Category Archives: book reviews

Thesis Review: Placing the Apple

Nicol_apple trees

Please note: I am soliciting reviews of recent dissertations in the Anthropology of Food. So if you have written a recent thesis or would like to review one, you can contact me directly: Katharina Graf, Associate Book Reviews Editor (

Placing the Apple: Exploring the Urban Applescape. Poppy Nicol. Ph.D. Thesis, Cardiff University, Cardiff (Wales). 2015.

Camelia Dewan (Stockholm University, Sweden)

Poppy Nicol’s thesis Placing the Apple explores the dynamics of the urban apple in the UK. She follows the different types – commodity and club brands as well as different (heritage) varieties of apples across the food distribution chain from multiple retailers (like Tesco) and wholefood markets to community food initiatives and local growers and sellers. The thesis is firmly based in the intersection between geography and anthropology through its use of political ecology and multi-sited qualitative fieldwork to follow the urban apple in order to understand ‘the becomings of the apple’. The thesis itself presents a strong stance supporting place-based, knowledge-intensive, community-centered practices of ‘agro-ecology’ and argues that this has the potential to support more regenerative agri-food systems, particularly in city-regions, while being critical to dominant neoliberal forces that dominate the apple production and distribution sectors.

Throughout the six substantive chapters, Nicol shows the different motivations of producers, retailers and community-centered growers. The use of the London-based social enterprise Growing Community to illustrate agro-ecological logics in the urban apple is one that is particularly original and revealing in terms of an alternative food system within an urban environment. The concept of ‘agro-ecological practices’ permeates the thesis and Nicol juxtaposes it with global, intensified modes of agriculture. In doing so, the author departs from ideas of ‘urban metabolisms’ and ‘depletive agri-food systems’ where the commercial, globalized and corporate apple contributes to the depletion of biodiversity, soil and nutrition caused by the global industrial agri-food system in its search to maximize yield and profit. This is then contrasted with ‘regenerative agri-food systems’ based on agro-ecological practices aiming to optimize ecological processes promoting soil health. Nicol draws on Altieri (1988) to suggest that such practices consider cultivation as a food web rather than a food chain, whereby all elements, cycles and processes within the system are implicitly interrelated, interconnected and interdependent of one another. Such an approach enhances beneficial ecological processes to create a healthy soil with vital soil microbial and mycorrhizal activity that supports more resilient and efficient farming systems. This often involves a range of agronomic techniques, including intercropping, the recycling of manure and food crops into fertilizers and agroforestry, that reduce the use of external inputs and maximize resource efficiency (De Schutter 2014:9).

Nicol argues that the case of Growing Communities in Hackney, London, demonstrates how agro-ecological communities of practice support citizens to grow, trade and consume food in more healthy, ecological and just ways. With the support of the local authority (Hackney Council), housing associations and a number of community groups, Growing Communities have made use of public, private and community-owned space for expanding their patchwork-farming network, box-scheme distribution hubs, farmers’ market as well as the Growing Communities headquarters. Nicol offers many positive examples of the organization’s attempts to support apple variety diversity, including how it has supported a number of school food-growing projects within the borough, developed a network of market gardens and worked with local resident’s groups to plant a community orchard in the public Hackney area. It has also gone beyond Hackney by acquiring a 1.4-acre ex-council nursery site in Dagenham, the first Growing Communities ‘Starter Farm’, which is leased from Dagenham Council. Instead of being on a commercial basis, Growing Communities have focused on the multi-functionality of social spaces. Its distribution sites include three health food shops, an arts center, studio, a community garden, community center, city farm, two churches and a climbing center, as well as the Growing Communities headquarters, enabling interactions between residents.

The logic extends also to the shifting preferences of producers and buyers. Rather than the criteria for sameness, consistency of taste, durability (thicker-skinned apples) and perfection, pickers of local agro-ecologically grown apples tend to use their senses (taste, smell, sensation) to select apples for harvest, those that are deemed unfit for human consumption are used as forage matter or animal feed. The buyers of these apples, in turn, were found to prefer taste over looks and found beauty in imperfection after initial hesitation of how different these agro-ecological apples were compared to the more recognized supermarket brands. Nicol admits that though these sales are marginal in terms of proportions of apples consumed within the borough, she argues that Growing Communities provides a case of a community-led distribution scheme enabling the entry of the agro-ecological and proximate apple into the city.

There is a tendency in the thesis to strongly promote Growing Communities and agro-ecological practices. However, by showing how Hackney Council enable this community-based initiative by providing long-term access and security of tenure of production, trade and distribution sites, Nicol shows the importance of how regenerative agri-food systems are dependent upon securing physical, economic and political space that support and enable such practices. She suggests that forms of governance at local, regional, national and international levels can foster or frustrate the scaling-out of agro-ecological practices. Drawing on existing research by Altieri and Nicholls (2012:22), she argues that powerful political and economic organizations and institutions tend to support research and development for the conventional agro-industrial approach, while research and development for agro-ecology and sustainable approaches have been largely ignored or even ostracized. Nicol found that governance – particularly at national-level – marginalizes agro-ecological practices via the rise of investment in research and development in sustainable intensification, retail-led forms of market transformation and an obstructive policy and planning framework. She argues that practices of consolidation, privatization and externalization of risk enacted by a small number of multiple retailers are enacted within an enabling political and regulatory environment.

Nicol highlights that it is the dominance of multiple retailers in terms of market-share and policy environment that further complicate competition from more agro-ecologically oriented supply forms. The challenges of agro-ecological production and trade are compounded amidst a regulatory environment supportive of ‘market-led’ transformation, whereby supermarkets are considered the ‘familiar’ (HM Government 2008:64) and, it is suggested, default shopping environment for most citizens (pp. 223-224). Nicol shows that the corporate logic favors centralized, vertical forms of supply based on large-scale forms of production, while direct forms of supply tend to be decentralized and horizontal, facilitating trade with small-scale producers.

Nicol states that her analytical framework is informed by political ecology, relational geographies and social practice to explore “the distribution of power and politics in the scaling-up and scaling-out of [agro-ecological versus industrial] practices in and through place” (p. 278). Yet, the theoretical development and linkages to political ecology and how power dynamics shape the availability of the apple and structure of its trade could be developed further with clearer examples. It would have been useful to understand the political ecology that leads to agro-ecological practices being actively ‘marginalized’. In terms of scale, could it be that there is a limit to how much locally-grown and agro-ecological apples can meet demand? Could scaling up of spaces in the borough itself help meet the apple demand of the Hackney community considering that many community members are dependent on food vendors and multiple retailer brands buying commodity and ‘club’ brand apples? The question is, even if access to physical space was not precarious, would it be enough?

A deeper political ecology analysis of the constraints in scaling up agro-ecological apples would strengthen this thesis further. In terms of the use of ‘relational geographies’ and the recognition that non-humans do not just exist within the city and how things ‘become’ food, this could also be developed further with more explicit examples and linkages. It would also be interesting to gain a further understanding of whether the growers and Growing Communities themselves speak about their practices as agro-ecological? In addition, how do her interlocutors perceive the link between agro-ecology and the commodified and brand apples and do they express any concerns about sustainability, particularly in terms of ‘degenerative agri-food systems’ and how commodity and ‘club’ brands may reduce the biodiversity of apple varieties globally?

Her comparison between traditional, organic and biodynamic orchards and agroforestry is an interesting one, particularly in terms of how “biodynamic agriculture considers both the material and spiritual context of food production and works with cosmic as well as terrestrial influences” (p. 214). Pest and disease are seen as indicative of unbalanced fertilization and lack of soil fertility within biodynamic practices. It would be interesting to learn more about how these growers understood and/or embraced ideas of spirituality in agro-ecological practices as this speaks to current anthropological discussions on vitality, life-force and the unseen, as well as burgeoning research and the importance of symbiotic relationships between microbiomes, bacteria and fungi with other life forms (e.g. Tsing et al. 2017). In the concluding chapter, Nicols advocates that agri-biodiversity, agro-ecological and place-based practices as well as producer livelihoods are to be supported, but it is unclear what perspectives and information underlie these suggestions. Why agro-ecological above biodynamic or organic? Such a discussion would strengthen the arguments further.

Overall, this is a well-researched thesis that provides an interesting example of alternative food movements in the UK through the example of a community-based social organization using creative means to expand urban forms of gardening and local produce.


Altieri, Miguel, Environmentally Sound Small-Scale Agricultural Projects: Guidelines for Planning. Edited by H.L. Vukasin. New York: Codel. 1988.

Altieri, Miguel and Clara Nicholls, “Agro-Ecological Scaling-up for Food Sovereignty and Resilience.” Sustainable Agriculture Review 11 (2012): 1–29.

De Schutter, Olivier. “Final Report: The Transformative Potential of the Right to Food.” Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter. New York: UN General Assembly. 2014.

HM Government, Food Matters: Towards a Strategy for the Twenty-First Century. London: Cabinet Office. 2008.

Tsing, Anna L., Heather A. Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt, eds. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene. London: Minnesota University Press. 2017.

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Review: A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism

A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism: Understanding the Political Economy of What We Eat, Eric Holt-Giménez, Monthly Review Press, 2017.

foodies guide to capitalism

Jo Hunter-Adams

Working in food studies often means grappling with inequity (and deciding where best to focus our own energies in light of inequity). Yet food systems exist on so many different scales, and connections to health, well-being, and nourishment seem infinite. In the face of this complexity, we become specialists in specific parts of the food system, and can easily lose sight of the broader context. A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism offers a key contextual primer for food researchers and activists. The book provides much-needed context for understanding of the consequences of treating food as a commodity. As such, it provides important tools for good, deep thinking on food systems. Here, the cliché “think global, act local” seems resonant: we become specialists in a particular space and a particular food niche, yet require understanding of broader trends (including capitalism) to work more effectively and avoid triggering a cascade of unintended consequences.

An overview of the book, in quotes (Loc refers to Kindle version)

Introduction: Do Foodies Need to Understand Capitalism?

Understandably, they [those working on food] concentrate their efforts on one or two issues rather than the system as a whole, such as healthy food access, urban agriculture, organic farming, community-supported agriculture, local food, farmworkers’ rights, animal welfare, pesticide contamination, seed sovereignty, GMO labelling…the list is long. (Loc 129 of 5123)

Critical knowledge of capitalism—vital to the struggles of social movements through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—largely disappeared from the lexicon of social change, precisely at a time when neoliberal capitalism was destroying the working class and relentlessly penetrating every aspect of nature and society on the planet. (Loc 172 of 5123)

Chapter 1: How Our Capitalist Food System Came to Be

By the end of the nineteenth century, mercantilism, colonialism, and industrialization had all combined a new form of global capitalism that spread powerfully, if unevenly, around the earth. … The flow of cheap raw materials from the colonies to the centers of imperial power transformed livelihoods, territories, and systems of governance as food, land, and labor became global commodities. (Loc 433)

Chapter 2: Food, a Special Commodity

Ever since peasants were pushed off the land and made dependent on wages, agricultural labor has been paid far less than its social value (what it costs to reproduce a farmworker’s capacity to work) much less what it adds to the price (exchange value) of food products. Today agriculture and food processing in the United States and Western Europe largely depend on undocumented labor. (Loc 963 of 5123)

Unless we change the underlying value relations of our food system—the contradiction between food as essential for human life and food as a commodity—we will be working on the margins of a system that is structurally designed for profit rather than need, speculation rather than equity, and extraction rather than resilience. This doesn’t mean that the many social innovations challenging the inequities and externalities of the corporate food regime around the world are not worth implementing. On the contrary, our food system needs innovation. But for these hopeful alternatives to have a chance of becoming the norm rather than the alternative within a food system that is structurally favourable to large-scale industrial agriculture, we will need to know what structural parts of the system need changing. (Loc 1044 of 5123)

Though we are not likely to lose the commodity form of products any time soon, we can work to change the relation between use and exchange values, and we can change the terms of socially necessary labor time (and working conditions) to make a more sustainable and equitable food system that reduces the exploitation of workers and does not pass off onto society the social costs (the externalities) that the producers ought to bear. (Loc 1065 of 5123).

When voting with our fork, we should remember that the freedom to buy food according to our values does not in and of itself change the power of commodities in our food system. If we want to change the power of commodities in the food system, we will have to change the way we value the labor in our food as well. (Loc 1103 of 5123).

The logic of capital—rather than the logic of fairness, compassion, ecology, conservation, or health—governs our food. Our attempts to transform the food system hinge on changing the social relation embedded in our food. Because food is both a commodity and an existential necessity, and because our food system impacts all other aspects of our social and economic system because we all eat, the social relation of food is pivotal in terms of human well-being. The firms controlling our food system understand this perfectly, exploiting the public use value of food to extract exchange values for corporate profit. Substantive changes to the food system will affect the entire economic system. Perhaps this is precisely what we need. (Loc 1103 of 5123)  

Chapter 3: Land and Property

Her (Elinor Ostrom’s) fieldwork with traditional societies convinced her that natural resources held in common could be sustainably managed without regulation from government. She also believed that collective action and reciprocity were critical components to human survival and for solving social dilemmas in which individual short-term self-interest undermines the greater good. (Loc 1371 of 5123)

Chapter 4: Capitalism, Food, and Agriculture

Peasants and smallholders still feed most people in the world, though they cultivate less than a quarter of the arable land. (Loc 1801 of 5123)

Subsidies are often criticized by some environmental groups, which claim that they drive overproduction of cheap food and are given primarily to large farmers. The reality is that low prices drive overproduction, which results in subsidies. Eliminating subsidies (without other major structural changes to supply and price) would likely drive small and midsize farmers out of business, thus contributing to further farm consolidation into larger and larger farms. (Loc 1819 of 5123)

Agroecology has been endorsed by the international agricultural assessment on science, knowledge and technology for Development and the former United Nations Rapporteur on the Right to Food as the best agricultural method to end hunger, eliminate poverty, and address climate change. Indeed, this is because agroecology is, in human and ecological terms, a “rational agriculture.” But agroecology is not part of the agricultural development programs of the U.S. development, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, the Department for International Development (DFID), the World Bank, or the plans for agricultural development of the African, Asian, or Inter-American Development banks. Funding for agroecological research in the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the United States represents less than 1 percent of the funding dedicated to conventional agriculture. (Loc 2149 of 5123)

Chapter 5: Power, Privilege in the Food System: Gender, Race and Class

Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed with be sufficiently strong to free both. Any attempt to “soften” the power of the oppressor in deference to the weakness of the oppressed almost always manifests itself in the form of false generosity; indeed the attempt never goes beyond this…. An unjust social order is the permanent fount of this “generosity,” which is nourished by death, despair, and poverty. That is why the dispensers of false generosity become desperate at the slightest threat to its source. (quoting Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Loc 2628 of 5123)

Industrial agriculture has taken the farmworker’s voice away, so we don’t hear them identifying as people of the earth. We have been identified as machines, as beasts of burden. It’s convenient for people to identify us that way because then it’s easy to exploit us. But if you’re talking about a human being who can express herself or himself as a person of the earth, with this intellect and wisdom about the right way to grow food, then it’s not as easy to exploit. A lot of the family farmers and growers know that the way they’re growing food and treating the earth is wrong. (Loc 2447 of 5123):

We can’t change the food system without transforming capitalism. Yet we can’t transform capitalism without changing the food system. And we can’t do either of these without ending patriarchy, racism, and classism. So, if we want a better food system, we have to change everything. Admittedly, this is a tall order for any social movement. The question for the food movement, however, is not, how do we change everything but “how is the food system strategically positioned to influence systemic change?” (Loc 2740 of 5123)

Chapter 6: Food, Capitalism, Crises, and Solutions

We should all feel sorry for ourselves for losing one of our most precious institutions, the family farm.” Farm depressions do not reverse farm consolidation; the land will continue to be farmed, but by some other farmer who pursues the inevitable (Loc 3204 of 5123)

We can use a lot more produce raised locally, but to think that a corn and soybean farmer could convert their land to fruits and vegetables is unrealistic. Midwestern farmers plant corn and soybeans fencerow-to-fencerow because there are really no alternatives in the capitalist commodity system. (Loc 3225 of 5123)

The challenge for our planet is not how to (over) produce food, but how to keep smallholders on the land while sustainably producing healthy food. The challenge is not to attempt to engineer “climate-smart” commodities for nutritionally fortified crops, but to build overall nutrition and resilience into the whole agroecosystem. This will take more—not fewer—highly skilled farmers. (Loc 3345 of 5123)


The challenge of building a public sphere for the twenty first century is not to re-create the past, but to build a new, transnational public sphere that has a critical analysis of capitalism, builds social legitimacy for movements for food justice and food sovereignty, and connects them with the broad environmental and social justice movements. It is not enough to build an apolitical public space in our food system. Creating alternative markets is not the same as shutting down capitalist markets. Both actions are needed for regime transformation. We need a movement that is able to forge a militantly democratic food system in favour of the poor and oppressed globally and locally, and that effectively rolls back the elite, neoliberal food regime. (Loc 3649 of 5123)

We also need to ask, who will transform the food regime, how will it be transformed, and in whose interests, and to what purpose? (Loc 3658 of 5123)

Understanding why, where, and how oppression manifests itself in the food system, recognizing it within our food movement and our organizations (and within ourselves), is not extra work for transforming our food system. It is the work. (Loc 3662 of 5123)

While not intended for an academic audience, this book provides a plain language, big picture understanding of the food system, and would be very well-suited to an undergraduate class. The book is U.S. centric, yet resonates and is applicable to a global audience.

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Thesis Review and Interview: Tacos, Gumbo, and Work

Edited Copy FalconPhotograph: Fernando Lopez

Please note: As Associate Editor, I am soliciting reviews of recent dissertations in the Anthropology of Food. So if you have written a recent thesis or would like to review one, you can contact me directly: Katharina Graf (

Tacos, Gumbo, and Work: The Politics of Food and the Valorization of Labor. Sarah Fouts. Ph.D. Thesis in Latin American Studies, Tulane University, New Orleans. 2017.

Emma-Jayne Abbots (University of Wales Trinity Saint David, Lampeter)

Tacos, Gumbos and Work interrogates the economic and social interplays between migrant food vendors and construction workers – both commonly undocumented – in post-Katrina New Orleans, and situates this synergism within a broader political framework of regulation, law and migration policy. Fouts argues that taco trucks and loncheras provide migrant workers with ‘familiar and sustaining foods’ (p.4) and, as such, she examines the cultural work food vendors perform in the creation of their own economic and political spaces. The cultural work of food is a prevailing theme, but the key contribution of this rich ethnographic discussion lies in Fouts’s illumination of the ways that vendors look to navigate an intrinsically unhelpful and constraining bureaucratic system laden with structural inequities. The thesis highlights the multiple barriers food vendors face in terms of language, their status as undocumented, their access to social networks, and a licensing system entrenched in semantics that does not reflect the needs of the community. It thereby demonstrates how vendors’ economic and cultural capital, in association with their legal status, shapes their capacity for both social and physical mobility: this occurs not only in the sense that those who are documented can be more visible, but is also shaped by the extent vendors have access to knowledge and actors that can facilitate their navigation of ‘the system’. The theme of (in)visibility thus emerges in myriad ways and Fouts teases out the tensions that stem from vendors working in public spaces, whilst remaining in the shadows.

In capturing and comparing the voices and personal biographies of vendors with a range of economic and cultural capital, Tacos, Gumbo and Work successfully shifts its gaze between individual motivations and practices and the broader political and economic dynamics informing vendor actions and decisions. Many of Fouts’s participants are clearly vulnerable and structurally marginalized, yet they are not devoid of agency and Fouts’s sensitive representation stresses vendors’ creativity and entrepreneurial spirit, and their capacity to affect change within the constraints of living and working. This is particularly well illustrated by the manner that some vendors have rejected work in the formal economy in favor of the informal sector – an observation that also offers, as the thesis does more broadly, a seething critique of neoliberal policies and its resultant conditions.

Tacos, Gumbo and Work also raises questions regarding applied research, gender dynamics and social divisions within migrant communities. Below, I put these questions directly to the author, Sarah Fouts, currently a post-doctoral fellow at Lehigh University.

Emma-Jayne Abbots (EJA): Your ethical sensitivity and integrity are clearly evident throughout your discussion, not least in your methodology and in the volunteer work you undertook for your participants and the Congress of Day Laborers. How did you go about balancing your engagement with the community and applied practice with the academic analysis required when writing a PhD? What value does an activist approach bring?

Sarah Fouts (SF): Prior to my academic career, I was a Peace Corps volunteer and worked for a non-profit, so much of my worldview is in applied practice. As an academic I have done my best to extend this commitment to service. While it may seem that an unbiased analysis precludes close involvement, I’ve found that the two can work in concert, and I think it’s important not to take from the communities with whom I work without offering support or service. I was also fortunate to study in my field site, so logistically it was easier to balance the research and community engagement. With the community-engaged work, I had to learn when to say no to volunteer assignments, for instance during intense phases of writing or teaching, and I had a good enough relationship with those folks that they understood. Like I mention in the thesis, I never realized the degree to which my community-engaged work would impact my actual thesis. Once I realized that I could use it as the thread to connect my research, it was obvious that that was the organizing principle all along. An activist approach allows for more collaboration, particularly for people to be a part of telling their own story. For the researcher, accompaniment brings a first hand glimpse into how people navigate systems. But it does more than just understanding the barriers people face, it also helps them get through these barriers by interpreting for them, helping them access other resources, etc. As long as researchers are transparent about their involvement with communities, I think engagement can lend more valuable insight based on first-hand experience than just bird’s eye observation.

EJA: You mention that a possible direction for further investigation is the gendered dynamics at play in this context and, although your argument and analysis takes you in a different direction, there are certainly some interesting ethnographic observations on gender in your thesis. Given the ongoing critical debates about the feminization of food work, can I ask you to reflect upon how your own findings, as well as further scholarship on informal food vending more widely, could enhance our understanding of reproductive labor, especially its interplays with productive labor?

SF: The first five years after Katrina, it was mostly men that came to New Orleans. Women and children started to arrive after 2010, to reunite with their families and as a result of political instability across Central America. Oftentimes, it was the women who recognized the dearth of food options and the market for mobile food vending services. Women also continue to understand the flexibility of the street vending industry and the potential profitability. In many of these cases, reproductive labor directly intersected with productive labor in that women are able to prepare food for sale, while taking care of their children and completing other domestic work. In some of the more clandestine economies, women produce and sell food from their own homes; people would pick up foods directly from the home or someone, oftentimes men, would deliver the foods to construction sites. So in those cases, the women never had to leave home. Your question makes me realize a key part I left out in the case of the two dueling tamale vendors in Chapter Two. I fail to mention that there is free childcare at the Congreso meetings where the women sell food. So, the women could set up their booth and sell foods while their children played inside. This is so important. Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo (2007) addresses this to some degree in her work, as does Lorena Muñoz (2013). The feminization of food work comes up throughout my thesis and as I continue on with the book project I plan to engage this concept more explicitly.

EJA: There are points in your ethnography where there are evident tensions between vendors, particularly in relation to battles over turf. In what ways do these dynamics reflect and intersect with hierarchies of economic and cultural capital within the community?

SF: The root of these tensions and turf battles between vendors reflect hierarchies that manifest in terms of access. Oftentimes, this access is connected to documentation status, because there is so much power or perceived power linked to having papers. Like in the case of Clara and Leonora, Leonora can access more spaces as a tamale vendor because she has legal status through her English-speaking husband. She was able to get licensing—albeit a catering license—when Clara was not. But based on the other cases, it is likely Clara could have gotten a license as well (if she called the right person), she just assumed that she could not due to being undocumented. Other examples of turf wars include brick and mortar establishments versus the food truck vendors, which isn’t exclusive to New Orleans. These types of battles usually depend on institutional support as part of the hierarchies of capital. Brick and mortar places received support from the Louisiana/National Restaurant Association to fight for policies limiting the mobility of food trucks. But as food truck popularity grew nationwide, New Orleans City Council increasingly backed more liberal food truck ordinances, yet even those policies had limitations as shown in Chapter Three. One argument I maintain is that many of these policies, even though they may attempt to be liberal, fail to take into account what is happening on the ground locally.

As I continue onto the book project, I draw in a more cross-racial analysis, which reflects integration of Latinx communities in a predominantly Black city and within a New Orleans food culture that is quite homogenous. So, I consider questions like how have Latinx foods been creolized into New Orleans food culture. Here, these hierarchies of economic and cultural capital definitely come into play, especially within a Bourdieusian theoretical framework. But my argument links back to my first statement, drawing in questions of access—documentation status, class, and race. Those issues are inherently linked to these hierarchical tensions.


Muñoz, Lorena, “From Street Child Care to Drive-throughs: Latinas Reconfigure and Negotiate Street Vending Spaces in Los Angeles,” in Immigrant Women Workers in the Neoliberal Age. Champaign: University of Illinois Press. 2013, 133-143.

Hondagneu-Sotelo, Pierette, Domestica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring the Shadows of Affluence. Berkeley: UC Press. 2007.


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Review: Two Books on Hunger and Food Security

De Schutter, Olivier. and Cordes, Kaitlin Y. 2011. Accounting for Hunger: The Right to Food in an Era of Globalisation. London/New York: Hart Publishing (288 pp).

Timmer, C. Peter. 2015 Food Security and Scarcity: Why Ending Hunger is So Hard Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (240 pp).

Jo Hunter-Adams
University of Cape Town

Accounting for Hunger and Food Security and Scarcity offer complementary pictures of food accounting for hunger coversecurity and hunger, one from the perspective of economics, and the other from a broader rights-based perspective. As an edited volume, Accounting for Hunger allows for several fine-grained analyses of specific dimensions of food security. In contrast, Timmer’s Food Security and Scarcity draws global lessons from the history of food security, and offers market analysis as a basis for recommendations to economists and policy planners.

In Food Security and Scarcity: Why Ending Hunger is So Hard, Timmer lays out the complexity of global food security in seven chapters. Each chapter builds on a set of key assumptions about economic policy. Timmer focuses on the need for pro-poor economic growth, in particular structural transformation or urbanization, with decreased labor on farms. He asserts again and again that, “historically, the structural transformation has been the only sustainable pathway out of poverty.” (p113, see also xii, p4, 9, 29, 37, 56, 85, 95). Beginning with this premise, he spends much of the analysis looking at ways that such structural transformation takes place (and very briefly on the consequences when such a transformation fails). Not being trained as an economist, I did not understand some of chapter 3, which lays out specific models for balancing control of the market while allowing competition. My own shortcomings as a reviewer aside, a major strength of this book lies in its scope, suggesting some of the ways that the food price stabilization can be achieved at a global level, and not shying away from the complexity of such a feat (i.e. achieving “a guaranteed nutritional floor for the poor” and “secure availability and stable prices in food markets” p31.)

food security coverAlso to the book’s credit, Timmer does mention failed agricultural transformations, where populations end up in growing urban slums rather than gaining momentum to move out of {material} poverty. Timmer also mentions the lack of transparency of market transactions and large-scale food purchases, and the slowdown of new agricultural research.

However, the assertion that structural transformation is the key route out of poverty is worthy of critique. While Timmer is up front about the Asian bias present in the book, he is less introspective about the potential issues this bias brings to the analysis. That is, without defining the boundaries and exclusions (geographical and historical) of successful structural transformation, I found it difficult to be convinced in favor of “pro-poor” structural transformation. Past successful structural transformation cannot, taken alone, predict the future; climate change and the declining availability of fossil fuels surely opens up the possibility that the future may be different from the past, and that new routes towards food security will be necessary. Narrow conceptualization of material poverty and hunger also masks historical power imbalances, where economists may feel empowered to make far-reaching policy based on their assessments of hunger, without considering the exploitation that has facilitated inequality. This critique notwithstanding, the book offers a good introduction for non-specialists (undergraduate and graduate) into the issues and complexities of global food security.

The editors of Accounting for Hunger begin by offering a summary of the challenges and relationships between urban food supply and rural agriculture, emphasizing the need to consider the imbalances of power in food systems, with particular attention to farmers. Thereafter, the book is divided into two parts. The first focuses on power imbalances in food systems, with three chapters focused on agribusiness (Cordes), food retail (Cowan Schmidt) and Biofuels (Cloots). The second part focuses on the role of trade and aid in creating an international environment that promotes the right to food. De Schutter begins with an overview of the policies that govern international aid and the ways that these tend to overlook their role in promoting the right to food globally. In the three chapters that follow the authors focus on rich-country agricultural subsidies (Mersing), the legal recourse in relation to the WTO (Konstantinov) and recommendations for food aid (Moreu).

Rather than review each chapter, I would like to highlight a few chapters as good potential assigned reading for particular issues in food security. In chapter three, Cordes offers attention to the relationships between biodiversity, mono-cultures, and trade agreements. She also weaves in studies of GMOs, farmer suicides in relation to debt, and the need for transparency in agribusiness. Schmidt offers key insights into the disproportionate burden borne by smallholders and small farmers when forced to compete on global markets. Cloots’ chapter on Biofuels offered a very helpful introduction to the ways that biofuels shapes the commodities market. She argues that the current orientation of the biofuels market tends to infringe upon the realization of rights to food in developing countries, and deepen the bargaining disadvantages of low-and-middle income countries. Cloots effectively weaves the relationships between food security, land use, climate change, energy needs, and biodiversity. In chapter 6, Mersing considers the complexity of phasing out rich country agricultural subsidies without increasing hunger amongst the very poor. Here is where the complexity of artificially low prices for commodity food is juxtaposed with the need for these low prices given low wages and unemployment in low-and middle-income countries. The final chapter guiding food aid recommendations is clear and concrete, and lays out the intersections between food aid, the agricultural decline of recipients, and the muddy waters of motivations of the nations providing aid.

Points of intersection

In recent years, the focus on global hunger has shifted towards at least some consideration of local food environments and framing food security in terms of healthy foods—not only caloric sufficiency. The complexity of intersections between obesity and hunger deserved at least some consideration, as it has important implications for policy, including health policy amongst the growing populations of urban poor.

Both books frame hunger as primarily an issue of poverty, rather than an issue of agricultural production (though Timmer believes agricultural research and improved yield is a key part of food security in the future). Both books also highlight small-scale farmers

SmallholderNetBuyers revise

Illustration by E.B. Adams,

in the effort to improve global food security. One concrete point highlighted by Timmer is that farm sizes should increase somewhat to facilitate greater food security. Rather than advocating for large commercial farms, his argument is for moderately larger family smallholdings that would allow for more efficient household production and better local supply. This is consistent with chapter 3 of Accounting for Hunger, where Cordes highlights the ways that smallholders and small-scale market farmers currently shoulder disproportionate burdens of risk. However, while Timmer represents the market as a neutral force, the authors of Accounting of Hunger are much more willing to delve into the ways that powerful corporations may stack the odds against smallholder farmers. Both volumes highlight that higher food prices would not serve smallholder needs, as most smallholders are net buyers of food, and are at most risk for food insecurity, symbolizing the complexity of creating more equitable food systems.

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Transactions in Taste: The Collaborative lives of Everyday Bengali Foods

Manpreet K. Janeja. Transactions in Taste: The Collaborative lives of Everyday Bengali Foods. London: Routledge, 2010. 185 pages, ISBN 978-415553742.

Reviewed by Meraz Rahman
New Mexico State University 

In her detailed, sensuous ethnographically based book, Transactions in Taste: The Collaborative lives of Everyday Bengali Foods, Manpreet K. Janeja takes her readers transactions in taste coveron an extraordinary journey to the middle-class “normal” everyday “Bengali” foodscape by illustrating the everyday ordinary common food prepared and consumed there. The book’s emphasis includes people living in both sides of Bengal- the Muslim Bengal of Dhaka in Bangladesh, and Hindu Bengal in Calcutta in the Indian state of West Bengal. Growing up in Calcutta, the capital of West Bengal, which is known for its rich food heritage, left a profound imprint on Janeja, who was mesmerized by the rich tastes, colors, smells, sounds, and touch of Bengali food. Various questions loom large in Janeja’s mind such as what was “Bengali” about so much of the food in Calcutta? How is food important in both East and West Bengali genealogies? And what was “normality” after all? (Page: xvi –xvii).

Janeja attempts to examine how food is a critical means by which Bengali Hindus and Muslims in Calcutta and Dhaka create a rational world and normality through the transactional “agency” that food acquires in its work of generating perceived normality (p.2). “Agents” can be objects other than persons, including  things and places, a perspective originally developed by anthropologist Alfred Gell in his book Art and Agency (1998) (p.19). By focusing on processes, preparation, storage, distribution, consumption, and disposal of food, this book illustrates the articulation of quotidian, mundane practices with a wider biography of social relationships (p.8-9). The book reveals the ways in which Bengalis (both Muslim and Hindu) attend to food and further explicates “the manner in which food as a thing-actant/patient mediate between other things, persons, and place –actants/patients” (P.24). Janeja develops a number of topics such as “foodscape,” “normality” and “non-normality.” She also examines the ways in which food emerges as “ordinary sacred,” how food evokes subjectivity in everyday life and hospitality transactions while producing everyday “normality,” the relationship between food and location, and lastly, how the preparation of foods in everyday hospitality relations elicits the modalities of ownership (belongingness, identity).

I want to highlight a few of the topics that I found most fascinating about this book. Janeja provided examples of relationships between the cook and the “desh” (region, area, district, native hometown, village, city, birthplace, country) in order to explicate the concept “desh as foodscape,” a concept Janeja develops to “describe the ability of food to bring forth the sense of place as particular configuration of relationship” (P.51). Janeja depicts the characteristics of a good cook and describes how her/his ability to replicate a recipe for the household can be considered as normally cooked in the “desh” of the recipient. On the contrary, the incapacity of a cook to continually replicate the everyday foodscape perceived as normal by food recipients is called “not-normality.” According to Janeja this is how “Desh as foodscape” becomes a theme for perceiving normality (P.52).  This book also provides its reader with the menu, philosophy, and the process of cooking of two restaurants in Calcutta and Dhaka to explain how “food reveals its agency in bringing forth temporal calibration of process of preparing normal Bengali food ‘traditionally’ everyday in restaurants” (P.138). The very definition of “normality” in this case differs significantly and suggests the ability of cooks working in these restaurants to continuously replicate “standard” Bengali food by excluding their respective “desh” as an actant. In order to make/create “standard” Bengali food, the cook tries to balance and modify the dishes (use and control of ingredients, cooking technique, process) to make them “standard” or “normal” in the perception of the restaurant staff and their customers (p.131).

This book may interest a variety of audiences. The book can be used as reference for anyone interested in conducting food studies, especially food studies of South Asia or a text for teaching courses related to food studies, food and hospitality, or post-colonial studies. It is useful not only because of its rich content but also for the research methods employed. The idea of food having “agency” can also be further utilized by policy makers to look at the collaborative work food performs (in the creation of normality/non-normality), and to devise food relief policies related to the assembled world of the people the policies seek to address (P.166).

Janeja provided the reader with an innovative account of the everyday foodscape of Bengali life, challenging readers to think about food differently and understand the power and ability of food to control and shape our identity, environment, and the creation of normality/non normality in our everyday lives. However, the prose of this book is pretty dense and inundated with footnotes, which makes it more accessible to academic audiences. The frequent use of Bengali quotes and phrases throughout the book enriches the ethnographic description, but will occasionally distract the reader.

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Lentil Underground


Ellen Messer
Tufts University


Carlisle, Liz. Lentil Underground. Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America. NY: Gotham Books, 2015.

Lentil Underground is a book that many of us have been waiting for: a readable, journalistic rather than staid academic account of U.S. farmers’ struggle to create a mainstream organic, multi-crop alternative to conventional and genetically-engineered, monocrop agriculture. The story interweaves a triple interpretative biography of the farmers, the plant varieties in ecosystems, and their struggling but ultimately successful business, Timeless Seeds. It constructs the history of this Montana organic agricultural business through the life stories of its diverse and colorful members, the new-old seeds and biodiverse agro-ecological products and practices they re-pioneered, and the collective material- and information-sharing they achieved through collective action and networking. The narrative begins in 1974 and traces a developmental, alternative agricultural path that roughly parallels the Green Revolution and its successor Green-Gene Revolution, the mainstream energy- and chemical-intensive agricultures, through 2014. The experiences of the farmers, researchers, and business interests who jointly made these organic activities happen, provide additional shining testimonies to the role of government in encouraging or discouraging a healthier, more resilient rural environment and economy in an era of Big Agriculture, big corporate lobbying interests, and big risks for farmers facing uncertain natural and economic climates that put many conventional agriculturalists out of business.

The author, a product of University of California at Berkeley’s agro-ecological, sustainable-food, and writing programs (think Miguel Altieri, Alice Waters, and Michael Pollan), dedicated three years to interviewing the principals and telling their individual, family, and networking stories. These colorful, dedicated, and resourceful characters, almost all of whom originally come from Montana farming backgrounds, include founding family farmer, Dave Oien, a philosophy and religious studies major who then contributed agroecology and business as assets to transform and manage their family farm and Jerry Habets, who backed into lentils and organic farming when he could not afford the chemicals necessary to continue conventional farming. Others are Casey Bailey, whose diverse background in music, urban studies, Liberation Theology, and counter-cultural activism, made him an excellent candidate for diversified farming and associated collective decision-making, and Doug Crabtree and Anna Jones-Crabtree, who combined day-jobs that paid the bills and provided medical benefits with their passion, organic farming. Their politics range from right-wing libertarian to left wing progressive and this is Carlisle’s point: there is considerable diversity in the politics of the organic farming movement. Seasoning this mix are also heroic plant breeders and ecologists, who provide biological and physical (soils) information and materials to assist and improve organic operations.

Carlisle correctly realized that careful, qualitative, investigative research could document how U.S. and state government investments and regulations at multiple levels helped or hindered a more diversified agriculture, and what farmer-led actions could contribute to sustainability — farming and livelihoods — which was everyone’s value. The additional insights she gained over the course of these interviews concern the human community and what Frances Moore Lappe, in various food writings, has termed “living democracy.” Timeless Seeds constructed its network and thrived because it made human community an integral component of its sustainability vision. Their combined collective, seed, and farmer biographies also offer an argument against the growing preference for “local” food and agriculture, as the markets that make this regional success story possible illustrate another kind of globalization — from the grass-roots. All could agree that agricultural business-as-usual was not working for farmers like them or farms like theirs, and found that they needed grassroots organizations to support and voice their collective commitment to organic, multi-crop, and pluralistic botanical and social alternatives. They also required government support for research and organic-friendly regulations to make their enterprises viable. On these government agendas they have been partly successful in winning some dedicated (rather than “bootlegged”) funding for soils and pest research that will provide an evidence base for optimal, multi-crop organic management strategies. They have also managed to acquire some farmer protection against lawsuits should licensed GMO seeds incidentally rather than intentionally sprout in their fields, and bans on GMO wheat until such time as their Asian markets agree to accept this product.

The text is beautifully crafted to let the voices of the farmer families speak for themselves, and in the process recount the sorry history and ecology of US agriculture. Some are the children of family farmers, who followed US Department of Agriculture guidelines, investing yearly in ever higher priced seeds, energy, machinery, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides but regularly losing crops to bad weather, poor soils, or evolving pests. They found the only protection temporarily rescuing them from penury was government crop insurance or payments. So long as they followed the rules (monocropping with chemicals), the government payments at least partially bailed them out. But most years, this was not a living and future prospects were bleak. Both the soils and the human beings who worked them were exhausted, their health eroding from chemical poisons. The older generation despaired of leaving their farming legacy to their offspring. This next generation, however, a group of rugged and well-read individualists, nevertheless learned to apply modern scientific understandings of their more diversified agricultural past, and also created the kind of community that shares and helps each other overcome isolation, trauma, and risks. These social as well as agri-technical developments are clearly showcased in the stories of farmers’ improvement clubs, where new farmers could present and help solve each other’s problems, and ultimately stay in business. Their stories convincingly show that American rural life might yet thrive, based on the vision and determination of these fully dedicated but for economic reasons, part-time farmers.

As a text for teaching, I find author Liz Carlisle and her subjects are at their best when they are assessing the tradeoffs, and sometimes the ironies of their situations. Most of these tradeoffs concern economics and politics. Slowly, these new “weed” farmers, who know Montana farming can’t continue to practice business as usual because the older generation is going broke, learn to experiment first with new cover crops and green manure species, and only later add forage, feed, and food into the mix to make their farming operations viable. Although throughout this multi-decade learning process, individual farmers and the group as a whole learn to value organic agriculture by assessing energy saved and chemical expenditures avoided, they need crops they can sell at a premium if farming households are to survive. As Timeless Seeds moves into new legumes, in new combinations, and sometimes in combination with other “heritage” seeds such as purple barley, emmer (farro), and spelt, or more common grains and livestock that have the added value that they are produced and certified organic, the instigators find they must learn business skills and spend increasing time on administration and marketing.

These learning curves, which demonstrated that Timeless needed to have multiple crops and not rely on single buyers, proved as challenging as the field and processing skills they accumulated and shared over time. The cases developing markets for “new” legumes such as French green lentils (a one-time shot with Trader Joe’s) and “Beluga” black lentils (promoted by one particular high-end chef and then marketed through his client networks) are particularly instructive. Although most participating farmers entered organic farming with idealistic values that they were going to save the land and the population’s health, they find that some of their best customers are Asian nutrition supplement businesses, who turn their high-protein legumes into biochemicals that feed highly industrialized animal operations or high-income consumers. As one farmer opines: this is not why she signed up to work hundreds of hours each week, instead of living a normal professional life with a vacation house and time.

Another trade-off concerns government payments: was the goal to get government off or on the farmers’ backs? As organic farmers sought answers to agronomic questions, could they get equal funding for organic (as compared with conventional) agriculture, or create commodity check off payments that would help educate and promote organic production and consumption? Another effort was to access crop insurance, because, while organic production helped cool and sequester moisture in soils, it did not make one immune to natural weather disasters, which include not only ferociously dry, high temperature seasons, but also untimely rain and hail that can devastate harvests. A third was access to health insurance, because health problems posed a big barrier to sustainable farmers, who usually needed one fully employed spouse with benefits to make sure medical bills were covered. Although networked farmers did very well at sharing experiences and taking care of each other, these grassroots approaches, sadly, could not solve all their problems; they still needed government assistance.

Carlisle and her sources, significantly, also raise some unanswered questions. For example, how should farmers calculate returns on crops, when there are so many different species and varieties, and some of the returns are multi-year contributions to soil structural health and fertility, or plant-community based resilience to crop-specific pests, or simply long-term human health? Is there a more complex answer to the question, can GE ever contribute to soil conservation and restoration when soils and multi-crop ecology are so complex and genetic technologies treat one gene or gene-to-gene interaction at a time? The beauty of this text as an information source and teaching tool is that these questions are raised, and suggest plenty of directions for further research and discussion. It would serve well as a basic supplementary text in U.S. agricultural and food systems and policy courses at undergraduate through graduate levels. It would also make a terrific addition to the reading library of any organic gardener or consumer. Finally, to increase comprehensibility, there is an introductory map of Montana locating all the farms, towns, and major transportation routes mentioned in the text, and a glossary, defining key environmental, economic, and social-political concepts. The book is very beautifully produced, with botanical images and easily readable type in multiple gray to black shades. There is, alas, no index.

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Southern Provisions

Ellen Messer
Tufts University

southern provisions cover

Shields, David S. (2015) Southern Provisions.  The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Did you ever wonder where Carolina Gold Rice and other southern rices come from? Or what kinds of beans and peas, root vegetables and herbs, were typical of these “lowcountry” cuisines, and how these products were introduced and integrated?  Do you care about regional U.S. cooking and revivals, and the place of culinary history in such constructions or reconstructions?  Then this is the book for you.  The author, who is the principal of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, which provides the seeds for this Carolina Gold Rice and southern culinary revival, has done exhaustive research.  He documents how scholars and food professionals and amateurs interested in rediscovering the flavors of traditional southern dishes worked from cookbooks, gardening records, and other historical culinary documents to create the historical “table” of 18th and 19th century southern cuisine, and then went about the arduous but ultimately rewarding tasks of finding the food varieties that farmers could plant and harvest to make these reconstructions possible.  This reversal of the usual “farm to table” mantra is supremely effective as an organizing tool, as the first half of the volume describes the history, institutions, concepts and methods, and the second half charts, crop by crop, the findings, which allow the understanding of cookery, gardening, field crops, and meals to inform the recovery of seeds, soil and water conditions, that revive the historical flavors and values of these foods and combinations.  The sheer diversity of plant materials is daunting.  In the earlier chapters, Shields lists the historical seed sources for 31 different varieties of beans, 37 different varieties of peas, 24 different kinds of turnips, ten different broccolis (white, purple, and green), and so on, although he finds evidence of only one potato and and a single tomato variety.  The seeds for these various crops came from Europe, the Northeast (NY) or in some cases, fellow southerners.  But the point is to recover and revive the foods, not only the seed sources.

I was particularly interested in Carolina Gold Rice, which must be distinguished from the modern GMO Golden Rice prototype, where the golden color permeates the edible seed. Using modern genetic mapping technologies, scientists have now traced Carolina Gold’s genealogy to a variety in Ghana, although the route by which this rice reached the Carolinas is open to interpretation.  The Carolina rice’s husk is gold, as are the (unhusked) seeds.  After reviving this variety, the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation also revived an aromatic Charleston Gold Rice, which is similarly attractive in basic characteristics and adds scent.  Alongside these varieties, Shields sorts out the many European, Asian, and African sources that contributed to the South’s seed selections; their agronomic (productivity) and flavor (all sensory) profiles, as these influenced the rice preferences of producers, cooks, and consumers.  An indication of the precise, sensory-rich, detailed writing is the description, that “Gold seed yielded more per acre than the Piedmontese rice, exceeded it for pearly translucence,and surpassed it in lustrous mouth feel and wholesome taste” (p.237).  Knowledgeable cooks could furthermore distinguish the particular places or farms that produced their rice, which carried the very distinctive flavors of their soils and river-water of origin.  The reader also learns that this rice must be produced organically; additional enrichment of soils with chemical fertilizers will cause the rice vegetation to grow weedy and the seed heads plus stalks to lodge and fall over.  The reader also learns about weedy rice pests, especially red rice, which effectively competes with the cultigen, and the low-tech ways farmers must distinguish rice seed with lower or higher weed seeds by visually sampling and inspecting their contamination, or later invest significant manual labor in weeding.  Numerous historical supply notes and recipes indicate that white rice, as a staple food, was often paired with hominy (corn grits) and pulses (peas or beans). Rice furthermore served as a major ingredient in breakfast foods, in addition to later-day meals, at a time, prior to the technology of puffing rice for breakfast cereals, when the first major meal of the workday demanded hearty fare.  Additional chapters give similarly detailed histories of sugar cane, sorghum, oil, and peanuts, with a final concluding chapter returning to the distinctive taste of the south’s distinctive white flint corn.

Reading these descriptions in the wake of Mark Schatzker’s illuminating accounts of the subtle chemistry of flavors (The Dorito Effect., NY: Simon & Schuster, 2015) helps add to understandings of the agronomic as well as genetics of rice varieties and their sensory attributes.

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