State of the Field: Taste, Identity, & Values

Wilson-Farm-in-Lexington-Massachusetts

I began this blog in January with the intention of gaining a better understanding of the intricacies of national food and farming regulations as well as how both official and non-official discourse helps shape what we as Americans view as “healthy.” My knowledge of food activism at the beginning of the year was limited to health activism and obesity campaigns and my own personal experiences with diet trends, and it was for these reasons that I endeavored to use this blog to discover a link between health and popular culture. Throughout the semester, I have explored in my blog how popular ideas of health and food circulate and interact in order to produce what our society currently deems “nutritional” and attempted to place this dialogue within the realm of food activism. Yet as the semester continued and my understanding of the history of farming and food commodification grew, my blog’s focus expanded to also include ideas of food representation and social class/identity with regard to taste and values.

Campbell-soup-to-phase-out-bpa

My original focus was certainly more tangible: I wanted a better understanding of how the FDA and other state organizations regulate food and food systems. At the onset of the semester, when I had little knowledge of food activism and the politics of taste, I was more interested in how the general population was informed of nutritional information and protected from misrepresentation on labels. The potential for finding loopholes in food regulations appealed to me, if only so that I could learn to be a better consumer. Accordingly, I wanted to focus on understanding how popular dieting and health trends were determined and how this related to nutritional knowledge, if at all. In my first few blog posts, I began to explore the shortcomings of our collective knowledge on food nutrition: how our current nutritional data is largely based on studies supported by the honor code, and not on the scientific method, or how popular culture helps determine how we think we relate to food. This cursory look into how we define “nutrition” led me to believe that new food activism was rooted in getting back to “true” nutrition through organic farming and transparent ingredient lists.

Nutritional-Information

Yet as the semester continued and I began to understand food as a fetishized commodity with specific and localized histories, my interests began to change to include food representation in the media and how different people relate to different foods. With Slocum‘s idea that food perception is personal, emotional, and social as well as biological in mind, I began tracing how identity affects the values we ascribe to different foods. I have come to understand that the new food movement in the United States is originally linked to a class of (mostly white) people with the time, money, and access to local, organic foods. Amy Trubek’s analysis of the social significance of indulging in certain cuisines encouraged me to locate food preferences in the context of social class. I have come to see that while income and time are important factors in determining who might value local foods, food philosophies and generalizations about different food systems greatly impact the desire to be inside or outside the new food movement. The food preferences we have are deeply impacted by local social norms.

faneuil_hall

Cooking and eating are a means through which people can choose to resist assimilation, especially in terms of race and ethnicity, and these decisions to eat according to one’s social group profoundly reifies social identity. Our trip to Faneuil Hall was an interesting look into how Boston is attempting to create a public food-market with only local produce. Critics have argued that limiting the market to local cuisine would turn off potential customers because local New England food does not appeal to everyone. I have come to understand that  local and homemade produce such as that of the new food movement is not appealing to those who do not fit into the “foodie” model because it symbolizes assimilation to another social group. Through the application of Trubek’s idea that food perception is tied to self identity and social expectations, I have gained a better understanding of how social class helps define taste: we as consumers create value in what we believe we are expected to eat. Our guest-speaker Schulyer relayed to us her personal dilemma with only providing her products to customers of a certain income bracket, which further clarifies the connection between identity and taste. The association of consuming local/organic foods with high income and education about food serves to separate foodies from the “average” American and, in turn, reify the social constructed groups we believe we should adhere to.

agriculture

I have come to see the industrialized agricultural industry as a symbol of the United States’s desire to become more modern and capitalistic. Conversely, new food activism can be seen working against the notion that food should be commodified and thus it can easily be placed in conversations with other anti-capitalist movements, such as the environmental or labor movements. Like earlier anti-modern movements, new food activism is often touted as identifying with a higher conscious. Many restaurants and food chains are capitalizing on this idea by locating themselves inside the “ethical” side of food discussions. Panera Bread’s recent commercial tried to lure in consumers by promising “food you can trust” by getting back to more natural methods of food preparation, representing the growing association of “industry” with “untrustworthy.” I have learned that the food we eat can be seen as indicative of the communities by which we define ourselves. The social implications of what foods we indulge ourselves in are based on socially constructed ideas of taste and status. Certain restaurants, like b.good in Boston, have appropriated the food of lower status groups into the new food movement. Through the lens of Bordieu’s theory of social class, this intersection of fast food with the new food movement is exemplary of the high social status of the movement.

b_good

My preliminary emphasis on science and popular culture initially appears to be a superficial look into food culture, especially considering my later interest in ascribed values and food perception; however, my original focus has actually nourished my understanding of food activism by illuminating the naïvety with which the average consumer accepts social expectations. Through my blogging experience, I have come to learn of the shortcomings of state and federal food regulations and the seemingly blind acceptance with which consumers interpret food information. Indeed, the failure of consumers to notice the FDA’s incompetence in properly monitoring food labels demonstrates our inability to discern the differences between certain “unequal” types of fish; taste is based on what we believe we are expected to taste, not what the food actually tastes like. The ease with which the government’s failure to properly enforce caloric regulations in New York went unnoticed is also exemplary of the average consumer’s lack of awareness in what they eat. I have come to see “nutrition” as a multifaceted, socially constructed category that includes social, emotional, and biological harmony. The perception of the FDA as an all-knowing, consumer-focused entity affects the way we interpret food labels and as such affects what we think is “good” for us.

gmo-tomato

Blogging was an interesting and fundamental part of my personal exploration into food activism, but it was class readings and lectures that helped me locate myself in the spectrum of new food activism. While I was fascinated to read articles about a growing trend toward a higher food conscience, I was unable to connect the interplay between self identity and the new food movement until I placed it in dialogue with the history of globalization and America’s long relationship with capitalism. The push to modernize every aspect of society has not spared the food industry, and as such has created a culture of unsustainable consumerism and excessive consumption. I have come to understand that industrial agriculture has increasingly reduced bio-diversity to construct unrealistic and unnatural expectations of what food “should” look like. Thus food activism can be seen as a reaction to the devastating effects of globalization on health and the environment; the push for local community building and reducing our dependence on technology are evident in the movement toward urban and local agriculture. Throughout my blogging experience, I continued to encounter ideas of self-reliance and anti-modernity in the new food movement, such as campaigns to develop good personal eating habits and Panera’s promise to make bread by hand.

gmo-41

Though the focus of my blog often changed, the trajectory of my posts over the course of the semester seem to illustrate a common theme: that food perception and representation–especially as determined by social expectations–are arguably more important than nutritional content when considering food activism. Through my expanded understanding of Bordieu’s theory of the aesthetics of self-denial, I have come to understand that the values we ascribe to certain foods and food systems has much to do with our own perceived social identities. I have learned that the new food movement originated in mainly affluent urban and suburban areas and for this is often connected with the taste of luxury, though that hard association is slowly waning. In order to include more social communities into this movement, there has recently been a growing campaign directed at middle class Americans to eat less processed foods that works within our current reliance on industrial produce. By disassociating the movement with young, white, urban professionals to include less affluent Americans, food activism is becoming more universal than it once was.

The Politics of GMOs

As made evident last week by Congress’s failure to pass a bill that would require background checks for firearms owners–a bill with over 90% approval by the general public–money and influence arguably play a larger role than public interest in passing legislation. This stands true for legislation regarding food labeling as well: according to dietician Carole Bartolotto, she was dismissed from the highly powerful Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) for pointing out that two of her co-members had strong ties to Monsanto, one of the largest producers of genetically modified seeds.

Considering the fact that the academy is currently in the process of deciding its (highly influential) position on the ethics genetically modified foods, this raises a red flag for anyone who is even slightly conscious of what goes into their mouths. The academy claims that Bartolotto was dismissed for failing to disclose her “Healthy Eating Consulting” business, which was found on her blog during an alleged internet search of each of the academy’s members. Bartolotto claims that her consulting experience was limited to advising one friend’s wife over a year ago.

The irony of the situation, which would be amusing were it not such a sobering insight into the corrupt nature of American politics, is that Bartolotto was officially dismissed for “failure to disclose conflict of interest.” Her dismissal came about a month and a half after her email to academy executives questioning the impartiality of two of her co-members, one of whom is a prize-winner of and test farmer for Monsanto and the other of whom is a senior vice president for the International Food Information Council, which is “financed by food, beverage and agriculture businesses, including companies like DuPont, Bayer CropScience and Cargill, companies that were among the biggest financial opponents of the California labeling initiative.”

[The academy executive] responded to Ms. Bartolotto’s concerns about Ms. Schmidt and Ms. Smith Edge with an e-mail that included the academy’s conflict of interest policy. “Conflict of interest will not eliminate a candidate from an eligible appointment,” it says in part.

Clearly, there are factors that influence the decisions of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics other than consumer safety and impartiality. What does this mean for the general public? The academy plays a huge role in state and federal conversations over labeling policies; whether or not food producers will be required to disclose the presence of genetically modified ingredients depends greatly on the official opinions of institutions such as the AND. Surely we cannot be expected to undergo our own review of genetically modified foods; we are forced to rely on historically trustworthy institutions such as the academy.

Regardless of what the academy ultimately constructs as its “official” policy on GMOs, the fact remains that the mere legality of genetically modified food symbolizes the current disconnect between industrial agriculture and nature. The fact that food can be mass-produced and standardized may ostensibly seem like a positive step towards further modernizing our society, if we consider Max Weber’s definition of modernity as controlling nature for the benefit of human welfare, but I argue that not everything can be viewed positively in terms of humankind’s ability to influence nature. The food industry’s constant manipulation of natural produce into corporate food byproducts has transformed societal expectations of what food “should” be and, in turn, threatens our ability to get the proper nutrition we as humans have evolved to need.

gmo-tomatoIndustrial agriculture is, by definition, a commercial practice, and in our capitalist society it makes sense that industrial agriculture companies strive to produce consistent products as quickly and efficiently as they can. Yet in the process of commodifying the food industry, we have lost the ability to really understand what we are eating and how it affects our health; the fact that we can reliably purchase identical products from a company over the course of many years numbs our desire to read the nutrition labels. A majority of foods grown and cultivated for industrial farms become unrecognizable by the time they reach supermarkets, due to artificial additives and systemized mixing techniques, and lacking in nutrition when compared to their organic counterparts. Yet the sad truth is that because our government allows these products to be produced time and again, many Americans do not consider the possible health risks of consuming processed foods.

The industrial transformation of natural food into standardized, super-processed food further separates nature from the public food conscious. Just last week, during a class trip to a garden in a public housing complex, I heard stories of residents who were “grossed out” at the thought of eating some imperfect vegetable that came out of the dirt. Americans are so used to pre-packaged and reliably consistent foods that they are unwilling to consume the natural, more nutritious substitutes. GMOs serve to only further the expectation that all foods should look a certain way in order to be desirable, and the fact that their health effects are not yet known does not exactly ease my conscience.

If GMOs remain legal and do not have to be disclosed on labels, how can a nonpartisan study on their effects ever be accurately conducted? As I see it, the only reason for not requiring companies to disclose the presence of GMOs is to make sure those companies keep up profits and productivity. As a consumer, it is a cold reminder that the industrial agriculture sector is focused on business over food. The academy’s ultimate position on GMOs will be indicative of the scope of Monsanto’s influence on the food industry, although at this point, I would say there is no hope for an impartial position without a complete overhaul of our food industry.

Nutrition in the Media

supermarketThe Nutrition section of Boston.com has recently been advising Bostonians on how to lead healthier lives, last week focusing on how to eat less salt. According to the article, the average American consumes over seven times the amount of sodium our bodies need to perform every day. In order to help the average American consumer less sodium, author Joan Salge Blake takes the reader step-by-step through the grocery aisles, recommending that consumers check the labels of their processed foods for sodium content and offering alternatives to salty marinades and dressings.

Interestingly, nowhere in the article does Blake suggest buying organic or shopping at local markets for unprocessed foods, despite her claim that “over 75 percent of the sodium we consume sneaks in from processed foods.” Instead, she suggests ways to reduce sodium intake that allow consumers to still eat prepackaged and factory-produced foods, and all the while still shopping at corporate supermarkets.

I find it odd that Blake does not advocate organic foods at all, but instead tries to work within the industrial food system to get Bostonians to eat healthier. I understand that local markets are not accessible to all, but increasing awareness about the health benefits of local foods cannot hurt. Those who are reading these article on Boston.com are already conscious about eating healthier. Thus would it not make sense to suggest local markets to the masses, subsequently creating a higher demand for local foods and hopefully (eventually) lowering prices?

This week’s article does, in fact, recommend starting a vegetable garden at home to all who are able to do so. Yet I had several issues with the 320-word piece:

1) it lists cost-saving and taste as the reasons for starting a garden, never mentioning nutrition or the health benefits of organic food

2) it does not explain how to start a garden, or which fruits and vegetables to plant in a New England climate, and

3) it lists no alternative for local foods if a person does not have the time or space to start a garden

If a person had no previous knowledge of the nutritional benefits of organic foods and were unable to start a garden of their own, she would see no reason to buy locally; the “cost-saving” factor would be irrelevant, as would be the idea that produce tastes better if you cultivate it yourself. The combination of this article and last week’s, which gives pointers on how keep a clean conscience while still shopping at a corporate grocery store–despite hinting that it is impossible to do so (Blake herself says processed food “sneaks” in extra sodium)–does not really advocate local and organic food.

Instead, the underlying message is that you should create a vegetable garden yourself to save money, and regardless of that, there is a perfectly fine way to stay healthy by intelligently shopping for processed foods. So while the intentions behind these pieces are certainly good, the reader is given no real reason to stop shopping at supermarkets. And considering the fact that those who have the time, space, and money to invest in a vegetable garden are already more likely to be more health-conscious, I cannot see these articles really changing many people’s food philosophies.

Food Security

Food Security

A new study done by the University of Connecticut compares each of the state’s towns on their “food security.” According to the article, food security means “whether there is easy access to a variety of healthy foods and whether residents are sufficiently taking part in food assistance programs.” As a native of Connecticut, I was interested to see where my town, Norwalk, fit on the map.

As it turns out, Norwalk is pink. Interestingly, it is a “pink” town–aka greatest risk of food security–surrounded by only “green” towns–aka lowest risk of food security (you can see it on the southwestern tip that jets out from the rest of the state). When people think of access to health food, the conversation always seems to generate around the idea of “low-income areas” not having enough access. Yet this graph shows how access is not determined by geographical location; Norwalk is surrounded by all towns in the lowest risk level, and it certainly would not take more than 20 minutes to drive or take public transit to one of these locations.

In my experience, “access” to healthy foods has a lot to do with class; local and organic food is valued much more heavily by the white, upper-middle class neighborhoods of the surrounding towns. It is in these towns that farmers’ markets travel to, and these people to whom they advertise. Norwalk, by contrast, is made up of many immigrant and first-generation American families who differ immensely in both culture and income. There are more ethnic markets and affordable corporate grocery stores in Norwalk than in the “green” towns.

It is seen as sophisticated and classier to be more interested in consuming healthy foods, and this association affects both sides. Identifying one type of food philosophy with yuppies certainly would make it less attractive to anyone who might not fit into that social group.

The article quotes Connecticut Food Policy Chairman John Frassinelli as saying “the Food Policy Council will be meeting with local food councils over the next year to help them make decisions about improving access to healthy foods.” Yet this risk of food security cannot be reduced to simply a lack of supermarkets or farmers’ markets. Rather, it must also address differences in food philosophies: citizens must learn to appreciate healthier and organic foods if they are going to buy them. In order to do that, education is important.

It is also necessary to debunk the idea that the healthy foods movement only applies to wealthy whites. Geographical proximity to healthy foods can only go so far in increasing access. The rest is up to the people.

real.food.fast

Over the weekend, I made my first trip to b.good, a Boston-born restaurant chain that offers a fast food-inspired menu made from local and organic ingredients. I ordered house-ground burger with locally made gouda cheese and a side of house-cut “air fried” french fries. As I waited for my food, I was able to read a bio on the farmer who supplied the meat I was about to consume, including where the farm was located, what the cows were fed, and animal living conditions.

The food was modestly priced and delicious, just as I’d hoped. However, I took away more from my visit than just a full stomach. After reading The Taste of Place last week, I have been paying closer attention to the way local and organic food is represented around me. For the most part, I’ve been noticing how “real” food–a.k.a. local and organic food–is marketed as being for a healthier and more sophisticated palette. Restaurants and markets that sell “real” food are often more expensive and geared toward the yuppie–read: young urban professional–population.

This generalization of the “foodie”–and I use that term for simplification purposes; it can certainly be pejorative–movement comes from both sides. The “average” American is generalized as not caring too much about where their food comes from. The foodie is generalized as having an image of herself as one with more refined ideas of taste and food and as one who has both the time and the money for fresh meals. The foodie movement normally conjures up images of pricey organic summer squash and locally made cheddar cheese–far from a cheap burger, fries, and shake.

Yet b.good obviously problematizes this stereotype. It marks the intersection between America’s foodie movement (the new) and our love of fast, familiar food (the old). Interestingly, the crowd I found at b.good was not the young, earthy crowd that one normally finds at eateries touting fresh and local ingredients (and higher prices to match). Instead, this group was much more eclectic and representative of the local population as a whole. It represented both the foodie and the non-.

It would seem that b.good attracts a more diverse bunch because it produces traditionally cheap food with a sophisticated label. I cannot know whether the restaurant’s customer based is rooted more in its focus on local ingredients or its focus on great tasting, recognizable food. What I do know is that regardless of a person’s motive for eating at b.good, they will get access to learning about the pros of local, organic food once they are inside. They will read about where their meat is coming from, who cut their fries that day, and why the chain’s founders are dedicated to making food the “real” way. The idea that local, organic eateries exist for a class of people with a higher food conscious could potentially go by the wayside.

The fact that b.good serves traditionally fast food–rather than the haute cuisine local-centric cooking is often associated with–gives this form of local food activism exposure to a new wave of Americans. It gets people thinking about where their food is coming from and why fresh is better. It also relocates the farmers and chefs into the discusion of food chains. And it does all of it deliciously.

Food Philosophies

Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

–Michael Pollan

In class, we’ve been discussing personal food philosophies like Michael Pollan’s listed above. My personal food philosophy, if I had to sum it up into a few sentences, would be:

Eat nothing you can’t make from scratch. Have as colorful a plate as possible. And easy up on the carbs.

I would not say that my personal idea of nutrition is the be-all-end-all of healthy eating. I obviously try to live by these rules, but I do not think that following them is necessary to healthy living. However, I do think that having a set of food guidelines is a good idea for anyone in order to establish good nutrition.

First and foremost, having a personal food philosophy makes someone more conscious of what they are eating; if a person strives to stay away from dairy, for example, you can be sure that they are checking the ingredients on everything they eat for milk products. By consciously seeing what is going into your body, you have a better idea of the micro/macronutrients you are getting as well.

More than that, though, having solid food habits can affect you for years to come. By having a simple philosophy that you can remember, you will be able to set up eating patterns for yourself and those around you.

This article on the portrayal of obese people in advertising shows an advertisement from the National Obesity Forum in the UK (#11 on the list) that states, “The eating habits you give your children can last a lifetime.”

 

 

 

 

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The picture is quite shocking, showing the angelic faces of two babies superimposed on the near-naked bodies of an obese man and an obese woman. It certainly would grab my attention, though it would not necessarily make me want to read more.

But it brings us back to my point: the habits you have, and thus the habits you teach your children, can stick for a lifetime. By following a personal food philosophy that is as healthy as it is simple, you are changing your life and the lives of those around you for years to come.

The Taste of Place

In Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir, Amy B. Trubek explores the multiple connotations of terroir, a French word loosely translating to “the taste of place,” in both France and in the United States. The author uses stories from France, California, Wisconsin, and Vermont to examine how perceptions of a food’s taste and value change depending on particular cultural myths, meanings, and memories. Trubek begins by delving into the notion that food and wine in France can often evoke feelings of a romanticized French identity and agrarian nostalgia in an era of increasing globalization. The author ascribes this discernible difference in taste to the idea that how a food is perceived is dependent on the cultural value it is ascribed in addition to how it is produced; French food and wine are understood as being produced with traditional French values.Through the association of local foods and other culinary practices with “a certain time and place, and then creating value for [them],” French food is understood and experienced as different from other food (53).

While the ever-changing definitions and concepts of terroir did get tiring, I enjoyed reading Trubek’s analysis of the taste of place and how the United States has reappropriated the French importance of local foods. As someone who is fascinated by the interconnectedness of culture, politics, history, and consumption, I was enlightened by the author’s connection between French nationalism and American entrepreneurialism with regard to valuing food. 

In the United States as in France, food is often touted as being local to certain regions—such as cheese and maple syrup to Vermont or wine to California—which would seem to produce the same phenomenon as French food in France. However, Trubek argues that unlike the French and citizens of other “Old World” countries, Americans do not have strong culinary or agricultural roots to the United States and thus restaurants, artisanal food producers, and farmers have to create a sense of value in certain region-specific foods. Trubek explores how this American terroir becomes more of an urge for food sophistication in a culture historically based on abundance. By looking at the “foodie” movement and food activism that idealizes locally grown food, Trubek demonstrates a growing correlation between place and taste in the United States. Trebek’s analysis of cultural values with regard to taste in France and the United States demonstrates a fascinating connection between culture and food perception. 

While I found the comparison between terroir in France and that in the United States interesting, the association was not entirely helpful for me when considering the importance of food being “local” in the U.S. The author posits that American culture “relies on external information, not personal knowledge” and that “taste is defined chiefly in relationship to status” (37). She argues that American food values are driven by the idea that “authentic” foods from certain places–foods that are processed in the traditional fashion–taste better than those that are mass produced. Yet while Trubek addresses this cultural desire for sophistication, she fails to properly place the need for “local” within this need for “countercuisine,” despite touting it as the basis for this. Moreover, Trubek does not adequately examine how home cooking and domestic farming–the ultimate “local” with regard to food production–relate to the taste of place.

Instead of focusing on how a certain locale can affect a food’s perception in pop culture, Trubek focuses on how the representation of a food as “authentic” can give it cultural value. For example, she shows how labeling a bottle of maple syrup as from Vermont makes it more valuable because it implies a certain process was used to create the syrup. Yet she then shows that she and a team of scientists and syrup connoisseurs tested to see if they could tell the difference between different syrups, implying the average American–who consumes syrup far less consciously–did know immediately know, either. Thus she reaffirms that the value of Vermont maple syrup is not in its place of origin, but rather in its brand.

While interesting, this analysis does not fully mesh with the author’s analysis of French terroir, which is almost entirely contingent on specific location. Trubek does note that the concept necessarily differs between cultures; however, the fact that she failed to adequately outline the importance of location in American food values with regard to taste left me wanting to conduct my own investigation into localness. In general, I enjoyed learning about the association of taste and place, and I would certainly recommend the book to anyone remotely interested in food culture or culinary heritages. However, I would suggest readers keep in mind that valuing a food’s origin is quite different from valuing its social worth.