Category Archives: food pantries

Review: Food Justice and Narrative Ethics

Media of Food Justice and Narrative Ethics

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.

 

Bibliography

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.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, food activism, food education, food pantries, food systems, hunger, obesity

Zucchini as a Gateway Drug: Cultivating food security in Iowa through gardening

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Elizabeth Danforth Richey, PhD, MPH and Angie Tagtow MS, LD, RD
Iowa Food Systems Council, info@cultivateiowa.org

Do more with less. This mantra has become virtually universal in public health and social programming. In the face of the obesity epidemic and rising food insecurity, food pantries are increasingly taking on the role of nutrition educator and healthy lifestyle coach. Unfortunately, this work is expected to be done without the necessary resources. When healthy eating messages are provided in emergency feeding settings, too much of the food distributed through these networks is processed, shelf-stable foods with limited nutritional value. A food pantry staff explained, “It’s hard to ask clients to do something and not be able to give them the right foods to do it.”

One approach to creating accessible, affordable and healthy food environments is food gardening. Food gardening has become increasingly popular among community-and faith-based organizations, workplaces, schools, and among the general public. Food gardening can not only provide food insecure household with fresh local produce, but it can also infuse food bank and pantry food supplies with healthier foods through produce donation.

cultivateia_newspaper_ad_gardenersIn 2012, the Iowa Food Systems Council (IFSC) received a grant from the Wellmark Foundation to create a social marketing campaign to encourage food gardening as a way to increase the amount of healthy local produce in the food system accessed by food insecure Iowans. The goals of this campaign are to encourage: 1) low-resource Iowans to engage in food gardening and 2) gardeners to donate extra produce to emergency feeding networks (food banks and pantries) in their community. The project was designed and implemented by the IFSC’s Food Access and Health Work Group, a community of practice of 250-some partners engaged in some aspect of household or community food security research and/or programming. The multidisciplinary nature of community-based food security programming lent itself to an anthropological approach to understanding target communities within political, economic, historical, cultural and environmental contexts.

Project funding provided the luxury of 12 months of initial mixed-methods research to assess how messages could be effectively conveyed and the content of a social marketing campaign for each target audience. The assessment investigated the multi-layered challenges related to accessing healthy food, perspectives on gardening and produce consumption, produce donation, accessing fresh produce at food pantries, and other factors that could influence message distribution.

Key findings from the assessment were used as the basis for the state-wide social marketing campaign, including:

  • Broad partner support exists for the campaign, but financial and staffing challenges limit the expansion of garden promotion at an organizational level. 
  • There is low staff/client interaction time at emergency feeding locations.
  • Cost is the main barrier to housing, household resources, and food choice, all of which impact produce consumption rates among food-insecure Iowans.
  • Low-resource Iowans lack space for yard-based gardening, and perceive gardening as a time consuming activity.
  • Gardeners lack awareness of produce donation activities in their community, but are very supportive of the idea.
  • Gardeners are have specific concerns related to produce use and liability.

An executive summary of the initial research can be accessed here.

A marketing team took the key findings identified by researchers, and created the Cultivate Iowa campaign. This campaign was designed to be fun, positive and broad based. Rather than explicitly focusing on gardening as a way for resource-poor people to become less food insecure, it aims to provide general messages about cost savings, ease, and low-input gardening strategies. Implementation strategies, rather than the messages themselves, will target desired audiences. For example, materials will be distributed at WIC clinics and food pantries, and billboards will be placed in low-resource areas. Produce donation messages will focus on community engagement and donating any amount available. Cultivate Iowa aims to empower both low-resource and gardener audiences; a main concern is to avoid paternalistic or negative messages. As a key informant explained, “Zucchini is a gateway drug. Once you get growers hooked on how good donating feels, they will find other produce to share as well.”

The Cultivate Iowa campaign was launched on April 19, and will continue through the 2013 growing season. It will be promoted statewide through the Food Access and Health Work Group. Partner resources include campaign talking points, promotional items, brochures, postcards, posters, and vegetable seeds. In addition, a public and social media strategy will be implemented, including radio and TV, billboards, newspaper ads, Facebook and Twitter.

Beyond the marketing campaign, the initial research identified other issues cultivateia_poster2integral to the success of the campaign, such as supporting food pantries to expand their produce acceptance practices, promoting food panties to register at AmpleHarvest (think on-line dating for gardeners and food pantries), and creating educational materials about safe produce handling and storage practices.

So, how can you engage with the campaign? Regardless of where you live, visit the website to learn how you can cheaply and easily increase the fresh local foods in your diet. Pledge to donate produce in your community and find the nearest produce donation site to you. Help to support local and state level policy that creates garden-friendly communities, including public garden space, and tax incentives for commercial and private produce donation. More information about the campaign can be found at www.cultivateiowa.org.

Research will continue to assess the campaign’s impact on food gardening and produce donation in the state. Future strategies may include more focused efforts to promote state and local gardening-related policy, increasing engagement of retail partners, and more targeted messaging to specific populations such as SNAP users. (A little known fact is that SNAP benefits can be used to purchase edible plants and seeds.) Bringing anthropology to the table has worked to create a more effective program that situates the program objectives within the larger social structures in which the target audiences exist. Ultimately, our goal is to continue to encourage Iowans to Plant. Grow. Share. and to Plant. Grow. Save.

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Filed under agriculture, anthropology, economics, farming, food pantries, food security, gardening, markets, methods, nutrition, obesity, policy, SAFN Member Research, sustainability