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.