Category Archives: economics

Smokin’ Fish, Smokin’ Culture

by David Beriss

Is it possible to be an authentic Indian in a society overrun with tourists who want to buy bits and pieces of Indian culture? Are those bits and pieces authentic if they are manufactured in Asia? How can people maintain their traditional foodways if the government forbids them from catching enough fish? Can a balance be found between the needs of native fishers and public policies designed to preserve fisheries? Is there room for any kind of distinctive cultural identity in a globalized, touristic, heavily regulated society like that of the contemporary United States? Also, are salmon some sort of deity?

Cory Mann. Photo from Native American Public Communications.

These are the kinds of questions raised by the fascinating film “Smokin’ Fish.” The documentary is the result of a collaboration between Luke Griswold-Tergis and Cory Mann. Having finished an undergraduate degree in anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, Griswold-Tergis set off to Alaska, where he met Mann. Mann is just the kind of person who makes it hard to define culture. He is Tlingit and an entrepreneur with a business designing tchotchkes based on native Alaskan designs. His products are manufactured in Asia for resale in Alaska. Yet even as he pursues his global efforts at mass marketing native culture, he is also deeply engaged in exploring his own cultural identity. The collaboration between Griswold-Tergis and Mann has produced “Smokin’ Fish,” a documentary that explores the connections between native culture, global capitalism, colonialist exploitation of indigenous people, the environment, sustainable fishing and entrepreneurialism. Oh, and smoked salmon. And bears.

Smoking Fish. Photo from Native American Public Communications.

Mann seems to be quite a dynamic entrepreneur, pursuing several different business ventures at any given time, most with some sort of tie-in to Tlingit culture. But for a few months each summer, he closes things down in Juneau and heads back to Klukwan, where his extended family lives. There he works with members of his clan to catch and smoke salmon. The fish, both alive and smoked, are central to the film’s story. Mann asserts at various points that Tlingit worship the fish. The smokehouses they build seem central to their foodways. But this is not all about subsistence fishing. Some Tlingit engage in what appears to be commercial fishing. The smoked fish are also used in trade with other native Alaskans.

The film subtly weaves in the kind of ethnographic details that highlight what is distinctive—and unexpected—about contemporary Tlingit life. Mann explains that his mother took him to San Diego as a small child, where they lived what seems like a counter-cultural kind of life, more hippy than Indian. He never knew his father, who was white. At some point an aunt retrieved him and brought him back to Alaska, where he was raised by a large group of female relatives. This makes sense since, as Mann points out, the Tlingit are matrilineal. It is that kind of detail, along with discussions of clans and houses (Mann is a member of the Eagle Thunderbird Clan) and about the ways in which people build and maintain relationships (by helping build and maintain smokehouses, for instance), that remind us that even in a society heavily dominated by Euro-American values, groups like the Tlingit retain at least some aspects of cultural distinctiveness.

At the same time, the Tlingit continue to struggle with their relationship with non-native authorities. They must deal with the limits on fishing imposed by the state of Alaska, including both licenses and limits that would make it impossible for them to catch enough fish to meet their needs (these are very much ongoing debates, if recent news out of Alaska is any indication). The conflict here surpasses any kind of stereotypes about native relationships with the environment vs. rapacious outsiders. The Tlingit are presented as complex people with interests in salmon that are both traditional and commercial, not as natural environmentalists. Mann also must struggle with federal tax authorities, who do not seem to understand the unusual way in which he runs his business. He has to deal with border officials, as he goes to visit and trade with other natives in nearby Canada. I should note that he does all this while displaying a wry sense of humor and while using an astonishing array of vehicles, all of which appear to be in dire need of repair.

Filmed mostly in Alaska, much of the movie is quite breathtaking. Mann does his fishing from a canoe, in areas of stunning natural beauty. There is an amazing number of eagles flying around the region, as well as both brown and grizzly bears competing with the people for the fish. In addition, members of Mann’s extended family provide a wide range of additional voices, commenting on the history of native/nonnative relations, the exploitation of Tlingit lands, and the challenges they face in maintaining any kind of attachment to their heritage.

The movie is currently traveling around the U.S. Details on where it may go next can be found here. The filmmakers have a Facebook page as well. “Smokin’ Fish” would make a very useful addition to a variety of anthropology courses, including any food and culture course, as well as introductory cultural anthropology classes, courses on indigenous cultures or even on globalization. It can be used to start discussions on food, kinship, identity and, of course, culture. I recommend, however, making sure you have some smoked fish on hand when you show it. The audience will be hungry.

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Filed under Alaska, anthropology, culture, economics, film, fish, food security, hunting, indigenous people, media, seafood, sustainability

Dreamworlds of the Store-Bought Loaf

guest post by Aaron Bobrow-Strain, as part of his White Bread Blog tour!

“And which side does an object turn toward dreams?…It is the side worn through by habit and patched with cheap maxims.” —Walter Benjamin, “Dream Kitsch

 Walk through the fluorescent arcades of a Safeway or Kroger’s and pick out a loaf of sliced white bread.  It is a fossil—the chemically preserved remnant of lost utopias and unrealized apocalypses. This is not to say that all the other breads—the six grains, the twelve grains, the Vienna hearths, the sprouted oats, and store-brand baguettes—reflect progress toward more enlightened eating.  They don’t, necessarily.  Nor is it to suggest that people don’t make new meanings out of industrial white bread.  They do.  What is lost is the shining aura that once surrounded this loaf.

“One for every family…every day,” c. 1955

If you look hard enough, though, you can still see material traces—in the loaf’s shape, structure, and contents—of a time when people in the United States got more calories from this one item than any other food; a time when the perfect, homogenous slice of spectacularly white bread embodied dreams of a stronger nation, vigorous health, and social status—alongside nightmares of “over-civilization” and moral decline.

“Science finds that white bread helps develop criminals,” 1929

I wrote a history of America’s most iconic industrial food because I wanted to understand how one food could inspire so much affection and so much animosity.
The result—White Bread—is a book about one commodity that has played an incredibly important, and largely unnoticed, role in American politics, diet, culture, and food reform movements.  But it is not another story of how one food “saved the world.”  Rather, it’s a history of the countless social reformers, food experts, industry executives, government officials, diet gurus, and ordinary eaters who have thought that getting Americans to eat right bread (or avoid the wrong bread) could save the world—or at least restore the country’s moral, physical, and social fabric.  Sadly, this turned out to be the difficult story of how, time and time again, well-meaning efforts to change the country through its bread ended up reinforcing forms of race, class, and gender exclusion—even when they achieved much needed improvements in America’s food system.

Anyone paying attention to the rising cries for slow, local, organic, and healthy food today will find the trials and tribulations of one hundred-fifty years of battles over bread surprisingly contemporary.  In them, you will see all the contradictory expressions of our own food concerns: uplifting visions of the connection between good food and healthy communities, insightful critiques of unsustainable status quos, great generosity of spirit, and earnest desires to make the world a better place—but also rampant elitism, smug paternalism, misdirected anxieties, sometimes neurotic obsessions with health, narrow visions of what counts as “good food,” and open discrimination against people who choose “bad food.”

Fluffy white industrial bread may be about as far from the ideals of slow, local, organic, and health food reformers as you can get today.  But, in many ways, we owe its very existence and deep cultural significance to a string of just as well-meaning efforts to improve the way America ate.  Perhaps learning this history can help us avoid the pitfalls of the past.

“I want to know where my bread comes from!” 1929

Aaron Bobrow-Strain is the author of White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf (Beacon 2012) and Intimate Enemies: Landowners, Power, and Violence in Chiapas (Duke 2007).  His writing on the cultural politics of food has also appeared in Gastronomica, The Believer, and The Chronicle of Higher Education Review.

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Filed under book reviews, culture, economics, food security, Food Studies, history, nutrition

Dumpster-Divers and the Smoothies of Wrath

by David HGB Giles,
Fellow, Society of Scholars, Simpson Center for the Humanities
Doctoral Candidate, Department of Anthropology
University of Washington, Seattle

My favourite Dumpster is locked.

I’ve been coming here for a few years, but now the lid is closed, and there’s a cable lock threaded through it to keep scavengers out. Scavengers like me.

The author researches the Burrito Dumpster, 2011.

Until now, I’ve poked happily about in the soggy detritus without obstacle. Hiding in plain sight at the end of a gravel driveway, outside the chain-link fence of a warehouse in Seattle’s industrial district, the Dumpster always promised at least a few unopened bottles of top-dollar organic fruit smoothies to the intrepid Dumpster-diver. Mango Madness. Orange Carrot. Hermetically sealed and conserved by Seattle’s frigid night air, they were nonetheless too close to their sell-by dates to be worth shipping, so they ended up here. On the right night, there were hundreds of them. There probably still are.

So why lock them up? My research with Dumpster-divers and grocers in Seattle and other cities around the US, Canada, and Australasia, explores the politics and the cultural economy of waste—particularly food waste. It echoes John Steinbeck’s dry observation of depression-era surplus and scarcity in The Grapes of Wrath: “The works of the roots of the vines, of the trees, must be destroyed to keep up the price.” According to the USDA, for example, 5.4 billion pounds of unspoiled food are discarded by US merchants each year. A simple thought experiment and some rudimentary economics suggest that, if these edible surpluses were given away indiscriminately, the principles of supply and demand would undercut food prices. To paraphrase Steinbeck: Who would pay five dollars for a smoothie when they could pull ten of them out of the trash for nothing? In other words, what we throw away remains significant in its absence.

Of course, Dumpsters are not locked out of sheer Machiavellian cunning. Nor is food discarded with a calculating twirl of the capitalist’s moustache. Rather, food is wasted because it circulates according to its exchange value rather than its use value. Eleven perfectly good eggs and one cracked one are no longer legible in the way an intact dozen is, for example. And a bruised apple merely takes up space on a shelf next to another perfect one. A thing’s exchange value is, by definition, reckoned through comparisons. The apple that won’t sell, or won’t sell quickly enough, disappears from the shelves to make room for newer stock. So right up until the point of sale (or disposal), its value is virtual. Like Schrodinger’s cat, its fate waits upon one decisive moment.

Of course, what makes that moment decisive is the finality of the Dumpster—the “point of no return” in the social life of a thing. In other words, most people are averse to digging through the trash. And for this reason, businesses often don’t see a need to lock up their waste. Increasingly, however, Dumpster-divers are showing up on their radar. For many of Seattle’s Dumpster-divers, for example, the aforementioned “Juice Dumpster” had become as much a household name as the company’s brand name itself. (Along with the “Chocolate Dumpster,” the “Burrito Dumpster,” etc.) Until now, they didn’t trouble the distributor enough to lock it up. I’ve known Dumpster-divers to openly clamber into it in front of the employees—I even once met a sanitation worker who saved some bottles for himself before emptying the rest into his garbage truck. However the popularity of this Dumpster has grown over the four years in which I’ve been conducting this research. And recently, a threshold has been crossed. Dumpster-divers I have interviewed in other cities have told me similar stories—of certain Dumpsters’ high profile and their consequent enclosure.

The proliferation of locked Dumpsters, then, may be proportional to the growing public profile of Dumpster-divers’ cultural and political activities in general. From the appearance of subcultures like freeganism which embrace Dumpster-diving, squatting, and other modes of surplus living, to movements like Food Not Bombs and Occupy Wall Street which depend on free access to food, space, and other resources to take direct political action, urban scavengers represent an ongoing effort to turn commercial waste into new kinds of food sovereignty, non-market value, and political influence.

This raises a variety of questions about the ways in which businesses, governments, and the scavengers will respond to each other. It seems likely that more Dumpsters will be locked up, for one thing. In turn, Dumpster-divers have always been creative about gaining entry. They’re bound to become more creative. I’m left wondering what will become of my favourite Dumpster.

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Filed under anthropology, economics, food policy, food security, Food waste, garbage, markets, SAFN Member Research

Food Stamped, The Documentary

by Janet Chrzan

A few days ago I provided a shout-out about Food Stamped to several listserves (including SAFN). In that email I wrote:

“I’d like to provide a big shout-out for the recent documentary “Food Stamped.”

It’s a movie made by a couple in Berkeley about trying to live on a food stamp budget. She teaches food education and healthy eating in elementary schools. In the movie they interview quite a lot of folks about food stamp use, from people reliant upon them to members of congress. It’s 1 hour long, which makes it do-able for many classrooms.

I particularly liked their relatively non-judgmental attitude about food choice, especially since they live in Berkeley (epicenter of foodie-ism) and were shopping at the Berkeley Bowl and Adronico’s, my old stomping grounds. In other words, they come from an area that in my experience is very, very judgmental about food choice, yet much of that is left out or reflected upon in a meaningful manner by the filmmakers. They discussed the issues of ‘healthy choice’ within the context of budget constraints in a way that was very accessible and allows for a great deal of classroom discussion, especially since they lay out their own biases verbally so that the viewer can understand how they are thinking through the issues.

A particularly strong scene involved trying to feed a Shabbat guest on a budget, since they made the comment that all people like to have guests and be social, and so it’s important to think about how food poverty affects social opportunities.”

The responses to my post have been interesting, from emails from people who have seen the film (and like it) to a spirited discussion initiated by a fellow who, having seen the short trailer (and only the short trailer), wrote a couple of long emails about how the filmmakers had essentially gotten it all wrong, although bully for the effort. This prompted a civil response from the filmmakers (delivered by an intermediary) to which our fellow responded yet again, with the same basic message. He did mean well, but his response demonstrated just how contentious food issues can be, even for people who more-or-less agree with each other.

The bottom line? This film uses the idea of a low budget (in this case, one derived from food stamp benefits) to explore eating healthy on a small and fixed income. The filmmakers use themselves as guinea pigs and rely on realistic cinema techniques to demonstrate to the viewer how they think through and act upon trying to eat on a restricted budget. They discuss the process with people from the community, lawmakers, and those reliant on food stamps.  Of particular interest to them is how people can eat a healthy diet and remain healthy on such a restricted budget, and they focus on the ugly fact that cheap food is often unhealthy, yet within the budgets of the poor. With this frame they examine school food and the decisions made by school administrators about how to feed children. They are refreshingly free of anger, judgmental attitudes, and smugness throughout the film which is yet another reason that I think it’s an effective teaching tool.

A few of the discussion points that I intend to raise in class after showing this film include:

  • What is a healthy diet? Is their ‘healthy diet’ your ‘healthy diet’?
  • How much do we each spend on food weekly/monthly?
  • How and why is healthy food more expensive than unhealthy food, according to the movie?
  • Do you find that to be the case when you shop?
  • What are the aims of the Food Stamp program?
  • Are families meant to survive on a Food Stamp budget, or are there assumptions built into the calculations that posit other food income as well?
  • Do we as a society, acting through our government, have an ethical responsibility to make sure people can eat? Why or why not?
  • If you were a nutritionist and were advising a diabetic client on Food Stamps what would you suggest he/she eat and why? How would you work out a budget with that client?
  • Do you have the skills to shop and cook as wisely and carefully as Shira and Yoav did?
  • Do you know enough about food and cooking to live on a diet of beans and rice?
  • What kind of knowledge do you need to acquire in order to feel comfortable about planning meals on a small budget?

Obviously, these are just my first thoughts and jottings about how to use the film in teaching. But part of the reason that I think it’s such a valuable film is that I realized that I have NO IDEA what I spend on a weekly or monthly basis for food for my husband and myself. I have a big freezer and tend to plan and buy so that my larder (protein and grains/beans) can feed us for several weeks without shopping; only vegetables and dairy are purchased on a weekly basis (and at a pretty reasonable farmers’ market). My meat is all pastured, as are eggs and dairy, so I know I spend more per pound than most Americans. However, we also eat less meat/dairy than most carnivores so I figure it evens out. And I like rice and beans, and eat that way by preference, while I know that most Americans prefer meat to beans and prepared carbs to simple grains. I do know how to budget, I do know how to cook and I never waste food (because I am really, really cheap), but I am quite sure that eating on a food stamp budget would be difficult indeed.

The other discussion point – and I’m not yet sure how to frame these questions – is tied to the assumptions and contentions about food choice, knowledge and capacities. I am often gobsmacked by the tendency of food people to insist that their way – and only their way – is the good way to eat. Obviously, I like this movie because the filmmakers don’t do that… but the Listserve response has had a wee tinge of that sentiment. Food is so personal and intimate, and choice so tied to identity (especially in our capitalistic society) that people are naturally heavily invested in justifying their choices as ‘good better BEST!’ to themselves and others. But seriously, the vehemence that many bring to this issue baffles me. Somehow, I suspect that this film – and the student response to it – will allow us to discuss this difficult issue in the classroom. And I hope by doing so the students are able to begin to glimpse how their biases channel their beliefs about food and nutriture.

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Filed under anthropology, economics, film, food policy, food security, Food Studies, nutrition, reviews

Strained Yogurt and People In Greece

by Leo Vournelis

The former district governor Macedonia escorted away after having yogurt thrown at him in during a public speech.

This past weekend another prominent politician became the victim of “yaourtoma”. This time it was the minister of the Department of Interior, Haris Kastandidis. The minister was at a movie theater in his district in Thessaloniki (Greece’s second largest city) and was watching a movie when a group of angry college students burst in on the theater and threw yogurt at the minister protesting the government’s austerity measures and handling of the economic crisis (click here for video footage). The minister attempted to confront the students without success and had to be escorted away by his security guards.

Even though there is no cultural tradition of “food fighting” in Greece, the act of throwing yogurt at people is not without precedent. Rebel youths in the early 60s in Athens were infamous for throwing yogurt at unsuspecting bystanders. The act became known as “yaourtoma”, and to “yogurt someone” meant to hit someone (usually in the face) with a small yogurt cup. It became such a wide spread phenomenon that harsh laws were passed in an attempt to stop it. The State voted the notorious “Law 4000” that penalized the act with public humiliation. The perpetrators, referred to at the time as Teddy Boys,

Youth being made to march under police escort in the streets of Athens carrying a sign that identifies him as a “Teddy Boy” guilty of throwing yogurt at people (circa 1960).

had their heads shaved and were paraded in public holding signs proclaiming their “crime” for all to see. The act of “yaourtoma” was featured in the Greek cinema of the time, with most movies portraying those engaging in such behavior as alienated youth in need of a more traditional moral code.

During the past few decades “yaourtoma” had become a rare phenomenon. When committed it was usually against a public figure, and media, politicians, and public opinion most of the time condemned it as an inappropriate act committed by fringe elements.  The last 2 years, however, throwing yogurt at representatives of the government has taken on epidemic proportions. The vast majority of the cases involve politicians, mostly from the ruling party. A traditional variety of Greek yogurt, made from sheep’s milk, is the most common food item used in public acts of indignation and resistance, although occasionally eggs and tomatoes have been used in a similar manner. Unlike the rebel youth in the 60s, modern yogurt throwing is popular with Greek men and women of all ages.  It is not uncommon to see students marching with bags of yogurt cups ready to be thrown at a politician or at a police officer. Quite often retirees indignant at the government’s austerity measures that have had a significant negative impact on their pensions use yogurt against politicians and members of the Greek security forces. At the height of the Greek economic crisis “yaourtoma” went mainstream. It has become so common an act of public indignation that this past week, Socratis Ksynidis,  the vice minister of the Department of Development and Competition, in an interview in one of the most popular radio stations argued that “yaourtoma” is an appropriate “punishment” for the government’s (failed) policies. In addition, the archbishop of the city of Giannena –one of the largest cities in Greece- gave his blessing to those who engage in “yaourtoma” arguing that it is a just course of action. There is even a Facebook page called De-criminalize Yiaourtoma and a word search on Greek online Press reveals a great number of “yaourtoma” incidents this past year, almost all involving either politicians or members of the Greek security apparatus (police officer, special strike forces etc.).

To understand why yogurt is the favorite item to be used as a projectile we need to look at the association it has with Greek ethnic identity. The sheep’s milk yogurt in question belongs to a category of objects (feta cheese, olive oil, etc.) that are strongly associated with rurality and by extension with Greekness. Rurality has long been a target of objectification and fetishization in the service of national identity projects. Moreover, certain food items through everyday practices lend themselves to closer associations with ethnicity. We saw that in the incident in the Greek Parliament last week discussed in my previous post, the Chairman in his comment associated milk and bread with rurality but the MP’s actions linked those very same items with gender and class identity.

The polluting power of food running down someone’s head and clothes identifies “yaourtoma” as a symbolic act of indignation that aims to ridicule and punish those whom the public considers guilty of government cronyism, incompetency, and the continuing mismanagement of the Greek economy. Paying attention to what the demonstrators themselves have to say about the economic crisis brings us closer to understanding why yogurt is the preferred food to be used as projectile. During the past year the crisis deepened and it became increasingly obvious that the austerity program was not working.  The government responded with more and stricter austerity measures, under the direction of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), its European equivalent, the EFSF, and the European Commission, the three agencies in charge of the Greek bailout program headed by the IMF. Since the beginning of the crisis these agencies have pressured the government towards a restructuring of the Greek economy based on classic neo-liberal economic principles: reduction of the welfare state, privatization of public services, market deregulation, and lowering wage labor cost. This has been presented to the public as strategy to make the Greek economy more competitive by increasing its exports and revenue and eventually reducing its deficit to manageable levels. In fact these policies, along with the over-taxation of the working class, have led to a deeper recession and reduced standards of living for millions of people. Although, the three agencies in charge of the bailout program have come to be called the Troika, most people refer to the functionaries of these agencies as Troikanoi, an adjective that indicates a person of foreign ethnic or national origins.

During the past year, more and more people who had never before protested in public are finding themselves in the streets demonstrating against the austerity measures based on IMF policies. They are also protesting against a neo-liberal vision of society that they judge to be foreign and incompatible with the local moral economy. Many do not share the IMF’s vision of a country with flexible labor laws, low wages, and high unemployment always ready to provide a work force at a very low cost. The fact that yogurt is strongly associated with ethnic identity has its significance since the victims of “yaourtoma” are the representatives and implementers of policies and ideologies considered to be hostile and foreign. Furthermore, the physicality of the contact between yogurt and the bodies of those doing the throwing and those getting targeted is one way to engender resistance to the foreign and hostile nature of the IMF’s vision for Greece, by literally covering the representatives of these policies in the viscous Greekness of sheep’s milk yogurt. In the video footage showing the students throwing yogurt at the minister of the Department of Interior Affairs the students’ angry comments are clearly audible: “You have ruined our lives! You have condemned us to unemployment! Aren’t you ashamed? You need to leave Greece! All of you need to leave Greece”. A type of yogurt with strong associations to ethnic identity, Greek rural life, and social values embodies the radical clash between the protesters’ vision of a growing economy regulated by a competent and just welfare State and the IMF’s vision of Greece, which as the adjacent political cartoon published this week indicates, is for many Greeks alien and monstrous.

“Do not open the door. The milkman migrated to Australia yesterday”. The alien monster at the other side of the door bears the name “Troika” on its head and the word “Government” on its tail with the head of the Greek Prime minister at the tip of the tail.

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Filed under anthropology, culture, Debt crisis, economics, food policy, food security, Greece, protest

Bread, Milk, and the Greek Parliamentary Record

by Leo Vournelis

Liana Kaneli, image provided by the author.

Two weeks ago the Greek government announced a new round of austerity measures targeted primarily at civil servants, wage earners, retirees, and low middle class families. The picture above shows Liana Kaneli, a member of the Greek Communist Party, addressing her fellow MPs in the Greek Parliament during that same week (you can see a video of her speaking here). As she approached the podium carrying a plastic grocery bag, she requested that her entire speech be recorded to the Parliamentary Record (Praktika) “because she is a woman”. It is not clear if the MP meant that she is bringing in groceries to the Parliament floor because she is a woman, or because she is a woman she might otherwise be ignored if her speech is not recorded to the Parliamentary Record. Then she proceeded to remove a loaf of bread and a plastic bottle of milk and invited the audience’s attention with an expression commonly used in farmers markets by sellers trying to catch the attention of the shopping housewives. The MP wanted to make the point that these items are becoming increasingly unaffordable for large sections of the populace, however she was interrupted by the Chair of the Parliament and was told that food on the podium did not constitute imagery that was appropriate for the Greek Parliament, “otherwise I could bring some chickens in here and someone else can bring some sheep” said the Chairman. The MP sarcastically apologized for offending the dignity of the Parliament and for ruining the “décor” and proceeded to submit the food items to the Parliamentary Record.  Amidst protests from other MPs that physical objects may not be submitted to the Parliamentary Record, Kaneli removed the offending food items from the podium and after concluding her speech she walked away. The next day the Chairman of the Parliament issued a statement condemning the event as “political theater”, while the Greek Communist Party issued its own announcement supporting its member’s actions and, citing Bertolt Brecht, noted that “those who are in high places have always found talking about food to be demeaning”.

Perhaps Greek gender politics played into the fact that it was a female MP who chose to criticize government policy in the language of daily food shopping, yet heated discussions like these concerning the affordability of every day staples help us understand the serious economic hardships that many Greeks are facing. It is not surprising, therefore, that references to food are common in Greek public discourse about the crisis. When it first became clear, 2 years ago, that the Greek State was essentially broke, food was widely used as a metaphor in popular calls demanding accountability.  The question of “Who ate the money” was raised by people and politicians alike.  While eating money refers to irresponsible and wasteful spending of money, popular demands to know who it was that “ate the money” were essentially calls for justice. Politicians and state functionaries were called out for their mismanagement of the resources of the Greek economy. David Sutton in “Eating in Times of Financial Crisis” discusses the use of food as a theme in making sense of the debt crisis. He points out that although the economic crisis was not framed always in terms of food issues, food as a theme is becoming increasingly central in making sense and navigating the new economic realities in Greece.

The incident in the Greek Parliament last week shows the ability of food to embody value (a practical way to assess the rising cost of living) as well as values. The heated exchange between the MP and the Chairman was brought about by the polluting presence of food in a space in which political philosophies are debated and bills are voted on. During this exchange which lasted less than 3 minutes we witness, among other things, the power of food to embody meaning, provoke conflict, offend sensitivities, and express ideas about class and gender. Ultimately, this power is derived from the ability of food to bring together diverse cultural domains of experience and practice.

The associative powers of food can also help us understand another prominent use of food in the unfolding of the debt crisis. This past year thousands of Greeks have taken to the streets, following the example of the Indignados movement in Spain. They have used food as a tool, a physical object to be expelled en masse in public marches, protestations, and strikes usually against the police and politicians. The food most commonly used as a projectile is a traditional variety of Greek strained yogurt made from sheep’s milk that bears strong associations with rural lifestyles and values. When the Chairman wanted to mock MP Kaneli, he made reference to rurality through the not very subtle suggestion of bringing livestock into parliament. It is interesting to consider why references to rurality make up a key feature of popular protests as well. In my next post I’ll suggest some of the ways that exploring yoghurt as political protest provides provocative angles on some of the sources of discontent in contemporary Greece.

 

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Filed under anthropology, culture, Debt crisis, economics, food policy, food security, gender, Greece, SAFN Member Research

Eating in Times of Financial Crisis

File it under “strange and unusual.” That’s what Reuters did in putting up the photo of one of many Yemeni protestors who made the link between food and politics explicit. The usually stuffy journal Foreign Policy was also taking notice, as a “first-ever food issue” featured articles on “The Baguettes of War” and “Eat, Drink, Protest.” shows how unstrange and usual are the actual connections between food and protest.

Theodoros Pangalos, via http://en.contrainfo.espiv.net/

This is a picture of Thedoros Pangalos, the portly deputy prime minister of Greece who recently claimed that all Greeks have to pay for the current financial Crisis because “we all ate together.” This expression intrigued me, as it showed the different metaphors used in different countries in Europe to express the idea of sharing the blame. In Ireland, the claim was “we all partied,” whereas in the U.K. it was the more anodyne “we’re all in it together. The food theme, however, resonated in Greece. In Athens in May of this year protest over the so-called “debt and IVA crisis” was not framed explicitly in terms of food issues. Taking their inspiration from protestors in Spain, Greeks gathering in the central Constitution Square dubbed themselves the “outraged,” to express their frustration with a political system and a global economic system that had led the country to hopeless solutions that punished ordinary people without touching the wealthy that had brought the system to its current state. But protestors were quick to respond to Pangalos’ claim: after a man wearing a mask of the deputy prime minister repeated the line to the crowd of thousands, their response barely missed a beat: You lying bastard!” They roar back. “You’re so fat you ate the entire supermarket.”

During this time I was involved in my ongoing  research project on changing cooking practices on the island of Kalymnos, one of the Dodecanese islands in the Eastern Aegean. While there were not protests in the streets of Kalymnos as yet, the financial crisis was much on peoples minds as they commented sardonically on the exploits of Dominique Strauss-Kahn as Kalymnians went about their daily cooking,and shopping, or held debates via Facebook about the implications of the “Argentinian model” for Greek default. The implications of the crisis for food practices was seen in debates over whether “tradition” could see them through hard times, with some suggesting that a return to the “old days” of beans 5 days a week and everyone gardening was the proper response; and indeed, rumors were in the air that many Athenians were returning to their natal villages (or their parents or grandparents natal villages) to go back to the land. Others insisted that Kalymnians were now too addicted to meat to contemplate a different diet, but that the circulation of cheap cuts of meat due to the growth of multinational supermarkets on the island meant that people needed to be more calculating shoppers. This intrigued me because shopping  has always been a moral act on Kalymnos in which one balances obligations to friends and neighbors and the specific circumstances of shop owners—at this store, the parents were trying to send two kids to University, at that store the owners are Communist so they should/shouldn’t be supported—with a sense that good shoppers don’t allow themselves to be taken advantage of. Was a different social morality of shopping in the process of emerging? Not everything was “new” however, as many Kalymnians pointed out to me that the financial crisis had led to the return of the “debt” (verese) system of keeping books of accounts at small grocery stores, indeed this helped those smaller stores compete against the big supermarkets that didn’t offer such amenities. Debt with a small “d” meets debt with a capital “D” in contemporary times. Both for Kalymnians and for the Athenian protestors food remained a key idiom and practice to think through some of the outrages of our contemporary political-economic system, even sometimes in cannibalistic terms. As The Guardian reported:

Politicians now walk around with bodyguards,” says Aris Chatzistefanou, the co-director of Debtocracy, a film about the Greek crisis that has become a sensation. He quotes a newspaper report of how restaurateurs are taking down those cheesy framed photos of dining politicians, of how one government spokesman went to dinner a few weeks ago only for the rest of the restaurant to start shouting “You are eating the blood of the people”.

Comments by David Sutton

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Anthropological perspectives on migration, food and nutrition

Preparing injera, a transnational Ethiopian dietary staple

With the permission of the editors of Anthropology News, we republish SAFN’s monthly news column from that publication.  This is the May 2011 column, edited by Kenneth Maes and Alyson Young.

In this column we highlight a recently published NAPA Bulletin (vol 34), “Anthropological Perspectives on Migration and Health,” edited by SAFN President Craig Hadley. Articles in this volume address the diet and nutrition of various migrant groups that navigate complex and changing cultural, political and economic contexts.

Hadley’s introduction underlines that interactions between migration and health are highly complex. Anthropologists and allied health professionals have struggled with this complexity, hindered by the use of categorizations that obscure the heterogeneity between and within migrant populations; by imprecise proxy measures of acculturation, which are unable to specify mechanisms by which migration can impact health; and by too often focusing on the health impacts of individual-level agency and group-level cultural norms rather than on social inequalities and public policies that limit access to wealth and information.

Heide Castañeda provides a theoretical and methodological overview, asking what larger anthropological questions can be advanced by studying migrant health. She notes that the study of migrant health highlights global inequities related to labor and health care. The study of migration and health also encourages a rethinking of borders, connections and identities, and ideally forces anthropologists to consider how the knowledge they produce affects study participants and serves certain political agendas. Castañeda asserts that widespread reliance on charity clinics, volunteerism and humanitarian efforts for providing migrants with health care reflects that societies have become accustomed to inequality, and that states are unwilling to address “conflicting economic and political demands related to the continued need for certain forms of migrant labor” (p 20).

SAFN Treasurer Crystal Patil and colleagues report on exploratory ethnographic study of food access and diet among refugee groups of various African and Asian countries resettled in Midwestern US cities. The authors note that refugees face many challenges and opportunities as they transition from low-income contexts characterized by high mortality and low reliance on processed foods to high-income contexts characterized by low mortality and high reliance processed foods. Their ethnographic data suggest multiple ways in which “health and well-being are produced and eroded on arrival in the United States” (p 155), involving interactions among the resources and services available within environments of resettlement, migration geopolitics, the influences of peers, resettlement agencies and ethnocultural norms, as well as individual characteristics and household socioeconomic status.

Ramona Pérez, Margaret Handley and James Grieshop provide an account of the political, economic and nutritional implications of lead-contaminated ceramic cookware produced in Oaxaca, Mexico. This cookware is sent along with food care packages to migrant families in Monterey County, California through envios. In the late 1990s, the cookware was linked to lead toxicity resulting in gastrointestinal distress, severe headaches and malaise, which were detected among Mexican-American children seeking care at public clinics in Monterey County. In California, the public policy response was to conduct unannounced health inspections on businesses thought to be involved in the envios system, to confiscate food items and threaten to fine the businesses. This approach was perceived as akin to racial profiling and discrimination and drove some envios underground. In Mexico, the policy response has been largely nonexistent because Mexican officials do not consider lead exposure a significant problem. In addition, the Mexican state cannot afford to provide ceramic-producing communities with resources necessary for production techniques that do not require lead. Faced with these sensitive political and economic challenges, Pérez and colleagues decided that one way to address the health impacts of lead exposure was through nutritional programming in both Oaxaca and California. Promoting diets rich in calcium and iron can prevent the rapid absorption of lead. While this approach does not eliminate the problem, it “provides profound opportunity for a healthier life despite the lack of intervention by Mexican government officials and absence of community based health programming by health officials in the Monterey area” (p 120).

Other food and nutrition-focused articles in the volume include Horton and Barker’s on the diets and oral health statuses of Mexican immigrants and their children in California’s Central Valley; Dharod and Croom’s on the prevalence of child hunger among Somali refugee households in Lewiston, Maine; and Trapp’s on the implementation of the USDA and Office of Refugee Resettlement Food and Nutrition Outreach program.

Please send your news and items of interest to Kenneth Maes or Alyson Young.

Posted by Kenneth Maes.

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Cool tool to track food prices

The price of everything is getting higher and higher these days

– person in Jimma, Ethiopia.

A new tool gives a powerful way to examine food prices around the world and in regional markets. Such a tool is timely: Rising food prices have again been in the news. The FAO food price index, which hovered around 224 in 2008 when food riots dominated media headlines, is currently at 232. The Global information and Early Warning System (GIEWS) Food Price Tool is an easy to use online resource that allows one to track the prices of many different food across the world. I can imagine this would be useful for research and for teaching. For instance, students could explore the food crisis’ impact at specific sites, assess global variation in price fluctuations, track the transmission of global prices to regional markets, compare price differences in net food importing/food exporting countries, and assess variation within countries in market prices.

You can find the GIEWS Food Price Tool here.

Once at the site you’ll see a map with all of the sites where food price tracking is available. You’ll also find international pricing as well.

Clicking on the site of interest will bring you to a national level map and the various sites of data collection. Let’s look at Jimma, Ethiopia. Clicking on this site reveals that there are 10 food price series available including wheat, sorhgum, millet, and teff. Teff is an important component of the Ethiopian diet as is sorghum. Clicking on the teff option produces a time series figure of teff prices over the last three years. Two features immediately jump out from the figure. First is the rising prices beginning in late 2007 and peaking around mid-2008. Second, we see the “stickiness” of food prices: prices reach a new high but only decline a small amount before leveling off. You can add multiple commodities to the figure to compare prices, which gives some sense of how different commodity prices shift.

Another great feature of the tool is that for each food there is an information tab that gives locally relevant information on that food. For instance, for teff we learn:

“Series: Ethiopia, Jimma, Teff (mixed), Retail (Ethiopian Birr/Kg). Commodity Information: Teff (mixed). Preferred staple food in Ethiopia. Teff accounted for 12% of the total dietary energy supply (DES) in 2003-05. On average in 2004-08 per capita consumption (as food) of teff was 30 kg/yr. The self-sufficiency ratio of teff was 101%.”

The price trend for chickpeas, which also play a major role in Ethiopian cuisine (indeed the Information tab tell us: “Pulses are a major staple food used in traditional dish (Wot). Also a significant export crop. Pulses accounted for 5% of the total dietary energy supply  in 2003-05.”), also shows dramatic upward trends. Clearly, the informant whose statement opens this post knows what he’s talking about!

Users can also point and click their way to comparing price trends between two or more countries or sites within countries. This gives some sense for how regional grain markets move together or don’t. For instance, comparing the price of maize in the largest cities in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania reveals similarities and differences; the price of maize shows a much more pronounced spike in Ethiopia than in the neighboring countries.

Of course data are available for non-African countries as well. Wondering how the price of tortillas in Mexico is changing? Simply click on the map, navigate over to Mexico, find Mexico City and click tortillas. The result?  A tortilla crisis. Prices were high, dropped precipitously, and then rebounded with vigor.

The GIEWS Food Price Tool is fun to play around with and I expect will be useful for nutritional anthropologists for both teaching and research. There is much more that it can do and I would be keen to hear about other people’s experiences with its functionality and how they are using it in their teaching and research

– Craig Hadley

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Contaminated cuisines and the omnivore’s dilemma

The Egg of Death?

As a service to our readers and with the permission of the editors of Anthropology News, we have decided to republish each month’s SAFN column from that publication.  This, then, is the December 2010 column, edited by Kenneth Maes and Alyson Young.

Contaminated cuisines and the omnivore’s dilemma
By George Armelagos (Emory U) and Kenneth Maes (Brown U)

Much media and scholarly attention has been paid to obesity epidemics. More recently, worry over food safety in terms of pathogenic infection and toxicity has assumed prominence on par with concerns about over-nutrition. George Armelagos, Goodrich C. White Professor of Anthropology at Emory University and recipient of the AAA’S 2008 Franz Boas Award for Exemplary Service, recently took on both of these issues in an article published in the Journal of Anthropological Research (66[2]:161-186), entitled “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Evolution of the Brain and the Determinants of Food Choice.” The article critiques Michael Pollan’s popular book The Omnivore’s Dilemma for ignoring the importance of infectious epidemics caused by industrial food systems in the US. Below, George Armelagos and Kenneth Maes discuss the omnivore’s dilemma in light of last summer’s massive salmonella outbreak in the US egg supply.

Omnivores have a predilection for a varied diet, but this represents a challenge given that new foods are often feared for their potentially poisonous and deadly qualities. This is the omnivore’s dilemma: the confrontation between neophilia and neophobia.

The omnivore’s dilemma for our primate cousins is instructive. The rainforest may seem to be an unlimited source of food, much like a supermarket. But many plants have evolved toxins for their own protection. In 1978, Daniel Janzens commented that the primate world is not colored various shades of green, but instead colored morphine, caffeine, tannin, phenol, oxalic acid, and saponin. Thus potential jungle foods demand careful discrimination.

The invention of cuisine was an essential process in human biocultural evolution. As a cultural system, cuisine determines items in nature that are potentially edible and how they are processed into food, flavored or enhanced, and eaten in a culturally-correct manner.  Cuisine is thus an attempted solution to the omnivore’s dilemma. But not all aspects of a cuisine are adaptive. Aspects of an industrialized food system can be severely maladaptive—and thus the omnivore’s dilemma remains unvanquished for modern humans.

This is illustrated by last summer’s recall of a half-billion eggs after nearly 1300 cases of salmonella infection were reported among US consumers. This massive number of eggs came from only two factory farms in Iowa, which in turn had a common supplier of chicken feed. This attests to the extent of conglomeration in the food industry, driven by a desire for cheaper food, which incentivizes the cutting of safety corners. Neither factory involved in the recall had ever been inspected by the top federal and state agencies responsible for food safety oversight (for details, click here).

In last summer’s salmonella epidemic, hens were individually exposed to infected rodent feces, leading to salmonella infection of their ovaries and thus their developing eggs. In previous salmonella outbreaks spread by chicken eggs, the mode of transmission involved contamination of the outer shells of already-laid eggs. This is controlled by more stringent procedures in preparing eggs for market. Unfortunately, such procedures cannot prevent the infection of hens’ ovaries and thus eggs that are infected “from the inside-out.”

In 1999, Paul Mead and colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that food-borne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths in the US each year. Salmonella, Listeria, and Toxoplasma are responsible for 1,500 of these deaths, while the majority of deaths and illnesses are caused by unknown food-borne agents, including toxins, viruses, and other bacteria. For Mead and colleagues, the importance of these unknown agents cannot be overstated. Yet 63% of US shoppers feel that foods sold in supermarkets are safe, though this percentage may be dropping.

Throughout human evolution, contaminated or poisonous foods have posed a problem despite the attempts of cuisine to keep them out of our bodies. Michael Pollan’s popular writings overlook this aspect of the omnivore’s dilemma. For Pollan, the dilemma faced by humans in the U.S. and around the world involves the long-term health consequences of over-consuming sugars, fats and salt. Over-nutrition is certainly important, but is only part of the dietary dilemma faced by people today. A complete understanding of the omnivore’s dilemma must include the more immediate dangers posed by infectious microbes and toxins in industrialized food systems. Perhaps rainforests and supermarkets share a fundamental similarity after all.

Please send your news and items of interest to Kenneth Maes or Alyson Young.

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