Category Archives: food systems

Review: Organic Sovereignties

Organic Sovereignties. Struggles over Farming in an Age of Free Trade. Guntra A. Aistara. University of Washington Press. 2018. ISBN: 9780295743110.

Laura Kihlstrom (University of South Florida)

Guntra A. Aistara has written what the foreword of the book describes as the ‘first sustained ethnographic study of organic farmers outside the U.S.’. Organic Sovereignties is a multi-sited ethnography placed in Latvia and Costa Rica, countries described as regional peripheries in the European Union (EU) and Central America, respectively. I approached this book with great interest, given the lack of multi-sited ethnographies in food studies, as well as the frequent focus of books on organic farming exclusively on North America.

 One of the fastest growing sectors of the global food industry, organic agriculture is now an 82 billion industry. While 90 % of all sales are made in the Global North, 89 % of all organic products are produced by farmers in the Global South, the industry reflecting longstanding inequalities in the food system. How are these contradictions solved among organic farmers in two countries? How do Latvian and Costa Rican actors in the organic agriculture movement negotiate, create, and maintain sovereignties while their countries promote free trade?

The backdrop to the book is Latvia joining the EU in 2004 and Costa Rica joining the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in 2007. Through utilizing a multi-sited approach, Aistara demonstrates how seemingly different localities are in fact part of a broader global neoliberal system, and heavily influenced by their powerful neighboring countries, whilst having their own unique agrarian and political histories in how organic agriculture has developed. Similar to the approach of Alyshia Galvéz in her book Eating NAFTA (2018), Aistara follows free trade agreements at the micro-level to deepen our understanding of food sovereignty. The result is a rigorously researched ‘ethnography of frustration and resurgence’.

Chapter 1 follows the personal stories of organic farmers and those involved in the organic agriculture industry in the two countries. While the practices of Latvian organic farmers mimic the country’s agrarian past through so called quiet sustainabilities on subsistence farms, Costa Rican organic farmers associate their actions with democratic ideals and principles of agroecology. Despite these differences, organic actors in both countries have asserted their sovereignty not independent from the state but in relation to it. And in both cases, small-scale farmers frequently share an experience of being perceived as impediments to progress and modernity by political elites in power.

Chapter 2 is an exploration into the events leading the countries to EU and CAFTA. In Latvia, reactions to a potential EU membership were built around a general narrative of correcting a Soviet history of collectivization and confirmed in a referendum in 2003. In Costa Rica, membership in CAFTA was resisted loudly and openly, and ultimately decided upon in a referendum. Eventually, both countries have had to deal with the built-in inequalities in the trade deals. In EU, eastern member states still receive fewer subsidies than member countries in the west. In CAFTA, Costa Rican small-scale organic farmers were up against an unfair advantage against farmers in the Global North, as well as wealthier farmers in the middle parts of the country.

Chapter 3 focuses on the symbolic importance of landscapes for organic farmers as sites of memory, pain, loss, but also resistance. For Latvian farmers, organic landscapes have been designed by drawing from the past to which they share a deep connection. In Costa Rica, organic landscapes can be seen as a means to protect biodiversity and as a response to the history of colonization in the region, which has resulted in deforestation and chemical-heavy farming of export crops. In both places, organic farmers develop new models for farming and assert their sovereignty through maintaining and altering landscapes.

Chapter 4 weaves together organic farming and biodiversity. Aistara challenges the notion of biodiversity as a list of species and re-conceptualizes it as something that can be both created and maintained by organic farmers. She uses the concept of networked diversities to describe new forms of diversity that emerge from interactions between organic farmers and nonhuman actors in lived landscapes. For example, organic farmers in Latvia use their informal social networks to diversify their livelihood options, such as by inviting tourist groups to the farm to see grazing wild horses in the adjacent meadows. The positive feedback they gained from this experience further encouraged them to protect the biodiversity on the meadows. In other words, networked diversities demonstrate that new forms of diversities do not always emerge from conscious action but from a combination of informal social connections and multispecies interactions In Latvia, diversifying has been a way to expand livelihood options, while in Costa Rica informal seed exchange networks have been a way to conserve agrobiodiversity as a means of political resistance.

Chapter 5 is an overview of the challenges that organic farmers have dealt with since becoming part of transnational trade deals. In both countries, the process of ‘harmonization of legislation’ in EU and CAFTA has challenged the sovereignty of farmers. In Latvia, organic farmers have been discouraged by a surge in surveillance and inspections on their farms, while in Costa Rica seeds that had historically been managed by farmers have risked becoming the property of a privileged group of breeders.

Chapter 6 focuses on the failed promises of trade deals for small-scale organic farmers and businesses. Rather than becoming managers of supply chains, both Latvia and Costa Rica have remained in the margins and continue to mainly produce raw materials for European and North American processors. Aistara explains this as the result of a process of conventionalization in which small businesses are taken over or grow into the organic industrial complex (Guthman, 2014). Farmers in both countries have had challenges in being able to afford the expensive certification process, in not being able to meet strict hygiene standards for export products, or not having the resources to increase the value of one’s products.

Chapter 7 focuses on the tensions within the organic movement itself. This chapter demonstrates that organic farmers are indeed not a homogenous group of people. In both Costa Rica and Latvia, within the movement, amateur and small-scale farmers have often been marginalized. At the same time, as the movement aims to achieve recognition as well as to produce enough food to meet the demands of the industrial food systems, organic farmers in both locations have shifted their focus from values and principles to giving primacy to funds and resources available for them.

Is it possible for organic farmers to maintain their sovereignties while being shaped by free trade agreements and globalization? The book Organic Sovereignties is an ethnographic exploration of the frustrations and agency of organic farmers in two countries that are considered regional peripheries. By following two countries, Aistara demonstrates that there are similarities in how organic farmers and actors become disadvantaged by free trade policies, while their acts of resistance and resurgence build upon each country’s individual agrarian histories, as well as forms of political or colonial oppression.

The book makes several noteworthy theoretical contributions. It challenges the concept of sovereignty and describes it as something that is not necessarily free of the state but exists in a dialectical relationship with it. Aistara also conceptualizes biodiversity not as something in juxtaposition with farming activities, but as something that may be maintained and created by organic farmers. She concludes that conservation efforts geared towards protecting biodiversity may be unsuccessful if they discount farmers’ knowledge on the topic. Third, this book highlights that organic farmers are not a uniform group of people but have different subjectivities which are affected by histories of colonization, oppression, class, race, and geographies.

My one critique for the book is that the multi-sited approach makes it difficult at times for the reader to remain connected to both localities. Focusing on a couple of characters in each chapter throughout the book might have made some of the book’s themes more digestible. I recommend this book to graduate students in the field of food studies, agronomy, anthropology, sociology, and political sciences.

References

Gálvez, A. (2018). Eating NAFTA : trade, food policies, and the destruction of Mexico. University of California Press.

Guthman, J. (2014). Agrarian Dreams : the Paradox of Organic Farming in California. University of California Press.

 

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Filed under agriculture, anthropology, food security, food systems, Latin America

CFP: Transformations of Global Food Systems for Climate Change Resilience

CALL FOR PROPOSALS

Transformations of Global Food Systems for Climate Change Resilience: Addressing Food Security, Nutrition, and Health

Editors:  Preety Gadhoke, PhD, MPH (St. John’s University), Barrett P. Brenton, PhD (Binghamton University), and Solomon Katz, PhD (University of Pennsylvania)

Due DateMay 31, 2019

In response to the September 2018 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) call to action, we are seeking contributions for book chapter proposals. Specifically, we request case studies on climate change resilience frameworks for nutrition-focused transformations of agriculture and food systems for food security and health of populations living in vulnerable conditions. Volume contributors are asked to address the local challenges that these ongoing food system transformations present from diverse cultural contexts and geographical areas. Particular attention will be given to the catalytic role that anthropologists can provide in community-driven participatory action research and practice. Chapters will illustrate forms of resistance, resilience, and adaptations of food systems to climate change. Consideration will be given to research on: 1) enhancing food sovereignty for rural and urban underserved populations; 2) improving locally contextualized definitions and measurements of food security and hunger; 3) informing public health programs and policies for population health and nutrition; and 4) facilitating public and policy discourse on sustainable futures for community health and nutrition in the face of climate change.

 If interested, please submit a 200-word abstract outlining your proposed chapter and a brief 100-word biosketch by May 31, 2019 to:

 Preety Gadhoke, PhD, MPH

Assistant Professor of Global Health

St. John’s University

Email: gadhokep@stjohns.edu 

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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.

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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.

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Col(LAB) on Food, Risk and Privilege

by Annie Sheng, Cornell University

We experience the world and our food with all our senses, so why not get tactile as we discuss risk and privilege in relation to food? Princeton University’s Col(LAB)—a product of the synergetic confluence of collaborations between the Program in American Studies, the CST StudioLab and the Princeton Food and Agriculture Initiative—immerses participants in the intersecting spatial realms of classrooms, farmer’s markets, food pantries and dining hall kitchens to bring together various perspectives on pressing food issues through a venture involving “creativity and the unexpected,” said Anne Cheng, Professor of English and Director of American Studies. While the concepts of risk and privilege were left relatively open for interpretation, through interactive experiences, participants come together to understand how economic (in)stability, food (un)safety and social stratification may affect personal, everyday habits and decisions surrounding food. Participants included faculty, undergraduate, graduate students, staff, dining chefs, nutritionists and experts from within and beyond Princeton University.

The three-day workshop started off with a visit to the farmer’s market. Participant teams were tasked with purchasing food for a family of four within limited budget constraints. After interacting with fresh produce vendors, cheesemongers, various sellers and campus dining representatives at the farmer’s market, participants sported pens and texts and gathered to discuss readings on risk and privilege. We prepared analyses that interrogated issues of food production technologies, interspecies dependencies and slow food, drawing from writing by Allison Carruth, Anna Tsing, Angela N. H. Creager and Jean-Paul Gaudillière.

We all were asked to bring a food-related artifact, something that speaks of our own relationship to food to create a jumping off point for engaging in the questions of risk and privilege. Such personal artifacts ranged from coffee to eggs to soy-based cosmetics, as well as non-edibles such as a food scale, a mortar and pestle and a reusable water bottle. We talked of preservation and mechanical reproduction encapsulated in a can of cranberry sauce, the entitlement entailed in a jar of gourmet polenta and the caloric emptiness and capitalistic symbolism of a can of Diet Coke. For example, Tessa L. Desmond noted, “Soda companies have changed their marketing strategies to target low income neighborhoods, and kids in particular. Now it’s kind of like the suburbs. We’re vacating fast food and soda like we’ve vacated the cities for the suburbs…” The central concepts of privilege and risk framed these diverse personal food items and our conversation considered the scales of safe-to-dangerous, pure-to-toxic, sustainable-to-polluting, healthy-to-unhealthy and delicious-to-unpalatable.

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The conversation also turned to issues of culture and identity. What risks might be inherent in transmitting generationally the sense of culture through the vessel of a preserved egg—with some packages labeled lead-free and some, noticeably, not? How can and do ideas about maintaining a sense of cultural identity trump potential health risks?

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Food Systems Sourcebook

We often get requests here at FoodAnthropology for information on food studies programs and on other resources related to food and nutrition. The collective knowledge of SAFN members (a perk of membership is access to our association listserv) usually allows us to find the requested information, so we are always happy to get requests. However, we have recently been introduced to a new resource which seems like it might also provide people with quick access to information about degree programs (in all kinds of fields related to food and nutrition), conferences, consultants, funding for research and scholarships, publishers, and much more related to food systems.

This is the Sustainable Food Systems Sourcebook, which is published by the Thomas A. Lyson Center for Civic Agriculture and Food Systems. This is the same organization that publishes the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development. The number of categories for items listed in the Sourcebook is impressive. Some areas seem to have many more listings than others, but they are just starting out. If you have a resource you want to list, you can have it included for free for a basic listing (or pay for something more involved).

As it develops, this could prove to be a very useful resource. We may have to get SAFN listed! Take a look.

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Good Food Talk Webinars

Every now and then we run across resources for researchers and activists interested in food systems that may be of interest to our readers. We recently received notice of a series of webinars, organized by the North American Food Systems Network, that provide a forum to discuss food systems issues. The range of issues discussed so far is quite wide: race and agriculture, urban farming, anti-hunger groups and corporate America, etc. The North American Food Systems Network looks to be a very useful resource itself and worth looking into.

There is a webinar coming up on May 25, 2017, that will focus on measuring the economic impact of local food activism. It is free and open to the public, so here are the details:

Upcoming webinar:

Topic: Economic Impacts of Local Food Systems: Measuring Outcomes

Date: Thursday, May 25, 2017

Time: 1:00–2:00 pm Eastern Time (10:00–11:00 am Pacific Time)

Panelists:

  • Rich Pirog— Director, Center for Regional Food Systems, Michigan State University
  • Dawn Thilmany— Professor, Agricultural & Resource Economics, Regional Economic Development Institute, Colorado State University
  • Ariel Kagan— Senior Program Associate, Sustainability Collaborative, Food Institute, George Washington University
  • Kathleen Liang— Director, Center for Environmental Farming Systems, North Carolina Agricultural & Technical University
  • Becca Jablonski— Assistant Professor and Extension Economist in Food Systems at Colorado State University

    Moderator:
    Jeffrey K. O’Hara — Agricultural Marketing Specialist, Local Food Research & Development, USDA, Agricultural Marketing Service

Please register here.

Abstract

In recent years, a considerable effort has been made at improving data collection for local food systems, engaging and developing resources for practitioners to evaluate local food system activity, and to standardize the metrics used in reporting the impacts of local food grant and loan programs.  The presenters will provide an overview of some of these initiatives.  The objective of the webinar is to engage local food funders, researchers, and practitioners in a conversation about the effectiveness of these initiatives; if and how they have impacted local food system activity; whether there are merits to formation of a “community of practice” that would educate, share, review, and critique local food system studies and data collection processes; and if so, to discuss how such a community of practice could be structured.  A number of questions have arisen:

  • How effective are communities, local food practitioners, and researchers at evaluating local food system activity?  What are the strengths and weaknesses?
  • Has the capacity to evaluate local food market activity improved in the previous five years?
  • How strong and mutually reinforcing are the partnerships between community practitioners, researchers, and food system funders (like government agencies) at collectively and satisfactorily evaluating local food projects?
  • Are there opportunities to advance such a community of practice?  How would it look?  What are effective strategies for doing so?

Additional Information

This webinar will bring some high level insights from the Local Foods Impact Conference April 3-4, 2017.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), in partnership with George Washington University, hosted this conference that was designed to explore how to best measure the impacts of local food investments, improve coordination across USDA agencies, and evaluate the extent to which disparate local food investments are complementary and reinforcing. Over 300 people attended with  and another 500 tuning in via livestream for the plenary sessions. FYI, here are videos of the mainstage presentations, photos and slide presentations.

As background, the discussion for this webinar  grew from a 2013 meeting to address the state of economic analysis of local and regional food systems convened by Michigan State University’s Center for Regional Food Systems and the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food & Environment Program (http://foodsystems.msu.edu/resources/econ-analysis-webinar). Subsequently, in 2014, the USDA AMS convened a team of regional economists and food system specialists to develop a best practice Toolkit for evaluating the economic impacts of local food system activities. This NAFSN Webinar will provide an update on the thinking since that conference and the experience with the Local Food Systems Toolkit.

You can visit the NAFSN web site for more information on the webinar series.

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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.

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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.

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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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