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.

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