Food in the Public Square

The Collective Human Experience

Community Gardens and Food Insecurity: A Powerful Tool with many Limits

In my past ten years of teaching and researching urban agricultural and local food system initiatives, I have seen community gardens empower communities, clean up blighted lots, increase food security in low income communities, allow immigrant populations to connect with their home country through growing culturally significant crops unavailable in grocery stores, and better the mental health of those suffering from loss or depression.  A study conducted in 2008 estimated that community and squatter gardens in Philadelphia produced the equivalent of  $4.9 million worth of vegetables in one summer – absolutely increasing the food security of many in those neighborhoods

In Providence, where I reside, I’ve worked with the Southside Community Land Trust (SCLT) and the African Alliance of Rhode Island (AARI) to help use gardens as a tool of economic and personal empowerment.  The African Alliance started in 2004 as an organization to connect West African refugee women to land.  The program began with a small urban plot on the Southside of Providence.  When talking to the director, he told me that right away that this piece of land (about the size of a small urban backyard) gave a handful of women an opportunity to grow culturally appropriate foods.  More importantly, it gave these women, many of whom did not speak English, a reason to get out of the house and to be active.  Within a couple of years, one urban plot turned into 3.  By this time, the women were growing enough excess produce that many decided to sell produce at a local farmers market in the summer.  Day after day, the African crops sold out to other refugees, looking for traditional crops such as sweet potato greens and sour melons, and foodies interested in cooking with “exotic” ingredients.  One woman I talked to a few years back said she was finally able to send money home to her family in Africa. Given the success of the program, , the City of Providence, through their “Lots of Hope” program donated a ½ acre parcel of land (roughly 6 urban plots) to SCLT for the AARI to farm in 2014.  Today, the women are taking English and business lessons to help them keep up with demand at multiple farmers markets in Providence.  This is a story about how growing food can empower a refugee community while also educating the broader community on African culture.

Gardens not only empower, but they also educate.  Native American garden programs in the Southwest and Midwest use gardens as a means to reclaim their food culture and save their heirloom seeds.  I garden in a community garden that brings a diverse set of people together, often talking about seed saving or watering practices, that otherwise may never cross paths.  I see neighbor kids who “hate” vegetables reach for fresh snap peas or carrots and pop them right into their mouths when playing in the garden.

So when a friend of mine asked me to sign a petition that asked to take a portion of a soccer field to turn into a community garden, I resoundedly said…ABSOLUTELY NOT.  You see, I’ve also seen gardens weed over in the summer when nobody is there to manage them; I’ve seen children, often low-income, being displaced from their public playing fields; I’ve seen the enormous cost associated with building fences, raised beds, and water systems (the Lots of Hope program needed a 6 figure grant to kick-off); and I’ve seen food rot on the vines in gardens that are supposedly increasing food access.  The “less romantic” side of gardening became very clear when one of my students spent a year with a local preschool/afterschool program to research the impact of a new student garden on food access in a food desert.  In partnership with my university, the preschool agreed to start a student garden.  Every spring semester for 3 years, university students would help plant and weed the garden, and one student would often stay for the summer to manage the garden.  When my student really dove into the impact on food security, this is what he found: the maintenance guy mowed right over their herb garden; the beets, turnips, and a few other vegetables would often rot in a basket by the front door because parents didn’t pick them up to take home, and the departure of the teacher who championed the project meant a complete lack of interest from the school.  Using the works of Julie Guthman, he quickly concluded that this garden was not increasing access to food at all, and the small amount of time young students spent in the garden didn’t really impact their eating habits.  And this was with a paid student intern maintaining the garden’s upkeep.

This problem is not the exception to the rule with school gardens.  Without complete buy-in from teachers or parents who want to volunteer time in the garden over the summer, when school is out, these gardens are almost doomed to fail.  Sadly, this buy-in is much more likely in middle or upper-middle income communities.  While schools often reach out to other organizations, such as churches or senior centers, to help care for the gardens over the summer, this feat has proven difficult in the few communities where I have gardened.  This is not due to school indifference, but, rather, gardens are rarely at the top of the education priority list and teachers should not be expected to manage gardens during their breaks.

Community gardens can become eyesores in the offseason and can attract loiterers at night if there is not sufficient lighting.  Without proper management, they often weed over or dry out from a lack of watering.  Further, urban community gardens can often act as placeholders until a development offer comes along, making them less than ideal for community-building.  This is not to say that gardens cannot increase food security, just that it takes a lot of time and effort to grow enough food to feed a family for more than a few weeks.  It takes a lot of time to stop by a garden every day to water and weed, and even more time to preserve fruits and vegetables before they rot.  Often, those with the least amount of time to garden are also the ones who are the most food insecure.

While I see gardens as part of the equation to increase food security, especially in the cases mentioned at the beginning of this blog where there is adequate land and community support, they are often just a band-aid solution to the much larger societal problem of food insecurity.  Sometimes heralded as the panacea of food security, indeed the mayor of Providence stated he wants everyone to be within one mile of a community garden, community gardens are but a drop in the bucket compared to much larger food security problem faced in the US, such as a widening income gap, lack of access to inexpensive and nutritious food at grocery stores, and an increasing amount of cropland being used to produce animal feed and biofuels.

Gardens are assets to communities and can increase food security, but it is important not to over romanticize their role in increasing food insecurity in food deserts.  Sometimes, it is more important to volunteer at an already established school garden or to coordinate food aggregation and donations from multiple garden sites, to make sure food does not go to waste, than to start a new community garden. The 2008 Philadelphia Harvest report I mentioned above certainly found that community gardens increased food security in low-income neighborhoods in Philadelphia, but many of the individual gardeners took it upon themselves to make food security a goal in their neighborhoods – one garden would even drop off boxes on doorsteps as gifts so people would not feel ashamed to take free food.

Gardens can empower people to grow their own food, tie communities to culturally appropriate food, provide an outdoor communal gathering spot, and create green space in urban jungles.  I strongly support community gardens as tools that serves many functions in urban planning, however, I also caution that gardens are not a food security cure-all.  For those interested in starting a community garden to increase food security, it is important to step back and look at the larger picture of community need and to make a plan for how the garden will specifically increase food security.   Sometimes, community space can be better served than providing 20 families with a 4X8” plot.  Sometimes, a soccer field is more useful to community health than a garden.

Dr. Dawn King, Brown University

Food Justice and Flood Zones

I was caught off guard this summer when a reporter called to ask why a new public market in Easton did not solve the food desert problem. My first reaction was to admit I didn’t know it was supposed to solve that problem nor that it, alone, could. The reporter’s angle was that a number of merchants in the market were high-end vendors. The developers should have rented the spaces to farmers and sellers who had more affordable food and wares. The implication was that that would’ve solved the food desert problem. By adding a new market, the community would overcome the deprivation of a deserted area. Or, to play the metaphor out with actual deserts, it would be to put a water fountain in the Sahara.

In fact, the question had me thinking of a different water problem, flooding. Bear with me for a moment so I can make sense of how I want to jump from one topic to an ostensibly different one.

Easton is a flooding city. It sits at the confluence of the Delaware and Lehigh Rivers. Four times in ten years the Center Square that hosts the farmers’ market was underwater during storms. The Delaware itself has flooded eight times in twenty years.

One might suggest that the city could solve the flooding problem by stacking sandbags along the intersection of the two rivers. Maybe the city government would do this, maybe a non-profit, maybe both. They would go about it by building a small wall to keep the water out. Maybe they’d get funding to add 1000 or 10,000 bags. In fact, they wouldn’t measure it by number of bags. It would be a five-foot wall that was three feet thick, perhaps. Or an eight-foot wall five feet thick. And so on.

When a flood came around and it over-topped the sandbags, would we sit around and ask, Why didn’t that small stand of sandbags solve the flooding problem?

I doubt it.

More likely, we would recognize that that was one small effort in what would have to be a host of initiatives. Rather than a stack of sandbags, we would likely wonder about the degree of water flow, asking if it was produced by rain, a hurricane, an up-river event, the intensification of impervious pavement (paved surfaces) that has increased water flow into the river over the decades. We might ask if water control in northern Pennsylvania or near the source of the Delaware in New York had influenced the flow downriver. We might ask about recreation along the river, the ways boats use it for commerce and cities control its course, how the river is a habitat, the ways the integrity of the river banks maintain how well the river holds or shifts its place and direction. We might ask about water management policy. We might wonder if climate change is affecting the possibilities of flooding. And so on.

In effect, with even minor deliberation we would pull back to recognize that flooding issues at one spot along a river are produced by conditions far greater than that singular location alone. Nobody would say a stack of sandbags could have solved the flooding problem. That would be to suggest a singular, schematic solution. It might help, to be sure, but it would be one part of a collective approach, it would aid the more sufficient response to flooding policy is that assumes it is a complex environmental and political problem.

So too for “food deserts.”

Those working for healthier and more equitable food systems have been using the concept of food deserts for the past fifteen years. The USDA defined it as “a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store,” even providing a mapping service to help people visualize the desert locations. In one sense, it is encouraging to find that a concept aimed at questions of food justice has gone from obscurity to the local news as something everyday citizens need to pay attention to. That is to be applauded. The reporter is making food deserts a point of obvious concern.

Yet as food justice advocates argue, the problem brought to light by food deserts is not one of individual consumers, but one about food policies. Addressing food deserts through stores is only one element of addressing a more complex policy problem. Like flooding, even minor deliberation should have us pulling back to recognize that inequitable food systems in one town are produced by conditions far greater than that singular location alone.

To assume the food desert problem is one of individual access is to assume consumer interaction is the thing to address. That’s certainly and obviously part of the issue. But we have food deserts for reasons beyond just consumer practices. We also have them because of land use patterns, urban planning, community organization, and the like, all factors that influence the foods that are possible in certain places. If there aren’t regional farms to produce food for urban markets, then how will we stock their shelves? If there aren’t sustainable means to distribute food, beyond long-haul trucking or refrigerated rail cars or inter-continental air traffic, then how could the market options be healthy for people or the earth? This is to say, we also have food deserts because of flaws in the distribution and production of food, not just its purchase and consumption. Thus it is true: a new public market will not on its own solve the food desert problem. Assuming so would be to adopt a strictly individual consumer-side perspective. The market-based component must instead be part of a broader approach to a systemic issue that is fully cultural, political, technical, and environmental.

Fortunately, beyond just the new public market, Easton is host to a number of activities to do just that, working toward healthier and more equitable food systems through a variety of efforts. The NEH-funded “Food in the Public Square” that hosts this website is one of them, as it strives to bring together people from all walks of life to collaborate on problem definition in our food system. I wrote previously about a project in Easton’s West Ward led by the West Ward Neighborhood Partnership that Sophia Feller, Lynn Holden, and Larry Malinconico started four years ago. It has sought to build community strength by bringing together neighbors through fresh food distribution. The Kellyn Foundation is making strides with the Two Hearts Foundation to introduce even more mobile market options throughout Easton. The new Lehigh Valley Food Policy Council is working on developing broader policy initiatives to help similar issues.

The new public market will not solve the food desert problem, just as the thriving farmer’s market half a block away has not solved it, just as a new grocery store alone in the West Ward would not solve it. Yet as I wrote in my prior post, I would avoid either/or scenarios to recognize that the work for healthier and more equitable food systems is the work of pluralism, a pluralism grounded in seeing the problems not as individualist issues—just buy better food, just put in a store—but of political action and policy innovation.

B.R. Cohen, Lafayette College

Shopping for a Better World: The Dilemmas of the Ethical Consumer

In our July Food in the Public Square community conversation, one participant at my table discussion recounted her normal supermarket dilemma. She is standing before a set of products paralyzed by a conflicting set of concerns. Should she buy the organic grapes that are packed in polystyrene or the regular grapes sitting in a plastic bag?  The organic grapes are ecologically sound, but not the packing. Should she buy the local carrots that aren’t necessarily organic or the organic ones that have been trucked to Pennsylvania all the way from California? Should she leave the supermarket altogether and go to the natural foods store or wait for the weekly farmer’s market?  For this type of concerned consumer each and every purchase brings about a wrenching internal debate. Gee whiz, with all the moral wrestling, self-examination, and guilt, shopping (and eating) in the twenty-first century has really become a drag. How did this happen? Why are we putting so much energy and stock into the composition of our cupboards and grocery carts? And why do many of us see our shopping and eating as a declaration of political purpose?

Since the most contemporary phase of the natural foods movement germinated in the revolutionary idealism of the 1960s, it seems that the social movements and intellectual frameworks of period had to have played a part in our current understanding of shopping as politics. The New Left, although actually peopled by a minority of Americans, was a formative force in the reframing of left/ progressive politics from the 1960s forward. They considered themselves New because they rejected the liberal Democratic establishment (FDR’s New Deal liberal state) and they rejected the old left of the labor movement and unions. For the New Left both status quo liberals and the labor left had become too big, too bureaucratized, too institutionalized, undemocratic, and detached from citizen influence. New Lefters wanted to upend the political and cultural establishment. They wanted revolution not reform. They wanted a people’s politics, what they called participatory democracy.  The countercultural believed the same and decided to live a new world into being on communes, by going “back-to-the-land,” by making cooperative businesses and social service operations, and by breaking free of the constraints of their parent’s culture (see their long hair, rejection of monogamy & careerism, drug experimentation, rock n roll etc.).

Although Sixties/Seventies critics of the conventional food system had little faith in corporate capitalism, they saw creative potential in the marketplace and in the power of critical consumption. So they went about creating a new food world parallel to the supermarket/agribusiness system—farming organically, circumventing the supermarket by selling natural goods in hippie stores, buying outside of the system. This plan succeeded. Hippies made a robust alternative food network, initially just for other hippies (see John Mackey’s Whole Foods or Michael Potter’s Eden Foods; see food co-ops and organic farms) and later for a broader consumer base. With all their energy funneled into their corner of the food world, and having abandoned establishment politics, natural foods advocates left the conventional food system and food and farming legislators and regulators to march on largely unchallenged. Indeed, from the 1960s forward the conventional food and agricultural systems grew in size, scope, and depth.  The alternative food system grew too, but little in comparison. And many folks who might have previously used their energies in movements to reform agricultural policy, food policy, and social justice policy, had their hands full making and maintaining their alternative businesses and associations. Citizens who weren’t becoming organic/natural foods entrepreneurs put their political stock and economic power into buying and supporting the parallel food network. Undoubtedly there were still folks who devoting their lives  to non-profit public interest lobbying, as well as traditional politicking. But it is in the marketplace where the natural foods movement found its momentum and its voice, and it is through the marketplace that individual citizens have routinely exercised their political conscience. The question is how does this shopping cart activism affect the total food system?  What is the net effect of all these tormented trips to the supermarket or even to the natural foods store/CSA/farmer’s market on the conventional foods system? on UDSA farming policy? on corporate capitalism?

That is a tough question. Isn’t changing American eating and farming the final point of all this careful consumption? But if all this light and heat over eating right and shopping right is not shifting the larger food world—where most people eat, where and how most food is grown—than why keep investing so much stock in this strategy?   Why keep shopping for a better world?

Dr. Maria McGrath, Bucks County Community College

What is the meaning of the American dream in terms of food?


As part of Food in the Public Square we have conducted two cooking workshops and one open forum. In terms of Latinos we have had participants coming from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Honduras, Ecuador, and Mexico. Only one out of 12 participants in our cooking workshops has been a man, which made us reflect about gender dynamics in the household. Traditionally women have been responsible for provisioning, cooking and cleaning. This is the case in most Latin American households. But how feasible is it to do so when women work outside their home? Do they just accept their double shift or do they try to modify this practice?

Based on the conversations we have had we see how that dynamic has changed. Women in their seventies who grew up in Latin America recalled that children, particularly older daughters, were expected to do housework. Growing up in big families, where there were more than six children, allowed mothers to divide tasks and therefore share the workload. Women in their fifties who live far away from their family mentioned how in the United States it is harder to keep the same structure. Their families are less numerous and women have to engage in paid work. Nevertheless, their husbands expect them to cook every day and to be in charge of housework. This is not always possible, so they had to rely on leftovers, prepare simple meals or buy processed or ready-made meals. However, some younger Latinos mention that they are trying to engage the whole family in cooking, which helps reduce the workload but also teaches children how to cook and reinforces family unity.

Achieving the American dream is not easy. The ideal of keeping a house clean and tidy and cook so the family can eat dinner together results a challenge. Moreover, in some cases dinner has to satisfy every palate, which in the United States is expected to be different. Children do not eat grown-up food, teenagers might be vegetarian or vegan, and the husband wants traditional dishes from their country of origin. Canned and processed food become part of daily life, and in some instances buying fast food allows families to eat on a reduced budget. Most first generation women face that paradox, should they work more hours to earn more money or spend that time cooking, cleaning and looking after their children instead. In most cases the need is bigger, so women end up working for money. Still the predicament of spending more or less time cooking is present, and it always come at a price. In a capitalist society in which time is money, we need to reconsider the value of cooking elaborate meals or growing our own food. Is this a privilege or a necessity?

Dr. Sandra Aguilar, Moravian College

Humanities and the Food Conversation: Part 2*

This call for a humanities driven conversation especially one that has been dominated by the sciences and market-based politics is not unique to food only. Just last month,  The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article by Heidi Bostic titled, “The Humanities Must Engage Global Grand Challenges.” In this article, Bostic addresses the need for the humanities when addressing environmental issues. She provides a broad description of our current understanding of the environmental issues when she says that:

Scientists and engineers describe our era in terms of grand challenges. These are urgent, widely shared problems that call for large-scale, long-term, coordinated responses. They are also great opportunities. We need to develop renewable energy, slow the destruction of ecosystems, and stem the rise of greenhouse gases. We need to ensure adequate, safe, and secure food, water, and shelter. We need to design effective, accessible, and affordable healthcare systems.

It almost sounds like a public works approach to our relationship with the environment. And she recognizes this when she says, “But more research and new design, while necessary, will not suffice. For we also face a crisis of meaning, at once political, linguistic, and philosophical”. The part of that I find fascinating and most relevant when engaging in a humanities based conversation about food is linguistics. What is the language we use to discuss and understand our relationship with food? Then, how is this language used to influence policies that can make change which is both effective and aware?  

I don’t believe it would take any great effort to argue that we use language to understand the world. What tends to be the challenge is coming to an mutual understanding of how the normative language or our culture is governed by privilege and authority that is neither democratic nor eager for change. In my own field, English, this debate between “standard English” and the language habits outside of academia became a hotly contested issue during the late 60s’ and early 70s’ when colleges and universities became open admission, making college a viable option for many students who were the first in their family to venture into higher education. So what we had were the children of the working class and the language of their day-to-day lives suddenly clashing with a system that was not prepared to address their needs. The result, in 1974 was the Conference on College Composition and Communication’s adoption of the Student’s Right to Their Own Language resolution. What this resolution had done was acknowledge the value of all dialects and vocabulary as a source to increase the “richness of our wordstock”. This richness though, can only come from a equal representation of all language users.

In the food world, we are completely capable of doing this. It has already happened in the not too distant past. One of the terms we now use to understand and talk about areas of food insecurity is “food deserts.” In a brief article by Steven Cummins and Sally Macintyre titled “Food deserts”—evidence and assumption in health policy making,” they explain that:

The term “food desert” was reputedly first used by a resident of a public sector housing scheme in the west of Scotland in the early 1990s. It first appeared in a government publication in a 1995 document from a policy working group of the Low Income Project Team of the then Conservative government’s Nutrition Task Force. The term has been used increasingly by academics, policy makers, and community groups to describe populated urban areas where residents do not have access to an affordable and healthy diet.

Food desert is a term crafted by someone living in a food desert. However, not only was it crafted by lived experience; but it has also maintained its meaning, while also gaining authority.

To learn new a new language about food, thus changing our understanding of our food system, will require us to reconsider what we thought we knew. In Wendell Berry’s Article “Conservationist and Agrarian,” published in 2002, he believed that one potential solution to our environmental and agricultural challenges is to “encourage farm-raised children” and it is here that I think the larger conversation of a healthy food system has gone awry. This implies that our attention should be focused first and foremost on farmers, and traditional ones mind you, and our rural farmland. However, those who are impacted the most by the health of our food system aren’t necessarily the farmers. Sure they are trying to make a living from working the land, but they are going to make that living regardless of how they grow food and regardless of the nutritional quality of that food. The people who feel the greatest negative effects from our food system are the urban poor and unfortunately it is this demographic that is underrepresented when identifying not only the failings of that system, but also developing strategies and language for navigating a healthy existence within it.

The reason I believe we need to reexamine how we talk about food is because the issues we face are not transparent and they are certainly not equal. There is no ignoring the fact that presently our food system is dictated by large scale agribusinesses and market-based politics. If we are going to make the changes we understand to be necessary for a healthy population and a healthy planet, they should be influenced and guided by the humanities. It would not be a new phenomena. It’s rare, but it’s certainly not new. During the second world war our food system at the time could not support our food needs both domestically and overseas. A solution to this problem was a national effort to inspire people to grow their own food. They called this initiative Victory Gardens. Growing your own food was an act of patriotism. We got it, that made sense. Patriotism is a humanistic quality. It is in our human nature to satisfy our desire for belonging. We didn’t just grow our own food to support our food system, we did it to support each other. 

—Kelly R. Allen, Northampton Community College

*A bulk of this post is from my remarks during our opening event for the “Food in the Public Square” program on 20 May 2016.

Forests and Trees, Food Policies and Individuals

“Certain forms of knowledge and control require a narrowing of vision,” writes the agrarian studies pioneer James Scott. We have to choose to see and define things narrowly and if we want to control them. We have to choose to think of a forest as so many boardfeet of lumber to cut and sell, for example. Not a habitat for birds or insects, not erosion protection, not shade for rest or to burrow, not a food source for other animals but a stand of trees that can be cut into planks. Not the forest, but the trees. It leads to problems because it reduces our view. We may narrow our vision of the problems at hand, but only at our peril (that was Scott’s point). A more ecological view—which is wider, complex, and interrelated—would help us build a healthier world.

This narrowing tendency is true in the ways we talk about food issues too. It’s not a good idea. For instance, we can think about food and food choices as consumers. We can think of food issues by considering producers, the manufacturers that make most of our food, or the farmers before them, or gardeners. We can think of the processors who take harvested crops and convert them into aisles of processed goods. We can talk about kitchens and cooking as places to look if you want to address food problems today. We can focus on community, or family, or tradition. But we don’t think of all of that. It’s too hard. I get it. It’s too difficult for me too.

One thing people can do is to keep working on better ways to talk about things. So we can come up with better ways to think about things. So we could have a society that is wider, complex, and interrelated.

The Food in the Public Square keynote speaker Julie Guthman is a great example of someone helping point out what we lose when we frame things one way over another—when we narrow our vision. In this case, much of Guthman’s work reacts to a narrow sense of justice or culture or community. Consider that she’s cracked back at Michael Pollan, or at least at a certain narrowing of vision that can come from reading his work. More recently, in Weighing In, she’s argued against the ease of body mass index (BMI) and claims about obesity. BMI is another case of narrowing our vision of who we are as people, as bodies, as eaters. You are not a fully embodied person. You are a measure of body mass index. That reduces who you are as a person.

In most cases, probably all, Guthman has made the point that our food and politics are about more than just individuals. Which means the ways we address food concerns can’t just be about what we choose to do as individuals. I think it’s a narrowing of vision that leads us to think that the way to a better food system is through better individual choices. One of her articles, If They Only Knew , speaks to that misperception. She questions who “they” are, who says so, and whether simply knowing where your food comes from makes a healthier person. It’s more complicated. It isn’t so narrow.

It can certainly be easier to talk about individual choice—pick better foods; go to different stores; grow a lot of healthy things. Those are things someone might be able to do right now, today, after they read this. It is actionable and direct. (I think we can be working on that, by the way. This isn’t an either/or situation.) Yet, when you pull back and say that it’s also about policies and cultural context and economic pressure, it gets harder to know what the One Single Action I Could Do is. We don’t live in a world of unlimited options, so the idea that there are easy answers (narrow ones) is compelling.  To say the opposite—that food issues are complicated and long-term and cultural and political and historical—is a lot less satisfying because you come away not knowing what to do. But we can create ways to work on the harder problems.

Tellingly, Guthman’s work also makes the point that working on the harder problems requires more people, requires us to ask more about people (like me) using the royal “we” in blog posts, and requires a more pluralistic discussion. (I’ve written about this in other forums, asking for pluralism over centralization, asking to avoid narrowing the efforts we make about food in the public square.) Not only would we do better to avoid narrowing our vision of food, we would do better to avoid narrowing the range of people who are in on the conversation about food. I can’t say that’s easy to do, but I do think it’s the problem to address.

– B.R. Cohen, Lafayette College

Julie Guthman’s “Cheetos”!

I can’t remember exactly when I first read Julie Guthman’s article “The Food Police: Why Michael Pollan Makes Me Want to Eat Cheetos.” (Cheetos are my all-time favorite snack, so I couldn’t help but fall for the title).  I was relieved and excited to hear that someone else felt uneasy with the “food revolution” Pollan seemed to be spreading. Let me be clear, it really wasn’t Pollan,the man, that was bothering me. He was a stand in for my concern with food revolution rhetoric as a whole.  So what, you ask, is my problem? It is true, I do have a contrarian impulse that makes me push against anything that becomes a “thing,” a thing that everyone preaches and follows without much reflection. But more thoughtfully, I sensed that what Pollan proposed as the answer to America’s “food problems”—that is local, organic consumerism, provisioned by small farmers like Omnivore’s Dilemma’s heroes, Joel Salatin and George Naylor—was generally only available to Americans in his social/economic class. His answer resonated with the well-off who longed for a certain type of consumer experience and a certain kind of moral/environmental life. But I never heard him honestly grapple with the class and racial exclusiveness of this solution that he pitched as universally correct.

And every time I read one of his new articles on food, he pushed another one of my buttons. This was the case when I fell on his 2009 NY Times piece Out of the Kitchen and on to the Couch.    

The premise of this article is that Americans are watching cooking on TV more than they are actually cooking, and that this is bad for us.  While this conjecture in and of itself is debatable and depends on a narrow definition of what constitutes “cooking,” his comparison of Julia Child and Betty Friedan made me see red.  Basically, he claimed that Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique made women hate cooking. Julia Child, on other the other hand, approached cooking with pleasure and creativity. She, not Friedan, should have been the model for women in the 1960s.  Boom, there it was. Feminism, bad; Gourmet cooking, good!  Feminism killed the family dinner; French gastronomy could save it. Yes, I know that is an over-drawn simplification of his argument, but I don’t think it is entirely off base.

I wrote an article in Ms. Magazine, titled Back to the Kitchen, about the back-handed anti-feminism I saw in this article. To summarize, I argued that working women have never had much time to express their cooking creativity. They have pieced together family meals from take-out, deli goods, and left-over breakfast, since at least the mid-nineteenth century.  Betty Friedan and second wave feminism had nothing to do with those pragmatic decisions. Also many women didn’t need the Feminist Mystique to learn to hate cooking. They hated it well before Sixties feminists began to point out the gender politics of household labor. In general, my article questioned the idealized farming and family past to which many food revolutionaries want us to return. 

Julie Guthman’s Cheetos article opened space up in the public forum for this critical engagement. I’m sure she will take us in new and provocative directions when she speaks at our Food in the Public Square Community Conversation on May 20th. Please check the website’s events tab for more on this day’s schedule.

– Dr. Maria McGrath, Bucks County Community College

Humanities and the Food Conversation: Part 1

What Paulo Friere and bell hooks Can Teach Us About the Food Conversation

What drew me to teaching, more than the content of my field, was the opportunity to work with others. I was in love with this idea that I could walk into a classroom, sit down, and engage people in a conversation about things we felt were important. At some point during my education, I was introduced first to the work of Paulo Friere and then later to bell hooks. What I loved about their approach to teaching was that it fostered communication and cooperation between interested parties without encouraging relationships based on what I felt were pointless hierarchies. Perhaps one of the reasons I thought these structures of authority were pointless was because growing up my family was poor and I spent a good deal of my early years at the bottom looking up. The thought of being in a position of authority, thus being on the top and looking down, did not feel genuine. I felt like a fraud and that just wasn’t who I was going to be as an educator. While I may have had more schooling on how to write, my students were the ones that had to teach the class why we needed to learn it.  

So what does this have to do with Food and the Humanities? Quite simply, I found that the types of conversations I was having in my classroom—and mind you that I began my career teaching developmental education at a community college in Southeast Philly—were the very conversations that should be happening about our food system, but were not. The discourse I have observed about our food system both on a local and national level does not only appear to be top-down, but the language being generated is one that is absent of the culture and intellectualism that is so uniquely human.

This is why I believe that not only should we engage ourselves in a humanities focused conversation about food, but that the communication also flow horizontally. This is where I believe we should take a page from Friere and hooks. In bell hooks essay, “Theory as Liberatory Practice,” she argues not only for the need for a democratic discourse, but also how the absence of such a conversation is disempowering.

In this particular essay the discourse hooks challenges is in regards to race and gender. What she points out is that those who are in the privileged position to both create language and control the conversation are not those whom it is for, nor are those who are the subject of this discourse empowered under the present system to be the authorities of their own definition. According to hooks:

Often individuals who employ certain terms freely—terms like “theory” or “feminism” —are not necessarily practitioners whose habits of being and living most embody the action, the practice of theorizing or engaging in feminist struggle. Indeed, the privileged act of naming often affords those in power access to modes of communication and enables them to project an interpretation, a definition, a description of their work and actions, that may not be accurate, that may obscure what is really taking place.

So I’ll use myself as an example to highlight how this relates to the food system:

I am a white cis male, middle class, I have a college education, and I work in an institution for higher education. All of these things influence my level of authority. So I could go out and read some books about food, grow a couple tomato plants in my backyard, write a book about it, and then profess that I have the answer to this food system issue. By the way, I would not be the first balding white guy with glasses to do this.

In this situation the value I bring is that as a humanities scholar, I am creating language for others to use when they feel the need to talk about food on a humanistic level. Now what happens when my work, shaped by my identity and my understanding of the world, is used to enact change in an environment it does not speak to? Worse yet, what if the work I’ve done and the language I’ve created is used to devalue those who are trying to create their own solution?      

In response to this, hooks believes that, “—we need new theories rooted in an attempt to understand both the nature of our contemporary predicament and the means by which we might collectively engage in resistance that would transform our current reality.” This collective engagement, I believe, is the first step we should take if we want a food system that is both functional and democratic. 

-Kelly R. Allen, Northampton Community College

Food as a means too, not just an end

I came to the Lehigh Valley in 2011 after teaching for a number of years in central Virginia, where there was a thriving local food scene. One basic tenet of the work there was to push for two related ways to talk about food: as a way we connect to nature and as something that brings people together. I was thus happy a few years ago to join my colleague Larry Malinconico at Lafayette to work on what was then called The Veggie Van. Larry and a team of students had worked from 2013 to develop the Veggie Van model as a more effective way to distribute fresh, local produce from community gardens in the West Ward of Easton to its residents. Sophia Feller of the West Ward Neighborhood Partnership (WWNP) had been working with many others in community gardens and new Easton Urban Farm to grow more food neighborhood by neighborhood. It was an effort in urban agriculture dedicated to growing green space, growing food, and growing community bonds. In some circles, they would call it an effort in eliminating “food deserts” by providing better access to fresh, healthy produce for residents.

One difficulty among many in cultivating community gardens is the time and labor necessary to keep them going. This is a problem of social and environmental justice. Therefore, Sophia, Larry, and the team of students sought ways to bring the garden food to residents and not just have residents go to the gardens. The then-called Veggie Van would be somewhat like an ice cream truck, but for vegetables, setting up shop at various points in the West Ward so residents could come by to get produce, donate what they could, and find the funds going back into operating those gardens for more food. After a trial year, the team learned that setting up shop at one location was better, because it provided consistency, reliability, and familiarity. It soon became the Veggie Stand, with weekly set-ups in the West Ward from July to September.

When I got involved with the Veggie Stand in 2014, I was interested to see how it could promote the two mutually beneficial goals I was familiar with from my earlier work. The project was indeed structured for those advantages. It helped promote the health of the land by bringing more urban space into agricultural cultivation, by creating more green space, and by helping people see themselves part, not just at the end, of the food lifecycle (“from farm to fork”). It helped the health of the community by providing more fresh produce, by working to fill in a food desert, and by recognizing that doing so could follow from the choices residents made about the food they wanted to plant, cultivate, and harvest. In other words, it could promote environmental strength by helping the health of the land and the heath of the people at the same time.

The Veggie Stand is now entering its third full season and continuing to bind together the two ends of a food lifecycle, from garden to stand. To help this cause, one key development has been to see how the project is itself a space for community building. This has meant a shift in the mission of the project. It has moved in helpful ways from seeing food as an end in itself—and in this measure, more food means a more successful project—to understanding food as a means to some other end. In the new mission, our goal is build the Veggie Stand as a community space, a place where people gather each week, share recipes, bring dishes, play games, listen and play music, and participate in cooking demos. With that mission, food is a means to the ends of community health. It also shows that the Veggie Stand offers a way for people to connect to nature while building a space that brings people together.

The whole project is an extended test case worth continuing. The kinds of community conversations we have each week at 10thand Pine in Easton’s West Ward are the kinds we would hope to extend with this Food in the Public Square series of conversations.

– B.R. Cohen, Lafayette College

Latino food in the Lehigh Valley

I arrived to the Lehigh Valley from England in 2008. The Latino food scene comparing to where I used to live (Oxford, Manchester and Colchester) was great. Of course, it is not surprising since the number of Latin Americans who live in the United States is huge comparing to those living in the United Kingdom. However, after a short honeymoon I realized that most Latino restaurants served more or less the same: rice, beans and meat. These staples are central to the cuisines of the region, but Latin American food cannot be limited to them.

I grew up in Mexico City, as a result I am more familiar with that cuisine. The most striking feature of most Mexican restaurants is that their menu is fairly similar, with burritos, enchiladas, meat, rice and beans featured as their main entrees. It may be worth to say that burritos were new to me. Burritos as they are served in the U.S. are a creation of the Tex-Mex cuisine. In northern Mexico they do eat burritos, but they are closer to a taco. You stuff one ingredient into a wheat tortilla rather than adding rice, beans, meat, cheese and lettuce into a humongous wheat taco making it very difficult to eat and digest. The next surprising thing was the lack of vegetarian or fish meals, when traditional Mexican food is greatly based on meatless dishes. Traditionally in Mexico only the well-off ate meat every day. Most people had meat only once a week or for special occasions. Moreover the indigenous and peasant diet is based on vegetables, out of necessity of course. Considering that most migrants from Mexico come from the countryside it is puzzling to realize that they are not preparing what they ate back home.

There are various reasons to explain this. The most evident is that these restaurants are catering to an American or Americanized palate, to diners who expect to eat burritos or rice and beans. Therefore, it is financially risky to come up with a more original menu in which traditional meals, including fish and vegetarian options, are served. However, I also think that some restaurant owners, or Latinos, think that meat should be served in a decent restaurant. Vegetarian food is associated with poverty, thus if you are able to afford eating out you have to eat meat. I think that the Valley might be ready for a less-Americanized food scene, or at least that is what I would like to think. But in the meantime, we should take a moment to reflect about the meaning of traditional diets, people’s aspirations and expectations, and the role of consumers. Just some food for thought.

– Dr. Sandra Aguilar-Rodríguez, Moravian College

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