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Thesis Review: Placing the Apple

Nicol_apple trees

Please note: I am soliciting reviews of recent dissertations in the Anthropology of Food. So if you have written a recent thesis or would like to review one, you can contact me directly: Katharina Graf, Associate Book Reviews Editor (kg38@soas.ac.uk).

Placing the Apple: Exploring the Urban Applescape. Poppy Nicol. Ph.D. Thesis, Cardiff University, Cardiff (Wales). 2015.

Camelia Dewan (Stockholm University, Sweden)

Poppy Nicol’s thesis Placing the Apple explores the dynamics of the urban apple in the UK. She follows the different types – commodity and club brands as well as different (heritage) varieties of apples across the food distribution chain from multiple retailers (like Tesco) and wholefood markets to community food initiatives and local growers and sellers. The thesis is firmly based in the intersection between geography and anthropology through its use of political ecology and multi-sited qualitative fieldwork to follow the urban apple in order to understand ‘the becomings of the apple’. The thesis itself presents a strong stance supporting place-based, knowledge-intensive, community-centered practices of ‘agro-ecology’ and argues that this has the potential to support more regenerative agri-food systems, particularly in city-regions, while being critical to dominant neoliberal forces that dominate the apple production and distribution sectors.

Throughout the six substantive chapters, Nicol shows the different motivations of producers, retailers and community-centered growers. The use of the London-based social enterprise Growing Community to illustrate agro-ecological logics in the urban apple is one that is particularly original and revealing in terms of an alternative food system within an urban environment. The concept of ‘agro-ecological practices’ permeates the thesis and Nicol juxtaposes it with global, intensified modes of agriculture. In doing so, the author departs from ideas of ‘urban metabolisms’ and ‘depletive agri-food systems’ where the commercial, globalized and corporate apple contributes to the depletion of biodiversity, soil and nutrition caused by the global industrial agri-food system in its search to maximize yield and profit. This is then contrasted with ‘regenerative agri-food systems’ based on agro-ecological practices aiming to optimize ecological processes promoting soil health. Nicol draws on Altieri (1988) to suggest that such practices consider cultivation as a food web rather than a food chain, whereby all elements, cycles and processes within the system are implicitly interrelated, interconnected and interdependent of one another. Such an approach enhances beneficial ecological processes to create a healthy soil with vital soil microbial and mycorrhizal activity that supports more resilient and efficient farming systems. This often involves a range of agronomic techniques, including intercropping, the recycling of manure and food crops into fertilizers and agroforestry, that reduce the use of external inputs and maximize resource efficiency (De Schutter 2014:9).

Nicol argues that the case of Growing Communities in Hackney, London, demonstrates how agro-ecological communities of practice support citizens to grow, trade and consume food in more healthy, ecological and just ways. With the support of the local authority (Hackney Council), housing associations and a number of community groups, Growing Communities have made use of public, private and community-owned space for expanding their patchwork-farming network, box-scheme distribution hubs, farmers’ market as well as the Growing Communities headquarters. Nicol offers many positive examples of the organization’s attempts to support apple variety diversity, including how it has supported a number of school food-growing projects within the borough, developed a network of market gardens and worked with local resident’s groups to plant a community orchard in the public Hackney area. It has also gone beyond Hackney by acquiring a 1.4-acre ex-council nursery site in Dagenham, the first Growing Communities ‘Starter Farm’, which is leased from Dagenham Council. Instead of being on a commercial basis, Growing Communities have focused on the multi-functionality of social spaces. Its distribution sites include three health food shops, an arts center, studio, a community garden, community center, city farm, two churches and a climbing center, as well as the Growing Communities headquarters, enabling interactions between residents.

The logic extends also to the shifting preferences of producers and buyers. Rather than the criteria for sameness, consistency of taste, durability (thicker-skinned apples) and perfection, pickers of local agro-ecologically grown apples tend to use their senses (taste, smell, sensation) to select apples for harvest, those that are deemed unfit for human consumption are used as forage matter or animal feed. The buyers of these apples, in turn, were found to prefer taste over looks and found beauty in imperfection after initial hesitation of how different these agro-ecological apples were compared to the more recognized supermarket brands. Nicol admits that though these sales are marginal in terms of proportions of apples consumed within the borough, she argues that Growing Communities provides a case of a community-led distribution scheme enabling the entry of the agro-ecological and proximate apple into the city.

There is a tendency in the thesis to strongly promote Growing Communities and agro-ecological practices. However, by showing how Hackney Council enable this community-based initiative by providing long-term access and security of tenure of production, trade and distribution sites, Nicol shows the importance of how regenerative agri-food systems are dependent upon securing physical, economic and political space that support and enable such practices. She suggests that forms of governance at local, regional, national and international levels can foster or frustrate the scaling-out of agro-ecological practices. Drawing on existing research by Altieri and Nicholls (2012:22), she argues that powerful political and economic organizations and institutions tend to support research and development for the conventional agro-industrial approach, while research and development for agro-ecology and sustainable approaches have been largely ignored or even ostracized. Nicol found that governance – particularly at national-level – marginalizes agro-ecological practices via the rise of investment in research and development in sustainable intensification, retail-led forms of market transformation and an obstructive policy and planning framework. She argues that practices of consolidation, privatization and externalization of risk enacted by a small number of multiple retailers are enacted within an enabling political and regulatory environment.

Nicol highlights that it is the dominance of multiple retailers in terms of market-share and policy environment that further complicate competition from more agro-ecologically oriented supply forms. The challenges of agro-ecological production and trade are compounded amidst a regulatory environment supportive of ‘market-led’ transformation, whereby supermarkets are considered the ‘familiar’ (HM Government 2008:64) and, it is suggested, default shopping environment for most citizens (pp. 223-224). Nicol shows that the corporate logic favors centralized, vertical forms of supply based on large-scale forms of production, while direct forms of supply tend to be decentralized and horizontal, facilitating trade with small-scale producers.

Nicol states that her analytical framework is informed by political ecology, relational geographies and social practice to explore “the distribution of power and politics in the scaling-up and scaling-out of [agro-ecological versus industrial] practices in and through place” (p. 278). Yet, the theoretical development and linkages to political ecology and how power dynamics shape the availability of the apple and structure of its trade could be developed further with clearer examples. It would have been useful to understand the political ecology that leads to agro-ecological practices being actively ‘marginalized’. In terms of scale, could it be that there is a limit to how much locally-grown and agro-ecological apples can meet demand? Could scaling up of spaces in the borough itself help meet the apple demand of the Hackney community considering that many community members are dependent on food vendors and multiple retailer brands buying commodity and ‘club’ brand apples? The question is, even if access to physical space was not precarious, would it be enough?

A deeper political ecology analysis of the constraints in scaling up agro-ecological apples would strengthen this thesis further. In terms of the use of ‘relational geographies’ and the recognition that non-humans do not just exist within the city and how things ‘become’ food, this could also be developed further with more explicit examples and linkages. It would also be interesting to gain a further understanding of whether the growers and Growing Communities themselves speak about their practices as agro-ecological? In addition, how do her interlocutors perceive the link between agro-ecology and the commodified and brand apples and do they express any concerns about sustainability, particularly in terms of ‘degenerative agri-food systems’ and how commodity and ‘club’ brands may reduce the biodiversity of apple varieties globally?

Her comparison between traditional, organic and biodynamic orchards and agroforestry is an interesting one, particularly in terms of how “biodynamic agriculture considers both the material and spiritual context of food production and works with cosmic as well as terrestrial influences” (p. 214). Pest and disease are seen as indicative of unbalanced fertilization and lack of soil fertility within biodynamic practices. It would be interesting to learn more about how these growers understood and/or embraced ideas of spirituality in agro-ecological practices as this speaks to current anthropological discussions on vitality, life-force and the unseen, as well as burgeoning research and the importance of symbiotic relationships between microbiomes, bacteria and fungi with other life forms (e.g. Tsing et al. 2017). In the concluding chapter, Nicols advocates that agri-biodiversity, agro-ecological and place-based practices as well as producer livelihoods are to be supported, but it is unclear what perspectives and information underlie these suggestions. Why agro-ecological above biodynamic or organic? Such a discussion would strengthen the arguments further.

Overall, this is a well-researched thesis that provides an interesting example of alternative food movements in the UK through the example of a community-based social organization using creative means to expand urban forms of gardening and local produce.

References

Altieri, Miguel, Environmentally Sound Small-Scale Agricultural Projects: Guidelines for Planning. Edited by H.L. Vukasin. New York: Codel. 1988.

Altieri, Miguel and Clara Nicholls, “Agro-Ecological Scaling-up for Food Sovereignty and Resilience.” Sustainable Agriculture Review 11 (2012): 1–29.

De Schutter, Olivier. “Final Report: The Transformative Potential of the Right to Food.” Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter. New York: UN General Assembly. 2014.

HM Government, Food Matters: Towards a Strategy for the Twenty-First Century. London: Cabinet Office. 2008.

Tsing, Anna L., Heather A. Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt, eds. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene. London: Minnesota University Press. 2017.

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

Review: A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism

A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism: Understanding the Political Economy of What We Eat, Eric Holt-Giménez, Monthly Review Press, 2017.

foodies guide to capitalism

Jo Hunter-Adams

Working in food studies often means grappling with inequity (and deciding where best to focus our own energies in light of inequity). Yet food systems exist on so many different scales, and connections to health, well-being, and nourishment seem infinite. In the face of this complexity, we become specialists in specific parts of the food system, and can easily lose sight of the broader context. A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism offers a key contextual primer for food researchers and activists. The book provides much-needed context for understanding of the consequences of treating food as a commodity. As such, it provides important tools for good, deep thinking on food systems. Here, the cliché “think global, act local” seems resonant: we become specialists in a particular space and a particular food niche, yet require understanding of broader trends (including capitalism) to work more effectively and avoid triggering a cascade of unintended consequences.

An overview of the book, in quotes (Loc refers to Kindle version)

Introduction: Do Foodies Need to Understand Capitalism?

Understandably, they [those working on food] concentrate their efforts on one or two issues rather than the system as a whole, such as healthy food access, urban agriculture, organic farming, community-supported agriculture, local food, farmworkers’ rights, animal welfare, pesticide contamination, seed sovereignty, GMO labelling…the list is long. (Loc 129 of 5123)

Critical knowledge of capitalism—vital to the struggles of social movements through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—largely disappeared from the lexicon of social change, precisely at a time when neoliberal capitalism was destroying the working class and relentlessly penetrating every aspect of nature and society on the planet. (Loc 172 of 5123)

Chapter 1: How Our Capitalist Food System Came to Be

By the end of the nineteenth century, mercantilism, colonialism, and industrialization had all combined a new form of global capitalism that spread powerfully, if unevenly, around the earth. … The flow of cheap raw materials from the colonies to the centers of imperial power transformed livelihoods, territories, and systems of governance as food, land, and labor became global commodities. (Loc 433)

Chapter 2: Food, a Special Commodity

Ever since peasants were pushed off the land and made dependent on wages, agricultural labor has been paid far less than its social value (what it costs to reproduce a farmworker’s capacity to work) much less what it adds to the price (exchange value) of food products. Today agriculture and food processing in the United States and Western Europe largely depend on undocumented labor. (Loc 963 of 5123)

Unless we change the underlying value relations of our food system—the contradiction between food as essential for human life and food as a commodity—we will be working on the margins of a system that is structurally designed for profit rather than need, speculation rather than equity, and extraction rather than resilience. This doesn’t mean that the many social innovations challenging the inequities and externalities of the corporate food regime around the world are not worth implementing. On the contrary, our food system needs innovation. But for these hopeful alternatives to have a chance of becoming the norm rather than the alternative within a food system that is structurally favourable to large-scale industrial agriculture, we will need to know what structural parts of the system need changing. (Loc 1044 of 5123)

Though we are not likely to lose the commodity form of products any time soon, we can work to change the relation between use and exchange values, and we can change the terms of socially necessary labor time (and working conditions) to make a more sustainable and equitable food system that reduces the exploitation of workers and does not pass off onto society the social costs (the externalities) that the producers ought to bear. (Loc 1065 of 5123).

When voting with our fork, we should remember that the freedom to buy food according to our values does not in and of itself change the power of commodities in our food system. If we want to change the power of commodities in the food system, we will have to change the way we value the labor in our food as well. (Loc 1103 of 5123).

The logic of capital—rather than the logic of fairness, compassion, ecology, conservation, or health—governs our food. Our attempts to transform the food system hinge on changing the social relation embedded in our food. Because food is both a commodity and an existential necessity, and because our food system impacts all other aspects of our social and economic system because we all eat, the social relation of food is pivotal in terms of human well-being. The firms controlling our food system understand this perfectly, exploiting the public use value of food to extract exchange values for corporate profit. Substantive changes to the food system will affect the entire economic system. Perhaps this is precisely what we need. (Loc 1103 of 5123)  

Chapter 3: Land and Property

Her (Elinor Ostrom’s) fieldwork with traditional societies convinced her that natural resources held in common could be sustainably managed without regulation from government. She also believed that collective action and reciprocity were critical components to human survival and for solving social dilemmas in which individual short-term self-interest undermines the greater good. (Loc 1371 of 5123)

Chapter 4: Capitalism, Food, and Agriculture

Peasants and smallholders still feed most people in the world, though they cultivate less than a quarter of the arable land. (Loc 1801 of 5123)

Subsidies are often criticized by some environmental groups, which claim that they drive overproduction of cheap food and are given primarily to large farmers. The reality is that low prices drive overproduction, which results in subsidies. Eliminating subsidies (without other major structural changes to supply and price) would likely drive small and midsize farmers out of business, thus contributing to further farm consolidation into larger and larger farms. (Loc 1819 of 5123)

Agroecology has been endorsed by the international agricultural assessment on science, knowledge and technology for Development and the former United Nations Rapporteur on the Right to Food as the best agricultural method to end hunger, eliminate poverty, and address climate change. Indeed, this is because agroecology is, in human and ecological terms, a “rational agriculture.” But agroecology is not part of the agricultural development programs of the U.S. development, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, the Department for International Development (DFID), the World Bank, or the plans for agricultural development of the African, Asian, or Inter-American Development banks. Funding for agroecological research in the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the United States represents less than 1 percent of the funding dedicated to conventional agriculture. (Loc 2149 of 5123)

Chapter 5: Power, Privilege in the Food System: Gender, Race and Class

Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed with be sufficiently strong to free both. Any attempt to “soften” the power of the oppressor in deference to the weakness of the oppressed almost always manifests itself in the form of false generosity; indeed the attempt never goes beyond this…. An unjust social order is the permanent fount of this “generosity,” which is nourished by death, despair, and poverty. That is why the dispensers of false generosity become desperate at the slightest threat to its source. (quoting Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Loc 2628 of 5123)

Industrial agriculture has taken the farmworker’s voice away, so we don’t hear them identifying as people of the earth. We have been identified as machines, as beasts of burden. It’s convenient for people to identify us that way because then it’s easy to exploit us. But if you’re talking about a human being who can express herself or himself as a person of the earth, with this intellect and wisdom about the right way to grow food, then it’s not as easy to exploit. A lot of the family farmers and growers know that the way they’re growing food and treating the earth is wrong. (Loc 2447 of 5123):

We can’t change the food system without transforming capitalism. Yet we can’t transform capitalism without changing the food system. And we can’t do either of these without ending patriarchy, racism, and classism. So, if we want a better food system, we have to change everything. Admittedly, this is a tall order for any social movement. The question for the food movement, however, is not, how do we change everything but “how is the food system strategically positioned to influence systemic change?” (Loc 2740 of 5123)

Chapter 6: Food, Capitalism, Crises, and Solutions

We should all feel sorry for ourselves for losing one of our most precious institutions, the family farm.” Farm depressions do not reverse farm consolidation; the land will continue to be farmed, but by some other farmer who pursues the inevitable (Loc 3204 of 5123)

We can use a lot more produce raised locally, but to think that a corn and soybean farmer could convert their land to fruits and vegetables is unrealistic. Midwestern farmers plant corn and soybeans fencerow-to-fencerow because there are really no alternatives in the capitalist commodity system. (Loc 3225 of 5123)

The challenge for our planet is not how to (over) produce food, but how to keep smallholders on the land while sustainably producing healthy food. The challenge is not to attempt to engineer “climate-smart” commodities for nutritionally fortified crops, but to build overall nutrition and resilience into the whole agroecosystem. This will take more—not fewer—highly skilled farmers. (Loc 3345 of 5123)

Conclusion

The challenge of building a public sphere for the twenty first century is not to re-create the past, but to build a new, transnational public sphere that has a critical analysis of capitalism, builds social legitimacy for movements for food justice and food sovereignty, and connects them with the broad environmental and social justice movements. It is not enough to build an apolitical public space in our food system. Creating alternative markets is not the same as shutting down capitalist markets. Both actions are needed for regime transformation. We need a movement that is able to forge a militantly democratic food system in favour of the poor and oppressed globally and locally, and that effectively rolls back the elite, neoliberal food regime. (Loc 3649 of 5123)

We also need to ask, who will transform the food regime, how will it be transformed, and in whose interests, and to what purpose? (Loc 3658 of 5123)

Understanding why, where, and how oppression manifests itself in the food system, recognizing it within our food movement and our organizations (and within ourselves), is not extra work for transforming our food system. It is the work. (Loc 3662 of 5123)

While not intended for an academic audience, this book provides a plain language, big picture understanding of the food system, and would be very well-suited to an undergraduate class. The book is U.S. centric, yet resonates and is applicable to a global audience.

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Thesis Review and Interview: Tacos, Gumbo, and Work

Edited Copy FalconPhotograph: Fernando Lopez

Please note: As Associate Editor, I am soliciting reviews of recent dissertations in the Anthropology of Food. So if you have written a recent thesis or would like to review one, you can contact me directly: Katharina Graf (kg38@soas.ac.uk).

Tacos, Gumbo, and Work: The Politics of Food and the Valorization of Labor. Sarah Fouts. Ph.D. Thesis in Latin American Studies, Tulane University, New Orleans. 2017.

Emma-Jayne Abbots (University of Wales Trinity Saint David, Lampeter)

Tacos, Gumbos and Work interrogates the economic and social interplays between migrant food vendors and construction workers – both commonly undocumented – in post-Katrina New Orleans, and situates this synergism within a broader political framework of regulation, law and migration policy. Fouts argues that taco trucks and loncheras provide migrant workers with ‘familiar and sustaining foods’ (p.4) and, as such, she examines the cultural work food vendors perform in the creation of their own economic and political spaces. The cultural work of food is a prevailing theme, but the key contribution of this rich ethnographic discussion lies in Fouts’s illumination of the ways that vendors look to navigate an intrinsically unhelpful and constraining bureaucratic system laden with structural inequities. The thesis highlights the multiple barriers food vendors face in terms of language, their status as undocumented, their access to social networks, and a licensing system entrenched in semantics that does not reflect the needs of the community. It thereby demonstrates how vendors’ economic and cultural capital, in association with their legal status, shapes their capacity for both social and physical mobility: this occurs not only in the sense that those who are documented can be more visible, but is also shaped by the extent vendors have access to knowledge and actors that can facilitate their navigation of ‘the system’. The theme of (in)visibility thus emerges in myriad ways and Fouts teases out the tensions that stem from vendors working in public spaces, whilst remaining in the shadows.

In capturing and comparing the voices and personal biographies of vendors with a range of economic and cultural capital, Tacos, Gumbo and Work successfully shifts its gaze between individual motivations and practices and the broader political and economic dynamics informing vendor actions and decisions. Many of Fouts’s participants are clearly vulnerable and structurally marginalized, yet they are not devoid of agency and Fouts’s sensitive representation stresses vendors’ creativity and entrepreneurial spirit, and their capacity to affect change within the constraints of living and working. This is particularly well illustrated by the manner that some vendors have rejected work in the formal economy in favor of the informal sector – an observation that also offers, as the thesis does more broadly, a seething critique of neoliberal policies and its resultant conditions.

Tacos, Gumbo and Work also raises questions regarding applied research, gender dynamics and social divisions within migrant communities. Below, I put these questions directly to the author, Sarah Fouts, currently a post-doctoral fellow at Lehigh University.

Emma-Jayne Abbots (EJA): Your ethical sensitivity and integrity are clearly evident throughout your discussion, not least in your methodology and in the volunteer work you undertook for your participants and the Congress of Day Laborers. How did you go about balancing your engagement with the community and applied practice with the academic analysis required when writing a PhD? What value does an activist approach bring?

Sarah Fouts (SF): Prior to my academic career, I was a Peace Corps volunteer and worked for a non-profit, so much of my worldview is in applied practice. As an academic I have done my best to extend this commitment to service. While it may seem that an unbiased analysis precludes close involvement, I’ve found that the two can work in concert, and I think it’s important not to take from the communities with whom I work without offering support or service. I was also fortunate to study in my field site, so logistically it was easier to balance the research and community engagement. With the community-engaged work, I had to learn when to say no to volunteer assignments, for instance during intense phases of writing or teaching, and I had a good enough relationship with those folks that they understood. Like I mention in the thesis, I never realized the degree to which my community-engaged work would impact my actual thesis. Once I realized that I could use it as the thread to connect my research, it was obvious that that was the organizing principle all along. An activist approach allows for more collaboration, particularly for people to be a part of telling their own story. For the researcher, accompaniment brings a first hand glimpse into how people navigate systems. But it does more than just understanding the barriers people face, it also helps them get through these barriers by interpreting for them, helping them access other resources, etc. As long as researchers are transparent about their involvement with communities, I think engagement can lend more valuable insight based on first-hand experience than just bird’s eye observation.

EJA: You mention that a possible direction for further investigation is the gendered dynamics at play in this context and, although your argument and analysis takes you in a different direction, there are certainly some interesting ethnographic observations on gender in your thesis. Given the ongoing critical debates about the feminization of food work, can I ask you to reflect upon how your own findings, as well as further scholarship on informal food vending more widely, could enhance our understanding of reproductive labor, especially its interplays with productive labor?

SF: The first five years after Katrina, it was mostly men that came to New Orleans. Women and children started to arrive after 2010, to reunite with their families and as a result of political instability across Central America. Oftentimes, it was the women who recognized the dearth of food options and the market for mobile food vending services. Women also continue to understand the flexibility of the street vending industry and the potential profitability. In many of these cases, reproductive labor directly intersected with productive labor in that women are able to prepare food for sale, while taking care of their children and completing other domestic work. In some of the more clandestine economies, women produce and sell food from their own homes; people would pick up foods directly from the home or someone, oftentimes men, would deliver the foods to construction sites. So in those cases, the women never had to leave home. Your question makes me realize a key part I left out in the case of the two dueling tamale vendors in Chapter Two. I fail to mention that there is free childcare at the Congreso meetings where the women sell food. So, the women could set up their booth and sell foods while their children played inside. This is so important. Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo (2007) addresses this to some degree in her work, as does Lorena Muñoz (2013). The feminization of food work comes up throughout my thesis and as I continue on with the book project I plan to engage this concept more explicitly.

EJA: There are points in your ethnography where there are evident tensions between vendors, particularly in relation to battles over turf. In what ways do these dynamics reflect and intersect with hierarchies of economic and cultural capital within the community?

SF: The root of these tensions and turf battles between vendors reflect hierarchies that manifest in terms of access. Oftentimes, this access is connected to documentation status, because there is so much power or perceived power linked to having papers. Like in the case of Clara and Leonora, Leonora can access more spaces as a tamale vendor because she has legal status through her English-speaking husband. She was able to get licensing—albeit a catering license—when Clara was not. But based on the other cases, it is likely Clara could have gotten a license as well (if she called the right person), she just assumed that she could not due to being undocumented. Other examples of turf wars include brick and mortar establishments versus the food truck vendors, which isn’t exclusive to New Orleans. These types of battles usually depend on institutional support as part of the hierarchies of capital. Brick and mortar places received support from the Louisiana/National Restaurant Association to fight for policies limiting the mobility of food trucks. But as food truck popularity grew nationwide, New Orleans City Council increasingly backed more liberal food truck ordinances, yet even those policies had limitations as shown in Chapter Three. One argument I maintain is that many of these policies, even though they may attempt to be liberal, fail to take into account what is happening on the ground locally.

As I continue onto the book project, I draw in a more cross-racial analysis, which reflects integration of Latinx communities in a predominantly Black city and within a New Orleans food culture that is quite homogenous. So, I consider questions like how have Latinx foods been creolized into New Orleans food culture. Here, these hierarchies of economic and cultural capital definitely come into play, especially within a Bourdieusian theoretical framework. But my argument links back to my first statement, drawing in questions of access—documentation status, class, and race. Those issues are inherently linked to these hierarchical tensions.

References

Muñoz, Lorena, “From Street Child Care to Drive-throughs: Latinas Reconfigure and Negotiate Street Vending Spaces in Los Angeles,” in Immigrant Women Workers in the Neoliberal Age. Champaign: University of Illinois Press. 2013, 133-143.

Hondagneu-Sotelo, Pierette, Domestica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring the Shadows of Affluence. Berkeley: UC Press. 2007.

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Filed under anthropology, book reviews, labor, Latinx foodways, migration, New Orleans, reviews, United States, urban, work

Some Pig

David Beriss

What is it we fear most in our food supply in the post-industrial West? Food shortages? Industrialized food? Genetic manipulation? Ecological disaster? Globalized food systems? The idea that we are either in or rapidly approaching some sort of food-related dystopia is certainly widespread, yet relatively hard to define. Wandering the aisles of American and European supermarkets, overflowing with astonishing plenty, it is hard to imagine what fuels our fears. Yet there is no doubt that many people have at least a nagging sense that something is deeply awry. There is a huge literature to reinforce those fears, of course, and a filmography to stoke our imaginations.

The film Okja, directed by Bong Joon-ho, puts many of our contemporary fears into one neat package. It is the story of a big corporation’s effort to develop and market a genetically modified pig in a way that will make it appealing to the masses (an effort remarkably similar to Chipotle’s little films). To do this, the company distributes baby pigs to farmers around the world, who will raise them for ten years. The pigs, now “localized” thanks to the farmers, would then be celebrated and turned into food. The film focuses on one pig, named Okja, raised in Korea by a young girl, Mija, and her grandfather, in an idyllic mountain setting. The fully-grown Okja dwarfs hippos, but frolics in the forest in a way that is reminiscent of a very large and exceptionally intelligent dog. In fact, Okja is clearly Mija’s companion and not livestock. This proves to be a problem when the corporation comes to collect the pig.

In addition to the first two elements of the food dystopia—the evil corporation that controls our food supply and the genetically modified animal—the film also depicts cruelty to animals by buffoonish corporate scientists and the horrors of industrial slaughterhouses. This being a neo-liberal horror film, the government is present only in the form of police enforcing the will of the corporation (although there are also private mercenary goons in the pay of the corporation, because that too is part of a good dystopia). Okja is taken by the evil corporation, first to Seoul, then to New York, for study, celebration, and marketing. Mija, determined to rescue her friend, sets off in pursuit. She is aided, and betrayed, by a group called the Animal Liberation Front. There is an element of Citizen Ruth in the struggle between the corporation and the ALF activists for Mija’s loyalties.

In the end, capitalism wins, although not in an entirely predictable way. The film is depressing, hopeful, and a little funny. There is no sense that Mija’s struggle to save Okja will prevent the coming food dystopia, even if she may get to carry on her idyllic forest farm life. The film points to the ways we are manipulated by corporations, as they greenwash their products so that we can feel comfortable buying them. It suggests that the efforts of groups like the Animal Liberation Front are engaged in a futile struggle (although this review, from the real ALF, suggests they do not see it that way). It also may raise the hackles of anyone engaged in food science. It might—or might not—be an argument against eating pigs.

No doubt everyone in the film gets what they deserve, except, of course, the pigs. Or maybe not. Show it to your students and see what they think. Since it premiered at the Cannes film festival last spring, it has been available through streaming on Netflix. Be sure to watch until the very end of the credits.

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Food Stamped, The Documentary

by Janet Chrzan

A few days ago I provided a shout-out about Food Stamped to several listserves (including SAFN). In that email I wrote:

“I’d like to provide a big shout-out for the recent documentary “Food Stamped.”

It’s a movie made by a couple in Berkeley about trying to live on a food stamp budget. She teaches food education and healthy eating in elementary schools. In the movie they interview quite a lot of folks about food stamp use, from people reliant upon them to members of congress. It’s 1 hour long, which makes it do-able for many classrooms.

I particularly liked their relatively non-judgmental attitude about food choice, especially since they live in Berkeley (epicenter of foodie-ism) and were shopping at the Berkeley Bowl and Adronico’s, my old stomping grounds. In other words, they come from an area that in my experience is very, very judgmental about food choice, yet much of that is left out or reflected upon in a meaningful manner by the filmmakers. They discussed the issues of ‘healthy choice’ within the context of budget constraints in a way that was very accessible and allows for a great deal of classroom discussion, especially since they lay out their own biases verbally so that the viewer can understand how they are thinking through the issues.

A particularly strong scene involved trying to feed a Shabbat guest on a budget, since they made the comment that all people like to have guests and be social, and so it’s important to think about how food poverty affects social opportunities.”

The responses to my post have been interesting, from emails from people who have seen the film (and like it) to a spirited discussion initiated by a fellow who, having seen the short trailer (and only the short trailer), wrote a couple of long emails about how the filmmakers had essentially gotten it all wrong, although bully for the effort. This prompted a civil response from the filmmakers (delivered by an intermediary) to which our fellow responded yet again, with the same basic message. He did mean well, but his response demonstrated just how contentious food issues can be, even for people who more-or-less agree with each other.

The bottom line? This film uses the idea of a low budget (in this case, one derived from food stamp benefits) to explore eating healthy on a small and fixed income. The filmmakers use themselves as guinea pigs and rely on realistic cinema techniques to demonstrate to the viewer how they think through and act upon trying to eat on a restricted budget. They discuss the process with people from the community, lawmakers, and those reliant on food stamps.  Of particular interest to them is how people can eat a healthy diet and remain healthy on such a restricted budget, and they focus on the ugly fact that cheap food is often unhealthy, yet within the budgets of the poor. With this frame they examine school food and the decisions made by school administrators about how to feed children. They are refreshingly free of anger, judgmental attitudes, and smugness throughout the film which is yet another reason that I think it’s an effective teaching tool.

A few of the discussion points that I intend to raise in class after showing this film include:

  • What is a healthy diet? Is their ‘healthy diet’ your ‘healthy diet’?
  • How much do we each spend on food weekly/monthly?
  • How and why is healthy food more expensive than unhealthy food, according to the movie?
  • Do you find that to be the case when you shop?
  • What are the aims of the Food Stamp program?
  • Are families meant to survive on a Food Stamp budget, or are there assumptions built into the calculations that posit other food income as well?
  • Do we as a society, acting through our government, have an ethical responsibility to make sure people can eat? Why or why not?
  • If you were a nutritionist and were advising a diabetic client on Food Stamps what would you suggest he/she eat and why? How would you work out a budget with that client?
  • Do you have the skills to shop and cook as wisely and carefully as Shira and Yoav did?
  • Do you know enough about food and cooking to live on a diet of beans and rice?
  • What kind of knowledge do you need to acquire in order to feel comfortable about planning meals on a small budget?

Obviously, these are just my first thoughts and jottings about how to use the film in teaching. But part of the reason that I think it’s such a valuable film is that I realized that I have NO IDEA what I spend on a weekly or monthly basis for food for my husband and myself. I have a big freezer and tend to plan and buy so that my larder (protein and grains/beans) can feed us for several weeks without shopping; only vegetables and dairy are purchased on a weekly basis (and at a pretty reasonable farmers’ market). My meat is all pastured, as are eggs and dairy, so I know I spend more per pound than most Americans. However, we also eat less meat/dairy than most carnivores so I figure it evens out. And I like rice and beans, and eat that way by preference, while I know that most Americans prefer meat to beans and prepared carbs to simple grains. I do know how to budget, I do know how to cook and I never waste food (because I am really, really cheap), but I am quite sure that eating on a food stamp budget would be difficult indeed.

The other discussion point – and I’m not yet sure how to frame these questions – is tied to the assumptions and contentions about food choice, knowledge and capacities. I am often gobsmacked by the tendency of food people to insist that their way – and only their way – is the good way to eat. Obviously, I like this movie because the filmmakers don’t do that… but the Listserve response has had a wee tinge of that sentiment. Food is so personal and intimate, and choice so tied to identity (especially in our capitalistic society) that people are naturally heavily invested in justifying their choices as ‘good better BEST!’ to themselves and others. But seriously, the vehemence that many bring to this issue baffles me. Somehow, I suspect that this film – and the student response to it – will allow us to discuss this difficult issue in the classroom. And I hope by doing so the students are able to begin to glimpse how their biases channel their beliefs about food and nutriture.

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Modernism in Cooking: New Directions

High science has established its place in contemporary cooking.  John Lanchester has written an excellent piece about it in the March 21, 2011, New Yorker, (pp. 64-68.)  He calls it “Incredible Edibles:  The Mad Genius of ‘Modernist Cuisine.’”

Lanchester starts with “sous vide” cooking.  Sous vide is when you put the food in a plastic bag, withdraw all the air, put it in a warm temperature controlled bath, and cook it for many hours to the exact temperature you wish.  He claims the results are extraordinary, and he reviews some of the leading proponents of it, such as David Chang (Momofuku) and Nathan Myhrvold (Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking.)   The latter book is a huge compendium of sous vide and other high science based approaches to cooking, both for the public and, for those fortunate to have the money and equipment, for the home.

Lanchester then traces the work of other chefs like Ferran Adria in Catalonia and Heston Blumenthal.  What we see is the effort to understand the chemistry and physics of diverse approaches and their extrapolation to exoticness, such as desserts which are cool on one side and warm on the other.  Modernist cooking is differentiated from “traditional” cooking, the New International a la Thomas Keller and Alice Waters.

In the course of his discussion, Lanchester shares nuggets of cooking strategies he has gained from his discussion. One important trick is to keep flipping a steak every fifteen seconds and it will cook faster.  He also shares factoid tidbits that have significant taste and cultural implications. “Water boils at a cooler temperature in Mexico City—twelve degrees Fahrenheit cooler—owing to higher altitude and lower air pressure….the New York oven is seven degrees hotter, and after three hours is ahead by eleven degrees.  That is a complicated matrix of differences for cooks to manage.”

In addition, Lanchester tells us about his own home experiments with modernist cooking and says that it is quite possible to do, provided you have the equipment, time and patience.  He sees a great future for modernist cooking: “…it proposes all kinds of new possibilities beyond familiar sensation and familiar language; food that is, to some deliberate extent, uncomforting.”  I think his review is worth reading for the directions it suggests and the possibilities it offers.  I would like to be able to try some of the recipes from the books he mentions—he has whet my appetite!

Comments by Richard Zimmer

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