice of Entregadores Antifascistas, denounced mistreatment and precarious working conditions. On July 1st, delivery workers went on strike. Another strike on July 25th (Breque dos Apps) brought attention to inequality and exploitation. As a consequence, there are now several bills in the Brazilian Congress that, if approved, will improve the lives of delivery workers. There are other local bills throughout Brazil trying to address this matter, as there are also discussions about platform cooperativism in the country. 

Conclusion—Pandemic as a portal 

I started reading about how some companies use lay-offs due to COVID as a pretext for age discrimination. It made me think about the case of the white-haired woman that opened this text. In fact, a relative of mine who had worked for years in a company was fired without notice just a few months ago. That person is seriously considering joining the food-delivery industry, as they don’t see any other option in sight. I also talked to an older lady in the dog park last Sunday and she was telling me that she lost her job due to the pandemic, and that as she was looking for new job options on Craigslist. She only found jobs with Grub Hub, and Munchies, a local delivery service operating in Oregon and Florida. 

If app-based food delivery is the future, we need to make sure it benefits all people involved in it. The delivery of food, sometimes taken for granted, is a complex process, resulting in food produced in a restaurant kitchen appearing almost “magically” at your door. As said by Benjamin, a portal can lead us to good or bad, and I wish the pandemic could function as a portal to transform working conditions and bring equality and fair salaries to essential, but devalued, food workers. That would involve, of course, listening to delivery workers’ demands and a collective effort to dismantle systems of oppression currently in place. Platform cooperativism and spontaneous movements organized and led by delivery workers worldwide also point in that direction. 

Ana Carolina Nunes is a PhD student in Applied Anthropology at Oregon State University.

SAFN Events at AAA’s Virtual Raising Our Voices Conference

SAFN Events at AAA’s Virtual Raising Our Voices Conference

For the 2020 annual meeting the American Anthropological Association will be hosting a virtual event, and SAFN members will be participating. 

We invite all members to attend the

SAFN Business Meeting 

(AAA meeting registration not required)

Wednesday, November 4, 2020


Zoom link forthcoming

Join the editors and co-authors for a virtual book launch and roundtable discussion on

Saturday, November 7, 2020

3:45 – 4:45 PM ET

AAA Channel 2

JOIN US on Saturday, November 7th, for a live-stream virtual book launch and roundtable discussion, with the authors and editors of Black Food Matters: Racial Justice in the Wake of Food Justice. The roundtable discussion will be taking place on Channel 2, via the online AAA platform. For registration information please visit the AAA registration site. Join us in a discussion with the book’s co-editors and authors Hanna Garth and Ashanté Reese, and contributing authors Gillian R. Richards-Greaves, Judith Williams, and Billy Hall.

About the book:

Black Food Matters analyzes how Blackness is contested through food, differing ideas of what makes our sustenance “healthy,” and Black individuals’ own beliefs about what their cuisine should be. This comprehensive look at Black food culture and the various forms of violence that threaten the future of this cuisine centers Blackness in a field that has too often framed Black issues through a white-centric lens, offering new ways to think about access, privilege, equity, and justice (University of Minnesota Press).

We hope you’ll join us for these great events. See you online!

Review: Thinking with Soils

Media of Thinking with Soils

Salazar, Juan Francisco, Céline Granjou, Matthew Kearnes, Anna Krzywoszynska, and Manuel Tironi, eds. Thinking With Soils: Material Politics and Social Theory Bloombury Academic. 2020. 256 pp. ISBN 9781350109599

Tad Brown (University of Queensland)

Terrestrial life on planet Earth is made possible by its soil infrastructure. The central argument of this collection, drawn together from two international conferences and five like-minded scholars, is that social theorists have ignored the soil underfoot, which too often appears as an inert backdrop to the real action. Given the ‘notable absence’ of soil in contemporary social theory, the organizing editors take the work of Maria Puig de la Bellacasa as inspiration, who authored a foreword to the volume. Thinking With Soils— a hardback with a nice weight, print size, and page margin—is a response to this ‘notable absence.’ The book provides the groundwork for making, or unmaking, soil as a subject of post-humanist inquiry. Thawing permafrost, colonizing worms, and chemical violence are a few of the examples that await its readers.

Apparently not everyone ignores soils. We learn that the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) published a Status of the World’s Soil Resources Report in 2015. Remote sensing and big data on global soil loss provides some truly depressing numbers. Yet the contributors to Thinking With Soils offer a valuable critique to conceptualizing soil on geochemical terms—or as a commodity to be bagged, sold, and relocated. After an introduction on material politics and the non-negotiable inertia of the Anthropocene, the cohort of editors give their collective perspective on soil theories. This chapter will be a ‘must read’ for scholars and future students whose interests coincide with the book. The editors’ sensibilities will be familiar to many readers. They refer to these as: ‘assembling soils,’ ‘the elemental ecologies of soil,’ ‘inhumanness,’ and ‘decolonizing soils.’ Taken together, the analysis builds on contemporary theory to signal how soil is generative of social configurations. Its overarching approach is a timely intervention into conversations about the climate crisis and the role of soil in things to come.

Soils are many things throughout the volume. To recall a few: soils are a new charismatic entity, a promissory site, a global object of governance, and a place-making praxis. In all of its varied treatments, the authors deem the dominant scientific view of soil as wanting in sociality. The refrain that ‘there is no soil outside the social’ is nevertheless complicated by the admission that life-giving soil preceded and enabled human society. (Perhaps this is why soil has been considered irrelevant to social theorists?) The authors appear in agreement that no amount of technoscientific discourse will remedy the Holocene ruins. The fact is, as demonstrated throughout the chapters, soil usually enters social scientific thought through a narrative link to planetary escape or apocalyptic dust clouds: The recognition of soil as something other than a superficial brown tableau follows from social anxiety about the continuation of life. One of my favorite discussions in the book is on the shared genealogy between modern soil science, ecosystem ecology, and Earth cybernetics, a discussion which occurs within a chapter on off-Earth farming and agricultural research at Wageningen University (Bertoni).

Each chapter in the volume presents a different case study with reference to soil. One is on the politics of soil mapping (King and Granjou), and another on polar futures (Salazar and Dodds); there is a reflection on the magic of mimicry in regenerative agriculture (Kearnes and Rickards), and a review of soil within the social relations of capitalism (Engel-Di Mauro and Van Sant). The anthropologist Nicholas Kawa has a chapter about closing the loop on biosolids, or land applying ‘late industrial excreta’. There is also an ethnographic account by Germain Meulemans about building soils at a brownfield site in Paris that would be good assigned reading for an undergraduate course. The organizing framework of the book suggests that caring for soil biota is a political provocation that requires humans to slow down and rethink the social world.

Perhaps one of the more ambitious chapters, in terms of offering theoretical interest to those who do not care so much about soil as a topic of study, is the agential insights on ‘Soil Refusal’. Multispecies theories of social engagement have relied on a relational affect that does not seem to apply to impenetrable soils: Certain soils refuse the human gesture towards connection and do not fit within the ethos of conviviality. Manuel Tironi tries to make sense of ‘lived experiences in which soil does not accept the biontological invitation to communion’(177). To Tironi, the theoretical implications are found in trying to get beyond relational frameworks in those encounters when things seem unrelatable. Anyone who has taken a blunt post-hole digger to the hardpan at high noon will relate.

Readers familiar with the scholarship in environmental history and the anthropology of food may find that the book exhibits a lack of thoroughness in approaching the relevant literature. In any given chapter, the authors might revisit Marx’s theory of the metabolic rift, or how nutrients from rural farmlands cycled through industrialized populations and replaced the closed-loop production systems of organic life with urban pollution. After that, the chapters jump to the political ecology by Piers Blaikie (1985) and then proceed with scholarship from the past ten years. This is not a dig against the book, as the subject matter is not historical. But it matters because the overall argument of the book—a need for the soiling of social theory and theorizing of soil media—is based on the novelty of its intersection. Other scholars are left to tie the theoretical language of the volume to a fuller intellectual history.

This leads to a question about the audience of Thinking With Soils. Adding soil to social theory—and amending the roster of society to include soil-borne organisms—is important for what it can say about personhood and how to live right by Earth. In this, the editors’ thinking aligns with Indigenous ontologies that do not separate nature and culture. Social scientists should learn to take soil seriously. Yet many academic fields already take soil seriously. What about ‘them’? For an edited volume that seeks to address human-soil relations, it is curious that only one chapter is coauthored by a natural scientist. Those who understand soil as degraded rock are left out in the rain, so to speak. This is likely an artefact of the conference origins, but as stated in the introduction of the volume, working through the implications of political economy on soil dynamics, and what can be done, will require embracing epistemic diversity. The much-needed discussions in this book should also be read by scholars trained in soil science, who may or may not agree with the essentializing logic ascribed to their discipline.

Anthropologists interested in food, medicine, and nutrition will enjoy the final chapter on the topic of geophagy. All flesh is grass, or as Lindsay Kelley argues, all food is dirt. Her work combines a reflection on contemporary art exhibits and cultural foodways to combat the pathologizing of eating dirt. There are some moving examples that appear in the chapter, especially about public dialogue through participatory food art. Here, the sensory engagement with soil delivers on the commitment to a material politics. One interesting theory mentioned in the chapter, attributed to Michael Rowland (2002), is that people adapted themselves to the consumption of poisonous plants by first eating clay and charcoal to coat the stomach and prepare the body for ingesting toxins. Given that there is a body of work on the Indigenous knowledge of soils that complements the themes of the volume (Pawluk et al 1992, Talawar & Rhoades 1998, Payton et al 2003), Kelley adds a key contribution.

Social theorists will undoubtedly continue to think with soils as the biota out-of-sight become implicated in the carbon counts ahead. This volume provides a leading example of how to go about collecting such thoughts.


Blaikie, P., The Political Economy of Soil Erosion in Developing Countries (Harlow: Longman, 1985).

Pawluk, Roman R., Jonathan A. Sandor, and Joseph A. Tabor (1992), “The Role of Indigenous Soil Knowledge in Agricultural Development,” Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 47(4): 298-302.

Payton, R.W. , J.J.F. Barr, A. Martin, P. Sillitoe, J.F. Deckers, J.W. Gowing, N. Hatibu, S.B. Naseem, M. Tenywa, and M.I. Zuberi (2003) “Contrasting Approaches to Integrating Indigenous Knowledge about Soils and Scientific Soil Survey in East Africa and Bangladesh,” Geoderma 111: 355-386.

Rowland, M. (2002), “Geophagy: An Assessment of Implications for the Development of Australian Indigenous Plant Processing Technologies,” Australian Aboriginal Studies 1: 50-65.

Talawar, Shankarappa and Robert E. Rhoades (1998), “Scientific and Local Classification and Management of Soils,” Agriculture and Human Values 15: 3-14.

SAFN Awards, Impending Deadlines!

The Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition has three awards for student writing and research. These awards will provide you with fame and glory…and money, to recognize your accomplishments or to support your work. The deadlines for all three this year is September 18, 2020, which is coming up in just a few weeks.

Are you a graduate student (MS, MA, PhD, or other) whose work focuses on food security, food justice and/or the right to food in international or domestic contexts? Whatever discipline you are in, whether you have already completed your work or are in the middle of an ongoing project, you should apply for the Thomas Marchione Food-As-A-Human-Right Student Award. Applying is simple and all the details are here.

Are you an undergraduate or graduate student who has done research in nutrition, food studies, and anthropology? Have you written a paper about that research? You should apply for the Christine Wilson Award! There are really two awards, one undergraduate and one graduate. If your work is anthropological (you don’t have to be in anthropology, but your research should use anthropological perspectives), apply! Details here.

Are you an MA/MS or PhD student whose work focuses on food and nutritional anthropology? Do you need support for your research? You should apply for our Student Research Award! The process is simple and you could get $800 to support your work. Details on this award are here.

Faculty! Please encourage your students to apply for these awards.

Remember, the deadline for all three awards is September 18, 2020.

Do not miss this opportunity!

Upcoming Deadlines

Hello Food Anthropologists,

The deadline to submit a presentation for the virtual AAA meetings, Raising our Voices is fast approaching – August 25th. See the email sent by AAA on Aug. 19th or go to https://www.americananthro.org/RaisingOurVoices?navItemNumber=25761

The November/December issue of Anthropology News Online is focused on food production and consumption. Please send a 250-word pitch that outlines the story or argument of your piece, and a 50-word author bio to an@americananthro.org by September 4, 2020. If proposing a photo or illustrated essay, include one or two images. See more here: https://www.anthropology-news.org/index.php/2020/08/17/call-for-pitches-food/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=call-for-pitches-food

The deadline for SAFN Student Award submissions is September 18th.

See you online,

Joan Gross

Eating Like an Alaskan?: Quarantine Reflections on the Anchorage Museum’s “What Why How We Eat” Exhibition

Abigail Adams
Central Connecticut State University

I’m writing from my dining room table and the CostCo bulk carton of matzoh peeks at me from a kitchen cupboard. I’m reminded of Sailor Boy Pilot Bread. Interbake Foods manufactures these simple, tough, oversized crackers in Richmond, Virginia and sells 98 percent of them in Alaska.

I’ve been eating essentially the same menu since March 12. There is some variety—I am an anthropologist and my larder is stocked with the basics for world-curious cuisine. But I’m not a foodie and I’m happy treating food like a uniform. My mind is on other decisions now. Except for a pharmacy foray for Easter candy and milk, I shopped four times for groceries during the two months of Connecticut’s “Stay Home Stay Safe.” I was focused on teaching online and trying to save my department–and higher education while I’m at it.

And I can’t stop thinking about Alaska.

This time last year, I had just returned from the AFHVS/ASFS conference in Anchorage, which included an evening reception at the Anchorage Museum and tour of its spectacular What Why How We Eat exhibition. That is where I first saw the Pilot Bread now evoked by my own stores of shelf-stable matzoh.

Pilot bread!

The exhibition closed this January but lives on in the The Whale and the Cupcake: Stories of Subsistence, Longing, and Community in Alaska (University of Washington Press/ Anchorage Museum, December 13, 2019), written by Julia O’Malley and edited by Julie Decker, Director, Anchorage Museum.

I missed posting in FoodAnthro last summer about the exhibit, but I am seizing this moment now, given the resemblance between my/our COVID-19 subsistence strategies and Alaska’s regular food reality, realities that were curated beautifully in the Anchorage Museum exhibit.

The exhibit was interactive to its very core. We missed the urban harvest classes (I could use those urban harvest classes now!), cooking demonstrations, bike tours to community gardens, recipe swaps and workshops, but I jump-scared when I opened a cabinet in the exhibit’s first room and a Native woman began speaking to me: it was a video but it took me a moment. This space was a working kitchen, with cabinets, fridge, freezer and drawers filled with videos, photos.

That first area highlighted another key exhibit theme, “the changing story of food culture in Alaska — from the subsistence whale hunt in Point Hope to the Halal market in Anchorage…. one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the US., thanks, in part, to an influx of refugees…”.

The kitchen utensil drawer paid homage to the Alaskan and traditional skills of self-provisioning. It was really a toolbox, with unique items for processing wild foods, canning, dining on crab, etc. The next room was a journey through the different landscapes, traditional harvests and subsistence work where people live close to the land and the weather to catch and process food: caribou, whale, crab, salmon. 

And the new Alaskans, their foods and experiences, were integrated throughout the exhibit. The exhibit designers made the kitchen “work” for all Alaskan peoples, for example, they stocked the shelves with a variety of culturally-favored carbs. Another room featured Everyone Is Welcome Here, a 2018 project by artists Sergio De La Torre and Chris Treggiari, which “used food as the lens for exploring the immigrant and refugee experience in Alaska.” There was also exhibit space for Alaskan fusion cooking and creativity, resonating with the “multi-cultural” condiments of my quarantine cabinets. During last June’s conference, we met and ate with many of these “new” Alaskans as well, thanks to Liz Snyder, UAA professor, conference organizer, co-director of the Food Research, Enterprise, and Sustainability Hub and one of the exhibit co-developers.

Shelves of culturally-favored carbs, photo credit Emily Yates-Doerr

Beauty informed the exhibit, not a surprise, given curator Francesca DuBrock’s usual métier of fine art. At one point, I stood entranced by a wall that I thought was an art installation: an enormous-format arrangement of seed packs—including fictive seed packs for edible wild plants that Alaskans regularly forage. Behind me, hydroponic wall panels planted with mint and salanova lettuce grew, adding to the smells and aesthetics of the space. The exhibit was also acknowledging the growing numbers of Alaskan farmers. This spring, along with record numbers of US-Americans, one of my sources of delight during the dark coronavirus isolation was sorting through seed packs, planning the vegetable and cutting gardens that now grow around me.

Grocery prices across Alaska Photo credit: Emily Yates-Doerr

After visiting Alaska during the summer weeks when the state’s soaring temperatures and searing forest fires made national news, I took home the example of Alaskans’ food resilience in the face—in the teeth—of climate change.  I posted in FoodAnthro, “We are all facing harsh, stark, extreme environmental change, and Alaskans may be well-positioned to weather the Future that is coming.”

I did NOT foresee this pandemic Future! But the museum presciently tackled Alaska’s fundamental food insecurity, and its exhibits were instructive for our current COVID-19 moment. I wrapped up this blog post listening to a radio essay about skyrocketing food prices in the coronavirus lower 48.  One of the exhibition’s closing walls showcased the price of groceries in different Alaska communities. A gallon of milk in Anchorage costs about $4 while the same gallon would cost closer to $10 on the North Slope. If a natural disaster disabled the Port of Anchorage, Anchorage grocery store food shelves and cold cases would be bare in just five days.

That natural disaster arrived, in the form of the coronavirus. The pandemic plopped Alaska’s food dependence squarely in the middle of its residents’ plates. Faced more than panic-picked-over grocery shelves; food supplies to remote communities stopped when the small-plane business that serves those communities went COVID–bankrupt. One grocer made “the 14-hour boat trip to Costco every week to supply his small remote city with groceries amid the pandemic.” Alaska’s fossil fuel-dependent economy and state budget (already struggling since the 2014 slide in oil prices) crashed, directly due to the pandemic. Last summer, as I celebrated Alaskans’ resilience, flexibility and subsistence skills, I overlooked Alaska’s contribution to the global climate crisis.

But I did not miss it completely: during our conference, our incredible University of Alaska hosts learned that their university budget was to be cut by 40%. Appropriately, the metaphors deployed by the media were food metaphors, as in Governor Dunleavy ordering the university to “trim,” as in “trim budgetary fat,” when in truth he was ordering a butchering.

His solution? Essentially economic stimulus payments. Dunleavy proposed nearly doubling the Alaskan Permanent Fund Dividend to residents, the yearly dividend that Alaskans receive from the state’s formerly enormous oil wealth.

In the end, UAA’s budget cuts were 7% and Alaskans received the same dividend as the $1600 of the previous year. But as I received my pandemic economic stimulus payment this Spring (my own… Pandemic Dividend?) and watched my university’s enrollment and budget tank, I look once again at the matzoh in my cupboard.

Op Eds

Dear SAFN members,

Now is a good time to write op eds about the food system in the pandemic. Here is one we published in the Eugene Weekly in Oregon. Feel free to send us links to add yours.

Racialized Inequality 

Social justice is the vaccine we need for Oregon’s food system


By Joan Gross and Emily Yates-Doerr

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the racialized inequality that permeates Oregon’s food system. 

The conditions of slavery and genocide upon which the U.S. was founded have been neither reconciled nor repaired, leaving our state with a food system that increases vulnerability to the spread of viruses like COVID-19. 

As professors in Oregon State University’s Food in Culture and Social Justice program we have spent decades studying how social inequities are reproduced through every stage of the food system. The pandemic is exposing the brutal effects of these inequities. Now, more than ever, we must seek treatments that emphasize systemic change and social justice. 

Let’s begin with the production of food on Oregon farms, on lands stolen from Native Americans. The vast majority of farmland in our country is owned by white men, and the people who plant, care for and harvest the food are mostly people of color, many of whom were forced to leave their own land in other countries due to political situations beyond their control. Working conditions in the fields often lack sufficient handwashing stations and underpaid migrant workers are housed in substandard structures where social distancing is impossible. 

On some farms in the U.S., every single farmworker has tested positive for COVID-19 and Oregon farms could easily be next. 

Moving on to food processing, we find that many of the hotspots of COVID-19 outbreaks occur in factories where food is processed. With people working shoulder to shoulder to increase efficiency, the virus can spread quickly. 

The next stage of food processing occurs in restaurants or institutional cafeterias, where cooks, servers and dishwashers prepare, deliver and clean up after meals for the enjoyment of others. The work is precarious and usually without health care benefits, so workers are compelled to come to work, even when sick. Closing these businesses may protect potential customers, but it puts huge numbers of already vulnerable people out of work. Additionally, farmers who produce for that supply chain have no market and are left to destroy edible food — all while people go hungry. 

This brings us to the final phase of the food system, when food enters people’s mouths. 

Food workers are twice as likely to be food insecure as others, but during the pandemic, they find themselves in good company given the high rates of current unemployment. U.S. citizens can apply for SNAP benefits, but many food workers are not citizens. They are not banned from accessing food at pantries and free meal sites, but many fear that if they do make use of them they will be arrested and separated from their families. 

Today, the fact that COVID-19 is widespread in penitentiaries and deportation stations adds to their fear. 

Oregon relies on the cheap labor of Latin American migrant workers to grow and process food, and these farms and factories have become centers of infection in our state. Only 13 percent of the state identifies as Hispanic, but 36.6 percent of identified COVID-19 infections have occurred within this population. 

In light of the recent outbreak at Pacific Seafood, where more than 181 employees tested positive for the virus, news headlines reported that “language barriers” were delaying the ability to track and trace people with COVID-19, with many of the impacted workers speaking Latin American Indigenous languages. 

These language barriers must be understood within broader violations of human rights exemplified by an abusive immigration system that too quickly imprisons and deports — even when people have the legal right to stay. Testing and tracing will not be effective unless there are labor protections in place that make it safe for all people who worry they are sick to come forward. 

It’s tragic, not to mention dangerous, that agricultural workers and food processors are considered essential, and yet they are unprotected. 

As the world clamors for COVID-19 magic bullets — vaccines, antibodies, llamas, medications, face shields — the one thing that will make a significant and lasting difference is a large injection of social justice. 

We must work to increase land sovereignty among marginalized communities, support universal health care and guaranteed wages, and put an end to racist police brutality and extortionist farmworker immigration policies. A vaccine for COVID-19 may never eliminate coronavirus, but these structural changes are within our reach. They are fundamental to creating an equitable food system that feeds us all.

Joan Gross, Ph.D., and Emily Yates-Doerr, Ph.D., are professors in Oregon State University’s Food in Culture and Social Justice program, which educates students about the food system and the complexities of foodways around the world. The program encourages students to actively strive to create a more equitable and environmentally sustainable food system, and many of our graduates are currently involved in that work.TAGS: COVID-19 / FOOD INSECURITY / LOCAL AND VOCAL

Review: Religion in the Kitchen

Religion in the Kitchen

Pérez , Elizabeth. (2016). Religion in the Kitchen: Cooking, Talking, and the Making of Black Atlantic Traditions. New York University Press. 320 pp. ISBN #9781479839551

Kristina Wirtz (Western Michigan University)

Does it surprise you that an ethnographic study of a religious community would be centered on the kitchen? In Religion in the Kitchen, Elizabeth Pérez makes a compelling case that religious communities are molded and religious sensibilities are seasoned in the kitchen. Her chosen site of the Black Atlantic is a religious household in the Chicago orisha community: its head is Ashabi Mosley, who was initiated into Cuban Santería by a Chicago-based Cuban-American priest, and whose home is an active “house-temple,” where ritual activities and sacred space-time infuse the domestic space with the spiritual imperatives of deities, ancestors, elders, and those who serve them.

In detailing the ethnographic particulars of this site, Pérez argues that the religious significance of the kitchen—the physical spaces and practices of food preparation, and what people talk about while so engaged—has been overlooked, and not just in Black Atlantic traditions. I hope that her book will stimulate much-needed corrective ethnographic attention—not just to special religious foods and the rules for their consumption in religious contexts, but to the often-marginalized work of food preparation for its moral and world-making contributions. Food preparation—and in particular the routes of live animals and raw ingredients that arrive at the house to become ritual offerings and spiritually-nourishing “food of the saint” connect the different spaces of the house-temple to produce a sacralization of private homes and a materialization of religious family.

As the book emphasizes from its first page, the sensuous engagement of orishas—African deities—in the world and their demands for savory and substantial offerings to provide the sacred energy—aché—that activates their worldly interventions, makes the kitchen especially significant in ritual work. But religion is not only in the kitchen. To venture into the kitchen and the realm of “ordinary home cooking” (the title of Part I) is to witness the confrontation between the time-space affordances of domesticity and the demands of religious observance in the house-temple. The name of Ashabi Mosley’s house-temple, Ilé Laroye, or House of Laroye (a reference to the orisha Eleggua) is also the name of the religious family of which she is matriarch. Domestic life is family life, and so Pérez closely attends to how bonds of kinship are forged and tested through religious practices. The religious lineage and family encompass vectors of religious authority and mutual obligation binding deities to the devotees whose “heads” they rule and devotees to one another.  And the house-temple is the physical space that materializes this ideal of the religious lineage, in an ongoing cycle of ceremonies cementing and expanding the familial network based on reciprocity. Deities demand offerings and discipline from those who serve them, and in turn offer tangible blessings of healing and resolved problems.

Pérez examines the physical layout of the house itself and how its spaces are used. Notably, Iyalocha Ashabi bought the house in large part because of its generous kitchen. The house’s  location in a Southside Chicago neighborhood also matters, in relations with neighbors and in instantiating a history of race relations and membership in an embattled Black community. The orishas point to a Black Atlantic context more rooted in the Caribbean and less understood amid the Baptist congregations and mosques of African American communities. But the labor—the servitude and sacrifice—that the orishas demand resonates with all-too familiar racialized and gendered regimes of Black life in America and their roots in transatlantic slavery. Serving the orishas and ancestors resignifies such regimes as spiritually charged, with the power to remake diasporic identities. Pérez seizes on evocative moments in which Ashabi and others in Ilé Laroye point out rhizomatic connections to other African diasporic experiences, from depictions of “conjure” in African American popular culture to “gangsta-code” moments of protecting the community from police interference. The food cooked up in the kitchen of Ilé Laroye, too, is a fusion of African American, Latinx-Caribbean, and West African cuisines diverging from common “roots” and remixed in the kitchen.

Pérez argues that the routes of religious activity through the house-temple, and especially turning the raw and live ingredients of offerings into cooked food, also fashion the trajectories of people into deeper engagements with the religion. Most centrally, talk accompanies food preparation tasks: instructions, reminders, and coaching in techniques, along with explanations, corrections, praise, complaints, and admonitions, but also chitchat that passes the time with humor and stories that all together serve to deepen social bonds and religious knowledge. The religious person is “seasoned” and cooked along with the food they help prepare, in a blending of talk and other embodied kitchen practice. This is the topic of parts two and three of the book, on “kitchen work” and “kitchen talk,” although the implied distinction between talk and other practice cannot be so clearly delineated.

If the cooking up of communal, religious sensibilities sounds idealized, in practice it is hard, unglamorous work that tests the self-discipline and religious dedication of those conscripted into it. Those entering the religious domain of Ilé Laroye quickly find themselves put to work with the labor-intensive, menial tasks of chopping, carrying, cleaning, stirring, and sorting, under the watchful eye of those with specialized religious knowledge. This knowledge is gained primarily through practical instruction, working alongside others. During major ceremonies, the hours are long, extending all day and even all night, people’s nerves fray as they work into exhaustion, and the stakes of errors are high, lest an orisha be offended. Each orisha’s offerings must be kept separate from as many as a dozen others at a time. The work of draining blood, plucking feathers, butchering carcasses, and separating viscera is arduous and messy. This time in the kitchen is utterly essential to successful ceremonies, and yet the kitchen and other food preparation areas are separate from and peripheral to the dedicated ritual spaces. Some of the marginality of the kitchen is gendered, but gender dynamics are crosscut with other measures of religious authority, such as lineage seniority.

In slicing, plucking, and cooking her way through her fieldwork, Pérez garners important insights. For example, she comes to realize how the initial steps of butchering a chicken highlight exactly the parts of the body—head, nape of neck, shoulders, feet—that are the focus of the basic rogation or purification ceremony performed on a devotee’s body. She contemplates not just taste but disgust, which she considers with sensitivity and insight. She suggests that overcoming one’s disgust, especially of the blood, guts, and gore of butchering sacrificed animals, plays a key role in socializing religious newcomers to new regimes of self-discipline that will be necessary to their religious development. Her central metaphor of seasoning materializes historicizing, engendering, incorporative kin-making work through which “strangers” join the ever-expanding religious family. The talk that accompanies all of this activity also is a seasoning and socializing mechanism. In the kitchen, talk moves between topics of food preparation, ritual activity, questions and explanations, personal stories, joking and teasing, gossip, pop culture references, and more overt efforts to teach through the sacred stories about the orishas, where these topics are braided together in the flowing conversations that produce lasting relationships and shape spiritual subjectivities. In the seeming banality of this “chitchat,” Pérez identifies a speech genre, the initiation story, as proper to peri-ritual activity, in contradistinction to the many genres of properly ritual speech. Akin to Black Christian “testifying,” initiation stories emphasize the paths of suffering and salvation through which orishas claim devotees. Whatever those drawn to Ilé Laroye might want or expect, their time laboring and listening in the kitchen teaches them to recast religious commitment as submission to the will of the orishas.

In this accessible ethnography of an often unrecognized and marginalized religious community in the U.S., Pérez develops novel perspectives on a variety of themes at the nexus of food and religion. Through detailed, situated descriptions of her participation in a religious household, she emphasizes the importance of the embedded, embodied, sensory, and social involvement in kitchen-work and how it resonates with other aspects of diasporic religious participation. The book could readily be assigned to undergraduates as well as graduate students to highlight the importance of food and food preparation in classes in religious studies, the anthropology of religion, and African Diaspora Studies, and to draw out productive connections between food, spirituality, and community in classes on the anthropology of food.


Review: Women on Food

Druckman, Charlotte + 115 Writers, Chefs, Critics, Television Stars, and Eaters (2019) Women On Food. New York: Abrams Press. 400 pp. ISBN 978 1 4197 3635 3; eISBN 978-1-68335 681 3.

Ellen Messer (Tufts University)

The day before all the libraries closed down to reduce spread of COVID-19 infections, I happened upon this collection of Women on Food writings in my local Newton (MA) Free Library. This multi-colored, 400 heavy-weight-page volume assembles an extraordinary variety of women’s voices, which present themselves in multiple sizes and sexual orientations, livelihoods and lifestyles, and span multiple generations and racial/ethnic/ religious identities, priorities, and themes.  As Druckman indicates in her introduction:

What you’re getting into is an anthology about women in—and on—food. That means women who work in or around food in some capacity, and what they think about that…and what they think about what you expect them to think about that.

Her interview questions encourage these women to “speak the truth…completely…[to] be analytical, furious, funny, serious, sad, harsh, silly, challenging, old-fashioned, avant-garde, creative, macho, pensive, unforgiving, unforgivable, opinionated, neutral must plain weird…[to] talk about what it’s like, really, to work in the food industry or food media, to get a meal on the table, or feed a community…[to] write about that without having to match the format or adhere to a particular genre or style” (p.6).

The anthology collects original stories, told mostly in prose although occasionally in poetry or  in visual forms (drawings, photography, pictures of food, or food people or places). These single-authored pieces are mixed in or “up” with two-person “conversations” (Druckman interviewing respondents) and multiple short-responses to Druckman’s provocative queries on leading topics. Two early examples of this Q&A are:  “LEXICON. Are there any words or phrases you really wish people would stop using to describe WOMEN CHEFS (or really, women, period)?” (p.8) and  “COOK THIS, NOT THAT! What is a type of FOOD you wanted to cook  and were told you couldn’t—or are made to feel as though you couldn’t…and you’re pretty sure it’s because you’re a women?” (p.67).

Cross-cutting themes across formats include female chefs’, but also food writers’ and editors’ experiences with sexual harassment and gender discrimination, personal and professional relationships (negative and positive) with ethnic foods, identities, and heritages, and their reflections on the significance of their mothers (occasionally grandmothers, less often fathers) on their food-focused career choices and signature dishes.   Not one to steer clear of controversy, Druckman at the end of the volume also asks respondents to self-reflectively share their own personal experiences of complicity—“The C-word”—where they imagine how they, by acts of commission or omission, intentionally or incidentally contributed to women’s subjugation and harassment, particularly in the restaurant business, but also in media.

As in any collection of writings, readers will find some topics and narratives of greater interest than others.  Reflecting my interests in food, religion, and human rights, I found “A Conversation with Devita Davison” (interview format) (pp.144-152) profoundly moving because her responses to Druckman’s leading questions touched on the essential roles of institutionalized religion and faith in advancing her Detroit-based food activism.  In its most recent iteration, her activist problem-solving vision and skills for Detroit’s Food Lab, partnered with African American churches, whose underutilized kitchens facilitated and encouraged small-scale food-processing businesses by low-income women of color, helping them climb out of Detroit’s poverty and hunger while preserving traditional culinary knowledge and products, and contributing to the larger challenges of constructing healthy, sustainable, local food systems. Chief among Davison’s “pressing concerns” (Druckman’s final question to her) are the decline of Black churches and a growing awareness that “capitalism is going to destroy every single thing that these grassroots, community-based organizations were able to create.”  Whereas an earlier era saw church women and kitchens as drivers of community programs, civil rights, and philanthropy, “the churches in our community are losing their power…[as] the demographics of the church are getting older” and younger people do not affiliate, participate, or maintain their significant presence and power in Detroit’s communities.  Churches that used to fund social movements are in decline, and as a result, community organizers turn to foundations, but “foundations are not going to get us to freedom and liberation…I want to create an organization and then be able to share a model for other people to create an organization that’s funded by the people for the people.” (pp. 101-102).  This interview, in particular, captures the strengths of the interviewees and the many ways Druckman’s questions and directions, in these and other formats, bring forth the depth and passions of their experiences and reflections.

My second favorite entry was Tienlon Ho’s essay, “The  Months of Magical Eating” (pp. 80-92) which described her parent and grandparent generations’ traditional wisdom and medicinal arts as contributions to her “eating right” (birds’ nest soup, ginger) during the final months of her pregnancy and immediately following her successful childbirth. She ends by noting she still keeps a jar of this concentrated tonic in her refrigerator: “It is a jar filled with a family’s strength, a nascent wisdom, and the memories of ages that allowed me to bear the weight of this new life barely started.” (p.92). Her lyrical writing evoking visceral images and ideas substantively connect the individual female, through food, to cosmic forces and familial relationships beyond her present self or generation.

A third example that touched me particularly in these times of deep reflection on structural, racist violence in US society, was Von Diaz’ story, “Sitting Still.” Set in the South, it unveils the horrific legacy of lynchings through the telling lens of a simple recipe for “Bobbie Hart’s Banana Pudding” (pp.308-316).

As a collection of food writings by more than 100 female authors, the anthology includes interviews and essays with well-known food historians, cook-book authors, and essayists, including Betty Fussell, Jessica Harris, and Bee Wilson. Wilson’s sharply terse and topical piece on the advantages and disadvantages of evolving “Labor Saving” technology (pp.254-263) for getting essential food on the family table, accessibly touches on so many work-life dilemmas involving feeding and food preparation, offering practical advice without being preachy or pretentious.  The words and images of Kristina Gill, “A Fig by Any Other Name” (pp. 375-383), illustrated with luscious and colorful sexual food imagery, is a clever and subtle triumph for all to enjoy.  Some readers may savor the published volume’s bright color coding (strong to paler orangish to greenish yellows setting off two-person, multi-person interviews or Q&A, and essays). I found the varying hues bold, but also distracting, and wish the heavy paged book had weighed a bit less, to make it more physically comfortable to position and read.  These hard-copy features may or may not translate discernibly into on-line, tinted copy, where volume weight is not an issue.  As SAFN (and other) food-studies readers move in and out of quarantines, they might want to access and read the electronic version, and recommend various particular chapters to students and other colleagues and friends. In the meanwhile, now that my local library is allowing (scheduled, outdoor) book pick-up’s and returns, I hasten to review and return the hard copy for other potentially appreciative readers.