Archival Fellowship at the Vermont Folklife Center

The Vermont Folklife Center announces a fellowship (either dissertation or post-doctoral)   for those with ethnographic and archival experience. The Vermont Folklife Center has a rich history of work on food and farm work in Vermont.

Dissertation/Post-Doctoral Fellowship

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Stepping into the lo‘i: On taro production and community building at Hawai‘i’s Kānewai

kanewai1\Photo by Annie Sheng with editing by Robert DeGutis

By Annie Sheng, Cornell University (The University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, Visiting Researcher)

We volunteers peel off our socks and shoes, roll up our pants, expose our legs to the morning sun, but not for long. Soon, we step into the lo‘i, the taro wet paddies, feeling the soft mud under our feet—a respite from the onslaught of small rocks and jagged hard seeds that dug into our soles on our short walk to the lo‘i. We wade through rows of mounds of kalo, taro plants with their distinct heart-shaped leaves, making sure we follow the directions of our leader Makua Perry:

               Don’t step on or over the puʻepuʻe (the mounds of kalo), don’t disrespect them.  But feel free to talk to the plants. The kalo are like people, they have personalities. After all, the Hawaiian people believe kalo is their brother.

At first, we work in silence. But, as we continue to weed, pulling the sinewy intrusive vines from beneath the murky paddy waters, detaching and pitching these away from their tenacious grasp of the kalo mounds, we begin to chat. We talk about kalo varieties, initiatives to trade kalo cuttings with others in the wider community in O’ahu, uses of taro-derived pudding-like poi. “My uncle put poi in his son’s (my cousin’s) baby formula and he grew really strong,” says Makua. Our backs bent, our legs deep in the nutrient-rich paddy water, we pull, dig with our hands and pat down and replenish the kalo mounds with fresh, hydrating mud. Later, we rest and “talk story” under the thatched hale, a work of art with its own signification of Hawaiian identity, its grand roof supported by mangrove logs, in turn held together by the lashings also used in seafaring canoes.

But there is more ahead for us during this First Saturday’s Community Workday, held by the Hawai‘inuiākea’s School of Hawaiian Studies Ka Papa Lo‘i o Kānewai  since 1980, and directed by Makahiapo Cashman as part of the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. We learn about water and reciprocity during a short educational tour of the kahawai (stream). Before entering the paddies, we trek a hidden route, balancing on rocks alongside flowing water to the poʻowai (the headwater), the part of the stream that eventually feeds water into the loʻi. The poʻowai is nestled away from the “urban jungle” and sources back to the Mānoa Falls high in the mountains. At the poʻowai we learn the history of the secluded place, the reclamation of the land from its disuse after its illustrious history of producing kalo for hundreds of years, before and during Kamehameha’s rule, by local Hawaiians, and later Chinese and Japanese residents. After we soak in the stream’s history, we follow the snaking line of water back to the paddies and immerse our feet into the paddy water.

Kānewai’s staff, such as Makua Perry, bring community volunteers to the stream because their approach to water is fundamental in illustrating how native Hawaiians interact with others and the environment as part of the food cultivation process, “to leave water for those downstream, to share and give back to the environment.” Water is pivotal to any understanding of the lo‘i system, not only the mechanics of the paddies but the ontological whole of kalo production. Without water, there is no taro paddy. The way the water cycles through the paddies serves as a moral model. The organization’s name, Kānewai, draws from stories of the god Kāne who discovered fresh water in the area.

First Saturday’s draws some two to three hundred visitors (students, service members, locals, tourists, regular volunteers) to learn traditional Hawaiian agricultural methods and immerse themselves in the Hawaiian language. The day’s activities range from cultivation and maintenance of the space itself—from plucking leaves for fertilizer, stepping on leaves in the paddy mud to submerge them, to weeding, to cleaning—, and at the event’s heart is experiencing the lo‘i firsthand.

I started this post with the volunteers’ jolt of the sensory-rich entry into the lo‘i, but our workday actually started with handling pre-boiled kalo. Volunteers, sitting on picnic benches around giant metal buckets, bent our heads together and scooped pre-cooked kalo from the water. With butter knives, we peeled the kalo, dropping the peels back into the water clouded by the corm’s hardy skin. We shaved off discoloration or bumps, revealing a light purple flesh that smelled fresh, creamy and earthy all at once—then passed the kalo to a staff member to check.

Palani Deponte, the Kānewai staff working with us, taught us the names of the skin and edible flesh while sharing more about this core starch. He looked at the last taro piece I was struggling to peel and told me to eat it. It was a rather unforgiving piece and I was whittling it away to nothing as I tried to shave this piece to perfection. I was all too happy to stop—and bite, as directed. I sunk my teeth into the kalo, chewed, and let the flavors build in my mouth: starchy, rich, with a touch of sweetness.

On typical community workdays, the staff would have prepared a meal for all, with kālua pork and other Hawaiian foods, some cooked in their imu, the steaming pit oven. On this rare small workday of only twenty to twenty-five volunteers (the majority of the University was on summer break), there was no cooking fire, but we were satiated with the taste of the kalo, the sensations of that supple mineral mud under our feet and the compelling stories that underlie and animate kalo production.

As Kānewai grows many kalo varieties, it maintains a vibrant community of cuttings exchange, a continual contribution to the diversity of kalo stock. The organization circulates knowledge and agricultural material abundance, just as the water circulates life and growth in the lo‘i system.

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Review: Puer Tea

Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic. Jinghong Zhang. University of Washington Press. 2014

Yingkun Hou (Southern Illinois University)

Many scholars believe that the province Yunnan, in southwest China, is one of the most important places in the history of Chinese domestic tea-producing. The ethnic minority groups in Yunnan started cultivating tea about one thousand years ago, but it was in the last two centuries that Han migrants became involved in tea trading and made Puer—a unique type of tea to the region—well known to inland China. The tea is named after a town that was then the center to Puer tea trading in southern Yunnan and is one of six categories of Chinese tea. The writer Zhang, who was born and raised in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, has been familiar with Puer tea since her childhood. Perhaps this underlies her later interest in studying Puer tea: after she realized Puer tea’s growing popularity, and especially the rapid soaring and plummeting of trading prices in the Puer tea market in 2007, she became deeply interested. In tracing the “detailed social biography” of Puer tea, Zhang set out from Yiwu, Yunnan, where tea is produced for several other Chinese cities (e.g. her main research site Kunming). She planned to study its “packaging and unpacking process”—a “jianghu” culture developed around the theme of “handcraft authenticity” (2015:9).

As Zhang explains in her introduction, jianghu, literally means “river (jiang)” and “lake (hu)”[1]; it is often used as an analogical concept in Chinese folklore (related to fantasy novels of martial arts, or more precisely wuxia[2] portraits) and literature, describing a world outside of state governance. This creates a set of implicit yet practical rules and common understandings of righteousness, morality, and authenticity by leading heroes (or xiake[3] in Chinese, similar to vigilantes/knights) and their people. In the following chapters, combining approaches from anthropology and ethnography with unique Chinese concepts such as jianghu, Zhang shows us how the different actors and intrinsic features in the world of Puer tea resembles the world of jianghu in Chinese culture, reflecting current consumer culture and business practices in modern China. The book also presents a complicated picture of contradictions people face in regard to new forms of individuality, social relations, intellectual pursuit, cultural and national characters, and so forth in today’s Chinese society.

Puer Tea consists of an introduction, eight chapters—featuring the theme of four seasons which parallels a yearly cycle of tea producing—and a concluding chapter. While tea as a plant grows as the seasons change, it is also a well-known tenet that human life should follow the seasonal rhythms. The two chapters of “Spring” depict the production of Puer tea as a “sprouting” phase for the book in Yunnan: Zhang introduces the history of Puer tea in southern Yunnan in general by exploring the reconstruction of the “tradition” of raw Puer tea in Yiwu, with specific discussion on the construction of authenticity of Yiwu’s raw Puer tea. Furthermore, by telling captivating ethnographic stories, she sheds light on the aspects valued by consumers and producers who admire Yiwu tea: contrasting the features of Yiwu Puer raw tea with “the other”—the artificially-fermented Puer tea that is produced in much shorter time from Menghai. She shows how both the local and the nonlocal constructed their identities through the making of “imagined originality” which proves its authenticity (53). Further, she addresses the challenges producers in Yiwu are facing while the demand of their Puer tea grows. Indeed, as she points out, the business of Puer tea is like “the world of jianghu,” as it can further reveal aspects of modern Chinese culture as a close-up and condensed version of the transformation the entire society is going through. For example, she addresses the concerns about authenticity of Puer as an aspect of Chinese-style individualism:

Though not a dominant theme in Chinese history, individualism does exist and is quite evident in certain contexts, as in the case of jinaghu actors, whether in reality or in martial arts fiction, Chinese to act bravely in trying situations and to find their own solutions with their own special skills. If the factors affecting the “original aura” of Puer tea production are read as the social distinctions and counterforce among jianghu individuals, such anxiety over authenticity appears to be rooted in conflicting desires activated in the Reform era and by rising commoditization (76).

Thus, as Zhang discusses in this book, although the current official regulations for Puer tea may not be sufficient to eradicate the counterfeits, the competition between multiple jianghu voice for the standard of authenticity has filled the gap and in turn influenced the market in a variety of ways.

The following two chapters of the “Summer” section explain the convoluted relationship of the name “Puer” as a place claimed to be the original/authentic representation of Puer tea, while the controversy of what is authentic Puer remains a topic for discussion. Zhang introduces the debate about the origin of Puer tea between Simao and Xishuangbanna from multiple perspectives. For instance, while contention between these two areas remains central to the local development, it is “unnecessary” on a provincial level. Both areas are in the Yunnan province, and most consumers and even tea experts accept Puer tea from “Yunnan” without making distinctions within that geographical designation. Thanks to the success of Puer tea, the history of Ancient Tea-House Road has also been revisited recently by the Chinese public. The home of Puer tea, as Zhang summarizes, is “transregionally authenticated and multiply imagined” (103). Similarly, while the economic and geopolitical forces transform the definition and packaging of Puer tea, there are also consumer voices evaluating Puer tea and demanding clarifications of the quality standards. These ongoing debates, such as the “heating up” and “cooling off” of Puer tea as a result of “hastened transformation” and the coexisting desire “to package Puer tea” and “unpack it,” resemble the jianghu Zhang proposes, embodying contentions, constructions, and negotiations among different actors in different social contexts (120).

The remorse of autumn is a common theme in Chinese literature. In the autumn section (chapter 5 & 6), Zhang investigates the local families involved in the private tea business. Through ethnographic materials, Zhang shows how the preferences of consumers in Taiwan affect the changes in Yiwu, and thus profoundly transformed Yiwu’s local culture. In the jianghu of Puer tea, the standards of the valued and the appreciated “are open to the influence of history” (141). Many local families had stopped other activities such as raising livestock, growing rice, or producing soy sauce, dedicating their time and energy in the Puer tea business instead, which brought them better income. At the same time, similar to the fair-trade coffee business in Rincón (Mexico), Daniel Jaffee discusses in “Brewing Justice,” the potential price fluctuation for products such as coffee and Puer tea can be quite unpredictable and therefore dangerous to family businesses. In the time of the coffee crisis, the sudden plummeting of coffee prices had greatly changed the producers and their families’ lives (2014). In the case of Puer, people have encountered a recession of the market in 2007, which leads to another process of transformation in local practices that Zhang proposes best described by the Chinese concept hua.

In traditional Chinese philosophy, the concept of hua refers to “ubiquitous transformation.” In the jianghu context of Puer tea, Zhang argues that hua “intrinsically indicates the strategies and settlements employed by multiple actors to transform an unsatisfying situation into a comparatively more satisfying one (145).” For instance, people use “chenhua” to refer to the “aging” or “fermentation” process in storage, which transforms “the astringent feature of raw Puer tea” into “a mild, smooth quality” (145). Despite the lack of the government’s effective supervision, a practice such as chenhua allows local people to redefine the authenticity of Puer “flexibly and pragmatically,” recontexualizing and transforming local pragmatic strategies.

The last section of the book, Winter, presents tea tasting events in teahouses in Kunming (complemented by the films she recorded). Zhang was most elaborate on the one organized by Sanzui (one of the most influential tea websites in China), which discusses whether the aged Puer tastes better and what condition it should be stored in to produce the best taste, in order to resolve the “battle” taking place on the Internet (their website) about the issue. According to Zhang, the tasting is more about human interaction (human space) than the supposed thematic tea storage space on site. In her analysis, she proposes that this event touched on “multiple layers of space.” For example, the space for the topic of this event—the tea storage space and the site where the tasting actually took place—the teahouse, are two layers of space she mentions. What is interesting to me is the role of cyber space: it was the cyber space where all these people first discussed Puer tea, which then turned into a debate that made it seem necessary and possible to hold this event in the teahouse. Further, the sensorial information of the event was recorded in the form of photos and articles posted on the website, and the discussion of the tasteful experience in the event also flourished on the website later that day, instead of an immediate discussion at the site of tasting. These interesting facts reflected how people constructed their identity in the real-life tasting event quite differently than they would have on cyber spaces. At the same time, we could also see the sensorial representation of the actual event on the internet as another dimension of the actual tasting event—people could post their pictures and comments to the website in the tasting session and also read other posts. In a way, it is quite similar to the function of social media ten years from then, which also makes me wonder what the tasting would be like today with the prevalence of the social media. I imagine most of the people would post pictures and videos on site to their WeChat moments (in Chinese, it literally means the “friend circle” among one’s contacts, and mostly consists of the friends in one’s life. Almost everyone has access to their WeChat and Wechat Moment[4] at any point on their phone, as long as the phone can use cellular data), which can reach almost any Chinese in theory. Many business like Sanzui and organizations have their official account on WeChat in order to take advantage of the access to the immense user market.

Zhang’s Puer Tea provides a rich and multi-perspective ethnographic account of the jianghu of Puer tea in China in the beginning of the twenty-first century, especially in connecting the packaging and unpacking of different actors in the process of “making” and transforming the authenticity of Puer tea. By investigating into a variety of narrations and representations, Zhang presents us a snapshot of contemporary China where debates and contentions are constant and ever-changing.

Jaffee, Daniel, 2014.  Brewing justice: Fair trade coffee, sustainability, and survival. Berkeley Univ of California Press.

[1] The Chinese character for jiang is “江” ; hu is “湖.”

[2] Chinese: 武侠

[3] Chinese: 侠客

[4] Wechat (微信) is an instant massaging app in China. Wechat moment is a social media platform in this app. People can post pictures, videos and messages to their friend circles and read others’ posts in it.

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Meal Kits: Our Culinary Future?

photo of a toast

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Amy B. Trubek, University of Vermont

Americans spend more and more money on food prepared outside the home, and every day cooking becomes more episodic and less linked to gender and domestic obligations. Your grandmother would be surprised by your dinner preparations whether she was born in 1900, 1920, 1940 or 1960, whether she was or is a good cook, a terrible cook, a happy cook, a hostile cook.  At the same time, she would also find much that is familiar, especially the cycle of organizing, shopping, cooking and cleaning up. The past 50 years have borne witness to major social, economic and technological transformations to an obligatory chore. Highlighting the broad transformations and the immediate realities of making a meal is a new intervention in addressing the demands of everyday cooking – meal kits – that would intrigue anyone’s grandmother. You can now purchase all the components of a designed meal – the recipe along with the portioned ingredients – and have them delivered to your house. Although in the United States each meal kit service promises uniqueness – we’re vegan! Our packaging is compostable! We source locally! – there is a similar structure to all of them (for example, Blue Apron, Purple Carrot, Hello Fresh, Chefd ). The customer either subscribes to the service or orders individual meals from an online platform that provides a diverse array of meals to choose from. The ingredients and recipes are delivered to your home. But then you transform it from the raw to the cooked.

Are meal kits our future? My own research is preliminary but intriguing. In 2016, in the midst of finishing my book Making Modern Meals: How Americans Cook Today, a University of Vermont undergraduate, Adelaide Cummings, approached me after a lecture on the topic about her interest in doing an honor’s thesis exploring these. I had been following the launch of Blue Apron and Purple Carrot with great interest. Why not? We worked together to create a feasible pilot project, combining a qualitative experiment with non-users of meal kits (providing a week of meals and doing follow up interviews) with a quantitative survey of consistent users of them (providing a combination of open ended and multiple-choice questions). By the end of this small research project, we were cautiously confident that meal kits are here to stay.

We who do research on food and nutrition should investigate meal kits – their very existence reveals our cultural preoccupations and our culinary navigations. But they might also have predictive power, providing a window into the cooks and eaters we may become, serving as a talisman in a story of transformation to our everyday lives. Meal kits signal our on-going liberation from a long-standing reality: that in order to feed and nourish, first someone must prepare the meal. In 1960, Americans, on average, spent 80% of their food dollars on foods to be prepared inside the home. By 2015, that expenditure was down to 50%. What will we be doing in 2060? If meal kits allow us to create the cultural object we desire – a meal that nourishes and nurtures and comes from somewhere known, an endeavor that involves some effort but not much planning, a result that tastes good and not boring, repetitive or bland – then by 2060 they just might be the new normal.

The idea and the entrepreneurial activity to realize this idea are distinctly 21st century. The idea, interestingly, originated in Sweden, a nation and culture held up in the United States as a model of work/life balance, but where even so, making dinner every night can be a chore. The ‘invention’ is credited to Kristina Theander, a Swedish project manager interested in helping families figure out the ‘life puzzle’ of every day family activities. She launched Middagsfrid, which delivered bags of groceries with recipes to people’s doors in Stockholm; the business has expanded to deliver throughout multiple countries in Europe (Case Study) The first business in the United States based on delivering the components of a meal to be prepared at home was Blue Apron, founded in 2012 by three tech entrepreneurs. Other entrepreneurs (and now major companies such as Amazon) jumped into the game and now American companies generate over 1.5 billion dollars a year in sales of meal kits (See articles in the NY Times and Business Insider) .

Meal kits can be construed as a convenience product, but do they fall into the same category as frozen dinners and take away rotisserie chicken? The ingredients are compiled together in a warehouse and distribution center and then shipped in a cardboard box, ultimately delivered to the customer’s home. Each box contains ingredients that have been pre-measured and sometimes prepped for that specific recipe, as well as a recipe card with pictures to walk customers through the cooking process. Many companies, including Blue Apron, offer instructional videos for subscribers to learn different cooking skills that may appear in the recipes they receive.

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What FoodAnthro is Reading Now, 26 July, 2018

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.

First, here’s a fun video about prepping ancient recipes at Yale.

Murtagh-Wu writes a story about running a dumpling delivery service in Vancouver, and how the legitimacy of his efforts are deeply shaped by identity:

I sell dumplings which, in the Chinese culinary tradition, is no-frills fare that’s enjoyed at home (usually made by your grandma) or bought at a grocery store for a discount. I sell mine at a premium, and I add value by making them all by hand, delivering them myself to my clients, and sourcing my pork from a butcher which has been Chinese-owned and operated in Vancouver’s Chinatown for over 40 years.

Over on Medium, Sole-Smith writes about the experiences of people with highly restrictive diets. She describes how clean eating and the whole food movement have coalesced. Interestingly, the whole foods mega-personalities she mentions are all white men, and the people she interviews are all women:

At the height of her restricting, Meg ate only chicken breasts, protein powder, vegetables, and fruit. “And even fruit I began to get nervous about,” she says. “If I didn’t know how food was prepared, I couldn’t eat it. Nothing seemed good enough or clean enough.”

In breaking news, bread predates agriculture!!! I’m getting tired imagining the work it took to gather wild grains by hand.

“Nobody had found any direct evidence for production of bread, so the fact that bread predates agriculture is kind of stunning,” says Tobias Richter, a University of Copenhagen archaeologist who co-authored the paper. “Because making bread is quite labor-intensive, and you don’t necessarily get a huge return for it. So it doesn’t seem like an economical thing to do.”

Also on Atlas Obscura was this story about the evolution of a separate language– amongst multiple groups of people in Papua New Guinea– spoken only when harvesting a particular nut:

“Across Papua New Guinea, different clans with different languages all switch up their speech when they gather pandanus, lest they risk harming the harvest.”

“When you go up into the forest, or in any area that’s unknown, you don’t talk a lot,” says Franklin. “It’s a fairly limited register for the Kewa, mostly objects they wanted to refer to, or the phrases most commonly used. It’s functional language for surviving in the mountains.”

The importance of U.S. social support was palpable in this powerful story of experiencing the U.S. food system, and hunger, and the ways that the U.S. government is making life even more difficult for the poor.

“But sometimes, I feel that familiar feeling—as though I’m under attack. It’s that same threat that pervaded my childhood, from a small but powerful group of people demanding tax cuts for themselves and taking away what little everyone else has. They are The Hunters.”

Civil Eats had another compelling argument against proposed cuts to SNAP, and its importance to farmers, and urban and rural economies:

“The standard USDA model estimates that, during a weak economy, $1 in SNAP spending generates about $1.80 in economic activity. This would mean that the $64.7 billion in SNAP benefits distributed in fiscal year 2017 could have generated an estimated $114 billion in economic activity, creating and supporting more than 567,000 jobs across the country.”

The growing momentum to ban plastic straws is fascinating. These perspectives on straw use seem to be a really interesting case study in what gets to be considered sustainable within the food system, where does political momentum happen (straws versus a lot of other things making the food system unsustainable), where do people get passionate and press for change? NPR writes about the movement’s impact on people with disabilities:

“You’re putting this burden on disabled people to come up with a solution. You’re not asking companies that manufacture straws to come up with a version that works for us,” autism activist Wiley-Mydske says. “You won’t even take the bus instead of driving your car somewhere,” she says, adding, “How many of you are willing to die for the environment?”

It seems every digest there’s something to be said about the soil. This time it is a USA Today story about cover crops. One key dimension of thinking about soil is the time horizon: In large-scale agriculture, one could argue that prioritizing the soil means prioritizing long-term success (and the success of future generations of farmers). This story about Hutterites ran counter to the norms of agiculture-as-big-business and food-as-commodity:

“”When I came on board, I realized there was a strong partnership here with the Hutterites that was more based on friendship and bartering than monetary gain,” says Jin. “We’re trying to keep that relationship going.”

On a related note, values based accounting (and accounting for externalities) is an increasingly important alternative way to evaluate the efficiency of food systems:

“The relevance and impact of import substitution strategy is heavily debated in economics. Indeed, as economics favours efficiency in the allocation of resources, it is more difficult for it to include considerations about other values. As far as local food is concerned, for Philip Watson, who authored both papers, it boils down to a debate over values, namely efficiency vs self-sufficiency.”

Ideas of how to implement urban agriculture are at the forefront of many discussions of sustainable food systems, but at Urban Food Futures this story highlights the problem of trying to use the same strategies in very different places, without a focus on context:

However, they unveil a similar pattern taking place in both settings, namely, the temptation to use references and concepts coming from other countries to legitimize urban agriculture policies instead of building on the rich history of gardening in these cities.

At Civil Eats, Leilani Clark writes about the intersection between food security and faith for black churches based in Baltimore, Virginia, and North Carolina:

Maxine White, executive director of the Coalition for Healthier Eating lives by the motto, “The person who controls the food controls the mind and the wellness of the body.”

“BCFSN is returning the old feeding ways back to our community. People are eating seasonally, preserving what is reasonable to preserve, and Black producers are producing almost year-round what comes to the table—on their own terms.”

At Nautilus, Matthew Sedacca writes about how eating outside of one’s comfort zone can bring peace:

According to anthropologists and psychologists who have studied food in recent years, cuisines from international cultures can take us out of ourselves and help us better understand distinct people and cultures. The secret ingredient is empathy. And the process begins with stirring our emotions.

And lastly, on a lighter note: Feral chickens in Ybor City, Tampa, Florida.

Councilman Harry Cohen, who’s running for mayor this year, also suspects that those drop-offs might be inflating rooster numbers. “In recent years, the rooster population appears to have multiplied” said Cohen. “At this point, the concerns have to do with them making a mess and being very loud.”

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Call For Papers: What’s Next in Food Studies?

Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies invites submissions for a special issue (to be published in May 2019) on “What’s Next in Food Studies.” Globally, food studies as a multidisciplinary area of inquiry has attracted research interest and public curiosity. This special issue seeks to present what’s next for a vibrant field of inquiry and as such encourages submissions considering key questions, methods, and concerns in the global study of food.

Gastronomica has always provided a forum for transformational discussions crucial to an emerging field. This special issue will continue such a tradition. The vision presented in this issue of Gastronomica will emerge from dialogue. Specifically, we seek to identify the next wave of big questions that are emerging in food studies among food scholars from across the globe and representing multiple disciplines, institutions, and areas of inquiry. This special issue invites multiple voices (including students, junior faculty, innovative activists, emerging artists, and starting food practitioners) to submit scholarly articles that identify exciting new areas of inquiry, methods, forms of presentation, and approaches. Our goal is to feature the voices of new scholars (from any discipline) and facilitate dialogues that bring together these new voices with established food studies scholars and the perspectives of activists, social entrepreneurs, curators, cooks, brewers and vintners, farmers, and others.

Preference will be given to papers that expand and consider the multidisciplinary nature of food studies; advance new forms of scholarly writing and presentation; and seek to engage broad public and academic audiences. Preference will also be given to shorter essays exploring new critical and creative interventions into current debates on the political, cultural, economic, ethical, and social contexts of eating and drinking, cooking, farming, and food processing and industries.

WE ENCOURAGE THE FOLLOWING TYPES OF SUBMISSIONS:

1. Scholarly articles based on original research (approximately 7,000–10,000 words) including footnotes and bibliography.

2. Opinion-editorials (approximately 2,000–3,000 words) exploring a critical issue in food studies or in food policy or activism drawing from personal experience.

3. Omnibus reviews of important new works on food, from any or all genres (approximately 5,000 words).

All submissions will be sent to a member or members of the new Gastronomica editorial collective for consideration; appropriate submissions will also be sent for peer review. If you wish to contribute an essay on visual materials, please send any images as low-resolution digital files in a single PDF document in addition to the text by the 10/1/18 submission date. If chosen for publication, you will need to send high-resolution image files and secure permission to reprint all images no later than 2/1/19.

PROCEDURES FOR SUBMISSION OF ARTICLES: October 1, 2018—Deadline for submissions:

Article submissions should be sent to gastroed@ucsc.edu as Microsoft Word documents with: • What’s Next Submission in the subject line • A cover page with a brief abstract that includes reasons for inclusion in this special issue and a single paragraph author bio, attached separately.

 

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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.

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