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?