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.