The anthropology of food class at my college was a senior spring joke class, taken by people who actually care deeply about systems of oppression and movements for resistance. Not once in my Women’s and Gender Studies education did we do a unit on growing, preparing, or owning food, in the context of gender, race, class, or nationality. There were never any units on food sovereignty movements in my elementary, middle, or high school history classes. The only communities that were connected with food in those classes were First Nations/Native communities, and in that context, food was treated as an anachronistic cultural quirk, rather than a) a necessary part of survival, b) a serious and central part of any culture, and c) a tool that can be used in the service of both oppression and resistance. We glanced over farm workers’ movements (discussed only as labor movements), talked briefly about black and brown domestic labor, and perhaps mentioned that women tend to cook in the home more than men do (ah, the problem that has no name).
Even now I have a hard time getting my head around food sovereignty and food systems. We* just never talk about it! We do not talk about food as a serious political issue. We take issues of oppression seriously when they involve certain social identities (well, some of us do); we take money seriously, even though it’s made up.** But food, which none of us can live without, which enriches our lives in so many ways, is not a central part of a formal American education, nor is it a part of most (at least mainstream) conversations about oppression and injustice.
The more I learn about food justice, the more I understand just how intertwined it is with all other social justice movements (just as they are all tied up with each other. What a beautiful, messy ball of radical action!). And the more perplexed I become that I just didn’t know anything about food justice until recently. To be fair, most of my education about political movements (aside from the fake shit I was taught about MLK Jr. and Malcolm X) has been relatively recent …but still.
Although I have been learning a lot about food sovereignty, I still have not found a good explanation for why these movements and the role of food in other social justice movements are so thoroughly erased from our collective historical and political consciousnesses. However, I do have a pretty good education about the ways that race, gender, and class affect our ideas about what is serious and what is frivolous. Food growth and preparation, like other caring labor, is very strongly coded as the work of people of color, of women, of low income people, and especially of people at the intersections of those identities. This kind of work is seen as natural to the laborer, and thus is not seen as “real” labor. It is not seen as difficult, demanding, taxing, exhausting. And I would argue that work surrounding food and political activism based in food is also not seen as “real” political work. “Real” politics is giving moving speeches, is marching, is writing letters to the editor or calling your congressperson, is donating to some charities; not cooking or gardening.
Food justice is racialized, gendered, and classed as less important and serious than other parts of social movements, even though those movements will never succeed without a deep analysis of food politics and sovereignty.
We need food. It’s such an obvious thing to say, and yet the way we value the people who deal with food the most does not reflect that level of need. Our food systems are horrifying and inhumane. We suffer when we are constantly eating food that is not important to us. We can’t learn, our emotional capacity shrinks, our imaginations are limited, and our bodies hurt when we don’t have enough food or when our food is shit. Being deprived of the food that one wants and needs is a form of oppression that targets one of our most basic needs for survival. Food injustice is crucial to the maintenance of all oppressive systems, and yet most mainstream progressive and even radical writers/thinkers/people do not treat food systems as seriously as other tools of oppression and resistance. So let’s all go thank the people who have cooked for us before we could cook for ourselves, give ourselves a pat on the back for maintaining our own bodies with food, and then commit to making food injustice and food sovereignty central parts of our political analyses and our political fights.
*We meaning all the progressive/leftist people who do not regularly talk about food as a serious political issue. We is the first person plural and it means that I am included in this group. TRYING TO CHANGE! NEW YEAR NEW ME!
**I know money is real. But it’s also made up. Like the Babadook. Great movie, by the way!