Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Diving Into Action: Organizing and Responding to Food Waste

Food Politics and Popular Culture
Much in the way that the problems with throwing out recyclable goods made its way into popular consciousness from the environmental movement in the 70s and 80s, concerns over food waste, global warming and increasing worldwide hunger are sparking conversations in popular culture today. Several documentaries have surfaced in the last few years which discuss the importance of food, where it comes from, how it’s produced, and who has access to the freshest items. These films connect food consumption with human health concerns, environmental degradation and social justice.

Forks Over Knives argues that a healthy diet of fresh, unprocessed, plant-based food can prevent degenerative diseases and in some cases reverse their effects. Similarly, Food Matters looks at the connections between our consumption patterns and illness. According to their website, Food, Inc. “exposes America’s industrialized food system and its effect on our environment, health, economy and workers’ rights.” What’s on Your Plate? follows two eleven year-old girls as they look into food politics in New York City, speaking with farmers, store owners, food activists, friends and family to better understand how food is grown, how it gets to our plate and what it all means.

Jeremy Seifert’s 2010 documentary Dive! looks at the practice of dumpster diving in Los Angeles, CA. Dumpster diving, the act of “rescuing” trash from dumpsters, is for Seifert a means to feed his family, save unnecessary waste from entering landfills, and, by the end, a call to action to help end waste and hunger in America and the rest of the world.

Hunger and Food Loss
Worldwide, there are over 925 million people going hungry. Bread for the World, a non-profit working to end world poverty and hunger, estimates that every day, almost 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes. That’s one child every five seconds. In 2005, the last year we have accurate data, the 1.4 billion people lived in extreme poverty, or on less than $1.25 a day.

In the United States, a 2008 USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) reported 17 million households in America, or 14.6%, were “food insecure,” struggling to put food on the table for their families. These were the highest numbers the ERS had seen since they began the national food surveys in 1995 and represented a massive jump from the year before, when 13 million, or 11.1% of households, experienced food insecurity.
In 1997, 96 billion pounds of edible food in America, about 27% of food available for consumption, was “lost” during one of three stages: on the farm, on during processing and marketing, and in foodservice and consumption.  Examples of food loss include: misshapen or blemished produce not deemed cosmetically appealing, dented cans, overstocked or seasonal packaged goods, and food that molds in our refrigerators.  The report states that if just 5 percent of Americans’ 96 billion pounds of food scraps were recovered, it would represent one day’s worth of food each for 4 million people.

In terms of food waste (as opposed to loss), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated more than 34 million tons of food were thrown away in 2010, making food waste an environmental and economic issue. According to their website: “Whether you are an individual, family, or business, chances are a considerable portion of your budget goes towards buying food — either for you, your family, or your customers. That means we are throwing away a lot of our money. Often, simple changes in food purchasing, storage and preparation practices can yield significant reductions in food waste generation. Not only will this reduce waste, but it will make your food dollars go further. Food waste cost savings have even greater potential at commercial establishments. Saving food means saving money.”

Dealing with food waste is costing Americans an estimated $1 billion a year, according the 1997 ERS report on food loss.  “If 5 percent of retail, foodservice, and consumer food losses in 1995 were recovered rather than discarded as solid waste, about $50 million annually could be saved in solid waste disposal costs for landfills alone, “ the researchers state. “If 10 percent of food losses were recovered, savings for landfill disposal costs would be about $90 million. These savings would increase to $200 million with a 25-percent recovery rate.”

Dumpster Diving: Local Solution to a Global Problem
Solutions to food waste in the United States are popping up in organized and organic ways. Dumpster diving, like Seifert documented, is a popular practice for people interested in reclaiming waste and is practiced by people all over the world. Reclaiming food by rescuing food from dumpsters, trash bins, rummaging through the dump yard or gleaning leftover fruits and vegetables in the fields, are not uncommon activities. According to a 2009 UN report, scavenging is on the rise in Côte d’Ivoire, a country in West Africa, as slightly under half the population is living in poverty. In Quetta, Pakistan, an estimated 10,000 children as young as five years old pick through the garbage, harvesting recyclables in order to earn money for food for their families. In Delhi, India, every 100th person earns a living from recycling part of the country’s 16 million truckloads of annual waste.

As waste becomes more pervasive and people are pushed farther into poverty, people all over the world are organizing. In March 2008, the Bogotá Association of Recyclers, which itself had over 18,000 members, hosted the First World Congress of Waste Pickers. Funded by international non-profits, informal trash recyclers from over 40 countries gathered for the four day event which allowed waste-pickers to create national and international alliances and share strategies which could help move them from the margins of society.

The logic and need of dumpster diving is inspiring people in the United States to organize and call attention to food waste and its broader connections to hunger, environmental problems, economic and social justice. Everyday Trash is a blog that looks at trash as artistic and political. Gary Oppenheimer founded AmpleHarvest.org, a non-profit which connects gardeners with local food pantries, increasing access to fresh, nutritious food to people in need and keeping edible food out of the trash.
In Oakland, CA, Dana Frasz is creating Food Shift to help systematize the salvaging of food from retailers that would be tossed into dumpsters and divert them to agencies which help feed the hungry. Her goal is create a food waste reclamation sector, similar to recycling programs, which incentivize businesses to donate a larger variety of food. (For example, currently many grocery stores donate canned goods and bread, while edible meat, dairy and produce are tossed in the trash.)

The rising attention and responses to food waste offers anthropologists a wide variety of avenues for further inquiry and activism: How does (or doesn’t) dumpster diving disrupt our ordering of dirt and waste (ala Mary Douglas)? Affect cultural capital? Help create an archeological record of waste? What influence does greater access to fresh, less processed food have on low income areas, food deserts, childhood obesity and nutritional education? How are communities organizing and articulating their concerns over food justice?  I would like to hear what other anthropologists are doing in this realm in terms of theory and practice; it’s an arena of research and activism that could benefit from our perspectives and methodologies.

This column also appears in the online edition of Anthropology News, the official newspaper of the American Anthropological Association.  

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Occupy Oakland Strike(s) Up Several Conversations

It was late afternoon November 2nd and I had just gotten off work. It was a short shift, five hours waiting tables at a farm-to-table restaurant in Berkeley, CA. I stood on San Pablo Ave. waiting for the 72 bus, passing the time by scraping what I guessed were the sous vide beets from table 301 off my jeans. Since moving to the Bay Area 18 months earlier, I’d been working part-time as a waitress to help supplement my qualitative research upstart.

I sat down on the bench, trying to stretch my feet inside my shoes, and pondered my nagging sense of guilt over not being able to get the day off. Or, perhaps more so, that I hadn’t just said screw it, “Solidarity with the occupiers!” and told my job I wouldn’t come in. Technically, I was given a pass by the movement for not being there earlier… “Occupy Oakland recognizes that not all workers, students and community members will feel able to strike all day long on November 2, and we welcome any form of participation which they feel is appropriate,” the resolution calling for the General Strike stated. It was passed by 1,484 out of 1,607 Oakland Occupiers on October 27th. “We urge them to join us before or after work or during their lunch hours.” …Still, I felt a sense of disappointment that I wasn’t a bit more punk rock. As an activist academic, I am fascinated by the implications direct actions can have for social justice and I was eager to take advantage of the opportunity to observe it firsthand. But as an under-employed citizen struggling with student loans and the reality of the job market, I was also energized to participate.

The bus finally arrived at a little past 4:30 p.m., predictably a few minutes off schedule, and almost all the seats were taken. I found an empty one towards the back next to a large black man named Raul who was staring out the window. He barely glanced my way as he scooted closer to the glass, his dark clothed frame angled away from the aisle as he watched the traffic on the street.

As we headed towards Frank Ogawa Plaza, the since on-again/off-again headquarters of Occupy Oakland and the epicenter of the General Strike, the  bus zipped past about a half dozen people walking down the sidewalk carrying signs that read “WE ARE THE 99%” and “Take back ALL the streets.”

A man in the middle of the bus front yelled to the bus driver over the grumble of the engine, “Are those those protesters?”

He laughed. “They’re the stragglers. We’re several miles from the real protest.”
An older woman wearing a tan security guard uniform sneered at them and yelled, “Damn assholes!” She was clutching several full, plastic grocery bags in her lap and a few wisps of her hair had started to stray from her ponytail. My seatmate muttered under his breath, “They’re just trying to help you. They’re trying to help all of us.” He shook his head.

My seatmate muttered under his breath, “They’re just trying to help you. They’re trying to help all of us.” He shook his head.

Raul was headed downtown for the strike as part of Advance the Struggle, a Marxist feminist collective which “seeks to build a multi-racial, gender-balanced organization of militants who take horizontalism seriously as a concept for both struggle and organizational structure.”  After introducing ourselves, we exchanged updates on what we’d heard so far about the strike, how the protesters had managed to shut down parts of the Oakland port but were going to try to shut down more later in the evening.

The bus, usually a quiet and keep-to-yourself ride, was abuzz with conversation between passengers. The energy had shifted and we weren’t the only ones who had used the break in the traditional solitude to talk our neighbors. By this time, the security guard at the front was speaking loudly with another woman who, from what we overheard, was on her way to the strike. The protester was trying to talk to the woman but she moved to the opposite side of the bus. “I don’t fucking want to hear it,” she said as she shifted the bags in her lap.

With occupiers successfully blocking some of the streets, the bus had to make a detour. Lost in the excitement and conversation of the passengers, I almost missed my stop. I was getting off before the strike area in order to meet up with a friend; it was also her first time to visit the encampment.  I said goodbye and good luck to Raul and headed toward the Plaza, which was flanked by food and drink stations. One cart offered free tea, another free food. One area was the designated wash bin and recycle center. It reminded me of the Really Really Free Markets I had been to on the Lower East Side in New York City a few years ago.

The first Really Really Free Market was an outcome of the anti-globalization demonstrations during the 2003 Free Trade of the Americas Agreement summit, held in 2003 in Miami, and the 2004 assembly of the Group of 8 held on Sea Isle in Georgia. Markets then San Francisco, Minneapolis and Cincinnati soon followed. The idea behind the markets, where people gather to give away/recycle/repurpose various items, was to challenge the capitalist notion that the transfer of objects necessitates a monetary value as well as highlight how sharing and re-using strengthens communities.

Participants brought any items they no longer wanted or used, ranging from clothes, toys, books, random knick-knacks and tools and placed them around the lawn for others to peruse. Some didn’t bring objects, but rather donated free haircuts, legal advice or knitting classes. The events attempt to break the ingrained connection we have that equates objects and services to their monetary value. Bartering, gift giving and other traditional economies are valued in those spaces. The playful nature of the Markets, people dressed in wild colors and unconventional, homemade styles were indicative of other direct actions: street theatre events with elaborate puppets, Billionaires for Bush (now Billionaires for Wealthcare), Radical Cheerleaders, etc. It was a celebration of difference, of being outside and challenging the norm of the consumptive middle class. It was part carnival and part community action meeting.

Occupy Oakland seemed much the same way. The whole plaza was flanked by a seemingly never-ending parade of different groups— unions, religious groups, veterans. My friend Anne and I weaved through the crowds and past the medical, spiritual and legal aid tents. The center space housed the occupiers personal tents, most of which were connected together with large tarps like mini-neighborhoods. Outside the inter-faith tent a dozen individuals sat meditating as members of a teachers union marched just feet behind them. Near the dishwashing station, we were stopped by a woman with a petition to stop the Post Office from eliminating Saturday mail delivery.

As we walked towards the main area at 14th and Broadway, a stage was erected and spoken word artists and rappers were performing. The east side of the street was a sign “Death to Capitalism.” One performer talked about the need to embrace and respect everyone as citizens. “Even,” he said, “Sean Hannity.”
The juxtaposition was a telling example of how progressive movements, as I discussed in the previous column, embrace dissenting and various voices and how this is both potentially revolutionary and problematic.

“It is our right to fight. It is our right to win. We must love and respect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains,” he said.

The “Death to Capitalism” concept is arguably OWS’ biggest hurdle. The ubiquitous nature of capitalist ideology (or, more specifically, neoliberal free market ideology) is going to make creating an alternative to free market capitalism extremely difficult. As Fredric Jameson argues, we have surrendered ourselves to the market, i.e. it has become so naturalized that it is associated with human nature. Thus the way we understand everything from education to marriage is organized via the perceived logic of the market.

This condition of postmodernity, in which Americans’ worldview is dominated by market ideology, is a product of our cultural and political context and a catalyst for OWS activity. It’s also really hard to organize a definite opposition to the way people understand and interact with their world. This is evident as OWS tries to move forward figure out their goals, demands and processes for change. They are challenging the pervasiveness of market rhetoric, the way in which we have come to organize and understand our world in terms of free market capitalism.

Unfortunately, a critique doesn’t offer inherent solutions, which the protestors and their critics recognize they need. The neoliberal faith in free market capitalism has become so ingrained that no one really knows what a good alternative looks like. But as the occupiers move from the encampments and begin to articulate future actions, they appear to be moving in the right direction. The ability of OWS to cause some to turn and talk to their neighbors on a bus evidences the importance, and potential success, of at least attempting a conversation.

This column also appears in the online edition of Anthropology News, the official newspaper of the American Anthropological Association.  

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Studies show where you live effects your health, other factors of success

I'm really excited by this Baltimore Sun article by Andrea K. Walker on the impact that living in lower income vs. more affluent neighborhoods has on health and employment. Citing two studies, one by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the other by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Walker discusses the research proven connection between increased health risks and the income level of neighborhoods. She also discusses the connections between location, health and employment, both in terms of finding a job and being healthy enough to keep it.
The implications for the findings are numerous-- in terms of policy, it can help the health industry, as Jens Ludwig, a professor at the University of Chicago and lead author of the HUD study, said "see improving neighborhoods as a form of preventive care focus on preventive care,"; it can assist urban planners in understanding the importance of integrating neighborhoods, providing (through stores or community gardens) access to healthier foods, outdoor spaces, etc; and help us create better social services that address the interconnected issues of social justice.
Hooray for social science!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Multiplicity is a Necessary Component of Postmodern Activism

The other night I was speaking with a friend about whether or not the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protesters would “be able” to present a unified goal in a similar way that the Tea Partiers are now known for their limited government agenda. The question he put forth revolved around the ability for OWS to move forward from their “we are the 99%” critique of wealth disparity towards concrete solutions and specific outcomes.

During our discussion, I was struck by the similarities between the tactics and criticisms of OWS and the freegan activists I worked with in New York City. Like OWS, freegan strategies and actions exemplified their criticisms of the status quo as oppressive, inequitable and unsustainable. In 2007 and 2008, I conducted fieldwork with freegan activists for my dissertation “‘A Revolution We Create Daily’: Freegan Alternatives to Capitalist Consumption in New York City.” Freegans are critical consumption activists working to limit their impact on the environment, consumption of resources and participation in the capitalist economy. The ethnography examines the goals, tactics and organizational structures of the movement, exploring where freeganism fits within the larger context of United States consumer, environmental and direct action movements. Freeganism in NYC is a product of and reaction to an overly commodified society that celebrates spectacle while struggling with a vacillating relationship to difference.

Postmodern is a complicated term to use: it (falsely) implies a break with a modernism and a linear progression of history.  Although there are a variety of “postmodernisms,” use of the unified term suggests that there is one, simple definition. What we mean when we talk about postmodern can vary if you talk about architecture, art or social theory. Saying something is “postmodern” from a theoretical standpoint, is to say that it embraces and celebrates difference, complexity and contestation.  It rejects that there is necessarily one metanarrative that describes or can solve all social issues.

Postmodern anthropology is a social theory of context, positionality and power which understands that world views are products of their history and experiences, not essential natures. Postmodern theory emphasizes, Richard Appignanesi et. al writes, “the local and particular as opposed to modernist universalism,” (pp116) arguing that knowledge is a construction of power that functions as a commodity— what we know and how we know it serves the status quo.

Freeganism, like postmodern theory, is a reaction to the “postmodern condition,” the highly commodified, a-historical, spectacle driven, technological, economically globalized culture. It’s helpful to view actions such as the freeganism and OWS through this postmodern lens because they are articulating a response to inequality and the status quo, and because their direct action tactics embrace multifaceted, public responses to their critiques of capitalism. These movements (or attempts at movements) are a postmodern activist response to economic, social and political frustrations that rally a diverse range of concerns. They inherently embrace difference and thus multi-messaging.

Embracing multiplicity and the potential contradictions is one of the postmodern aspects of direct action social movements. People have multiple identities and moments have numerous, equally legitimate, interpretations. In For What Tomorrow…A Dialogue, Jacques Derrida, considered the father of deconstructionism, talks about the term “différance” to challenge the idea of difference being inherently oppositional. He writes: “political choices are often determined by gradations rather than by clearly defined oppositions of the type: I am this or that. No, I am this and that; and I am this rather than that, according to situations and the urgencies at hand….différance is not an opposition, not even a dialectical opposition; it is a reaffirmation of the same,” (pp21-22). The term dialectical is used here to refer inherent logical inconsistencies. He’s saying différance is not really about difference at all but rather about recognizing the sameness in situations and people.

In many ways, this postmodern différance is liberating; it is not based on a fixed identity, but rather is fluid and allows people to participate in a variety of activities.  On October 27th, 1,484 out of 1,607 members of the General Assembly of the Occupy Oakland movement approved a general strike and day of action November 2nd. While the strike calls for participants to meet in downtown Oakland and includes plans to shut down the Port of Oakland in order to “blockade the flow of capital,” the resolution also states:
“While we are calling for a general strike, we are also calling for much more. People who organize out of their neighborhoods, schools, community organizations, affinity groups, workplaces and families are encouraged to self organize in a way that allows them to participate in shutting down the city in whatever manner they are comfortable with and capable of.”

This can be read as a call for more legally daring action, but it is also an opportunity for those more moderate “99%” to participate in other ways. The language “are comfortable with and capable of” indicates solidarity with all levels of participation. In another posting, they write: “Occupy Oakland recognizes that not all workers, students and community members will feel able to strike all day long on November 2, and we welcome any form of participation which they feel is appropriate. We urge them to join us before or after work or during their lunch hours.” A plurality of causes is an integral aspect of postmodern activism and embracing various levels of participation is a vital step towards maintaining an inclusive, equitable social movement.

What this means in terms of creating concrete outcomes isn’t clear yet. It doesn’t mean that, like other groups, OWS won’t eventually concede a unified goal. The Oakland General Strike, which calls on groups to shut down banks and corporations, is just a step towards participants trying to figure out what they’re just society looks like.

This column also appears in the online edition of Anthropology News, the official newspaper of the American Anthropological Association.  

Friday, October 28, 2011

USDA “Food Desert” Demarcation is a Starting Point for Localized Research and Resolutions

A recent article on the front page of the Oakland Tribune questioned the criteria under which certain areas are categorized as food deserts by the United States Department of Agriculture. According to the USDA’s online interactive map, there are 25 food deserts in the Bay area, although, as the article points out, many of those neighborhoods are serviced by corner supermarkets which offer a variety of fresh, healthy (sometimes local) food. Written by Contra Costa Times reporter Hannah Dreier, the piece used the example of Oakland residents’ various methods of obtaining healthy food to challenge the USDA’s assumptions regarding how people shop and eat.

The map, a product of an Interagency Working Group from the Treasury Department, Health and Human Services and the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS), was created as a first step in the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI), a core component of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign to end childhood obesity.  The HFFI used census tracts as their geographical unit of analysis. A census tract is described as “a small, relatively permanent subdivision of a county that generally contains between 1,000 to 8,000 people, with an optimum size of 4,000 people.” They defined a food desert as “a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.” (Their definition of low income and low access communities can be found here.)

The point of Dreir’s article was that we have to acknowledge the variety of avenues in which people access food, not just large scale supermarket chains; the metrics the USDA used missed important family-owned businesses which were serving their communities. Dreier makes an important point and while I think it is useful to start somewhere, and sometimes that starting point is broad, my concern is the implication in terms of interpretation and resolution. The problem with using this particular system to determine access is that it could lead to focusing on broad-scale corporate solutions rather than localized community actions. The problem with using this particular system to determine access is that it could lead to focusing on broad-scale corporate solutions rather than localized community actions.  Indeed, Michelle Obama’s recent announcement of national commitments from three major chains, SUPERVALU, Walgreens, and Walmart, to open or expand “over 1,500 stores to serve communities throughout the country that currently do not have access to fresh produce and other healthy foods,” almost completely overshadowed similar commitments and initiatives from smaller, regional markets. (Granted, half of those smaller grocers are part of the ShopRite chain, but they are family-owned and at least somewhat more localized.)

Despite this seeming reliance on large-scale solutions, Dreier notes the inability of USDA research to find causal evidence that bringing large-chain grocery stores actually decreases obesity rates in poorer neighborhoods, which is the primary focus of the HFFI. It would seem that this issue is ripe for anthropological research on consumption and health- why, as Drier reports on USDA research, do people who use food stamps choose to shop at stores farther from their homes? What else is informing their consumer behavior?

In The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America’s Underground Food Movements (2005), Sandor Ellix Katz describes West Oakland as a “community of twenty-five thousand people served by thirty-six convenience stores and only one supermarket. These stores give residents easy access to overprocessed, overpriced junk food, but few choices for produce and other healthy foods.” Katz discusses various community responses which attempted to answer the dearth of healthy food, including creating community gardens, youth programs and mobile grocery stores which helped disseminate the food amongst the community.

In last month’s column, we began discussing the concept of food justice and ways in which anthropologists can analyze, discuss and apply our expertise towards the equitable distribution of resources. In terms of HFFI’s overarching goal of getting people to eat healthy food, there are two major needs for anthropological analysis. First, as anthropologists, we are specifically poised to assist with definitions and solutions to food deserts. The issue of who defines a food desert shouldn’t overshadow the need to define one in order to begin the difficult process of addressing nutritional inequalities. Dreier includes a quote from Shelly Ver Ploeg, the creator of the map, acknowledging the limitations of the study but still urging policy makers and community organizations to use it as a starting point to identify areas in need. “We know there are smaller stores that carry healthy food that are not included in this list, and that is a weakness of the data and food desert measure,” Ver Ploeg said. However, as we continue to look towards resolutions, Drier and community food activists concerns about the creating local, community based solutions must be at the foreground.

At the end of Dreier’s article, she writes that a better term to use to describe Oakland’s food situation might be “’ food swamps’ — neighborhoods in which a flood of convenience stores and fast-food outlets drown out grocery store offerings.” She quotes Hannah Laurison of Public Health Law & Policy in Oakland as saying that what policy makers should be focusing on is the “overall balance of the neighborhood.” In Oakland, anthropologists can help document and analyze various food sources and solutions to scarcity, better understanding the myriad and multiple ways people consume and connect.

Second, understanding the role that culture plays in our consumption patterns is integral to fighting obesity and equalizing physical health. In 1899, Thornstein Veblen wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class, in which he talked about the ways in which commodities and consumption connotes social class. He called the excessive consuming in order to show others your status “conspicuous consumption.” (He also had some critical things to say about conspicuous leisure, as well.) In the early 1900s, there was a shift, away from the moral attributes of thrift and towards the social status of consumption of new things. The concept of conspicuous consumption is especially helpful in understanding the reliance on large, corporate grocery chains to herald in the era of equalized access to healthy food, even though research data shows otherwise. Consumption is a cultural phenomenon and thus a change in food access doesn’t necessarily mean there will be changes in consumer behavior and overall health.

Food justice is a nuanced concept which acknowledges disparities of food and nutritional access due to a variety of cultural factors. The Let’s Move! campaign is concerned with food justice and thus increasing policy makers’ understanding of how cultural values impact our consumer practices is extremely important.  The USDA research is just a starting point. In many ways, it might be helpful to view the HFFI as a development project. The concerns about displacement due to modernization can also be applied to local food solutions being ignored or replaced by corporate grocery chains. As we obtain more nuanced and localized data, anthropologists can help ensure that our understanding of food politics is contextualized in order to create successful, healthy community-based solutions.

This column also appears in the online edition of Anthropology News, the official newspaper of the American Anthropological Association. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

"Othering" the Wall Street protestors: How image is tied to legitimacy

I've been reading a lot of online media (Cutting Through The Visual Dissonance of Occupy Wall Street; Occupy Wall Street --Faces of the Revolution) and Facebook posts regarding the problems some people have with the carnival nature of many Occupy Wall Street activists. "This isn't Halloween/I can't take anyone in a drum circle seriously"... The line of reasoning appears to be that if activists aren't dressed in a serious nature then they can't be taken seriously.

In order to legitimize the movement, reporters are pointing out that "everyday people," retired teachers, military vets, business owners, are also part of the protest. Dissecting a photo of a protest in San Francisco, author Queena Kim writes: "There’s the tie-dyed clad man with the white beard (hippie), there’s the woman with multiple-piercings around her mouth wearing thongs in the rain (street kid?) and then there’s Beverly Best." Standing amongst the stereotypical activists, Best, a 60 year old unemployed white woman "who is really upset about the way this country is going," serves to authenticate the concerns of the movement.
I found a similar phenomenon when doing my dissertation work with New York City freegans. Many people I spoke with wanted to compare freegan dumpster divers with "legitimate" homeless people. Diving food was at best virtuous for homeless individuals and at worst an unfortunate survival mechanism. For freegans though, the stigma of choosing to root through garbage to make a political and environmental point rubbed many people the wrong way. I found that often this tactic of de-legitimizing freegan activists based on the (false) theory that most of them were privileged white kids on a lark, helped distance the politics behind what the freegans were doing and hoped to accomplish.

In anthropological terms, this process of "othering," creating oppositional distinctions between “us” and “them" and using those distinctions to create or maintain a power dynamic, has been used between and among nations for centuries.  (Edward Said wrote a classic book, Orientalism, which looks at the process of othering the "Orient" and the social and political implications.) Othering of activists by people who don't, or are looking for a reason not to, take the protest seriously, allows the focus to remain on stereotypes and differences.  This makes it difficult to find commonality and begin a conversation.

In the next blog, we’ll discuss another highly criticized aspect of the protest, the seeming lack of a unified message, and how the plurality of causes is an integral aspect of postmodern political activism.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The 2012 Farm Bill: National food policy debate sparks local food justice concerns

By the time the organizers finished laying out the snacks, an array of fruits and vegetables, crackers, almonds and pistachios, over forty people had settled into the plastic chairs at the West Oakland library meeting room. It was a little after 5 pm on August 25th and the predominantly female attendees had gathered from all around the East Bay. Many had children attending Oakland schools and several were frequent Farmer’s Market shoppers or ate organic food. Some of the community members were on food stamps or once relied on WIC (short for Women, Infants, and Children, a federal food supplement program) to make ends meet, several were farmers or community gardeners. All had gathered there to participate in the workshop: “The Farm Bill: What does it mean for me?”

The event was sponsored and facilitated by the HOPE Collaborative (Health for Oakland’s People and Environment) in partnership with California Food and Justice Coalition (CFJC), Oakland Food Policy Council and People’s Grocery, a non-profit whose mission is to improve the health and economy of West Oakland through the local food system.” As an anthropologist and Oakland resident interested in food justice, I came to the meeting to learn more about the specifics of the bill and how local food groups and concerned individuals related the national policy with local concerns.

The event “hoped to clarify some of the complex language of the 2008 Farm Bill, relate it to our daily lives, engage residents in discussion surrounding food access, quality and nutrition, and bring people together to create solutions and positive changes in our food system,” Lotta Chan, a member of CFJC and workshop co-facilitator, wrote in Oakland Local. Every four years, the United States Department of Agriculture reviews their budget, the primary farming and food policy tool known as the Farm Bill. The 2012 Farm Bill, which is supposed to be voted on before the next election, synthesizes many consumer fears about nutrition and obesity, farm subsidies and access to healthy, organic food.

Jumoke Hinton-Hodge, a co-facilitator and the Program Director at People’s Grocery, began the workshop by having the attendees go around the room and say their names and a bit about themselves so that we would “know who’s in the room, ground us… [and] set some intention.” “Setting intention” is a phrase commonly used in consensus decision making, a popular organizing tool for progressive groups. The goal of consensus decision making—a model that has been practiced by Mennonites, Quakers and some Native Americans—is not necessarily for everyone to agree to the same conclusion. Rather, it is a process of discussion which allows each member to express their opinions and concerns in order to reach a satisfactory resolution. Many have embraced the model because unlike voting, a quantitative method in which there are “winners” and “losers,” consensus decision making is qualitative process in which dissenting members opinions are taken into account.

The facilitators invocation of consensus terminology opened a space for dialogue about wants and desires for the next Farm Bill and how the community could create that change. Phrases focused on inclusion or “togetherness,” such as “coming together,” “learning together,” “interconnection” and “coalition building,” showed a desire for community derived solutions rather than a top-down call to action from any particular workshop sponsor or participant.

Many of the attendees were active in local food groups already invested and engaged in the Farm Bill debate. A few were community members genuinely learning more about the particulars of the bill, its’ history and potential allocation of funds. Discussion topics included the lack of federally mandated labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) and the difference between food grants (given to organic agriculture) and subsidies (given to the “big five” commodities: corn, rice, wheat, cotton and soy). Facilitators were careful to make sure that the terminology was well-defined and that expertise of non-facilitators was valued as well (some participants had a strong knowledge of international GMO standards, for example).

The organization of the workshop and discussion questions focused on the belief that access to healthy food is a human right. This is a primary tenant of food justice, a concept which recognizes the centrality of food in terms of nutritional quality, accessibility and environmental impact as a barometer of social justice and community development.The organization of the workshop and discussion questions focused on the belief that access to healthy food is a human right. This is a primary tenant of food justice, a concept which recognizes the centrality of food in terms of nutritional quality, accessibility and environmental impact as a barometer of social justice and community development. As an example of food injustice, Chan held up a box of eight Kellogg’s “blueberry” Pop-Tarts and a half pint of organic blueberries. She asked the group to guess the prices and one woman said it depended on if you got them at the dollar store or the grocery store.

“If you get them at the dollar store,” another woman responded, “it won’t be Kellogg’s. It’ll be some no-name brand.”

As Hinton-Hodge read through the ingredients to determine if there were, in fact, any blueberries in the Pop-Tarts, Chan announced that the blueberries were approximately three times the price of the packaged pastries. (Which contained less than 2% dried blueberries and artificial blueberry flavor.)

The workshop was simultaneously a place to learn and a space to organize around food justice. Access and price of healthy, un-processed whole foods were discussed, as were the environmental implications of factory farms and subsidies. A diverse array of Oakland residents was present, with differing concerns and interactions with the food community and food politics. The workshop wrapped up with some suggestions on what the community could do to influence the next Farm Bill. Ideas included talking with friends and family about the importance of the Bill, organizing a march on Washington, and writing elected officials. Although a first step, (and the first of the two Farm Bill focused workshops- the second was held on August 31st in East Oakland) the workshop created a space to start discussing food justice as it pertains to the Farm Bill while setting the stage for further social justice work.

As anthropologists, the food justice movement offers an opportunity to examine how consumer activists organize, around what issues, and how food justice is connected to social justice. It is an opportunity to document and evaluate consumer activism and for activist anthropologists to utilize their expertise to outreach and assist in the coalition between and among communities. My goal with this column is to discuss issues of consumer activism and critical consumption organizing both at the local, grassroots level as well as the national discourse around the protection and consumption food, space and resources. Consumer activism and food justice is an exciting area of study for anthropologists interested in social movements, social justice and grassroots organizing.

This column also appears in the online edition of Anthropology News, the official newspaper of the American Anthropological Association.