Monday, April 29, 2013

State of the Field

I enrolled in this course because I’m interested in how people think about food and how this translates into how and what they eat. This is in part because I’m interested in eating disorders, the types of cultural environments that may trigger their onset, how people in recovery or working towards recovery from an eating disorder re-conceptualize and interact with food and eating, and what it even means to classify a person’s eating “disordered” in the first place. It was also because I find enjoyment in cooking, growing and cultivating food, and because although I want to eat delicious food that is produced locally, sustainably, and ethically. And because I feel an aversion towards (and am maybe even a little bit suspicious of) the image, culture, and aesthetic that often surround farmers’ markets, organic food, local food, veganism and vegetarianism, and food activism. It’s not that I think that there’s something inherently bad about farmers’ markets, organic food, local food, veganism or vegetarianism, or food activism. Not in the least. But I don’t like how these things or behaviors have been branded. There is an uncomfortable sense of elitism and superficiality. It feels like a fad that a person has to be educated and wealthy and even look a certain way in order to participate in. I didn’t really want to be a part of that. And I don’t think I fit in with that image very well anyway. And yet I’m not ready to give up on food activism because I’m still interested in eating healthier food that was produced ethically and sustainably and was more profitable to the actual farmers than to giant corporations.  

So with these thoughts in mind, I attended our first class. I thought that my beliefs surrounding food would set me apart from most of my classmates. I for some reason expected that most of the people in the class who were serious about food activism bought into or didn’t see the problems with the aspects of food activism and local/sustainable/organic/ethical food movements that bothered me. I was a little bit apprehensive about being the odd one out, the one who had all of these problems with or conflicting feelings about a set of beliefs and consumer behaviors that everyone else would be completely enthusiastic about and devoted to.

It turns out I was pretty wrong.

In actuality, many of my classmates expressed some of the same conflicting feelings and uneasiness about food activism and different food movements that I was experiencing. I was fascinated as I listened to classmates talk about the different ways in which they negotiated their personal consumption (both economic and physical) of food. I listened to one classmate talk about how she felt that eating meat was “more honest” than maintaining a vegan or vegetarian diet, but that in spite of this belief she has a hard time eating meat because of how familiar she is with the reality of what its like to slaughter an animal. The same classmate wants to be a farmer, but is disillusioned by the image that small/local/sustainable farming has and doesn’t want to enable it or become a part of it. I listened to another classmate talk about how she maintains a mostly vegan diet because it makes her feel healthier and because she isn’t comfortable with the way that the animals that are used for meat, eggs, dairy, etc. are treated, but that she’s willing to make circumstance-specific exceptions. And I listened to this same classmate point out that although she believes that eating a plant-based diet is more ethical than one that involves meat or other animal products, there are plenty of human rights- and environmental-related conundrums tied up in the cultivation and distribution of plant foods as well. And that even though her solution to this situation may be imperfect, it’s the one that works best for her right now. Another classmate talked about how she had recently cut out bananas from her diet because she concluded that it’s impossible for someone living in New England to acquire one ethically or sustainably. What all of this means to me is that we don’t all have the same way of negotiating food choices, and doing so doesn’t hold the same degree of importance to all of us. But I think that it became clear over the course of the semester that the decisions of what and how to eat are complex for everyone. And sometimes very different reasons can lead to the same decision, and similar reasons can lead to different decisions. You don’t really know why a person eats the way they do or what it means to them until he or she explains themselves.

I didn’t have all of this figured out when I started this blog—I’ve been learning and re-thinking along the way. I think someone reading my blog posts from the first to the last would be able to detect the way in which my perspective developed as I continued to learn from class discussions, readings, my classmates’ blogs, and the documentaries I watched. But I did know then I started Eating Their Words that I wanted to investigate the image(s) and the branding of food activism and food movements. So I set out to make Eating Their Words a blog about media representations of food activism in food activism-related documentaries. Although not all of my posts ended up being strictly about this topic—I also discussed online articles, other blog posts, my own (possibly) food activist endeavors, and a field trip to Haymarket and the soon-to-be Boson Public Market, for example—I’ve ended up watching and writing about eight documentaries over the course of keeping this blog. Some documentaries I liked, others I didn’t. Most I had mixed feelings about. The same goes for the non-documentary topics I discussed. But everything I wrote about helped me think in different ways about food activism and how it and the people involved in it are portrayed.

Based on the documentaries and other topics that I wrote about, I’ve come to a few conclusions—or if not quite conclusions, at least something closer to conclusions than I had at the beginning of the semester. I touched on some of these a bit in my blog post from April 1st, in which I discuss the documentary Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead. These are some of the main problems that I see in food activism’s image, or how it’s represented:

·      “Fat Shaming” – People who are considered overweight or obese don’t need to be made to feel guilty or embarrassed about it. It doesn’t help them or anyone else. And it also doesn’t necessarily indicate health problems. Food activism needs to get over the idea that part of being a food activist, or even just a healthy person and/or a healthy eater requires or results in a particular physique.

·      Food Guilt – Eating is intimate and personal. It just is. It’s putting something from outside your body inside your body, and there are a lot of things to consider when determining what is and is not allowed to cross that boundary—health, ethics, personal taste, values, comfort, cost, etc. And it’s not as though you can just opt out of deciding what and how to eat in the way that you can a lot of other decisions, at least not for very long. But that being said, sometimes circumstances are such that the choice you want isn’t an option, or you don’t know how you feel about any of your options. Or it’s exhausting to put this much thought into he decision of what to eat every time you need or want to eat. That’s ok. It’s the reality of being a complicated, multi-dimensional, dynamic person with lots of other concerns outside of eating. I think that within food activism, we should be better about taking this into account. That no one’s eating or buying habits are perfect, and that’s fine. Perfection is not only unrealistic, but also maybe not even desirable. Because how is someone going to be happy and productive and fulfilled in all the other important areas of his or her life if every bit of energy and time and mental space is focused on food choice? So I wish we wouldn’t feel guilty about making so-called “bad” food choices every once in a while or leading an imperfectly sustainably life. It’s fine. One meal, or even one lifetime of meals, won’t make or break the universe. That doesn't meant that we should stop caring about the food choices we make, but just that we should put things into perspective and realize that being a food activist doesn't mean freaking out over every food choice we ever make.

·      Sexism – I don’t appreciate being told that my sex (or gender, for that matter) positions me in a specific way to nature and thus food activism. And don’t expect me to be any more or less concerned with food activism or an aspect of food activism because of my sex either. I think that there are definitely certain trends in the sex and/or gender of the people involved in food activism and it’s different aspects, but instead of pinning it down as evidence of sexual determinism, it’s more useful to consider what kinds of power structures are creating these trends, what they mean, and whether or not they are helpful.

·      Elitism – Everyone wants to have access to good food. But let’s not forget that what constitutes “good” food is often culturally, temporarily, geographically, and class-situated. And it’s obnoxious (not to mention usually unhelpful) when a more privileged socioeconomic group tells a less privileged socioeconomic what they should be doing so that they can be “better.” I think that consumers should be able to make their own choices. If healthier, sustainably produced foods are made accessible and appealing, people will want them. So let’s focus on making that happen.

·      Image/Superficiality – Farmers shouldn’t need to appeal to a certain ideal personal image in order to sell their products. A person who raises chickens doesn’t also have to wear overalls or knit or play the banjo. As consumers, we shouldn’t expect farmers—who are complex, multi-faceted people just like anyone else—to fit our preconceived, idealized image of a local farmer. Just as a consumer of sustainably produced, local, and/or organic food shouldn’t have to fit any sort of image in order to be considered “legitimate.”

And one last thing: instead of distancing themselves from food activism or related activities and topics, perhaps people who are uneasy about the food activism image or “brand” should consider becoming more involved. In doing so, food activism can be re-framed or re-directed as less of a trend or a style or an image and more of a set of actively-supported common values or ideas with a very practical goals. Like pushing for more sustainable growing and distribution practices that won’t push the environment towards un-inhabitability. And making sure that everyone has access to sufficient food, and that that food is nutritious and safe and enjoyable. And that the economic structure behind the food that we eat is fair and balanced. In short, I think that food activism should be about people making their relationship with food healthier— nutritionally, economically, psychologically, socially, politically, and environmentally. And I wish that food activism documentaries were better at conveying that. 

Monday, April 22, 2013


For this week’s post I decided to watch Ingredients, a documentary directed by Robert Bates. In a lot of ways, it was kind of similar to Food Fight, a documentary I wrote about in February. In short, it was about the way in which the industrial food system isn’t about maintaining or improving the taste or quality of food but rather about being as profitable as possible for big corporations, and how by eating seasonally and locally, farming sustainably, feeling connected with our food, and supporting small-scale farms the food system in the United States can be improved. It even included another interview with Alice Waters. Nothing I haven’t heard before, but overall I consider Ingredients to be a fairly good documentary with a lot of the same problems that almost all of the other food activism documentaries I’ve watched have had: a little hippie-elitist, a little one-sided, a little too image-focused, lacking in diversity. All problems that, in many respects, exist within the food activism movements in the U.S. as well. Ongoing issues for which there is no easy answer.

But something that made watching Ingredients a little different from watching Food Fight and other food activism documentaries that I’ve watched for this blog is that I’d just been reading a book called Make the Bread, Buy the Butter by Jennifer Reese. It’s a chronicle of Reese’s experimentation raising chickens and goats in her suburban backyard, growing her own produce, canning, curing meat, making cheeses, baking bread, and making, processing, or growing a lot of other food items that most people in the U.S. are used to buying from a store.

I’ve already kind of been experimenting with these kinds of things myself, although on a much smaller scale: I have a sourdough starter fermenting in a crock on my kitchen counter, six pepper plants growing in pots on my back porch, homemade yogurt in the fridge, and a few weeks ago I pickled red onions for the first time. I make those things because I think it’s fun, and I love cooking and eating and sharing food with friends. Sometimes it makes a mess, sometimes things turn out weird or inedible, and sometimes things end up taking waaaaaaay longer to do than I have time for or than the end product is worth (case in point: pickled onions. Bleh.). They’re not always cost effective or necessarily healthier (although sometimes they are). I think that a lot of things I make taste better than their grocery store versions (case in point: sourdough bread and fresh, soft mozzarella cheese), but I acknowledge the possibility that this is at least partially accounted for by the feeling of accomplishment for having made them. And I do feel like making things from scratch makes me feel more connected with my food and more appreciative of the final product.
An artsy photo of one of my successful
kitchen experiments.
 Photo credit: my friend Martin Kaplan. 

And I like that. I think that the importance of cultivating that kind of connection is a message that I’ve seen, and liked, in many of the food activism documentaries I’ve watched this semester. And there are a lot of different ways to cultivate that kind of connection—some people do it by planting or cooking from scratch, some people do it by knowing their farmer, others by maintain a plant-based diet, etc.I don’t know that any one of these approaches is better than the others, or whether or not it’s important to try to adopt all of the approaches, or how important it is to be strict about adhering to the one or more approaches that are important to you. I think iit depends on the individual’s views, interests, and resources. How they envision the best or most doable (for them) recipe for good food activism.

P.S.:  Updates: last week I mentioned my pepper plant problems: I didn’t know whether or not the seeds were genetically modified, and I was questioning whether or not their potential  GM-ness undermined the food activism piece of my motivation for growing an urban edible garden. I sort of didn’t want to know, because I thought I knew the answer. But I decided to look into it anyway. And guess what? They’re not GM. At least, as far as I can tell. This is on the home page of the seed company (Ferry-Morse) website:

Oh Ferry-Morse, I underestimated you. And the Texas retailer that sold your little pepper plant gardening kit. Sorry. But anyway, I’m pleased. I think I would have kept my pepper plants and joyfully eaten the peppers they (hopefully) produce whether they ended up being genetically modified or not, but I’m glad I got out of negotiating that dilemma. At least for now. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Genetic Chile

About a month ago my boyfriend surprised me with a little indoor gardening kit that included seeds from three varieties of peppers. The idea was to sprout them in tiny plastic pots inside a tiny plastic greenhouse, and then once they got big enough they could be planted outside. So this past weekend, partially in celebration of finishing my thesis and thus actually having time to do fun things, and partially in celebration of the fact that the weather has finally turned Spring-like, I decided to transfer the seedlings into big planters and move them out of the house and onto the back porch. Here they are!

GM peppers grown lovingly in flower pots with organic soil? Possibly. 

Each little seedling is about an inch and a half high and has two tiny leaves. I may have moved them out of their little plastic greenhouse a little prematurely—there was plenty of room in there for them to grow some more—but I was worried their roots would get cramped in the tiny pot, and that the water drainage situation was insufficient. And I really wanted to set up a planter garden outside. I just hope we don’t get another freakishly cold day!

Anyway, in honor of my pepper plants, I decided to watch Genetic Chile, a documentary directed by Christopher Dudley. This documentary explores the controversy surrounding the genetic modification of the New Mexico chile. In short, biological engineers at New Mexico State University are working on developing a genetically modified version of the New Mexico chile designed to work with certain types of chemicals, similar to the type of genetic modification that Monsanto is known for. The impetus for this, supposedly, is that due to changes in immigration policy there is a shortage of agricultural laborers in parts of New Mexico, and this genetically modified chile will allow farmers to continue producing chiles with less labor. Many researchers, farmers, and consumers in the area are opposed to this because they feel that crops of this genetically modified chile will be bad for the environment  and the economy, and because they feel that genetically modified chiles being grown in the area poses a major genetic contamination risk for currently grown and heirloom varieties of New Mexico chiles being grown in the area, which are not only an important part of New Mexico’s economy, but also an important part of New Mexican cultural identity. With these circumstances as the framework, Dudley uses the New Mexico chile to discuss genetically modified foods and the environmental, economic, an health impacts that they can have. Social and political impacts were touched on slightly as well (as in what it means to have genetic modification and chemicals displace immigrant labor), but not as much as I wish they'd been.

Overall, none of the information given in the documentary about the genetic modification of food was new to me, but I think that for someone who hasn’t read or heard very much about GMOs before, this documentary could serve as a good overview. That being said, I appreciated the way in which one food in particular, in one place in particular, was used as a tool for thinking about broader issues related to GMOs. In that way, in reminded me of Anna Tsing’s “Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species.”

This documentary also made me think about the genetics and the politics of my pepper plants sitting outside on my back porch. On one hand, growing them makes me feel like a bit of a urban gardener. I like the idea of being able to grow food for myself, my neighbors, and my friends to eat. It’s not as though I could live off of the food grown in my small garden, but it can supplement the food I buy at the grocery store, and it can keep me connected with an activity that is both enjoyable and in line, I think, with my politics- and health-related food ideology. However, it occurred to me that I actually have no idea whether or not the pepper seeds I planted are genetically modified—they came to me as a thoughtful gift, in packaging covered in beautiful, brightly-colored pictures of peppers. But I didn’t look into what their genetic history was. I wasn’t even thinking about it. I was just excited about my urban gardening project. But now that I think about it, it seems quite possible that they are GMOs. They came to me in a cutesy indoor gardening kit purchased in Texas, not directly from a farmer or gardener, not from an organic or heirloom seed distribution company. So the chances are good, right? But I still can’t help but feel that by cultivating the plants and eventually (hopefully) harvesting and eating the peppers, I’m “doing” food activism. But I'm questioning if that's legitimate or not, considering I don't know where these seeds came from or whether or not they're GM. I plan to do some research on my pepper plants’ origins and re-evaluate. But on the other hand, I feel a little resentful of the fact that I might find out something I don't want to be true about my urban gardening project. It'll complicate things. And I don't yet know how I will negotiate the situation if it turns out that my peppers are genetically modified. Does it matter? Can GM-ness be outweighed by they fact that I'm seeing my peppers from seed to fruit? What about the fact that I'm using organic soil and what if I start composting and giving the compost to my plants. Is there a balance that can be struck? I guess I'll have to wait and see. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

An Unintended "Non-Food Food" Part II

Look, National Public Radio wrote an article about Rob Rhinehart's food-free diet, the topic of my blog post from a couple of weeks ago! Check it out here.
I was actually planning to write this week about the phenomenon of foods (especially processed foods it seems, but also recipes and restaurant menu items) being advertised as "guilt-free."But I think I'm going to go in a slightly different direction to tie things back to Rob Rhinehart's blog and the article about him by Eliza Barclay on the NPR website has to say.

One of the main things that stuck out to me in Barclay's article was her mention of the "food averse"or a "veritable subculture of otherwise healthy people who find eating to be a nuisance." A few lines later she mentions, that there are other people who "have difficulty with food for much more serious reasons — food allergies and other illnesses (think the late Roger Ebert), as well as people with eating disorders or dreams or weight loss." Yes, people who suffer from food allergies or intolerances, and people who are suffering from illnesses that make eating, digestion, and or the absorption of nutrients difficult often benefit hugely from "meal replacement" beverages and supplements. I also know that for eating disorder sufferers working towards recovery, calorie- and nutrient-dense beverages like Boost and Ensure can be very helpful in restoring normal body functions more quickly and easily than eating "normal" food can. I am not questioning the usefulness and appropriateness of meal replacement substances in these cases or in ones similar. 

But what does it mean if people who do not fall into those types of cases to be "food averse"? My first instinct is to assume that people who identify as "food averse" or who find eating "a nuisance" not worth dealing with if it can be avoided have some type of pathology that should be addressed. Maybe their sensations of taste or smell are suffering, making food less appealing. Maybe they have anxiety or depression. Or maybe they have an eating disorder like anorexia nervosa. 

What I'm worried about is that being "food averse" is being normalized, as if not liking food is the same thing as not liking things like Taylor Swift songs, Quentin Tarantino movies, or wool sweaters. I mean yes, there are matters of preference when it comes to eating, but in the end you need food in the same way that you need air or water or sleep. Eating food isn't something people can really just opt out of permanently, because opting out of it for too long results in death, plain and simple. 

But this might not be the case anymore. That might mean that eating disorder suffers, for example, might be able to consume only meal replacement beverages for the rest of their lives, and never be pushed to re-learn and become comfortable with making food choices and eating ever again. Yes, that might be easier in the short-term—it is an extremely common experience for individuals in the process of recovering from anorexia nervosa to say that they wish they could just not have to deal with food at all and still have a way of staying healthy. But if that becomes an option, will those individuals ever actually be recovered, or will they be forever stuck at a stage of recovery in which they are physically healthy but psychologically still dealing with a lot of anxiety concerning food, which they can avoid experiencing as long as they stick to meal replacements. Isn't that a problem?

But to be honest, I'm not completely sure about whether or not it's a problem, because I'm not sure if my reasons for thinking it's a problem are valid, or just an instance of being blinded ay adherence to old-fashioned beliefs. I think that food is always better than meal replacements unless there is a medically-based reason indicating otherwise, and that recovery from eating disorders involves regaining a happy and healthy relationship with food and eating. Is that changing? And what does that change mean for food activism—if people are even further removed from their food, in that they're drinking liquified chemical concoctions instead of unprocessed or minimally processed fruits, vegetables, meats, grains, etc., won't they feel less connected with their bodies, physical needs, physical sensations, and their own health? And aren't those issues major factors in many serious health conditions—including but not limited to eating disorders—in the first place?

Monday, April 1, 2013

Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead

image source:

For this week’s post, I watched Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead by Joe Cross, a documentary about the supposed health benefits of juice fasts, particularly for people who are morbidly obese or for those who have health problems that are caused by or associated with obesity.

My first reaction when I started watching this documentary was to roll my eyes. This may have a lot to do with all the time I spend studying anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders, and my resulting skepticism of any sort of health-seeking or weight-loss endeavors that involves fasting. My gut instinct (ha!) is to write off any sort of fasting diet as either eating disordered behavior, or as an ineffective, misinformed way of trying to lose weight that is usually expensive (not appealing), and is going to result in little more than hunger-induced irritability and inability to focus (also not appealing), and some major gastrointestinal distress (definitely not appealing). And when it became clear about half way into the documentary that there wasn’t going to be any discussion of what I would consider to be food activism, I almost stopped watching the documentary completely—it started to feel more like an extended infomercial for a juicer than a documentary.

But I decided to finish it, thinking that maybe I’d be able to find something that I could talk about in relation to food activism. By the end, both Joe and Phil have completed 60-day fasts, had started eating more healthily and exercising regularly, had dramatically lessened or eliminated all of the health problems from which they suffered while obese, lost a ton of weight, and were overall much happier with their lives. That’s great. Visually, their transformations were impressive, and in spite of my skepticism regarding juice fasts or any fasts as effective health-improvement strategies, I couldn’t help but be happy for them both. But there were also a lot of things that came up in the documentary that bothered me, and although Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead didn’t address food activism, I think that there were definitely some common themes between it and some of the food activism documentaries I’ve watched that I think are really problematic. For example:

  • Fat-shaming. 
  • Unhealthy eating as a crime, healthy eating (or fasting/not eating) as repentance.
  • The idea that emotional connections to food are inherently wrong or dangerous. 
  • Healthy, attractive-looking people telling unhealthy, unattractive-looking people what to do (how to be healthy) with no other authority than that which they apparently achieve just by having conventionally (and debatably) “superior” bodies.
  • The idea that extreme food/eating practices are the only way to get results, and that a philosophy of moderation is never effective or sustainable.
  • Physical fitness/restraint/physical exertion/self-denial as proof of mental and/or spiritual superiority.
  • Referring to healthy food as “clean” food or a healthy diet as “clean eating” or a lifestyle that involves lots of exercise and only healthy food as a “clean lifestyle.”

On one hand it’s really interesting that all of these themes keep showing up in media related to food activism and health, because it highlights the fact that ideas about health, fitness, and healthy food, all of which seem to be based in objective science, are actually really ties up in (ever-changing) cultural values and beliefs. Also, harkening back to my previous post, I think it’s fascinating about how eager people seem to be to proclaim that they “don’t eat food” or are “fasting” even when they are eating food, but it’s just a particular type of food that they feel doesn’t count in some way. Why is that?