Food in the Public Square

The Collective Human Experience

Tag: Kelly R. Allen

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.

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