Saturday, April 27, 2013

Final Reflections

I embarked on the journey of taking this course on contemporary food activism from a humbled and somewhat naïve perspective when it came to food. I had only been introduced to Monsanto in October, and had no idea what the hype was about organic food, other than that it sounded cool and is commonly associated with what our generation calls “hipsters.” Upon completing this course, and specifically through my weekly blogging of issues relating to how food and food activism contribute to the construction of identity on both the individual and communal levels, I have learned an incredible amount. Not only did I gain new insights into pressing issues surrounding food and its production and distribution, but I was also able to consistently reflect on my own habits and identity as a consumer.

Throughout the course of the semester, I have come to understand that the category of food activism is more multifaceted than I initially anticipated. In focusing specifically on the effects of food consumption and activism on the formation of identity and community, I have also arrived at the conclusion that food activism’s effects on identity are just as multidimensional. While the thought of food activism used to conjure images of small farms and lab coat-clad scientists conducting research on seeds, it now evokes thoughts of labor and immigration policy issues, political protests, the historical role of agrarianism, the glorification of the farmer using popular culture, and romanticized farm tourism. Ultimately, my exposure to these less prominent facets of food activism in the 21st century, both from a broader perspective and through the lens of food’s impact on identity (the focus of this blog), has allowed me to examine their associated discourses and apply them to my own practices and beliefs as an increasingly conscious citizen.

From this class, I’ve learned that food is historical. Though our course is entitled “New Food Activism,” it’s easy to forget that the trendy tendencies to choose Whole Foods over Stop and Shop or desire to work on a farm after graduating from a pricy liberal arts college have roots (pun intended). The definitions of concepts commonly associated with contemporary food activism, ranging from ‘farming’ to ‘industrial agriculture,’ largely hinge upon how they were defined decades ago, along with how reactions to such definitions led to the large back-to-the-land movement experienced today. From a brief engagement with Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, we learned that each food has a past, a concept that I applied to my own understanding of the onion that has made my home region, the black dirt-rich Hudson Valley, famous decades ago.

Food is also global. I was particularly moved by our class discussion of the controversy of quinoa in the increasing distress it places for its Bolivian growers, as well as PETA’s response to this alarming article, revealing divergent opinions on the prioritization of food issues across the globe. Through my pioneer blogging experience, I also witnessed how the impact food has on identity is global—in Morocco, I observed vegetarian friends struggling with the dozens of questions and puzzling looks they received about their food habits, as well as how meat eating was foundational to many Moroccan traditions and religious rituals. Through a dissection of the concept of terroir both in the classroom and online, I’ve encountered the idea that food is directly connected to a sense of place, which is often strongly associated with nostalgia, and is a subsequently prominent factor in constructing both individual and national identity. 

And yet food is incredibly personal. My local onion represents a symbolic portion of local identity largely embodied by middle class residents and simultaneously incorporates the transnational identities of the immigrant farm workers producing such a ‘local’ entity. In class, we hashed out the ways in which ideas of the local are romanticized, relating to our discussions with Patti Close of Tufts Dining Services and local farmers. Like the onions of the Hudson Valley, Boston's Haymarket, which we visited and discussed, also exemplifies how global identities have fused on the basis of food to become local. Thanks to capitalism, different markets have revealed their attempts to exploit the recently popular concept of the local, in ways like selling home gardening supplies (evidenced by my Groables post) and making small-scale farmers sexy again (like in my posts about the Dodge Superbowl commercial and farmer-based dating sites). In attempting to focus more exclusively on the local, global markets and groups have converged on different ideas of the local, which affects the ways in which consumers, myself included, construct their own senses of local as part of their identities.

I've learned that food is cultural, and even racial. Through reading Slocum’s piece on the cultural appropriation and hierarchical arrangement of food and viewing promotional films like that of “Dean’s Beans,” I’ve witnessed how food can be used as a medium for highlighting difference on the basis of ethnicity and race. As our Haymarket guide noted, there are many events and locations in which foods and ethnicities comingle, creating spaces for both multiculturalism and a cohesive identity on the basis of food. In addition to bridging the gap between different cultures interacting in one place in the presence of food, food is also embodied by the culture in which it is consumed and discussed. With J. Crew’s “The Naturals” line, the idea of sustainable food as trendy manifests itself in eco-chic clothing, revealing how food can also be culturally appropriated. The concept that food is cultural also has the potential to connect with food as indicative of class, evidenced by our discussion of terroir and tastes of luxury as associated with place and context. Ultimately, food is both produced by the interaction of various cultures and identities, but also actively contributes to further cultural production. 

Food is not always gender neutral. In addition to our discussion of the female domination of the current back-to-the-land trend, which was supplemented by visits from female farmers and activists, my reading of Carol Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat illuminated the idea that men and women are not approached equally through the lens of food. In both my overall review of Adams’ book and blog post about applying Adams’ theory of the parallels between feminism and vegetarianism to the use of meat-based names to identify male genitals, I explored how food allows us to look at men and women in different lights. This is perhaps because of the ways we approach and treat animals to be used for food, exemplified in Adams’ discussion of the sexual mistreatment of cows in the dairy industry. The role of feminism in new food activism is reflective of both this argument that mistreatment of women is connected to the ways we treat animals and the historical prominent role played by men in the agricultural industry. While new food activism seems to focus on catalyzing change, moving away from capitalism and industrial agriculture, the pinnacle role of women in such efforts seems to be revolutionary in and of itself, and such a revelation has impacted how I identify myself as a female consumer and activist.

Food is, of course, biological and environmental. Our discussions of biopower and man’s domination of natural resources seem to be at the foundation of all food production, and yet they also point to another way in which food activism contributes to identity. I learned that the desire to feel attached to the physical land and, as many of my classmates have put it, “get your hands in the dirt,” is a quintessential element of the back-to-the-land movement. I got an especially strong sense of this trend both through our workday at a community garden and in hearing Amy Franceschini discuss her “Soil Kitchen” project, in which biology met community as locals swapped soil samples for soup. Though the environmental characteristics of food are obvious, they are also intricately connected to the ways in which food shapes our identities through social, historical, and economic processes.

And on that note, food is social. Above all other factors, the communities built around food appear to represent the most profound characteristic of contemporary food activism. Ranging from a classmate’s discussion of how food brought people together in the Occupy Boston encampments and the solidification of the local community in the film “The Garden” to spaces of food exchange that unifies consumers like Haymarket and Soil Kitchen, the social force of food activism is undeniable and prominent. As explored in my first blog post, the social communities created by food represent a wide spectrum of global and local, digital and personal, and urban and rural groups that have formed around common goals involving change in the consumption of food. I have observed how such communities, big and small, have the potential to impact how we construct our identities as consumers.

Food is political, and the politics associated with food often dictate its ability to foster communities, as I just described. In viewing “The Garden,” I understood how the future of a particular community that had been formed on the basis of a common space and approach to growing food could be placed in the hands of lawmakers and politicians. Politics directly related to corporate control of agriculture was a hot topic of discussion of the Occupy Boston movement, as discussed by a classmate, and the livelihoods of the migrant farm workers responsible for the cultivation of onions native to my home region of New York are directly determined by local and national politics. Despite the widespread contemporary desire to shift consumer focus to local food, it has become evident through both classroom discussions and research for this blog that some type of politics will always dictate the ways we engage with our food and consequentially how we shape our identities on the basis of food and food activism.

Food is economic. Just as it is ironic that national politics have the potential to permeate the trend and desire to turn to local food, there is tension between the fact that food activists are dissatisfied with the corporate domination of agriculture and the notion that it takes significant capital to be able to go “back to the land.” I am still struggling with this romanticized vision of leaving a private college to work in the dirt, for the fact that such a decision reveals a certain amount of privilege seems to conflict with the notion that farming is removed from the capitalist environment of the big city. I also wrote in several blog posts, including those about Groables, Farmers Only and organic clothing lines, about the irony existing in the fact that the very corporations these back-to-the-land enthusiasts and activists are attempting to avoid are successfully capitalizing on this desire to be more local and green. Whether food is consumed locally or internationally, capital is involved, and the honest truth is that money is the factor around which we, as both consumers and a nation, make plenty of decisions regarding food.

But what is most impressive about all of these different aspects of food is that they are all interconnected, as are their similarly multidimensional effects on identity, shaped through food. While dragon fruit in Vietnam is both historical and highly political, the connection between meat and women as facilitated by Carol Adams is gendered, social, and historical, all in one. My local New York onions are historical, personal and symbolic, and yet those responsible for their growth represent migration on the global scale, as well as the politics surrounding US immigration. I have been able to apply my understanding of the interconnectedness of aspects of food activism to one particular component, that of identity and how food fosters community, and I have witnessed how the same interconnectedness is also prominent in a zoomed-in examination of how food shapes identity. After a semester's worth of food-related discussions, I'm definitely hungry, but now I know that going forward I will be even more conscious of what I choose to put in my mouth and how my food choices shape my identity as a consumer.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Glam Green, Haute Organic

As a sort of continuation of my last post about the construction of identity on the basis of shopping at trendy food stores that have become associated with elite status and privilege, I hope to now extend this observation to include what we wear. This was partially inspired by our in-class discussion of J. Crew's "Naturals" line, in which a dozen male "green" advocates model environmentally friendly yet unmistakably chic clothing, as well as my own observation of my favorite clothing stores and websites jumping on the (very green) bandwagon of selling ecological products. H&M recently launched its "Conscious" collection, and websites like "Earth Creations" feature products with the ever-popular Bohemian chic aesthetic.

But we're not just talking about organic cottons t-shirts and baggy hemp pants here. Just as Miracle-Gro capitalized on contemporary desires to grow personal gardens at home as a way to be greener and healthier with their launch of "Groables" (discussed in an earlier blog post), the fashion industry has recognized this recent trend of green absolutely everything and has begun to exploit these new ambitions. And this even extends beyond the controversial TOMS company with its release of its "Vegan" line. You can now buy green wedding gowns and attend an Eco Fashion Week, where only environmentally friendly yet still terribly expensive and luxurious garments are permitted to take on the catwalk. The popular series "Project Runway" also came out with a green challenge to draw in eco-minded viewers, during which designer contestants had to create gorgeous gowns that were both green and red carpet-ready. Celebs, too, are drinking the Kool Aid, coming up with their own conscious clothing lines, like Emma Watson and her "ethical" line,  to target this quickly spreading trend.

As a consumer, I can go online and watch a tutorial about how to shop for organic clothing, read a directory of online and in-store organic clothing lines, and even acquire a DIY manual for starting my own organic clothing line. I find it terribly ironic that many of these green advocates are also anti-capitalism, and yet these companies and business endeavors are about as capitalist as it gets. Will the true green advocates and these businesspeople snatching up opportunities to target a new (and growing, pun intended) audience eventually clash? 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Bougie Foodies

As this class quickly draws to a close, I'm realizing that one of the biggest components of the food movement that I'm still grappling with in a big way is its trendiness. A good friend of mine shared a hilarious article from the satirical website "Betches Love This," referring to a select breed of elite women who cast themselves as "betches" (defined by Urban Dictionary here and the source site itself here) on the basis of their wealth, constant acknowledgement of their material goods, and elite preferences and habits. This particular article related to these self-proclaimed "betches" and their affinity for the ever-popular Whole Foods chain, for reasons not directly related to the quality or activist ambitions behind the food, but rather simply for the high prices of their food products that give them an elite status. The author writes, "Betches love Whole Foods for the obvious reason that it is so f***ing elitist...the fact that our bag of grapes is certified organic gives us the right to be certified superior." 

This page pokes fun at the trendy foods of the contemporary food movement's most avid followers, ranging from kale to flax seeds to soy. I find it fascinating that this site is simultaneously poking fun of these conceited elitist consumers the same way I find myself doing so, but also providing a justification that I can, sadly, actually believe. I can definitely testify that I've come across these types of people--not necessarily those who walk around preaching about how "bougie" they are, but who cling to the prestige that shopping at a store like Whole Foods supposedly gives them. Take a good friend of mine, for example, who is a standard yoga-doing, tea-sipping, Anthropologie-shopping, Southern California-bred foodie. If you ask her what she's eating, the answer you get will never be "chicken and snap peas," but rather "organic chicken and organic snap peas." It's like she's expecting me to say "ooh, ahh" in response to this deliberately added descriptor, but it really just makes me roll my eyes.

I came into this class thinking that the reason I opted for Shaw's or even Trader Joe's (which, I might add, is definitely high up on my foodie list but not nearly at the Whole Foods level) on my Sunday shopping trips instead of Whole Foods was because it was too expensive and I am healthy enough (read: never get sick) that I didn't feel like I needed to buy everything organic. From this class, I've learned that while some people live and eat organic and trendy smart/health foods for reasons relating to food justice/activism or substantial personal knowledge relating to nutritional value of such higher quality food, there are so many others out there who do it just for the status, like my friend. I've realized that these latter people make me nuts. Now that I've taken this course and exposed myself to the world of food activism, I've told my elitist, Whole Foods-shopping, organic label-clinging friends that I actively opt out of participating in that superior grocery shopping habit because I don't want to be associated with those, betches included, who make such decisions as consumers on the basis of status and not on the basis of true principles. I told my self-proclaimed 'foodie' friend about issues of food deserts, justice, and sovereignty that we've discussed in class, and she had no knowledge of such contemporary problems, which made me even more infuriated. After all, the very people we proclaim to be fighting for in the world of food justice couldn't afford to buy your organic this and that at Whole Foods anyway, right?

(An alternative perspective)

I originally gave this blog the cliché title of "I Am What I Eat," and I now support that statement and its application to my status as a consumer more than ever. I still haven't developed my own complete stance on organic food in relation to its adoption as a status marker, but you probably won't catch me at Whole Foods anytime soon (unless it's for their hand-ground peanut butter, because you can't beat that, bougie or not).

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Luxe or Puke? Determining Taste on Both Ends of the Spectrum

Last week, several of my peers were assigned to discuss Amy Trubek's fascinating book The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir, and while I was only required to read Trubek's introduction, the presentation of the content of this piece sparked my interest not only in taste as associated with place, but also how we arrive at what we eat. While Trubek notes that "terroir" is traditionally defined within the context of wine, especially in France, she expands the definition to include how taste of food is generally associated with both its origin and a local culture.

Much of the discussion led by my classmates revolved around how the identification of tastes is intricately connected with education in places like France, where geography and gastronomy are made to intersect, as well as how taste is intricately connected to class, notably in the acquisition of a taste for luxury food items. This particular topic of discussion, along with my own curiosity in reading Trubek's introduction, led me to think more about how we choose what we eat. If you search for "how do we choose what to eat" on Google, you'll come up with hundreds of results, each containing a theory about our subconscious and biological desires for certain foods that, in combination with some cultural and social values, drive our decisions as consumers.

While I find the processes behind our daily decisions about what to put in our bodies complex and fascinating, I was more poised to question how luxury foods and their associated acquired tastes share much in common with the most despised or feared foods on the planet. An internet search on the grossest foods in the world yields hundreds of results, such as these two links, and include many of the same foods. These "strange" and "terrifying" foods range from caramelized bugs and larvae-ridden cheese to baby mice wine, boiled sheep heads and boiled incubated duck eggs. While the Chicago Tribune calls some of this food "evil," another site (linked again here) even introduces these food products with the question of "what the hell is it?" and proceeds to expound upon the danger that might present itself if such horrendous dishes were to make it to America. This specific industry of foods that are perceived to be odd and nauseating from a Western perspective has also been recognized as a viable market by companies like the Travel Channel, whose "Bizarre Foods" is among its most successful shows.


Here are some of the dishes cited as most luxurious and expensive, on the opposite end of the spectrum, in links like these two: various types of raw fish, coffee made from monkey droppings, fish eggs (caviar), and duck or geese liver (foie gras). These lists further contribute to the question initially raised in reading Trubek's introduction: why is it taboo to eat duck eggs, but highly sophisticated to eat fish eggs? Eating duck liver is incredibly respectable, but sheep head is out of the question. Why is this? Why does bird's nest rank on numerous lists for expensive foods, and yet bird's nest soup is cited among the world's most repulsive foods? Who determined and continues to determine where the line between chic and nauseating lies? The fact that many of these "grossest" foods are also on the lists of the top high society foods makes this concept even more arbitrary and unpredictable. There seems to be no way of determining which odd foods are for the richest of the rich, and which would be untouchable for even the poorest eaters, prompting me to ask where the power lies in this context.

Though many, like Marijke van der Veen, have sought to characterize what makes a food luxurious, it is unclear why some bizarre foods jump to the top of the food (to be eaten) chain, and others are pushed aside. These choices made by those with the power to influence cultural and social tastes are intricately tied to our identities not only as consumers, but as citizens of nations where food may be associated with place. An examination of odd foods, some of which become luxurious and others of which become abhorrent, not only reveals the power dynamics behind such a shaping of consumer identities, but also reveals larger attitudes about the places from which such odd food originates. While hundreds of sites, authors, and TV networks are eager to dive into the world of gross foreign food, only a few consider that some of the foods we eat as Americans may also be perceived as completely bizarre, the vast majority of which are notably non-luxury foods. So if the saying is true that we are what we eat, I'm led to ask the following: who determines what we eat, and what do our choices about "weird" food in particular reveal about our greater fear of foreign cultures and food habits?

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Dragon Fruit & National Identity

This past Friday, I found myself at our semi-annual Anthropology Symposium here on campus, where fellow Anthropology students have the opportunity to present both longer research papers and brief, innovative projects or proposals. One of my classmates, Mae, shared a portion of her thesis about the role of dragon fruit in Vietnam, where they are considered to be a staple item of both the local diet and culture, despite having originated in Central America. Through this presentation, I was most struck by her discussion of how this fruit that has become local, though foreign in origin,  has substantial political, economic, historical and symbolic value, all of which contribute to the identity of its Vietnamese consumers. I found Mae's presentation to exemplify the goal of this blog: to illustrate how food and the movements surrounding its production and consumption contribute to both individual and communal senses of identity.

According to Mae's presentation, not only is this precious dragon fruit representative of the contested relations between Vietnam and China, but it also represens both a point of commonality between the two neighboring nations and a symbol of authentic Vietnamese identity. This contradictory yet dually purposeful role of dragon fruit, as highlighted by Mae, is exemplified in grocery store observations, where the color of the inside of dragon fruits (Chinese red or Vietnamese white) is hotly debated and where customers reveal their trust in dragon fruit, for it is surely authentically Vietnamese and undoubtedly free of chemicals that may have been injected in foreign fruits. While Vietnam competes with China in the fruit market, the dragon fruit seems to contribute to the Vietnamese national identity by both straddling the border between these two countries and yet continuing to be labeled as securely Vietnamese.

These roles played by dragon fruit as a symbol of Vietnamese food values with political, economic, social and historical implications not only secure the fruit as a local food, as argued by Mae, but also seem to contribute to a national identity, further solidifying what is perceived to be Vietnamese, and what is not. Mae's presentation of her research reaffirmed in my mind just how crucial a role food can play in the formation and reinforcement of identity on both an individual level, for those grocery store customers reinforcing their nationalism by selecting a fruit they believe to be truly local and therefore safe, and on a national level, as the dragon fruit symbolizes the nation's past and present relations with neighboring China. After listening to Mae's presentation, it seems clearer to me than ever before that we truly are what we eat.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

To Meat or Not To Meat? Vegetarianism in Morocco & Beyond

In light of my recent review of Carol Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat and its prevalent appearance in class discussions, I’ve chosen to explore the topic of vegetarianism for this post, but within the context of traveling abroad. Many college students, myself included, choose to spend a semester studying abroad in order to gain cross-cultural experience and apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to the physical world. When I left for Morocco last winter, I didn’t anticipate that so many of my peers would a) be vegetarian and b) struggle as much as they did with the beliefs and practices at the core of this life decision. While in our seminar we largely focus on contemporary food activism in a very American setting, it is important to relate these discussions to the world at large, on scales ranging from the state to individual levels.

As a non-vegetarian, I came into this class hoping to be more exposed to the varying arguments as to why different people choose to remove meat from their plates. What I’ve noticed between this experience and my travels to North Africa is that meat eaters like me are just as lacking in knowledge about vegetarianism as some vegetarians seem to be about how meat eating is practiced abroad, specifically in the developing world. While there are hundreds of articles and blogs speaking to the ways in which vegetarianism can save the world like this one or this one, as well as those adamantly against this proposition like this one or this one, there are also those examining how vegetarianism might become a reality given the current nature of global food systems. However, many of these pieces fail to address the specific significance of meat within the cultural context of these developing nations, for meat eating contributes as much to their identities as it does to those of people who choose to avoid it.

In numerous developing countries including Morocco, meat is viewed as a luxury good, and to refuse to consume it may be insulting. For this reason, many of my peers chose to ditch their vegetarian practices while abroad in order to better immerse themselves in the Moroccan culture, in which meat eating is a crucial and symbolic part of daily life. My 40 year-old host sister, for example, told me a story of the last student her family hosted and how she refused to be in the house at the end of Ramadan, which is marked by the slaughter of a goat, let alone consume the grand sacrifice. For this reason, she believed that the girl was strange, disrespectful, and rude. Not only did many Moroccans simply not understand when one of my peers tried to explain that they did not eat meat for reasons aside from allergies, but such a conversation, as I personally witnessed, instantly created a sort of barrier between these Americans and Moroccans.

From doing some informal searches around the internet, it seems as though many budding travelers may not grasp the concept that vegetarianism is not a universally held lifestyle, evidenced by forum posts like this one. That being said, enough travelers have recognized that traveling abroad with the baggage of a vegetarian identity in tow is enough of a defining characteristic to specifically plan around when traveling. There are dozens of tips for traveling as a vegetarian like this one circling around the web, providing non-meat eating travelers like my Morocco-bound peers with tips on how to handle new environments with different perceptions of meat eating. While some of my friends chose to abandon this lifestyle as a way to better comprehend Moroccan dietary and social habits, others stuck to their guns and saw discussions surrounding meat eating as opportunities to expose Moroccans to a different way of approaching food. Ultimately, instances of vegetarian travelers in largely meat-eating developing countries illuminates a broader concept of how we have to consciously think about our own identities as consumers before traveling abroad, where our choices of what's on our plates might be brought into question.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Seeking: Man who enjoys long walks on the beach and driving a tractor

In thinking of Dodge's now famous Superbowl advertisement connecting simple (and notably white, male, Christian) farmers with the need for a practical truck, I attempted in a former post to unpack the idealized identity of farmers as classic and necessary American workers. I was reminded of this captivating, eyebrow-raising commercial and the identity it so blatantly sought to make appealing to all viewers today when a commercial for a farmers-only dating site, transparently known as, popped onto the television screen as also caught my eye.

The trademark of the site is "City folks just don't get it!," which illuminates the idea that these people have created a firm sense of identity that is strong enough to allow them to 'other' those not working with the land. This is confirmed by the citation below, appearing in small text beneath dozens of images of farmers, putting faces to the identity they advertise:

We exist because, the way we see it, there are basically two groups in America. Group one revolves around four dollar cups of coffee, taxi cabs, blue suits, and getting ahead at all costs in the corporate world. If you fall into this group then FarmersOnly is not where you want to be dating online. There are plenty of hard to trust dating sites out there for ya though! Group two enjoys blue skies, living free and at peace in wide open spaces, raising animals, and appreciating nature. We understand the meaning of Southern hospitality, even if we don't all live in the South. This group makes up America's Heartland – the slice of America with good old fashioned traditional values, values that were never lost by the farmers of our country. These values have also been preserved by the cowboys and cowgirls who still live on the edge, nature lovers who don’t take the outdoors for granted even though it is free, and horse lovers, ag students, and other animal lovers

In the original commercial appearing six years ago, advertisers used farm animals with speaking parts and the imagery of a pretty woman and handsome man on separate farms to attract those with similar lifestyles and priorities. The commercial that struck me as being highly similar to the Dodge commercial, however, was only released one month ago and features the same simplistic format and voiceover style as its muse. The site and its unique commercials have also prompted interviews, both with participants who have found love and outsiders questioning the site's approach.

So what does this commercial mean? What does it have to do with new food activism? For one thing, this ad and the site in general, especially with the attention it has been given not only by users but also by curious outsiders, reinforces the idea that a career and lifestyle as a farmer is becoming increasingly desirable alongside the 'back to the land' movement sweeping across the country. There are so many young people across the nation who love the land enough to quit big corporate jobs and turn to farming despite their impressive college degrees, so why not find love on the basis of loving the land? Both the Dodge commercial and FarmersOnly are clearly trying to capitalize on the idealization and romanticism of becoming closer to the land and the source of one's food that plays a large part in contemporary food activism.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Buying the 'Local'

For the past few weeks, many of our class discussions have found their way back to the central topic of the strong contemporary desire to consume locally, as a means of pushing back against corporate agriculture and environmentally unfriendly consumption of products being imported or shipped across the country. We've spoken to representatives from our dining services here at Tufts and from a local farm, all of whom mentioned the importance of consciously seeking out local produce and facilitating the connection between producer and consumer as best as possible.

This morning, a certain television commercial caught my attention and invoked a sense of 'local' again in my mind, but from a different angle. This ad was sponsored by Miracle-Gro, showcasing its new "Groables" product. As the commercial states, these easy-to-use pods are perfect for those who are either too inexperienced or, to be frank, too lazy to grow plants the traditional way; they make planting as least labor-intensive as possible.

 So what does a product like this indicate about the current state of food activism? For starters, as mentioned in a previous post, the last decade or so has been dominated by a "back to the land" movement in which many consumers are trading in their canned or imported foods for fresh, local products, especially those whose labels read "organic." The decision and ability to consume locally becomes part of an individual's identity as someone demonstrating his/her personal awareness of choices made pertaining to food, accompanied by the joining of a growing (pun intended) community of self-proclaimed "foodies."

The epitome of consuming locally comes in the form of gardening, because it allows a consumer to be as close to the food to be consumed as physically possible. This sense of 'local,' accompanied by the desire to distance oneself from the capitalist corporations behind agribusiness, has unfortunately been captured by companies like Miracle-Gro. In transforming the idea of growing locally into an industry, evidenced by the sales of products like "Groables," major companies like Miracle-Gro are capitalizing on the desire of many Americans to identify with the consumption of local food. There are upscale "Grow Your Own" shops, expensive workshops focused on how to create a sustainable home garden, and dozens of highly-grossing gardening magazines that have turned the 'local' into a national industry. Ultimately, the corporate, capitalist-driven industry that has given way to disgruntled consumers seeking to go back to the land themselves has managed to exploit the very consumers seeking to avoid them at all costs.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Onion Country: Layers of My 'Local'

In light of a recent class assignment, which entailed bringing in a food item of choice in its raw form and discussing the politics we perceived to be surrounding this food item, I have seen more of a connection of my hometown to new food activism than ever before. My selection, a simple onion, represents the famous Black Dirt region of New York's Hudson Valley, which is not only regarded as one of the richest farmland regions left in the US but also as the supplier for over half of New York's onions. My preparation for this discussion of the politics of this onion involved refreshing the memories of hearing my father's stories from when he spent his summers laboring beside Spanish-speaking farm workers in the black dirt, my own experience volunteering for the health clinic serving these workers, and the food on my table at home in upstate New York. To the neighbors and consumers of Hudson Valley produce, the onion represents a symbolic staple of the region associated with a specific class of workers--that of migrant farm workers, the vast majority of whom are Spanish-speaking. But for the laborers without whom these onions wouldn't exist, such a piece of the earth symbolizes a source of income, but also a community, a lifestyle, and an identity.

Gaining experience by working alongside these healthcare workers, most of whom had been undocumented immigrants at some point themselves, not only illuminated the lifestyles of the thousands of migrant farmworkers in and around my town, but also made me more aware of assumptions and stereotypes pertaining to this community held by many residents of my area. I was horrified to hear that my father, as a local police officer, had heard of other local authorities referring to all of these workers as "Mexicans," assuming that their accents, appearances or apparent occupation meant that they could have only originated from one country. The vicious stereotypes that circulate my town, which is neither notably conservative nor unfriendly, also dictate local politics on immigration law--the presence of these local farmworkers, many of whom reside in the lower income areas of my town, have provided a personal face for this national issue. These workers are blamed for unemployment, crime, visible traces of poverty, language issues, and educational barriers, and yet without them, we could not have the 'local' produce that is so desired by many consumers nowadays. In this sense, my onion is political.

After several weeks of volunteering abroad in Rwanda, I experienced an eye-opening transition in immediately beginning my internship with the Alamo Health Center site of Hudson River HealthCare and the neighboring Farmworkers Community Center upon my return. I was surprised to encounter as many parallels between the developing nation I flew halfway across the world to dig into (pun intended) and the farms in my backyard, and I immediately felt guilty for never having explored this rich community resting quietly beneath my nose for the past twenty years. As part of my internship, I ventured into the camps of these migrant farmworkers in order to deliver educational presentations in Spanish relating to farming-based health and safety issues. Through this experience, I was the one who ended up learning the most. Not only did the daily labors of these farmworkers shape their individual identities, but they also fostered a stronger sense of community than I could have foreseen. After a few weeks of working at the clinic, I was assigned the task of arranging community fitness events that would bring together these migrant families in order to combat the high rate of diabetes and obesity observable in their community. It was through experiences and interactions like these that I witnessed how this region, symbolized by my onion, represents a community within a community, and that the produce emerging from the Hudson Valley is emblematic of such relationships. On my last day at the clinic, one farmer presented me with the gift of a heavy bag of onions, revealing not only his unfailing kindness but also the deep symbolic role of the onion as a food illustrative of the cultural and traditional values held by these community members. The interaction of these numerous facets of society within this region, ranging from the political to the cultural, is indicative of the fact that the community giving life to this local produce is as rich as the black dirt from which it emerged.

So yes, the onion is political. But from my experiences, I have learned that the onion, my Hudson Valley onion, is also social, historical, and cultural. It is a symbol of my father's past and my family's present and future, the workers I've met, how far they've come and how far they still have to go, how much I gained from working and learning in my own backyard, and a personal approach to the meaning of 'local.' The symbolic value of the onion, just as with any food personally associated with the 'local,' is just as layered as the onion itself, revealing the complexities of the movement towards localizing produce as part of contemporary food activism.

Review: The Sexual Politics of Meat

In my last post, I extended Carol Adams' argument pertaining to the meat-based language used to describe women in a sexual context to explore the use of meat-related language by men to describe their genitals. I have posted my overall review of The Sexual Politics of Meat below:

In her 1990 book The Sexual Politics of Meat, Carol Adams explores the ways in which the feminist and vegetarian movements intersect by drawing parallels between the oppression of women and animals at the hands of men, who drive our capitalist society. Adams outlines a clear, comprehensive and impressively detailed theory comparing women and animals as victims of male violence in many facets of society, ranging from war to common language use. Her argument culminates in her characterization of women and animals as absent referents created during this process of abuse, meaning their natural life form is absent from the act of their consumption by men. While the presentation of her argument is consistent throughout, making it easy to grasp how each example connects her overall theory and allowing the reader to analyze contemporary, capitalist patriarchy through the perspectives of both women and animals, Adams’ writing leaves something to be desired. Despite the clear presentation of her beliefs, the argument is weakened by a lack of concrete data coupled with the detailed integration of obscure historical works, as well as an oversimplification of patriarchy in only a small portion of the world. Ultimately, it is Adams’ lack of consideration for how the ties between feminism and vegetarianism in our corner of the planet affect the consumption of both women and animals in the rest of the world that is my most striking critique of this text.
Because of the limitation of Adams’ argument to Western, male-dominated, capitalist societies, she neglects to address the numerous matrilineal and vegetarian societies for whom her theory would not necessarily hold true. In her description of our American patriarchy, Adams notes that men control meat and therefore our food supply, as the historical hunters, farmers and breadwinners of American families. The connection she facilitates between the oppression of women and animals, however, cannot automatically hold true for the numerous societies in which women represent the heads of households, such as those of the Navajo or the Indonesian Minangkabau, for it cannot be assumed that men hold the same positions of power that would allow for them to oppress women and animals to the same extent. The focus of my critique in considering Adams’ theory in light of the numerous societies across the globe that are not male-dominated is not that it is inapplicable to other areas of the world, but that Adams failed to address the limited scope of her argument.
A second component of the critique that Adams fails to discuss her theory on a global scale arises in the oversimplification of the inherent connection between the oppression of animals and women. While Adams provides the reader with a detailed description of the ways in which animals, namely female, are treated in the United States, she fails to acknowledge that one cannot assume that such treatment occurs outside this country. Furthermore, because of the inability to assume the universality of such a connection, one cannot assume that animals are oppressed in societies in which women are mistreated. In some areas of India, for example, women are entirely controlled by men and yet cows, the American symbol of oppression of consumable animals, are largely worshipped by Hindus. Though Adams’ theory is not applicable in all global societies, her argument is weakened by the fact that she does not address such geographical and cultural restrictions in the reach of her theory.
Despite my several critiques of this text, I find it crucial to illuminate the strong points Adams puts forth in her theory. The presentation of her argument is especially characterized by the consistent restatement of her thesis, which provides extra clarity for the reader. Although many may get lost in Adams’ inclusion of historical texts relating to feminism and vegetarianism if they are not familiar with these prominent authors, the fact that she integrates the work of so many crucial voices in both fields, especially in their overlapping territory, evidences the amount of research Adams conducted in order to place her argument in some historical context. Conclusively, Adams’ writing is clear, powerful and direct, making it accessible for a reader with less experience with either of the overlapping fields at the core of this book. Overall, I would argue that Carol Adams’ detailed work with the intersection of vegetarianism and feminism in our male-driven society has its merits, but is ultimately restricted by her failure to acknowledge the scope of her argument, which is limited to the small, capitalist corner of the world. If Adams were to discuss how the connected oppressions of women and animals are significant on a global scale, namely the food-insecure developing world, her argument would be more comprehensive and useful in terms of challenging the food injustice of our contemporary world.   

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Men & Meat

Upon finishing Carol Adams' The Sexual Politics of Meat, which facilitates a multi-layered connection between feminism and vegetarianism while drawing parallels between the oppression of women and animals, I began to think about how such discourses about meat eating have infiltrated today's realm of pop culture. In her discussion of how language reinforces the abused position of both women and animals in our largely patriarchal and capitalist society, Adams describes how the use of language relating to violence against animals, such as referring to women as pieces of meat, makes it easier for men to equate women with animals, whose meat they are accustomed to eating; they consume meat physically and women sexually. The fostering of such a connection between women and animals as entities equally available to be exploited and consumed prompts men to view women as consumable objects over which they have control, just like they have control over the meat on their plates. Thus the use of language pertaining to the equation of women with animals, or rather with meat once the animal is slaughtered, provides men with power both in the dining room and in the bedroom. The manipulation of language to equate women with pieces of meat places men in the positions of power, but what about men referring to their own body parts as a sort of meat? If men manipulate sexual language that connects their own genitals to slaughtered animals, how does this relate to the type of meat connected to females? (*Please note that this post contains some suggestive language relating to male/female dynamics in a sexual context as it relates to meat consumption).

Meat is everywhere. Women are like meat when they are being sexually exploited or dominated by powerful men who also slaughter and exploit animals for their meat, and men are like meat in their attempts to convey their socially expected high level of masculinity. Most people have heard of the expression "meat head," commonly referring to a young man, often in high school-based films, who cares more about muscles, ego and aesthetics than academics. Such a use of meat to assert one's masculinity confirms Adams' argument that men need to eat meat in order to achieve the desired level of manliness as a means of reinforcing social status and patriarchal power. But what happens when men define themselves in terms of meat in relation to women as meat to be sexually consumed?

In recent years, there have been countless films targeting a humorous teenage and young adult population in which a man's description of his own genitals has focused around meat. In the 2010 film Easy A, high school teacher Mr. Griffith tries to seduce his guidance counselor wife by suggestively saying that he will be eating "meat" and "balls" alone for dinner while she attends a parent-teacher conference, only to appear sexually frustrated when his advances don't solicit a positive response. In the classic and repeated segment of an Austin Powers film, a penis-shaped rocket prompts random individuals to shout out different names for the sex organ, which include "weiner," accompanied by cooking hot dogs on a grill. Even Deborah Cameron, in her article entitled "Naming of Parts," confirms the overlapping nature of male-given penis names, as suggested in the Austin Powers example, that are related to both food and weaponry, such as "meat spear". The use of meat terms as identifying penis descriptors also ranges from the academic, like the research described in Cameron's article, to the crude. On, a popular R-rated website that provides definitions for what seems like every slang word ever uttered, a search for "meat penis" yields a whopping 1,000 results for slang terms, amassing 143 pages. These examples, along with other terms like "sausage"or the British "meat and two veg," are evidence of a common American phenomenon involving male-created language that compares the penis with different cuts of meat.

But if meat is what women are thought to be in a sexual relationship in which the male dominates, as suggested by Adams, why would men purposefully equate their genitals with meat? In taking Adams' theory to a new level, I propose that there are multiple layers of connection between sexual politics and meat occurring in such a sexual context. For example, in the case of a woman performing oral sex on a male partner, the woman is consuming 'meat' while also being visually consumed by the man, who is ultimately in the position of power, as if she were a helpless piece of meat begging to be consumed. The reason that men would want to be equated with meat just like their female sexual partners is because meat is representative of two different meanings dependent on gender. Women are equated with the helpless animals in slaughterhouses, whose consumers will not establish a connection between the dead carcasses on their plates and the idealized animals that children visit during school trips to the farm. Men, however, connect themselves to meat because meat demands and signifies power. Meat in this context is associated with muscle, strength, and the opposite of fat; the basic principle of meat craving meat, as in the lifestyles of carnivorous predators, is at work here. 'Male meat' is not the oppressed but rather the oppressor.

Ultimately, I propose that meat as a sexual entity has the ability to function beyond Carol Adam's comparison between oppressed animals and sexually dominated women. Men often actively choose to identify themselves with meat because of their ability to manipulate its definition in our patriarchal society into one characterized by power, not victimhood. Perhaps we should take PETA's advice and challenge men's use of meat-based terms to name their genitals by replacing them with vegetables, as a jumping off point towards Adams' goal of reduced oppression of women and animals. What, then, would happen if the penis went vegetarian?

Thursday, February 7, 2013

"To the Farmer in All of Us"

Dodge Ram Trucks Super Bowl Commercial

Amidst the chaos of the Super Bowl, emerging from both Beyoncé's killer half-time performance and the unexpected, mysterious power outage (insert: one of many conspiracy theories), I was unanticipatedly struck by a commercial that, to my surprise, directly related to contemporary food activism. Given the insane amount of money that even 30 seconds of airtime costs a company during this annual American ritual event, I was shocked to witness the 2-minute Dodge commercial focused entirely on farming in its quest to advertise its trucks. In light of the fact that the Super Bowl is arguably one of the most American traditions in which many of us share, or at least pretend to share as a social performance, it was fascinating to see Dodge attempt to capitalize on a similarly stereotypical American trait.

In addition to facilitating the somewhat easy-to-grasp connection between a truck and its utility in the eyes of a farmer, Dodge managed to glorify the farmer within this 2-minute span to the point of making me want to be a farmer. The overly simplistic commercial, which consisted of a slower slideshow of farming images and a background narrative by American broadcaster Paul Harvey describing God's quest for a farmer not only invoked a religious overtone that might appeal to a certain crowd but also featured images that were relatable and idealized. Dodge successfully connected the necessary, glorified yet modest work of a farmer with the need to buy a new truck that would help such a model citizen complete his honorable work.

So who exactly would find this ad appealing? Here's my preliminary list: more religious Americans for whom the connection between God and the farmer is facilitated, the classic all-American man who identifies a reputable truck with the manliness of being a farmer, a father who wishes for his son to be like the one discussed in the commercial (a son who has so much respect for his farming father that he seeks to follow in his footsteps), anyone searching for a new truck and simply needs to associate this Dodge pickup with a positive connotation, or even someone like me, who is neither in the market for a new truck nor a farming career but was captivated by the wonderfully simple yet rewarding lifestyle conveyed in the ad.

Now you might ask, what does this have to do with food activism? From what I've learned in my seminar thus far, there is a growing desire, especially in urban areas, to return to the land as a means of cleansing our modern, capitalist world of its pollution and technological complexities, especially since the industrialization of the food industry. This commercial exploits that inner desire shared by many today to return to the basics of food production, especially the need to get one's own hands dirty in the earth, by romanticizing the life of a farmer. A farmer is often stereotypically regarded as the one closest to the earth because of his/her direct involvement and active role in food cultivation, and so this ad seeks to sell such a pure lifestyle...which, of course, can only be achieved with the purchase of a new Dodge truck. The end of this commercial speaks directly to the viewer in saying, "To the farmer in all of us." Ultimately, Dodge is telling us, the average Super Bowl-watching consumers, that we can indeed return to the land, just like we so desire. But it will cost us.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Food (Communities) For Thought

We’ve all heard the old expression, “there is strength in numbers.” But what does this tired saying have to do with food activism? Before engaging with some text about the numerous facets of contemporary food activism, I never really fathomed the extent to which this movement has the ability to unite all types of people in the pursuit of shared goals. For the past week, I have been exploring the ways in which activism involving the food industry takes shape, and how each of these outlets fosters some sense of identity and community, providing fuel for an already rapidly expanding movement.

At the very heart of food activism appears to lay the desire to move back to the land in order to be both figuratively and literally closer to our food and its origins. In doing so, we’re not only coming closer to the ground, but also closer to one another in many ways. If you visit YouTube, you will see dozens of homemade videos conveying the sense of collectivity emerging from the creation of community gardens in sites ranging from Copenhagen to Juneau, Burkina Faso to Wisconsin. In addition to this fairly obvious creation of community through a type of food activism (you can’t get much more obvious than including “community” in the project’s name), the idea of bringing people together in aspiring towards these common goals is also at the very foundation of returning to the land. Through programs like CSAs and farm shares, communities are facilitating the direct connections to be made between producers and consumers, which contribute to a more localized and communal identity than buying a grocery store food product extracted and packaged 3,000 miles away.

But this sense of community that provides the strong arm for the movement towards healthier, more sustainable food does not only exist physically between people laboring on a rooftop garden. Besides, who nowadays doesn’t turn to Facebook or Twitter when they need a break from work, school, stress, or even boredom? I certainly do, but I hadn’t yet realized how social media allows those passionate about being food-conscious to connect with others outside their general vicinity; it is enabling this movement to generate a nation-wide community because of its ability to be reached by all those with access to a computer. For example, Organic Consumers has 42,000 Twitter followers, while Slow Food USA has over 300,000 followers with direct access to its steady stream of information (or should we say ‘ammunition’). Together, those two pages have created a community that is larger than the city of Pittsburgh. And they all have access to one another’s thoughts, inspirations, and visions for the future of the movement. Who knew one could be a part of such a large community from the comfort of one’s own couch?

Another more obvious platform for community building on the basis of food activism is the act of protest, during which undeniable bonds are formed on the basis of shared goals. As I recently learned through reading an article for my seminar, numerous neighbors of UC Berkeley united in what they called the “Occupy the Farm” movement in attempts to protect public land scheduled to be transformed into commercial space. Their efforts, as seen in numerous online videos, fostered community sentiments as they were attacked by outsiders of the movement, also known as the riot police. Public demonstrations surrounding a desire to change the production or distribution of food have sprung up across the globe, in locations ranging from the UK to Egypt. These protests have also gone digital (thus a little more peaceful), as seen on’s designated page for the dozens and dozens of electronic petitions relating to sustainable food. Whether in person or through a computer screen, these mediums have allowed for those passionate about reforming the ways in which we consume food to find community among others from across the globe who share their motivations.

So yes, there is strength to be found in numbers. And there is definite strength to be found in the communities springing up around the world on the basis of working towards food security and justice. This is something recognized by the food industry, as some corporate food producers have even expressed. From the information I have gathered thus far, it is apparent that the true muscle behind the propelling food activism occurring today is the ability of these individuals to unite with others, on both a local and global scale, in order to share ideas and reinforce their ultimate vision for the future of food.