Category Archives: food policy

Review: Organic Food, Farming and Culture

Chrzan, Janet and Jacqueline A. Ricotta, eds. Organic Food, Farming and Culture. An Introduction. Bloomsbury Academic. 2019. 332 pp. ISBN 1350027839, 9781350027831

Organic Food, Farming and Culture

Ellen Messer, Ph.D. (Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University, and Boston University Program in Gastronomy)

On a recent walk through the Portland (Maine) lower port area, I happened upon a burger joint announcing its 100 percent organic grass-fed beef, ground and shaped into a patty that was broiled and served with any other number of “value added” ingredients. The place was relatively empty on this not yet high tourist season day and pre-dinner hour, so I initiated a conversation with the young man taking the orders. “What’s the simplest burger you have?” I asked. The answer was that the default option was with cheese and one sauce + relishes. If I wanted just a plain burger, I would have to specify “no cheese”.

“What about the sauces and toppings—are they all organic?” I asked. He honestly didn’t know. Were the buns organic? Someone else would have to check. From the consumer’s value-driven perspective, such limitations on the boundaries of organic foodstuffs are confusing, not to say, troubling, as concerned, values/ideology-driven eaters try to negotiate dietary intakes that are healthy, respectful of the environment, and caring regarding biological food sources; kind and committed to labor and justice issues, and also wary of contributing to local or larger world food and hunger problems. Local food and sustainable farming advocates, additionally, emphasize the dangers of transferring one’s nutritional loyalties and food dollars to non-local, transnational food corporations that access their ingredients or processed foods wherever they are cheapest and for whatever reasons, never mind injustice to labor or damages to the environment, so long as they don’t enter into the profit-accounting assessment.

These are the conundrums and issues that Organic Food, Farming and Culture. An Introduction. edited by Janet Chrzan (and anthropologist) and Jacqueline A. Ricotta (a professor of horticulture) seek to clarify. The reasonably well-organized volume deliberately begins with some history of organics and ends with an essay contrasting GMOs and organics. Sandwiched in between are short profile pieces by organic farmers, chefs, and consumers, juxtaposed with scholarly essays by academics, policy-makers, industry leaders, cooks or chefs, and other users.

Part One provides multiple “History” entries that succinctly explore the origins of organic food science and technology practices and the organic food movement in the US, Europe, and other places. Gene Anderson’s lyrical chapter on traditional foods as organic foods, with special attention to Chinese and Mexican food systems that are his main areas of ethnographic research, will serve admirably as a classroom basis for understanding the particulars of these histories, and could also be used to encourage students to write their own comparative chapters, based on other world places Anderson has not treated.

Part Two examines “Organics in Practice,” with separate chapters considering agronomics, markets and evolving monitoring standards all along the supply chain. The two-part “Consumers, Citizens, and the Participatory Processes on Organic Food: Two Case Studies from Denmark” compare and contrast bottom-up municipal organic food efforts with top-down Copenhagen government organic efforts and are well worth reading in any course dealing with comparative food-policy (or other policy), government-community relationships, and networking.

Part Three considers “Organic Food Values, Sustainability and Social Movements” reviews and updates evidence on the “Farming for Food or Farming for Profits” controversy. Simply stated: how can and do organic farmers manage to make a living, which starts with gaining access to land and then matching production to effective demand. Syntheses of the demonstrably incomplete and variably framed scientific evidence tying organic foods to (as yet unproven) superior nutrition and health benefits, or the additional controversy surrounding whether organic food-production has the capacity to feed the world, allow readers to access the evidence and draw their own conclusions. Particularly the organic food and “food security” issues suggest good research or exam questions on whether the evidence supports the “yes” or “no it can’t” point of view, and also what additional studies are necessary to move this debate forward.

The final section Four continues the examination of user understandings when choosing organic over non-organic or unmarked foods and “organic food culture,” that encourages eaters to associate with others who favor eating organic as a cultural identity. Here, chefs and academics together raise the usually contentious question— “Is there Really a Difference Between Conventional, Organic, and GMO?”. Here the authors agree in principle and practice with Food Politics blogger Marion Nestle, who advises: Much depends on which foods, which measurements, and which values make a difference. In their concluding chapter, authors Anderson, Chrzan, and Ricotta summarize the plethora of values and challenges facing food producers, processors, purveyors, and consumers in their multiple value-laden choices to eat healthy, environmentally sustainable, socially just, affordable, palatable, and culturally appropriate food. Take-aways, not surprisingly, are that people do not always act on their stated values; also, that chefs and consumers probably care more about the trusted relationship with the farmer who assures them that the produce they buy is farmed organically, and less about official (USDA) certification. Overall, it “takes a community” and reliable partners all along the food value chain to keep organic production viable and attract new entrants. From beginning to end, this book provides numerous examples of such growing relationships (multiple entendres intended), and encourages readers to seek and share more profiles and vignettes from their personal experiences. Unfortunately, readers like me will likely complete the historical, operational, social-organizing, and concluding chapters with no clearer answer to the question whether organic food can feed the world? I have never been convinced by conventional and GMO proponents that it could not, but most pro-organic examples, including those here, lead or leave me to wonder about the limits to livelihoods, dedicated labor and enterprise for most organic practitioners, however passionate.

Such ambiguities and ambivalence aside, students will probably enjoy the design and organization of the book, which includes brief profiles, personal stories, and inter-personal intersections among them. The wide-ranging subject matter, which touches on everything from minute technologies of soil regeneration to alleged spiritual values of eating or growing organic food, will appeal in places to particular readers, who can pick and choose to read what interests them. I agree with the glowing, collegial endorsements printed on the back cover that the volume’s “strength .. is the explicit connection of abstract food studies with the hands-in-the-dirt [or cooking pot] practices of living farmers, chefs, and purveyors” (Ken Albala, Food Studies historian). Also, that this book provides an “accessible source of information on the agronomic, nutritional, political, and economic dimensions of organic food and agriculture” (Lisa Markowitz, Anthropology, Culture & Agriculture), to which I would add social and cultural dimensions throughout.

Students will likely also relate very well to the repeated profiles, which show how a young organic farmer became engaged in this livelihood, who helped (him) along the way, energetic and continually evolving partnerships with chefs who value the rare and wonderful products he nurtures, and learn to appreciate how conservation initiatives are connecting new entry to retiring farmers, and helping young entrepreneurial farmers gain access to farmland while giving the older generation peace of mind that the farmland will be cared for in perpetuity. Anecdotes describing some of the difficulties, such as removing the organic slugs that also enjoy the pricey organic produce or figuring out ways to use abundant organic root and tuber crop deliveries from CSAs, some of which go to community operations that feed the hungry, add humanity to the mix, and put a human face on the numbers of hungry that organic food can potentially feed. The human faces of the profiled individuals, and partnerships between farmers and chefs, gardeners and their food products, are also presented in numerous photographs, which are not always in sharp focus, and in some cases, present multiple views of the farm, produce, or producer-chef relationship that could have been reduced to one.

1 Comment

Filed under anthropology, culture and agriculture, farming, food activism, food and health, food policy, sustainability

Review/Interview: Food and Animal Welfare

Food and Animal Welfare 

Food and Animal Welfare Henry Buller and Emma Roe. Contemporary Food Series, Bloomsbury Academic, London. 2018. ISBN 9780857855787

Sharyn Jones
(Northern Kentucky University)

Most people in Western countries eat meat and consume at least some form of animal products every day. Yet, pausing to consider the animal lives involved in our food systems and the complex web of human and non-human interactions that produce what we ingest is a rare occurrence. We have a long history of segregating food animals from our lexicon of items on the table and in the supermarket aisles. For example, cattle products are referred to by the generalized terms “beef” or “steaks”, or “burgers”; pigs are referred to as “pork”, or “bacon”, or “ribs”. One rarely notes that one is eating a “steer” or a “barrow” or “gilt”. Moreover, the way that animal food products and animal lives (their value and quality) are described, marketed, and sold reflects a distancing of living creatures from animal products and human consumption practices.

Henry Buller’s and Emma Roe’s new book, Food and Animal Welfare deals directly with this disconnect and the “de-animalization” of food animals from products and consumers. Buller’s and Roe’s central thrust, and their most fundamental argument, is that a concern for farm animal life and welfare is the critical link between consumption and production. Their text provides ample support for the assertion of essential human and animal interconnections and the prevalence of animal welfare issues which permeate our global food chains. I intentionally read this book slowly, digesting the details over several months and I relished every moment of it (as an aside it should be noted that my husband and I co-manage a humane, small-scale heritage hog and poultry farm, a fact which makes the subject of this book particularly important to me). After reading Buller’s and Roe’s book I had many questions for them. They generously agreed to share their thoughts with FoodAnthropology readers and I have included my interview with the authors below, following my general summary and impressions.

Buller and Roe, who are geographers, take a broad interdisciplinary approach to their subject, integrating information from economics, ethics, agriculture, politics, policy, animal science, animal studies, veterinary science, post-humanism, and ethnography. The perspectives presented in the text are primarily focused on the UK and Europe, however case studies from China, and Hungary are also provided and the authors often mention comparative situations in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world. Importantly, the book incorporates narratives and participant observations from farmers, animal caregivers, and animal welfare specialists in the UK and China.

This dense yet compact text includes seven chapters and 222 pages. The first chapter focuses on the disciplines of food studies and animal studies and explores the idea of animal welfare as a link between these academic fields. Buller and Roe advocate for bridging the divide between production and consumption via recognition of animal subjectivities (their lives, realities, relationships, and roles in food systems). The second chapter explores three formal trajectories of concern and measurement for animal welfare, including: scientific, ethical, and economic. In the third chapter, Roe’s observational and ethnographic fieldwork on farms and with animal caregivers is shared. The fourth chapter is entitled, “Selling Welfare” and it addresses how animal welfare materializes into commodified, marketed, and consumed products. The fifth and sixth chapters take a comparative global view of the evolution of social interest in food-animal well-being as it relates to production and consumption. Finally, the last chapter returns to the idea of how producers and consumers might ethically engage with the lives of animals who become human food.

In general this book presents a case for the deep connection, affiliation, and mutual dependence between nature and culture, humans, animals, and our environments. The major strengths of this text are many, but several stand out to me personally. First, the authors’ skillful use of ethnography provides insights into the deeply empathetic and challenging relationships that animal carepersons have with farm animals. This approach contributes a provocative dimension to the research presented elsewhere in the book and it adds a great deal of detail about real life situations that animals and their carepersons experience. Roe worked with animal caregivers on a mixed-use farm in the UK for several weeks. In the process, specific on-farm practices of animal care, welfare assessment, daily maintenance, inter-species (or animal-human) communication, and decisions about animal killing were documented are described through participant observations and interviews. The day-to-day demands of caring for animals are explored in relation to how these practices are embodied in the animals themselves, and how they later translate into the value and quality of food products. Buller and Roe intentionally use the term “careperson” vs. “stockperson” in order to illustrate a shifting understanding of farm animals from mindless objects of property to sentient feeling beings. This ethnographic approach allows us to empathize and to better understand farm animals life on a daily basis.

Second, Buller and Roe masterfully incorporate massive amounts of data from many lines of evidence. At the same time, they succulently make a powerful case for valuing and thinking deeply about the relationships we all have with food animals as well as the materiality and sentient nature of these creatures. Third, the authors have a great deal of empathy and concern (both for carepersons and the animals for whom they care) which is clearly expressed throughout their work. In this way they straddle the line between being objective social scientists and humane, caring, real people. This approach has become increasingly common and it supports their case as well as enhancing their writing, making this book easy to read and enjoyable.

Appropriate audiences for Food and Animal Welfare include anthropologists who study food or human-animal interactions; scholars interested in post-humanist approaches; anyone who wants to understand the nuts and bolts of what processes and practices deliver animal products to the table; graduate students, and advanced undergraduates. I think this book, in all or part should be required reading for students of food anthropology, economics, animal science, biology, and food systems ethics. Somewhat less traditionally, individuals who are either directly participating in, or perhaps simply interested in the sustainable food movement would find this book to be extremely revealing.

As noted at the beginning of this review, Henry Buller and Emma Roe answered my inquiries about their text and work. Here are the questions that I asked them and their thoughtful responses regarding Food and Animal Welfare:

  1. In a couple sentences please explain your approach (multi-disciplinary and theoretical?) to studying human-non-human interactions.

“Our approach is to study the sentient materialities of animal bodies as they are mobilized by the agro-food supply chain, along the process of going from a living farm animal through to becoming a packaged and labeled food product which is then bought and eaten. We are interested in bringing attention to care practices in the supply chain from stockperson, regulator, retailer, consumer, that has developed the market in higher animal welfare meat and dairy products. We also bring our interest in studying the performance of how farm animal welfare is being known, made and performed by discussing the sociology of animal welfare science as it has developed to offer scientific credibility for a topic that has had considerable civil society concern that farm animals have feelings that matter to them.”

2 . What personal experiences motivated you to write about this subject and the issuescovered in Food and Animal Welfare?

Emma Roe – “My mum has always been passionate about caring for animals and to try to improve the quality of animal lives’. We had a pet rabbit when I was growing up that she felt was unhappy in its cage, it ended up running wild in our Norfolk garden and mating with a wild rabbit. For her it has been about putting quality of life before health and safety. However, her concerns were never directed towards farm animals when I was growing up. Meanwhile my dad was the village shop keeper and so I became interested in food retailing, and where our food comes from, from quite an early age. I remember him boiling a leg of ham in the back of the shop. Growing up in Norfolk the connection between the food we eat and what was growing in the fields and the hens/veg patch/fruit trees in our garden definitely made an impression on me.”

Henry Buller – “I have long been fascinated by the role of veterinary medicine and veterinary action in mediating forms of human/animal relations. My mum wanted me to be a vet but I couldn’t do the math. So I have returned to it, many years later from the angle of social science.”

  1. What has the response been to your book in the UK and elsewhere?

“Silence! Amongst the community with which we work, there has been some (though limited, response). The social science of farm animal welfare sits uneasily between disciplines and ideologies. Although that is a space we enjoy occupying, others find it problematic.”

  1. What research findings that you share in the book do you consider to be the most profound or surprising?

“The men and women who actually work with the living farm animals and who work to give them a better quality of life are often having to negotiate the cultural, social and personal challenges of improving the life experience of the farm animal whilst keeping within the constraints of what the food market is willing to pay for higher welfare farmed food and caring for their own sentient sensibilities. These people understand a lot about the animals they work with, they are sensitive to what the animals may be communicating through bleat/cheep/grunt or moo. The same is often true for those men that handle and manage the living animals in the abattoir. These folk are too often forgotten or represented as complicit if there are occasions of poor animal welfare.”

  1. Based on your research and experiences what predictions do you have about the future of animals as food in the UK and/or beyond?

“The growing momentum behind finding alternatives to animal-based protein to address the environmental damage that livestock production is doing to the planet coupled with the ongoing concern about the welfare of animals produced by the meat and dairy industry, offers the prospect of a future with a reduced number of farmed animals. It may take some time to get there however, currently meat consumption is steadily rising in China for example, despite high-profile adverts urging reduction primarily from links to non-communicable diseases. In the short term we wonder how the market in higher welfare meat and dairy products may be affected by ‘so-called’ ethical consumers opting to not eat, or to eat less meat and dairy and what the consequence will be for work to continue to raise welfare standards. Meanwhile there are many low and middle income countries in the world with still much work to address farm animal welfare and to meet UK/European animal welfare standards and where the western diet of high-meat and dairy consumption is an aspiration which at a planetary level seems deeply undesirable.”

  1. What do you think is the single most effective change that the average consumer of meat and animal products could make to improve some of the problems you have identified in the book?

“To always buy higher welfare meat and dairy products and to ask if something is not labelled – not only in the supermarket but also when you eat outside of the home whether fast food van, cafe or restaurant chain. And perhaps ultimately to eat less meat and dairy and if one does ensure it is from a higher welfare production system.”

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, ethics, farming, food policy, United Kingdom, United States

Review: The Story of Soy

 The Story of Soy. Christine M. Du Bois. London: Reaktion Books, 2018. 266 pp. + References and Index. ISBN 978 1 78023 925 5.

Jacket Image

Ellen Messer, (Tufts University School of Nutrition Science and Policy and Boston University Gastronomy Program)

Anyone interested in global diet and agriculture should be interested in soy because it is by far the most grown oilseed and fourth most cultivated crop in the world (after the cereals maize, wheat, and rice) (p.223).  As a major source of plant protein, it sustains the diets of humans and livestock, and has contributed the world over to agricultural livelihoods and nutrition.  That said, this voluminously documented volume takes care to situate soy in its diverse historical and contemporary contexts. It shows how soy in each era paradoxically created conditions to sustain life, including fixing nitrogen for agricultural ecosystems, but also to destroy environments and societies through relentless and sometimes violent pursuit of food and wealth based on soybean cultivation, processing and distribution.

The opening chapter, “Hidden Gold,” introduces readers to the long-term history of soy, as a food, feed, and industrial crop, and to major flash points, like the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, which made soy loom large in political-geographic history. Chapter 1, “Asian roots,” speculates about soy’s original domestication and diffusion as a significant food that was processed to facilitate and extend its nutritional reach. Chapter 2 documents the European history of soy, including war-related developments that expanded soy’s nutritional potential to feed hungry populations that could afford little meat.  Chapter 3 turns to United States adoptions and genetic and agronomic improvements for food, feed, and industrial purposes. Chapter 4, “Soy Patriotic” returns to Asian soy as a war and post-war crop.  Here the stories include post-World War II innovations, like citric acid processing that removed off flavors, and utilization of stainless steel processing equipment that prevented contamination. These stories include how soy became implicated the development of the defoliant, Agent Orange, which drew botanists into ethical and political opposition to the Vietnam (American) War after military scientists used their basic research understandings of crop maturation to de-forest Vietnam and expose fighters’ hiding places.

Chapter 5, “Fattening with Feed” covers developments of inexpensive, soy-based animal nourishment, which transformed and enabled concentrated poultry and pig production the world over.  Like all the other chapters, this one opens with a human, personal-interest story, then opens out onto implications for larger scale economies, social units, and national, regional, and world diets.  In this case, the human-interest story tells how “chickens dramatically changed the destiny of a rural woman, thirty-year-old Amal Ismail, as well as the lives of millions of her fellow Egyptians:

“Since the 1950s, both beneficial and injurious aspects of the mass feeding of soy to animals have powerfully shaped our world, thanks to the export of American techniques for livestock production.  Mrs. Ismail and her chickens serve as a humble yet revealing entry into a far larger story.  Our survey of soy and livestock will include a chicken-blood cookbook, giant economic aid programmes, airlifted hogs, corporate treatment of animals, antibiotics, wild-bird diseases, obesity, fecal river pollution, drowned hogs and more.” (p.93)

Positive and negative consequences pile up, as the world population in aggregate gains greater access to healthy protein, either directly by eating processed soybean products or indirectly by consuming more and cheaper soy-fed animal meats.   But this expansion, particularly of the soybean feed industry has not been without environmental destruction, covered in Ch.6, “Soy Swoops South” which scrupulously documents deforestation, erosion of land and biodiversity, and violence against the people who were already living there.  Country by country, soybean livelihoods demonstrably increased soy-related household, provincial, and national incomes, but also pitted subnational private soybean interests against state desires to establish and use soybean taxes and revenues to pay for national infrastructure and human development programs.  All also proved vulnerable to multi-national (biotechnology) seed and chemical companies, which imposed their will as they sought ever greater control over farmers and national agricultural regulations. Ch. 7 continues these discussions of corporate control over seeds, toxic chemicals, and water and land use.  But again, outcomes need not prove pre-determined.  As the author summarizes in the conclusion to this chapter,

‘           ’Growing soybeans and other crops poses many actual and potential challenges to environments, including habitat loss, monoculture, genetic modification, toxic chemicals, climate change, erosion, and depletion of fresh water.  But fatalism is misguided: the destructive effects of farming can (emphasis in the original) be mitigated through careful research and ingenuity.  No-till cultivation, pest control through organic methods or chemicals with reduced toxicity, effective penalties for environmental rule-breakers and a reduction in meat eating that drives so much agriculture can each make a genuine difference. The question is how much effort we will put into protecting our natural world. This is our only world. There is no other planet for us. There is no ‘escape hatch’ from our responsibilities—or from the consequences of our actions.” (p.172).  Readers here get a sense of the author’s ambivalent sensibilities, which are also passionate, and draw on a complete range of pro- and anti- technology advocates.

The book could have ended here.  But wait, there’s more.  The two-sided approach continues, in subsequent chapters on nutrition and international business and trade. Ch.8, “Poison Or Panacea” discusses the positives (accessible protein) and negatives (anti-nutritional and allergenic factors) associated with soy nutrition, and also certain health issues, like relationship between soybean consumption, female estrogen levels and male sperm counts, and a range of possible risks and benefits associated with more extensive genetic engineering of soybeans for food and medicine.  There are also added discussions of soy in disaster relief and food aid. Chapter 9 examines “Big Business”, which is largely under the control of a few very large agricultural production, processing, and trading firms, like ADM.  In this chapter, readers can follow the journey from mid-western farm to global feedlot or food processor.  The author adroitly unpacks the abstractions and workings of commodities futures contracts, including the thought processes of hedgers and speculators, winners and losers. (There’s even a reference to the 1983 hit movie, “Trading Places” and FBI investigation of fraud on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (pp.226-232)).  There follow the dynamic mergers and acquisitions among leading seed (biotechnology) companies competing for markets, the politics of managed markets and subsidies in industrialized, developing, and transition countries; and finally, the land grabs that have characterized soy-growing areas especially since the world food price crisis of 2007-2008.

These business and environmental concerns spill over into Chapter 10, on “Soy Diesel”, which continues country-by-country discussions of soy strategies such as  efforts to recycle soy oil in order to cut down on pollution and waste in Brazil and Indonesia.  In all these developing country stories, however, the reader sees the downsides, as small operators inevitably lose access to food and energy resources when world prices rise beyond their control.  The book ends with an “Afterword” about Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, which harbors some 27,000 varieties of soy. This short chapter ends with a rehash of the individually grounded, cultural stories that show promise and peril inherent in soybeans, which are used as a “lens for new perspectives on our very selves.” (p.266).  Readers can decide whether they appreciate and want to use these reflections to structure discussions of additional, non-soy domains.

As I was preparing this review of Christine Du Bois’s comprehensive, The Story of Soy  (London: Reaktion Books, 2018) I happened to read an “early view” of Andrew Ofstehage’s (2018) “Farming Out of Place,” which describes “flexible farming” modes of production by a younger generation of mid-Western US farmers, who buy up and farm South American lands after they have been priced out of the land market in their home places of origin.  I also read and reviewed Gerardo Otero’s Neoliberal Diet, which covers some of the same territory from a quantitative, larger-scale agricultural and nutritional perspective, focusing in part on the huge growth of plant fats in global diets.  To cover community cultural and the “big” political economic picture, I’d recommend that readers and instructors in food-studies and anthropology of food, nutrition, and diet courses use all three sources together.

Finally, as someone who has followed Du Bois’ work on soy (Messer 2009, 2016), and also as someone trained in ethnobotany, I particularly appreciated Du Bois’ exhaustive dedication to exploring the entire range of relations between this economic and nutritional species and the human populations that have used and will continue to use it.  I look forward to reading comparative studies on other oilseeds based on the excellent research presented here.

References cited:

Messer, Ellen (2009) Review of: The World of Soy, by C. DuBois, T-C. Chan and  S. Mintz, Gastronomy 9,4:101-103. Access at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/gfc.2009.9.issue-4

 

Messer, Ellen (2016) Remembering Sid Mintz. Food Anthropology, 4 January 2016. Access at: https://foodanthro.com/2016/01/04/remembering-sidney-mintz/

Ofstehage, Andrew (2018) Farming Out of Place: Transnational family farmers, flexible farming, and rupture of rural life in Bahia, Brazil.  American Ethnologist 45,3: 317-329

Otero, G. (2018) The Neoliberal Diet. Healthy Profits, Unhealthy People. University of Texas Press.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, culture and agriculture, food history, food policy, food politics, food systems

Perspectives On U.S. Food Policy: Farm Bill 2018

 

Ellen Messer

An essay inspired by Amy Goldstein’s JanesvilleAn American Story (2017, Simon and janesville-9781501102264_hrSchuster).  What this account of economic decline and increasing social polarization in a post-industrial American town reveals about the limitations of local household and community coping strategies and the failures of government safety nets.

Introduction

At the June, 2018 annual conference of the Association for Study of Food in Society (ASFS) and Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society (AFHVS) in Madison, Wisconsin, some number of us SAFN members participated in an open forum on the 2018 Farm Bill and also took the opportunity to learn more about the history of the food movement in Wisconsin.

When I proposed this session, I hoped to involve food and nutrition anthropologists and other professionals in run-up and follow-up conversations, sharing information about how these professionals participated in Farm Bill related research, education, and outreach, including advocacy activities.  The round-table session would focus attention on the hot-button issues in the Farm Bill 2018 news, which from January through June included cut-backs and structural changes to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), reductions in conservation agriculture and community-food security initiatives that threatened to derail promising programs in urban agriculture and grants to support new farmers and ranchers, discussions of crop insurance and who should be able to collect benefits payments (only actual farmers or also non-farming family members), and overall discussion of environmental protection agendas, including permissible pesticides, organic regulations, and payments to users to encourage conservation practices.  The goals of this open forum were practical as well as research and policy oriented: to learn what ag/food/nutritional professionals were doing (and observing) with regard to the Farm Bill, and to learn what information and outreach formats work best to engage populations of farmers and non-farmers, including students and university faculty and administrators, to influence politicians responsible for the final form of this multi-faceted, “omnibus” legislation.  Finally, a question that cross-cut this Farm Bill and other food-movement discussions, concerned what are the most promising platforms for sharing information and perspectives, to generate ongoing exchanges of information.

At present (mid-July 2018), the final form of the 2018 Farm Bill awaits reconciliation of House and Senate versions that have now passed their respective chambers.  A key sticking point are major eligibility and funding-level changes to SNAP, the most important US government program protecting people from hunger.  At our Open Forum, colleagues shared various and sometimes contentious points of view they had witnessed among particular rural and urban populations regarding such government food programs.  Particularly in the midwest heartland, some of these professionals found considerable push-back against government income transfers targeted for food. Some of these hardworking folks (the particular example involved farmers) indicated they expected everyone to work harder and not have to rely on government-sponsored food entitlements at taxpayer expense.  For strong supporters of SNAP food-security benefits, including myself, these ethnographic observations were troubling, and revealed how much we who champion SNAP don’t know about the thinking or situations of opponents.  We read the household-level economic and nutritional studies and are confident that significant benefits are present and assume such results, in some sense, speak for themselves.  This situation, combined with a growing awareness of Wisconsin’s recent history, which showed Wisconsin state government and national electoral politics had shifted from “blue” to “red” raised the question: why do people vote against their own interests, and the well-being and future of their state, by reducing public spending for basic quality education and health care, which inevitably disadvantages everyone who has much to lose from an undereducated, underemployed work force that is also likely to be more sickly and threaten the public health of everyone?

As I pondered these questions, I looked for recent books and found two very recent publications on Wisconsin society and politics.  One was Amy Goldstein’s Janesville. An American Story (Simon & Schuster, 2018)Sometimes a book outside food and nutritional anthropology’s immediate, specialized area of interest provides important insights into science and policy issues that may be missing in studies that ostensibly more directly engage our targeted professional interests.  Janesville proved to be a case in point.  Although its evidence extended only through 2016, it offered a context to discuss proposed changes to USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as “food stamps”), in the 2018 Farm Bill, which US legislators still hope to finalize by 30 September 2018 when the 2014 Farm Bill expires.

As we found out from participants in our Open Forum, most Americans don’t follow the specifics of this enormous (“omnibus”) piece of agriculture, food, and nutrition legislation. Nor do they realize that close to 80 percent of the Farm Bill’s roughly $800 billion expenditures go to food and nutrition programs, the largest of which is SNAP.

SNAP, as we food professionals know, is the most important US food-security program, an income transfer program targeted toward improving low income household access to food, which expands and contracts according to expansion and contraction of employment and incomes.  The most recent SNAP participation figures, which the government tracks monthly, yearly, and state by state, indicate an estimated 41,240,974 Americans, living in 20,467,521 households, relied in part on SNAP benefits to put food on their tables because their existing income did not suffice. Average benefits per person were $126.76 per month or $255.41 per household.  That said, numbers of participants have steadily declined year by year since 2015, when more then 45 million Americans accessed SNAP in what was then a lower-employment and lower-wage environment, although average monthly benefits remained relatively unchanged.

Key proposed changes in the House Farm bill, which passed in late June, are reductions in overall eligibility and benefits, additional bureaucratic burdens of monthly recertifications, and mandatory work requirements for all able-bodied adults.  These specifics, including financial and social welfare analyses that demonstrate these changes will increase food-insecurity among those eligible and newly ineligible, can be found on the updated Center for Budget and Policy Priorities website.  Instead, consistent with David Himmelgreen’s well-reasoned “In Focus” essay on hunger, which used anthropology to put a human face on hunger numbers, I use Amy Goldstein’s Janesville interviews, which tracked individual and family histories from the great recession of 2008 for five years through 2013 (with brief “epilogue” updates through 2016), as a kind of ethnography, to examine the implications of changing US Food Policy.

The Findings

This book tells a distressing story, a case study showing how post-industrial American cities have fared in situations where their well-paying manufacturing jobs have disappeared.  Janesville, Wisconsin was a General Motors town.  Most of the residents, male and female, worked for the automotive company directly, in their assembly lines, or indirectly, producing parts (e.g., Lear engines), accessories, or services that went into the finished vehicles or provisioned laborers and their families.  Some worked, alternatively, at the other signature employer, Parker Pen, which also ceased operations during the period of study (2008-2013).

The chapters, arranged by years, tell the story of the town institutions, politics, and people forced to adapt to these deteriorating economic times. Each year’s framings also include political anecdotes showcasing the most characteristic stances of leading politicians. These politicians included Barack Obama, who was elected twice over this period, and attracted heartfelt support in this largely Democratic, union (UAW) town.  His stirring promises and commitment to the American automobile industry as an icon of American culture and economy, proved to be largely empty, despite costly federal government bail-outs, which seem to have fattened management and investors, not the workers, who were out of jobs.

The other major political figure was Paul Ryan, descendant of a wealthy Irish “mafia” (a local term taken directly from interviews in the book), who represented the upper class in this increasingly polarized community.  Ascending to Republican leadership positions in Washington, Ryan voted to cut budgets and benefits alongside his fellow Republicans, including Governor Scott Walker, who somehow managed to get elected multiple times and defeat a grassroots effort to impeach (recall) him. Why? The reader never quite learns the answer to this conundrum, which saw the state of Wisconsin withdraw healing or life-sustaining health and education funds at exactly the point where they were most needed.

The book begins with some background on Janesville, which had a long and illustrious history of hard working, civic minded people, who took care of their own, and avoided the violence that sometimes erupted in other union towns fighting for labor rights against management.  The general public and union at first assumed they would weather this shut-down as well, but as weeks and months became years of unemployment, the return of high paying jobs became increasingly unlikely, and people had to find other routes to livelihoods—or lose their houses (many were foreclosed), other major equipment (repossessed—although there was not much discussion of this), or move to where there might be better prospects (a handful of men commuted to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where they (nicknamed “gypsies”) worked at the GM plant from Monday morning until Friday evening, then drove back to spend weekends with their families in Janesville.

The narrative is constructed out of household and individual life histories, which detail the disruptions in the lives of four autoworkers’ families; two workers from other local industries (which also shut down), two local politicians (Paul Ryan and Tim Cullen, former and Future Democratic state senator, who tried to negotiate across the growing economic chasm).  There were also three educators, whose efforts to protect homeless students left behind by struggling families, a social studies teacher at the local high school, who created a Closet to provide emergency supplies for students lacking food and sundries for minimally decent and dignified lives because their households’ economies had collapsed.  Two business leaders, who don’t seem to have accomplished very much for the vast majority of those down on their luck, grew in privileged status—self-described “optimists” who distanced themselves from misfortune and unfortunates. Additionally, there were two community leaders who reported on economic situations and tried to bring attention to possible solutions.

Food and Nutrition Implications

For me, a food and nutrition anthropologist, the most evocative vignettes were the descriptions of multi-generational households struggling to put food on the table, once the major wage earners had lost their factory jobs. In these situations, all able-bodied adults and responsible teenagers who worked two or three jobs per person in order to maintain the human dignity and nutritional well-being of their households.  The workers included highly motivated high school kids, whose contributions to household budgets were significant enough to keep families from penury and more extreme food insecurity, but also prevented these households from qualifying for higher SNAP benefits and the college-bound kids themselves from needs-based scholarships.

Households without regular incomes cobbled together food provisions from minimal earnings, savings, and emergency sources, which included a high school emergency “closet,” established by concerned teachers, that contained essential food and sundries the kids otherwise lacked.  Over this period, various local charities, including food pantries and food banks, distributed what emergency food provisions they had and solicited more, but saw their financial resources cut back by what they interpreted to be mean spirited government, especially at the state level. These sections vividly testify to the limits of customary charitable networks, especially where most workers have lost primary sources of income that they have been unable to replace.  Traditionally generous local Christmas and other holiday food efforts continued but had to be scaled back. A community where large numbers were unemployed or had suffered big cuts to wages, saw increasing numbers of people with unmet needs in a context of decreasing contributions.

Social and Moral Dimensions

 The adults’ struggles to find jobs, provision their families, and put food on the table with dignity—as their roles changed from “givers” to “receivers” of charity are forcefully epitomized in these very human stories, short biographies of hard-working and loving families, coping with economic crisis and family disasters through no fault of their own.  For me, the most important findings came at the end of the narrative, which documented the growing bifurcation of what had been a resilient, middle class town, which over a very short time divided into a two class town that separated rich from poor, with the faltering lower class seeing no prospects for regaining their prior middle class life style and culture.

The other major insights were reported in two appendices.  The first, a 2013 survey of household economies in Rock County before and after the recession, showed deep cutbacks in quality of life alongside a reluctance to ask government for greater assistance. This may have been partly cultural but also suggests a deep distrust of government capacity to improve their situations.  Contrary to government officials, most thought the country was still in recession. Specifically, over one third of households had lost jobs, three quarters of the households had experienced a significant decrease in home values (a consequence of the separate but related mortgage and real estate crisis). For those who had found another job, more than half were earning less than before. Only 3-5% responded that they thought Janesville would recover to the financial and job security they had enjoyed prior to the crisis. At least half expressed difficulty at some point in paying for adequate food, and more than half had had to cut back on health care and other necessities.  Many acknowledged symptoms of anxiety and depression. But only about a third overall thought that government should be doing more to help people who were out of work (more out of work favored greater government assistance than those who had not lost jobs).

The second survey, which examined the impact of local community college job training programs, revealed that these job-training programs, which encouraged many workers to go back to school and retool for other jobs, did not put them at an advantage over those who did not access job training.   About 10 percent more of the re-employed workers had found employment without enrolling in community-college training. Those who had not gone back to school also appeared to have steadier work and to be earning more.  Local jobs that would have enabled the retrained group to put their new skills to work, at least in the immediate term, were not there.

Such findings bode ill for job training programs that are supposed to put SNAP or other beneficiaries of public food and nutrition programs to work, to earn living wages so they will not have to rely on government assistance. They also suggest an urgent task for everyone who cares about reductions in food insecurity.  It is time to go out to such heartlands, and listen to what people are thinking and doing, and find ways to emphasize the “jobs” connections to food programs, which otherwise will continue to founder through misunderstanding, resistance, and lack of support for entitlements.

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, Farm Bill, food policy, food stamps

Food OpEd Fellowship opportunity in San Francisco

Received from Polly Adema, who is the Director of the Master of Arts in Food Studies Program at the University of the Pacific. Looks like a great opportunity for anyone interested in writing about food and policy for a broad public audience. Note that the application deadline is March 22, 2017, which is very soon. 

In partnership with The Culinary Trust, the Food Studies program at University of the Pacific San Francisco is offering a 2-day intensive training for rising thought leaders dedicated to crafting impactful  OpEd pieces about contemporary food issues. The program takes place over a weekend in July in San Francisco. Tuition and travel scholarships are available. You’ll find details here:

http://www.pacific.edu/Academics/Schools-and-Colleges/College-of-the-Pacific/Academics/Departments-and-Programs/Food-Studies/OpEd-Workshop-A-Place-at-the-Table.html

Please share widely among your networks, especially among those engaged in food activism and food justice efforts. While authors, scholars, and journalists are encouraged to apply, we are dedicated to empowering people who may not have a background in food journalism or in writing for the public but who are committed to getting their voice more widely heard. The deadline to apply is next week but the application is pretty straightforward. 

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, food policy, Food Studies

What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, February 13, 2017

A brief digest of food and nutrition-related items that caught our attention recently. Got items you think we should include? Send links and brief descriptions to dberiss@gmail.com or hunterjo@gmail.com.

Where else to start but with the outlook for nutrition and agriculture policy in the new administration? This account from Civil Eats of a recent panel discussion on the 2018 Farm Bill gets to some of the essential questions: what will happen to farm labor? What is going on with SNAP? Any reason for optimism? Probably not. But this could be a good read to start a discussion with students about setting U.S. policy priorities.

For additional perspective on where the Trump administration may be going, listen to this interview that Evan Kleiman conducted with Helena Bottemiller Evich, from Politico. From Sonny Perdue’s background, to crop policies in the Farm Bill, SNAP, to soda taxes, food safety and regulation, immigration, and even the White House garden, there is a lot here. The same author has written about President Trump’s personal relationship to food here. This is a pretty detailed take on Trump, his family, and their history with food and well worth reading.

Hearings on President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Labor, fast food executive Andrew Puzder, have been scheduled for later this week, but the debate about his qualifications seems to be picking up steam. In this Washington Post editorial, a long-time Hardee’s employee discusses wages and working conditions in Puzder’s company. Meanwhile, Senator Elizabeth Warren persists in her efforts to raise important questions about Trump cabinet nominees. In this case, she has written a very long list of questions about Puzder’s qualifications that you can read about here.

As you may have heard, since the U.S. presidential election, George Orwell’s novel “1984” has returned to the bestseller lists. If you want to stoke the fires of your own paranoia, read this article, in which the very serious New York Times examines the strange deployment of military grade spyware (the kind deployed by agencies like the NSA) into the phones of soda tax activists and scholars in Mexico. Someone is taking food studies scholarship very seriously. At least in Orwell’s novel, everyone knew they were being watched all the time.

How do climate change, coastal restoration policy, indigenous foodways, community organizing, folk wisdom, seafood, food gardens, and tribal recognition all come together in one disturbing story? Read this article by Barry Yeoman, which uses a holistic perspective to examine how native people in south Louisiana are trying to save their communities and foodways as the Gulf of Mexico rises and destroys their land. Yeoman may not be an anthropologist, but this article would really be useful in any number of anthropology classes. Read it.

This piece by Nina Martyris on the NPR food blog examines the role of hunger in the lives of enslaved Americans. She draws on the work of Frederick Douglass, who wrote extensively about how desperate he was for food as a child. Yet Douglass also ended up using food in order to barter for literacy. This is a good piece for teaching about the use of food and hunger tools for controlling people.

From Lucky Peach TV, food science writer Harold McGee narrates this video on the relationship between pollution and the flavor of foods. He starts with the story of how a flavor scientist in LA became a major researcher and activist on smog, then looks at more recent work by folks from the Center for Genomic Gastronomy (yes, that is a thing) and the blog Edible Geography that use the concept “aeroir,” and “smog meringues” to get at the taste of cities. Quite a lot is packed into this little five minute video – show it to your students and you can discuss it for hours.

It turns out that mushroom hunting can be quite dangerous, but not because people end up eating poisonous mushrooms. Rather, it seems that people are themselves the danger, for a variety of rather disturbing reasons. Read this article, from Joshua Hunt on Eater.com for the details. Foolish behavior, murder, mayhem, and more. None of which is the fault of the mushrooms. Have the Cohen brothers made a movie about this yet?

Who invented Nutella and why? This seems like the sort of question that you could easily answer by visiting the web site of the company that makes the stuff (https://www.nutella.com/en/us, if you must). But this article, by Emily Mangini at Serious Eats, argues that the company’s story is missing details. She provides them in the article and refers determined readers to this blog, for an even more in depth examination of the subject.

If you are interested in the history of the restaurant business in the United States, then looking into fast food is unavoidable. From Andrew Puzder (see above) to Ray and Joan Kroc and, of course, to all the activists and workers struggling for decent pay and working conditions (also see above), it is hard to underestimate the importance of the industry to American culture. The success of The Founder, a film about Ray Kroc, provides at least one fascinating perspective. This interview, in which Russ Parsons talks with Lisa Napoli, author of the book  “Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away” (Dutton, 2016) is equally interesting.

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, food policy, Food Studies

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?

3 Comments

Filed under anthropology, food activism, food policy, government