What matters for the future of healthy food is not just farmers’ markets, CSAs, urban farms, food hubs, and the like—the particular individual innovations of the foodsheds—but the ways they interact and overlap.
The former director of the Community Food Security Coalition, Andy Fisher, recently pondered what, if anything, holds the local food movement together. The CFSC is a coalition of several hundred food security organizations across North America; Fisher’s prior experience at its helm offered a vantage point to ask about cohesion and common purpose. It was an echo of the point Michael Pollan made about the 2012 election, when President Obama had asked if there really was a movement to be tapped—for him, a voting bloc—or just a collection of disparate pieces. And it is an important question for advocates and activists to ask, but not because there actually is one thing holding the movement together, like a label, or an aphorism, or a fad diet, or an appeal to public health. Rather than an individual feature that can center various attempts to improve food and farming, what matters is the way the many activities of local food advocates overlap with one another in an interdependent, ecological whole.
This is a point about organizational identity and the political possibilities such an identity makes possible. It is grounded, though, in the ways advocates for food health, security, and sovereignty envision the spatial arrangements of food production, distribution, and consumption. In North America—and across the United States in particular—good food advocates over the past generation have defined that spatial arrangement almost entirely through the farm-to-fork trope. That trope provides a common framework to think about the various stages involved in food and farming. Consider its many examples. Farmers’ markets, food hubs, community supported agriculture (CSA), virtual marketplaces, organic grocery stores, rooftop, community, and schoolyard gardens, 100-Mile Diets, urban farms: the architecture of reform is endless, but every part seeks to reduce the distance between food producers (farms) and consumers (forks).
Some innovations, for example, pull consumers closer to producers by bringing them to the farm (CSAs); some redefine consumers as producers too (gardens and urban farms); some eliminate links in the long farm-to-fork chain by appealing to urban living patterns (virtual marketplaces, organic grocery stores, food trucks). These would seem to provide points for a food movement to rally around.
Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States describes the physical pain and emotional suffering that Triqui migrant workers routinely face during their work in the West Coast berry fields – suffering that is made endemic by racialized work hierarchies and often dismissed by medical professionals. Holmes’s deep ethnographic account is vivid and lucid in its telling, and leaves the reader with a strong emotional impression.
First, let me congratulate you for writing a very engaging and informative book. How did you first come to this project, and what compelled you to write this book in the way you did?
Several of my long-standing interests came together in this project. First, I have been interested in the relationship between the United States and Latin America in terms of economics, culture, poverty, development, and immigration. Second, I have been interested in understanding the place of indigenous or native people in our world. Third, I have been interested in our food system and our relationship to the land, what goes into the production and harvesting of our food, especially the fresh fruit and vegetables celebrated by the contemporary food movement and our health system. Fourth, I wanted to better explore the ways in which physicians and nurses understand health, illness, and social difference.
I wrote the book in such a way as to invite the reader into the narrative and the experiences. I wanted the reader to be able to imagine being alongside me during the border crossing so that they might be more interested in thinking through the inputs into that dangerous experience and the implications of it for so many people. I wanted to counteract the way in which most media coverage and policy debates around immigration focus on blanket statements about “immigrants do this” or “immigrants deserve or don’t deserve that.” I hoped I could convey enough about individual human beings who are migrating that the reader might become invested in understanding their realities and no longer take for granted the general stereotypes we often hear.
People have referred to you as the “new” Paul Farmer. Has he been an inspiration for you and why? Who else has inspired your work?
During my sophomore and junior years of college in the mid-1990s, I did a handful of “informational interviews” of people with interesting careers as I decided what to pursue next. Paul spoke with me over the phone one night after he took care of patients at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. That night and over the years of interacting at conferences and even team teaching a course together, I have been impressed with the ways he seeks to bring together a strong appetite for reading, an interest in thinking critically about health and economics, a commitment to a structural vision of social justice, and a desire and ability to work toward improved medical care on individual and systems levels. In the end, I decided to pursue an MD and a PhD in anthropology and, later, a relatively public engagement with social and health inequalities.
Welcome to 2014 and the first issue of Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies. As I announced in the previous issue (13.4), the journal’s core emphasis will be innovative and thought-provoking scholarship and debates within the worlds of food and food studies, a refocusing that is reflected in the journal’s new subtitle. At the same time that our contributors push the boundaries of food scholarship in terms of the topics they cover, they will also invite us to consider the formats in which we engage these topics and conversations. While we will continue to rely on conventional text-based formats, we also will experiment with new types of scholarly communication, including graphic arts and multimedia approaches, both in the pages of the journal and on our website. This is an exciting moment for the journal and for food scholarship, as researchers, writers, artists, and enthusiasts play with innovative content and formats. I am very much looking forward to the creative possibilities and scholarly innovations that will emerge as Gastronomica’s contributors and readers interact at the very forefront of critical food scholarship.
More generally, this is a timely moment for critical engagement with food in all of its forms. As this issue goes to press, California governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency for the state and requested that residents voluntarily reduce their water use by twenty percent, with the possibility of mandatory water restrictions coming soon. Both the drought, which is California’s worst in 100 years, and the water restrictions are already having significant effects on America’s food practices and will have repercussions for a long time to come. Most immediately, with lakes and reservoirs at or near empty and wells running dry, California farmers are making decisions about whether they will plant, what they will plant, whether they should sell off or slaughter their livestock, and whether they will even have jobs for the laborers who work in their fields and on their farms. Vintners are uncertain about whether they will have grapes later this year, as the lack of water now will likely affect whether their vines will bud this spring. Even fisheries are suffering as scarce water resources are being diverted for more critical needs.
These developments will have profound consequences for national and global food supplies. California produces approximately one-half of the US’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts and is the country’s leading dairy supplier. Its number-one food export is almonds, which is also one of the most water-intensive crops because it requires year-round watering. No one knows precisely what will happen if California’s drought continues, but it is clear that any reduction in California’s food production capabilities will resonate across the food chain, with prices rising and availability and diversity shrinking, farmworkers losing their jobs, and farmers wrestling with hard choices about whether to wait it out, change their focus, or get out altogether. Such critical themes as labor, health, choice, access, environment, sustainability, and tradition, among many others, will increasingly come to the fore as points of debate and discussion in scholarly research, public policy, and dinnertime conversations.
Above all, these developments highlight the fact that food never exists in isolation from larger trends and dynamics; rather, it is always deeply embedded within and buffeted by shifting political, economic, cultural, and environmental forces. Food is not merely something pleasurable or tasty, but something that is crucially significant to all parts of our daily lives. Food matters. Thus as the journal moves forward this year, expect to see contributors focus careful attention and debate on the weighty, thorny, and consequential aspects of food in all of its manifestations.
The contributors to this first issue of 2014 take us directly into critical food conversations with an impressive and fascinating collection of essays that revolve around themes of morality, knowledge, and power. In different ways, the contributors inspire us to think about how particular food traditions have evolved, what types of information and perspectives they provide, how they are situated within systems of power and control, and why these food practices matter in today’s world.
Seth Holmes starts this conversation in the opening interview about his recently published book Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies, a riveting ethnographic account of the hidden world of migrant farmworkers as they cross the border into the United States and make their way to the West Coast farms that stock American pantries. With an eye to the scholarly and ethical dimensions of his project, Holmes describes and analyzes the physical and emotional suffering of Triqui migrant workers who are entangled in racialized work hierarchies and medical systems.
The questions that Holmes raises about the nature and impact of power and value are pursued in different ways by the other contributors to this issue. In his essay on local food movements in the United States, B. R. Cohen examines the political terrain staked out by these movements as they make claims on such issues as health, food safety, food security, and food sovereignty. By illuminating the interconnections and points of convergence and divergence among these movements, Cohen argues against a one-size-fits-all homogenizing orientation to food reform efforts and instead suggests that a greater potential for innovation and alliance lies within an ecological approach that recognizes their plurality. Maywa Montenegro de Wit extends this theme of the plurality of politics and ideas within food movements in her essay on urban agroecology trends in the United States, with particular attention to the ways in which agroecology scholars, proponents, and activists have interacted in their efforts to educate the public about new approaches. Taking a slightly different angle, Yuson Jung and Andrew Newman critically interrogate the moral economy of food, labor, and consumer choice in Detroit as local residents and activists debate the arrival of Whole Foods in their midst. Jung and Newman provoke important, but also uncomfortable, questions about the role of class, race, and taste in a setting where low-income residents who have struggled to survive in a food desert now have access to a premium grocery store that promotes a particular health-oriented lifestyle.
Value, change, and tradition continue as themes in essays by J. Weintraub and Gary Paul Nabhan. In his translation of a chapter from Eugène-Vincent Briffault’s Paris à table, Weintraub introduces us to Briffault’s critical perspective on Parisian gastronomy, replete with both serious and humorous observations of the highs and lows of the cuisine, restaurant settings, manners, sensibilities, and even diners of nineteenth-century Paris. Far removed from the metropolitan tumult of Paris, Nabhan situates the Arabian Peninsula’s spice trade in a compelling history that weaves the past with the present, the cultural with the agricultural.
Moving beyond the serious to the more whimsical, but no less intellectually provocative, Marilyn Stasio, Robert Iulo, and Julia Hebaiter invite us to consider the mysteries of food. Stasio takes us into the world of the “foodie mystery” and offers insight into how food works as a plot device and what ultimately makes for a satisfying food-oriented thriller. Iulo details the intimate and mysterious powers of food as recipes, traditions, and shared memories hold families together through time. Hebaiter provokes us to consider the value of secretive, even illicit behaviors for enhancing the pleasures of food, with her cheekily rendered musing on purloined fruit from neighbors’ gardens.
In their contributions to this larger discussion of the intersection of values, morals, and food, Laura Titzer and Margaret Sessa-Hawkins explore from different angles the productive, generative nature of food work. In a reflection on the hard work that takes place on an organic farm, Titzer considers how the physicality of planting and harvesting tomatoes offers insight into the complexities of alternative food systems and the ideals of the inclusivity they promote. Sessa-Hawkins explores how a simple food like the apple can simultaneously include and exclude, as she learns to make homemade apple pie and new friends over a fire in Malawi, far from her family and home in Virginia.
Finally, in their contributions, Ali Fitzgerald and Shelly Errington push the boundaries of food studies formats by moving away from text-based analyses to more artistic forms of critical commentary. Through graphic arts, Fitzgerald and Errington illuminate the political dimensions of food, with Fitzgerald’s rendering of mushrooming in a post–Cold War Berlin and Errington’s musing on what capitalist consumption might mean for the Easter Bunny.
In closing, I invite you to dig into these pieces and allow them to inspire your own critical reflections on food and its role in our daily lives and the world around us.
The Origins and Current Legal Status of “Natural” and “Organic” Food Labels
The cook plays an important part in the nourishability of food. Meals which are lovingly prepared with a profound desire for the welfare of the eater always benefit the body and mind more than do meals which are commercially prepared, or which have been prepared by someone who is indifferent to or dislikes the proposed eater. No one should cook when in a state of indifference, agitation, sorrow or anger.
From The Hidden Secret of Ayurveda, by Dr. Robert E. Svoboda
The most famous gastronome of them all, Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, wrote in Physiologie du Gout, ou Meditations de Gastronomie Transcendante (1826): “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es.”: “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” For some, such as Adelle Davis — Time magazine characterized her as “the high priestess of a new nutrition religion” in December 1972 — the consequences of our food choices are stark: “As I see it, every day you do one of two things: build health or produce disease.”
How do we know if we are supposedly building health, rather than unwittingly producing disease by what we consume? We resolve what economists call “informational asymmetry” by relying on food labels, brands and trademarks to confirm the authenticity and quality of our foodstuffs. But making “correct” food choices can be daunting and baffling. In her groundbreaking book, What to Eat, Dr. Marion Nestle estimates that there are around 320,000 food and beverage products available in the United States; and that the average supermarket stocks about 30,000 to 40,000 of them. While we may not understand the true origins or makeup of what we put on our tables, most baby-boomers can tell you in a heartbeat that Rice Krispies go “snap, crackle and pop,” Lucky Charms are “magically delicious,” and Wonder Bread helps “build strong bodies in 8 ways.”
Two of the most symbolic words in food promotion nowadays are “organic” and “natural.” Generally defined, “natural” means “present in or produced by nature” and is not something “altered, treated or disguised,” but rather “faithfully represents nature or life.” “Organic,” in its most abstract sense, means “simple, healthful, and close to nature.” Both words hearken back to a pre-industrial age and share Edenic, utopian connotations. They imply a general distrust of chemical engineering and manufacturing processes. If we are what we eat, are we not closer to “nature” if we incorporate natural and organic foods into our diet? That is the compelling allure and implicit bargain of consuming organic and natural foods.
Here’s a thought experiment: Let’s pretend that human consumption of all soy products and bulk field corn dropped to zero in the coming marketing year, and that everyone knew this was going to occur. What would happen? Well, the prices of these commodities would probably drop back towards where they were circa 2000, an era when demand couldn’t keep up with rapidly improving yields and the entire concept of a grain shortage seemed like a quaint anachronism. The lower prices would presumably in turn reduce corn and soy planting to circa 2000 levels, which is about 10% less than where they are today. But even with virtually no human consumption of corn or soy, at least 90% of this land would still be used for a corn/soy rotation. The best farmland in the Corn Belt would barely see any change at all.
What this reveals is that the relationship between our eating habits and what gets planted on most of America’s farms is a lot less direct than we might imagine. Even with the local food movement taking root widely, industrial agriculture in this country holds its ground, because consumer choices influence only a marginal piece of this highly efficient operation. The ruthlessness with which businesses look to exploit an unused resource can be truly breathtaking. Name a by-product of virtually any agricultural operation, and someone will find a use for it. Heck, there is an active business in feeding chicken litter to cattle. Got something you don’t want to truck down to the landfill? What’s the caloric value of that stuff? Is it a decent source of protein? Maybe someone will take it off your hands.