Tag Archives: Food policy

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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Food OpEd Fellowship opportunity in San Francisco

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

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

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

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

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What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, January 27, 2017

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

Among the Trump cabinet nominees most likely to have an impact on the global food system is former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, who has been picked to lead the Department of Agriculture. What sort of leader will he be? There are a lot of opinions, many of them collected here in this very interesting piece from Christina Cooke at Civil Eats. Tom Philpott, at Mother Jones, adds additional interesting facts here.

What does the new administration mean for food systems in the U.S. and around the world? At Food First, Ahna Kruzic and Eric Holt-Giménez have written an incisive critique of the privatization of the presidency and where they think this is going, at least for food. They also provide some ideas about what people can do about this.

It seems that the U.S. will be building some sort of wall on the southern border and cracking down on immigration. This will inevitably have an impact on many aspects of our food system, from agriculture to restaurants. This article from Brian Barth at Modern Farmer examines some of the consequences.

Food activists can certainly be critical of the incoming administration. But it is perhaps even more important to have an idea of what sort of policies should be implemented for food and agriculture. The folks at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future have published a very interesting agenda for food and agriculture policy for 2017. Read it and be inspired.

The new U.S. administration is clearly a concern for many people in the food movement. Perhaps we are over-emphasizing the role of the government in D.C., to the detriment of local activism and local government. In this article, Paula Daniels argues that food system change should take a more decentralized approach. Consider it!

Meanwhile, clever entrepreneurs are devising ways to make sustainable urban farms in really unlikely places. In a recent New Yorker, Ian Frazier writes about the development of vast vertical farms that use very little in the way of resources. Right now, it seems that in the future we will all be eating very expensive microgreens. And maybe nothing else. For an alternative version of urban farming, this NPR piece by Sarah Feldberg looks at more horizontal farming in Las Vegas.

The pull of “purity politics” sometimes seemed to be deeply embedded in the food movement. We are often told that we can change the world by changing our diet, by eating fewer (or no) animal products, by following strict diets, etc. In this wide-ranging interview, Alexis Shotwell, author of the recent book “Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times” (U of Minnesota Press, 2016) provides a deep critique of this approach to food and other areas of life, including useful insights on why this is not an effective approach to politics.

Are you a food media producer of some sort? Would you like to win €10,000 for your work? You might want to enter your writing, photos, or video into the Thomson Reuters Foundation Food Sustainability Media Award competition, which you can read about here. Want another award opportunity? Apply, by March 15, for a UC Berkeley Food and Farming Journalism Fellowship. This is for journalists, but one supposes that that could be widely defined. It is an opportunity to work on long form food systems stories.

Food historian Ken Albala has been deeply involved with all kinds of noodles for quite some time. Read about some of his experiments in noodling around (sorry, but that pun was inevitable) here. You may feel a need to find (or make) something with excellent noodles after you read this. Prepare yourself.

Need something to eat that you can afford and that may make you feel hopeful about the coming year? You do…and you will. The New Economy Chapbook Cookbook proposes just the thing. Read about it here and then follow the links to download a copy.

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Fast Food Labor Secretary?

David Beriss

In the weeks following his election, President Donald Trump announced the nomination of Andrew F. Puzder to lead the U.S. Department of Labor. There has been much discussion and commentary on this choice. Mr. Puzder is the CEO of CKE Restaurants, Inc., which owns the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s fast-food chains. Because of this background, much of the commentary on his qualifications has come from the restaurant industry, including the National Restaurant Association (which favors the nomination) and the Restaurant Opportunities Center (which opposes his nomination). There is also this commentary, which suggests that nominating Puzder is a way of overturning the entire history of the Department of Labor, leaving in its place conditions for workers that resemble “The Jungle” (the author of the commentary appears to be in favor of this outcome).

Hearings on his nomination are scheduled for February 2, 2017.

If confirmed, what sort of job will Mr. Puzder do? The Department of Labor’s mission statement is remarkably succinct:

“To foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States; improve working conditions; advance opportunities for profitable employment; and assure work-related benefits and rights.”

Perhaps the most famous Secretary of Labor was Frances Perkins, who served from 1933 to 1945. She was the first woman to hold a cabinet position (and a sociologist!). More importantly, she was instrumental in creating President Roosevelt’s New Deal, she wrote the Social Security Act, and fought for minimum wage and unemployment insurance laws. The Department of Labor’s headquarters building is in fact the Frances Perkins Building. This is where Mr. Puzder will work, if he is confirmed.

Will Mr. Puzder “foster, promote, and develop the welfare” of American workers? Or would he do more to promote the interests and welfare of industry? Are these necessarily opposed? One of the reasons people have raised questions about Mr. Puzder’s ability to fulfill the Labor Department’s mission is that his positions on many of the issues are well known. He has written and spoken a great deal about working conditions, wages, and benefits in the restaurant industry. Here are ten questions that seem worth addressing prior to Senate approval of his nomination:

  1. Wages: The call to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour has been led by fast food workers, the industry where Mr. Puzder works. The current minimum wage is $7.25/hour and has not changed since 2009. Some states and cities have raised their minimum wages locally, but there are also states that have no minimum wage, so unless the federal government raises it, they will stay at $7.25. The minimum wage is not a living wage for most American families. Mr. Puzder, who reportedly makes more than $4 million annually, opposes raising it. Is there a societal interest in making sure workers are paid enough to support themselves and their families or should wages be set strictly by the market?
  2. Overtime: The Obama administration tried to update overtime pay rules that define which employees should be paid overtime when working more than 40 hours per week. The salary threshold below which workers can receive overtime pay has not really changed much since 1975, which means that millions of people are essentially working longer hours for free. Puzder argues that they prefer this freedom over higher wages and thus opposes the new rules. He has also argued against California rules requiring rest and meal breaks for workers. Who benefits more from workers “flexibly” working longer hours for no pay: the workers or the companies?
  3. Sexual Harassment: Puzder has been criticized for his company’s advertising, which has featured bikini-clad women eating hamburgers. Certainly, there is nothing especially unusual about using sex to sell all kinds of products. Yet at least one recent report suggests that sexual harassment is significantly more frequent at CKE restaurants than elsewhere in the fast-food industry. What will Mr. Puzder do at Labor to insure that workers in all industries have a harassment-free environment?
  4. Health Care: Puzder has argued that the Affordable Care Act has driven up health care costs and triggered a restaurant recession. The existence of this recession is disputable (see this and this), but access to health insurance and health care is certainly an issue for restaurant workers. What will he do to help restaurant and other workers in food-related industries get access to affordable health care?
  5. Sick Leave: Paid sick leave is not a common benefit for workers in the restaurant industry. Food service workers often work when sick or injured. Legislation has been proposed in the last few congresses to allow all workers to earn paid sick days. This seems like an important way to improve the welfare of American workers. As Secretary of Labor, would Mr. Puzder support paid sick leave for all American workers?
  6. Immigration: One of Mr. Trump’s signature campaign issues was immigration: he promised to build a wall and deport millions of undocumented people. The restaurant industry uses a lot of immigrant labor, including undocumented workers, and Mr. Puzder has been a supporter of immigration reform initiatives that include a path to legalization. This position has caused much concern on the right. The National Restaurant Association supports immigration reform and argues that the industry needs immigrant labor. Will Mr. Puzder support immigration reform of the sort endorsed by the NRA or will he choose instead to support Mr. Trump’s policies?
  7. Unions: The Department of Labor has long worked with unions to protect workers in the United States. Mr. Puzder is on record as opposing unions and unionization, especially in the fast food industry (the unions, of course, oppose Puzder’s nomination). He has opposed efforts by the National Labor Relations Board to make both franchisees and corporations jointly responsible for wage violations and, as noted above, he opposes the $15 minimum wage, both of which are strongly supported by unions. One analyst has suggested that he might use his powers as Secretary of Labor to undermine unions, rather than support workers. Can an anti-union Secretary of Labor work to support the interests of workers?
  8. Tipping: In many restaurants, tipped workers receive hourly wages that are far below the already low minimum wage. They rely on tips to make up the difference. For some, this results in unpredictable and low wages. For others, this means that front-of-the-house workers get paid relatively well, while wages for cooks remain low. There have been efforts by activists and restaurateurs to address these issues, but it is unclear where Mr. Puzder stands. What would Mr. Puzder do as labor secretary to ensure that tipped workers and other restaurant workers are able to count on a reliable wage?
  9. Statistics: Measuring society in order to determine public policy is one of the key missions of modern government. Yet during the election, candidate Trump often cited statistics, including the unemployment rate, that seemed unrelated to any numbers produced by government agencies or anyone else with real data. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, an agency of the Department of Labor, collects data and produces reports on everything from employment to prices. Will Mr. Puzder work to insure the continuity and reliability of this data? Or will he use the BLS to create “alternative facts” that support assertions made by the President?
  10. Experience: Puzder argues that increasing wages and improving working conditions in fast food will result in more automation and fewer jobs for people. But there is a lot more to the restaurant industry than corporate-run fast food chains like those led by Mr. Puzder. In 2016, restaurants employed 14.4 million people, with about 3.7 million in fast food. 70% of restaurants are single units, not chains. For most restaurants, the connections between customers and workers are an essential part of the business. Can Mr. Puzder advocate for workers—in the restaurant industry or in other industries—if his view of them is framed only by experience in large corporations?

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What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, December 13, 2016

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.

Just in time for Christmas, President-Elect Trump has nominated Ebenezer Scrooge to be Secretary of Labor in his new cabinet. Or at least, that is what Tom Philpott suggests in an article in Mother Jones. Over at Nation’s Restaurant News, Jonathan Maze writes that employers, and especially restaurant owners, are pleased by this nomination.

Policy think tanks and activists like to lay down briefing memos for new administrations. Over at the Stimson Center, Johanna Mendelson Forman and Lovely Umayam have written a brief memo indicating why global food security should be a high priority national security issue for the incoming administration. We are unsure, at this time, if Mr. Trump will take them up on the ideas presented in the memo, but you could use this with students to generate discussions about what, exactly, we mean by national security in the U.S.

On the domestic side of things, Nevin Cohen, Nicholas Freudenberg and Janet Poppendieck, over at the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute, provide a list of food policy priorities for New York City-based activists. The list and explanations will be of interest to food activists and scholars elsewhere.

Another analysis of the current situation in the U.S. for food activists comes from Slow Food USA director Richard McCarthy in this article from the Courier-Journal and the linked Mighty Fine Farm and Food podcast.

Fabio Parasecoli explores the intersections of artisanal food, reviving traditions, nationalism, and politics in Poland in this interesting article in The Huffington Post. The revival of tradition and food nationalism is always on the verge of dangerous politics, it seems. There is also an excellent picture of sausage.

How do food activists grapple with questions of race and racism in the United States? Joshua Sbicca and Justin Sean Myers compare two food justice organizations, one in Oakland, the other in Brooklyn, to see how they deal with race and build political projects, in a recent article in the journal Environmental Sociology.

The most recent issue of Human Organization, from the Society for Applied Anthropology, has two articles that could be of interest to our readers. First, Drew Gerkey examines the management of “common resource pools,” in this case reindeer herds and salmon fisheries, in post-Soviet collectives in Kamchatka. This has some important environmental and economic implications that should be of comparative values elsewhere. Second, Kathryn S. Oths, Frank J. Manzella, Brooke Sheldon, and Katy M. Groves draw on research in Alabama in order to look into why different kinds of farmers markets appeal to different sorts of people. This has implications for both the future of markets and for the future of the food movement.

We recently received notification of a new book by Robert Biel, Sustainable Food Systems: The Role of the City (2016, UCL Press). The book is about urban agriculture and food security and we have not read it…but you can download it for free, here. Biel teaches political ecology at University College London.

There are end-of-year best-of lists everywhere and Civil Eats has one that focuses on their favorite food and farm books of the year. It is an intriguing selection.

On the weird side of things, there is this blog posting and video in which Abbie Fentress Swanson enthusiastically describes her food finds at convenience stores in Japan. The selection is, of course, rather different from what one finds in U.S. convenience stores. Swanson provides some context for understanding Japanese enthusiasm for these stores. But watch the video: the food, wrapped in plastic, encased in what looks like soggy bread, is vaguely gray and old…and has, at least through the computer, exactly the same visual appeal as convenience store food in the U.S.

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What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, August 8 Edition

 

The inter-webs are exploding with fascinating food and nutrition readings; we can hardly keep up here at FoodAnthropology.

Before we get to the readings, however, we would like to welcome a new contributor to our team. Starting next week, Jo Hunter-Adams, from the University of Cape Town, will join the FoodAnthropology team as a regular contributor to this rubric. With a background in public health research, we are looking forward to even more interesting reading recommendations. She can be contacted at hunterjo@gmail.com. In fact, if you have interesting links, feel free to share them with her or with me at dberiss@gmail.com.

What does it mean if restaurants in some cities are so expensive that even the professional restaurant critics cry uncle? In this piece from the New York Times, Daniel Duane explores the implications of the stunning levels of inequality in San Francisco, where the super-rich eat ever more exotic and expensive dishes, while the people who cook them cannot find affordable housing anywhere in the region. Los Angeles provides an alternative model in this story.

But Los Angeles, despite being a great food city, has its own problems. Listen to this excellent example of investigative journalism from Karen Foshay at KCRW about wage theft in the Los Angeles restaurant industry. This is part of a series that explores a variety of issues in the industry, including injuries and healthcare, rape and assault, and trafficking.

In our last digest, we posted about the food politics of the U.S. presidential candidates. This week we have an article about the way food is used to shape the image of a candidate. In this case, it is Donald Trump, who not only eats fast food, but wants to make sure you know about it. Read this and you will. Meanwhile, if you are curious about who Mr. Trump might get his ideas about food policy from, read this article from Mother Jones.

One of the odder controversies to surface after the Democratic National Convention followed Michelle Obama’s speech, in which she noted that the White House was built with slave labor. Here at FoodAnthropology we thought this was a well-known fact, but it turns out that we were wrong, because Obama’s comment surprised many. What was less surprising was that someone—in this instance, Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly—felt it necessary to claim that the enslaved were “well-fed” and thus were not so bad off after all. This weird effort to soften slavery has long been a strange part of American historical discourse and this time food scholar Michael Twitty responded with both facts and a challenge to O’Reilly to eat like an enslaved person for a week.

Related to politics and not necessarily about food, The Nation has announced its annual Student Writing Contest. The objective is to write an 800 word essay on the question: “It’s clear that the political system in the United States isn’t working for many young people. What do you think is the central issue for your generation in Election 2016?” Six college students and six high school students will be selected as finalists and from those two winners will be chosen. There are substantial awards available. And it would be really great if the winning essays raised food policy issues.

As long as we are being timely, it is worth noting the quadrennial fascination with what Olympic athletes eat. NPR recently republished a piece from 2012 that looks at the caloric needs of different kinds of Olympians. Bon Appetit interviews a dietitian who helps approve the menus for the Olympic Village.

And while we are focusing on Brazil, Bridget Huber wrote this interesting article on that country’s food politics in The Nation, published, it is worth noting, in collaboration with the always-interesting Food & Environment Reporting Network.

The idea of “cultural appropriation” and the debate about who has the right to speak (or write) about different societies and cultures is one of the more interesting and intense areas of food studies. Journalist Laura Shunk explores the issues in a somewhat anguished fashion in this article, building her perspective from her experiences writing about food in the U.S. and then spending a year doing research in China. Whatever you end up thinking about the article, she also includes several very useful links to some key voices in this debate in the U.S.

Related to the cultural appropriation theme: One of the prime complaints about food media (mentioned in Shunk’s article above) is the way some journalists tend to exoticize the foods of others. It is interesting to think about what happens when we exoticize our own foods for others. That might be what is going on in this article from the new-ish website extracrisply.com, which explores the joys of livermush in North Carolina. Or maybe this one, which is about a Cincinnati delicacy called Goetta. Or perhaps this brief note on boudin in south Louisiana. All of this is part of the web site’s regional meat week, which you may find fun or you may want to critique (or both – you are allowed to do both).

For something that is both exotic and vaguely disturbing, listen to the latest episode of Gravy, the podcast from the Southern Foodways Alliance. This one explores why German food is popular in Huntsville, Alabama. Let’s just say that Nazis are involved and the podcast raises uncomfortable questions about the history of the U.S. missile program. Or at least they should be uncomfortable questions, as the podcast demonstrates.

In case you missed it, eminent anthropologist and SAFN member Richard Wilk posted some thoughts on food waste, wasted food, and what people consider edible across cultures on the Huffington Post in July.

Over at the always-interesting Savage Minds site, they have recently published two items on the anthropology of food. This is part of a series called Anthropologies #22 (you will have to ask them what the number refers to). The first one, by James Babbit, looks at meat, agriculture, industry, and alternatives. The second, by Zofia Boni, draws on the author’s research in schools in Warsaw to develop ideas about what it means to study food in general.

And to finish this week, the folks at The Salt (NPR’s food blog) have created this nicely educational quiz on what restaurants were like in the U.S. 100 years ago. To create it, they drew on the book Repast: Dining Out at the Dawn of the New American Century, 1900-1910, by Michael Lesy and Lisa Stoffer (2013, Norton).

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Review: Two Books on Hunger and Food Security

De Schutter, Olivier. and Cordes, Kaitlin Y. 2011. Accounting for Hunger: The Right to Food in an Era of Globalisation. London/New York: Hart Publishing (288 pp).

Timmer, C. Peter. 2015 Food Security and Scarcity: Why Ending Hunger is So Hard Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (240 pp).

Jo Hunter-Adams
University of Cape Town

Accounting for Hunger and Food Security and Scarcity offer complementary pictures of food accounting for hunger coversecurity and hunger, one from the perspective of economics, and the other from a broader rights-based perspective. As an edited volume, Accounting for Hunger allows for several fine-grained analyses of specific dimensions of food security. In contrast, Timmer’s Food Security and Scarcity draws global lessons from the history of food security, and offers market analysis as a basis for recommendations to economists and policy planners.

In Food Security and Scarcity: Why Ending Hunger is So Hard, Timmer lays out the complexity of global food security in seven chapters. Each chapter builds on a set of key assumptions about economic policy. Timmer focuses on the need for pro-poor economic growth, in particular structural transformation or urbanization, with decreased labor on farms. He asserts again and again that, “historically, the structural transformation has been the only sustainable pathway out of poverty.” (p113, see also xii, p4, 9, 29, 37, 56, 85, 95). Beginning with this premise, he spends much of the analysis looking at ways that such structural transformation takes place (and very briefly on the consequences when such a transformation fails). Not being trained as an economist, I did not understand some of chapter 3, which lays out specific models for balancing control of the market while allowing competition. My own shortcomings as a reviewer aside, a major strength of this book lies in its scope, suggesting some of the ways that the food price stabilization can be achieved at a global level, and not shying away from the complexity of such a feat (i.e. achieving “a guaranteed nutritional floor for the poor” and “secure availability and stable prices in food markets” p31.)

food security coverAlso to the book’s credit, Timmer does mention failed agricultural transformations, where populations end up in growing urban slums rather than gaining momentum to move out of {material} poverty. Timmer also mentions the lack of transparency of market transactions and large-scale food purchases, and the slowdown of new agricultural research.

However, the assertion that structural transformation is the key route out of poverty is worthy of critique. While Timmer is up front about the Asian bias present in the book, he is less introspective about the potential issues this bias brings to the analysis. That is, without defining the boundaries and exclusions (geographical and historical) of successful structural transformation, I found it difficult to be convinced in favor of “pro-poor” structural transformation. Past successful structural transformation cannot, taken alone, predict the future; climate change and the declining availability of fossil fuels surely opens up the possibility that the future may be different from the past, and that new routes towards food security will be necessary. Narrow conceptualization of material poverty and hunger also masks historical power imbalances, where economists may feel empowered to make far-reaching policy based on their assessments of hunger, without considering the exploitation that has facilitated inequality. This critique notwithstanding, the book offers a good introduction for non-specialists (undergraduate and graduate) into the issues and complexities of global food security.

The editors of Accounting for Hunger begin by offering a summary of the challenges and relationships between urban food supply and rural agriculture, emphasizing the need to consider the imbalances of power in food systems, with particular attention to farmers. Thereafter, the book is divided into two parts. The first focuses on power imbalances in food systems, with three chapters focused on agribusiness (Cordes), food retail (Cowan Schmidt) and Biofuels (Cloots). The second part focuses on the role of trade and aid in creating an international environment that promotes the right to food. De Schutter begins with an overview of the policies that govern international aid and the ways that these tend to overlook their role in promoting the right to food globally. In the three chapters that follow the authors focus on rich-country agricultural subsidies (Mersing), the legal recourse in relation to the WTO (Konstantinov) and recommendations for food aid (Moreu).

Rather than review each chapter, I would like to highlight a few chapters as good potential assigned reading for particular issues in food security. In chapter three, Cordes offers attention to the relationships between biodiversity, mono-cultures, and trade agreements. She also weaves in studies of GMOs, farmer suicides in relation to debt, and the need for transparency in agribusiness. Schmidt offers key insights into the disproportionate burden borne by smallholders and small farmers when forced to compete on global markets. Cloots’ chapter on Biofuels offered a very helpful introduction to the ways that biofuels shapes the commodities market. She argues that the current orientation of the biofuels market tends to infringe upon the realization of rights to food in developing countries, and deepen the bargaining disadvantages of low-and-middle income countries. Cloots effectively weaves the relationships between food security, land use, climate change, energy needs, and biodiversity. In chapter 6, Mersing considers the complexity of phasing out rich country agricultural subsidies without increasing hunger amongst the very poor. Here is where the complexity of artificially low prices for commodity food is juxtaposed with the need for these low prices given low wages and unemployment in low-and middle-income countries. The final chapter guiding food aid recommendations is clear and concrete, and lays out the intersections between food aid, the agricultural decline of recipients, and the muddy waters of motivations of the nations providing aid.

Points of intersection

In recent years, the focus on global hunger has shifted towards at least some consideration of local food environments and framing food security in terms of healthy foods—not only caloric sufficiency. The complexity of intersections between obesity and hunger deserved at least some consideration, as it has important implications for policy, including health policy amongst the growing populations of urban poor.

Both books frame hunger as primarily an issue of poverty, rather than an issue of agricultural production (though Timmer believes agricultural research and improved yield is a key part of food security in the future). Both books also highlight small-scale farmers

SmallholderNetBuyers revise

Illustration by E.B. Adams, http://ebadams.com/.

in the effort to improve global food security. One concrete point highlighted by Timmer is that farm sizes should increase somewhat to facilitate greater food security. Rather than advocating for large commercial farms, his argument is for moderately larger family smallholdings that would allow for more efficient household production and better local supply. This is consistent with chapter 3 of Accounting for Hunger, where Cordes highlights the ways that smallholders and small-scale market farmers currently shoulder disproportionate burdens of risk. However, while Timmer represents the market as a neutral force, the authors of Accounting of Hunger are much more willing to delve into the ways that powerful corporations may stack the odds against smallholder farmers. Both volumes highlight that higher food prices would not serve smallholder needs, as most smallholders are net buyers of food, and are at most risk for food insecurity, symbolizing the complexity of creating more equitable food systems.

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Filed under anthropology, book reviews, food policy, hunger