What I Talk About When I Talk About Food & Politics
Wait, let me start this over.
There are a lot of ways to relate "food" and "politics." So what, particularly, am I talking about? What is my focus? Let me go through a bunch of the different ways of relating these terms, and try to explain where I locate myself, most of the time.
To start: the term "food" should be pretty self-explanatory, but I don't only mean food objects, like apples or steaks or boxes of Lucky Charms. I mean the entire system through which our food is produced--farms, slaughterhouses, supermarkets, backyard gardens--and the social ways in which we consume it--in schools, with family, alone in our cars, standing on the corner outside the bodega. By politics, I most certainly do not mean (only) things that happen in government, during elections, or as part of lobbying. I also mean the interactions between people that are about power--that is, how power, which can be located in social interactions or in the form of the state, affects us as individuals, communities, and societies.
Power and politics have a lot to do with the way food is distributed in the contemporary world. A lot of people don't have enough food. A lot more people don't have food that is appropriately nutritional. Other people eat too much and particular sorts of food as part of a lifestyle of overconsumption. Clean your plate, there are starving children in Ethiopia. These distributional issues are serious. They kill people. They doom others to a life of poor health. These distributional issues are a part of why I'm a vegetarian: meat is wasteful, in that it takes grain which could feed many and turns it into meat that can feed a few. But I'm not here writing about world hunger, or the injustice of how food is marketed in poor, non-white communities in the US. I'm not focusing on how food is distributed through class, race, and gender in the US or elsewhere in the world. I will write about these things where they intersect with the things I am thinking about, but they are not my main focus.
Another place where politics and food come together is sustainable consumption. When most people talk about food and politics, they are talking about the organic, sustainable, fair trade, and local food movements. There is no question that eating locally produced, organic, fairly traded food is more sustainable than eating things shipped across the world, covered in chemicals that will poison you, the people who grew it, and the people who processed it, for which no one involved in the production was paid a fair wage. To me, each of these individual ideas is so obvious that it seems silly to proselytize about them. Organic food doesn't contain poison; you gotta like that. Fairly traded food is made by people who are suddenly making a decent wage, which is either just human decency or, if you are a pro-liberalization type, means global economic growth for all. Local food is the clearest sell. Food produced close to where you live cuts down substantially on the carbon (and other pollutant) emissions associated with your food's production, shipping, and selling. It supports a secure local food infrastructure, meaning that in the event that, say, nothing can get between California and New York because of (insert major disaster), I still get to eat. Most importantly from a foodie's point of view, local food doesn't taste like crap all the time. Tomatoes shipped from California are picked hard and green and chemically treated to turn red. Apples that have to get here from Washington state have to be like little rocks. Peaches from Georgia can't bruise on the way. Blech. It's all cardboard. Give me the bushels of peaches in July I get at the Greenmarket anytime.
As with distribution, this is something I care about. I buy organic, local, and fairly traded products for the majority of my food shopping. I will buy minimally treated conventional produce if its locally grown, but I prefer to get organic and local. This is a major part of my consumption life. But I will not spend all my time singing the praises of the local tomato, or lecturing about farmer's markets, or talking about seasonality. They'll come up, probably frequently, but that's not what I'm doing here.
I want to talk about food as a social object. Eating, cooking, buying food, going to restaurants: these are socially mediated phenomena, which make sense in a social context and can be used to interpret that social context. The actions we take in our everyday lives are a part of the broader social reality with which we all interact. As Foucault would say, we are all in the discourse, and we cannot escape so easily.
Food is particularly fraught with social significance. For some of us, mostly women, it connects to our struggle to fit into the conception of what a 'beautiful' or 'normal' female body is. This isn't just a matter of eating disorders. The Wife, having been sick all her life from eating food with gluten in it, and undiagnosed until a year and a half ago, has struggled with being thought anorexic, with having a body so thin that it is clearly abnormal and judged. This is painful, in a way that is connected to the pain heavy women feel, but not identical. In any case, the relationship that the Wife has to food is inherently connected to the social constructions of gender in our society, and the power relations they create.
For others, food means our relationship with our culture or class. The Boy's family always had a pan of refried beans on the stove, because they were Mexican; it was that smell that separated him from the world outside his door, which literally smelled of WonderBread, since he grew up near their factory. To not have beans would be to be not Mexican. Immigrants and their children and people of color struggle with the connections between food and culture: they accept or reject old food, and it has to do with how their identities as Other than mainstream white Americans can be accepted or rejected.
Food is essentially connected to our bodies: hunger is physical, as is the pleasure of eating. My relationship with my body is hostile and filled with struggle, as a result of years of serious illness and disability. When I was really, really sick, I couldn't eat. Coming back into eating--and being able to enjoy my body through feeding it--was healing. Because food is both bodily and social, we as social beings are able to use food to bridge between our body/senses and our emotions and mind. We can be embodied and cared for at the same time. This gives food the ability to bring the social, and the political, very close into our bodies. I write about food and politics as a feminist: the personal is political, and the political is very personal, nestled close to our chests, living on our forks and in our long dinner conversations. We live politics through our food.
That's what I want to write about. We experience politics whenever we engage in the socially fraught act of eating food, buying it, preparing it. I want to find the politics in the eating and cooking I do, and I want to tease them out to find what can be transformatory in them.
And then there's that word, "better." What about politics would be better if we thought about food politically? I think that political organizing, political movements, and political thinking work best when they are embedded in an understanding of culture, society, and people which gives them rich levels of interpretation. If you are only thinking about the mechanics of politics, you will proceed mechanistically. Eventually, treating people as cogs will wear them out, just as cogs wear out over time. But treating people like people, giving them a rich experience that provides them with the ability to grow and flourish, means that they can stay in the moment, stay in the movement, and replenish themselves while keeping up the struggle. Politics is better for the people involved if it is a place well fed with caring, attention, individuality, and concrete and metaphorical food for all.
So this is what I mean by "better politics through food." I want to find how food and the things it exposes and connects can together lead us into different ways of thinking about politics, so that we can engage in the transformation into a more just and, hopefully, better tasting one.