Category Archives: food activism

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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Filed under anthropology, book reviews, city, farming, food activism, reviews, United Kingdom, urban

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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Filed under anthropology, book reviews, food activism, Food Studies, reviews

Black Women’s Food Work is from the Future

Ashanté M. Reese, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Spelman College

 When I think about being a Black girl from the future, my mind goes to the contradiction that many Black girls and women encounter which is that we are often simultaneously hyper visible and invisible at the same time – Renina Jarmon

Black women are not seen as authorities in the kitchen or elsewhere in matters of food—culturally, politically, and socially—and when she dares to be, she may be described in reviews as “angry” or “not angry enough.” She is rendered absent, and made invisible by the continued salience of intersecting vectors of disempowerment: race/gender/class/sexuality. Or in the absolute worst cases she is confronted—face-to-face and in social media outlets—with a “how dare she” attitude because she does not, will not, cannot conform to a prescribed role of Black women who work with, as banal as it sounds, food (Nettles-Barcélon et al. 2015:35)

If there is to be a future where the food system is safe, equitable, and healthy how will we get there?

On March 30th, the newly launched Food Studies Program at Spelman College hosted a symposium on Food Justice featuring three Black women activists and scholars who work to improve the food system and health of communities in various parts of the country.  The symposium was clear in its purpose: to not only interrogate the successes and limits of food justice but to also highlight the work of Black women that is often invisible, ignored, or co-opted.


Monica White, PhD in the field in Mississippi

I left the symposium feeling energized and challenged by the panelists and the audience. I also left with questions. How do we contend with the hypervisibility of Black women’s association with obesity on the one hand and the lack of visibility concerning Black women’s activist, artistic, and academic expertise in food production, preparation and writing on the other?  Nettles-Barcélon et al. provide a framework—Black women’s food work as critical space—for understanding how the future of the food system is deeply intertwined with the food work produced by Black women and the barriers that attempt to curtail that work. They argue that because Black women are positioned as both speakers for “the other” while also being Othered, their food work is not simply necessary but critical in the dismantling of an oppressive food system that consistently denies equal access to Othered bodies from which corporations profit.

From the scholarly world to on-the-ground organizing, Black women ask difficult questions, put their reputations and bodies on the line, and demonstrate a Black feminist food future attuned to a far-off world in which we are all free.  This future is currently being written in the scholarly works about Fannie Lou Hamer and the Freedom Farms Cooperative (White 2017), increasing visibility of Black women vegans outside the normative gaze (Harper 2010), and analyses of Black women’s agency, power and entrepreneurship in the context of stereotypes-turned-metaphors (Williams-Forson 2006). It is engaged with dismantling an unjust and unequal industrialized food system at the nexus of racial justice under the Movement for Black Lives. It is on the front lines on the Fight for $15. It is being built everyday on urban farms, in community gardens, in nonprofit organizations, and in classrooms where Black women’s labor contribute to everyday resistances.  It is present in intergenerational storytelling and cross-institutional relationship building. This work is generated from a simultaneous engagement with the past, the present, and a future where the dialectical hypervisibility and invisibility that Black women experience no longer exists.


Community Member Supporting Urban Ag in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Ashanté Reese)

In the sixth episode of season two of the WGN series Underground, Harriet Tubman—played by Aisha Hinds—delivers a passionate, hour-long speech to abolitionists who are at odds about how to move forward on the question of eradicating slavery. After detailing parts of her own journey to freedom and commitment to others’ freedom, she declared:

There ain’t no negotiations on freedom. I spent all my time knowing things instead of believing them. And that’s the first step to being free. When you can see past all the things that you know and believe something better.

Black women’s food work is often informed by an embodied knowing that it is difficult—if not impossible—to negotiate from the duality of hypervisibility and invisibility. Instead, this food work is rooted in a belief in something beyond. It is not simply a substance of things hoped for or the evidence of things not seen (see Hebrews 11:1 for biblical reference). No. Black women’s food work is the critical space from which the world we want to see is being built.  Black women’s food work is, indeed, from the future.


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Fear, Fire, and Solidarity in New Orleans

David Beriss

Someone tried to burn down the Flaming Torch restaurant last week. The restaurant, flaming-torch-menu-signlocated in my neighborhood in New Orleans, is a French bistro that has been in business since 2004. It is small and friendly, with good French food, a little bit fancy (they have tablecloths), but very much part of the neighborhood. It is a reliable place for locals seeking classic French dishes (they make a great coq au vin), not a tourist destination. I have eaten there many times, but I especially remember eating there soon after Hurricane Katrina. The Flaming Torch was one of the first restaurants in the neighborhood to reopen and although they were desperately short-staffed, their presence was deeply appreciated by those of us who had come back to the city, because they provided a much-needed place to reunite with neighbors around good food and wine.

The fire, according to news reports, was deliberately set. The owner, Zohreh Khalegi, says she was upstairs, doing inventory, when someone broke into the dining room, doused the place with gasoline, and set it on fire. At least some of this was recorded by a security camera. She escaped to the roof and was rescued by the fire department. The interior damage is apparently quite extensive, so the restaurant’s future is uncertain.

flaming-torch-doorThe arsonist’s motives are unclear, but suspicions have been raised that this may have been a hate crime. Zohreh Khalegi, who started the restaurant with her late husband Hassan Khalegi, is an American citizen who immigrated decades ago from Iran. Although their origins were no secret, until recently there was very little in the restaurant that might have indicated the owners had any ties to Iran. In the last few years, the restaurant had begun to feature occasional special menus with Persian food. Certainly, for many people, this only made the restaurant more attractive, since there are not many other places to eat Persian food in the area. But the current American political context seems to have encouraged and given legitimacy to prejudice against people from countries like Iran (one of the countries subject to President Trump’s immigration ban). Could such prejudice have motivated someone to act against the restaurant? As far as I know, nobody has claimed responsibility for this act. But there have been threats and incidents of violence against immigrants and minorities all over the country since the presidential election. All of this is of grave concern and if the fire at the Flaming Torch is any indication, such things must be taken very seriously.

We do not know if this crime was related to anti-immigrant prejudice. But the fact that people are ready to believe that it is suggests that the political climate in the United States has reached a point (not, of course, for the first time) of critical danger. From fine dining to neighborhood diners, immigrants from many countries play a major role in the American restaurant industry. In New Orleans, as elsewhere in the United States, there are many restaurants owned and operated by people from predominantly Muslim countries, serving food from those regions. There are also many immigrants (perhaps most) who prepare and sell foods that have nothing to do with their origins, so they may not be visible as sellers of foods associated with immigrants. All of them may be targets for people who want to advance the nationalist agenda that has accompanied the rise of President Trump.


There has been an outpouring of support for Zohreh Khalegi and for the restaurant. People have posted testimonials and statements of support on the restaurant’s doors. Money has been raised to help with expenses. There are many people here in New Orleans who are eager to show their solidarity. The stakes involved are very high. By choosing to stand by owners of restaurants and other businesses that are targeted by racists and nationalists, we make a statement about what kind of community and nation we want to live in. We must all consider where we stand at this moment and what we will do to make sure that heated political rhetoric is not turned into more violence.

So why document this on an anthropology blog? There is a lot that anthropologists and other social scientists can do—and are doing—to help us understand the rise of nationalism and fear around the world in recent years. For anthropologists, this sort of incident can be an opportunity to think about how institutions like restaurants tie communities together, as well as about the ways violence, fear, and terror, can work to tear communities apart. We can call attention to the way such acts are named and discussed. President Trump recently claimed that many acts of terror are not adequately covered by the media and that, as a consequence, people do not take the threat of terror seriously enough. This act of arson, if it turns out to have been motivated by politics or hate, is an act of terror, but one that Mr. Trump will probably not define as terror, either because it is too small or because it had the wrong sort of victims. Yet acts of mass violence, including attacks on restaurants, schools, or religious communities, create exactly the kind of fear that terrorists try to achieve. We need to document the impact of these events and examine why they are interpreted by people as acts of terror. And, in this case, we can also show people coming together to resist and to show solidarity. In doing all of this, anthropology can help increase understanding and help resist those who would sow fear among us.




Filed under anthropology, food activism, Food Studies, New Orleans, restaurants

Fast Food Labor Secretary?

David Beriss

In the weeks following his election, President Donald Trump announced the nomination of Andrew F. Puzder to lead the U.S. Department of Labor. There has been much discussion and commentary on this choice. Mr. Puzder is the CEO of CKE Restaurants, Inc., which owns the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s fast-food chains. Because of this background, much of the commentary on his qualifications has come from the restaurant industry, including the National Restaurant Association (which favors the nomination) and the Restaurant Opportunities Center (which opposes his nomination). There is also this commentary, which suggests that nominating Puzder is a way of overturning the entire history of the Department of Labor, leaving in its place conditions for workers that resemble “The Jungle” (the author of the commentary appears to be in favor of this outcome).

Hearings on his nomination are scheduled for February 2, 2017.

If confirmed, what sort of job will Mr. Puzder do? The Department of Labor’s mission statement is remarkably succinct:

“To foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States; improve working conditions; advance opportunities for profitable employment; and assure work-related benefits and rights.”

Perhaps the most famous Secretary of Labor was Frances Perkins, who served from 1933 to 1945. She was the first woman to hold a cabinet position (and a sociologist!). More importantly, she was instrumental in creating President Roosevelt’s New Deal, she wrote the Social Security Act, and fought for minimum wage and unemployment insurance laws. The Department of Labor’s headquarters building is in fact the Frances Perkins Building. This is where Mr. Puzder will work, if he is confirmed.

Will Mr. Puzder “foster, promote, and develop the welfare” of American workers? Or would he do more to promote the interests and welfare of industry? Are these necessarily opposed? One of the reasons people have raised questions about Mr. Puzder’s ability to fulfill the Labor Department’s mission is that his positions on many of the issues are well known. He has written and spoken a great deal about working conditions, wages, and benefits in the restaurant industry. Here are ten questions that seem worth addressing prior to Senate approval of his nomination:

  1. Wages: The call to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour has been led by fast food workers, the industry where Mr. Puzder works. The current minimum wage is $7.25/hour and has not changed since 2009. Some states and cities have raised their minimum wages locally, but there are also states that have no minimum wage, so unless the federal government raises it, they will stay at $7.25. The minimum wage is not a living wage for most American families. Mr. Puzder, who reportedly makes more than $4 million annually, opposes raising it. Is there a societal interest in making sure workers are paid enough to support themselves and their families or should wages be set strictly by the market?
  2. Overtime: The Obama administration tried to update overtime pay rules that define which employees should be paid overtime when working more than 40 hours per week. The salary threshold below which workers can receive overtime pay has not really changed much since 1975, which means that millions of people are essentially working longer hours for free. Puzder argues that they prefer this freedom over higher wages and thus opposes the new rules. He has also argued against California rules requiring rest and meal breaks for workers. Who benefits more from workers “flexibly” working longer hours for no pay: the workers or the companies?
  3. Sexual Harassment: Puzder has been criticized for his company’s advertising, which has featured bikini-clad women eating hamburgers. Certainly, there is nothing especially unusual about using sex to sell all kinds of products. Yet at least one recent report suggests that sexual harassment is significantly more frequent at CKE restaurants than elsewhere in the fast-food industry. What will Mr. Puzder do at Labor to insure that workers in all industries have a harassment-free environment?
  4. Health Care: Puzder has argued that the Affordable Care Act has driven up health care costs and triggered a restaurant recession. The existence of this recession is disputable (see this and this), but access to health insurance and health care is certainly an issue for restaurant workers. What will he do to help restaurant and other workers in food-related industries get access to affordable health care?
  5. Sick Leave: Paid sick leave is not a common benefit for workers in the restaurant industry. Food service workers often work when sick or injured. Legislation has been proposed in the last few congresses to allow all workers to earn paid sick days. This seems like an important way to improve the welfare of American workers. As Secretary of Labor, would Mr. Puzder support paid sick leave for all American workers?
  6. Immigration: One of Mr. Trump’s signature campaign issues was immigration: he promised to build a wall and deport millions of undocumented people. The restaurant industry uses a lot of immigrant labor, including undocumented workers, and Mr. Puzder has been a supporter of immigration reform initiatives that include a path to legalization. This position has caused much concern on the right. The National Restaurant Association supports immigration reform and argues that the industry needs immigrant labor. Will Mr. Puzder support immigration reform of the sort endorsed by the NRA or will he choose instead to support Mr. Trump’s policies?
  7. Unions: The Department of Labor has long worked with unions to protect workers in the United States. Mr. Puzder is on record as opposing unions and unionization, especially in the fast food industry (the unions, of course, oppose Puzder’s nomination). He has opposed efforts by the National Labor Relations Board to make both franchisees and corporations jointly responsible for wage violations and, as noted above, he opposes the $15 minimum wage, both of which are strongly supported by unions. One analyst has suggested that he might use his powers as Secretary of Labor to undermine unions, rather than support workers. Can an anti-union Secretary of Labor work to support the interests of workers?
  8. Tipping: In many restaurants, tipped workers receive hourly wages that are far below the already low minimum wage. They rely on tips to make up the difference. For some, this results in unpredictable and low wages. For others, this means that front-of-the-house workers get paid relatively well, while wages for cooks remain low. There have been efforts by activists and restaurateurs to address these issues, but it is unclear where Mr. Puzder stands. What would Mr. Puzder do as labor secretary to ensure that tipped workers and other restaurant workers are able to count on a reliable wage?
  9. Statistics: Measuring society in order to determine public policy is one of the key missions of modern government. Yet during the election, candidate Trump often cited statistics, including the unemployment rate, that seemed unrelated to any numbers produced by government agencies or anyone else with real data. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, an agency of the Department of Labor, collects data and produces reports on everything from employment to prices. Will Mr. Puzder work to insure the continuity and reliability of this data? Or will he use the BLS to create “alternative facts” that support assertions made by the President?
  10. Experience: Puzder argues that increasing wages and improving working conditions in fast food will result in more automation and fewer jobs for people. But there is a lot more to the restaurant industry than corporate-run fast food chains like those led by Mr. Puzder. In 2016, restaurants employed 14.4 million people, with about 3.7 million in fast food. 70% of restaurants are single units, not chains. For most restaurants, the connections between customers and workers are an essential part of the business. Can Mr. Puzder advocate for workers—in the restaurant industry or in other industries—if his view of them is framed only by experience in large corporations?


Filed under anthropology, food activism, food policy, government

Review and Interview: Nurturing Masculinities

Nurturing Masculinities

Nurturing Masculinities: Men, Food and Family in Contemporary Egypt. Nefissa Naguib. University of Texas Press. 2015.

Katharina Graf (SOAS, University of London)

Nefissa Naguib’s book ‘Nurturing Masculinities’ is based on rare ethnographic research that focused on men’s food provisioning in Cairo. Naguib argues that exploring how men connect to their families, their communities and their nation through food preparation and consumption offers a new perspective on what it means to be an Arab man in urban Egypt and the Middle East and North Africa in the face of uncertainty. She introduces her research through multisensory stories of traditional foodways mingled with contemporary concerns about rising food prices and changing ways of life across socioeconomic classes.

In Chapter 1, she conceptualises her argument by focusing explicitly on men’s lived experiences of everyday life to challenge the often distorted views of Arab men as “sullen, affectionless, and sunk in relational poverty” (p. 30). She has followed many of these men over several decades of fieldwork in the region and, based on field notes and interviews, narrates how food provisioning is an especially important way for men to care, build relationships and express their notions of masculinity.

In Chapter 2, Naguib relates the experiences of a few food activists belonging to the Youth Branch of the Muslim Brotherhood to the current economic crisis in Egypt and illustrates how religious beliefs and pragmatism are deeply entwined in the attempt to mobilize “against food injustice and for food sovereignty” (p. 60).

In Chapter 3, Naguib shows how food preparation and consumption, particularly of bread, link and evoke these men’s ambiguous notions of the past, the present and the future. She draws a complex picture of men’s experiences of everyday life in a highly uncertain contemporary Cairo and argues that men are, just like women, contributing to the reproduction of knowledge and practices.

In Chapter 4, she brings her main points together by focusing on the notion of “ibn al-balad”, an ethos of manliness and congeniality, whereby through food preparation and consumption men can be men in the “struggle to overcome economic constraints in defense of culture and tradition, religion, and hope” (p. 97).


Katharina Graf (KG):        Your book does an excellent job at challenging stereotypes and unsettling expectations of the ‘Arab man’ as marked by patriarchy alone. It does not draw generalised conclusions, but throughout focuses on men’s lived experiences of everyday life in contemporary Cairo through the lens of food provisioning for their families. According to you, what is the main point of the book? What do you want the reader to take away from it?

Nefissa Naguib (NN):      My editor asked me to write a book that my grandmother and that students would read. I want the reader to take away an account of the domesticity of men; the public and the private sphere of women is really important in the regional literature, but I think the region has moved on and we have to move on with it. Men are no longer just ‘the public’ and perhaps they never were just ‘the public’. In this book, I want to bring men into what Janet Carsten (1997) has called the “hearth” and make them also domestic. Through food, they speak a domestic language; or rather, their language becomes domestic – an everyday language. In the past, we have linked everyday anthropology in the Middle East and North Africa to women and this was very important – my earlier research on women and food is emblematic of this (e.g. Naguib 2009a, 2009b). If we look at what men are doing, especially in the domain of food – through their everyday language of food – I hope the reader gets some insight into their everyday realities, too.

KG:         My first set of questions relates to economic and social change in Cairo. Many of these men speak of uncertainty and the change relating to food, such as the rising price of food, especially bread, and the growth of food borne health risks, which you argue is deeply linked to being an Egyptian man, “ibn al-balad”, and is to some extent based on their role as food providers. Although these are particular stories of particular men and their “reflexive engagement with their own lives” (p. 14), including young food activists of the Muslim Brotherhood, what do you think can be deduced from their lived experiences? What is the broader context of social transformation? For instance, how do gender relations change and how does this affect men’s role as provider?

NN:        It would be nice and easy to say, ‘The women do this and the man do that’. But, you see, they don’t. Couples now shop together, they do the major grocery shopping with their car once a week. If they both work and it’s a stressful day, they also eat out and grab something on their way home. If a couple can afford a housekeeper, that person will shop. Before, it used to be the men who shopped: he goes to the butcher and buys the bread; he knows best. Women did go to the market, mainly buying vegetables, and they bargained. Now, they do shop for most foods, but it is still amazingly expected that the man provides food.

KG:         You write about the “confused role” (p. 40) of men, how is this connected to economic uncertainty and the 2011 revolutions?

NN:        This is understudied, we need more research on how the current economy in Egypt affects family life and, concretely, men’s ability to feed the family. But no one talks about this. In the Middle East and North Africa hunger is a taboo. Another problem related to food is stunted growth, Egypt has one of the highest percentages of stunting and obesity. Yet, that too, is not talked about in the country.

KG:         In that context, how do you think that urban Egyptian families might change in the future?

NN:        The revolution in 2011 did not meet people’s dreams and expectations. But people did go to the streets and you saw that something was happening that it’s worth paying attention to and that has brought to the surface that people are discontent and worried. There is widespread anxiety, which comes into family life: ‘How are we going to manage?’ At the same time, there is anticipation and aspiration among people and that is equally interesting. But I don’t know how families will manage in the future. Right now, the economy is suffering, also impacting on the middle classes, and people cannot afford what is expected of their class. It is necessary now that the wife works. A woman has to provide, too, because unemployment and distress is very high. There is a high amount of insecurity about what lies in the future.

KG:         According to your book, this distress and uncertainty seem to attack exactly what is important to these men and their notion of ibn al-balad: generosity and caregiving through providing food for their families.

NN:        Yes! Nevertheless, people want to be generous, especially young couples. Yet, even if they aspire to, they cannot have the same life as their parents. They have more stressful lives.

KG:         This is comparable to my generation in Europe. As a young family, we cannot afford not to work, both partners. Whereas in my parents’ generation, simply speaking, the men provided whilst the women prepared food.

NN:        Family life in Egypt, and the Middle East and North Africa more generally, looks different now and we have to address how it looks like, even if doesn’t match what we learnt in history books. Perhaps it never looked like that anyway. People are stressed, but in the midst of that and what I also wanted to achieve with the book is to show the sweetness of life.

KG:         This makes the book so marvellous, it is human and poetic. It shows the everyday feelings and concerns of real people. At the same time, not knowing Egypt very well, I would have liked more demographical and historical information. In urban Morocco where I work, for instance, the lifecycle has shifted, couples marry later and have fewer children and this affects family life and food preparation.

NN:        When their children were born, the people I worked with wanted them to learn how to eat properly. It was mostly the women who wanted their children to eat well and the men like to spoil their children with food. But in a financial crisis this becomes problematic. They couldn’t give their children what they had in their childhood. When they both work and they come home in the evening, they have to feed ready-made or take-away food.

KG:         Let me move on to my second and last set of questions relating to the relevance of knowledge and food quality. You describe well how men are expected to be generous and thus ignore the cost of food as a sign of their affection, whereas women are expected to be thrifty and bargain for the best prices and qualities. How would you describe men’s knowledge in shopping for food?

NN:        Men like to say ‘It doesn’t matter’. But what they know is another matter. They know exactly which cuts of meat are the best and how to buy vegetables. They say, ‘Madame shops food’, but they don’t want their wives to grocery shop. Ideally their wives are at home, like in the soaps on television: he comes home and she has prepared food. Men love to talk about their knowledge of shopping – how to pat a melon to know whether it is good – and they know the season of foods.

KG:         Do men strategize when they buy food?

NN:        Quantity is important. Even though they say they don’t care about what they pay, they do. What I would have liked to bring forth a little better in the book is that men would have liked to do as their fathers did, not to have to care about prices. But they do care about prices and even don’t buy an item because of that. And it’s just wrong. People gossip about it. It is contradictory, they tell you they don’t care, but they do. The price of food is so much part of a conversation. The conversation is the price of food. But why aren’t we writing more about this?!

KG:         Is this a new anxiety with food prices that came along with the Arab spring?

NN:        In Tahrir Square, people had slogans about the price of food, they had helmets made of bread and they held bread in their hands when they lifted their arms. Now again, something is going to happen, it’s boiling. The price of food has risen again; I don’t even know anymore by how much. But they are also concerned that the food doesn’t taste good. Men talked a lot about especially how bread looks like and what it tastes like.

KG:         Do they mean that the quality and taste of bread has deteriorated?

NN:        Yes! They often said, ‘This is not bread!’

KG:         This is very similar in Morocco: the price of food matters, but the quality matters just as much to ordinary people. This is the case especially for lunch, which in Marrakech is still the most important meal of the day. Has lunch changed in Cairo?

NN:        In Cairo, too, bread has to be there and lunch is considered the main meal. But in practice this changes: when both men and women work they don’t come home for lunch. Ideally, in the past, they ate lunch together at home, it was the most important meal. And it is still in discourse, but in practice dinner has become more important. With life’s realities today, you eat in the car or you buy take-away food on your way home.


Carsten, J. (1997) The heat of the hearth: the process of kinship in a Malay fishing village. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Naguib, N. (2009a) Food and foodways in the Middle East. Centre for Development Studies, University of Bergen, Bergen.

Naguib, N. (2009b) Tastes and fragrances from the Old World: memoirs by Egyptian Jewish women. Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 9 (1), 122-127.


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Filed under anthropology, food activism, gender, Middle East

Blackness, Food, and State-Sanctioned Violence

Ashanté M. Reese, PhD

I began research on food access in Washington, D.C., knowing that I wanted to learn about a) what people were eating b) where they were shopping, and c) how (if at all) they engaged urban agriculture movements.

During my first interview, a participant made it clear that a) she did not want to talk about any of those things right away, b) she would get to them when she was ready, and c) there were other more pressing things I needed to know so that I could understand her food choices. That first interview sent me back to the drawing board to reconsider how I conceptualized the study of food.  After conducting 40+ interviews with D.C. residents (and another 40 interviews with Baltimore residents for a separate project), I now realize that most of my participants talked about, theorized, and understood their lives at the intersections of multiple forms of state-sanctioned violence. I came to them wanting to discuss food access. They came to me with stories about their lives, the histories of their neighborhoods, gentrification, policing, and other black people they didn’t know but to whom they felt a connectedness. Food, the subject that brought us to the table, provided a framework for discussing some of the precarious elements of navigating spaces in black bodies.


Photo taken at a protest/rally in Ferguson, MO. April 2015

In the most terrifying, in your face moments, we watch Black Death on repeat as video after video captures unarmed black people being shot down in the streets by officers of the state. It is heartbreaking and sometimes terrifying to watch. Yet, as I learned from my research participants, these murders occur within a larger frame of the everydayness of violence they witnessed or experienced. State-sanctioned violence not only shows up in public murders and the collective trauma in their aftermaths but also in the ways in which people experience (and navigate) inequalities on a daily basis that provides context for the food research we conduct. We need only examine the systematic ways Black farmers were denied access to federal funding that could have made a difference in their abilities to compete in the transitions toward agribusiness. Or the ways federal and state governments co-opted the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast for Children program while at the same time blacklisting, criminalizing, and surveilling the Panthers themselves.

State-sanctioned violence normalizes death and inequalities through the slow but steady unraveling of individuals’ character in the moments immediately following their public executions, the decline of publically available resources, and through the now colloquial understanding of “food deserts” that points to outcomes (lack of food access, individual choice, etc.) but often obscures processes (systematic racism, increased suburbanization, etc.).  Though it is easy to compartmentalize, these different forms of violence  stem from shared roots that attempt to curtail black mobility in and access to public space.  Some are very public, instantaneous deaths at the hands of police like those of Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, and as of today, Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott. These are the spectacular, shocking deaths (although, they are happening often enough to question if they are as shocking as they were). Others are slow, walking, everyday deaths: the lack of access to healthy, affordable foods; the continuous expansion of multinational food corporations that not only control access but also wages of folks who produce food; the cutting (and erasure) of social services.


Photo taken at a protest/rally in Ferguson, MO. April 2015

I see the critical examination of these intersections as part of the work Sidney Mintz envisioned when he challenged food anthropologists to engage with–not run away from–the power structures that shape access, tastes, and perceptions. The worlds in which we live–the worlds in which my predominantly Black research participants, friends, and I live–are circumscribed by power dynamics that shape not only food access but also experiences with other forms of state-sanctioned violence that are sometimes literally a matter of life or death.



Filed under anthropology, food, food activism, food deserts, food politics