Because I started this semester without a lot of background knowledge on new food activism, I was excited about our blog assignments as a way to supplement our readings and discussion and hopefully catch up to the general level of experience and expertise of my classmates. I found that the course material centered around the activists: for instance, how farming has been constructed in a number of meaningful ways throughout American history, the ways in which activists have engaged in protest, responses to the urban/rural divide, and emerging trends in new food activism. Where my blog fit into our course was in returning to the core issues that originally sparked anger and action. I was generally attracted to unfolding news stories that spoke to themes we were discussing in class. That way, I could read up on the most current articulations of the advances and setbacks of food activism as a way of tapping into the issues that inspired American food activists in the first place.
For the sake of narrowing the focus of my blog, the topic I had originally settled on had to do with inequality and food justice within the United States. I have been fortunate enough to have had an incredible amount of international exposure to all sorts of lifeworlds, including extreme poverty. Before this class, when I thought of food activism, I would immediately picture a malnourished child with a distended belly in rural Africa. Using my blog as a tool of self-teaching, I wanted to take advantage of this class’s emphasis on domestic issues and use an anthropological lens to examine these same issues of inequality in my own backyard, so to speak. While I delved into a wider range of issues than I had originally expected, I was able to do some exploring on government policy (including school lunches and the obesity epidemic). I have also taken a couple of nutrition courses during my time at Tufts and knew only vaguely about terms like “food deserts” or the fact that there is a correlation between low-income neighborhoods, minorities, and malnutrition. Issues of inequality are core concepts in new food activism, and the area of engagement that was most exciting to me throughout the semester.
I also included some entries that looked at issues of unequal access and the impact of the environment on food systems from a global perspective. This included American food aid in resource-poor areas of the world, the potentially useful impact of GMOs in developing countries. One of the most valuable aspect of my internet research was comparing the successes of other countries to the American food systems and discourses. This included Korea’s version of the Right to Know Act and Hungarian responses to the obesity epidemic. In general, I thought it was important to focus on what is currently being done well and to think about ways to expand those models. It is easy enough to criticize, but can be more of a challenge to point out the practical positives and advocate for what works. And that, in my opinion, is what the food activism movement really needs to be doing.
I had a moment in one of our first classes in which I realized just how much catch-up work I had to do in order to engage in the readings and debates with my well-informed classmates. We were throwing some ideas around about big agriculture (or “big ag,” as I now know to call it) and I had to ask what “Monsanto” was. I was embarrassed not to know who or what was causing my classmates to speak with such obvious disdain. Since then, I have worked to educate myself and now understand the demonization of this company and the threat posed by the ideas it represents. One trend that was impossible to ignore through my introduction to food activism is that values and practices in relation to food have spun out of control on a domestic and global level. It is up to activists to face the seemingly impossible challenge of revolutionizing a broken system that is currently driven by profit rather than goals like improved health, equal rights, and respect of natural resources.
I also think, though, that my relative inexperience with new food activism was occasionally an asset and helped me bring a critical eye to our discussions and texts. For example, the blog post I wrote about the benefits of GMOs in the developing world was one I was proud of. The gist of this argument was that scientific technology can in fact be an innovative answer to famine and nutrition-related suffering in resource-poor areas. An equally important takeaway is that activists in new food movements can also suffer from black-and-white thinking, and that blind condemnation of an entire approach (GMOs) because of the practices of some (like Monsanto) is close-minded and damaging. Although I often felt out of my league in this course, I am grateful to have had this whirlwind introduction to new food activism that drew from texts, class discussions, and my own self-teaching for my blog and because of pure curiosity. Most importantly, I realized upon reflection that I learned to value my classmates as model activists. Excluding for a moment the incredible guest speakers who came in to share their work with us, I was able to get first-hand perspectives on everything from dumpster diving to delivering a calf from the unexpected resource of my peers.
Despite the heartening examples of engagement around me, one of my most significant and troubling takeaways from my involvement in the course and my blog is the question of practical solutions. It quickly became apparent that new food activism is concentrated within a handful of incredible inspiring and dedicated individuals and communities. Often I had moments while I was doing readings when I would stop and say “Yes! They’re doing it exactly right! That’s the kind of change that needs to be recognized and expanded!” Realistically, though, the college graduates who educate themselves in agriculture and show their passion for creating change by getting their hands dirty are anomalies. While watching the documentary “The Garden” was moving and seemed like a potentially scalable model for urban areas across the United States, the fact is that you do not often see South Central Farms cropping up. It’s possible that I am just impatient, but to me the food activism movement is different than other social movements I have studied. It takes more than just ideological shifts and the dissolution of information to make a quantifiable impact on indicators like nutrition and environmental destruction; change will come when a radical shift and values (and therefore consumer demand) can reshape deep-set economic, social, and political patterns.
That brings me to one of the unresolved questions I am looking forward to exploring after this course ends. Looking past the committed pockets of mindful activists, it is important to ground my broader understanding of the food activism movement in the reality of our society. That fact is that most people don’t know enough, can’t do enough, and/or don’t care enough. On the one hand, thousands of Americans do not have the power to make decisions about what and how they eat. However, though I have both physical and financial access to high-quality, nutritious, environmentally responsible foods, I don’t always make decisions that correlate with the goals of the food activism movement. Why is it that the far-reaching consequences of our actions, like warnings of imminent environmental disaster, can be so easy to ignore? I returned to this question in a number of blog posts, and hope to keep looking out for answers as I move forward.
What confuses me even more is the idea that maybe the successful models we studied aren’t mean to be expanded; that preserving the value in concepts like localness necessarily means keeping them small, restricted, and even exclusive. I am glad that I was assigned Amy Trubek’s The Taste of Place for my book review because she addresses this particular concern. I enjoyed the fact that Trubek fearlessly advocated for the adoption of terroir as one of the pillars of the food activism movement. It was occasionally frustrating that the texts we discussed in class shied away from recommending solutions, and Trubek closed her argument by asserting that terroir should be incorporated into consumption decisions as both a value and a practice. However, I felt that she neglected to acknowledge the elitism and exclusivity inherent in terroir.
The place of privilege in new food activism has been one that I have grappled with throughout the semester. As I discussed on my blog, buzzwords like “organic” are part of a discourse that both excludes and is presumed to exclude. What I mean is that the concentration of new food activism within institutions like Whole Foods, which have become the center of mass yuppie participation in responsible consumerism, perpetuate both the performance and the reality of elitism. While it is important to commend efforts like the community garden we visited in Medford, which brought the taste of an orange to kids whose families can’t afford to buy fruits and vegetables, the sense I’ve gotten is that this movement is carried on the backs of the people who can afford to care.
I know that I will not stop thinking about this course after it is over, and it has led to an immense amount of critical thinking about my own role in the movement and my decisions outside of the classroom. That being said, I am ending the semester with historical perspective, anthropological and anecdotal understandings of what it means to engage in food activism, and a better conception of the issues and paradoxes at hand. Equally important is the long list of questions that remain unanswered and that I hope to keep exploring as I make choices about who I am as an active and informed, food-consuming citizen. I have hope for where the movement is headed, exemplified by groundbreaking initiatives like the Boston Public Market. I also feel concern for the parts of our country and world that remain untouched by food activism. While this movement appears to be disjointed, scattered, and experimental, it also seems to be picking up speed and I am excited to keep following its thread.
Trubek, Amy. The Taste of Place. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
Image taken from http://www.ciw-online.org/