Food Politics | Darra Goldstein and E. Melanie Dupuis

If we are to believe the simple slogans surrounding us, all we need do to nurture a sustainable food system is “think globally and buy locally.” But world realities are far more complicated than that. Take the case of Georgia. That’s the Republic of Georgia—for those who think locally—the one in the Caucasus Mountains on the Black Sea. By the standards of politically correct food activists, the farmers in Georgia are doing things right. Their farms are small, and their food is, for the most part, organically grown. The Georgians enjoy the freshest of local produce. Artisanal cheeses, homemade grape spirits, and backyard-dried fruit leathers are widely available. But a network of small-scale farms boasting beautiful soil and careful attention does not necessarily make agriculture sustainable. For better or worse, international exports are needed to make farming viable in Georgia and across most of the world.

During the Soviet era Georgia supplied Russia with much of its produce. I well remember crowded flights from Tbilisi to Moscow with bulging sacks of lemons blocking the exits and aisles—the carry-on luggage of market vendors importing their goods. Georgia was paradise in those days, a land of Cockaigne to Russia’s dearth. Even though the Georgians felt the weight of Soviet oppression, they led a good life.

Now Georgia is autonomous, but Russia still wants to keep it under the imperial thumb. And so a struggle for independence is being waged. This struggle is considerably subtler than the one in Chechnya to the north. It is not fought with guns or grenades, but its effects are still devastating. With many billions of dollars at stake, the Russians are furious that the new us-brokered natural gas pipeline winds through Georgia instead of Russia, and so they have retaliated. Thousands of Georgian workers have been expelled from Russia on accusations of terrorist activity, and Georgian products have been embargoed (an announcement that sent Muscovites racing to the stores to buy up any remaining Georgian wine). Although the Russians will miss Georgian produce, these days they can buy lemons from Argentina and stone fruits from the Netherlands. The loss of their major trading partner is a much greater hardship for the Georgians, whose economy depends heavily on the trade of agricultural goods.

As some of you may know, my background is in Russian literature and Russian studies, so it’s characteristic that I should take three paragraphs and seven thousand miles to reflect on how food is used as a political weapon. Fortunately, others are less circuitous and have been focusing on this issue right here at home. Last summer, Melanie DuPuis, a sociology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, wrote to tell me about a very active interdisciplinary group of scholars that convenes to discuss issues of food, sustainability, and hunger. She wondered whether Gastronomica might consider a few articles that the group had written dealing with the politics of food. A few articles, I thought—why not put together an entire issue? And so this special issue of Gastronomica was born. Inside you’ll discover how a new generation of sociologists, political scientists, artists, and social activists is thinking about the interplay between politics and food. You’ll read about early plant hunters who scoured the globe for exotic produce to introduce to the American market, about the battles over refined bread that took place well before Wonder Bread hit the grocery stores, about the labor struggles of migrant workers. Other articles examine the role of government in regulating foodstuffs and in creating a new semantics of hunger. Because most of the participants in the California group are Americanists, this issue is largely focused on food politics in the States.

Of course, we’re still connected to the rest of the world. The problem is that we sometimes get so caught up in the local that we fail to consider the broader ramifications that our choices might have. As any food historian knows, the global economy is nothing new; foodstuffs have, from the earliest times, been transported afar. Local produce is generally tastier and healthier, but in our eagerness to support local farmers let’s not forget entirely about the farmers struggling elsewhere. Thinking locally and buying globally also works—as long as we’re selective and remain aware that, in a world economy, we vote at every meal.

Over the past year the Slow Food Forum has been compiling a “Mandatory Reading List” on food, including works from authors like Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, and Alice Waters. Slow Food members suggest books, which the Web site moderator adds to the list. This list does not include any of the authors you are about to read in this issue of Gastronomica. As you peruse their articles, think about why that might be. It’s not because these authors write in ways that are not interesting or accessible to a broader public. And it’s certainly not because they don’t know much about food. It’s because their understanding of food politics goes beyond the simple dichotomies of “global and fast = bad; local and slow = good.” These writers explore the broader impacts of the choices we make, and their conclusions are not necessarily what the public wants to hear. After all, when we are up against the Goliath of the Fast Food Nation, the simpler explanations of popular food writers are much more reassuring. Gary Paul Nabhan’s idea of “coming home to eat” makes the political path start from inside our front door, a place where we feel safe. But sometimes it’s better to walk out the door and discover things that we don’t always want to see.

To a degree, we as consumers are already doing that. We increasingly demand the right to make decisions about what we eat, and we are questioning our food system. This approach is part of a larger political movement in which people are taking personal responsibility for changing the world. Yet, what exactly are we responsible for? A more just world through our personal eating habits? What do we mean by “just,” and how will our food choices get us there? If our food choices are political, then we need to be accountable for them. Unfortunately, there is no label to read on the side of a political choice to help us understand what we are choosing. Nevertheless, we need to examine what’s “behind the brand” of our political choices as deeply as we examine the foods we buy. It is this sort of exploration that the writers in this issue are engaged in.

Many of these writers have been part of this political movement for many years. We have worked to make and expand the alternative food system, from csas to ethnic food brokers, from community gardens to farmers’ markets. Last fall, as fellows of the University of California Humanities Research Institute at uc Irvine, a number of us spent several weeks together talking about issues of food, race, and inequality. We are grateful for the support of that institute and its director, David Theo Goldberg, especially since many of the contributions you will read are part of the larger projects we began there.

I personally have been thinking about food and sustainability for a long time. More than a decade ago I helped found the Regional Food and Farm Project, a group working to expand the local food system in upstate New York. When another group “next door” in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts started their own project, I worked with them for a period of time. One participant in that group was Darra Goldstein. Neither of us could have foreseen that we would work together again on issues surrounding food. We hope that this special issue of Gastronomica deepens the public discussion about the politics of food.

E. Melanie DuPuis