Welcome to the food justice syllabus: books about the politics of food. Food is political. Food justice and the politics of food is an important step in social justice as a whole. How we access the foods we eat, how they were grown and picked, nutritional knowledge, having the time to cook healthful meals, being able to afford a variety of fresh foods…these circumstances are not created in a vacuum, but are instead dependent on class and race. Consider the phenomenon of “food deserts.” A food desert is any area lacking access to healthful foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables, due to a scarcity of grocery stores, farms, and farmers markets. Without these venues for accessing food, people that live in food deserts must overwhelmingly rely on convenience stores and fast food chains. Unsurprisingly, most of the food deserts in America are low-income. What does this lack of healthy food mean? It means spending more money, on average, than those with access to a grocery store, as well as being at a higher risk for a range of health conditions associating with a lack of nutrition. In food deserts we see oppression.
Or let’s look at another angle of food: how it’s grown and who picks it. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is a social justice group composed of undocumented farmworkers and their allies. They uncovered what they call conditions of modern-day slavery in the picking of tomatoes and other produce on Florida farms, with undocumented workers held hostage to brutal working conditions. They have successfully pressures major retailers, including Subway and Walmart, to demand better labor standards.
These are just two examples of the ways that food matters. But too often, books about food justice resort to body shaming, poor shaming, or bootstrapping. Many books about food, for example, are really just diet books in disguise. Or they shame poor people for supporting industries, like the fast food industry, that are in fact the only option. So we wanted to bring you a list of books about the politics of food that come from a perspective of true commitment to the liberation of all people and the critique of the capitalist white supremacist system that forces these choices on our lives. So without further ado, here is the food justice syllabus: books about the politics of food.
Ethical Eating in the Postsocialist and Socialist World by Yuson Jung, Jakob Klein, and Melissa Caldwell
We tend to think of things like “organic” “ethical” foods as being firmly in the Global North. Not so, according to this book, which engages in various food movements in socialist and postsocialist countries, including Vietnam, Cuba, China, and Lithuania. In doing so, they explore the ways that food is intimately tied up in economic and political systems - including capitalism and neoliberalism.
Why We Eat, How We Eat: Contemporary Encounters between Foods and Bodies (Critical Food Studies) edited by Emma-Jayne Abbots and Anna Lavis
This book is an academic anthology, but we hope that it will appeal to those outside the ivory tower as well. The editors wager that we can understand the material and symbolic potential of food in our lives by mapping out how and when we encounter (or don’t encounter) food. One essay, for example, explores the absence of food in the lives of people with anorexia; another reflects on our changing relationships to cows via the transition to differently sourced milk. This book is in part about geography: thinking through spaces and the various parts of the globe and our lives that we meet and understand food. It’s wide-ranging essays will be sure to pique your interest.
We are told three things: that obesity is bad, that the country is currently experiencing an obesity epidemic, and that the solution to obesity is in eating local, organic, “clean” foods. But is it? Julie Guthman takes on many common assumptions about health and weight gain, including moralizing arguments about self-control. While things like Body Mass Index is taken as a fact, Guthman’s book opens up other avenues of possibility for understanding weight shifting. Crucially, Guthman discusses capitalism as a system that encourages inequality in food production, food access, and the widespread neglect of communities.
This book examines the intersections of gender and migration in fodo access and food insecurity. Carney looks at undocumented women’s experiences with food as they travel from Mexico and Central America into California. She’s a sociologist, so she spends a lot of time with 25 women in particular, using interviews, participant-observation, and ethnography to explore her subject matter. Her study reveals the multitude of barriers to these women’s access to healthful foods, most of which have to do with the harsh immigration system. They include poor wages, insecure employment, and a lack of documentation. Popular ideologies of personal responsibility exacerbate the stress and anxiety these women feel when they are unable to feed their families. For Carney, individualizing food programs are not enough; instead she calls on a total overhaul of the ways we think about food and food dependency, from our belief systems to our public policies.
Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply by Vandana Shiva
According to Vandana Shiva, the industrial agriculture market is one that involves the systematic theft of food from poor people in the Global South. She focuses on India in particular, a country where 75% of the population makes a living in the agriculture sector (and the majority of these farmers are women). She describes how corporate food giants take advantage of intellectual property laws to seize control of farms and dictate what type of seeds they can use and how. The results are devastating for these communities, while the Global North and especially the corporations reap the benefits. This book is vital for updating our understanding of imperialism and global food dominance.
Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society by A. Breeze Harper
If there was ever a movement or group that was white-washed, it’d be vegans. This anthology brings together poems, narratives, and essays by vegan women of color, and their perspective on food justice is deeply related to the liberation of Black people more generally. Many of the writings focus in on the food desert problem in Black communities, as well as the health conditions (including heart disease and type 2 diabetes) that are disproportionately found in Black bodies. If you have any understanding of veganism as something only for white, middle-class people, this book will dispel of that myth very quickly.