Thursday, October 14, 2010

Counter Revolutions, or Can "Eating Together" Save Food?

by Mike Bosia

I approached last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, devoted to “eating together,” with a mix of enthusiasm and trepidation. The series of articles and essays promised a glimpse of the multidimensional character of food, bringing us back to the social nature of an activity many Americans have reduced to mere calories. At the same time, this latest venture in food journalism arrives just after the fall series of style magazines in the Sunday Times (men’s and women’s fashion, design, and travel), with their glossy images and painfully anachronistic consumerism. Would there be something new in this communal take on eating? Or is The Times enshrining food as another dimension of “style”?

Of course, the answer is a lot of both. The articles and their similarly arresting illustrations are like one of those PBS documentaries that seek all at the same time to describe and define a stereotypical Americana while avoiding the politics and power that shapes those stereotypes. Snappy and artfully evocative (explains an article on a pie cooperative in Alabama: “Behind a counter made of planks salvaged from abandoned sharecropper shacks, two young women slid pie tins into a double oven stack. At trestle tables, beneath industrial pendant lights, four young men, on lunch break from their G.E.D. classes, dug into slices of taco pie and made weekend plans”), the Magazine travels from the Maine coast, through the South and Southwest, out West to California’s irrigation fueled farmlands – without mentioning water – and past a kosher restaurant in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. There’s even a snarky gay man on Long Island who learns a thing or two about community and wellness from his deprecating spouse and a taciturn farmer.

With the essay, “Growing Together,” the Magazine’s food editor, Christine Muhlke, sets the tone. By her own admission, she was initially interested in farmers as the force behind the urban chef, and discovered that in rural communities, well, there is community (or “comm” as she unselfconsciously shorthands it). Muhlke’s piece places the right amount of emphasis on the efforts to build community, and the stunningly important part community plays as a resource for both rural living and sustainable farming. She also notes how limited the scope of these communities are despite the wide variety – very intimate, first hand, based in trust, and comparatively few in number within the broader food economy. She concludes with a quote from Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini, a reminder for me that “eating together” is nothing new. The Slow Food movement was founded more than two decades ago.

During a talk I gave on gender and local food politics last month for the Wellesley College Peace and Justice program, one first year student asked me a question that struck at the core of our food dilemma, overlooked by The Times’ much more celebrated food experts. “What about the Kenyan organic farmer,” she asked, “who makes a living growing food for European consumers?” The question of distance and community was brought home again last week, after I sent around an announcement about the founding events for the US Food Sovereignty Alliance to a variety of listserves and friends (my virtual food community). During a full week of direct action on food, October 11 would see people across the Americas calling attention to the latest global land grab and “indigenous resistance to conquest” – instead of Columbus Day. I received only one response, from a Vermont farmer who was especially disturbed that some people he would never meet might not revere Columbus: “Please don’t waste valuable electrons by forwarding nonsense like this,” he wrote to me.

The student and the farmer illustrate our dilemma from different perspectives, which is the real politics of community overlooked by all this talk of “eating together” (or, as Muhlke admits, groups of people with shared interests around food). Eating emphasizes the process of consumption, and so grounds communal relationships in food markets (admiringly cooperative) that bring together consumers and producers around interests. As we cultivate relationships in real time and actual physical space like farmers markets and CSAs, we also make choices about how we live and what we value in our communities. And this is complicated. In some ways, for example, we pull inward around a now communal dinner table, but a local and isolated one nonetheless, that at times draws on the same hierarchies of power and privilege of the traditional dinner table, with a man at its head.

This is how we risk substituting a democracy of consumer choice for the democratization of power. Building a network that brings together producers and consumers in cooperative markets, we might lose sight of the political. What happens, for example, when local markets can’t overcome deeply entrenched patterns of privilege or resentment? Or when we don’t share some of our most obvious and immediate interests, our experiences or perspectives, either locally or at a great distance? And how do we develop broad coalitions of solidarity beyond our own communities so we can knit “eating together” into a global political movement that can translate the best norms of cooperative markets into actual policy? One of the most insightful political economists of the last century, Karl Polanyi, drew a stark contrast between free markets and society. Before the rise of the free market, he demonstrated, production and consumption were part of fixed hierarchical social relationships based on reciprocity in rights and obligations. Nevertheless, Polanyi didn’t presume that hierarchical cooperation was in itself without politics – in fact, reciprocity was superior to free markets because economic activity was recognized as innately social and entirely political.

The politics of power and true democracy lurk beneath the consumerism of the Sunday Magazine coverage of food communities and our own burgeoning local food movement. This month, Vermonters can hear from two activists working on these issues globally and locally. On Monday, Kiado Cruz from Santa Cruz de Yagavila outside Oaxaca, Mexico will speak at the Hardwick Town House at 7 pm. Cruz is a farmer and organizer building democratic institutions around food produced for either local exchange or global sales. On Tuesday, Vandana Shiva, a founder of the international movement of peasants and farmers called Via Campesina, comes to Saint Michael’s College. Shiva is a renowned scientist who left the Indian Institute of Science to devote herself to the rights of farmers and the preservation of agricultural biodiversity. With Via Campesina, she has championed what the organization calls “food sovereignty,” a political process of building communities that emphasizes local decision-making and substantive democratic practice, coupled with the explicit empowerment of women and youth at all levels of governance.

Like the French farmer José Bové, another co-founder of Via Campesina whose visit to Vermont a decade ago represented the culmination of one stage in the development of an alternative food movement, these visits can inspire us to examine where we are and how we move forward within a global movement, to seek alliances with farmers and consumers around the world. Through the substantive forms of democracy advocated by the global movement, we can address our assumptions about power and privilege, and at the same time, draw on our own deeply embedded form of rural democracy and communal decision-making best exemplified by the institutions of the town meeting and Main Street.

“Eating together” should not be the limit of action; it is just the start.

Emphasizing local news, menu updates, and recipes, from time to time New Vermont Cooking also will feature reviews and ideas. In addition to being a co-owner of Claire’s, Mike is a political scientist at Saint Michael’s College working on food politics and political movements. He and Jeffrey Ayres at Saint Mike’s, with Carleton University’s Peter Andrée and Marie-Josée Massicotte of the University of Ottawa, are co-editing a book called Globalization and Food Sovereignty: Global and Local Change in the New Politics of Food, at University of Toronto Press.


Alexis said...

hi, its very informative, Acupressure Mat , thanks

Anonymous said...

hey, at least we don't call columbus day "dia de la raza" meaning "day of our race" as in "lets celebrate the day white people came to bless us with their blood" like they do in south america