Tag Archives: food studies

Christine Wilson Awards for 2019

Students! Are you writing great research papers on food and/or nutrition? Want fame and recognition? We want to hear from you!

The Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition (SAFN) is seeking applications for the Christine Wilson Graduate Student Award and the Christine Wilson Undergraduate Student Award for outstanding student research papers on food and/or nutrition. The winner of the graduate award and the undergraduate award will receive $300 and be recognized at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association and receive a year’s membership in SAFN.

Complete application information is here.

Deadline: July 26, 2019.

Recent Award Winners:

2018

Christine Wilson Undergraduate Award: Jared Belsky (Hamilton College) and Mackenzie Nelsen (UNC Chapel Hill), Cultivating Activism Through Terroir: An Anthropology of Sustainable Wine Makers in Umbria, Italy.

Christine Wilson Graduate Award: Alyssa Paredes (Yale University), Follow the Yellow Brix Road: How the Japanese Market’s Taste for Sweetness Transformed the Philippine Highlands.

2017

Christine Wilson Undergraduate Award: Kate Rhodes (Macalester College), Having a Steak in the Matter: Gender in the Buenos Aires Asado.

Christine Wilson Graduate Award: Sarah Howard (Goldsmiths College, University of London), Coffee and the State in Rural Ethiopia.

2016

Christine Wilson Award Undergraduate Award: Cynthia Baur (Dickinson College), An Analysis of the Local Food Movement in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Christine Wilson Graduate Award: Imogen Bevan (University of Edinburgh), Care is Meat and Tatties, Not Curry.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, awards, Christine Wilson

From Jute Harvests to Mall Food Courts: Fostering Discourse through Food Spaces

Sarah Fouts
American Studies, UMBC

Blog editors’ note: This is the spring edition of the Latinx Foodways in North America series, which looks at different approaches scholars use to analyze foods and food production with Latinx communities. Latinx is broadly defined to include the United States and other countries in North America. If you would like to contribute or know of someone who does work in this area, please contact Sarah Fouts.

An inevitable part of all field research is cooking and eating. Food activities—in both the raw and cooked stages—help ease potentially awkward encounters through interaction and conversation. Gathering ingredients to make the dish, asking about a dish, listening to the stories that emerge while cooking can be as illuminating as a semi-structured interview. It provides a space that is inductive, informal, and allows for intimate exchanges. For me, rich discussions with Honduran women deeply affected by the diaspora emerged while we work together on food.

My research on Central American food vendors in post-Katrina New Orleans led me to Honduras for two summers. In 2013, I made my first visit to the department of Santa Bárbara to visit my friend and his family. A year prior, my friend had returned to his hometown, a small coffee-growing community of just under 1,500 people. He used earnings from work in construction and community organizing in New Orleans to buy land for coffee production and to build a large home for his family.

One afternoon, I was invited to tag along on a jute harvest with women of the household—my friend’s wife, his sister, their mother, a young cousin, and an eight-year old neighbor. Pachychilus, or jute snails, are freshwater gastropod mollusks, with a shiny, black-coned shell—and an overlooked yet integral protein source. The act of gathering jute links today’s peoples to centuries of Maya practice. Archaeological digs in middens and sixteenth century Spanish historical accounts show how the ubiquitous jute provided vital nutrients and barter power in the Maya lowland subsistence economy.[1]

We headed down the dirt road with our plastic bags.  The road became a path. We ducked under barbed wire, then picked up a trail along a quebrado (gully). As we walked, we told stories (I mostly listened), joked (I usually willingly bore the brunt of them), and learned about local flora from my friend’s mother. One of the women commented that she had never ventured beyond the soccer field at the base of the mountain. The journey was special. And rare.

Fouts1

We climbed a small mountain towards the headwaters. Stagnant basins where kids swam quickly became fast-flowing streams and then, terraced waterfalls feeding pools. These pools were our destination:Fouts2

We descended upon the pools peeling the jutes from the submerged rock surfaces. We filled bags with jutes ranging from ½ inch to two inches in size, along with the occasional small crab, which were more annoyance than treasure. It wasn’t until the end that I realized that cosechando jutes was a competition. I had lost by a landslide.

We descended the small mountain with our bounty, and my friend’s mother collected large leaves from plants growing along the gully. The plant, juniapa, also known as hoja santa and scientifically named Piper Auritum, was the seasoning for our dinner—sopa de jutes.[2] With a flavor that blends sassafras, tarragon, anise, and black pepper, and a potency used medicinally to cure colds, juniapa added depth to the chicken broth base which also featured chunks of guineo verde. Jutes were added last, cooked briefly.

Fouts 3

To eat the jute, we removed the iridescent, plastic-like membrane cap of the snail, then sucked the meat from the shell. Jute shells piled next to our plates and formed contemporary middens. As we enjoyed the fruits of our venture, the women teased me for losing the harvest competition to an eight-year-old.

In 2015, I visited my friend’s family again, but I first met his sister in San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second largest city. She had moved to join her two older sisters who worked in the food industry—the oldest sister owns a fried chicken restaurant, Riko Pollos y Licuados, located in a mall food court while the other sister is a server in a popular restaurant. We went directly to Riko Pollos y Licuados and caught up over a meal of pollo con tajadas (fried chicken on a bed of fried plantains with shredded cabbage drizzled by Russian dressing). She left their small village,after the murder of her child’s father made her feel that she no longer belonged there. She was also bored and there were no jobs for her. In the city she takes classes, does odd jobs, and cares for her son and a nephew. She even contemplated briefly a trek to the United States, following her brother. She decided against it.

The next morning we took an early bus for the four hour schlep to their village in Santa Bárbara. Once there, we caught up, played with new babies, and: set the date to go jute harvesting. A chance to vindicate myself and my defeat two years earlier!

Again, we headed out the dirt road and past the soccer field. Children splashed in the basin as we climbed the small mountain. My main rival—now ten years old—talked about school and nail polish. We arrived at the terraced waterfalls and began the hunt. I filled my bag quickly as the rest of the gatherers joked and splashed each other. I kept my eyes on the prize.

And after a couple of hours, when we compared our bounties, my bag over-filled with jutes clearly outdid everyone. I reveled as we hiked back, the banter drowning out my friends’ mother’s explanations of various medicinal plants as she collected juniapa leaves.

Later, as we ate, my fellow diners set aside some snails, uneaten, separate from the mound of empty jute shells. I didn’t pay much attention and like a “good guest,” I emptied my bowl, talking, reminiscing and joking along with everyone else. We finished our meals, cleaned up, and I packed my bags for the early bus ride to my next destination. The jute expedition was my despedida (farewell party).

In the wee hours of the night, my stomach began to gurgle. I brushed it off as travel belly. A few hours later, on the bus, my stomach (I’ll spare the details) made clear why the family had set aside uneaten jutes—these were bad. In my quest for victory I had unknowingly picked dead jutes. And then ate them.

While my second jute harvest illustrated my overly competitive spirit (and its consequences), it also shed light on the importance of these spaces for these women. The jute journey provided a playground for competitive banter and even bawdy humor. It was an escape from the routine and, for some, a venture into the unknown. For the mother, as the elder, it served as an opportunity to pass down her knowledge, teaching recipes and the properties of plants, lessons she had likely learned from similar trips with her elders. The second trek served as a homecoming for one sister, estranged from the community, and, for me, a familiar activity through which to reconnect.

Fouts4

In the city, Riko Pollos y Licuados demonstrated the oldest sister’s mobility from campo to urban entrepreneurship, transferring skills bestowed by her elders. Riko Pollos y Licuados and plates of fried chicken anchored a space to catch up on tough issues such as violence in their community and questions of belonging. Observing, listening, participating, receiving in these processes—the not-so-subtle jabs, the laughter, learning, play, savoring, respecting tears of sadness—brought me into the family’s intimacy. And these women, so central to food production, elevated their voices and expertise, no longer relegated to the background.

[1] Healy, Paul F., Kitty Emery, and Lori E. Wright. “Ancient and Modern Maya Exploitation of the Jute Snail (Pachychilus).” Latin American Antiquity 1, no. 02 (1990), p. 175.

[2] Not to be confused with the traditional Honduran dish, sopa de caracol, which is conch soup and flavored with coconut milk.

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AAA Communities Coming Soon!

David Beriss

This is going to be a very quick note about two related things.

First, many SAFN members (and many members of the American Anthropological Association) have long been frustrated by the limitations of the listserv email system AAA sections use to communicate with members. I won’t go into the long list of problems (but one reason I am writing this here is because many of our members do not get the listerv emails). Rather, I want to point out that the AAA is rolling out a shiny new and very promising communications system that will combine email with a kind of social media platform. If it works well, it should solve a lot of our problems with the out-of-date listserv. If you are a current AAA member, you should look for email from the AAA in the next day or two outlining how the new Communities will work, how to log in, etc. The plan is to roll it out by March 1, which should give us the opportunity to use the new system to get organized for the 2019 AAA meetings.

Second, I was just looking at the AAA website and thinking about this new platform when I noticed that no less than two SAFN members have articles prominently featured on the Anthropology News front page. One is by Kerri Lesh, who writes about the anthropomorphizing of wine, starting with the Basque wines she studies, but raising interesting questions about the ways we talk about wine and place, about the dominance of French grape varieties in legitimizing wine tastes, about the problematic terms “New World” and “Old World,” and about Kansas mulberry wine.  The other is by Ashanté Reese, on what we bring to anthropology when we come from somewhere else (in disciplinary, political, ethnic, or other terms). It is not about food, but it is a good read, especially if you came to anthropology from another field (I came in from French Studies) looking for methods or theoretical frameworks, but not necessarily thinking about making anthropology the center of who you are as a scholar.

Go read the articles. Let us know about what you publish so we can write about it here and point readers in your direction. Be sure to especially let us know about things you write that are available to the public and not behind pay walls, because that is a great way to get people to read what you write. And if you are a AAA member, keep your eye on your email for announcements about the new communities in the next few days.

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Filed under AAA, AAA 2019 Vancouver, anthropology, SAFN Member Research

ASFS Pedagogy Award

In a recent post, we reminded you of deadlines for various awards from the Association for the Study of Food and Society. It looks like we missed one that could be of great interest to SAFN folks who teach: the ASFS Pedagogy Award. Fortunately, the deadline has not yet passed, although it is coming soon: February 15, 2019.

From the web site:

“The ASFS Award for Food Studies Pedagogy is given to the teacher of food studies in any discipline who presents a course that uses innovative and successful pedagogical techniques to reach students. These may include classroom exercises and assignments as well as outside projects, trips, and service activities. The course may be taught at the graduate or undergraduate level, for degree credit. Any ancillary evidence of exemplary teaching methods will also be accepted. A cash stipend of $200 accompanies these awards. Winner(s) are acknowledged at the annual conference and in the journal, Food, Culture & Society. The committee maintains the right to refrain from granting either award if applications do not demonstrate excellence.”

Details on how to apply are here.

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CFP: Mediations of Food: Identity, Power, and Contemporary Global Imaginaries

Call for Papers

2019: Volume 11, Issue 1

Mediations of Food: Identity, Power, and Contemporary Global Imaginaries

The Global Media Journal — Canadian Edition

Guest Editor:

Dr. Tina Sikka, Newcastle University, UK

In the field of transnational media studies, food and food cultures are traditionally examined as a type of media content, environmental/commodity object, or mode of sustenance (with some cultural significance), or, alternatively, as medium through which relations of gender, class, sexuality, and dis/ability are made manifest. Given this bifurcated lens, this issue seeks to bring together articles that examine the nexus between food cultures, identity, and media representation in more detail. Specifically, we seek submissions that use food as a lens through which to study how its mediated representation (e.g. television, print, film, the Internet/social media) reflects complicated histories of colonialism, empire, neoliberalism, and inequality, but also cultural resilience, social belonging, community, and political awareness.

Papers that draw into this discussion the complicated relationship between food media and  racialisation, gender, class, sexuality, dis/ability, and other manifestations of identity are particularly welcome – especially those that take an intersectional approach and engage with the significance of changing and culturally contingent conceptions of health and bodily comportment. Articles that examine the use of food as a form of power and resistance, in both productive and dangerous ways, and which reveal how larger patterns of oppression and marginalization intersect with the social imagery, political economy, public policy, and cultural survival are also desirable.

Topics for this issue might include (but are not limited to):

  • Digital media representation and food culture
  • Food and intersectional identities
  • Food and the politics of representation
  • Food and post-colonialism
  • Neoliberalism and global food regimes
  • Food, privilege, and mediated cultural capital
  • The cultural economics of food
  • Food and transnational identities
  • Food and social activism
  • Food, power, and bodies
  • Food, power, and discourse
  • Food, capitalist forms of signification, and resistance

The Global Media Journal — Canadian Edition (http://www.gmj.uottawa.ca/) welcomes high-quality, original submissions on related topics to the above theme. Authors are strongly encouraged to contribute to the development of communication and media theories, report empirical and analytical research or present case studies, use critical discourses, and/or set out innovative research methodologies. The Journal is a bilingual (English and French) open-access online academic refereed publication.

Deadline: April 15th, 2019

Submissions: Papers (5,000 to 7,500 words), review articles of more than one book (2,500 to 3,000 words), and book reviews (1,000 to 1,200 words).

Method: All manuscripts must be submitted electronically as a word document to Dr. Tina Sikka (tina.sikka@newcastle.ac.uk)

Guidelines: Available at: http://www.gmj-canadianedition.ca/for-author

Decision: April 30th, 2019

Publication: June 30th, 2019

 

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Filed under anthropology, CFP, food, media

Food and Cooking on Early European Television

We received the following call for abstracts from Dr. Ana Tominc, of Queen
Margaret University Edinburgh, and thought it would be of interest to SAFN members. 

Food and Cooking on Early European Television
Call for Abstracts

Food has been part of television from its beginnings. As technology that supported producing and broadcasting television pictures developed through the 1920s in both Europe and US, the first experimental TV service was established in Britain and then Germany in 1935 (Hickethier 2008). A year later, a Miss Dickson, also known as a singing cook, first cooked on British television  (Geddes 2018), followed by the more recognised chef Boulestin. But it was only in the decades following World War II, when broadcasting technology was further improved and the European nations slowly started to come to grips with the new realities of postwar Europe that food and cooking became firmly established as one of the most regular programmes on European televisions, both East and West.

This interest in food programming and especially food cooking shows, was partially to do with a particular focus of the European public broadcasters on educational contents of its television schedule, although this was not the sole reason for popularity of food and cooking on television screens. The audiences were often fascinated with television as a new medium in itself, and shows involving cooking became a familiar genre through which they could receive information about new foodstuffs that became popular in Europe through the postwar decades and popular recipes, but also educate themselves about manners and appropriate use of new household products that European industries produced after the War. Apart from offering a window to tastes and lifestyles that allowed Europeans of all walks of life to strive for self improvement (Bell and Hollows 2006; Lewis 2008; Naccarato and Lebesco 2012; de Solier 2005), food television also provided a narrative for self identification in terms of nation as it introduced dishes that “we”  eat, while also allowing for getting to know the “other”. It affected gender roles as it either reconfirmed women’s role as a homemaker or introduced novel gender patterns that transcended the previous divisions (Moseley 2008).

Food programming was one of the TV genres that features on almost all European televisions from early on, although in different formats, genres and quantities. The aim of this edited volume will therefore be to critically examine the role of food programming on European early television and the impact it might have had on food habits and identities for the European audiences.1 The role of television in this process was unprecedented, since, as Turnock (2008: 6) argues for Britain, “[e]xpansion of television institutions promoted social and cultural change through the development of production practices, technologies and programme forms that made culture increasingly visible in this new way; and this visibility promoted consumer culture.”

However, notwithstanding the importance of food programming on early television, research into early food television in Europe is surprisingly scarce, despite considerable interest in early television history on both east and western sides of Europe (see, for example, Bonner 2009; Buscemi 2014; Comunian 2018; Eriksson 2016; Geddes 2017; Moseley 2008; Tominc 2015; and for US, Collins 2005; Oren 2019). To an extent, this is understandable, given the potential lack of audiovisual sources related to early television overall (O’Dwyer 2008; Holmes 2008) where many programmes have not been preserved due to the nature of early television broadcasting.  However, this gap in scholarship is also surprising amid current scholarly interest in food media and their relevance for contemporary societies (e.g. Adema 2000; Bradley 2016; Hollows 2003; Ketchum 2005; Leer and Povlsen 2016; Oren 2019; Rousseau 2012; Strange 1998;  and so forth).

This collection therefore, first, looks to address this major gap in research on early food television in Europe; and second, to provide important material for a comparative study into European food broadcasting and the impact this might have had on ways of consuming food in Europe. In this volume, the aim is therefore to explore early cooking on European television in terms of its differences and similarities but specifically focusing on:

  • national contexts that allowed for development of specific food programmes and how this was reflected in the content
  • genres of food programming across Europe (e.g. various variants of cookery shows, travelogs, documentary-like representations of foods and so on)
  • content of these shows in terms of food: Who cooked? What did they cook?
  • who was the intended audience of the television programmes?
  • what was the impact of these shows on national or supra national food cultures?
  • what was the overall narrative of these television programmes in terms of identity, social change, modernity etc.?
  • to what extend did national broadcasting regulations influence the kinds of television programmes made about food and cooking?

Case studies from all European countries are encouraged.

Submission of Abstracts

If you would like to participate in this edited volume, please send:

  • a 300 word abstract that contains aim and brief background, sources of data & method, and potential argument/results if already known, and
  • a 50 word bio

to Dr Ana Tominc (atominc@qmu.ac.uk) by Friday, 26 October 2018. Notification of acceptance of abstract will be by 31 October 2018. Any queries should be addressed to Dr Ana Tominc (Queen Margaret University Edinburgh).

Information on Publication

The collection will be published with a major English language academic publisher, likely in 2020.

If the abstract is accepted, the authors will deliver the final article in good English by 1 October 2019. The length will be between 6-8,000 words including references and footnotes, depending on the final arrangement with the publisher. The exact length and formatting style will be communicated to the authors once the abstract has been accepted. An example of visual material is encouraged, although seeking permissions for publication remain with the author.

1For the purposes of this collection, early television will be defined dependent on the context of national television and the start of their national broadcasters. While attempts to established television started already before 1945, it was only in the two decades following WW2 that the majority of the European nations established their TVs, mostly through the 1950s and 1960s (Hickethier 2008: 56).

References

Adema, Pauline (2000): Vicarious consumption: Food, Television and the Ambiguity of Modernity. Journal of American and Comparative Culture 23(3):113-124.

Bell, David and Joanna Hollows (2006): Towards a history of lifestyle. In David Bell and Joanna Hollows (eds): Historicizing Lifestyle. Mediating taste, consumption and identity from the 1900s to 1970s. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Bonner, Frances (2009): Early multi-platforming. Television food programmes, cookbooks and other print spin-offs. Media History 15 (3): 345-358.

Bradley, Perri ed. (2016): Food, Media and Contemporary Culture. Palgrave.

Buscemi, Francesco (2014): National culinary capital: How the state and TV shape the ‘taste of the nation’ to create distinction. PhD thesis. Edinburgh: Queen Margaret University Edinburgh.

Collins, Kathleen (2009): Watching what we Eat. The Evolution of Television Cooking Shows. New York, London: Continuum.

Comunian, Cristina (2018): The Italian culinary identity shaped by early television broadcasts of Mario Soldati and his Viaggio nella Valle del Pol alla richerca di cibi genuine (Journey along the Po Valley in search of genuine food). Masters Dissertation. Edinburgh: Queen Margaret University Edinburgh.

Eriksson, Göran (2016): The ‘ordinary-ization’ of televised cooking expertise: A historical study of cooking instruction programmes on Swedish television. Discourse, Context & Media, 3: 29-39.

Geddes, Kevin (2017): ‘Above all, garnish and presentation’: An evaluation of Fanny Cradock’s contribution to home cooking in Britain. International Journal of Consumer Studies,  41(6): 745-753.

Geddes, Kevin (2018): Nailed It! The history, development and evolution of entertainment in British Television Cooking Programmes 1936-1976. A Presentation at the 1st Biennial Conference on Food and Communication. Edinburgh: Queen Margaret University, 6-7 September 2018.

Hickethier, Knut (2008): Early TV: Imagining and Realising Television. In Bignell, Jonathan and Andreas Fickers (eds) (2008): A European Television History. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 55-78.

Hollows, Joanne (2003): Oliver’s Twist. Leisure, Labour and Domestic Masculinity in The Naked Chef. International Journal of Cultural Studies 6 (2): 229–248.

Holmes, Su (2008): Entertaining television. The BBC and popular culture in the 1950s. Manchester: MUP.

Ketchum, Cheri (2005): The Essence of cooking Shows: How the Food Network Constructs Consumer Fantasies. Journal of Communication Enquiry, 29 (3): 217-234.

Leer, Jonathan and Povlsen, Karen K. eds. (2016): Food and Media: Practices, Distinctions and Heterotopias. Routledge.

Lewis, Tania (2008): Smart living: lifestyle media and popular expertise. New York: Peter Lang.

Moseley, Rachel (2008): Marguerite Patten, television cookery and postwar British femininity. In: Gillis, Stacy and Hollows, Joanne (eds.), Feminism, domesticity and popular culture. Routledge advances in sociology . London: Routledge, 17-31.

Naccarato, Peter and Kathleen LeBesco (2012): Culinary Capital. London, New York: Berg.

O’Dwyer, Andy (2008): European Television Archives and the Search for Audiovisual Sources. In Bignell, Jonathan and Andreas Fickers (eds) (2008): A European Television History. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 257-263.

Oren, Tasha (2019): Food TV (Routledge Television Guidebooks). London: Routledge.

Rousseau, Signe. 2012. Food Media: Celebrity Chefs and the Politics of Everyday Interference. London and New York: Berg.

de Solier, Isabelle (2005): TV Dinners: Culinary Television, Education and Distinction. Continuum, 19 (4): 465-481.

Strange, Nikki (1998): Perform, educate, entertain: ingredients of the cookery programme genre. In Christine Geraghty and David Lusted (eds), The Television Studies Book. London, New York: Arnold, 301-312.

Tominc, Ana (2015): Cooking on Slovene national television during socialism: an overview of cooking programmes from 1960 to 1990. Družboslovne razprave,  XXXI (79): 27-44.

Turnock, Rob  (2007): Television and Consumer Culture. Britain and the Transformation of Modernity. London: I.B. Tauris.

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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