bringing good food to others: investigating the subjects of alternative food practices

“Watsonville is a largely Latino community, where many farm workers live – and several students […] have gone there with the intention of teaching Latino youth how to grow food, apparently with nary a trace of irony shown.”

Julie Guthman, a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz in the Department of Community Studies (it is noted that Santa Cruz is often considered “ground zero” of the US alternative food movement) runs a program that provides students with an opportunity to work in a variety of food scarce locations in an alternative food program. Based on the work of the students and her personal research, she is able to inform readers that there is a great discrepancy between the goals and intentions of the student participants and those of the communities that they are attempting to serve. Below is a more in-depth summary of her findings:

Alternative food institutions have tended to cater to relatively well-off consumers, in part because organic food has been positioned as a niche product – even obtaining the moniker of “yuppie chow”. Furthermore, farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) tend to locate or distribute to areas of relative wealth. These places are also generally white spaces in terms of both the demographic that frequent them and the cultural codings that are performed at such markets. The same can be said of schools that attempt to incorporate farm-to-table programs unless they are heavily subsidized by private foundations or the public sectors.

Food deserts are then defined as urban (or rural) environments where few if any venues provide an array of healthful fruits, vegetables, meats and grain products. However, there are some issues with this definition. The quote:

 “To a lesser degree they situate the food desert phenomenon with the neoliberal restructuring of urban space more broadly which through disinvestment and endemic unemployment have relegated the inhabitants of some cities to intense poverty,”

summarizes the issue with this explanation of the current issues with food production in poor, minority communities. She goes on to explain that Blacks who are the target of these efforts appear to reject them (the efforts) because they believe they replicate the very phenomenon being addressed – the effects of white desire to enroll black people in a particular set of food practices.

However, despite historical precedents, the same feelings were not expressed in Latino or more recently Asian communities. It is theorized that this is due to many members of this demographic being undocumented, so they have limited access to government programs.

It is then explained that the origin of the word organic (which is often touted as a championing quality of urban agriculture) is controversial in nature because of its historical roots in use by Nazis influenced by the works of Rudolph Steiner and the nationalist foundations of the British Soil Association. Community gardens are also often associated with the term localism which in itself is considered to be xenophobic in nature and contradicts the black community’s desire to be a part of American modernity and technology. Additionally, many of the catchphrases such as “Dirt First” associated with gardening contradict efforts by many Black Nationalist groups to dissociate the Black community with idioms of dirt and filth. There is also the issue of getting one’s hands dirty and the presumption that everyone is interested in tending the land. This historically contradicts many of the non-white norms in the USA because land was given away to whites at the same time that reconstruction failed in the south, Native lands were seized and Natives killed and the Chinese and Japanese were excluded from land ownership. When coupled with the persistent injustice of white land being tended by non-white workers, the agrarian ideal does not resonate with many non-white groups. Furthermore, for some newly arrived immigrants the concept of community gardens can be considered eugenic in nature because they appear to mirror efforts to reform foodways by the United States. Finally, the mere definition of food desert often elicits the image of many of the impoverished neighborhoods as being beyond repair which has been suggested as containing colonial codings.

The issue of the term teaching kids how to eat has also garnered resentment because it is perceived as trying to instill a particular (white) ideology about eating. It was also found that many kids do not like to garden – they did not like getting their hands, clothes and shoes dirty.  The following quotes were taken from student’s notes from a community study students about their experiences working in Black communities. They summarize many of the feelings about the alternative food efforts:

The person laughed and said she did not know how to cook any of the things we planted.”

Often times girls show up with Jack in the Box for breakfast, eating it while working.  The youths were asked to say what they thought organic means, many used the terms disgusting, gross or dirty.

  • On why a neighborhood resident chooses not to purchase food that has been locally produced:

Because they don’t sell no food! All they got is birdseed…Who the hell are they to tell me how to eat? It’s not food. I need to be able to feed my family.

  • One of the students drew the conclusion that

Insistence on alternatives may well reinforce a sense of exclusion and stigmatization – as if residents of food deserts are not even deserving of what others taken for granted: a Safeway.

To deal with these issues, some alternative markets are adopting different monikers, such as Mandela’s farmers’ market and Growing Power, emphasizing black cuisine and culture to interest the local community, and imploring community members to rectify the historical issue of landholding inequalities and highlighting issues like the toxic nature of many conventional foods. However, it is noted that it often takes selling foods at below market prices or people literally becoming sickened by industrial food for the target market to adopt these food options.

The author concludes that there is a disjunction between what alternative food activists do and what food desert residents seem to want. In order to deal with this, she suggests shifting the focus of activism away from food qualities (local, organic, etc.) and onto injustices that underlie disparities, for example, addressing issues such as urban renewal, living wages, the expansion of entitlement programs and environmental preservation.

Guthman, J. 2008. Bringing good food to others: investigating the subjects of alternative food practice. Cultural Geographies, 4, 431-447.