Food Justice and Narrative Ethics: Reading Stories for Ethical Awareness and Activism. Beth A. Dixon. Bloomsbury Academic. 2018 ISBN #9781350054561. 192 pp.
Megan B. Hinrichsen (Monmouth College)
In Food Justice and Narrative Ethics: Reading Stories for Ethical Awareness and Activism, Beth A. Dixon explores the paradoxes of our contemporary food system through the stories told about hunger and scarcity contradictorily coexisting with stories told about rising rates of morbid obesity. Her book covers the narratives constructing the collective understandings of contemporary food system and societal injustices that interest those studying the anthropology of food: food insecurity, the “voluntary” migration and naturalized oppression of farmworkers, and obesity. Each of these topics not only has a clear connection to food and the food system but is tied together through master narratives related to personal responsibility. Food justice narratives can undermine the power of these master narratives by positioning “us to make more accurate and nuanced appraisals of moral responsibility” about individuals who struggle with problems related to food injustices (113). Throughout the book, Dixon demonstrates how philosophical and ethical reasoning are activities that are deeply connected to everyday lives. Readers learn how we – philosophers and “ethical novices,” anthropologists or those in other fields, students and professors, experts and non-experts alike – can use the tools of ethical awareness to shape our knowledge of food justice and inform our activism.
Dixon’s goals for this work are clearly lined out. She presents case studies of food insecurity, farmworkers and farm labor, and obesity as representations of a narrative methodology informed by the concept of ethical perception. Ethical perception is an idea borrowed from Aristotle (and others) that conveys that ethical expertise has to be obtained in a developmental process, incrementally. Therefore, Dixon proposes that realistic narratives about our food system can guide readers to ethical conclusions that orient them towards activism. A compelling and precise food justice narrative “profiles individual people, social groups, or communities that suffer injustice and aims to make visible why we should classify their circumstances as unjust” (2). These are stories that are increasingly familiar. These stories tell us about who is hungry and why they go hungry. These are stories about our roles as consumers in an increasingly complex and hidden food system. There are stories about who is planting, picking, processing, and selling our food. There are also stories about the consumption of food and when it becomes problematic and marked as unhealthy. Dixon argues that the analysis of food justice narratives should position us to identify structural conditions that lead to some of these injustices. Dixon views these food justice narratives as “counterstories that correct the way in which master narrative implicitly disguise the identities and background circumstances of those who seek to nourish themselves” (9). Master narratives about the food system in the United States, according to Dixon, place an excessive burden on the individual person to bear responsibility for their position in society. She recommends that we adjust our “ethical lens” to focus on structural injustice and oppression that constrain people’s choices (10). The consideration of structural inequalities has been central in anthropology for decades, yet it remains an essential concept as we consider how people’s choices are constrained and opportunities are limited for individuals and groups of people in a variety of contexts.
We anthropologists and students of anthropology may be some of the ethical novices (defined as people who are developing ethical expertise on a topic) who can work to develop food justice narratives as counterstories that resist master narratives. Dixon argues that learning to “see food justice is part of a more general strategy for acquiring ethical expertise” (41). Dixon provides almost step-by-step instructions for how to develop narrative skill in the book’s second chapter. In one of the personal vignettes used to open and close the book’s chapters, Dixon describes working at a food pantry called Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard (MHC). In this section, the author herself explains how she began to acquire ethical perception as she volunteered at MHC and had to navigate the uncomfortableness of the situation of knowing a person using the food pantry and wanting to hide to prevent embarrassment for her acquaintance. Dixon described the situation, writing that “food insecurity is taking shape for me in a concrete way – individual people with faces and names, in a variety of circumstances, and with particular stories to tell about what they need to stand in line at the MHC food pantry” (59). Anthropologists accomplish a similar goal though applied research and through our teaching.
This book is especially beneficial for those of us who teach anthropology and food justice and want to develop the ability to see the structural conditions of society that create situations of food injustice without losing sight of the particular stories and circumstances of people who suffer these injustices. Dixon includes examples of constructive and destructive stories that can either disrupt master narratives or work to sustain them in our collective imaginations, respectively. Stories that attempt to show us “the faces of hunger” often represent a “complex tangle of moral concepts about accidental bad luck, personal responsibility, deservingness, and justice” can contribute a damaging master narrative about food insecurity as an individual character deficit or personal misfortune (61). People in the narratives are often cast as archetypes like the “pathetic victim” worthy of our sympathy or the “heroic victim” who is worthy of our praise for overcoming obstacles (66). These narratives create a high standard of “moral innocence and deservingness” that would be difficult for most people to meet (74). Anthropologists, philosophers, students, non-profit leaders, social workers, volunteers, and other professionals need to consider how the stories they tell either contribute to false master narratives or help situate the experience of food injustice in the context of systemic injustices that have generated and perpetuated experiences of poverty and inequality.
But how can we work to make sure our stories address these broader structural issues? Dixon answers this question throughout the second half of the book beginning with Chapter 4, entitled “Rewriting the Call to Charity.” This chapter argues that food justice narratives need to profile people who are food insecure and include descriptions of “social, political, and economic background” conditions (77). Using accessible and academic examples of good food justice narratives like the documentary A Place at the Table (Silverbursh and Jacobson 2013) and the ethnography Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies (Holmes 2013), Dixon demonstrates that good food justice narratives resist damaging master narratives and allow those that see them to identify the conditions that disadvantage certain populations of people. In these situations, food injustices are not accidents that befall people nor are they somehow justifiable due to a moral failing. Food injustices become social problems, not an individual misfortune or fault. Finally, an effective food justice narrative inspires “ordinary citizens to undertake individual or collective action on behalf of food justice by shaping our moral imaginations about what is possible” (89).
The food injustice issues that Dixon addresses are all situations in which we can find moral fault and suggest easy answers and simple solutions. The strength of this book is that Dixon not only explains what food justice narratives and narrative ethics are, she also explains why and how they should be developed to be accurate representations of people’s experiences within social structures and to motivate people to act. This is primarily a book about skill development, so it is especially relevant for educators and practitioners who want to educate about these issues and change the status quo. It would be a useful book for advanced students, researchers, practitioners, and academics interested in food justice issues in fields like philosophy and religious studies, anthropology, sociology, communication studies, and media studies. The creation, use, and understanding of food justice narratives should ultimately, according to Dixon, create a drive for more sustainable change rather than a call to charity alone. Though not specifically about anthropology, this book could be a valuable tool for anthropologists and social scientists who want to know more about narratives and ethics and how we can incorporate these ideas to refine our work. We, too, are storytellers. We tell stories in our classrooms, in our presentations, and in our written work about the people with whom we work. Food Justice and Narrative Ethics is a good reminder for us consider how we present these stories and who these stories serve. We should strive to write, tell, and pass on stories that aim towards increasing ethical awareness and food justice activism.
Holmes, Seth M. 2013. Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Silverbrush, Lori and Kristi Jacobson, dirs. 2013. A Place at the Table. New York: Magnolia Pictures. DVD.