Food Studies: Matter, Meaning, Movement


Matter, Meaning, Movement



Edited by David Szanto, Amanda Di Battista, and Irena Knezevic


Food Studies Press  |  Ottawa, ON, Canada





This project is made possible with funding by the Government of Ontario and through eCampusOntario’s support of the Virtual Learning Strategy. Learn more about the Virtual Learning Strategy.

Province of Ontario logo in black and whiteeCampusOntario logo in black and white





Cover design by Alexandra Kenefick.
Cover photos: dorado © Ilya Akinshin/Adobe Stock  |  pineapple © xamtiw/Adobe Stock



What is food? A thing we eat, a creator of cultures, an all-encompassing system? An object, a process, a way of understanding ourselves? A focus of transdisciplinary practice and study? A subject through which to altogether reimagine ‘study’ and practice’?

This book aims to help students address these and other questions, providing perspectives and insights about numerous themes, while also opening up possibilities for ongoing exploration. It is also intended as a pedagogical tool with which to probe and transcend disciplinary boundaries, so that the stuff and significance of food itself might become starting points for learning and conducting research.

In developing this book, we began with the fundamental assumption that food and food systems are lively, intersubjective, and complex. This means that they change in time, resisting universal definitions and explanations. It also means that, even as we study food, it changes us and our perceptions of it. And, finally, as dynamic and adaptive assemblages, food systems need to be understood through pluralistic means. While positivism, science, and causality are useful frameworks for some aspects of food studies, so are poetry, wonder, affect, and un-knowing.

The three Ms of our subtitle—matter, meaning, movement—are our way of underscoring the pluralistic nature of food. Food is stuff that we eat, but it is equally stuff that we use to symbolize other parts of human existence, as well as stuff that we load with discourse and ideas. Moreover, as evidenced by the ways in which we transport edible things around the globe, process and transform them, and insert them into contexts from finance to fashion, food moves.

Even as we parse these elements of food, however, they remain intractably connected. Food is whole, always already entangled. Any examination of food’s materiality raises questions about how it is meaningful. Tracing the movements of food—whether conceptually or concretely—implicates its ingredients, its packaging, and its waste. Food, divided, ceases to be food; by its nature, food resists being reduced to distinct variables.

As you use this book, perhaps a transformed sense of food, food culture, and food systems will emerge—along with a new sense of your own place and role within them. Perhaps a particular method or practice from one of the chapters will resonate with a poem or illustration, helping to illuminate a scrap of theory you have struggled to apprehend. Perhaps a perception of how agriculture and economics and identity are linked will start to form in your consciousness, motivating you to take part in activism or art-making. Perhaps you will be inspired to draft a contribution to the second, third, or multi-volume edition of this book, and you will become a future editor of Food Studies, or a teacher of new learners. And then, together, perhaps we will all acquire an understanding of food that becomes, over time, as lively, intersubjective, and complex as this wonderful subject itself.


How to use this book

In putting out the call for submissions to this book, we prompted our contributors to think about the distinctions and interconnections among food matter, food meaning, and food movement. They responded to this prompt, and each chapter both highlights how these different elements are also inseparable. Some texts may foreground the symbolic, traditional importance of, say, Green Bean Casserole, while others demonstrate how fermentation can transform not just molecules but also the cultural and economic significance of a given food stuff.

We encourage you to note for yourself what elements come forward as you read and listen and look. Does a chapter about backyard chicken polices make you think about municipal governments, the architecture of hen houses, or maintaining neighbourly relationships? Do the sounds of Cuban ice cream street vendors make your mouth water? Do they raise questions about the history of sugar production? Do they make you want to travel?

We also asked our contributors to format their chapters in one of three ways: as a Case, a Creative, or a Perspective. Cases look at more ground-level examples of food system contexts, from food in the Polynesian country of Sāmoa to the practices of artisan cheesemakers in Vermont to the communications challenges facing migrant farm workers in Canada. Creatives come at food from more oblique angles, visualizing the sense of closeness one can have with pollinators, or using poetry to shout, cry, and laugh about food’s emotional impacts. Perspectives pull the reader up to a broader view of things, sometimes of the invisible but powerful effects of financialization, sometimes of how eating and identity can produce both a sense of belonging and problematic effects of isolation and othering.

Overall, the book is organized within a loose, thematic evolution. We start with subjects that are close to everyone’s personal experience: food-making, the self, and the intimate meanings that food conveys. Subsequent chapters flow into questions about the relationships among humans, other living things, and the places and issues that food production and consumption implicate. Toward the latter part of the book, more challenging themes are presented, including the morals and ethics of meat, the complexities of financialization and law, and the intersecting futures of digital technology, people, and food. As much as we could, we created a certain logic in the transitions from one chapter to another—whether creative or more concrete—so as to help readers identify or build connections among them.

This structuring, however, is just one way to use Food Studies. As it is a digital publication, readers are encouraged to curate their own selections of chapters, and to jump from one theme to another. To this end, the Zotero-based search and filtering application on our website can help find the most pertinent entries for a given discussion or assignment.

Abbreviated chapter titles summarize the main focus of each, noting also the format (Case, Creative, or Perspective) that the chapter takes. The authors’ own, more expansive titles then follow, deepening the framing they have used. Author biographies also appear at the top of each chapter, intentionally positioning themselves and their text, all in support of critical reading. Learning objectives follow, guiding students and teachers to attend to key elements of the text, whether more factual or more synthetic. (Creatives do not include learning objectives, largely to enable more subjective and open-ended reading of what follows. We encourage teachers to use these chapters in both guided and unguided ways, and to propose to students ways they can think about what these pieces suggest.)

Most chapters include one or more highlighted glossary terms; clicking on a link will bring up our interpretation of that term, which is sometimes more generalized and sometimes more specific to food or to the chapter’s content. It should be noted that these terms are neither definitive nor exhaustive; as with much knowledge related to food, word meanings are pluralistic. Many terms also cross chapters and show connectivity among themes.

Overall, we have attempted to keep references and citations to a minimum, both to support an accessible, generalized reading experience and to help readers grasp key aspects of the text without extensive distraction. Bibliographies and additional resources are nonetheless included, to give teachers and learners prompts for further exploration. Similarly, discussion questions and exercises follow most chapters, enabling the text to serve as a jumping off point for a broader classroom exploration, debate, and customization.

The Website

Our public-facing website,, includes a Zotero-based search page, which is a helpful way to find pertinent chapters. (Much thanks to University of Ottawa School of Information Studies master student, Swati Sood, for developing the Zotero library.)

Searching for keywords will return all chapters tagged with that term. It also provides a useful way of seeing which chapters address similar themes, such as power, taste, agriculture, or emotionality. (The entire text of every chapter is also searchable within the HTML version of the book, using the Search bar in the upper-right corner.)

The website also offers links to the EPUB and PDF versions of the book, which can be downloaded and used in an offline context. The web-based version offers the most dynamic reading experience, but it also requires internet access, which we recognize is not universally available and accessible.

Food Studies is also available as a print-on-demand textbook, and copies can be purchased from Ingram Spark. While there is a price associated with printed copies, it is solely to cover the production cost; no profit is returned to the publishers, editors, or authors. Please contact us for more details.

What to do if you find an issue/typo/problem

As is increasingly standard for high-quality, openly accessible educational resources (and as required by our funding agreement), Food Studies is machine-readable and compliant with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act of 2005. All content is designed based on current Universal Design Standards, including alt-text for all graphics and proper text-to-background colour ratio.

If, however, you find an issue related to accessibility, or other content that is either in error or problematic in your view, we encourage you to get in touch with us to report the problem. This can also include such minor issues as typos, formatting problems, or broken links. While the book has been extensively reviewed and proofread, mistakes always happen!


Submissions and Review

How did we solicit submissions?

In December 2020, we distributed a Call for Expressions of Interest (with guidelines and formatting prompts) to a wide range of scholarly association newsletters, listservs, and Facebook groups. Proposals came in from a broad range of food scholars and practitioners, ranging across North America, Europe and the U.K., Asia, and Oceania. Each was reviewed and discussed by the editors before providing feedback about possible ways to refine and structure an eventual contribution. Eventually, approximately 80 texts in all were received; 60 are included in this, the first edition of Food Studies.

How did we review and edit submissions?

Our editorial and peer review process aimed at creating chapters that would be both complementary to one another and accessible for our readers. All three editors provided initial feedback that was synthesized for each author in advance of the peer review. Following the principles of open publishing, the peer review process was also open—both authors and reviewers knew each other’s identity, allowing both the text and the review to be interpreted through the lens of the author’s/reviewer’s positionality. While we used careful editor judgement in choosing reviewers for each text, we also asked reviewers to determine and declare whether any potential conflict might arise in conducting a review. As the reach of open publishing grows wider, we hope that this process can contribute both awareness of and appreciation for an alternative to more conventional, anonymized peer review experiences.

Our sincere thanks go out to the large and generous community of reviewers who participated in this project: Peter Andrée, Patricia Ballamingie, Linda Booij, Anna Brisco, Kelly Bronson, Jillian Cavanaugh, Logan Cochrane, Nathalie Cooke, Gillian Crowther, Jonathan Deutsch, Myriam Durocher, Lesley Frank, Shawna Holmes, Kathleen Irwin, Ryan Isakson, Ryan Katz-Rosene, Ali Kenefick, Anke Klitzing, Jordan LeBel, Charles Levkoe, Kristen Lowitt, Meghan Lynch, Janet McLaughlin, Catherine Mah, Tabitha Robin, Mary Anne Martin, Sarah Martin, Wanda Martin, Rod MacRae, Alexia Moyer, Lenore Newman, Elizabeth Neswald, Andrea Elena Noriega, Alissa Overend, Elaine Power, Cecilia Rocha, Caitlin Scott, Christian Scott, Rebecca Schiff, Yukari Seko, Laura Shine, Tammara Soma, Jennifer Sumner, Jennifer Whitaker, Ted Whittall, and Laine Young.

Following review, each piece was both edited and copyedited for clarity, meaning, and a degree of cross-volume consistency. Our pedagogical editor, Amanda Di Battista, worked diligently to refine learning outcomes, discussion questions, and exercises, and to create a glossary in which the descriptions of terms remain open and contextually meaningful, while neither definitive nor encyclopedic.

The Communication and Media Studies program at Carleton University provided seed funding for the Food and Media Hub initiative, where this book was initially conceived. Throughout the development process, we also received ongoing administrative support and instructional design advice from the mighty team at Carleton University’s Teaching and Learning Services (TLS).

Sincere thanks to Valerie Critchley, Andrea Gorra, David Hornsby, Jaymie Koroluk, Patrick Lyons, Laura Ravelo Fuentes, Mathew Schatkowsky, and Dragana Polovina-Vukovic for their guidance and cheerleading.

In addition to the Creative chapters that were formally submitted, David Szanto also worked with a University of Ottawa fine arts student, Annika Walsh, to produce documentation of a number of her food-related artworks. As part of a directed-study internship during the Fall of 2021, Annika read through the chapters-in-progress and drew out themes and subjects that related to her own work. A variety of these pieces are included throughout Food Studies, building on the three Ms of matter, meaning, and movement.

Finally, as a check of both content and structure, the entire book was reviewed for readability and relevance by undergraduate students at Carleton University and the University of Ottawa. We are grateful for the feedback and insights of Rose Bélanger, Claire Chapman, Yi Shan Duan, Grace Ingraham, Hermine Landry, Lalla Maiga, Audréanne Minnis, Lahari Nanda, Tze Han (Ryan) Ooi, Clara Stéphenne, Jessica Swizaski, and Annika Walsh.


Adopting this book

While this book is targeted at early undergraduate learners in introductory food studies courses, some chapters will also be relevant in upper-year classrooms and other post-secondary learning environments. As time goes on, we anticipate adding chapters to complement the current selection, expanding the book’s relevance and reach within the many spheres that comprise food.

Whether you use one or several chapters in your course or studies, we ask you to formally register your use of the book using our adoption form. This helps in several ways. First, it will allow us to stay in contact with you, if new or revised editions of Food Studies are released. In the same way, you can maintain contact with us, to provide feedback on how the book is working for you, or to identify errors or omissions that need to be corrected in future editions. And, of course, knowing how many people are using the book—and where and in what contexts—is important feedback for us. It will help us keep making changes that address real needs, while also supporting future efforts to expand or evolve the project more broadly.

Eventually, we hope to build on this collection with future calls for contributions centred on Indigenous foodways, global/localization, critical theory, social ecology, agroecology, queer and feminist theory, and many other themes. While our contributors covered a wide range of terms—some suggested and some solicited—the range of food studies is always growing. We will be delighted if this volume spawns (potentially multi-lingual) future editions, remixes, and/or sub-volumes.

To that end, Food Studies is published under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA license. With some exceptions noted in text (related to artistic material), the content in this book may be reused, remixed, repurposed, and maintained at will, provided that no commercial derivatives are created and that all future editions also carry the “share-alike” (-SA) license. Any republication of the content, however, must follow Creative Commons terms.


Accessibility Statement

In accordance with Carleton University, University of Ottawa, eCampusOntario, and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), we have aimed to make this textbook accessible and available to everyone. To that end, Food Studies was audited for accessibility by a team from the Carleton University Teaching and Learning Services unit. Their report served as the basis for a number of refinements and corrections.

Accessibility features of the web version for this resource

The web version of Food Studies was designed with accessibility in mind. It has been optimized for people who use screen-reader technology, and all content can be navigated using a keyboard. To the best of our ability, and within the parameters of the Pressbooks publishing platform, links, headings, tables, and images have been designed to work with screen readers.

Other file formats available

In addition to the web version, this book is available in a number of file formats, including PDF, EPUB (for eReaders), HTML, and various editable files. You can also purchase print-on-demand copies from Ingram Spark. Please contact us for more details.

Let us know if you are having problems accessing this textbook

While we have tried to make sure that this textbook is as accessible and as usable as possible, there might still be some outstanding issues. If you are having problems accessing this resource, please contact us to let us know so we can fix the issue.

Please include the following information:


About the Editors

David Szanto is a freelance academic working across a number of institutions and within several roles. He has taught food studies, gastronomy, and communications at universities in Australia, Canada, and Italy, in both undergraduate and graduate programs. A former book editor and marketing-communications professional, he has 15 years of experience in the corporate, media, and non-profit sectors. In addition to teaching, David works as a project manager, writer, and editor, and has extensive online and digital development experience. He served as Project Manager and Co-Editor of Food Studies, and is also the co-editor of the OER Showing Theory to Know Theory: Understanding social sciences concepts through illustrative vignettes.

Amanda Di Battista is the Project Coordinator at the Laurier Centre for Sustainable Food Systems and Director of Programs, Education, and Communications for the UNESCO Chair on Food, Biodiversity and Sustainability Studies, where she co-produces and hosts the food research podcast, Handpicked: Stories from the Field. She coedited Sustainable Food System Assessment: Lessons from Global Practice (Routledge 2020) and The Goose: A Journal of Arts, Environment and Culture in Canada (2016–2020). Amanda’s research focuses on postsecondary environmental pedagogy and she has taught environmental studies at the undergraduate level. She served as Pedagogic Editor and Co-Editor of Food Studies.

Irena Knezevic is an associate professor in Communication and Media Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where she oversees the Food and Media Hub research initiative. She is the lead editor of Nourishing Communities: From Fractured Food Systems to Transformative Pathways (Springer 2017) and her work has appeared in journals of food, cultural, and communication studies, health research, and political ecology. Irena has taught food studies at college, university, and postgraduate levels, in communication studies, cultural studies, community development, and nutrition programs. She served as Co-Editor of Food Studies.

Creative: Illustrating Food

Ali Kenefick

A Feast for the Eyes

Ali Kenefick is a PhD candidate at Concordia University, where she examines the ways in which design tangles with modern meat consumption and interrogates the making of the industrial animal-agricultural complex. Drawing on a feminist design and research-creation approach, her work aims to reconcile the inherently divisive and oppressive assemblages that characterize meat production/consumption. Overall, Ali’s focus is to expose these complicated relationships and divisions of power, while exploring opportunities for more equitable multi-species coexistence.

Artist’s Statement

In style, media, and theme, my work always concerns itself with complexity, layers, and entanglements. I am endlessly fascinated by the literal and figurative worlds hidden and distorted by our dominant reality: the political issues glossed over by attractive faces, words, and pictures; the subterranean mycorrhizal network of fungi; the spaces between the lines, the narratives behind the advertising, the bones under the skin; and so on. Therefore, as an artist/designer and food scholar, I become particularly excited by the politics, problems, and paradoxes attached to food, which are swept aside or simplified in favour of the status quo. These are often contentious and controversial issues, and they are often disguised or tucked away to avoid causing distress, disgust, or arousing suspicion among the public. In this way, the otherwise fascinating complexities of these issues—and the materials and entities tethered to them—are reduced into neat categories and tidy answers. Domesticated and tame, their rough edges are sanded down to reduce visibility and to avoid interrogation. I look upon these rough edges as potentials for generating friction in my work, that when exposed or rubbed against, they are capable of creating inquiry, intrigue, discomfort, concern, and curiosity.

I’m particularly attracted to the layers and narratives hidden under the outwardly simple and quotidian experience of buying and consuming food, and I encourage people, through my work, to scrutinize what they’re eating. I want them to recognize the cracks in the veneer of everyday life and rub them against its contentious and controversial issues. In this way, they might see food differently. I want my audiences to be reminded that food is heavy with meaning, impossibly tangled with knots of humans, plants, other animals, minerals and water, and stitched tightly to our social and cultural histories across space and time.

I am most comfortable as an illustrator and graphic designer; my work is therefore always two-dimensional. It is typically a composite of analogue and digital techniques, starting with a piece in analogue and finishing with typography or colour adjustments onscreen. I tend to avoid working strictly digitally if I can. Working through the unpredictable effects of tools and materials native to traditional printmaking, typography, and illustration—their splatters, smudges, and textures—is an important part of my creative process. The use of visual contrast is a common feature in my work, as I like to use bright colours, luminescent whites, heavy blacks, hard edges, and blocky typography to create impact. I often employ cartoon styles so I can stretch and warp my subjects freely, creating exaggerated expressions, environments, and motion. I work with large canvasses and a painstaking amount of detail to create a sensation of overwhelm in my audiences. Essentially I want my audiences to be halted by the art’s boldness, then to be drawn in, and to become lost in its detail and the figurative substance between the lines. Visually speaking, my work is seldom subtle. It is often dark, and it relies on devices of metaphor, symbolism, satire, and subversive humour to communicate meaning.

framed illustration of the artist's black-and-white illustration, "A Feast for the Eyes"
Figure 1: “A Feast for the Eyes” (© Alexandra Kenefick).

“A Feast for the Eyes”

“A Feast for the Eyes” is a 75cm x 55cm illustration that uses black and white ink with dip pens on 80lb., grey, deckle-edge Strathmore paper. It is a large, confronting piece, rendered in the art style of cartoons from the 1920s and1930s called Rubber Hose.” The name refers to the bendy, tubular limbs of cartoon characters made famous by Disney and Fleischer Studios during the early 20th century, such as Felix the Cat, Betty Boop, and Steamboat Willie (who later became Mickey Mouse). It is a style that draws its inspiration from surrealism and abstraction that, coupled with the characters’ extravagant use of knives, explosives, and poisons to combat their antagonists, tends to evoke humour as much as perturb its audiences.

The piece uses a surreal art style to reflect a surreal theme. Generally speaking, A Feast for the Eyes” reflects the messy ecology that comprises today’s image-hungry consumer culture. I distort it further through speculation. Although this is a broad arena to play in, I have focused on consumer culture’s obsession with the imagery of food—driven as it is by the glamourized visual appeal of food as projected through social media and television. Sometimes called “food porn,” these images of food are made to be so sensually attractive—while disallowing touch, taste, or smell—that they arouse a similar desire and appetite that real food would otherwise elicit. Food porn images are designed to stimulate both literal hunger and a hunger for the things they symbolize or represent, like exoticism, wealth, or possibility. They aim to fuel vicarity while simultaneously stirring audiences with frustration at the inedibility of their subject. I find this a particularly intriguing and unsettling phenomenon. It is an obsession with the material qualities of food… without the material qualities of food.

In his book, In Defence of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, author Michael Pollan echoes this phenomenon with what he calls “The Cooking Paradox.” Here Pollan reflects on what it means for our social fabrics as the practices of cooking and commensality jostle for dominance against the tweet-and-share of digital food. But of course, pixel-food could never realistically replace its material counterpart—could it? What if it did? Musing on this theme for “A Feast for the Eyes,” I speculated what the world might be like if, so engrossed with digital food, we forgot to eat. We forgot to cook. We moved deeper and deeper into a life online and onscreen, and left behind our responsibilities as mortal, physical animals. I had read somewhere about evolutionary theorists speculating on the physiological development of the human body as the internet and its offspring of digital devices became increasingly necessary for our daily existence. Some suggest that the human eye may grow aggressively and adaptat to low and blue light. Others speculate that some of our fingers will atrophy, even as we grow another thumb. Hunchbacks. Crooked necks. Grim, but inspirational stuff. What else might an increasingly online life mean for the human body and its material environment?

I started the work by imagining how a life that prioritizes visual consumption over the literal ingestion of food would transform the human body. The figures you see in the piece therefore bear vague resemblance to human animals in various stages of decay, their bodies adapting to the consumption of sound and pictures instead of macronutrients. Body parts litter the chunk of earth at the base of the image as they melt from their hosts. At the same time, eyes have taken on lives of their own and are featured everywhere, devouring images of food that fuel their growth, but do nothing to sustain the rest of their bodies. While I played liberally with the concept of physical decay, I asked what else would start to decompose, or become forgotten without our desire to cook or eat real food. Would someone remember to feed the dog? Would we invest time or money in kitchens, ovens, or dining tables? Would the responsibilities of the material world recede to the background of our consciousness as we become further engrossed in our virtual realities? In his book, Ready Player One, Ernest Cline does a skilful job imagining such a dystopia where our material world becomes an unliveable place, yet with the right AR headset, virtual reality is an easy and satisfying retreat. Like Cline, I made this piece as a commentary on the impossibility of forsaking the material world for the stuff of dreams: the meat of bodies still decays, the Earth still gets hotter, children still need feeding, and the cracks in the veneer keep expanding while the images become increasingly attractive.

sketchbook with pencil drawing and an artist's pencil and eraser
Figure 2: The artist’s sketchbook (© Alexandra Kenefick).

Creative Process

A notable amount of research went into this piece before I started the art itself, as it is this research that would inform its style, size, medium, and other aesthetic considerations. As I mentioned, the grim speculation borne of imagining human bodies and a life too distracted to want anything to do with material food fuelled my decision to work with the arguably eerie “Rubber Hose” cartoon style.

This was an important aesthetic consideration because, like the innovation of the internet of the late 20th century, cartoons and film had similarly captured the hearts, eyes, and ears of those living during the 1920s and 30s—an important precursor to the distractions of our contemporary digital age. Since Rubber Hose had been traditionally drawn in black and white ink, and was projected in a grainy-grey film style, I chose to use pens, ink, pencils, and grey paper to echo the mood of the style of the era. I wanted a large canvas because I knew there was an endless number of things attached to my theme that could be discussed, but like a silent film, I needed it to speak volumes without any sound. With my research and rationale in place, I spent some time watching old Steamboat Willie and Felix the Cat clips online and gathering a collection of images of cartoon characters from the 1920s and 30s. With these in hand, I started practicing Rubber Hose characters in my sketchbook before I committed to the piece itself.

Once I felt I had a solid grasp of the style, I sourced the paper, inks, and nibs I needed for the piece. Looking to the dimensions of the paper as a guide for the general shape of the whole illustration, I started in my sketchbook with a mechanical pencil and and eraser, sketching large acorn shapes that I would then fill will figures (the overall shape of the illustration is like an inverted acorn). I started by identifying where the focal points of the piece would be. In the centre, I knew I wanted a pair of large eyes to hook the viewer into the composition. At the top would be some kind of explosion to move their gaze upward, at the sides would be rounded and directional lines to assist their gaze around the periphery of the piece, and at the base would be a solid chunk of earth to provide some sense of stability as a foil to an otherwise hallucinogenic scene. I also knew I wanted the piece to feel as though it were continually looping and bending like the limbs of Rubber Hose characters. There were some specific figures I knew I wanted to draw, but most of it unfolded as I drew, responding to the shapes and spaces I made with my pencil. I made the version in my sketchbook exactly as I wanted to see it in its final, larger form.

Next, I had to move the draft on to the large paper canvas. I was in no mood to re-draw the entire composition, so I planned to project it at a larger size in order to trace it on the grey paper. I scanned the page of my sketchbook into my computer, attached the computer to a projector, and shone the image onto one of the walls in my apartment. I then carefully pinned the grey paper—careful not to poke holes in it—onto the wall, and using a pencil, lightly traced the image onto its final destination.

close up of a preliminary inked sketch
Figure 3: Preliminary line art with dip pens (© Alexandra Kenefick).

Once that was finished, I closed the computer and the projector, and moved the paper to a large desk where a handful of dip pen nibs, small acrylic paint brushes, India Ink, and acrylic white ink were waiting. The world of pen nibs is expansive, with each nib suited for a different purpose (graphic design, calligraphy, accounting…). Generally speaking, I gravitate toward using a combination of fine/medium fude and flex nibs in my work, which also held true for this piece. My first step was to outline everything with my nib-equipped dip pen (so called for having to dip it into the ink well), let the ink dry, and then erase the pencil underlay. Fortunately India ink dries almost instantaneously when used in the appropriate amount. Next I would start alternating between different nibs, using black ink, while applying different degrees of pressure on the pen in order to develop the weights of each line. In other words, some lines in the composition are thin, others are thick, and others are a bit of both. This helps to give the composition added dimension, and in some areas, a sense of motion. I tend to work clockwise around the paper to avoid smudging my work.

Once the outlines of all my figures were made appropriately thick and thin, I decided which parts were to be flooded black, and which were destined to be white. The qualities of the two inks were important, particularly the white ink, which needed to have a high level of opacity and a low level of reactivity. Opacity refers to the translucence of the medium, and if too low, will cause streaking on grey paper. Reactivity occurs when two inks react with one another, causing unwanted bleeding or lifting. Sometimes low opacity and higher reactivity are suitable when you’re looking to achieve a watercolour or hazy effect, but this composition needed crisp edges and graphic treatment. For these reasons, the white ink I selected had a slightly higher viscosity than the India ink I was using, which also meant it was not particularly suited to dip pens. At a higher viscosity, it tended the clog the pen, so where I needed white, I used fine acrylic brushes.

I had intentionally chosen a weight of paper designed for printmaking—thick and porous—that was ideal for absorbing large amounts of ink without allowing it to seep through or pool on the surface. Unfortunately, this paper was much thirstier and grainier than I had anticipated, and it pulled at the nibs of my finer-tipped pens causing spatter if I moved too quickly or pressed too hard. Overall, the piece took roughly 60 hours to complete from start to finish.


“Compost Scavengers”

At the base of the illustration is a tetrahedron of earth where bones and body parts litter its surface. Here too you can see worms poking out of the sides, as well as several other animals scavenging around the decay. You might notice that, unlike the human figures in this piece, all of the nonhuman animals in this composition are fully composed and recognizable for their species, rather than in various states of decay. Essentially, unconcerned with virtual reality, the cycle of life and death for other animals continues on, with the materiality of food at its heart. Here we can see such animals taking advantage of human decay to feed themselves and their offspring. Humans may lose sight of how their actions effect their surrounding environment and the entities that inhabit it. They may lose the race for survival in the process. But the rest of the world is likely to keep on spinning.

detail from the finished artwork
Figure 4: Detailed close-up of A Feast for the Eyes, bottom section of image, “Compost Scavengers” (© Alexandra Kenefick).

“The Empty Table”

In the upper left of the image, amid the frenzy of the composition is a remarkably static kitchen table and several empty chairs. Here I question whether our withdrawal from cooking and kitchens leaves the kitchen table increasingly useless and unoccupied. Much has been written on the importance of eating at the table together because much happens in this space. Children learn table manners, culinary knowledge is exchanged, stories are told, bonding occurs, bodies are nourished, and new tastes are experienced among other important events. What does it mean for families, friends, and foes as we start to abandon traditional forms of eating together? Will digital commensality become increasingly important? Will we prefer to eat alone? Will these things cease to matter as they are replaced by new forms of communing?

detail from the finished artwork
Figure 5: Detailed close-up of A Feast for the Eyes, upper left section of image, “The Empty Table” (© Alexandra Kenefick).

“Mother and Child”

On the far left edge of the illustration, near the centre, is a feminine figure holding a baby. The woman’s torso is exposed as if to breastfeed the baby, however both mother and child are distracted by other things, neither focused on each other or the task at hand. Food has always been an important learning tool, and an important means of bonding mothers with their children. As we become more and more distracted by our virtual realities, what do we communicate and teach to our impressionable youth in the process? Is it likely that we will pass down our habits and teach new ones, or will forthcoming generations transcend them?

detail from the finished artwork
Figure 6. Detailed close-up of A Feast for the Eyes, far left centre section of image, “Mother and Child” (© Alexandra Kenefick).



Exercises in Materiality: Food and Ink

The following exercise introduces you to the medium of ink, and working with the materiality of food as a tool for artistic expression and observation. The objective in this exercise is simply to explore and experiment with the tools provided—to play, be curious, and put your imagination in motion. There is no right or wrong way of completing the exercise—everyone will have a different result. Following is a list of the tools you’ll need and several ‘challenges’ to help guide your explorations.

You will need:

  • A variety of papers (e.g., printer paper, construction paper, printmaking paper, vellum, tissue paper, cardboard, card stock, handmade paper, papyrus, notebook paper)
  • A small, open container for ink
  • Black India ink
  • An eyedropper (usually this comes as part of the bottle of India ink)
  • A straw
  • Straight dip pens and an assortment of nibs
  • A variety of small, medium, and large paintbrushes suitable for inks, watercolour, or acrylic
  • A variety of mushrooms, fruits, and vegetables (stems, roots, and leaves are encouraged!)
  • A small kitchen knife for cutting the food
  • A cutting board
  • Newspaper (for covering your workspace and surrounding surfaces to keep them clean)

Challenge #1: Cubism and the Shapes of Food

Select a durable paper to use with your dip pens and India ink. Lay it on your workspace, prepare a variety of nibs for your pen, and pour some India ink into a small container.

Choose three foods, and set them on your workspace in front of you, just beyond your paper. You will be drawing these subjects, so make sure you can see them clearly.

Ready yourself to draw, choose a nib, and outfit your pen. It doesn’t matter what kind of nib—choose whatever seems interesting.

Don’t try to capture the food realistically on paper. Instead, carefully observe your chosen subjects. What basic shapes (circle, triangle, square) do you see? Some foods, like an orange, might be little more than a circle. Others, like pineapples, might be patterned with triangles. Most things are composites of many different shapes. How many can you see in your respective subjects?

Dip your pen into your ink. Be careful not to plunge the whole nib into the inkwell—the ink should come just above the vent (the little hole) in the nib. Give it a tap on the rim of your container to shake off any excess, and draw a circle (or whatever shapes you have noted). As you do, experiment with the pressure on your pen. See if you can achieve a line that changes from thick and thin. Do you see other shapes or details that you could add? Maybe some quick dots to replicate the texture of your food, or another circle or triangle to show where a stem was?

Try drawing the food again with a different nib. Experiment with making your lines thick and thin. How do these adjustments change the aesthetics of your drawing? Does the paper absorb the ink differently? Does the nib keep catching on the paper, or does it glide easily?

Continue observing and drawing the shapes that you see. Don’t worry if your lines overlap and a cluster of grapes becomes a confusing bunch of circles. Remember, you’re not trying to draw grapes. You’re drawing the shapes of the grapes.

Try colouring some shapes solid black and see what kind of composition you create.

Challenge #2: Relief Printing with Food

Choose a mushroom, fruit, or vegetable with a particularly interesting texture. Ready your ink, brushes, and lay several different types of paper on your workspace.

Paint part of your chosen food’s surface with ink using a soft, wide brush. You may choose to cut the food to expose a desired surface. Remember that the ink will cling to a dry surface, but it won’t adhere well to a wet one. Therefore, painting the peels and rinds of foods is often a better choice than painting their insides. Make sure to coat your chosen surface until it is dark with ink, but not dripping.

Using the food like a stamp, gently press the inky surface on to different papers. See how different papers absorb the ink uniquely; some will reveal more detail than others.

Flip it around: Some papers, like tissue paper, are easily draped over objects. Try painting your food with ink again, then pressing the paper onto the food, then peeling it off to reveal the relief.

Try the same procedure with different foods, and stamp to your heart’s content.

Challenge #3: Several Approaches to Making Ink Splatters

Choose a big piece of paper, and pour some ink into your container. This exercise could get messy, so make sure the surfaces around you are protected.

Tapping: Choose a paintbrush and dip it into your ink. Next lift your paint brush about a foot from your canvas, and sharply tap the paintbrush perpendicularly over either your finger or a pencil/pen. The ink will create an enjoyable splatter effect on the canvas below (and maybe your desk). Experiment at different heights to see how this changes the effect.

Blowing: Dip one end of your straw into the ink, then face the inky end at your canvas. Quickly blow through the other end of the straw. This technique sometimes takes a bit of practice.

Dropping: Suck up some ink using the eyedropper and position it about a foot over your canvas. Experiment with the pressure you use to squeeze the eyedropper in order to release the ink inside: a forceful squeeze will generate a greater splatter, whereas a gentle squeeze will result in slow, heavy droplets. Both effects are equally interesting!

Challenge #4: Pick and Mix

Now that you’ve got some interesting techniques and materials to work with, experiment with a composition that uses everything you’ve learned!

mushroom cap covered in ink with prints in the background
Figure 6: Printmaking with portabello mushroom caps.


Cline, E. 2011. Ready Player One. New York: Crown Publishers.

Pollan, M. 2008. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. New York: Penguin Press.

Creative: Poetics and Politics

David Szanto

Poetics and Politics
David Szanto is a teacher, consultant, and artist taking an experimental approach to gastronomy and food systems. Past projects include meal performances about urban foodscapes, immersive sensory installations, and interventions involving food, microbes, humans, and digital technology. David has taught at several universities in Canada and Europe and has written extensively on food, art, and performance.

Hot writing

Sometimes poetry can make a big impact with just a few words. A poet I once worked with called it a “hot” form of writing, meaning that each word has to do a lot—they have to be intense, loaded with meaning, and burn brightly. It also means that the poet has to do a lot, picking words that carry the right amount of heat, and then treating them carefully so that they don’t burn too much.

The first poem below was written when I was thinking about how guilty I feel when I eat an ordinary meal. “Ordinary” means that I don’t go out of my way to buy local or seasonal food, that I do succumb to styrofoam, or that I overconsume and then end up wasting something. Because even though all those things are very important to me and my planet, I. sometimes. just. can’t. The poem’s title evokes my sense of throwing up my hands and saying “oh well, tomorrow I’ll do better.”

The second poem was my attempt to streamline 10,000 years or so of food systems evolution into a quick little ditty. It’s meant to be read with an ironically arched eyebrow, acknowledging that an awful lot of stuff happened in between each of the stanzas. At the same time, when you compress time a bit, you sometimes see new patterns in past events, and then—maybe—imagine new ones for the future.

A lovely dinner nonetheless


Tawny dazzling bird
Spirals lies around my tongue
Battery chicken

Root of celery
French-drenched in creamy nap
Not very local

Shining Granny Smith
Juices glaze the hot browned crumb
Flesh reduced to mush


a vignette of a raw chicken covered in pink paste

The Bio of Diversity


In the beginning
Elemental ev’rything
Primordial ooze

Limiting controlling food

In middle-aged Earth:
Let’s all industrialize!
Variety wanes.

Soy corn rice and wheat
Break them down to molecules—
Rebuilt with branding

Phoenix trussed and cooked
But was it our goose instead?
Blackened bio-d.


a close up of a plate with multi-colored liquids and traces of food


Discussion Questions

  • When is saying less more important (or more effective) than saying more?
  • How can we express complex ideas about food with minimal (or no) language?
  • What food words, to you, are ‘hot’?


Both of the poems above are written following a modified haiku style, a Japanese-heritage form of poetry that is written in three lines (the first with five syllables, the next with seven, and the final with five again). Word play and references to nature are often included, and the third line generally incorporates a twist that is meant to delight or surprise the reader, and make them think differently about the first two lines.

  • Try writing a single haiku, about food, following this model. What is easy about it and what is hard? How did it make you think differently about your subject, and if you read it to someone else, does it make them think the same way? Do they have a different take on it that you did? Why?

You can also write compound haikus, like the ones above, to tell a more complex story or invoke structural patterns like dishes in a meal, the changing seasons and food cycles, or the different holidays you celebrate.

  • Once you’ve had fun with haikus, try a longer form poem. What is different when the length changes?
  • You can also tighten things up by writing a “six-word story,” a form of flash fiction that tells a lot with very little. This means coming up with only the most important combination of words, often without proper grammar or syntax, to telegraph a feeling or a narrative into the reader’s mind. Talk about “hot” writing…

Perspective: Food and Identity

Kate Gardner Burt

Challenging Perceptions of Food Culture and Personal Identity
Kate Gardner Burt, PhD, RDN is an Associate Professor and the Undergraduate Program Director of the Dietetics, Foods, and Nutrition Program at Lehman College, City University of New York. Dr. Burt teaches courses in cultural humility and cultural foodways and in professional practice. Her research aims to reduce racial and ethnic inequities food systems and explore how systemic racial bias and the normativity of whiteness impact the dietetics profession and dietary recommendations.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Use the Dimensions of Personal Identity model to describe how personal identities are shaped.
  • Explain ways in which social norms have an impact on perceptions of food.
  • Examine how different ways of knowing shape food culture.
  • Use self-reflection and critical analysis to examine their own relationship with food and how that relationship effects their personal identity.


What we eat—and don’t eat—is influenced by who we are and where we live. Our individual food choices represent multiple layers of our identities, which are situated within our social and physical environment. What we eat is influenced, for example, by what foods are grown or sold in our geographic regions, by what foods our caregivers served when we were infants, and by the foods our friends and family ate while we were growing up. Our food choices are also influenced by our values, wealth, and social trends. The myriad layers of our own identities give unique meaning to food and, collectively, give rise to food culture. Therefore, understanding food culture requires an analysis of one’s own perspective to explicate personal, community, and societal values, assumptions, norms, and biases. Ultimately, to understand food culture and develop cultural humility—the ability to work effectively with individuals whose identity is different from our own—we must develop self-awareness of our own perspectives as well as an awareness of others’ perspectives.

Our perspectives are a manifestation of our upbringing, informed by our unique personal identities and experiences. Over time, they become a lens that has an impact on the way we view the world. As we grow, so too does our worldview. Our lenses are dynamic—they are shaped and reshaped as we gather information from new sources and understand information in new ways. Each individual’s lens is a synthesis of their multilayered personal identity. Personal identities are simultaneously historic and current; they are rooted in our cultural and familial pasts, but shaped by our personal and present conditions.

Our identities are developed (in part) from various sources of information that we receive consciously and subconsciously. Table 1 provides examples of different types of information received from different sources that shape personal identity.

Table 1: Examples of the type and source of information that shapes personal identity

Information Type Internal Information Sources External Information Sources
implicit assumptions; biases; values; personality traits social norms*; policies; practices; media messaging
explicit choices; conscious thinking familial norms*; news information; research findings
*Social and familial norms may be implicit or explicit categorically, or vary depending on the norm itself (e.g., some norms may be explicit while others may be implicit)

As a result, identity is shaped in ways that we are and are not aware of. We unconsciously integrate information into our worldview—what we think of as ‘the way the world works’. However, everyone’s world works differently depending on their identity. A person living in India during the early 1800s has a different worldview than a person born and raised in 21st-century Peru. When we add layers of identity to those contexts, understanding individuals’ experiences becomes more complex, because identity is intersectional (that is, identities overlap and have an impact on each other). A cis-gendered, straight male, born to a high social caste in Mumbai (then Bombay), India in the 1800s has a different identity than a transgender female born into an Andean farming family in modern-day Peru.

Those individuals’ experiences also differ because they exist in different social, political, geospatial, and historical contexts. The policies, systems, and structures operating in those contexts advantage (or privilege) some identities but not others. In other words, gender identity only matters because societies have, in general, given men more advantages than women. Deeper than that, cis-gendered men and cis-gendered women experience more privilege than their transgender peers. In contrast, other demographic identities, like eye color, face shape, handedness, and height are not used for social policy making, so they are still identities, albeit relatively innocuous ones. Ultimately, identities and the social structures in which an individual lives determine the way their world works and the information they come to know.

Epistemology is the study of knowledge— how we know what we know—and epistemological investigation helps us distinguish beliefs from opinions. As investigators, we try to be objective, but in reality, we are not unbiased observers. What we know—or what we think we know—is subject to interpretation, to our interpretation through the lens of our personal identities. We must therefore understand our personal identities in order to distinguish our perspective and how it has an impact on our perceptions. Since our knowledge of food is based on the ways we come to know things, it is up to each of us to better understand ourselves.

What is “knowing”?

What we know is influenced by our personal identities, and our identities become a lens through which we consume and process information. Information may fall into four categories:

  • Facts are evidence-based verifiable information, built upon objective reasoning and rooted in science.
  • Opinions, or judgements based on facts, are formed in a genuine attempt to draw a conclusion from facts. It is possible to come to different conclusions using the same facts.
  • Beliefs are convictions based on cultural or personal faith, morality, or values. In contrast to opinions, beliefs are not necessarily fact-based.
  • Prejudices are opinions based on insufficient, faulty, or biased information, and can be disproved by facts. Hidden values and assumptions are embedded in prejudices but can be revealed with critical thinking. Bias and stereotypes are forms of prejudice and can be formed consciously or unconsciously.

Information from each of these categories is used to form knowledge. For example, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans are translated to the general public using MyPlate, a visual method of portioning food, promoted as the healthiest way to eat (see Figure 1).

graphic showing USDA's food recommendations with an image of a plate divided into quadrants
Figure 1: United States Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate

MyPlate recommendations are based on all of the aforementioned categories of knowledge:

  • Facts about nutrient composition (e.g., fruits and vegetables contain valuable nutrients).
  • Opinions about how to best translate epidemiological research into practice (e.g., fruits and vegetables should comprise half of one’s intake).
  • Beliefs about what foods should be on the plate (e.g., dairy should be included at every meal).
  • Prejudices in the form of social norms (e.g., using a Euro-centric nine-inch dinner plate is the best way to communicate this information to Americans, who are predominantly white and of European descent).

Critical thinking is therefore necessary to understand nuances leading to a seemingly fact-based conclusion: To be healthy, eat according to MyPlate.

Each way of knowing is important to understand food culture, and it is important to be able to distinguish them. It is also important to understand that each way of knowing informs food culture. For instance, staple foods are usually based on foods that are indigenous to a region (i.e., facts). Using those foods, cultures develop recipes and patterns of eating that produce a pleasant flavor and aroma (i.e., beliefs, based on sense of smell and taste), which result in some benefit (i.e., opinions, based on relationships between food and health or food cookery), and that are rooted in prejudices or biased social stereotypes (i.e., some foods or food practices are condemned while others are valued).

In order to understand the meaning and value of food, it is necessary to understand how we have built knowledge about food and meaning. We must explore our personal identities through intentional self-reflection to understand how values, assumptions, and biases impact and shape our lens and perspective.

How Personal Identity Shapes Knowledge

The Dimensions of Personal Identity model (Figure 2) can be used to see ourselves or others clearly because it breaks down how facets of our identities interact to shape who we are and what we know.

Venn diagram showing overlap among the A, B, and C dimensions of personal identity
Figure 2: Dimensions of Personal Identity

There are three dimensions of personal identity:

  • Dimension A: visible characteristics you are born with or into, making these characteristics “fixed” or unchangeable. They include age, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, culture, language, and social class. These characteristics are the basis for developing assumptions and biases, which can lead to stereotyping and prejudice.
  • Dimension B: characteristics that are not always visible. They include personal attributes such as geographic location, educational attainment, marital status, parental status, employment status, hobbies or personal interests, military experience, and religion. Often, individuals exert some control or choice about characteristics in Dimension B (e.g., military service is not always a choice but it can be in some cases).
  • Dimension C: the historical, social, political, and cultural context that shape individuals and societies. These characteristics shed light on how our individual or cultural experiences differ by revealing norms, assumptions, and values that influence personal identity.

The “choices” defining an individual’s Dimension B attributes depend largely on Dimension C. The “choices” an individual has only exist within a narrow range of possibilities. For instance, women did not not always have the freedom to choose to be employed; having that choice depended on the era during which they lived. In essence, Dimension B represents the “consequences” of the A and C dimensions. The choices individuals make (B Dimension) are influenced by visible characteristics of Dimension A and the historical, political, and sociocultural context of Dimension C.

To better understand how our identities overlap, intersect, and have an impact on how we are perceived and treated by others, guided group activities like the Personal and Social Identity Wheels or self-guided programs like the Supporting Equitable Dietetics Education Self Study can be used. These toolkits are designed to make relationships between identity, power, and marginalization explicit. In essence, they assert that certain identities are more or less visible at times in a social context. These tools can also reveal how the identities that are most important to an individual may not be view as most important by society at large. Ultimately, because identities have an impact on the experiences individuals have, understanding identity is a critical aspect of understanding worldview.

How Personal Identity Shapes Cultural Knowledge

Though the development of our personal identities is unique, many commonalities exist between individuals who share characteristics. Those commonalities, or collective identities, give rise to social groups. Shared collective identity through social groups, group norms, and values become the basis for cultural identity and knowledge. Though many social groups exist, groups with the most social power and status become dominant. (Often, it is the ‘majority’ group, though not always.) Dominant social groups tend to dictate cultural norms, values, and assumptions, which become interwoven into the structure of society. Ultimately, there becomes a collective perspective that dominates and dictates meaning within a culture. Members who identify with the dominant group typically benefit from the dominant group’s policies and practices, while others do not—a condition called privilege. Privilege is important to understanding one’s relative position in society and how others, who don’t identify with a dominant group, may have similar life circumstances but different experiences.

When we examine social identity using this framework, we see how the dominant group dictates norms and practices. For instance, the use of cutlery, chopsticks, or eating with one’s hands differs regionally across the world, depending on the dominant group’s norms and values. Western societies use cutlery because the dominant group is white European and, historically, white Europeans believe that using cutlery is more refined. With this assertion, however, we see the biased, covert ways that social power is maintained: deeming other (non-European) practices as less refined subjugates the people who follow those practices. Understanding collective identity and dominant group norms is thus important to understanding the meaning of food.

Using Perspective to Make Meaning of Food

Critical analysis is used to understand individual and social phenomena. This section includes three questions that serve as examples of how to apply critical thinking to understanding the meaning of food.

1. How have some cuisines become known as ‘ethnic’ and others are known as ‘expensive’?

What the average U.S. adult is willing to pay for a particular food item is not objectively calculated. If it were, the cost of ingredients and labor would directly correlate with the price of food. Instead, the price of food—particularly restaurant food—is based on something entirely subjective.

The amount of money one is willing to pay for food is directly related to the perception of the culture producing that food. ‘Expensive’ food—or food that people are willing to pay a high price for—is generally produced by cultural groups that are highly regarded by U.S. adults. In contrast, ‘ethnic’ food is often attributed to cultures’ whose prestige or reputation is not as well regarded. The dominant group of U.S. adults, who are white and of European descent, have constructed a social hierarchy based on beliefs and prejudices about others.

For instance, Chinese food is often deemed ‘ethnic’, whereas Italian food is considered expensive and elegant. Yet, both cuisines have dishes based on noodles, with a sauce, and chopped or minced ingredients. They are, on paper, very similar. The price difference between the foods is based on how each culture is perceived. Italian immigrants, once targets of discrimination, gained social capital and respect in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In contrast, Chinese immigrants were subject to an overtly racist immigration ban (the Chinese Exclusion Act) and other forms of stereotyping and discrimination. The dominant group of white U.S. adults perceived Italians to be of greater social rank, leading to a willingness to pay more for food that was perceived to be better.

2. What criteria are used to determine if a dish is “authentic”?

Whether or not a recipe or dish is culturally authentic is more commonly determined by consumers than it is by members of the culture the dish represents. Perceived authenticity is subjective and often an oversimplification of complex cultural underpinnings. Some might consider a dish authentic if it is based on indigenous ingredients and prepared in a way that has been done for many generations. Others might consider a dish authentic if it is frequently consumed in a particular place. These limited definitions fail to capture cultural nuances. The exact ingredients used, the preparation method, the proportion of different ingredients all vary across regions and even within neighborhoods.

Dominant group thinking defines what we know as authentic. The social context includes stereotypes and perceptions of other cultures, and it also includes other influences, like food marketing through gastrodiplomacy. Gastrodiplomacy is a coordinated effort by a nation to use food to promote their culture. As a result, gastrodiplomacy campaigns communicate cultural attributes and values. Thailand, for instance, developed a cultural diplomacy program with a marketing strategy that requires overseas restaurants to be open for at least five days per week for a year, accept credit cards, have at least six Thai dishes on the menu, employ Thai chefs with Thai cooking training, and use materials and equipment from Thailand. It is clear that a goal of the Thai gastrodiplomacy program is to ensure that Thai restaurants abroad communicate similarities about Thai food to consumers. Dishes in restaurants represent only a sliver of authentic Thai cuisine: it is the cuisine that trained chefs prepare, whereas many other authentic examples are prepared in private households. There is not one single version of authentic pad Thai, despite what the gastrodiplomacy program communicates.

3. How does the socio-political environment have an impact on our perceived value of foods?

The perception of foods from specific cultures are not free from the dominant group’s economic and political values. The use of food labels, for example, including how or why a particular food is labeled, varies across nations. In the U.S., food labeling about origin is based on capitalistic notions of ownership through the use of trademarks. In other words, the name of a regional food is attributable and reserved only for the trademark owner; it does not indicate quality. Trademarks are restrictive and relatively expensive for small farmers, serving to carve out rights for businesses and restrict the market. An example of a trademarked name is “Idaho Potatoes.” An Idaho grower using a label that indicates that their potatoes are Idaho Potatoes, but who is not certified by the Idaho Potato Commission, may be subject to a lawsuit.

Geographic indication labels, common in Europe, are based on different values and qualities, such as terroir. Terroir is generally understood as the set of local attributes (including soil chemistry, climate, other environmental factors, and human practice) that impart a distinct set of flavors to the food produced in a given region. It is an indicator of quality, taste, and other desirable attributes. A geographic indication label is not owned by any person or entity, and in can be used by anyone in the region to which it applies, provided they follow certain practices and are certified by regulatory agencies.

While consumers may be unaware of what a given label means, the value of a food product may be related to its commodification (for some people) or cultural pride (for others). Clarifying these differences and understanding how such values are embedded in food culture helps us understand the meaning of foods in various contexts and settings.


In order to understand the meaning of food, we need to understand our own lens—our personal, community, and societal values, assumptions, norms, and biases. Understanding that lens through critical analysis can enhance self-awareness and reflectively examine what is embedded in our own meanings of food. Conducting a self-analysis through the Dimensions of Personal Identity Model or other tools can be helpful in developing an understanding of our individual identity and values, how we are each shaped into the people we are, and our relative position in society (e.g., the degree to which we experience privilege or marginalization). It is important to understand our own biases, through critical reflection or implict bias assessments (many of which are freely available online).

Assessing our own identities and biases can help facilitate an understanding of other cultures’ food because it helps differentiate among facts, beliefs, opinions, and prejudices. Understanding others’ food culture from their perspective, rather than our own, not only helps in understanding the meaning of food for others, it makes each person more culturally humble and able to authentically engage in the world.

Discussion Questions

  • Consider the Dimensions of Personal Identity model again. How does your identity shape the meaning of food for you?
  • When a dominant social group dictates what “authentic food” looks like in another culture, what are the potential impacts and on whom? 
  • What is the relationship between cultural humility and empathy? Is either (or are both) required to understand diverse food cultures? 

Additional Resources


Arredondo, P. 2018. “Dimensions of Personal Identity in the Workplace.” Arredondo Advisory Group (blog), November 7, 2018.

Arredondo, P., R. Toporek, S.P. Brown, J. Sanchez, D.C. Locke, J. Sanchez, and H. Stadler. 1996. “Operationalization of the Multicultural Counseling Competencies.” Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development 24, (1): 42–78.

Burt, K.G. 2020. A Primer on Privilege in Dietetics and Nutrition. EatRightProTV: FNCE 2020 Learning Lounge. Chicago, IL: The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Burt, K.G. 2022. “The Whiteness of the Mediterranean Diet: A Historical, Sociopolitical, and Dietary Analysis Using Critical Race Theory.” Journal of Critical Dietetics.

Epistemology.” 2021. In Oxford University Press.

Fowler, H.R., and J.E. Aaron. 2011. The Little, Brown Handbook. 12th ed. Boston: Pearson

Goldsmith, S. 2012. “The Rise of the Fork.” Slate, June 20, 2012.

Hodge, D.R. 2018. “Spiritual Competence: What It Is, Why It Is Necessary, and How to Develop It.” Journal of Ethnic & Cultural Diversity in Social Work 27 (2): 124–39.

Idaho Potato Commission.” Accessed January 25, 2021.

Josling, T. 2006. “The War on Terroir: Geographical Indications as a Transatlantic Trade Conflict.” Journal of Agricultural Economics 57 (3): 337–63.

MyPlate | U.S. Department of Agriculture.” Accessed May 6, 2021.

University of Michigan. 2021 “Personal Identity Wheel – Inclusive Teaching.

Ray, Krishnendu. 2016. The Ethnic Restaurateur. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic.

Rude, Emelyn. 2016. “A Very Brief History of Chinese Food in America.Time Magazine, February 8, 2016.

University of Michigan. 2021. “Social Identity Wheel – Inclusive Teaching.”

Supporting Equitable Dietetics Education Self Study.” 2021. Diversify Dietetics.

Yeager, K.A., and S. Bauer-Wu. 2013. “Cultural Humility: Essential Foundation for Clinical Researchers.” Applied Nursing Research 26 (4): 251–56.

Zhang, J. 2015. “The Foods of the Worlds: Mapping and Comparing Contemporary Gastrodiplomacy Campaigns.” International Journal of Communication 9: 568–91.

Fowler & Aaron 2011.
MyPlate | U.S. Department of Agriculture 2021.
Arredondo et al. 1996; Yeager & Bauer-Wu 2013; Hodge 2018.
Arredondo et al. 1996.
Arredondo 2018.
Personal Identity Wheel – Inclusive Teaching 2021.
Social Identity Wheel – Inclusive Teaching 2021.
Supporting Equitable Dietetics Education Self Study 2021.
Burt 2020; Goldsmith 2012.
Goldsmith 2012.
Ray 2016.
Burt n.d.
Rude 2016.
Zhang 2015.
Josling 2006.
Idaho Potato Commission 2021.

Case: Japanese Food Identity

Maya Hey

Does Eating Natto Make One Japanese?
Maya Hey is a researcher, writer, and educator working at the intersection of food, feminist thought, and fermentation practices. She holds degrees in nutrition, gastronomy, and communication studies alongside work experience that spans farms, markets, kitchens, and chemistry labs.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Name an example of a food identity and explain how one comes to embody it.
  • Compare the internal and external processes of identifying with a food practice.
  • Consider and critique at least one aspect of the (sometimes problematic) relationship between race/ethnicity/culture and authenticity, with regards to food.


Natto is a fermented food made with soybeans. Originating in Japan, it is often served as a topping to rice. Natto is one of the many ways that Japanese food culture preserves soybeans—an important source of protein—through the process of fermentation. Historically, fermenting soybeans ensured that people had access to vital nutrients long after the bean was harvested, producing such products as miso or shoyu (better known as soy sauce in the West). Unlike miso and shoyu, however, natto takes a shorter time to ferment (two to four days versus several months). Part of this difference is due to the fact that natto is fermented with a bacterial species called Bacillus subtilis, whereas the other soy-based ferments tend to use fungi (of the Aspergillus and Rhizopus species). Originally, the bacteria that transform natto came from dried rice stalks when farmers would try to preserve the bean, although nowadays the commonplace nature of natto in Japan means that most of it is mass produced in styrofoam packets.

a diagram showing the transformation of soybeans into natto, miso, and shoyu via different fermentation processes
Figure 1: One bean, fermented three ways. Whereas Japanese ferments like miso and shoyu have become common in the Western larder, natto remains less so, partly because of its texture. As a result, natto is an anomaly worth exploring in further detail. To what extent does natto connote Japanese-ness as a food and, taken further, connote Japanese food identity?
a tied bundle of dried rice stalks placed on a table with natto beans inside
Figure 2: Historically, cooked soybeans would be placed inside bundles of dried rice stalks. The naturally occurring B. subtilis bacteria would transfer from the stalk to the bean and ferment the soybeans into natto.

You might be thinking at this point, why is it that miso and shoyu are fairly internationalized while natto remains less known? Natto is unique in its texture and is often regarded with a mixture of fascination and disgust. On the one hand, natto is hailed as a superfood and probiotic due to its health benefits, helping to combat conditions such as neurodegenerative diseases (e.g., Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s), cardiovascular diseases (e.g., hypertension, stroke), and intestinal distress (e.g., colitis, irritable bowel syndrome). On the other hand, natto looks stringy and has a slippery feel on the tongue, which tends to be a rare experience for eaters (aside from eating vegetables like okra and molokhia). As with other novel experiences, what remains unknown or unfamiliar to the eater may simply be written off as ‘weird’ or ‘suspect’.

What is peculiar about natto is that some folks in Japan do not enjoy its flavor, either. That is, natto is not universally loved by the Japanese people, yet it can be used as one of many yardsticks to measure someone’s Japanese identity. Like many food identities, the repeated acts of consuming a food can bolster a person’s sense of self: I am who I am because I/we eat this food. Or, on a collective scale: We are the people who eat these foods; they are the people who eat those foods. What we eat (or don’t eat) can define who we are, but more than that, the practices we regularly perform with those foods can inform our food identities.

Of course, this is not unique to Japan or to natto. Many foods can define individual values and collective belief systems, whether in vegan diets, Kosher dietary laws, or national dishes. Identities, especially food identities, are not fixed because they are subject to contextual differences that change the ways that food identities are practiced. Food practices, in all places, with all sorts of foods, can both create and undermine identity.

As a person of Japanese heritage, I recognize that eating is part of a whole host of identity performances informing who I am. Of all of the things I eat that connote my Japanese-ness, I am particularly drawn to how natto leverages identity: to what extent does natto connote Japanese-ness as a food or even connote Japanese-ness in food identities? The answers are not straightforward, partly because Japanese-ness is negotiated by a mixture of forces happening at the same time, some culturally rooted, some socially situated, others purely happenstance. I focus on natto because, as a ferment, it emerged out of necessity (i.e., food security), but as a contemporary food choice—and one that isn’t celebrated universally—it is an anomaly worth exploring, to analyze the socio-cultural dynamics that it brings out. These practices include choosing natto (over other foods), preparing it, and consuming it.

Grounded Observation

In this text, I examine the ways in which consuming foods like natto can inform one’s sense of self or subjectivity. Rather than generalize the current state of natto consumption, my approach to this chapter is based on a sample of one, myself. To accomplish this, I use some of the tools used in autoethnography because these methods allow me to study how and why natto gathers meaning on personal and societal scales. By keeping my observations grounded in the specific details that make up my lived experience, I can make claims without committing the error of speaking on behalf of others, or of reducing “natto” or “Japanese-ness” to a set of criteria. Importantly, a subjective approach sees knowledge as always being partial—both in terms of being part of a whole as well as being partial to (or inherently biased towards) something. In this way, my observations are seen as a truth, instead of the universal truth. As many feminist thinkers argue, accounting for this partiality is critical to demonstrate how subjective knowledge is not lesser than objective knowledge, but is rather an attempt to convey (one type of) reality. I also draw on interviews and fieldwork during a multi-sited ethnography of fermented foods in Japan.

imagea bowl of rice with chopsticks holding a cluster of seasoned natto beans
Figure 3: The texture of natto is similar to the slipperiness of cut okra or molokhia. Natto also has a stringiness that increases the more it is handled and stirred.

The Slippery Materiality of Natto

Like many other food cultures, Japan boasts a legacy of fermented foods (besides the aforementioned miso, shoyu, and natto, there are a variety of pickles, sakes, and garums). Thus, fermentation is part of the cultural identity of Japan, making ferments like natto a unique opportunity to study how its preparation and consumption give meaning to the people who handle them.

Think about the fermented foods you might encounter: bread, kimchi, sauerkraut, wine, cheese, and yogurt. Most of these are acidic—as in sourdough bread, sauerkraut, fermented dairy from soured milk—because of the acid-producing bacteria that ferment them. The acid adds complexity in taste while also helping to preserve the fermented ingredient (e.g., most cheeses can last longer than a glass of milk). This is where natto differs, because it undergoes an alkaline fermentation process. Alkaline processes are the opposite of acidic ones, and many proteins and seeds in Asia and Africa are preserved in this manner (e.g., fresh poultry eggs are fermented into pidan, or “century eggs”). In alkaline fermentation, proteins are broken down into units of amino acids. And while this often leads to intense, unctuous flavors (umami), when left to ferment for too long, the broken chain of amino acids produce ammonia and can give off a putrid smell.

So even before one handles natto, the scent of it is already wafting through the air, usually in the form of a bleach-like or pungent odor (similar to old bloomy-rind cheeses, like Brie or Camembert). Some people mitigate the smell by adding other flavors to natto including alliums (e.g., green onions), seasonings (e.g., more shoyu), or other vegetables and herbs (e.g., radish, mitsuba). Others avoid natto entirely.

Another material reality of natto is its stringy texture, which some people characterize as sticky, gooey, and slimy. This stringiness is also an effect of the fermentation process, in which bacteria breakdown the soybeans to produce thin wisps of polyglutamic acid that have the weight and feel of a single strand of cotton candy or a spider’s web. (It is in these strings that the bioactive compound, nattokinase, is located, which is known to improve one’s heart health.) In fact, the act of stirring vigorously encourages the polyglutamic acid to come to room temperature and release glutamates, which help produce the sensation of umami or savory tastes in the human tongue.

Stirring the natto makes it easier to eat as well. Natto often comes in a square styrofoam container, similar in size to a deck of cards. The top opens up like a scanner lid, and on top of the natto beans lies a plastic liner with two sauce packets (one shoyu-based, one mustard). A common ritual for natto eaters like me is to carefully peel back the plastic liner so as not to take any of the beans with it. After adding one or both of the sauce packets, I grab a set of chopsticks in one hand, and with a firm grip, whir my hands around in a circle so that the natto strings start to wrap around itself. Since individual beans might be difficult to grasp with chopsticks, the stirring encourages the natto beans to clump together, making it easier to eat in bite-size portions.

Can You Stomach it? Gauging Authenticity and Foreignness

The mucilaginous texture of natto—and one’s ability to tolerate or enjoy it—grants a person membership inside Japanese culture, or so the belief goes, because it is considered to have a taste and texture that only a Japanese individual could enjoy. Here, I turn to my own experiences of eating natto as a Japanese hafu, a Japanese term used to describe half-Japanese people.

When I was growing up in Japan, I was often asked if I preferred bread or rice for breakfast, which, even in my young age, I knew was an indirect question about whether I identified more as Japanese (native) or Western (foreigner). In the context of late 20th-century modernization, bread at breakfast came to symbolize how Japan engaged with global food practices, and the rest of the Western world. When I would indicate my preference for rice, I would often be met with the follow-up question regarding my thoughts on natto—that is, whether or not I could stomach it. Because I had been eating it since my childhood, I considered it an ordinary rice topping, analogous to butter on bread. The reaction to my response was always one of approval and assurance, as if I had passed an unspoken test.

As I would eat the natto, I would twirl my chopsticks after each bite so as to cut off the stringiness of the natto beans. Seeing this, other Japanese would see this as a sign that I was in-the-know: I knew how to handle natto. To this Japanese audience, eating natto validated my Japanese identity.

How (Japanese) authenticity gets monitored and enforced can have consequences that range from solidarity to sinister gatekeeping, and much of it has to do with how we imagine degrees of cultural or ethnic identity. That I am part Japanese means that my identity fluctuates depending on the context. In Japan, I am often seen for my half-ness, which, by definition, means that I could never be whole or fully Japanese, so I am rendered an outsider—at least until practices like natto-eating grant me an exception. This follows a nationalistic rhetoric of always being ‘not enough’ to be let into a dominant culture, something that many mixed-race and multi-ethnic people experience. In a Western context, however, I am often seen only for my Japanese identity, and called upon to speak on behalf of “my people” as if I were their representative (e.g., “tell us why your people eat that slimy stuff”). This manifests into tokenism, exoticism, or being ‘good enough’ to conveniently use a person’s identity as the whole, usually for questionable purposes like racial profiling or commercial marketing. Context certainly matters, but perhaps more important than what I am in each setting is the fact that I consider my identity to be fluid, depending on place-based context and, to the extent that these places allow, the values that I practice.

These practices include what I eat and how. I enjoy natto both as a nostalgic taste and as a health food, but it is part of a greater constellation of other practices: how I slurp my noodles, how I bring a teacup to my lips, how I begin and end each meal with gratitude—some of which can be coded as ‘Japanese’ practices, some not. Alongside these food practices are others that one can also embody: language, dress, manners, and more. I choose to continue this range of practices because they ground me in a past that I share with my relatives and ancestors. By making a ritual out of these practices, I can continue to uphold these values as long as I carry these practices in my body and pass them on to generations after me.

Conclusion: How Embodiment Informs Food Identities

How we embody a food can define us in both literal and figurative ways. Embodiment refers to the process of incorporating things into one’s body, including foods and their practices. To embody a food means to ingest its molecules, which then become the building blocks of our physical being (e.g., soy proteins, nattokinase). Yet we embody the practices that accompany the food as well, especially as they help form a cultural identity with repetition (e.g., twirling chopsticks to cut off the stringiness of natto). For natto in particular, the materiality requires a different set practices compared to other fermented soybeans like miso and shoyu, slotting natto and its practices as a distinct food and ritual in Japan.

How we embody foods and their practices can lead to a sense of belonging to (or being foreign to) a given food culture. The sense of self that comes with eating natto is sometimes internally defined (e.g., I eat this because it reminds me of my family) or externally imposed (e.g., I won’t eat this because people will think I am different). Given the fact that other food cultures also have alkaline ferments (e.g., cheonggukjang in Korea, thua nao in Thailand, dawa dawa in Nigeria), I wonder to what extent these places also use the embodiment of these foods as part of reinforcing a racial, ethnic, or national identity.

Eating natto may not inherently make one Japanese, not in the sense that it can confer citizenship or fulfill a checklist to becoming Japanese. Instead, natto distinguishes itself as a ferment (even in Japan) such that one’s ability to prepare it, eat it, and enjoy it reinforces its singularity—a uniqueness that can be selectively called upon to include and exclude those who handle it. So whether natto is or isn’t a Japanese food is secondary to the fact that some people use it to make sense of Japanese-ness in an increasingly globalized world.

At the same time, ‘Japanese-ness’ cannot be flattened into one experience—not by natto or any other foodstuff we call Japanese. While I am mostly writing from my own experience in Japan, it is also worth noting how Japanese-American, Japanese-Canadian, and Japanese-Brazilians cannot be collapsed into a singular Japanese category because they neither share the same histories nor were subject to the same political forces around migration, internment, and land ownership. A similar caution goes for nuancing the phrase “of Japanese descent,” in that people who identify as nisei, sansei, and yonsei (terms for second-, third-, and fourth-generation, respectively) experience Japanese-ness differently, usually along the lines of language affordances, cultural adaptations, or lost connections from uprooted homes. Again, identities are not fixed. It is from repeating practices that meaningful identities can form and inform who we are.

Repeatedly practicing the nuanced rituals associated with natto thus make up my layered process of identifying with Japanese food culture. To think that I am who I am because I eat this food works only if we dig deeper into how the Self comes to understand itself. Philosophers call this subjectivity, and it is perpetually shaped and reshaped by how we engage with the world around us as we try to make sense of it. This is why philosophers often write of subjectivity as being produced, because it is an active process of the Self becoming an individual.

To embody something, be it food or an identity, connects the physical with the figurative. Eating ferments like natto is just as much a social and cultural way of being as it is a political encapsulation of embodied difference. Natto can be a slimy food known by its stench and stringiness that prejudice can write off as being unsophisticated or gross, while at the same time, it can be a nostalgic or culture-specific food that eaters celebrate as a kind of belonging. What matters is that these processes are always and already ongoing, affected by and affecting how we make sense of the world around us. And, even as we do so, we are making sense of who we are as we exist in this world.

Discussion Questions 

  • How does embodying certain foods define one’s identity? Name and explain a few examples of the food you embody and the meaning it provides to your identity.
  • Consider the difference between self-identification and external labels in food identity. Who has the ability to define themself? Who decides what is a food identity and how is it enforced?
  • Many foods and identities are essentialized (reduced to a single aspect). What makes this a problematic way of thinking? What would be a more respectful approach to understanding differences in foods/identities?
  • This text relies on aspects of storytelling to present subjective experience. What is the role of personal narrative as the basis for how we come to know what we know?

Additional Resources

Fischler, C. 1988. “Food, Self, and Identity.” Social Science Information 27 (2).

Heldke, L. 2003. Exotic Appetites: Ruminations of a Food Adventurer. New York: Routledge.

Ikebuchi, S., & Ketchell, T. 2020. “It is food that calls us home: A multigenerational auto-ethnography of Japanese Canadian food and culture.” BC Studies, (207), 11–33.

Creative: Food Practices Photo Essay

Lynn M. Walters

Through Their Eyes
Lynn M. Walters, PhD, Licensed Nutritionist (NM), is the founder of Cooking with Kids, Inc., a non-profit organization that educates and empowers children and families to make healthy food choices through hands-on learning with fresh, affordable foods from diverse cultures. She is co-editor of Food as Communication: Communication as Food, author of Cooking at the Natural Cafe in Santa Fe, and co-author of The Cooking with Kids Cookbook. She is interested in how the practices of growing food and cooking can support health equity and encourage positive behavior change at the individual, family, and community levels.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this photo essay, students should be able to:

  • Articulate a number of perspectives perceived by high school students on the influences on their food practices.
  • Identify how food systems can help produce (and threaten) social equity.
  • Describe the use of visual research methods in food studies.

Insights from a New Mexico Classroom on Factors that Influence Food Practices

In light of significant changes in food practices that began in the mid-twentieth century, many of which have led to unhealthy dietary patterns that have contributed to increased prevalence of overweight and correlated chronic diseases, it is important to understand factors that influence the ways young people eat. Increasing understanding about how family, culture, and cooking influence dietary habits can inform health communication and nutrition education interventions, as well as spur public policy strategies that promote healthy eating behavior.

New Mexico is a land of contrasts, with big skies, high mountains, sweeping deserts, and a deep and rich cultural history. Native Americans have lived in New Mexico for thousands of years. The Spanish colonized New Mexico in 1598, but it was not until 1912 that it became the 47th U.S. state. Hispanic/Latinx, Anglo, and Native American cultures are the three major population groups, with the largest percentage per capita of Hispanic/Latinx and the second largest percentage per capita of Native Americans. Hispanic/Latinx in New Mexico are in themselves a diverse group, including those of Spanish heritage, along with Mexican and Central and South American immigrants. It is estimated that about one-third of residents speak Spanish. New Mexico is known for its Native American and Spanish Colonial art, and artists from across the world have long been drawn to the light and landscape. The state also consistently ranks at or near the bottom of the educational and economic ladders in the U.S., and has a high degree of food insecurity.

The foodways of New Mexico reflect the varied geography and climatic conditions of the state, as well as the deep agricultural traditions and cultural diversity of its peoples. Chile, corn, beans, squash, and piñon nuts all originated in the Americas. They are important food crops in New Mexico, and the basis for many traditional dishes. New Mexican cuisine is famous for its chile, grown in New Mexico for at least four hundred years. Chile develops its spicy and sweet flavors in the hot summer fields. The state question, “Red or Green?” refers to red or green chile.

This photo essay is the outcome of qualitative research conducted as a dissertation project at the University of New Mexico. It presents the first-person perspectives and insights of 14 eleventh-grade New Mexico high school students on the influences on their food practices. Students visually documented their food practices for five days, wrote a photo-elicitation essay, compared food memories with daily food practices, and participated in focus groups and follow-up interviews.

CUltural Heritage of FAMILY

Family and culture are inextricably intertwined, and cultural traditions are enacted, preserved, and evolve through family food practices. All of the students in the project expressed strong attachment to and valuing of the cultural culinary heritage of their families. Among students with close ties to Mexico, and those whose families have lived in New Mexico for generations, whether of Spanish and/or Native American heritage, it was more common to find a particularly strong view of the connection between culture and family than among the Anglo student participants.

The following photographs (see Figures 1 to 10) provide a glimpse into cultural practices enacted through family food traditions. The images primarily depict food traditions from Northern New Mexico and Mexico (the cultures of the majority of student participants), and are interspersed with Native American food traditions and others.

What foods do you associate with your family traditions?

close up of a bowl of broth with vegetables
Figure 1: “My mom was making caldo de res… My parents didn’t have money to buy good food like a hamburger, but they could buy potatoes for 10 cents or whatever they could find and they would put it all together.” [Candelaria (FHM)]
a plate of food with tortillas and rice, vegetables, and meat
Figure 2: “This plate means to me family…fajitas with rice, bell peppers, spinach, in a flour tortilla.” [Candelaria (FHM)]
two pots on a stove top with red soup in them
Figure 3: “My mom made this kind of soup, with shrimp, jalapenos… with love.” [Vicente (MHM)]
a pot full of cooking lentils
Figure 4: “Lentejas.” [Candelaria (FHM)]
a person in a kitchen holding a tortilla above a panful of oil
Figure 5: “My mom was frying tortillas…. Since corn tortillas usually break easily, we…dip them in oil and water; olive oil is fine. You just dip ’em in, soak them a little bit, then put them on the pan. They’ll be softer and more flexible.” [Santiago (MHM1)]
a decorated tortilla basket sitting on a table
Figure 6: [Miguel (MHM)]
cooking bread over an outdoor fire
Figure 7: “My family is full of wonderful cooks…. My nana makes the best pies, cakes, and homemade ice cream. My father is the greatest at everything. He doesn’t use measuring cups because he’s that good. He also goes fishing with my uncles, who don’t like to buy fish from the store.” [Shasta (FNA)]

“When I was growing up, my Nana would make a soup from acorn. She would pick acorns, grind them up, and pick the shells out. This process took the longest. Once she had the corn base taken care of, she then would make dumplings. All together the stew would consist of dumplings, “stew meat,” and the acorns. The soup has a very bitter taste. It’s something I had to get used to, just like coffee. Whenever I think of the soup, it reminds me of my Nana.” [Shasta (FNA)]

a hand sprinkling grated cheese over toasted bread
Figure 8: “When Good Friday comes, it brings my mother and I together. I’m always at school and playing sports…. She’s always at work, comes home late, and tired.” [Candelaria (FHM)]
a baking dish filled with capirotada
Figure 9: “Capirotada.” [Candelaria (FHM)]
a dish with two pieces of pan dulce (sweet rolls) and a coffee service
Figure 10: “Pan-dulce is an important part of my Mexican culture. Café de olla is a special blend of coffee with cinnamon and cocoa bean. In my family it is used to spend time with each other, friends, relatives, or to close business agreements with partners. It is not eaten in times of sorrow because of the bright colors.” [Lucas (MHM)]

Gender Roles

Food practices were often gendered in the student narratives. Enactment of traditional gender roles, with women primarily responsible for household food, and men valued as professional chefs or in charge of the grill, was the norm in the majority of students’ families (see Figures 11 to 15).

What role does gender play in who cooks in your family?

a sewn kitchen decoration
Figure 11: [Miguel (MHM)]

“My brother and my dad—they don’t touch the kitchen—they think cooking is too complicated. My dad can’t even warm up a tortilla.” [Candelaria (FHM)]

a person tending an outdoor grill with food on it
Figure 12: “In my culture, Hispanic culture, when there’s people who come over to the house…we usually have…a parrillada… Once you start growing up—12, 13, 14—they teach you how to set up the coal, how to start it up, put the spices on the meat, then…. while the guys do the cooking on the grill…the girls begin the chopping…to make the salsa roja and guacamole.” [Santiago (MHM1)]
an outdoor deep-frying pan filled with hot oil
Figure 13: “We fry the mojarra (fish) and then we cut little triangular tortillas and fry those as well. We put onions, jalapeños, garlic—we fry all that too.” [Vicente (MHM)]
people sitting at a table eating food and drinking Diet Coke
Figure 14: “The tradition is to sit with the entire family and enjoy. The pico de gallo, with the corn tortilla and a cup of Coca-Cola are all essential parts to the meal.” [Vicente (MHM)]
the back of the head of a mature man sitting at a table
Figure 15: “My grandpa always sits in the same spot…. I think of him as the head of the family. I guess he is; he started it.” [Miguel (MHM)]

Where Food Comes From

Congruent with the current food landscape, most students’ families primarily purchased food from grocery stores and restaurants, including fast food outlets. Some also shopped at farmers’ markets and natural grocers. Many of the students expressed an awareness of where food comes from, and that they valued the knowledge and expertise needed to grow food. Farming and/or gardening was part of family and cultural practices for almost half of the students, but it was generally not a major current food source (see Figures 16 to 20).

Do you know where the food came from that you ate for lunch today? 


a tree outdoors in blossom with two evergreens and a low building behind it
Figure 16: [Miguel (MHM)]
an outdoor plant pot with several dessicated plants in it
Figure 17: “[At home] we have peaches, apricots, plums, and tomatoes; and my brother started growing tomatoes and chile with special lights inside.” [Sofia (FHM1)]
a close up of a cow's head and shoulders
Figure 18: “That’s a cow. My family was getting ready to butcher it for a wedding…. My grandfather can slaughter a cow blind.” [Shasta (FNA)]

“I kind of bonded with the cow a little bit and so I was a little sad to see him get

shot in the head….You have to kill it, then you have to clean it, then you have to cut everything up, then you have to dry it so it’s not all bloody. And you have to make sure that the dogs don’t get it. I think I’m a bit traumatized because I wash the organs and I feel their warmth; I can’t bring myself to eat it.” [Shasta (FNA)]

a backyard with small trees with no leaves on them and some garden paraphernalia
Figure 19: “This is the backyard of my grandparents’ house. My grandpa grows chiles. A lot of the trees…they’re dead… I don’t know anything about planting fruits or vegetables.” [Miguel (MHM)]

“My grandpa has three pieces of land (tierras), or we call it in Mexico, el llano. He

grows beans, he grows sorghum for his cattle, and he grows corn. Lately, these past years there hasn’t been much rain in Mexico. He grows a little bit of beans to eat and a little bit to sell.” [Vicente (MHM)]

a blurry close-up of some sunflower seeds
Figure 20: “Peace time—sunny and warm outside, when my mom has just finished watering the garden. After cleaning the patio is the time to rest on the front porch, drinking Coca-Cola and eating sunflower seeds. We are having a nice family conversation about our future…thinking back on my and my parents’ childhoods—the smell of wet dirt out in the breeze.” [Sofia (FHM1)]

Friction Between Cultural Traditions and Daily Food Practices

Most of the students articulated their awareness of the friction between traditional and daily food practices. Although all of the students were cognizant of this issue, the Hispanic/Latinx and Native American students described these contradictions most vividly (see Figures 21 and 22).

How do you decide what to eat each day?

“Today’s food revolves around convenience, where food as a child was always something that we could all take our time with.” [(Franco (MHN)] “At home my parents [are the influence] because they cook…[if] we don’t like the food in the cafeteria, what should we eat? McDonalds or this place or that place.” [Santiago (MHM1)]

people sitting at table outdoors eating snacks
Figure 21: [Emily (FA)]
a person sitting in the drivers seat of a car with one hand on the steering wheel and the other holding food
Figure 22: [David (MHN)]

Commercial Influence

Commercial influence, especially the rise of corporate control of the global food system, has been cited as a central cause of overweight and correlated chronic disease (see Figures 23 to 27).

Many traditional dishes include beans, grains, meats, and vegetables, all of which contain vital nutrients that contribute to a healthy diet. Where do you think messages come from that imply that traditional foods are not healthy?

outdoor photograph of an IHOP (International House of Pancakes) and a Days Inn hotel in the background
Figure 23: [Santiago (MHM1)]
a close up of a back of Flamin' Hot Crunchy Cheetos
Figure 24: [Emily (FA)]
a close up of a bowl full of multi-colored cereal with milk and a spon
Figure 25: [Emily (FA)]
a table strewn with the leftovers and packaging of a fast food meal
Figure 26: [Arturo (MHM1)]

“At my friends’ house I could resort to eating junk.” [John (MA)] “When I’m with my friends we’re usually more tempted to go out and get something… When you cook you have to wash dishes.” [Shasta (FNA)]

close up of dishes sitting in a drying rack
Figure 27: [Miguel (MHM)]

Food Security/Food Insecurity and Sharing

Hunger and food insecurity are prevalent in the lives of many students in New Mexico. When several students candidly discussed the lack of food access that their families faced, none of the other students appeared surprised. Despite this, sharing food with extended family and neighbors is a common practice (see Figures 28 to 30).

 Have you or your friends or family ever gone to bed hungry?

a panful of food sitting on a grill over an outdoor fire
Figure 28: “A community will come together and make sure that their families are fed—and make sacrifices. ’Cause it’s really hard to cook at an open fire. Elders do it for family. Cooking is…getting the ingredients and then cooking it, whether it’s a vigorous process or putting something in the microwave.” [Shasta (FNA)]
a close up of a spoon in a pan full of sautéed pieces of chicken and seasonings
Figure 29: “After everything has been served, it was a little bit of leftovers that my mom had in one of the pots where we made the chicken fajitas. We don’t throw food away, ’cause we think it’s not right.” [Candelaria (FHM)]
a person standing in the distance behind a low metal fence
Figure 30: “My grandma would make a dish for them and send it every day.” [Miguel (MHM)]

Several students reported that sometimes there was limited food available. John (MA) explained, “Our food stamps were shut down the past month, and so I have just been eating…less and less; school lunch has been my main meal. We had some dried beans, but I didn’t want to bother with [them]. I have been eating very little, but it seems like I always have enough to eat to get by.” Isabella (FHM) said, “Obviously we’re not broke because we still have our house, but it’s like the deadline of our budget, and she [mom] says, ‘We’re having ramen tonight.’ That’s when you know we’re at our limit.”

Food Practices and Health

Although multiple factors have an impact on a healthy diet—food access, food preferences, and culture—several students observed that cooking was a way to control the cost and quality of the food that they ate. In a world in which prepared and packaged foods are available on most street corners, food selection and cooking skills support healthy food practices (see Figures 31 to 33).

What does “healthy food” mean to you?

“I wanted to play basketball and I had to have a physical, and they told me that I was pre-diabetic…and my family had to change everything from what I was drinking to what I was eating. We used to have a lot of junk food…sweet bread and chips. Besides being a lot healthier, I feel much better, my self-esteem. I was 230 pounds and I was only 12. It was like a life-changing experience.” [Candelaria (FHM)]

a bowlful of pineapple pieces witha bottle of Trechas Spicy Powder seasoning
Figure 31: “My grandma on my mom’s side has diabetes. My mom decided she was going to grow old soon and didn’t want to be like that. We all feel more energized, more awake. It’s kind of weird like the whole diet at my house changed completely.” [Lucas (MHM)]
a pot full of asparagus
Figure 32: [Emily (FA)]
a pair of hands holding a peeled orange
Figure 33: “My friend holding an orange—she peeled it in one giant peel. I guess I’m not that healthy—’cause I was at her house and I don’t eat fruits and things like that.” [David (MHN)]

Cooking as a Life Skill

Cooking may range from making toast to creating a four-course meal. Most of the cooking reported by students during the project was relatively simple, with the exception of the traditional dishes that students photographed and described. If one has basic foods, a sharp knife, a few pots and pans, running water, and a heat source, much is possible (see Figures 34 to 43).

How do you define “cooking”?

“We make soups…stuff that you can make fast. Since we’re going to be college students, being able to make something with ease is important.” [(Franco (MHN)] “My friends—everyone can cook a little bit. It’s just a basic need. ’Cause if you can’t cook, what are your options? Eat out—and that takes a lot of money. It’s a life skill.” [David (MHN)]

left: a sandwich, chips, and a drink between two seats of a car; right; a burrito sitting on a person's leg in a car
Figures 34/35: “I am required to eat something fast and convenient… I made the burrito.” [Franco (MHN)]

left: whole unpeeled potatoes; center: cut-up potatoes in a colander; right: cooked potatoes on a plastic plate

a young person slicing a potato on a plate

a young person cracking an egg into a bowl in a kitchen

people sitting a table eating a home-cooked breakfast
Figures 36-41: “These photos show a family working together to make a meal, me and my sisters… It’s not frozen food that’s heated up. We actually cooked breakfast…. “[When you cook] you appreciate the meal a lot more, the time and effort you put into it. I guess that’s where the phrase, cooking with love, comes from.” [John (MA)]
close up of bacon in a frying pan
Figure 42: [Shasta (FNA)]

“I go shopping and try to make a lot of it and freeze it and warm it up for the rest of the week ‘cause I don’t have time to be cooking every night. So I have just been making soup ‘cause it’s easy and fast—chicken soup, chicken curry, beef curry.” [Shasta (FNA)]

a fried egg in a frying pan on a stove
Figure 43: [David (MHN)]

“When I go to college next year, I don’t want to be shopping at McDonalds. I want to buy my own food and cook it.” [Lucas (MHM)]

Honoring Family and Cultural Traditions

Many of the students expressed respect for the food practices of their elders, as well as the desire to preserve their cultural and family heritages by learning how to cook and share traditional foods (see Figures 44 to 47).

How do you think that you will continue your family and cultural food traditions?

people standing around an outdoor table with many plate of food on it
Figure 44: “Tradition is that we cook together, eat together, and clean up together.” [Shasta (FNA)]

Vicente (MHM) observed, “It’s not the caldo de res, the pico de gallo, the corn tortillas, the rice or the seasoning—it’s the presence of the people around you that really make the dish worth the time.” Candelaria (FHM) concurred, “We are united because we continue our traditions…. I plan to share these traditions with other people and my own children in the future.”

a single piece of chocolate cake sitting on a cake plate
Figure 45: [Arturo (MHM1)]
close up of daffodils in the process of drying out
Figure 46: [Arturo (MHM1)]
smile on the face of a boy with a table full of brightly colored toys
Figure 47: [Miguel (MHM)]
Thank you to the students who generously shared their stories!

Discussion Questions

  • How might increased access to a variety of foods, including fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, exert positive pressure to enact healthy food practices?
  • How might cooking skills increase food access and counterbalance commercial practices of culinary imperialism?
  • How have processed foods changed cooking and eating patterns?
  • What role do you think that gender plays in who cooks? How has this changed (or not) over the past 100 years?
  • What is healthy food? What is good food?


Bartis, P. 2002. Folklife and fieldwork: An introduction to field techniques. Library of Congress.

Collier Jr., J. & Collier, M. 1986. Visual anthropology: Photography as a Research method. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Collier, M., Hegde, R., Lee, W. Nakayama, T., Yep, G. 2001. “Dialogue on the Edges: Ferment in communication and culture.” In M. Collier (Ed.) International and Intercultural Communication Annual: Transforming communication about culture: Critical new directions, 24: 219–234. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

FAO. 2006. Food Security (Policy Brief No. 2).

Healthy People 2020.

International Food Policy Institute (IFPRI).

Mak, T.N., Prynne, C.J., Cole, D., Fitt, E., Bates, B., Stephen, A.M. 2013.”Patterns of sociodemographic and food practice characteristics in relation to fruit and vegetable consumption in children: results from the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey Rolling Programme (2008–2010).” Public Health Nutrition 16(11): 1912–23.

McGee, H. 1984. On Food and Cooking. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons,.

Rasmussen, K. 2004. “Places for children—Children’s places.” Childhood, 11(2): 155–173.

Walters, L.M. 2015. “Through their own eyes: Exploring New Mexico high school students’ perceptions of the influences on their food practices.

The study was reviewed and approved by the Institutional Review Board at the University of New Mexico. Written active or passive informed consent was obtained from all study participants and/or their parents, as required.
Students’ photographs and quotations are identified by pseudonyms, along with demographic descriptors: F/M (female/male); HN (Hispanic/Latinx from New Mexico); HM (Hispanic/Latinx of Mexican descent); M1 (first generation Mexican immigrant); NA (Native American); A (Anglo).
Walters, Lynn. 2015. “Through Their Own Eyes: Exploring New Mexico High School Students’ Perceptions of the Influences on Their Food Practices.” Communication ETDs, May.

Case: 'Reading' Menus

L. Sasha Gora

Today’s Special: Reading Menus as Cultural Texts
L. Sasha Gora is a cultural historian and writer with a focus on food and contemporary art. She is an environmental humanities research fellow at the Center for the Humanities and Social Change at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, where she is researching culinary reactions to climate change. In 2020, she received a PhD from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and the Rachel Carson Center on the subject of Indigenous restaurants in Canada.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Analyze restaurant menus as cultural artifacts.
  • Identify how menus represent culinary points of view and reveal cultural norms.
  • Recognize the assumptions and expectations associated with restaurant menus.


“The dirty comes with bacon and sausages,” the tall chef explained. “And the clean is vegetarian—with hummus and salad.” It was my first day as a weekend cook and he was walking me through the basics: “The Dirty Brunch” and “The Clean Brunch.” I was the only woman in the kitchen, probably because my name had led him to believe otherwise. In addition to learning how to season potatoes and when to flip pancakes, I was taught that men tend to order “the dirty” and women “the clean.” This begins to reveal the assumptions behind the names of dishes on even the shortest of menus.

A restaurant menu is about a lot more than food. Menus reveal more than the daily specials and how much a burger costs. Like other forms of print media, they are narrative devices. Menus tell stories. They taxonomize plants and animals as edible. They represent a restaurant’s owners and cooks, its neighbourhood and region. They tell tales about class and race, about wealth and value, about immigration and identity, about culture and society. Menus “set forth our culinary options,” writes sociologist Priscilla Ferguson, and they “evoke the meals that express food as a distinctive attribute of a given social order.” They are also archives. Menus document historic foodways—from lost ingredients to forgotten dishes—and transformations in taste. They are memories of appetites past. This makes them rich primary sources, and so a menu analysis is a compelling research method for food studies.

A Seat at the Table

To study a menu, one must first consider its history. As historian Paul Freedman makes clear, even though many of us take restaurants for granted, “most prosperous, commercial societies in the past managed quite well without them.” From taverns and inns to market stalls and cookshops, eating out has taken a myriad of forms, but the term restaurant emerged in Paris around the 1760s. The first restaurants—also called a “restaurateur’s room”—shared their name with the dish they served: consommé, a healthful soup. Offerings expanded and the restaurant developed a particular protocol: a printed menu announced dishes, tables were separate instead of shared, and diners no longer had to eat at a single time. From at least the 1770s, Paris restaurants advertised their culinary options with a menu—or carte. Before this, a menu listed what was served as opposed to options from which to choose. These new menus granted diners the ability to order a meal of their own.

The first menus featured printed folio text enclosed by leather borders or wooden frames. The text was tiny, packed, and, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, resembled a newspaper. But styles changed, keeping pace with other literary productions and, by mid-century, because of their looks, menus now resembled novels. Although the text was French, it spoke a dialect of its own, requiring what historian Rebecca Spang calls menu literacy.

Restaurants straddle both public and private space. Historically, many have also upheld (or challenged) racial, gender, and socioeconomic segregation, policing who can dine where and with whom. Writing about nineteenth century Boston, for example, historian Kelly Erby acknowledges this exclusivity, clarifying that “not every restaurant welcomed women, African Americans, or immigrants.” The model of the restaurant as an exclusive dining venue, serving French food prepared largely by male European chefs, carried on into the first decades of the 20th century in North America. Then the rise of middle-class restaurants transformed dining out into a more egalitarian practice. Ever since, many different types of restaurants have continued to open, as well as close—from Cecilia Chang’s the Mandarin (which in 1961 introduced San Francisco to northern rather than southern Chinese fare) to Harlem’s soul food icon, Sylvia’s Restaurant (opened in 1962 and still running), and from Mother Courage, New York City’s first feminist restaurant (which opened in 1972) to the Eureka Continuum, Toronto’s first Indigenous restaurant (opened in 2000).

But a restaurant is not a restaurant is not a restaurant. Some eateries bear the burden of wearing the label “ethnic”—by which the cuisines of some cultures are naturalized, while others are exoticized. What makes a restaurant “ethnic”? Even though everyone has an ethnicity, the dominant culture never wears this label, which makes “ethnic” a relational marker and a politically charged label. This demonstrates how eating habits distinguish one culture from another. Food erects borders, constructs difference, and administers value. It is central for making and negotiating identity. Menus trace these negotiations.

How to Speak Menu

With this history in mind, how can you look beyond your own appetite in order to read menus as cultural texts? What stories does a menu tell about the cuisine it seeks to represent? What language does it use and what knowledge does it assume? Menus frame the relationships between chefs, servers, and diners. By setting forth options one can choose from, they establish expectations, holding the kitchen accountable to what the menu describes. This makes them contracts of sorts: printed agreements by which customers pay a fixed price for a dish the menu lists. Although a menu “textualizes the food,” as Lily Cho points out, there is a gap between the food itself and its textual representation. Nonetheless, menus use visuals and text to represent what a kitchen sells and serves. They are also ambassadors about larger cultural beliefs that expand beyond a single restaurant. For example, one menu might list dishes to share, which encourages eating out as a collective experience, and another might only have individual dishes, which reflects (especially at lunch time) a busy person’s need to grab something on the go. One might offer some types of meat, like beef, but not other types, like seal. And like showing the option of a “Dirty” or a “Clean” brunch, menus can connect to gendered assumptions about appetites. All of these examples reveal how the food on offer relates to larger societal norms, who eats what, with whom, when, where, how, and who is expected to pay.

It is how menus represent choice (or the lack thereof) that makes them fascinating narrative devices and objects of study. A menu is an inventory of options and a timetable scheduling when a dish appears. Does a menu adhere to the appetizer/main/dessert regimen? Or does it abolish a hierarchy between dishes? How does this keep to—or challenge—a culture’s culinary norms? Menus can work with or against time. They can shadow the seasons by serving asparagus in spring, an increasingly common practice sparked by Slow Food and the locavore movement. They can equally can also challenge the seasons, however, serving the same dishes come rain or shine.

To analyze a menu is to reframe how we look at everyday things, learning to approach them as cultural artifacts that represent specific times and places. A good place to start is with names. “The process of designing a restaurant,” writes sociologist Krishnendu Ray, “can begin with the mere act of naming it.” Names like Sylvia’s, for example, identify the restaurant with a single person, making it a more intimate affair.

Language is important. What language(s) does the menu use? Does it assume the knowledge of any specific terms? What does this knowledge reveal about the diner the menu targets? Le Pavilion, New York City’s seminal French restaurant from 1941 to 1966, presented diners with a menu in French, listing the likes of “Coeur de Céleris au Buerre” and “Germiny aux Pailettes Dorées.” This is an example of the cultural capital required to eat at an upscale restaurant at the time. Such a menu expected diners to be both fluent in French as well as in its cuisine’s cooking techniques. Based on language, can you determine if a menu speaks to a working-, middle- or owning-class clientele? The very first menus were long, but styles have since changed. For high-end restaurants it was once fashionable to display a range of options while today, many, including Copenhagen’s NOMA, present a single menu for all.

Sociologists Wynne Wright and Elizabeth Ransom demonstrate how to connect reading menus in relation to social class. Understanding food “as a source of conspicuous consumption for the wealthy” (referring to Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class) and a means “for the socially mobile to acquire and display cultural capital” (referring to Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction), Wright and Ransom share restaurant menus in relation to class and examine how these menus code economic and social value. Moving beyond a focus on class alone, a menu analysis should employ an intersectional and cultural approach. After all, a tidy division between ethnicity, race, class, and gender is not possible. A menu analysis should zoom both in and out, and ask broader questions about how a menu represents a specific form of eating—a cuisine—and who it includes and excludes. Like the word ethnic, authentic is a loaded term. Setting it aside, what can you read on a menu that reveals how a restaurant communicates cultural beliefs, norms, and negotiations between majority and minority cultures?

A Menu of One’s Own

What do these questions look like in action? For the course, “California Cooking: How the Golden State Changed the Way America Eats,” students analyzed menus from either restaurants in California or ones elsewhere that market themselves as Californian. One looked at the politics of prices at In-N-Out Burger. Another addressed how a Mexican restaurant’s bilingual menu—which includes dishes with names like “A Taste of History”—represents one family’s experience of migration, as well as pressure to assimilate and Americanize. Another considered the menu of the Los Angeles outpost of a Tokyo-based ramen restaurant, and how the same practice in one culture—printing photographs—can carry different associations in another (cheap in a North American context but not so in Japan).

In a class about African American foodways, students selected menus from restaurants that serve Southern or soul food. One looked at a 1949 menu from a theater café, outlining the relationship between eating and entertaining, and, for African Americans, the “chitlin circuit.” Studying both historic and contemporary menus, and showing how they are artifacts representing the history of the Great Migration and eating as a means to go back “home,” several students wrote about Sylvia’s, zooming in on the relationship between food, community, and memory.

In a course surveying the global history of American food, students mapped how restaurants around the world construct and represent American culinary cultures. Many confronted clichés in order to think critically about the nation state, soft power, and cultural capital. One, for example, looked at the American chain TGI Fridays in Ecuador, focusing on the prevalence of meat in tandem with transformations in social class. The larger the middle class, the bigger the appetite for meat. Writing about an Istanbul restaurant that peddles Southern American food, another student considered the politics of naming dishes—from “fusion” to “Tex-Mex.” Citing historian Donna Gabaccia’s claim about the “American penchant to experiment with foods, to combine and mix the foods of many cultural traditions into blended gumbos or stews and to create ‘smorgasbords’,” the essay ended by arguing that this restaurant might also one day include dishes of Turkish origins. One student looked at an American diner in Munich, Germany, and its use of English, an example of a menu that requires particular linguistic or culinary knowledge, just like New York City’s Le Pavilion once did.

Conclusion: The Last Course

It is a challenge to not read menus too literally. Instead, a menu analysis requires both micro and macro thinking—to read between the lines, to read images and design. Restaurants mirror the ebbs and flows of social and political transformations. To follow suit, a menu analysis needs to move beyond a summary of dishes and ask: Why these dishes now? Why call bacon and sausages “dirty” and hummus and salad “clean”? By doing a close reading of a menu, you can learn about restaurant politics—from which animals and plants end up on plates to the construction of ethnicity and how eating salty before sweet fits into culturally specific social orders. To analyze a menu is, therefore, to analyze the culture and society that produces it.

Discussion Questions

  • How does analyzing a restaurant menu as a primary source influence your understanding of what a menu is and does?
  • Beyond menus, what are some other primary sources related to restaurants?
  • What similarities and differences do you see between restaurant menus and other forms of culinary literature, like cookbooks?


To analyze a menu it is not necessary to have visited the restaurant or to have eaten its food. Instead, one can do a close reading of a menu—its text, design, and images, or lack thereof—in a manner than is similar to studying other forms of print culture.

Here are some questions to ask.

  • What is context of the menu? Is the menu contemporary or historic?
  • How does the menu represent a particular cuisine? How inclusive is this representation? Does it take a regional or national approach? Does it stick to the country’s culinary clichés or does it include any unexpected dishes? Are there any obvious omissions? Does it try to ‘localize’ any dishes from elsewhere?
  • Is the menu coherent or eclectic? Do any of the dishes stick out?
  • How prominent is meat?
  • What role does language play? What knowledge is assumed (of foreign words, ingredients, or particular culinary techniques)?
  • Does the menu include photographs or illustrations? If so, how do these images relate to the food? Do the images represent particular dishes, or are they more inspirational or atmospheric?
  • Does the menu reflect a particular season? Or is this food ‘seasonless’?
  • How does the menu relate to the restaurant’s geography? Does it list producers? Does it mention, for example, what kind of meat it uses, or the names of farmers?
  • What role do prices play? Is there a range that might influence what a customer might order?
  • How do the drinks complement (or clash with) the rest of the menu?
  • What kind of customer does the menu target?

Additional Resources

More and more libraries are sharing their menu holdings online. For example, in the United States, the New York Public Library has an extensive digital collection of historic restaurant menus. The Conrad N. Hilton Library at the Culinary Institute of America has over 4,000 historical menus, including international ones. The University of Washington also has a digital menu collection, as does the Los Angeles Public Library. Although not yet available online, McGill Library has an extensive collection.


Bourdieu, P. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cho, L. 2010. Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small Town Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Erby, K. 2016.Restaurant Republic: The Rise of Public Dining in Boston. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Ferguson, P. 2005. “Eating Orders: Markets, Menus, and Meals.” The Journal of Modern History 77: 679-700.

Freedman, P. 2016. Ten Restaurants That Changed America. New York: Liveright.

Gabaccia, D.R. 200. We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Opie, F.D. 2008. Hog & Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America. New York: Columbia University Press.

Padoongpatt, T.M. 2011. “Too Hot to Handle: Food, Empire, and Race in Thai Los Angeles.” Radical History Review 110: 83-108.

Rawson, K. and E. Shore. 2019. Dining Out: A Global History of Restaurants. London: Reaktion Books.

Ray, K. 2014. “Taste, Toil and Ethnicity: Immigrant Restaurateur and the American City.” Ethnologie française 44 (1): 105-114.

Ray, L. 2016. The Ethnic Restaurateur. London and New York: Bloomsbury.

Spang, L.R. 2000. The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture. Cambridge, MA, and London, UK: Harvard University Press.

Veblen, T. 1912 [1899]. Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Macmillan.

Wright, W. and E. Ransom. 2005. “Stratification on the Menu: Using Restaurant Menus to Examine Social Class.” Teaching Sociology 33 (3): 310-316.

Ferguson 2005, 689.
Freedman 2016, xxxix.
Spang 2000, 173. For earlier examples, like Pompei’s street food and imperial China’s dining options, see Rawson and Shore, 2019.
Ibid., 186.
Erby 2016, xix.
For “ethnic food” see Padoongpatt 2011 and Ray 2014.
Cho 2010, 52.
Ray 2014, 107.
Wright and Ransom 2005, 310–11.
For the history of the “chitlin’ circuit”—American music venues where African Americans could perform during the period of racial segregation—see Opie 2008.
Gabaccia 2000, 3.

Creative: Tasting 'Authenticity'

Annika Walsh and fin-xuan lee

You See Through ‘Authenticity’
Annika Walsh is a transdisciplinary artist who was born in Chuzhou, China and adopted at 11 months of age by her family in Canada. She works with a variety of ingredients, materials, and collaborators to form her conceptual pieces. Her practice ranges from exploration of cultural identity to participatory food performances, and everything in between. Striving to blur the lines and push the boundaries, Annika makes a habit of traversing many disciplines, including sculptural installation, performance, and media.

fin-xuan lee is a non-binary queer artist and second-generation settler who explores autobiographical foundations as relational tools, ones that may contribute to various creative expressions and that approach healing and acknowledgement processes. They are currently practicing on unceded, unsurrendered Algonquin, Anishinabek territory. They persist through reflecting and working with experiences that may offer growth, learning, and sharing. They are interested in art and art histories because they are inspired to facilitate engagements within various communities.

You See Through ‘Authenticity’ (Sept. – Dec. 2021)

Artists’ Statement

As two Asian-Canadian artists, we are both interested in using rice paper in our work to explore and share personal histories, experiences of oppression, and empowerment. Our collaboration aims to raise questions surrounding these specific themes and materials.

Through collaboration and community focused installations, we invite viewers to confront their assumptions and, ultimately, the dominant narratives and ideologies that uphold harmful attitudes towards non-white individuals. As a material, rice paper echoes the flexibility and malleable forms that can translate into ideas of diversity beyond stereotypical perspectives.

This installation is a participatory extension of our first performance that took place in October 2021. In the performance, viewers were able to see ingredients being rolled up by us and were encouraged to reflect on their impulsive responses to what they were seeing. This process of observing and visually digesting mirrors the act of the automatic authenticity assessment that occurs when viewing individuals. By bringing in different ingredients—some food, some non-food, such as hair, testosterone, make-up—we hoped to disrupt normative assumptions, filling the rice paper with ingredients and decisions of our own making rather than performing a prescribed form of cultural authenticity. This installation includes video documentation of our hands during the performance, as well as an interactive rolling station where participants are invited to roll their own authentic rolls and display them on a silver plate upon a tall plinth. The plate stacked with transparent rolls exhibits self-expressed authenticity within a community.

One or more interactive elements has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view them online here:

Images from the installation, You See Through ‘Authenticity’

Case: Food in Sāmoa

Garrett Hillyer

‘Back To The Future’ for SAmoan Food
Garrett Hillyer is a doctoral candidate in Pacific Islands history and a Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellow in Samoan language at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. His dissertation takes an ethnographic historical approach to Samoan food, exploring the role of food within the Faʻasāmoa, or Samoan way of life, and how food shapes and is shaped by the Faʻasāmoa over time.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Identify common contemporary dietary crises in Samoa and draw connections to food history in the region.
  • Articulate the central role of food in Samoan culture (and other Indigenous Oceanian cultures, more broadly).
  • Describe the complications of looking to food pasts to solve food problems in the present.


Like many island nations and territories in Oceania, the two polities of Sāmoa (the Independent State of Sāmoa and the U.S. territory of American Samoa) are undergoing a serious health crisis. Problematic conditions linked to dietary habits are resulting in increased hospitalizations, surgeries, and even deaths. These conditions include type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and obesity, among others.

map of the Sāmoan archipelago
Figure 1: The Samoan archipelago, with the Independent State of Sāmoa (or simply ‘Sāmoa’) to the west and American Sāmoa to the east. Map reproduced with the permission of CartoGIS Services, Scholarly Information Services, The Australian National University.

During my time conducting food research throughout the archipelago, which included years of participant observation, I noticed that imported processed foods were heavily featured in contemporary daily diets. While living with a host family on the island of Manono in the Independent State of Sāmoa, not a day went by that we didn’t eat hot dogs, instant ramen, white bread, or canned corned beef, which were generally accompanied by soda or other sugary drinks and juices. We also frequently ate ancestral foods, or foods produced, procured, and eaten long before outsider arrival in Sāmoa. These included foods like baked taro, breadfruit, and yams, or starchy varieties of bananas stewed in coconut cream, along with locally caught fish or locally raised chickens and pigs, and sometimes served with a glass of vai tīpolo, which is a juice derived from a local citrus fruit.

three photos of different meals eaten by the author in Sāmoa
Figure 2: Three Samoan meals during my time in Manono. [L-R] Breakfast of pancakes, koko alaisa (cocoa rice, or rice cooked with cocoa), and instant ramen; lunch of baked taro, fried chicken, fried turkey tails, and stewed chicken with bok choy; dinner of McDonald’s hamburgers, chicken nuggets, and French fries. (photo: author)

In either case, when we ate, we ate a lot. My host family was culturally obligated to take care of me, as a guest in their home, and this primarily centered on providing me with ample amounts of food. I once remarked to a friend in my village that I could barely finish my daily meals, to which he replied, “Good. That means your family is taking care of you.” As a Samoan, he knew that my host family would be highly regarded by their neighbors for their ability to host and to provide. Even without guests in the home, though, Samoan families still tend to eat large meals for similar reasons, because providing for one’s children or parents is also a sign of familial respect, care, and love. This provision primarily comes in the form of food. Ensuring that one’s family has plenty to eat is an assurance that one is of service and utility to their family, and therefore in keeping with the Faʻasāmoa—the Samoan way of life.

Though my research was more concerned with charting changes over time in Samoan foodways than with contemporary dietary disease, the issue of health and wellness constantly came up when discussing my work with others. Whether talking with Samoan scholars at different universities and archival centers, or with my host family or my friends in the village, I tended to hear the same sentiment shared over and over again: If only Samoans ate the foods they used to eat, then dietary disease would go away entirely. However, the uncomfortable truth that some acknowledged and many avoided remained: Newer, imported foods are just too tasty, too ingrained into Samoan diets, and too deeply embedded into Samoan culture itself to cut out entirely.

This chapter presents a historical overview of Samoan food and food culture, introducing readers to the roots of Sāmoa’s contemporary health crisis. In so doing, it offers a window into a problem that is not unique to Sāmoa alone. However, while dietary disease is on the rise around the world, the unique place of food in many Indigenous Oceanian cultures as a means of conveying notions of respect, love, and wealth means that many Indigenous Oceanian peoples are eating more and more imported processed foods. In what follows, therefore, I also show how these new and imported foods are entangled with deeper notions of Samoan taste, making it all the more difficult to eliminate them from Samoan diets. Finally, I ask readers to consider whether a “back to the future” approach—that is, an approach in which Samoans return to eating ancestral foods completely—is really feasible.

Food in Sāmoa’s Deep Past

When the Lapita peoples arrived in the Samoan archipelago around 3,500 years ago, they came prepared. Having long since mastered the domestication of animals like dogs, chickens, and pigs, the cultivation of crops like coconut, taro, and breadfruit, and the development of cooking techniques like the earth oven, Lapita peoples successfully colonized the Samoan archipelago as well as other island groups in Oceania.

map showing migration patters in Oceania
Figure 3: The spread of the Lapita people, original settlers of many islands in Oceania, showing the Lapita Cultural Complex, or the development and spread of the Lapita culture. Map reproduced with the permission of CartoGIS Services, Scholarly Information Services, The Australian National University.

As a distinct Samoan language and culture developed out of the first Lapita peoples, it eventually became predicated upon a matai, or chief, system. Daily life was paced by the will of matai who were obligated to look after the villages over which they held political influence. This meant, among other things, regulating the production and procurement of food. Matai delegated land for cultivation, organized and regulated the procurement of fish and shellfish, and deemed when it was appropriate to kill and prepare more specialized foods, such as chickens and pigs. In turn, non-matai village members were obligated to pay food tributes to their matai during important ceremonies and rituals, providing matai with prized food items like the heads of fish or loins of a pig.

As Sāmoa’s population grew, Samoan society and the matai system became even more stratified, and several different rankings developed. Some of these highly stratified rankings could be seen in food production, procurement, preparation, and service. For example, young men without matai titles were expected to carry out most of the day-to-day production and procurement of food, such as minding plantations and catching fish. They were also the primary cooks, as Samoan cooking with an ʻumu, or earth oven, is considered a laborious and dangerous job. Though some women held matai titles—and very high-ranking titles, at that—the vast majority of matai were men. As a result, women were primarily expected to raise families and maintain the cleanliness of villages and homes, although they also had specific food duties, such as procuring shellfish from shallow coastal waters. Age roles developed, too. Generally speaking, younger men and women were responsible for more laborious tasks while older people, titled or not, were taken care of by their children and grandchildren.

At regular intervals, peoples of all ranks came together for ceremonies and celebrations to mark significant moments in time, such as weddings, funerals, birthdays, and victories in war, and large feasting always accompanied these events. The strength and dignity of a village was often derived from their ability to host traveling parties from other villages. Likewise, the strength and dignity of villages represented by traveling parties, or guests, was often derived from their ability to present food gifts and tributes to their hosts in return. In this sense, food was integral in establishing relationships between peoples and groups.

As Samoan food culture developed, so too did Samoan tastes. Many oral traditions speak of lolo, or rich, fatty foods as being most prized. This is perhaps due to the fact that so much of Samoan food consisted of coconut cream, which is a rich, fatty substance that was often cooked with and/or served with baked taro, breadfruit, fish, and other staple foods. In fact, some of the elders I spoke with during my research told me that this is why the heads of fish or the loins of a pig are gifted to the highest-ranking matai—because these pieces contain the most lolo flavor.

diagram of a pig and the meat cuts it can be divided into
Figure 4: This image shows how pigs are to be divided and gifted to various members of a Samoan community, depending on their rank within that community. It is said that the loin of a pig is gifted to the highest-ranking matai due to its lolo, or rich and fatty flavor. Source: Te Rangi Hiroa (Sir Peter Buck), Samoan Material Culture, via the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection.

This early period of Samoan food history was marked by intense labor. It is not easy to climb a coconut tree or to pull taro up from the root, not to mention moving the rocks necessary to form an ʻumu. Even a seemingly ‘easy’ task like picking shellfish off coastal rocks and coral still takes a significant amount of energy. This work—the work of food—regulated Samoan society for generations, but it also meant that peoples burned a significant number of calories to maintain steady diets.

Food in Sāmoa’s Recent Past

Europeans first sighted Sāmoa in the mid-18th century, but contact between Europeans and Samoans was very limited until 1830, when missionaries from England began working to convert Samoans to Christianity. Around this same time, a global whaling industry boomed, which brought several pālagi, or non-Samoans, to Samoan shores, to refuel their ships, trade their cargo, or to settle permanently and profit from Sāmoa’s burgeoning economy. As the Samoan economy boomed, European and American colonial interests peaked as colonial agents sought to profit from industries like whaling and copra. By 1900, the Samoan archipelago was split into two halves, and without much voice given to Samoans themselves.

Though this history of colonialism goes much deeper, it is important to note here that these early pālagi brought with them something that would change Samoan food forever—canned goods. These included canned vegetables, fish (especially salmon), and beef, including the highly prized pīsupo, or corned beef, so named because in its early canned form it resembled cans of pea soup. Given their scarcity, and especially their lolo flavor, canned fish and meats became especially highly prized items in Samoan society. Where once a high-ranking matai might have expected a certain cut of pig or piece of fish as a food tribute from their village or a traveling party, they eventually grew to expect imported pālagi foods. Still, throughout the nineteenth century, limited supply of canned goods, a small overall population, and the fact that most Samoans remained largely within ancestral subsistence economies, all prevented an exponential growth of Sāmoa’s pālagi food presence.

By the mid-20th century, however, a combination of factors changed this. Catastrophic natural disasters brought in food aid from countries like New Zealand, Australia, and the United States, including flour, yeast, rice, and sugar in great supply. This influx gave way to new foods like pani popo (literally “coconut bread”), or buns baked in coconut cream, and koko alaisa (literally “cocoa rice”), or rice cooked in hot cocoa. In addition, the world wars in the early-to-mid-20th century meant more people, industry, and cash in Sāmoa’s economy, giving more Samoans exposure and access to pālagi foods. As with many island groups in Oceania, food items like SPAM became a bigger part of daily diets, and with more Samoans able to afford more pālagi foods, Samoan tables began looking more and more pālagi by the minute, while also retaining many ancestral foods like taro, coconut, and breadfruit. While restaurants, bars, bakeries, dairies, and grocery stores had existed in Sāmoa since the mid-nineteenth century, they rapidly expanded through the mid- and late-20th century. Before long, both Samoan polities had several eateries and groceries selling ultra-processed foods. For example, the Independent State of Sāmoa boasts its own McDonald’s fast food restaurant, while the less populated American Sāmoa claims two, along with other fast food establishments like Carl’s Jr. and Pizza Hut.

a McDonald's restaurant with parking lot in the foreground
Figure 5: The McDonald’s restaurant in Tāfuna, Tutuila (American Sāmoa), which is one of two 24-hour McDonald’s locations in the island territory of only about 55,000 people. (photo: author)

Food in Sāmoa’s Present and Future

While foods changed, Samoan cultural values surrounding food persisted. This is not to say that Samoan culture remained static, as it continued to change during the 20th century, just as it had prior to European arrival in the islands. Rather, the ties between food, gifting, ceremony, respect, and provision remained a central tenant of the Faʻasāmoa. As such, Samoans continued to place incredible value on providing prized lolo foods to family, friends, matai, and any other peoples with whom they wished to sustain positive relationships. At the same time, within families, providing one another with plenty to eat remained a crucial way to communicate love, respect, and care. Consider, too, that with ease of access comes a lack of activity. Where foods were once difficult to cultivate, catch, and cook, they are now readily available on grocery shelves, and with the transition of many from subsistence to sedentary lifestyles and work, less activity means fewer calories burned. Some food scholars have labeled this kind of change in food choices and activity levels as the “nutrition transition.”

We also need to consider the interplay of food and colonialism. While this subject is too complex to go into here, it should be noted that power dynamics between smaller island nations like Sāmoa and larger nations like New Zealand, Australia, and the United States often involve some degree of hegemony. In regard to food, this can mean the exportation of unhealthy foods into Sāmoa without correlating funding for the medical problems that inevitably arise from eating such foods. For example, the Independent State of Sāmoa tried to implement various bans on imports, including a recent ban on turkey tails, but they received pushback from wealthier nations who threatened to restrict their induction into the World Trade Organization, not to mention significant local uproar from Samoan people who love turkey tails’ lolo flavor. With limited political recourse or external public health support, and widespread local demand for imported foods, both Samoan polities find themselves struggling to combat dietary disease. Craig Santos Perez, a CHamoru scholar and poet, calls this kind of power dynamic “gastrocolonialism,” which he broadly defines as “structural force-feeding.” According to Perez, gastrocolonialism not only erodes food cultural knowledge and increases dependency on imported foods, but it also leads to chronic diseases linked to poor diet. This is certainly true of Sāmoa.

In a recent documentary (which forms the foundation for an assignment at the end of this chapter), a Samoan doctor called type 2 diabetes a “tsunami in the Pacific.” Indeed, several recent studies show that both Samoan polities and several other Oceanian territories and nations have some of the highest per capita cases of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other diet-related conditions in the world. Later in the documentary, the same doctor states that when he was young, he ate mostly ancestral foods, whereas Samoan children today eat imported processed foods in bulk. Like many Samoans, the doctor’s opinion is that a return to ancestral foods will mitigate dietary diseases in the region. However, is the answer that simple? Is removing imported foods from Samoan society and culture feasible?

Considering that imported processed foods have been an integral part of Samoan food culture for over a century, and that gifting and eating in bulk is intertwined with Samoan cultural norms, it becomes much harder to grapple with the possibility of ridding Samoan culture of imported foods. In fact, many Samoans dedicated to making these changes are adopting and adapting non-Samoan means of improving public health. For example, Zumba classes and CrossFit groups have become increasingly popular ways to stay active, and fruits and leafy green vegetables are being pushed by government and grassroots campaigns to try to convince Samoans to eat more healthfully. In this sense, the notion of returning to Sāmoa’s food past is complicated by the fact that innovative, contemporary public health practices are simultaneously promoted as the answer to the problems of Sāmoa’s food present. On the other hand, some farmers are attempting to grow a kind of slow food movement in Sāmoa, predicated on revitalizing ancestral agricultural practices and diets. This suggests that perhaps looking to the past can provide a path to a healthy and sustainable food future. On the other other hand, what does a “back to the future” approach mean for Samoans who feel that eating imported foods is the mark of a thriving people? And who are activists—especially outsider activists—to tell Samoans that they cannot eat the same foods that have given so much meaning to cultural exchanges for so long?

This short text does not propose clear answers to the complicated questions it poses. Perhaps, however, readers will now be interested to further engage with food studies in Sāmoa, and Oceania more broadly, to address things like food adoption and adaptation, the relationship between food and health, the entanglement of food and colonialism, and the complications of eradicating imported foods from Indigenous Oceanian societies and cultures. The assignments following this chapter provide an opportunity to begin that engagement, and welcome all readers to begin discussing these serious issues with one another.

Discussion Questions

  • Given what you learned in this chapter about Samoan food culture, what is the role of food in the cultures with which you are familiar? In what ways is Samoan food culture distinct from and/or similar to these food cultures?
  • What are some of the ways that dietary disease can be linked to food culture? How can food culture help prevent dietary disease?
  • What is the link between colonialism and dietary disease?
  • In its concluding section, this chapter asks if the answer to Sāmoa’s (and Oceania’s) dietary disease crisis is taking a “back to the future” approach? What might be learned from looking at diets from the past? What might be learned from contemporary public health practices?


Exploring Food in Print

While it is not always possible to travel to Oceanic islands to speak directly with people to learn about the past and present of their food culture, much can be learned from materials housed in archives. Go to the National University of Australia’s TROVE digital archives and browse through issues of The Pacific Islands Monthly. While it is important to remember that this magazine was written for a Euro-American audience, it contains advertisements and stories about food across Oceania. Click on the “Browse this collection” button, and then click on any of the thumbnails that appear, while also scrolling or using the drop-down menu to see more recent issues. Once you select an issue, use the search tool to look for things like “food,” “beef,” “taro,” “beer,” “cookies,” “diabetes,” or any other food-related search term you can think of.

Write a description of what you found in the issue you selected, considering the following questions:

  • What did you learn about food and food culture in Oceania?
  • In the descriptions or stories about food that you read, what words or phrases stuck out for you?
  • What did the images tell you about food culture in the region?
  • How might the magazine’s audience be affected by the choice of food stories and/or advertisements in the issue?

Exploring Food in Song

Listen to the popular Samoan song “Oka oka laʻu hani,” and read the lyrics below as you listen. What kinds of foods does the song tell about, and how does the song use food symbolism? What might this tell you about changes in Samoan food culture that took place during the 20th century? (The song was written in the 1930s, and this version, performed by the Five Stars, is from the 1980s.)

Oka Oka la’u Hani

o La’u hani faasilisili

ou te faatusaina i se apa helapi

po’o se pisupo sili

po’o se masikeke mai Fiti

po’o sina sapasui

o ni tamato ma ni pi

Afai lava ua tonu

ua tonu lou finagalo

ta faaipoipo

avane i le malo

e leaga o le taʻatua

e tele ai o le tiapolo

pe fai sau pepe

o le pepe o le pō

Tia, tia tofa

o le a ta teteʻa

e leai o se mamao

alaga i gauta

avanoa sau taimi

telefoni ane se itula

pe fai sau leta

avane i se motokā

Oh oh my honey

My dearest honey

Who I compare to a can of Hellaby’s [corned beef],

Or the very best corned beef,

Or some cookies/biscuits from Fiji,

Or the very best Chop Suey,

With the tomatoes and peas

If it’s agreeable for you

With the will of your heart

We’ll get married

In accordance with the law

For it’s wrong to just play around

There is a devil [That is an act of the devil]

And if you have a baby

It will be a baby of the night [a demon]

Dear, dear, goodbye

We are parting ways

But the distance isn’t too great

Shout inland

When you have the time

Telephone me at some hour

Or write a letter

And send it to me by motorcar

Exploring Food in Film

Watch the documentary “Samoa Diabetes Epidemic: Part 4” from Attitude, and write a one- to two-page summary that reflects your understanding of Sāmoa’s contemporary health crisis. Drawing on what you learned in this chapter and in the film, offer your thoughts on potential solutions to this dietary “tsunami in the Pacific.”

Additional Resources

Teaching Oceania, a resource compiled by the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s Center for Pacific Islands Studies (CPIS)

Laudan, R. 2013. “Modern Cuisines: The Globalization of Middling Cuisines, 1920–2000,” in Laudan, Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sharma, J. 2012. “Food and Empire,” in Jeffrey Pilcher, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Food History. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

On “Gastrocolonialism,” see: Craig Santos Perez, “Facing Hawaiʻi’s Future – Book Review,” Kenyon Review (July 2013).

Note that in this text, the word "Samoan" is written without a macron over the a (ā). This follows Samoan linguist expertise, which notes that "Samoan" is not a Samoan word, but an English word, and English does not standardly use macrons. The Samoan word would either be "Gagana Sāmoa," or "Sāmoa," meaning "Samoan language" or "of Samoa," respectively.

Perspective: Place-Based Designations

Eden Kinkaid

Place-based designations and agri-food certification in a globalized food system
Eden Kinkaid is a PhD candidate in Geography in the School of Geography, Development, and Environment at the University of Arizona. Eden’s research focuses on local and heritage food projects in Arizona and engages themes of place, neoliberalism, development, and certification. Eden also conducts research on the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on the food system of southern Arizona.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Explain the emergence of place-based designations as a response to and product of the globalization of food systems.
  • Discuss the rise of certification within contemporary trends in agri-food governance.
  • Review the role of place-based designations in strategies of rural development.
  • Identify critiques and shortcomings of place-based designations.

Introduction: Globalization and the “placeless” food system

What is the meaning of place in an increasingly globalized food system? Do the particular landscapes and cultures of food production continue to matter in a food system premised on uniformity, standardization, and “placelessness?”

Given the steady rise of place-based designations for food products around the world, it may be too soon to claim that place no longer matters in our global food system. Place-based designations, like the French appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC; controlled designation of origin) system have long existed to authenticate that certain products originate from their traditional regions and are produced using traditional practices. These systems rely on the concept of terroir—the idea that the specific qualities of a product are linked to the environmental and cultural characteristics of its region of production. Since the 1990s, internationally recognized place-based designations, like Geographical Indication (GI), have become part of global agricultural and food governance, or agri-food governance. These designations continue to be taken up with enthusiasm around the world as a way of inserting “place” back into the global food system.

This brief overview examines place-based designations with a focus on three key topics: the globalization of food systems, certification as a technique of agri-food governance, and the role of place-based designations in rural development. It then turns to a discussion of the critiques of place-based designations. While the term place-based designation covers a range of labels and certification projects, the focus here is on internationally recognized systems, like AOC and GI. While it is difficult to make any hard and final claims about the impacts of place-based designations, it is clear that they have illuminated place as a terrain of contestation in our food systems, making them an important topic for food scholarship.

The globalization of food

The industrialization and globalization of food systems have transformed the places and landscapes where food is produced. These transformations have resulted in a “placeless” food system in which food products are standardized, anonymized, and disconnected from the landscapes, seasons, and sites of their production. Yet these processes of industrialization and globalization have not proceeded without resistance. Rather, consumers and broader social movements have resisted the globalization of agriculture by asserting the right to know where their food comes from and by honoring regional food and agricultural traditions.

It is in this context that we have seen the global expansion of place-based designations, through which a particular food product name—like Tequila or Camembert—can only legally refer to products produced within a historical region of production using traditional methods. These designations not only link foods to particular places but are premised on the idea that place is what gives particular foods their characteristic tastes and qualities (i.e., the concept of terroir). GIs strive to reinforce the traditions and meanings of place, but also serve to limit what producers from that place can do to innovate and transform their practices.

a wheel of camembert in its packaging with geographic indication markings on top
Figure 1: A packaged Camembert de Normandie AOP Isigny Sainte-Mère (source: LAGRIC, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Given this connection to “tradition” and “place,” GIs are thus seen as a counterpoint to the globalization of food. Along these lines, Trubek and Bowen describe place-based designations “as a source of resistance against the homogenizing effects of ‘placeless’ food systems.” Similarly, Rangnekar argues that placed-based designations “offer opportunities to retrieve history, inscribe locality, and facilitate resistance against global agrifood.” For these scholars, connecting food with place is seen as a means of countering the processes and impacts of globalization.

Authentic foods: The rise of certification

While place-based designations can be understood as a response to the globalization of agriculture, they are, like other forms of agri-food certification, also very much a product of the globalization of agriculture. The rise of certification systems for food products is part of the complex shifts that have occurred as the governance of food and agriculture has become globalized. To understand how agri-food certification has emerged and proliferated, we need to understand this broader context of agri-food governance: the institutions, rules, and regulations that shape the production and trade of food and agricultural products.

As the food system has become more globalized, new forms of governance have emerged to regulate the production and trade of food. Power to regulate food and agriculture have shifted away from states, and toward global governing bodies like the World Trade Organization. These institutions set standards for food quality and safety that shape the rules of international trade in food. As global governing bodies attempt to “harmonize” national standards to facilitate international trade, global standards have increasingly come to shape the production of food across the globe. Agri-food certifications are one such standard that has emerged to designate and authenticate specialty products that are produced in particular places (GI, AOC) or in particular ways (e.g., organic, fair trade). Because consumers cannot verify the origins or qualities of food produced around the globe, these standards serve to guarantee the quality of foods on the global market.

These processes of certification have also emerged in response to a demand for “high-quality” and “authentic” foods that have particular environmental, social, and cultural values embedded within them. The emergence of new forms of consumer preferences and education, ecogastronomy and other food-based lifestyles, and various food movements have bolstered the demand for “high-quality” and “authentic” foods. Because these foods carry a price premium, it is necessary to certify the claims they make that differentiate them from generic commodities. How can I be assured that my Camembert cheese is an authentic product of Normandy, rather than a case of false advertising? Here, certification systems like AOC and GI have emerged as a way to support the claims being made by food producers, while ensuring transparency, authenticity, and quality in globally traded food products. In this way, we can understand place-based designations as both a response to the impacts of a globalized food system and a product emerging from the context of global agri-food governance and trade.

Capturing value: Rural development and agri-tourism

What are the benefits of place-based designations? In addition to authenticating the origin of a food product, place-based designations are promoted for their potential to protect rural cultures and bolster local and regional economies. Because place-based designations add value to a product, they produce price premiums that are (ideally) captured by producers and thus support agrarian livelihoods (although this is not always the case). Beyond adding value to food products, place-based designations are often part of efforts to promote rural landscapes and heritage through forms of tourism focused on agriculture and rural life, like agri-tourism. In this sense, place-based designations support the marketing of both products and places; they highlight a region’s unique agrarian and culinary heritage and help promote it as a tourist destination. For many regions around the world, agri-tourism and gastronomic tourism are seen as vehicles for rural development that can support, rather than erase, locally specific forms of food, farming, and culture.

While the histories and meanings of development vary regionally around the world, place-based designations like Geographic Indication have been seen as potentially contributing to forms of rural and agricultural economic development in both the Global North and Global South. In the Global North, agri-tourism has come to play a significant role in rural economies as these regions have transitioned from production to consumption landscapes. The term “consumption landscape” describes how some rural landscapes have become less oriented toward commodity food production and have shifted to more diversified, consumption-based activities, including tourism and recreation. In this context, agri-tourism has been seen as a strategy for rural development and farm diversification, through which rural areas can support social goods including the protection of agricultural landscapes and agrarian cultural heritage. In the Global South, place-based designations have similarly been seen as a way to promote biodiversity and cultural traditions, and, critically, as a means for increasing export revenues, launching a product into global circulation, and promoting tourism. In both contexts, by marketing the landscapes, products, and places of food production, farmers and other stakeholders seek to capitalize on the agricultural heritage of regions while connecting them to new economic circuits. However, given the different histories and meaning of development in the Global North and Global South, it is important to attend to broader cultural, socio-economic, and historical contexts when evaluating the potentials of place-based designations in any given place.


As previously discussed, proponents of place-based designations argue that they can counter the impacts of globalization, support local food economies, contribute to rural development, protect cultural heritage, and provide various other cultural and environmental benefits. Yet others remain critical of how well place-based designation and other forms of agri-food certification can accomplish these ambitious goals. In what follows, two critiques of place-based designation are considered: (a) that it reproduces dominant modes of neoliberal governance, and (b) that it produces uneven development.

Neoliberalism and market solutions

One of the major critiques of place-based designation as a form of agri-food certification is that it can reproduce neoliberal ideologies and practices. What does this mean? Neoliberalism refers to a philosophy and practice of governance that emerged in the 1970s in Europe and the United States, and which remains dominant today across the globe. Premised on the primacy of the market as a regulator of social life, neoliberal approaches emphasize privatization, commodification, and other forms of marketization as solutions to social and environmental problems, entailing a shift in power from state to non-state actors. According to neoliberal doctrine, social and environmental problems are best solved through market-based solutions. For example, in the case of air pollution, a neoliberal, market-based solution would entail “trading” the right to pollute by buying and selling “credits” (e.g., the right to pollute a given quantity) on the market. An example of a non-market-based approach would be enforcing emissions laws through state agencies.

Forms of agri-food certification, including place-based designations, are part of this trend in neoliberal governance. Instead of addressing the systemic problems of our food system through regulations, reform, or social movements, neoliberal approaches like food labelling leave it up to the market and consumers to make socially and environmentally conscious choices (by paying a price premium). From this perspective, solving the problems of our globalized industrial food system becomes the responsibility of consumers, rather than the responsibility of the food and agricultural industry or the state. According to critics like Guthman, certification does not actually challenge this system; rather, it merely allows privileged consumers to pay their way to consuming healthier, more ecological, more socially just, and more “authentic” food, all while leaving the system intact. Other scholars argue that food labels can spur on collective action and serve as a point of resistance to the logics of a globalized food system. Understanding place-based designations and other forms of agri-food certification as both a symptom of and a response to neoliberal governance is key to evaluating its strengths and limitations as a strategy of agri-food governance and rural development.

Uneven benefits

Other critics of place-based certification point to how these strategies can produce benefits that are unevenly shared. First, the narratives underwriting these place-based designations—narratives that rely on ideas of tradition, place, and heritage—can be constructed in ways that valorize certain producers and practices while excluding others. This occurs as various actors attempt to control narratives of place and tradition to suit their interests and ensure that they can claim the value produced by place-based designations. Second, the material benefits of place-based designations and other forms of agri-food certification, like price premiums, may flow to some more than others, and thus can reproduce unequal social relations. For example, Rangnekar (2011) describes how attempts to secure a GI for a traditional Indian beverage, Feni, ended up benefiting bottlers and distributors at the expense of producers of the beverage, who may not even know about the designation and its value. In the case of the GI status of tequila in Mexico, Bowen similarly demonstrates how negotiations over the details of the designation, including quality standards, processing protocols, and dynamics between small producers, bottlers, and distributors have diluted the meaning of the GI designation. Bowen describes “influential actors have manipulated production standards and certification policies in ways that contradict the theoretical concept of a GI and negatively affect the overall quality of tequila.” Further, any kind of place-based designation relies on the demarcation of “traditional” regions and techniques of production, thus recognizing some producers as eligible for distinction while excluding others.

numerous rows of blue agave plants stretching across a field
Figure 2: Jose Cuervo agave plantation in Tequila, Jalisco. (source: T2O media México, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

These problems are not unique to place-based designations but accompany any attempt to produce value through the distinction of labels and processes of certification. Guthman points to how all certification systems are built on exclusions; barriers to entry allow some to benefit from designations while excluding others. Thus, rather than seeing place-based designations as a panacea to issues of rural development and the problems of a globalized food system, we need to approach these projects critically, with an awareness of both their potentials and limitations.


As this discussion suggests, place-based designations open up complex questions and practical challenges concerning food systems, globalization, agri-food governance, and rural change. This complexity means that there is no single verdict on the impacts or merits of place-based designations as a general approach, nor are there any uniform effects of such designations. Instead, how place-based designations affect particular places and landscapes depends upon how they are pursued; that is, by whom, for whom, and at what scale. This is because place-based designations, like any form of certification, are not simply a technical standard to be implemented, but a strategy of governance located within uneven socio-economic, cultural, and power relations. To understand their impacts, strengths, and limitations, we must pursue careful empirical research about particular certification projects in specific places. The general problems outlined here can aid us in approaching specific cases of place-based designations with a critical lens and within their larger historical context.

Discussion Questions

  • What is terroir? How do claims to terroir differentiate a given food from other food products?
  • How can place-based designations be understood as both responses to and products of the globalization of food systems?
  • In what ways can place-based designations contribute to rural development?
  • What are the major shortcomings or critiques of place-based designation as a form of rural development?

Additional Resources

Airriess, C. 2020. “Constructing durian terroir and geographical indications in Penang, Malaysia.” Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography41(1), 6–22.

Cavanaugh, J.R. 2007. “Making Salami, Producing Bergamo: The Transformation of Value.” Ethnos 72 (2): 149–172.

Coombe, R.J., S. Ives, and D. Huizenga. 2014. “Geographical Indications: The Promise, Perils and Politics of Protecting Place-based Products,” Sage Handbook on Intellectual Property, Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage Publications: 207–223.

Parasecoli, F.  2017. Knowing Where it Comes From: Labeling Traditional Foods to Compete in a Global Market. University of Iowa Press.

Rangnekar, D. 2011. “Remaking Place: The Social Construction of a Geographical Indication for Feni.” Environment and Planning A 43 (9): 2043–2059.

Trubek, A.B. 2008. The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Allen, P. and J. Guthman. 2006. “From ‘Old School’ to ‘Farm-to-School’: Neoliberalization From the Ground Up.” Agriculture and Human Values 23 (4): 401–415.

Barham, E. 2003. “Translating Terroir: The Global Challenge of French AOC Labeling.” Journal of Rural Studies 19 (1) (2003): 127–138.

Bowen, S. 2010. “Development From Within? The Potential for Geographical Indications in the Global South.” The Journal of World Intellectual Property 13 (2): 231–252.

Coombe, R.J., S. Ives, and D. Huizenga. 2014. “Geographical Indications: The Promise, Perils and Politics of Protecting Place-based Products.” Sage Handbook on Intellectual Property. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. 207–223.

Guthman, J. 2007. “The Polanyian Way? Voluntary Food Labels as Neoliberal Governance.” Antipode 39 (3): 456–478.

Harris, E. 2009. “Neoliberal Subjectivities or a Politics of the Possible? Reading for Difference in Alternative Food Networks.” Area 41 (1): 55–63

Paxson, H. 2010. “Locating value in artisan cheese: reverse engineering terroir for new‐world landscapes.” American Anthropologist112 (3), 444–457.

Rangnekar, D. 2011.”Remaking Place: The Social Construction of a Geographical Indication for Feni.” Environment and Planning A 43 (9): 2043–2059.

Trubek, A.B., and S. Bowen. 2008. “Creating the Taste of Place in the United States: Can We Learn from the French?” GeoJournal 73 (1): 23–30.

Woods, M. 2004. Rural Geography: Processes, Responses and Experiences in Rural Restructuring. New York: Sage.

Trubek and Bowen 2008, 24.
Rangnekar 2011, 2044.
Coombe et al. 2014.
Bowen 2010.
Woods 2009, 172.
Bowen 2010.
Allen & Guthman 2006.
Guthman 2007.
Harris 2010.
Rangnekar 2011.
Bowen 2010.
Guthman 2007.

Creative: Food Tours

Natalie Doonan

Touching Food, Virtually Tasting
Natalie Doonan is an artist, writer, and educator. Her research focuses on food, place, and the senses. Natalie’s work has been shown in exhibitions and festivals across Canada and internationally. Her writing has appeared in professional and peer reviewed art and food culture publications. She serves as Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at l’Université de Montréal.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Explain how creative process can be crucial to learning and discovery in food studies research.
  • Identify the advantages of developing sensory perception of the environment, and also the reasons for maintaining distance.
  • Express the possibilities and the pitfalls of extending taste and touch through new media.
  • Create a work that communicates the ways in which a plant nourishes the world.


What might it mean to walk or to eat artfully? How might approaching these seemingly mundane actions through the framework of art (or with aesthetic intention) transform the experience of everyday life? This text describes the development of a sensory tour that uses walking, tasting, touching, and viewing to transform environmental perception. Beginning from the premise that art can re-orient and even change perception, the project described below encourages its participants to re-imagine a public place.

Coney Island MTL is a tour of the St. Lawrence River in Verdun, Montreal. It takes the forms of both a website (featuring an interactive map with a series of 360-degree videos) and a series of walks in the waterfront park. Through a combination of embodied actions such as walking and tasting, and immersive experiences like viewing videos in a virtual reality (VR) headset, participants are invited to re-imagine this place from more-than-human perspectives. In what follows, attention is directed to the creation of the work, rather than the finished piece. This is because the process itself raises questions about the limits of human perception and about the responsibilities of humans toward other species.

Making Tours

In my performance and multimedia work, I create scripts based on the narrative structure of walking tours. My interest in this kind of script comes from past experiences in the tourism industry, especially as an art gallery tour guide. For many years, I have been interested in tours as a way of telling stories in and about place. Walking tours and taste tours are two of the most popular ways in which people are first introduced to places. Think about beer samplers featuring local microbrews or charcuterie plates with artisanal meats and cheeses meticulously presented on a brilliantly designed menu and sensuously described by the server. Consider the haunted pub crawl or the famous restaurant that requires reservations weeks in advance. These are carefully crafted stories about place, designed to appeal to consumers through all of their senses. Unlike these tours though, the one that I describe in this chapter is not made to encourage consumption in bars and restaurants. Instead, it lures participants to a more ambiguous space, a place of spectacular views, punctuated by weeds that thrive in contaminated earth.

Hiccups and Roadblocks

Over the last decade I have presented more than twenty-five free, artist-led tours and tastings in and around Montreal. These have included activities like dumpster diving and foraging for wild edible plants. This is always a tricky business, since foraging can be dangerous without proper training, and there are many food safety issues to consider. However, I encountered particular roadblocks sometime around 2017, when I started to work in the waterfront park in Verdun, a Montreal borough that is located on the shores of the St. Lawrence River. The first hiccup came when I began proposing ideas for transforming the waterfront weeds into edible concoctions for public events. This was a problem for two reasons: first, the municipality prohibits consumption of any plants that grow in this park, since it is a human-made area literally constructed from garbage: backfill extracted during the construction of the Montreal metro in the 1960s. The concern is that plants growing in potentially toxic soil could be detrimental to human health. A related concern that is not specific to Verdun is that certain plants, whether or not they are growing in toxic soil, are noxious for humans. Milkweed is one relevant example, since the latex in its pods pose a threat to some people. On top of this, plants can easily be mis-identified and thus cause poisoning.

The second snag in my plans for taste tours along the river had to do with a specific plant that grows there: Phragmites australis, or common reed. This is a Eurasian perennial reed grass that has made its way to the banks of the St. Lawrence after hitching a ride on trade ships that travel through the St. Lawrence Seaway. The plant has been widely identified as a threat to biodiversity as it is hardy, spreads easily, and crowds out other plants, while also eliminating animal habitats. The common reed thrives in full sun and flourishes in the conditions created by a warming climate. Long, silky hairs sprouting from the top of six-foot-tall stems sway in the breeze, dispersing tiny seeds as they flow. The non-profit organization Nature-Action Québec has been engaged in what seems to be an uphill battle removing common reed stands on Verdun’s waterfront. A biologist trained me to perform this removal operation, but it is very easy to propagate the seeds while doing so. Some biologists from Nature-Action Québec were thus understandably against my idea of sharing common reed decoctions with the public, fearing that this would encourage people to cut the plants and increase their spread. Others thought it was a good idea to do this as part of a workshop that would teach people about the threats posed by the plants.

What is the Place of Humans Here?

These complications surrounding human consumption of so-called wild plants offer rich opportunities for examining the negotiation of self and other. The construction of a dike along the waterfront in the early 20th century prevented seasonal flooding, thus allowing people to settle in Verdun. At the same time, the dike eradicated the habitat of other species, for example fish spawning grounds. Later, a park was created beside the St. Lawrence, bringing humans into closer contact with the river ecology. Through urban planning, the waterfront has been shaped and embellished using potentially toxic stuff (the backfill mentioned above), in order to encourage human connections with ‘nature’. The risk posed by toxicity means that barriers must be maintained between this stuff and human bodies. It is paradoxical that the waterfront park was created to bring pedestrians and swimmers into a more intimate relationship with a river that itself is also perceived as a threat, and which must be held at a distance. What do these more-than-human relations tell us about human subjectivity? Should we get closer to nature, developing our awareness of plant, animal, and insect life, or is it preferable for us to maintain a respectful distance?

Foragers and dumpster divers observe a semi-official ethic of restraint. There are common rules of practice that have been developed within these communities to preserve the well-being of others, both human and non-human. For example, it is commonly agreed that you should never take more than you need, and always leave enough for other people, and in the case of plants, for their continued thriving. This ethic emphasizes the well-being of communities, rather than privileging individuals. Furthermore, it challenges consumers to consider food landscapes from more-than-human perspectives. Harvesting milkweed, for example, has an impact on pollinators that depend on this food source. This means that in harvesting milkweed, we may be privileging human tastes over more pressing ecological needs.

The notion of interdependence is gaining traction over stories that place humans at the top of the food chain, or in competition with other species (and with other humans too, for that matter). What relationships and responsibilities do humans have toward other species? Foraging and dumpster diving are practices that challenge the dissections that we try (and fail) to perform between ourselves and the world. Rather than approaching weeds or discarded food as waste or as trash, foragers and dumpster divers treat these as valuable sources of nourishment. In my proposal to serve decoctions of common reed, I intended to bring tasters into a more intimate contact with these plants, literally making plant and human one through the act of consumption. In my process of developing tours in Verdun, however, I eventually became aware of the fact that approaching an environment as an edible landscape can lead to outcomes that are beneficial to humans but detrimental to plants. Sometimes the best thing we can do for local ecologies is to leave them alone.

Tasting with the Eyes

Given the ethical issues surrounding feeding common reeds to people during taste tours in Verdun, I wondered how else the intimacy of tasting could be imparted. The waterfront park and its pedestrian paths were constructed to enable panoramic views featuring the St. Lawrence River. Condo developments on Nuns’ Island, which is part of the borough, are likewise designed for all-encompassing views. This desire to take it all in—but from a distance—is what philosopher Michel de Certeau called a “God’s eye view,” which he contrasts with the intimate connection with the city experienced through walking in densely developed streets. De Certeau describes walkers as artists, who create poetry in the ways that they move through space. They “make use of spaces that cannot be seen; their knowledge of them is as blind as that of lovers in each other’s arms. The paths that correspond in this intertwining, unrecognized poems in which each body is an element signed by many others, elude legibility. It is as though the practices organizing a bustling city were characterized by their blindness.” Unlike the all-seeing eye that apprehends the totality of the city at a distance, walkers experience places only in fragments, but close up and sensually.

Is it true that landscape as a comprehensive vision is incompatible with intimacy? Current research in the field of virtual reality (VR) is aiming to prove that panoramic experiences, even as mediated through a VR headset, can produce sensations of presence, and illusions of embodiment. In other words, these media can produce a felt sense of being there, embodied in a place. Some artists and researchers are trying to develop techniques for tasting in simulated environments to enhance the sense of embodiment. This is a question that I have been exploring in recent work. I have been creating 360-degree stories about the relationships between humans, plants, and animals along the waterfront in Verdun. These stories are based on interviews and fieldwork there. The videos are accessible from an online map, and I have also been screening them during live tours through the park (see Figure 1).

two people on a grassy slope looking through virtual reality visors
Figure 1: Waterfront tour for Anya Zilberstein’s “Edible Environments” graduate course. July 12, 2019. (photo: author)

From the Safety of a Headset

If video can, as philosopher Laura Marks argues, create a “tactile, or haptic visuality,” extending the sense of touch through vision, can the same be true for taste? Food scholars Allison and Jessica Hayes-Conroy argue that “food is never ingested by itself,” and that taste is rather a biosocial process. If this is true, then visuality can also be a significant factor in consuming foods and environments.

augmented reality image from within an AR visor, with numerous monarch butterflies and a green expanse
Figure 2: Screenshot from “Battlefield,” in Coney Island MTL © 2022 Natalie Doonan. (image: author)

The 360-degree videos in Coney Island MTL offer immersive views of the river ecology in Verdun. Each of the videos in the series adopts the point of view of a different animal, plant, or insect. In one video, the viewer is hovering in a milkweed patch, experiencing the environment from the position of a monarch (see Figure 2). Another video plunges the viewer underwater, offering the viewpoint of a fish (see Figure 3). These more-than-human perspectives have the effect of destabilizing human subjectivity and habitual ways of experiencing the world. In this era of climate catastrophe, it is crucial that we develop new ways of perceiving and imagining this shared world.

underwater photo showing fish and water plants, with blue sky above
Figure 3: Screenshot from “Torchy Wharf,” in Coney Island MTL © 2022 Natalie Doonan. (image: author)

Discussion Questions

  • What do municipal restrictions on eating plants that grow in the waterfront park suggest about more-than-human relations and responsibilities in this place?
  • What are some of the advantages of developing sensory perception of the environment (for instance, through taste), and in what circumstances is it more important to maintain distance from plants, animals, and insects that may be tempting to eat?
  • What are some examples of technologies that allow us to touch and to taste otherwise imperceptible parts of the world? What are the possibilities and pitfalls of these tools?


Go outside and find a nearby plant. Create a work (photograph, drawing, video, poem, prose, etc. ) that communicates the way(s) in which that plant nourishes the world.


Barnard, A. V., & Mourad, M. (2020). “From dumpster dives to disco vibes: The shifting shape of food waste activism.” In C. Reynolds, T. Soma, C. Spring & J. Lazell (Eds.), Routledge Handbook of Food Waste. New York: Routledge. 381–399.

Davis, H., Turpin, E. (Eds.). 2015. Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters among aesthetics, politics, environments and epistemologies. London: Open Humanities Press.

De Certeau, M. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkley: University of California Press.

De Certeau, M., Giard, L., & Mayol, P. 1998. The Practice of Everyday Life Volume 2: Living & Cooking. Trans. T. J. Tomasik. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Denfeld, Z., Kramer, C., and Conley, E. 2015. Experimental Eating Introduction. The Center for Genomic Gastronomy.

Hayes-Conroy, A., & Hayes-Conroy, J. 2010. “Visceral difference: Variations in feeling (Slow) Food.” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 42 (12): 2956–2971.

Ritvo, Harriet. 2014. “How Wild is Wild?” RCC Perspectives, The Edges of Environmental History: Honouring Jane Carruthers 1: 19–24.

Spencer, J. (2016). Miriam Simun. esse arts + opinions 87: 74–77.

Tsing, A.L. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

For more on the ethics of foraging and dumpster diving see:
De Certeau 1984, 93.
See for an example.
Hayes-Conroy & Hayes-Conroy 2010.

Perspective: Food Meanings

Marylynn Steckley

Food Meanings, Identity and Status: The Case of Haiti, Kraft Dinner, and Zen Crunch

Marylynn Steckley was a Policy Analyst and Advocacy Coordinator in Haiti for over five years and is now a faculty member at Carleton University. Marylynn investigates the relationships between of class, food, and environmental health, she is intrigued by how food meanings, expectations, and symbols impact diets, relationships, and politics. Food is power but eating can also be emancipatory! Marylynn loves vegan fare, but peanut butter stuffed pretzels and chocolate cheesecake from time to time too.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Identify connections between food choices and food meanings, identities, and statuses.
  • Demonstrate how food choices are constrained by food meanings, social structures and ideologies.
  • Explain how food meanings, and food hierarchies are central to debates about food sovereignty.

Introduction: Foodie or Fraud? Identity, Class, and Food Meanings

What do I eat? I’m a white, female professor in food systems. I know what you’re thinking: Whole Foods, fair trade, organic. Foodie and scholar, Julie Guthman calls this “yuppie food”. You have never seen me eat, but my job, my gender, and my skin colour tell a story about me. The inverse is also true. The foods I eat also tell a story about my identity. Here’s an example.

I was out for an interview lunch for an academic job, and I needed to make a good impression. This was a foodie bunch. I ordered the “Zen Crunch,” which included grilled bok choy, cashews, bean sprouts, shredded kale, and sesame-ginger vinaigrette. Why that dish? Certainly, taste played a role (it sounded delicious), but it also gave just the right impression—upwardly mobile, “woke” or enlightened, food conscious and appreciating, healthy, perhaps vegan or vegetarian (diets that have their own connotations of environmentalism, animal welfare, and beyond). Each of these are valued in foodie culture. But these foods don’t reflect my roots.

I grew up in rural Ontario, and money was tight because I’m from a single-parent home. My mother worked in a factory (she was the only woman), and my sisters and I also helped her clean houses. My mum’s food ethic was healthy and low cost; porridge was the breakfast of choice. But when she wasn’t around, my sisters and I loved Kraft Dinner, Swedish Berries, and Cap’n Crunch. We would often grab these at the convenience store up the street when home alone.

My class background, and current class position are paradoxical, and my food preferences mirror this disjuncture. When I need to invoke my foodie identity, I know what choices will give the impression that I am educated and of a certain class: farmers markets, heirloom tomatoes, goji berries. But I also have a sort of “coming out” fantasy, in which I escape the pressure of performing a class that I don’t feel I belong to. It goes like this: I walk into my food studies class with a covered tray of something tasty to share with my students. “Close your eyes, I have brought a treat.” I imagine their thoughts: Vegan tahini chocolate chunk cookies? Himalayan kale chips with lime zest? “Open your eyes.” In front of each student is a paper cup full of Kraft Dinner (KD), with a squirt of ketchup. My fantasy ends when the students look up at me, surprised and unsure. Just what I was hoping for!

Disrupting identity and food meanings makes me almost gleeful. It’s like throwing off the shackles of social hierarchies. I do my best to make environmentally sound and socially just dietary choices, but I also grew up connecting with my sisters over fast food and sugary cereals. I’m careful not to order the Happy Meal equivalent during a lunch interview, but I’m sure my sister would make fun of me if I brought a vegan quinoa Buddha Bowl to a potluck. There are the foods I’m proud to eat in the company of foodies, and there are foods I would eat at home, but not in public. The symbolic significance of food—food meaningis powerful.

On the surface, enjoying both Zen Crunch and KD might seem innocent, but our food choices have hefty environmental, social, and health consequences. Food shapes landscapes, community health, and bodies. Power really is in every bite. Organic foods are more environmentally friendly, fair trade foods are more socially justice, plant-based diets are more nutritionally sound. Maybe you see no problem with the disdain for the junk foods that I grew up on, especially when they include Kraft Dinner and Happy Meals. But what happens when people disdain other kinds of family or traditional foods—those with specific cultural significance? What happens if I turn my nose up at my aunt’s Christmas pudding, or my mum’s lasagna? That kind of disdain has a different feel: it leans towards food stigma. Familial and culturally significant foods harness emotions and relationships. Beyond cultural value, food meanings can also reflect hierarchies and social stratification. So what happens when the food of one group is considered more valuable than that of another?

In what follows, I explore food hierarchies in Haiti, where peasant farmers often disdain the very foods that they produce; where many black, Haitian, rural dwellers value imported “white foods” over local, nationally produced ones; and where food hierarchies often mirror social hierarchies.

Historicizing Food, Race, and Identity in Haiti

Haiti—the pearl of the Antilles—is perhaps most famous for two things: it is the world’s first Black republic, and it is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. For 300 years, kidnapped Africans were shipped across the Atlantic to the island of Hispaniola, where they laboured on sugar plantations. Alongside the physical brutality of the plantation system, enslaved people were psychologically oppressed. Colonizers violently imposed race-based social hierarchies that cemented a perceived relationship between skin colour and status, entrenched ideas of Black inferiority, and fostered desires to assimilate to the white colonial culture.

In the late 18th century, the enslaved people of Hispaniola rose up, defeated Napoleon’s army and declared independence. But Haiti’s physical liberation from plantation agriculture did not mark the end of racial hierarchies. In Haiti, the biological fallibility of “race” continues to be overshadowed by pervasive perceptions that link race to social status.

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argues that history and memory have lasting impacts on ideologies, which, in turn, guide and constrain behaviour. In the case of Haiti, histories of colonialism, violence and racism locked-in racist ideologies, which have become hegemonic. Caribbean scholar Franz Fanon tells us that many formerly colonized people experience the “epidermalization of inferiority”, which is when racist ideologies are internalized, and people of colour start to believe that that they are worth less because of their skin colour. The result is that individual choices and preferences uphold elite values, and habits. In the colonial period, for example, those perceived as “milat” often mimicked white habits and styles to improve their social standing. Today in Haiti, rural, Kreyòl- speaking peasants are often described using derogatory terms, and people with lighter skin are often more likely to have professional jobs, speak French, and tend to be prioritized in hospitals, banks, and government offices. So, what does this have to do with food?

Exploring Food Meanings and Hierarchies in Port-au-Prince, and Dezam

When I first set out to research the struggles of the Haitian peasantry, I had just completed a three-year term as a Food Advocacy Coordinator in the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince. I was privileged to have been in a position where I learned from leaders of organizations who were deeply engaged in food justice and food sovereignty movements. That learning led me to a pursue nearly three years of critical ethnographic research in Dezam, Haiti in the Artibonite valley. During this time, I conducted over 300 qualitative food frequency, dietary recall, and food and agricultural behaviour surveys with peasant farmers, and over 40 key informant interviews with government officials, and leaders of peasant organizations.

Food Meanings

Food Shame

Some of the those I interviewed became mentors, and taught me about how the colonial plantation economy, recurrent foreign interventions in Haitian politics, and the country’s parasitic merchant elite and predatory state have together impoverished the masses, undermined democracy, and denied the rural citizenry access to most basic services, from potable water to electricity to decent education and healthcare. One of my most important mentors was Ari Nikola, the director of Kore Pwodiksyon Lokal (Support Local Production). Ari said:

To understand Haiti, you first must recognize that for 300 years we were forced to believe that we were inferior, and these ideas have not gone away. Although we haven’t been physically enslaved for over 300 years, these ideas persist—the reference point of what is good is what is white, what is Western. The enduring mentality of enslaved people today is the consequence of slavery. To understand Haiti, you need to understand this history.

Ari and I often shared meals—pitimi (sorghum/millet), mayi moulen (cornmeal), patat (sweet potato), joumou (pumpkin)—foods rarely served at roadside restaurants, or at the office of non-governmental organizations, which unfailingly served white rice. In my effort to learn, I asked the office kitchen cook if we could prepare pitimi together. She laughed, “No!” she told me, “pitimi is peasant food.” Similarly, a friend told me a story about his partner and her love for joumou, another “peasant” food. One day he came home to find her in the backroom eating joumou; she was hiding, and embarrassed to have him find her.

Over time, I learned that many “peasant” foods are viewed with disdain, and that prestigious foods are often associated with foreigners and the elite. I started to log these and got a sense of Haiti’s food hierarchies. Prestigious foods are refined, packaged, and “foreign.” For example, white beans, white sugar, and white crackers are considered superior to black beans, brown sugar, and dark molasses buns (bon bon siwo, which are an alternative snack to white crackers, or bon bon sèl). Similarly, pitimi, joumou, and patat are disparaged and associated with the poor, Black peasantry. One interviewee called these manje mizerab (“miserable food”). My surveys also showed that spaghetti, meat, and rice are associated with white people, the urban elite, and the wealthy. To illustrate the centrality of rice in Haitian dietary aspirations, one community organization leader described a local study that he conducted to a get a sense of the significance of local desires to eat rice, and the prestige that rice carries. Researchers went to the mountain tops (mountain people are notoriously looked down on in Dezam) and conducted dietary surveys. They found that people were eating yams, even though they said that they didn’t, and that they only eat rice.” In other words, these survey participants wanted to claim a higher status by saying that they ate rice.

Food Pride

In Haiti, food meanings and hierarchies are influenced by racist ideologies. But equally importantly is the historical fortitude of social movements and the long legacy of peasant resistance. While my research indicates that dietary aspirations tend to be geared towards the consumption practices of the elite, some countervailing food values do exist. For example, many Haitians believe local chicken is more nutritious and tastes better than imported chicken, that local rice is superior to diri miyami (imported rice), and that local fresh juice is more prestigious that imported soft drinks or sweetie (which is like Kool-Aid). And although pumpkin is disparaged, soup joumou (pumpkin soup), which in the colonial era was reserved only for blan colonizers, is an important symbol of Haitian pride and independence. It is said that following the revolution and the advent of Haitian independence, Haitians of all class groups came to celebrate emancipation by feasting with soup joumou every Independence Day. These examples speak to a countermovement in food, a food justice sentiment that challenges the status quo. Indeed, pro-peasant food values exist in Haiti, and are gaining strength.

Ari Nikola continues to lead a food justice movement. He promotes local food across the country at festivals, and community gatherings, and has local food advocacy commercials, like this one, “Manman Doudou on national television.

Implications and Future Pathways: Prospects for Food Sovereignty in Haiti

While it would be impossible to quantify the influence of food meaning on total food consumption (or to calculate the threat that aspiration for elite foods poses to peasant producers), there is striking symbolic alignment between peasant and elite values with respect to food preferences. Prestigious foods continue to be associated with white, elite, and foreign groups, and ‘Black’, peasant food continues to be met with disdain. This indicates an enduring ideological control that the Haitian elite and foreigners exert over the Haitian peasantry, and presents an important obstacle to food sovereignty. Food sovereignty emphasizes that power relations are embedded in food systems and conceptualizes overcoming food system inequality by supporting democratic decision-making over food, ecologically integrated agricultural systems, and local food-provisioning networks. The vision is to create food systems that are ecologically, nutritionally, and culturally enriching.

Negative attitudes towards the peasantry and towards peasant foods raise serious questions about the role of food meanings in limiting the pro-peasant goals associated with food sovereignty. Historically rooted race-based social hierarchies influence food meanings and preferences. It is not a stretch to imagine that ensuing food choices affect the land, create demand for imported food, and limit support for local food, peasant farmers, and food justice. At the same time, Ari Nikola’s messages—value local food, support the peasantry, have pride in what you produce—is a core mantra among peasant leaders, who agree that food is fundamental to Haiti’s development prospects, and that any meaningful pro-peasant change to Haiti’s food systems must involve the re-valorization of traditional diets.

Conclusion: Food Meanings Matter

In Haiti and beyond, social hierarchies affect food meanings, and in turn food meanings affect food preferences and choices. Our food choices have real impacts on the ground, environmentally and socially. My hope is that the case of Haiti sheds light on how ideas of food—food meaning—can impede healthy, ecologically rooted food systems. As Ari says, food justice initiatives must address systemic inequality, including race-based social hierarchies, and the “epidermalization of inferiority.”

Beyond Haiti, the truth is that I love a good vegan Buddha Bowl. The environmental burden of foods pulls at my heart strings (and my pocketbook). But I also love chips. Mostly, I try to do right by my health and the environment, but sometimes I don’t. Regardless, shaming and exclusion do not move us toward food sovereignty, in Haiti, Canada, or elsewhere.


Mind Mapping Personal Food Choices

List five foods that you would be proud to share with a new acquaintance or colleague, and five foods that you would be embarrassed or hesitant to share. Reflect on your personal history with these foods. Then, in a mind-map diagram, write the characteristics, qualities, or social perceptions that you associate with these foods.

Scenario—What does this food say about me?

You’re a first-year university student and you have just arrived on campus. The first person you meet is really nice, has many friends, and seems effortlessly cool. They ask you to join them for lunch at a craft beer pub a block away. On the walk over, they tell you about the activities they enjoy. You sit down to your table. You like them—and you’re more and more interested in them liking you. What do you order? You find yourself wondering: What will a bacon cheeseburger say about me? What will a “Vegan Aztec Grain Bowl” say? Write a description of the food that you order and explain in a paragraph why you made this choice.

Reflecting on Racism, Food Preference, and Meaning

Listen to the podcast “Erasing Black Barbecue” and, reflecting on what you heard in the podcast and what you read in this chapter, consider the following:

  • Franz Fanon argues that the “epidermalization of inferiority” happens when people of colour come to believe, or internalize, racist myths that associate skin colour with worth. In Haiti, ideologies of racism have become hegemonic, influencing food meanings and food preferences. How does racism influence food meanings and food hierarchies in the North American context?

Additional Resources

Podcast: The Racist Sandwich. E 58, “Erasing Black Barbecue.”

Kore Pwodiksyon Lokal (“Support Local Production”) TV commercial #1

Kore Pwodiksyon Lokal (“Support Local Production”) TV commercial, “Manman Doudou


Bourdieu, P. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Bourdieu, P. 1980. The Logic of Practice. Cambridge: Stanford University Press.

Fanon, F. 1952. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press.

Fanon, F. 1967. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.

Guthman, J. 2003. “Fast Food/Organic Food: Reflexive Tastes and the Making of ‘Yuppie Chow.’” Social & Cultural Geography 4 (1): 45–58.

Guthman 2010.
Kraft Macaroni & Cheese is known as “Kraft Dinner” in Canada.
Bourdieu 1980, 1984.
Fanon 1963, 1967.
It is important to note that while the Kreyòl word milat translates directly to the English “mulatto,” the word carries a different meaning in Haiti than in North America. In Haiti, it is a historically rooted term used to describe either a person born with one “Black” and one “white” parent (the latter usually being a colonizer) or a person born of two “mulatto” parents. It is also used to signify a person of lighter complexion and is generally associated with the urban bourgeoisie class. This is illustrated by the Haitian proverb: “Nèg rich se milat, milat pòv se nèg,” which means “A rich negro is a mulatto, a poor mulatto is a negro.” This suggests that skin colour and class are not only intricately connected, they are also malleable. In Haiti, lighter skin can signify a higher class, and lighter phenotypes may make people overlook other attributes that signify poverty. At the same time, when one has wealth and dark skin, one might be labelled “blan.” I remember a day in Dezam, when a dark-skinned Haitian pulled up to a street vendor near me in a fancy SUV, and an onlooker said, “Gade yon blan,” or “Look at the white guy.” In Haiti, colour and class are connected in complex ways.
Manman Doudou is a term of endearment, which literally translates as “sweet/kind mother.”
Bernstein 2014.
Patel 2009; Walford & McCarthy 2016; Wittman 2015.

Perspective: Gastronomy

Stan Blackley and Donald Reid


Before joining the world of academia, Stan Blackley worked for more than 30 years as an environmental activist, political campaigner, communications adviser, and community organiser. He joined Queen Margaret University in 2014 to enrol in the MSc Gastronomy programme, after which he was employed as a lecturer, contributing his knowledge in the environment and sustainability, animal welfare and human rights, ethics and society, and politics and activism.

Donald Reid is a legally trained writer, publisher, and journalist with a background in the production of food and travel guides. He joined the QMU MSc Gastronomy programme as a lecturer in 2014, contributing his expertise in areas such as food culture, communication, and campaigning, as well as his encyclopaedic knowledge of food and drink in Scotland. He is one of the leaders of the Slow Food Movement in Scotland.

Stan and Donald are the co-Programme Leaders for the MSc Gastronomy programme at Queen Margaret University (QMU) in Edinburgh, Scotland. Established in 2013, the programme remains the only course of its kind in the UK.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Describe how gastronomy involves an informed and critical view of where food comes from, how it is produced, and the many, varied impacts that it has.
  • Articulate the historical origins of the term gastronomy and the trajectory along which the term and concept has evolved.
  • Name ways in which gastronomy can be applied to practices around and with food, in ways that begin to tackle the environmental and social issues inherent to food systems.


To define gastronomy, it is helpful to note two key anchor points. The first is etymology, which suggests—from a literal translation of the Ancient Greek—that gastronomy is the knowledge (nomos) of the stomach (gastros). While the term can be found in Ancient Greek texts, it was neither prominent nor common until 1801, when it was adopted by a French poet, Joseph Berchoux, and subsequently by two prominent French food writers from the early 19th century, Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de la Reynière and Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. The former is acknowledged as the first truly influential critic in the world of restaurants, and the latter—the second anchor point—was the man who coined the aphorism, “Tell me what you eat: I will tell you what you are.”

Brillat-Savarin was a lawyer, politician, philosopher, and self-declared expert and enthusiast on the subject of food. His 1826 book, La Physiologie du goût (“The Physiology of Taste”) set out to establish a foundation for gastronomy. He defined gastronomy as “the intelligent knowledge of whatever concerns man’s nourishment” and suggested that gastronomic knowledge was important for all “who hunt, supply, or prepare whatever can be made into food.” Importantly, he indicated that such knowledge was to be gained from disciplines as broad-ranging as physics, chemistry, cooking, commerce and political economy. “Gastronomy rules all life”, he wrote. “It has to do with all classes of society”; it considers taste “in its pleasures and its pains”, and how food and drink affects “the moral of man, on his imagination, his mind, his judgment, his courage and his perceptions.” To him, it was worth understanding all about food, because food is universal: “The pleasures of the table belong to all times and all ages, to every country and every day; they go hand in hand with all our other pleasures, outlast them, and remain to console us for their loss.”

In considering how gastronomy has become popularly understood in the two centuries that have passed since Brillat-Savarin wrote La Physiologie du goût, it is important to reflect on how the term gastronomy became synonymous with the country of France. In Sociologies de l’alimentation (“The Sociology of Food”), Jean-Pierre Poulain defines gastronomy as the attachment of an aesthetic value to the act of eating, something he traces back to the French royal court, aristocracy, and French Catholic theology during the 17th century. By the late 18th century, even as the French bourgeoisie was rejecting the hierarchies of the church and aristocracy, the culture around food retained its cultural capital. Far from being rejected as a mark of the ancien régime, Enlightenment thinking and revolutionary politics in France actually embraced gastronomy—the arts of the table—as “a celebration of all that was worldly”.

It was, after all, in Paris in the decades preceding the 1789 French Revolution that restaurants were ‘invented’ and took on their modern form. Of equal significance, by the early 19th century, restaurant criticism had also been invented, with critics operating as intermediaries between the new eating places and their bourgeois clientele. Critics were important for legitimizing the restaurant as a place for refined eating, and in doing so, they raised the esteem of the chef, the people who dined there, and the cuisine itself. From this early stage, it was clear that gastronomy went beyond the food being served. “The gastronome is more than a gourmet – he is also a theorist and propagandist about culinary taste,” suggests Stephen Mennell, arguing that there was democratic value in the way gastronomes disseminated knowledge of elite standards beyond the elite. To this day, the mutual dependency between restaurants, chefs, and critics survives, most famously in the (French-based) Michelin guide books and star ratings.


For the 19th and most of the 20th century, the most revered and prestigious gastronomes were envoys of French cuisine, just as the chefs—the high priests of gastronomy such as Antonin Carême and Auguste Escoffier—were French. New ideas evolved within France, most famously when nouvelle cuisine upset the established orthodoxies in the 1970s (again led by a combination of French chefs and guidebook writers), but France remained the locus of gastronomic identity across Western Europe and North America. The ‘Gastronomic Meal of the French’ appears in UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, cited as a practice that “emphasizes togetherness, the pleasure of taste, and the balance between human beings and the products of nature.” It goes on to note that gastronomes, who “possess deep knowledge of the tradition and preserve its memory,” are expected to “watch over the living practice of the rites.” UNESCO’s focus is on the meal itself, though most French nationals (and others besides) would assume their valorization applies more generally to a uniquely French approach to food.

But why should the term gastronomy be restricted to French culinary approaches, or limited to the aesthetics of food and eating? Neither etymology nor Brillat-Savarin’s original definition demand such narrow viewpoints. Indeed, it was Brillat-Savarin’s expansive conceptualisation that resonated with Carlo Petrini, the Italian founder of the Slow Food Movement, as he sought to reclaim the value and integrity of food in the face of an increasingly industrialized, globalized, and homogenized food system. Slow Food identified itself as a reaction against the ‘fast’ modern world, one characterised by speed and in which the human relationship with the earth has become unsustainable—what Petrini called a “technocratic dictatorship” of profit prevailing over politics, and economics over culture.

Frustrated by the ‘old’ French model, Petrini argued that gastronomy had wandered far from its original conception and too narrow a focus had left it open to misinterpretation, misunderstanding, and marginalization. The challenges of nourishment are, after all, fundamentally human and little different to those of our ancestors. Whether in hunter-gatherer societies, Ancient Greece, or post-revolutionary Paris, people seek to choose and consume food to the satisfaction of the stomach and the senses, a combination of nutritional needs and food’s ability to deliver pleasure.

Petrini set in motion a re-evaluation of gastronomic science in modern frames of sustainability. It was no longer sufficient to concern ourselves with our own palates and pleasure, the point where Brillat-Savarin’s legacy seems to have become stuck in the general consciousness. Rather, Petrini argues that in a globalized world gastronomy must be global as well, and that modern gastronomes are required to take a holistic, critical, and connected view of where their food comes from, how it is produced, and the impact it has on both society and the environment. He writes: ‘‘Under the frenetic impulse of technocratic and reductionist thought we have fallen into the temptation of neglecting the totality of the processes and inter-relations that enable us to eat every day, considering only the result, the food that we swallow.”

In his book, Slow Food Nation, Petrini offers his own translation of Brillat-Savarin’s definition of gastronomy as “the reasoned knowledge of everything that concerns man as he eats”, arguing:

To reduce gastronomy to “eating well” is a twofold error: first, because this definition implicitly accepts the common belief that the history of nutrition—economy and subsistence—and the history of gastronomy—culture and pleasure—are distinct subjects; and secondly, because it only covers a small, and perhaps the least noble, part of the complex system of “roots” which underlie our food.

The implication of this is that the modern gastronome or gastronomer (a variant adopted by some as less encumbered with implications of gourmet elitism) recognises the ways in which food choices and practices connect to the well-being of the earth and the shared destiny of all that inhabit it. The old, narrow and awkward connotations of French and ‘culinary’ gastronomy are thus further distanced by conceptualising contemporary gastronomy as eco-gastronomy—an ecological-philosophical vision of food—the “thinking-feeling-doing” of modern gastronomy. This approach acknowledges that any choice or practice of food has to take into account the ecological and human dimensions of both the food itself and the systems and processes that provide it. With globalization, hunger, public health, labour, and climate change so prominent in our contemporary consciousness, no coherent philosophy of food today can ignore these issues.

Critics of Petrini—or more accurately of the Slow Food Movement under his charismatic leadership—point not just to gourmet and Euro-centric elitism in the attitudes of its followers in certain territories, but also to conservative, protectionist attitudes to heritage, tradition, and authenticity in its core philosophy. It is true that different aspects of Slow Food’s cultural, political, and practical messages have taken hold in different parts of the world, leading to a somewhat confused understanding of the most effective thrust of its principles. That said, the value in re-interpreting gastronomy as concerning itself with matters beyond culinary aesthetics, and the incorporation of social and ecological considerations to questions of food, largely stand outside the areas of dispute.


Boiled down, Slow Food recognises that, while an assessment of whether food is ‘good’ principally from a taste perspective is important, it is also insufficient. ‘Good’ must be informed by knowledge that includes whether food is also ‘clean’, in terms of ecological sustainability, and ‘Fair’, in its dealings with humans and animals. This approach wraps together pleasure with politics, palate with purpose, and practice with principles. By this thinking, food cannot satisfy nor nourish unless the totality and interwoven complexity of these impacts of food are acknowledged, better understood, and addressed. This chimes with thinking that had previously been posited by French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who stated that, in order to be “good to eat” (bon à manger), food must be first of all be “good to think” (bon à penser), indicating that food must nourish people’s values, beliefs, and traditions to be considered suitable for their stomachs.

This is the work, now, of gastronomy. Thus reformulated—or ‘liberated’ as Carlo Petrini put it—gastronomy, eco-gastronomy or ‘neo-gastronomy‘, has a greater sense of purpose in the world and a wider scope to influence not just food, but the world from which it comes. Such thinking about modern gastronomy shifts its focus decisively (though not completely), beyond chefs, cooking, and eating to recognise and celebrate the contributions of farmers, growers, fishers, producers, processors, sellers, caterers, and the countless others engaged with food, who have valuable specialist skills and make crucial contributions to the food landscape. The gastronomer argues for a role alongside such specialists, offering the skills of the generalist, as someone who can appreciate the many different perspectives of these diverse participants, hold a centre ground, and reflect the complex, multidimensional, polysemic, diverse nature of food itself.

Modern gastronomers appreciate food in a multi-faceted way, first, as a lens through which to examine the world around them; second, as a tool through which complex issues and concepts can be made tangible and communicated more simply; and third, as a means through which to challenge injustices and change the world for the better. They recognise that food has wide-ranging influences and impacts and is more than just a simple satisfier of basic needs, but is, instead, something that fundamentally influences and shapes every part of the world around us: identities, relationships, communities, societies, cultures, economies, environments, and more.

Modern gastronomers recognize that food can be a cause or driver of many of the world’s most pressing problems, such as hunger, dietary-related ill-health, and ecological destruction, but that it can also, therefore, be part of the solution to these problems. If we ‘get food right’ then positive responses to these other problems will follow.

The perspective of modern gastronomy is that attitudes to and understanding of food have to move beyond personal preferences and concerns towards an appreciation of food as a potent, political tool. In this sense, everyone’s relationship with food incorporates economic, political, social, and environmental consequences, meaning that food choices and practices can influence the food system and help reshape it for the better. This broader view of food’s importance also demands that the subject of food, along with its study and the thinking around it, is given greater respect, especially in the traditionally male-dominated areas of science and academia where food has been invisible or, if considered at all, viewed as base, frivolous, or simply ‘women’s work’..


In terms of the teaching of this modern version of gastronomy, its multidisciplinary and generalist stance can struggle for recognition where reductionist approaches dominate within science and academia. However, various forms of food studies have emerged over the last three decades, and there are a growing number of educational institutions offering programmes oriented towards neo-gastronomy, most prominently at the University of Gastronomic Sciences (UNISG) in Pollenzo, Italy, but also in institutions as geographically diverse as Montreal and Boston in Canada and the U.S., Auckland in New Zealand, and Edinburgh in Scotland. Innovative and groundbreaking as these all are, it is worth noting that the concept of an academy for gastronomy was actually proposed by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in 1826.

In such programmes, and in a growing number of other forward-thinking institutions around the world, food is used to unpack and explain economics and ecology, culture and communication, politics and philosophy, a wide range of social and life sciences, and much more. Graduates in gastronomy understand that food touches and influences everything in this world and connects seemingly disparate parts of our lives. They emerge as practiced generalists who recognise different viewpoints, understand and embrace food’s complexity, are wary of reductionist responses, and expect food matters to be multidimensional and interconnected. In Food: the Key Concepts, Warren Belasco asserts that “to study food often requires us to cross disciplinary boundaries and to ask inconvenient questions,” pointing out that “to help us sort out the issues and gain some needed perspective, we need generalists – people with a decent grounding in science and poetry, agriculture and philosophy, who are not afraid to question assumptions, values and methods.”

This approach equips graduate gastronomers to bring a fresh, even emancipated vision to established food-related work places or to conceptualise new roles that use food to bring benefits to an unexpectedly wide range of activities and interests. That people’s most pressing concerns—from health and well-being to the functioning of society or matters of sustainability—are deeply entwined with our relationship with food and the practice of feeding ourselves, makes the study and development of gastronomy, and gastronomers themselves, both important and necessary.

That is not to say that gastronomers give up appreciating food. Humans all eat and drink because of the compelling biological necessity to do so, but we also eat to learn, to belong, to appreciate, to understand, to share, to express ourselves, to practice who we are, to make ourselves better people, and to enjoy the social and physiological processes and all that it entails. The appeal of food and its importance are not mutually exclusive, and are indeed intertwined, a point made by Carlo Petrini who declared that “a gastronome who is not an environmentalist is surely stupid, but an environmentalist who is not a gastronome is merely sad.”

This serves as a reminder not to lose touch with food. The Pollenzo Manifesto, produced by the University of Gastronomic Sciences in 2018, states that “the true 21st century gastronome does not study food as an object; a gastronome studies with food,”. This points to two ways in which the study of food can be strangely susceptible to misplacing food. First, it can veer into looking too closely at just the food, a form of ‘foodie-ism’ that becomes obsessively interested in the particulars of food—its production, cooking, or presentation—but largely blinkered to broader perspectives. Anyone studying gastronomy in the form described here has likely had to rebuff assumptions that they’re participating in a kind of cookery course—a situation muddied by the frequent use of the word gastronomy in association with cookery skills classes, sometimes as an adjunct to culinary arts programmes or those specialising in molecular gastronomy. The neo-gastronomer’s response is that, while cooking or making food are hugely valuable and important skills, they are only a sub-section of the knowledge and practices around food.

The second, and oddly converse issue with some food scholarship, is that researchers and educators often become detached from ‘food’ itself. This can be seen in some social sciences contexts, where activities around food become a focus for observation and analysis. Similarly, in the health sciences, the functionality of food can dominate knowledge paradigms, sometimes reaching a point at which solutions to the challenges produced by food actually counter the holism of food. A similar problem occurs when policy connected to food is developed in isolation by or around government, with theoretical ideas failing to take account of how people actually interact with food and its meanings in real-life situations. Gastronomy and food studies programmes designed to develop holistic and interconnected thinking help learners study food “beyond the plate,” but without forgetting that it is still food.


In the end, gastronomy remains hard to define. It is, in Barbara Santich’s astute description, “slippery.” It can be easier to attempt to describe what gastronomy does than what it is, although in the recurring emphasis on multidisciplinarity, polysemia, and broad thinking, boundaries can be hard to come by too. Yet in remaining rather mercurial, important but imprecise, gastronomy asserts that its substance and meaning are continually developing, discussed, and negotiated, and shares those characteristics with its equally elusive principal subjects, humanity and food itself.

Discussion Questions

  • Describe and discuss the tension between ‘old’ culinary gastronomes—and their focus on cuisine—and ‘new’, eco-, or neo-gastronomers. Explain their differing views and visions of food. Can (and should) both views be held at the same time? How and when are they contradictory?
  • Why is gastronomy so difficult to define? Why is it so ‘slippery’, as Barbara Santich noted? What historical and current elements contribute to, or cause this confusion or difficulty? How might you begin to define gastronomy? 


Belasco, W. 2008. Food: the key concepts. New York: Berg.

Brillat-Savarin, J.A. 1826. La Physiologie du Goût ou Méditations de Gastronomie Transcendante. Paris: A. Sautelet & Co.

Brillat-Savarin, J.A. 1949. The physiology of taste or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy. Translated by MFK Fisher. London: Penguin.

Brillat-Savarin, J.A. 1994. The physiology of taste or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy. Translated by Anne Drayton. London: Penguin.

Lévi-Strauss, C.1962. Le totémisme aujourd’hui. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Maberly, C. 2017. “Thought for Food.” Beshara Magazine, Spring 2017. 

Mennell, S. 1996. All manners of food: eating and taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the present. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Perullo, N. 2018. “Pollenzo Manifesto.” UNISG.

Petrini, C. 2001. Slow Food: The Case for Taste.  New York: Columbia University Press.

Petrini, C. 2007. Slow Food Nation. New York: Rizzoli.

Petrini, C. 2015. Food and Freedom: How the Slow Food Movement is Changing the World Through Gastronomy. New York: Rizzoli.

Poulain, J.-P. 2002. Sociologies de l’alimentation. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Spang, R. 2020. The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and modern gastronomic culture. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Santich, B. 2004. “The study of gastronomy and its relevance to hospitality education and training.” International Journal of Hospitality Management 23 (1): 15–24.

Slow Food. 2021. “Slow Food terminology.” Slow Food Website.

Szanto, D. 2015. “The Eco-Gastronomy Project.” UNISG Website.

UNESCO. 2010. Intangible Cultural Heritage. UNESCO Website.

This is the origin of the more commonly known and often misapplied simplification, “You are what you eat.”
Brillat-Savarin 1994, 54.
Brillat-Savarin 1994, 15.
Poulain 2002, 195.
Spang 2020.
Mennell 1996, 267.
Petrini’s involvement in food dates from his earlier career in journalism and local food activism, largely starting in the 1970s. It was in the 1980s that his efforts grew into the movement now known as Slow Food.
Petrini 2001.
Petrini 2015, 38.
Petrini 2005, 55.
Petrini 2005, 41.
Szanto 2015, n.p.
Chrzan 2004; Laudan 2004.
Petrini 2015.
Lévi-Strauss 1962.
Petrini 2015
Slow Food 2021.
Belasco 2008
UNISG is widely recognised as the ‘Slow Food University’, having been founded by and built around the ethos of Carlo Petrini.
Belasco 2008, 6–7
Petrini 2015, 29.
Perullo 2018, n.p.
Maberly 2017.
Santich 2004, 15.

Case: Food in Kyrgyzstan

Christian Kelly Scott and Guangqing Chi

The Meaning of Food in Rural Mountainous Kyrgyzstan

Christian Kelly Scott is a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Geosciences at Mississippi State University. He holds a PhD in Rural Sociology and International Agriculture & Development from Pennsylvania State University. His research focuses on societal issues of hunger and food insecurity. His dissertation focused on the economic, environmental, and social determinants of household food security in the rural southern Kyrgyz highlands.

Guangqing Chi is a professor of rural sociology and demography and director of the Computational and Spatial Analysis Core at Pennsylvania State University. Dr. Chi is an environmental demographer with a focus on socio-environmental systems, aiming to understand the interactions between human populations and built and natural environments, and to identify important assets (social, environmental, infrastructural, institutional) to help vulnerable populations adapt and become resilient to environmental changes.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Examine practices of food gathering, eating, and meaning-making using the principles of political ecology.
  • Explain how food, environments, and identities are related.
  • Describe the importance of everyday experience to food studies.


Cascading, poplar-lined rivers, along with glacier-peaked mountaintops and lush, fertile pastures are everyday aspects of rural life in southern Kyrgyzstan. The community members whose experiences are discussed in this text reside in a village that lies in a valley overlooked by steep mountains on both sides. To the north lies a brightly colored slope of red, yellow, and orange sediment and rocks. To the south are dark rock outcroppings with clusters of ancient, stoic, deep-green juniper and spruce trees. Both sides show the telltale markings of landslides in the distant and recent past. The surrounding ecology shapes what each day and night bring for the people in southern Kyrgyzstan. Life in the village and life in the mountain pastures are intimately tied to the passage of seasons. There is a close tie among humans, environment, and food, which lends itself to the application of political ecology theory—the study of environmental themes that are inherently tied to human political, economic, and social factors.

two images of rural Kyrgyzstan including a village nestled in a valley between mountains and a stream running through a ravine
Figure 1: Scenes from the village (photos: Christian Kelly Scott)

Livelihoods in these rural communities are centered on traditional agropastoral practices—a mixture of sedentary agriculture practiced in mountain valley villages and semi-nomadic livestock management in mountain pastures. Environmental subject making and identities, explained in detail below, are reproduced in the types of food that are prepared, preserved, shared, or traded, and consumed in the villages and pastures. This text outlines the ways in which the theoretical foundations of political ecology are demonstrated in the meaning of food for the people in a rural community. The principles of political ecology are demonstrated in ways that reflect the composite meanings of food in multiple contexts in this area. Drawing on data collected throughout four seasons of the same year in rural southern Kyrgyzstan, our examination of food demonstrates how diets and meals reflect the surrounding mountain environment.

map showing Kyrgyzstan surrounded by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and China
Figure 2: Map showing the location of Kyrgyzstan in Asia

Political Ecology

The theory of political ecology enables the analysis of humans and the environment as innately linked together through interactions among biophysical, cultural, economic, political, and social factors. Five core concepts make up a framework for political ecology: environmental knowledge, environmental subjects and identity, environmental change, environmental governance, and environmental political objects and actors. Environmental subject making and identity means that “people’s behaviors and livelihoods (their actions) within ecologies influence what they think about the environment (their ideas), which in turn influence who they think they are (identities).”

In food studies, political ecology is useful for situating the experience that people have in their food relationships within the spatio-temporal context of their environment. This concept is brought to light here by examining how people perceive food in agropastoral Kyrgyz communities. By applying this framework to the study of food, we were able to focus on ways in which people derive meaning from what they eat, how they eat it, and where it comes from. We reached beyond the surface of merely analyzing interviews and embraced the connections and complexity of political ecology. With this focus in mind, we analyzed interviews of local residents conducted in their homes and yurts (a round mobile dwelling used by nomads), villages, and pastures to shape our understanding of food as a source of identity and practice.

Research Process

We conducted 44 interviews with adults in a rural southern Kyrgyz community. The interviews took place throughout the winter, spring, summer, and fall of 2019, and aimed at understanding seasonal aspects of food security. Interviews were recorded in Kyrgyz and translated into English for analysis. The semi-structured interviews allowed for an open discussion about rural life, food systems, and relationships with the surrounding mountain environment. Transcripts were coded to focus on identifying, describing, and linking themes.

Pastures and livestock

Traditional livelihoods in rural Kyrgyzstan are oriented around agropastoral practices. These include sedentary agriculture produces a small yield of mountain-friendly crops (such as potatoes, which can grow in the harsh conditions with the limited growing season) and seasonal vertical transhumance (i.e., movement from higher pastures in the summer to lower pastures in the winter). The latter takes place with livestock (mostly horses, cattle, and sheep) in mountain pastures. One mother of five highlighted the importance of livestock by saying, “Well, our life revolves [a]round the livestock, each day, repeatedly. That’s the reality in [the] village… That’s the way we live. [We have] no other income apart from that.”

The mountain pastures are therefore key places of environmental interaction. This interaction takes the form of spatial movement when traveling in pasture and staying in yurts and villages, as livestock is grazed, slaughtered, herded, breed, sheared, and milked. The foundation of seasonal diets is derived from livestock and livestock products. These ideals were voiced by one mother as she was baking bread with her daughter: “People love dairy products here in the village. Dairy products are our main diet. People call it aktyk, which means ‘white food.’ The times when cows produce less milk we say, ‘We are having a tough time without white food.’ Today our cows are out in pasture, so we are having tough times. To cope with the shortage of milk, once in a while we go to pasture to bring some milk, ayran, and kymyz [examples of white foods].”

But the adaptive food preparation strategies that households deploy to make it through times of scarcity are also tied to cultural identity and the historical legacy of the community. One father of six said, “You can also preserve jukka [a mixture of yogurt, butter, and flour] for years. This is why we’re called the nomad nation. [Our ancestors] practiced a lot of these preservation methods because it was easy to take [those foods] everywhere.” Movement in pastures and the intergenerational legacy of nomadic movements are tied to the meaning of food preservation and food consumption. In this way, food preservation takes on a meaning not only as a source of resilience to food shortage but also as a celebration of the proud heritage among the Kyrgyz people.

Seasonal diets

The passage of seasons in the mountains of the southern Kyrgyz highlands influences the precise makeup of household diets. Another mother of five articulated this by saying, “Of course, [household diet] changes [seasonally]. During autumn we have high harvest, so we have a lot to eat, and we eat a lot. In February and March our preservations are over, so we have difficulties. Not difficulties actually, [because] we know spring is coming, so we will have food [then].” The local environment changes starkly with the season. Winter is characterized by thick snow cover, and summer is accompanied by lush pastures, so the food security status of households also changes. Diets are closely related to the relationship that the community has with the environment through these changes. In winter, food is in short supply and diets need to change to consume fewer fresh foods.

Community members said that the utilization and availability of foods often coincide with the processes of raising livestock in the mountain pastures. Another mother of five explained, “When the fall comes, our livestock gets fat, times of abundance, everything is ripe. We cook a variety of dishes. In the winter and spring, [consumption of] meat and nutritious [food decreases]… In general, spring is [a time] of scarcity.” Here we see how livestock and pastures relate to the perceived abundance or scarcity of food throughout the year. The reference to fall and summer abundance is in stark contrast to the previous mother’s reference to times of difficulty when there may be an acute shortage of food in winter and spring.

The importance of meat

Food can take on a meaning reflective of the Kyrgyz ethnic identity that links the mountain environment and pastoral movement through explicit statements that community members made about meat: “Meat is the most important ingredient in our meal. It should always be available. A meal without…meat is like a low-calorie food. We can’t live without meat. If we eat food with no meat in it, we can feel a weakness.” With those words, this mother explained how meat is vital to making life possible in the mountains and, without it, survival would be difficult. Meat comes from livestock that are well suited to life in the mountains: sheep, horses, cattle, and goats. The type of meat that was available was also seasonal, depending on whether the livestock were in distant pastures during summer or in village stables during winter.

But meat is about more than just survival—it also links the ethnic identity of the Kyrgyz people to the surrounding mountain environment: “First of all, we consume the Kyrgyz food—meat—as all Kyrgyz people do.” And, when asked about the foods they eat, one young mother of two said, “Mainly we eat boorsok [fried dough], oromo [rolled dough with cube-cut, steamed potatoes], etc. We fry potatoes, meat. You know, Kyrgyz foods. These are our main foods.” To these community members, to be Kyrgyz, at least in these communities in the mountainous rural highlands, is to eat meat.

Nature provides

The final observation that demonstrates the meaning of food as a source of environmental identity among community members is how the respondents articulated their relationship with and utilization of nature as a source of resilience and sustenance. One grandfather of eleven stated, “We, Kyrgyz people, are ancient people. We are resourceful. Even if we do not have flour today, for example, we will find a way to make it work somehow… If we have no imported groceries, we can go to the mountains, hunt mountain deer, and still get by. Or we can set bird traps to hunt for meat.” This grandfather linked their identity and ancestral heritage to the resilience that the environment enables through wild-sourced foods. Another community member discussed the importance of nature in providing nutritious, wild-sourced foods. Likewise, a young father of one son linked natural foods to previous generations and traditional medicines: “Today they also collect from the mountains. There are things to collect, thanks to God. For example, they collect black currant, rosehip, green onions. They save some for winter, they eat some. In the old times, everything depended on the mountains… People eat more things that are natural… There are [also] special herbs for medical purposes.”


Our observations and interviews show how the idea of environmental subject making and identity is linked to the meaning of food in a real-world setting. The livelihoods and personal identities of these Kyrgyz community members are shaped by their surrounding mountain environment. One community member, a father of four, perhaps said it best and most simply: “Here everything is connected to…nature. We eat clean. We have clean air.” The fundamental implication of this research is that the meaning of food, as seen through a political ecology lens of environmental subject making and identity, is not an abstract ideal. Community members stated clearly that food took on a meaning that reflected how the surrounding ecology shaped their lives and their own environmental identities. It also speaks to the importance of incorporating everyday experience into food studies, especially when examining something as complicated as the meaning of food and the role of food in shaping identities.


This study provides a practical example of how food is conceptualized in a unique environmental and sociocultural context. The observations of pastures and livestock, seasonal diets, the importance of meat, and foraging from the landscape demonstrate the interconnected relationship between food, identity, and the environment. Food may not mean the same thing to everyone in the same community, let alone to different populations in completely different geographic contexts. It is therefore helpful to bring critical perspectives to the forefront, particularly for research conducted in places that are under-represented in scientific studies, such as Central Asian countries and, specifically, communities in rural Kyrgyzstan.

Discussion questions

  • What does food mean to the members of communities in rural Kyrgyzstan? How do the meanings of food, the environment, and personal identity relate to each other in this context?
  • Drawing on your own experience(s), identify a food that is connected to both identity and the environment. How do the meaning of food, the environment, and personal identity relate to each other in this context? How does this relationship differ from example from rural Kyrgyzstan described in the chapter above?
  • How does each of the four observations—pastures and livestock, seasonal diets, the importance of meat, and nature provisioning—exemplify the connection of food to everyday life in the Kyrgyz highlands? What are some potential observations about everyday life and food that shape your identity?


This research was supported by the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture and Multistate Research Project #PEN04623 (Accession #1013257), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Award #NNX15AP81G), the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (Award # P2C HD041025), Pennsylvania State University Libraries (Whiting Indigenous Knowledge Student Research Award), and the Social Science Research Institute, the Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education (M.E. John Memorial Endowment Graduate Student Thesis/Dissertation Research Award), the College of Agricultural Science’s Office for Research and Graduate Education, the Office of International Programs, and the Institutes for Energy and the Environment of the Pennsylvania State University. The findings and conclusions do not necessarily reflect the view of the funding agencies.


Bridge, G., J. McCarthy, and T. Perreault. 2015. “Editors’ Introduction.” In The Routledge Handbook of Political Ecology, edited by Tom Perreault, Gavin Bridge, and James McCarthy. New York, NY: Routledge: 3–18.

Ellis, J., and R. Lee. 2005. “Collapse of the Kazakstan Livestock Sector.” In Prospects for Pastoralism in Kazakstan and Turkmenistan: From State Farms to Private Flocks, edited by C. Kerven. London, UK: Routledge Curzon: 52–76.

Neely, A.H. 2015. “Internal Ecologies and the Limits of Local Biologies: A Political Ecology of Tuberculosis in the Time of AIDS.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 105 (4): 791–805.

Robbins, P. 2012. Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction. 2nd Ed.. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Robie, T. S., Tyler, V. Q., Al-Omair, A., Ahmed, S. E. H. E. T., Schaffer, T., Imanalieva, C., … Harvey, P. 2011. Situational Analysis Report: Improving economic outcomes by expanding nutrition programming in the Kyrgyz Republic. Washington, DC: World Bank/UNICEF.

Saldana, J. 2016. The Coding Manual for Qualitative Researchers. 3rd ed. Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications.

Scott, C.K. 2021. “The Pasture, the Village, and the People: Food Security Endowments and Abatements in the Southern Kyrgyz Highlands.” Dissertation. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University.

UNICEF. 2015. “Situation Analysis of Children in the Kyrgyz Republic.”

Neely 2015.
Gavin et al. 2015; Robbins 2012.
Robbins 2012, 216.
Scott 2021.
Saldana 2016.
See Ellis & Lee 2005; UNICEF 2015.

Creative: Street Food Vendors

Vincent Andrisani

The Sweetest Sound in the City
Vincent Andrisani is an Instructor in the Communication and Media Studies program at Carleton University. He specializes in the area of sound studies, intersecting the fields of soundscape studies, oral history, and popular music studies. Media production is an important dimension of Vincent’s research and teaching, and he presently produces (and hosts) a radio show called “The Place of Sound,” showcasing the audio media produced in his classrooms.

Artist’s Statement

“The Sweetest Sound in the City” is an audio documentary that tells a history of Havana through the sounds of the ice cream vendor. The piece comes out of a larger project on sound and listening in the city, developed using a combination of methods grounded in sensory ethnography and media archiving. Using a handheld audio recorder, and with the guidance of Havana-based oral historian Dr. Aurelio Francos Lauredo, I constructed a sound archive of Havana that today is housed at Fundación Fernando Ortiz. This audio documentary makes use of a number of those recordings, including the sounds of street vendors and Havana’s soundscapes among others. The narrative it tells was developed through my own research and is a story that (re)centres Havana as a city defined not by colonial or imperial rule, but one that belongs to the residents themselves.

Listen to the documentary. (See transcript below.)

One or more interactive elements has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view them online here:

The song “Helado Sobre Ruedas” by Gema y Pavel can be heard in the documentary and was used with permission from Peermusic Spain and Pavel Urquiza Domenech.




Exercise 1: Listening to an Image

Have a close look at the photograph of the old ice cream vendor. Take a moment, study the image. Imagine you’re a resident living in Havana at the time. How might you have learned about the presence of the vendor? What are some of the sounds that he may have made? What are some other sounds that are in some way associated with him and his truck?

Exercise 2: Finding Sounds

This is a simple listening exercise, but it often produces surprising results. Whether you’re alone or in a group, take out a stopwatch or open your smartphone’s timer app. Take out a pen or pencil, and a piece of scrap paper, and be ready to use them. From the moment you press ‘go’ on your stopwatch, sit in silence and write down all the sounds you hear over the course of three minutes.

Some people’s lists will be longer than others, and that’s totally fine. All answers will be correct. This exercise highlights how differently each of us listen, because listening is a very personal practice.

Exercise 3: Categorizing Sounds

Now you’re going to work with your list from Exercise 2, categorizing each of the sounds you wrote down. Beside each sound, indicate its type using the letters N, H, or T, which stand for Natural, Human, and Technology (i.e., a machine-generated sound). Which of the categories is dominant?

Exercise 4: Listening to, and for, food sounds

A “food sound” is any sound that is in some way related to food. Some food sounds are directly related to the preparation or consumption of food (e.g., frying or chewing). Others are less obvious and can be related to such processes as preservation or transportation.

Using the categories above (Nature, Human, Technology), think of a food sound that falls into each of the three categories.

* These listening exercises are adapted from R. Murray Schafer’s text “A Sound Education” (1992).


Vincent Andrisani: The Sweetest Sound

[Vendor’s chant, sound of passing vehicles]

It’s unlikely you’ll encounter this sound on your own street, but chances are, you know what it is. It’s the sound of a street vendor calling out to nearby residents, letting them know they have material goods or food items for sale. This particular vendor happens to be selling cookies.

[Vendor’s chant, sound of passing vehicles and brief car horn]

In the city of Havana, Cuba, where this recording was captured, this sound can be heard at most times of the day. There, vendors walk the streets and capture the attention of residents using a signature musical cry known in Spanish as a “pregón.” Presumably, the more musical and captivating the pregón, the more successful the vendor is.

[Vendor chanting a pregón]

But there’s one vendor whose sounds you might very well hear on your own street. A vendor that doesn’t use a pregón, but instead, plays a recognizable musical jingle. A jingle that summons childhood nostalgia, and is symbolic of a tasty summertime treat.

[Recorded music plays over sound of passing cars, children’s voices, and birds chirping]

Of course, I’m talking about the ice cream vendor. The recording you’re listening to was captured on a street corner in the district of Central Havana, one of the older and more populated areas of the city. You might notice that the vendor’s not moving, and neither am I. We’re standing across from one another in the same intersection. And the vendor is standing next to his parked tricycle, waiting to greet customers.

[Vendor’s music, ringing of bicycle bell, voices and ambient street noise]

I thought this was a bit unusual at first since vendors are typically on the move, but after thinking about it for a while, I realized that he’s playing music, not only for people in the streets, but also, for people in their homes. Because there’s no glass on windows and doors are often left open, sounds move easily between the street and the home. This vendor knows that, and so stopping in a populated intersection is actually a pretty good sales tactic. When I let one of my friends listen to this recording, he said, “You know, this is a very new sound in our city.” I replied, “How could this be a new sound? Ice cream vendors have been around for a really long time.” He said, “of course they have. But in Cuba, they were silent for many years.”

[Vendor’s music fades to silence]

In 1990, the fall of the Soviet Union brought about an intense economic crisis in Cuba. Over the next several years, there was barely enough food to eat, let alone ingredients to make ice cream. Only in about 2010 did the sound return. And today, ice cream vendors can be spotted ‘most anywhere in the city and at ‘most, any time of the year.

[Lively Cuban music begins, with whistling and a woman singing in Spanish]

Because of this, I realized that there’s a profound difference between how I listen to this sound, and how it’s heard by residents of Havana. For them, it must have a very different meaning since it was gone for over two decades. And one way we can hear that meaning is in song. This song by Havana-based duo Gema y Pavel, is called “Helado sobre ruedas,” which means “ice cream on wheels.” It’s a musical tribute to Havana’s missing ice cream vendors, and it represents them as a source of joy, happiness, and as a neighborhood event that, as the song says, “made family problems disappear.”

[“Helado sobre ruedas” plays]

Andrisani: So, I wondered, how can I listen to the sounds of the ice cream vendor in a way that resembles how residents of Havana listen to it? And what place does this sound hold in the collective memory of the city? To answer these questions, I’d have to follow the sound through history. I’d have to learn how it sounded before it was silenced, all the way back to the moment that it appeared on the streets of Havana. So that’s what I did.

[“Helado sobre ruedas” fades to silence. Electronic music box begins to play]

The sounds of the electronic music box that we heard earlier have been used by ice cream vendors for quite some time. The technology was invented in the mid 1950s by Minnesota-based company Nichols Electronics. And so, these were the sounds that were heard on the streets of Havana before the vendor fell silent. They appeared sometime in the late 1950s and were present right up until about 1990 at the onset of the crisis.

[Music box continues playing]

But before this technology became available, ice cream vendors were associated with an entirely different set of sounds.

[Music box fades, bell starts ringing]

One of which was the bell, which vendors in the 1940s and 50s would ring as they walked the streets with a cart they pushed by hand. Some of them would pause from time to time to ring the bell, but others mounted it directly onto their cart so they could ring it as they walked. Another sound made by ice cream vendors was much less deliberate.

[Small bell ringing; sounds of horse-drawn carriage moving along street]

While some vendors walked the streets with pushcarts, others traveled with a horse and carriage. And so, you can imagine what the sounds associated with these vendors might have been. A memoir written by Iris Díaz, a former resident of Havana, offers a really rich description of her memories of the horse-drawn carriage. Díaz says the following, [female speaking voice] “I remember the hoof sounds of a horse pulling the Hatuey ice-cream cart, and the cries of a peddler ringing his bell, yelling ‘Helado!’ Children ran into the street, holding onto their nickels and dimes to buy that creamy vanilla ice cream cone, then balancing the cone in one hand as they tried petting the horse with the other. The sweetest sounds were the happy voices of children calling each other, ‘Angelina come out to play!'”

[Street noise and sounds of children playing]

And all of these sounds: the bells, the horse, the carriage and the children, could be heard just like the modern vendor in the streets and through open windows and doors into nearby homes. But we can go further still into the past and listen to the moment that ice cream vendors first appeared on the streets of Havana.

[Street noise fades to silence. Sound of a large crowd of people at a baseball game]

During Cuba’s struggle for independence in the late 1800s, cultural practices, traditions and customs from the United States began to replace those from Spain. For instance, baseball took the place of bullfighting and was an important example of the island’s turn-away from Spanish colonial culture in favor of a more modern American way of life.

[Murmur of crowd of people in baseball stadium, homerun, applause]

It’s no coincidence that streetside ice cream vending arrived in Havana at this very same time. And one way we know this is because an early ice cream vendor was captured in a photograph taken right around the time of Cuban independence in 1902.

[Camera light bulb flash, silence]

This photo tells us that early ice cream vendors also made use of a hand cart, but their cart was bigger and bulkier than those used in the 1950s. And it was made entirely of wood, so it was probably quite difficult for them to push. These vendors didn’t use sound-making technologies like chime music or bells. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t make any sounds.

[Creaking wooden cart wheels moving against ground]

The most obvious sound they’d make is their pregón. Presumably, they’d walk the streets shouting, “Helado!” Letting residents know they’re selling ice cream, just like vendors do today. These vendors marked an important moment and played an important role in the everyday life of the city for a couple of reasons. The first of which is that they offered the opportunity for the working class to purchase a food item that was historically reserved for the upper class. Through the ice cream vendor, ice cream became a popular confection that could finally be served to everyone. And the second reason, is that ice cream vendors represented the local desire to replace Spanish with American culture in the hopes of modernizing the island, and ultimately, demonstrating what it means to be Cuban. The sounds of the ice cream vendor were literally the sounds of a city and a cultural identity being formed!

[After the silence begins, the sound of wooden cart fades. “Helado Sobre Ruedas” begins to play again]

And it’s worth noting that this identity was brought to life, in part, using an ingredient that had grown in Cuba for hundreds of years: sugar! Sugar was the reason for the colony, and it plays an important role in the Cuban diet—which of course includes a steady dose of ice cream to keep cool on those hot Havana days.

It’s quite amazing to think that all of this information, and all of this history is expressed in the sound of the ice cream vendor. In it, we hear: the silence of Cuba’s economic crisis; Havana’s golden era in the 1940s and 50s, the Americanization of the city at the turn of the century, and the emergence of a middle class that could afford ice cream for the first time.

But in order to hear this, we not only had to listen to the sound locally, through the open windows and doors of Havana’s neighbourhoods. But we also had to listen globally, by mapping those sounds onto far away places at different moments in history: the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, Minnesota in the 1950s, and Spain in the late 1800s.

All of this history is expressed in the sound of Havana’s ice cream vendor today, but it takes a bit of time, effort, and guidance in order to hear it. It takes curiosity to map the linkages between taste, sound, people, their geography, and their history. But when we do, it enriches our experience. It makes the world make a bit more sense, once we accept the idea that certain sounds and certain flavours have a cultural history, and are defined not by one but by many different meanings.

So this raises the following question: what do you hear when you listen to the sounds of the ice cream vendor?

[Music fades]

Song: Helado Sobre Ruedas Author: Pavel Urquiza Domenech © Peermusic Española, S.A.U.

Case: School Lunchtimes

Yukari Seko and Lina Rahouma

Bento box and mothering away from home: Japanese immigrant families’ experience at Canadian school lunchtime

Yukari Seko is a critical health communication scholar and an Assistant Professor at Toronto Metropolitan University’s School of Professional Communication. Her program of research takes a participatory, arts-informed approach to explore communication processes related to mental health, disabilities, and food practices. Her current research interrogates how Asian immigrant families navigate through institutionalized food environments in Canada including school, hospital and long-term care facility.

Lina Rahouma graduated from the Nutrition and Food program at Toronto Metropolitan University. She then completed a Professional Master’s Diploma in Dietetics through Ryerson University, in partnership with The Hospital for Sick Children. She is passionate about food literacy, food security, and children’s nutrition and health, and she has a deep interest in working internationally and learning about different cultures and foods.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Describe how children’s home-packed lunches reflect family food values and their social locations.
  • Identify potential impacts of food culture mismatch experienced by children between home and school.
  • Discuss potential ways of mitigating the negative impact of food culture mismatch.
  • Name structural barriers in school food environments and propose creative solutions for fostering an inclusive and accepting climates in the classroom.


“Mom, can I bring a sandwich to school?”

“Yes, of course. But can you tell me why? I thought you love onigiri [rice ball].”

“…My friend told me ‘you brought sushi again.’ I’m hiding it during lunch time.”

I (Yukari) vividly remember this conversation with my then five-year-old son when he started senior kindergarten in the Toronto District School Board. Growing up in Japan and having migrated to Canada in my 20s, it never occurred to me that my son’s Japanese-style bento would attract unwanted attention at school. His bento box was typically packed with what we eat at home: meat or fish dishes (dinner leftovers), cooked vegetables, and steamed rice (often made into onigiri), which I grew accustomed to and thought of as ‘normal.’ Yet what I thought was an ordinary lunch stood out at my son’s school, leading him to feel embarrassed about his favorite foods.

This poignant experience told me that children’s lunches at school closely reflect the complex realities of their families’ food landscapes. Indeed, food has profound symbolic values that shape one’s cultural identity. For immigrant families, home-packed lunches (i.e., meals to be consumed outside the home) can play a crucial role in maintaining their emotional ties to the ‘home country’ and preserve their culinary identities across generations. However, as my son’s request for sandwiches indicates, norms and expectations around what to eat at school differ, not only among family members, but also between the home and the school, and across food cultures.

In this chapter we present a case about school-aged children of Japanese origin and their mothers focusing on their experiences during Canadian school lunchtimes. As a unique medium connecting the private and the public food environments, children’s lunches at school provide a salient context in which to explore how families formulate food meanings and habits in and outside the home. Our exploration unpacks the complex interplay between migration, gender, social class, school, and larger sociocultural discourses on healthy eating that determine what goes in the lunchbox.

Unboxing the bento box

To help children engage in the study and openly express their thoughts on school lunchtime, we used an arts-informed research method in combination with focus group interviews. A total of 16 school-aged children (6 to 12 years old) of Japanese background participated in two art workshops, facilitated by the researchers and a fine artist, and created art pieces about their typical school lunchboxes. Coloured paper, textiles, magazine pages, coloured pencils, markers, and other arts and crafts supplies were provided to spark children’s creativity (see Figure 1). After creating their lunchboxes, the children were invited to join focus groups to talk about their experiences at school lunchtime. This data collection process transformed otherwise adult-oriented interview procedures into a more relaxed, enjoyable, and child-centred experience.

Along with the children, we also conducted a total of four focus groups with 19 Japanese immigrant parents (all mothers), asking about their experience packing children’s lunches to school. After the preliminary analysis, we shared an animated video summarizing the findings and asked all participants for anonymous feedback. This engaging member checking process was invaluable for this study, to ensure analytic rigor and integrate voices of the children and mothers into the final analysis.

children sitting arount a table covered with craft materials (paper, pens, glue, scissors, etc.)
Figure 1: Child participants expressed their creativity in making their school lunchboxes with various art and craft materials

Mothering away from home through bento box

All mothers who participated in the study reportedly took on responsibility for family feeding and indicated strong preferences about serving Japanese home meals to their family. For the mothers, a ‘good’ lunch means a Japanese-style lunch, namely, a nutritionally balanced, wholesome meal containing diverse food items, including a staple, main and side dishes, and a substantial amount of vegetables. This perception was informed mainly by the mothers’ own experience growing up in Japan, within the Japanese national food education program (shokuiku) that prioritizes Japanese home-cooked meals as optimal for children’s development. Moving away from Japan, the mothers strived to prepare good bento for their children, in order to nourish their growth and food literacy. Some mothers reportedly taught themselves how to cook Japanese home meals after having children in Canada, so as to “feed [their] children properly” (Parent 05).

Echoing the mothers, most children in our study said they usually bring home-cooked Japanese foods to school. The majority of children’s artworks reflected that their lunchboxes typically contain a variety of food items, including a staple (mainly steamed rice), a main dish (mainly meat), and vegetables (Figure 2), or one-dish meals such as Japanese-style curry on rice (Figure 3).

close up of a "bento box" made with crafting materials
Figure 2: A 12-year-old participant crafted her lunch to school, which closely resembles a typical bento in Japan.
child's artwork with a figure of a boy and a bowl of Japanese curry
Figure 3: An artwork representing Japanese curry on rice in a thermal lunchbox, created by a six-year-old participant. The speech bubble next to the person reads itadakimasu! (“I’ll dig in!”).

In many mothers’ perspectives, the preparation of ‘good’ lunchboxes is tied closely with the moral accountability of ‘good mothering’ that influences children’s future health:

“All I do for the lunch stems from the truly nutritiously balanced lunch my mother made for me… I believe moms should put their effort into lunch making for their elementary school kids… The food practice during the elementary years affects his/her whole life, such as fussiness [in food habits].” (Parent 03)

Relatedly, the mothers’ perceived responsibility to prepare ‘good’ lunches for children goes in tandem with their commitment to help children with good eating habits outside the home. Many mothers taught their children to finish the bento—leaving no leftover—so that they can get enough nutrients and express appreciation for the food. Through everyday lunchbox making, these mothers hope to pass on to their children a Japanese culinary identity and normative understandings of personal responsibility for health. In return, most children internalized the mothers’ ideas of a ‘healthy’ lunch and the moral imperative of good eating, and followed the exhortations to eat all foods served to them.

Food culture mismatch

Although their children’s lunchbox embodies the mother’s active commitment to promote children’s health and well-being, what were considered ‘good’ lunches do not always fit within the school food environment. Some children in our study reportedly experience food culture mismatch between home and school. As the opening anecdote suggests, Japanese food items such as onigiri (rice ball) and nori (seaweed) occasionally attract unwanted attention at Canadian schools. When asked what their schoolmates would say when they bring Japanese foods to school, one child described:

“They sound like they’re saying it’s gross, I don’t like it. [They’re] not my friends but the boys in the class… They say like, ‘ew, what is that?’ in like a gross way.” (Child 12)

Other participants shared that some Japanese food items are seen unfamiliar or foreign, and thus become subject to mockery and negative comments.

“My son was told by his classmate, ‘inari sushi is bad for your health.’ I said to my son you should ask your classmate if they have ever had it. My son actually asked next day and found that the classmate didn’t know anything about inari sushi. They were like ‘what is it?’ For them it was an unfamiliar brown thing that looked unhealthy.” (Parent 07)

Additionally, both children and mothers noted that Canadian school food environments do not always accommodate their food practices. Due to the lack of access to microwave ovens, some of their favorite Japanese foods cannot be packed in their lunchboxes, as these foods lose flavor when they get cold. Some children bring thermal lunchboxes, but their favorite foods cannot always be packed because both the texture and flavours are altered.

Most children also reported that they often feel rushed to eat. As lunchtime is part of recess in many Canadian public schools, students’ actual seated lunchtime is limited to 15 to 20 minutes, which may not allow children to finish Japanese-style bento with a variety of food items. Responses to their children’s experiences at school varied among families. While many have maintained their preferred food practices, some mothers have reportedly modified their children’s bento to accommodate their children’s need to fit in at school.

Shaming toward unhealthy’ food habits

While some Japanese foods are seen as foreign and unfamiliar at Canadian schools, food shaming does not occur in a one-way direction. Many participants, children and mothers alike, shared negative views toward other children’s ‘unhealthy’ lunchboxes, ones that were perceived to be nutritionally unbalanced or containing ‘junk’ foods. Some children commented that their classmates bring “unhealthy (foods) like burgers…like sandwiches that have a lot of junk in it” (Child 07). Such descriptions do not fall into their definition of a ‘healthy’ lunch. Other children reportedly felt puzzled by peers whose lunches do not consist diverse food items. One child commented that it was hard to understand why one of her classmates “only had Tim Hortons for lunch for the whole year” (Child 03). To her, such a food habit does not represent ‘healthy’ eating.

Though relatively scarce in our data, negative perceptions toward ‘unhealthy’ food habits were sometimes associated with lower socioeconomic status and financial constraints. One mother commented on her child’s classmate who brings prepackaged snacks for lunch:

“I asked my daughter what [the classmate] eats during lunch time. [My daughter said] she fills with snacks. I was like really? Her parents are rich and still that?” (Parent 08)

A link between low socioeconomic status and ‘snacks’ (i.e., prepackaged, processed foods) is alluded to in this comment through the surprise the mother felt that affluent parents would provide their children with ‘unhealthy’ foods. It is worth noting that children reported that their teachers would quickly intervene when culture-related food shaming took place in class, but comments on ‘junk food’ rarely attracted the adults’ attention.


Children’s school lunchboxes embody multiple aspects of a family’s food practice, including culinary traditions, family dynamics, social locations, and sociocultural discourses of ‘healthy’ eating. For many of Japanese mothers in our study, everyday lunchbox making is a key aspect of mothering in and outside home, through which they demonstrate an active commitment to their children’s health and future well-being. The lunchbox is also an important locus of cultural identity to materialize and instill Japanese food values within the children growing up in Canada. Children’s artworks and narratives indicated that the mothers’ norm of ‘good’ lunch and eating is being successfully passed down to them.

The mothers’ effort to preserve Japanese culinary traditions in their new country, however, sometimes caused food culture mismatch between school and home environments. Home food that does not fit the dominant food norms of schools stands out, producing feelings of embarrassment and ostracization in children. As food is closely tied to one’s identity, the bitter experience of lunchtime shaming at school could have a substantial impact of children’s and their families’ emotional well-being. In order to embrace and nurture the diverse food identities that children bring to class, schools can engage with families from diverse food cultures and explore their priorities in helping children establish positive relationships to food.

In so doing, the prevalence of disdain toward ‘junk’ foods and a class-based notion linking ‘unhealthy’ eating with socioeconomic status merit closer attention. Stigma toward ‘unhealthy eating’ could be linked to culinary ethnocentrism or classism, which prioritizes one food practice over the others. A more inclusive, intersectional, and culturally appropriate discussion on ‘healthy eating’ at schools can support children and families from diverse ethnocultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, while safely exploring and performing their food identities. Meantime, food should not become a taboo subject at school, resulting in children becoming afraid of offending one another. Instead, schools can offer an optimal space that helps children be exposed to many different food cultures and learn how to negotiate social and emotional boundaries around their food identities.

Discussion Questions

  • What are some of the ways in which a person may experience food culture mismatch between home and school?
  • What are the potential ways of mitigating negative impacts of food culture mismatch children may experience between home and school environments? Take the role of students, educators, parents/families, and school staff members, and discuss how to collaboratively approach this issue.


Think back to your own school lunch and write a short reflective essay by addressing the following questions:

  • What did your typical school lunch look like when you were at elementary school? (Option: draw or make an artwork of your typical school lunch.)
  • What was your favorite food/dish that you ate at school? Explain what makes this food/dish special for you.
  • If you brought home-packed lunches to school, what factors shaped your lunches? How much of a factor were family food tradition, cost, nutrition, and your preference?
  • Reflect on any notable experiences you may have had regarding the way your school lunchroom was set up.

Additional Resources

Allison, A. 1991. “Japanese mothers and obentōs: The lunch-box as ideological state apparatus.” Anthropological Quarterly 64 (4): 195–208.

Finally Getting “White People Lunch” — “Fresh Off the Boat”

Harman, V. and Cappellini, B. 2019. “Intersectionality and migrant parents’ perspectives on preparing lunchboxes for their children.” In Feeding Children Inside and Outside the Home: Critical Perspectives. New York: Routledge. 28–41.


Agaronov, A., T. Entwistle, and M.M. Leung. 2019. “From the lunch table, to the family table: A grounded theory approach to understanding urban adolescents’ experiences of food culture mismatch between school and home environments.” Ecology of food and nutrition 58 (1): 23–44.

Mah, C. 2010. “Shokuiku: governing food and public health in contemporary Japan.” Journal of Sociology46 (4): 393412.

Seko, Y., L. Rahouma, C.T. Reeves, and V. Wong. 2021. “Unboxing the bento box: An arts-informed inquiry into Japanese families’ experience at Canadian school lunch time.” Canadian Food Studies/La Revue canadienne des études sur l’alimentation 8 (3): 21–44.

The recollection of this dialogue was made in collaboration with Asahi Seko, who was eight years old at the time of writing (summer 2021).
Results from this study are also reported in a paper published in Canadian Food Studies (Seko et al. 2021). While that work is distinct from what is presented here, the two pieces draw on the same body of research and there is some overlap between the two texts.
Mah 2010, 406-7.
Agaronov et al. 2019, 24.
Inari sushi, also known as bag sushi, is a dish of sushi rice stuffed in a seasoned deep-fried tofu pocket.

Creative: Collaborative Eating Performances

Annika Walsh

Chinese Croquembouche & Congeegate

Annika Walsh is a transdisciplinary artist who was born in Chuzhou, China and adopted at 11 months of age by her family in Canada. She works with a variety of ingredients, materials, and collaborators to form her conceptual pieces. Her practice ranges from exploration of cultural identity to participatory food performances, and everything in between. Striving to blur the lines and push the boundaries, Annika makes a habit of traversing many disciplines, including sculptural installation, performance, and media.

Chinese Croquembouche (Nov. 2021)

This interactive sculpture puts a savoury twist on a classic french dessert. A croquembouche is a pastry cream stuffed choux pastry tower that is stuck together with sweet caramel. My version has a savoury chinese flavoured bean sprout and cabbage filling. For the caramel aspect, I created a concentrate of soy sauce, hoisin, rice vinegar, mushroom oyster sauce, garlic and ginger. I took that concentrate and mixed a bit of it into simmering maple syrup. I let this concoction bubble down into a hard ball caramel. With all of the new elements, I constructed the tower the day of reviewing. This piece requires activation and destruction in order for it to be “completed”. The rest of the art making happens through the deliberate action of the participants.

three angles on the savoury croquembouche, in its whole form, made by the artist
Figure 1: Chinese Croquembouche
two photos of the remnants of the croquembouche, with scissors, on a gallery plinth
Figure 2: Chinese Croquembouche, after the eating
residue of the croquembouche, with scissors, on a gallery plinth
Figure 3: Chinese Croquembouche, ‘completed’.

Congeegate (Dec. 2021)

I call this piece a performance because the focus is not about an art object. While this experience did involve objects (some crafted specifically for this piece), it is more about the notion of congregating and eating together. All of the elements were placed close to the ground, encouraging the participants to shift their attention down towards the floor. Things were placed in a linear fashion, with three distinct sections. The first was a bowl and spoon stand; the stand was made for this piece. The second station had a large pot containing congee (a rice porridge). This batch only had jasmine rice cooked down with water and salt. This base suggested a blank canvas in which participants could add their own preferences, putting more of themselves into the piece that was initially presented to them. Surrounding the pot was a handmade lazy susan that smoothly revolved around the pot. It held different toppings: tea eggs, spicy peanuts, green onions, oyster mushrooms, a Szechuan kelp mixture, and more. The last part of the installation was a pre-made lazy susan that held sauces and seasoning such as soy sauce, sesame oil, black vinegar, kosher salt and more. The stations were placed in the middle of my studio; surrounding the food were pillows, blankets and exercise mats. During this experience, everyone chatted while creating their bowls, and then went to sit down and eat.

Perspective: Food Relationships

Sarah Rotz

Food as Relations: Reflecting on our Roots, (Re)visioning our Relationships
Sarah Rotz is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Environmental & Urban Change at York University. Her academic and organizing work is grounded in environmental justice, with a focus on land and food systems.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Describe the relationship between systemic/structural food issues and personal food choices and beliefs.
  • Reflect on and question their relationship to food and body, particularly as related to issues of systemic racism and sexism.
  • Critically interrogate the personal and political impacts of diet culture, and propose alternative perspectives toward food, dieting, and body acceptance.


How oftenand how deeplydo you think about your relationship to food? If you’re like many students I speak to, you might say, “I try to eat healthy, but other than that…not too much.” Yet we are inundated with all sorts of food messages every day. How, then, can we make sense of all this information if we don’t ask ourselves some critical questions? Let’s start with the following: How would you describe your relationship to food? What meaning does food have in your life? What thoughts and feelings does food evoke for you? What different feelings are associated with certain foods and food practices? What key memories have shaped your ‘coming to know’ food?

This process of reflection has been powerful for me personally, because it has helped me connect biggerpicture food system issues, such as industrialization, corporate concentration, and systemic racism, to cultural and emotional dimensions, such as diet culture, body image, and fat-phobia (fear or disdain of fatness). For this chapter, I draw from my own reflection process to make some connections between seemingly abstract structural forces of racism, settler colonialism, and patriarchy to our personal relationships with food, our bodies, and ourselves.

Some of my earliest food messages centered on themes of food restriction and self-discipline, creating an inner world of confusion and self-doubt. Many of the people in my life—especially the women—modelled an anxious and polarized relationship with food, displaying a venomous hate for both ‘the calorie’ and the body in some moments, and a ravenous desire for food in others. The latter often ended in self-blaming and punishing remarks about piggies,” along with promises to never do that again. Weekend brunches were often followed by declarations that “we don’t need to eat anything until dinner!” I remember feeling nervous, thinking: But, what if I get hungry before dinner? The message I took from this was that that hunger is something to be controlled, managed, and contained, and that one should only feel hungry at socially appropriate times. If, then, my hunger arose outside of these socially sanctioned moments (which was often), I would feel shame: Why am I hungry? This isn’t right, I shouldn’t feel hungry. Looking back, I see how immediately I internalized my parents relationship to food as I grew. Their punitive, regulatory voice became my own.

Situating our Relationship to Food

Exploring our personal relationships to food (made up of intertwined experiences, perceptions, mentalities, narratives, and messages) can feel difficult because it is so deeply connected to our core sense of self. Our early messages about food tell us a great deal about whether or not we can (and should) trust ourselves, our bodies, and our feelings. If they are shaming, critical, and restrictive messages, they can have deep and persistent negative effects on our self-worth, and our degree of body acceptance. They also shape how we understand and internalize larger cultural messages, such as fat-phobia and the idealization of thinness. The relationship between the personal and political reveal themselves in the realm of food. Our internal relationship to food is shaped and informed by our familial and socio-cultural food knowledges and practices, which are strongly determined by larger forces that condition how we understand, access, interact with, and consume food. Put simply, our ability to engage in different food practices (e.g., whether we gain access to food from a fridge, restaurant, garden, or forest) are limited to a large extent by the culture and society we live in (e.g., how we are situated in society to have access to economic resources, cultural knowledges, land, and natural spaces). So while we can certainly push back against and move beyond food messages that feel unhealthy and harmful to us, it is helpful to remember that our social conditions have heavily encouraged some ways of knowing and interacting with food, while making others incredibly difficult.

As my own memories affirm, many of us struggle with various forms of rigid and disordered eating, which can be described as a way of relating to food that causes emotional, psychological and/or physical harm. Again, this harmful relationship does not arise simply from one’s own mind—external forces shape our personal relationships to food. Diet culture, defined as a system of beliefs that equate thinness and particular body shapes and sizes to health and moral virtue, has played a particularly destructive role here. Its roots run deep. As systems of capitalism, colonialism, and ecological imperialism reveal, unhealthy and unethical systems often cultivate unhealthy and dysfunctional relations to food, the land, each other, and ourselves.

Getting to the Roots of our Personal Food Relations

The restrict-binge cycle of eating has become so common in Western culture that most of us can easily recognize it in ourselves and others. Fat-phobia and diet culture have a centuries-long history rooted in European imperial and colonial expansion (marked by resource theft and political and cultural domination), and cultural beliefs in the superiority of white peoplemen in particular. These are the same systems through which the dominant food industry has evolved. In her book, Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, sociologist Sabrina Strings clearly shows how anti-black racism (linked to the Atlantic slave trade) and the rise of religious Protestantism shaped anti-fat expressions around food and the body, coming together firmly in the early 19th century.

Fat-phobic language and the admiration of the thin body were deployed through popular culture and media by Europeans and white Americans to create and reinforce “social distinctions between themselves and so-called greedy and fat racial Others.” Religious language linked slenderness to ‘civilized’ dispositions and moral and racial superiority, while equating fatness to signs of ungodliness, “poor constitution”, and savagery. The popularization of fat-phobia in dominant North American culture had material interests and consequences, and it played a key role in degrading Black people, so-called “hybrid whites” (e.g., Celtic Irish, southern Italians, Russians), immigrants, and poor people. As feminist and gender scholars have shown, fat-shaming language and thin obsession has targeted women by regulating and denigrating women’s relationships with food and their bodies. White women became the representatives and delegates of the white Protestant ideal, involuntarily assigned the role of upholding established codes of superiority—a slender woman is a disciplined, civil, dignified, and pure woman. In this way, Strings argues that race acts as a double agent “to both degrade black women and discipline white women.”

The disciplining language of fat-phobia has been passed down through generations of families, and mine was not immune. Reflecting on how the main tenets of diet culture have shown up in my own life—in my home, amongst friends, at school, and in the media, the messaging was everywhere. Family and friends were often comparing themselves and each other to white, thin ideals, and they tended to associate thinness with health and moral virtue. When I was as young as ten or eleven, I remember the shame and frustration on the faces of female friends as they declared their weight loss goals and focused on “getting thin.” I learned at a young age that weight loss was widely attributed to sexual desirability and social status. Around this time, my mom began an especially intensive healthy eating’ phase in which she demonized certain foods and revered others. This self-disciplining language of ‘good’ or ‘healthy’, versus ‘bad’ or ‘unhealthy’ foods, creates a sense of shame and erodes our pleasure and trust around food. These thoughts and practices have far-reaching impacts on our internal lives and psyches. Also, these culturally constructed categories of food (as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’) are rooted in racist and classist language that centers white Euro-American foods while excluding, demonizing, or otherwise appropriating foods from non-white cultures and communities.

When I was young, my family didn’t cook or eat together regularly. Money and time were both fairly tight, but that doesn’t fully explain why our food culture felt so isolating and noncommunal. My family, too often, carried and reinforced food messages based in shame, restriction, and discipline. Looking back, I would describe our food atmosphere as unloving, with undertones of hostility. Food preparation and eating practices were often spoken about negatively—as an unwelcome obligation (and unwelcome calories)—rather than as a potentially joyful opportunity to bring people together. These characteristics are not unique to my family. They are premised on age-old sentiments that openly loving and finding joy and pleasure in food implies you are weak, inferior, boorish, and unrefined. These sentiments have evolved from—and serve the interests of—capitalist food and diet culture, but they have particular historical origins in North America under white European settler colonialism. While particular in how they function, settler colonial and enslavement societies are relatedly underpinned by beliefs and practices of discipline, control, and hierarchy, alongside individualist, acquisitive, and supremacist ways of thinking.

Reflecting on Colonial Food Relations

While my ancestors may not have been the central architects of colonial invasion (although I’m still unclear about the details), they were by and large colonial in their mentality and actions. Like most settler Canadians, my ancestors were born into a mental framework of Euro-American arrogance” that operates as a widespread system or method of control and underpins our dominant society. In terms of food, the settler colonial mental framework drove the project of land theft and resource accumulation, and gave rise to the dominant food system we are now steeped in. The settler colonial origins of our food system are marked by the rise of the settler patriarchal family farm engaged in market-based production using increasingly large and expensive machines and inputs (such as seeds, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides) on relatively large plots of land within a growing agri-business industry. In turn, the vast majority of agricultural land and other-than-human beings (also described as ‘resources’) in Canada have been built by and for white settler people, governments, and corporations. It is thus unsurprising that nearly all of the agricultural land in Canada is managed by white (male) settler farmers. Collectively, settler culture understands land and food as an economic resource and commodity, and this way of seeing has deeply shaped how settler societies and institutions relate to it.

Put differently, regardless of the motives of individual settlers, the structure of colonization (comprised of institutions, laws and policies, norms, and worldviews) evolved with intent and purpose. Patrick Wolfe argues that to effectively accumulate land and build an industry, peoples and cultures currently living on those lands must be eliminated. Giving the lie to the rhetoric that Canada was “empty land” or “terra nullius, Indigenous peoples had deeply rooted food relations and practiced complex forms of food growing and gathering for centuries before contact with Europeans; they continue to do so today. Colonial governments created policies to suppress Indigenous food growing, gathering, and harvesting while also restricting Indigenous involvement in settler agricultureeven while colonial policy-makers argued that they wanted Indigenous people to be farmers. These policies (including the homestead, reserve, pass, and Métis scrip systems) played a central role in dispossessing Indigenous Nations and dismantling their food and livelihood systems. Further, they forced certain settler food cultures, habits, and relations upon Indigenous Nations. Forced starvation, food and water contamination, the prohibition of Indigenous food practices, and other food injustices that the colonial government has inflicted on Indigenous peoples are often strategies in the larger project of settler expansion. Indeed, settler expansion requires the concurrent undermining of Indigenous lifeways, control, and self-determination (although Indigenous peoples, communities, and nations have done a great deal to resist this).

Revisioning Food Relations: Making Joy, Love, Kin & Justice

If colonial mentalities and behaviors are conditional rather than inevitable states of a society, how then can we move beyond colonial and patriarchal food relationships, both personally and collectively? I have shifted away from the perspective that sustainable food solutions must be found primarily through legal regulation (e.g., banning or mandating certain foods or ingredients) that would change consumer behavior. This is specifically because these approaches have been shown to reinforce diet culture tenets of discipline, restriction, and shame, while transferring structural harms onto individuals and deploying cultures of surveillance onto those with the least power.

Taking direction from Black and Indigenous scholars, activists, and teachers—and in community with students and colleagues—I envision what it means to build a (de)(anti)colonial and feminist relationship toward food. As Kim TallBear explains, “in order to sustain good relations among all the beings that inhabit these lands, we must undercut settler (property) relations. Instead of killing the Indian to save the man, we must turn the ontological table.

As a first step in this life-long process, I began working to confront my internalized racism, sexism and fat-phobia, especially with how I thought about and acted on food. By applying processes of reflection to my own life, I have been able to better understand how these internalized mental frameworks have guided my approach to food and my body. The wisdom and support of teachers and community have shown me the power of practices and relations grounded in mind-body attunement and self-trust (through, for instance, an ‘intuitive eating’ approach), starting with simply listening to and affirming my body’s own intuitions, desires, and needs. Doing this work has allowed me to begin healing shame- and control-based food behaviours while encouraging internal dialogue that de-links self-worth from appearance. For me, these teachings have been the most promising and sustainable path of recovery from personally destructive food relations. In addition, they can be extrapolated to the political.

Given our deeply unequal social conditions, we know that declaring that all people ought to just make healthy food choices’ only strengthens shame-based food messages, especially for marginalized folks and those in larger bodies. Instead, what would it mean to center the needs and well-being of those whose bodies and identities fall outside of the limited boundaries of diet culture, and who bear the brunt of white, heteronormative patriarchy? What would it mean to apply decolonial and feminist mental frameworks to our understanding of and relations to land more broadly? Wise teachers and practitioners are showing us what a different way can look like through visions, principles, and practices of collective cultural resurgence, land-based learning, reciprocity and kin-making, land reclamation, remediation and rematriation, and food sovereignty. Taking these visions, principles and practices seriously allows us to work together toward emancipatory food relations rooted in personal food relations of pleasure, joy, and deep acceptance, alongside nourishing and mutually supportive family, kinship, and collective food cultures.

Discussion Questions

  • What are some of your significant experiences with growing food, working with soil, or cooking and preparing food? In what ways have these food experiences been influenced by your or another’s race, gender, or class?
  • When you think about ‘Canadian’ food, what kinds of foods do you think of? What messages have you been told about ‘Canadian food’? What kinds of foods and what different communities and populations of people might these categories and messages exclude?
  • How much do you know about First Nations (Anishinaabe or Haudenoshaunee, for instance), Inuit, or Métis foods, or Haitian, Jamaican, or South Asian foods? Why or why not?

Additional Resources

Brady, J., E.M. Power, M. Szabo, and J. Gingras. 2017. “Still Hungry for a Feminist Food Studies.” In Critical Perspectives in Food Studies, edited by Mustafa Koç, Anthony Winson, Jennifer Sumner, 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Carter, S. 1990. Lost Harvests: Prairie Indian Reserve Farmers and Government Policy. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

———. 2016. Imperial Plots: Women, Land, and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies. Univ. of Manitoba Press.

Corntassel, J. 2012. “Re-Envisioning Resurgence: Indigenous Pathways to Decolonization and Sustainable Self-Determination.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society1 (1): 86–101.

Cox, J.A.R. 2020. Fat Girls in Black Bodies: Creating Communities of Our Own. Berkley: North Atlantic Books.

Daschuk, J.W. 2013. Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life. Regina: University of Regina Press.

Friedmann, H. 1978. “World Market, State, and Family Farm: Social Bases of Household Production in the Era of Wage Labor.” Comparative Studies in Society and History20 (4): 545–86.

Harrison, C. 2021. “Food Psych #269: Gender Dynamics in Food Media and Marketing with Emily Contois, and the Links Between White Supremacy, Diet Culture, and Nutrition with Joy Cox.” Food Psych #269.

Kimmerer, R.W. 2015. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Minneaopolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.

La Via Campesina. 2009. La Via Campesina Policy Documents.

Laduke, W. and D. Cowen. 2020. “Beyond Wiindigo Infrastructure.” The South Atlantic Quarterly119 (2): 243–68.

Linardon, J., and S. Mitchell. 2017. “Rigid Dietary Control, Flexible Dietary Control, and Intuitive Eating: Evidence for Their Differential Relationship to Disordered Eating and Body Image Concerns.” Eating Behaviors26: 16–22.

Monture, R. 2014. We Share Our Matters (Teionkwakhashion Tsi Niionkwariho:Ten): Two Centuries of Writing and Resistance at Six Nations of Grand River. University of Manitoba Press.

Muthien, B. n.d. “Rematriation of Women-Centred (Feminist) Indigenous Knowledge.”

Newcomb, S. 1995. “Perspectives: Healing, Restoration, and Rematriation.” Indigenous Law News & Notes (Spring/Summer): 3.

Rogers, C.B., J.J. Taylor, N. Jafari, and J.B. Webb. 2019. “‘No Seconds for You!’: Exploring a Sociocultural Model of Fat-Talking in the Presence of Family Involving Restrictive/Critical Caregiver Eating Messages, Relational Body Image, and Anti-Fat Attitudes in College Women.” Body Image30: 56–63.

Rotz, S. 2017. “‘They Took Our Beads, It Was a Fair Trade, Get over It’: Settler Colonial Logics, Racial Hierarchies and Material Dominance in Canadian Agriculture.” Geoforum82: 158–69.

Simpson, L.B. 2014. “Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg Intelligence and Rebellious Transformation.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society3 (3): 1–25.

Mitchinson, W. 2018. Fighting Fat: Canada, 1920-1980. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Whyte, K. 2017. “Food Sovereignty, Justice, and Indigenous Peoples.” Oxford Handbook on Food Ethics, 345–66.

———. 2018. “Settler Colonialism, Ecology, and Environmental Injustice.” Environment and Society: Advances in Research9 (1): 125–44.

Wildcat, M., M. McDonald, S. Irlbacher-Fox, and G. Coulthard. 2014. “Learning from the Land: Indigenous Land Based Pedagogy and Decolonization.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society3 (3): i–xv.

Wolfe, P. 2006. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research8 (4): 387–409.


Alfred, T. 2005. Wasáse: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Barker, A.J. 2009. “The Contemporary Reality of Canadian Imperialism: Settler Colonialism and the Hybrid Colonial State.” American Indian Quarterly 33 (3).

Harrison, C. 2019. Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating. New York: Little, Brown.

Strings, S. 2019. Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia. New York: NYU Press.

TallBear, K. 2019. “Caretaking Relations, Not American Dreaming.” Kalfou6 (1).

Tribole, E., and E. Resch. 2020. Intuitive Eating, 4th Edition: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach. New York: St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

Strings 2019, 6.
See Christy Harrison’s book, Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating for a deeper analysis of diet culture.
I now see that my mother was merely responding to the same diet culture and fat-phobic messaging that pervades our society.
Both markers of broader settler colonial and European imperial cultural norms and ways of knowing.
Barker 2009, 341.
How the elimination happens is always ongoing, and it shifts according settler-Indigenous relations of mediation, action, and resistance.
To differentiate between social states and cultural imperatives, Barker points to Taiaiake Alfred’s passage from Wasáse (2005, 109). As a clash of “cultures,” “civilizations,” etc., this problem could be discussed in more objective theoretical terms to avoid the discomfort of personal responsibility, but in reality, the injustices we live with are a matter of choices and behaviours committed within a worldview defined by a mental framework of Euroamerican arrogance and self-justifying political ideologies set in opposition to Onkwehonwe [this term is the Kanienkehaka equivalent to “Indigenous,” meaning roughly “original or authentic peoples”] peoples and our worldviews. The basic substance of the problem of colonialism is the belief in the superiority and universality of Euro-American culture.
See Tribole & Resch 2020.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how the concept of kin-making can be applied to re-imagining and righting our relations to food, land, and the body as non-Indigenous people: “Making or creating kin can call non-Indigenous people (including those who do not fit well into the ‘settler’ category) to be more accountable to Indigenous lifeways long constituted in intimate relation with this place. Kinship might inspire change, new ways of organizing and standing together in the face of state violence against both humans and the land.” (TallBear 2019, 38)

Creative: Poems for Pollinators

Andrea Elena Noriega

Honoring Relationships and Companions
Andrea Elena Noriega is an Ottawa-based artist and Carleton University graduate with an MA in Applied Linguistics, and PhD (abd) in Anthropology specializing in food discourses related to health and wellness. Her artwork explores the relationships between people and non-human beings, with particular interest in the role of pollinators and food systems.

Artist’s Statement

We need to view creatures like bees not as objects (i.e., commodities and labourers) but as subjects (i.e., living beings). Their status needs to be elevated from the caste system that privileges human beings over non-human animals. I believe that they, like other beings, should be regarded as persons, giving them rights that acknowledge their individuality and protect them from torture, illness, injury, enslavement, and death.

Indigenous teachings provide an epistemological framework for interspecies relationships, one that lateralizes the food system and provides reciprocity. Non-human beings in the Euro-Westernized world are starting to be seen through anthropomorphism, allowing us to perceive the intrinsic commonalities of all living beings. This means seeing ‘nature’ as having the emergent potential (a collective force) for sentience and consciousness. It also means trying to understand the lived experiences of other beings, and affording them the empathy, compassion, and deference we aspire to show to other human beings.

Similarly, Indigenous ontologies offer highly progressive and advanced models for our daily attitudes and conduct toward other creatures. Implementing such an ethos within Euro-Western spaces of practice (such as farming and agriculture) can serve to enhance the overall outcomes of human actions, including improved yield, sustainability, diversity, and collective affect.

Honey and Almonds

The banality of evil resides in the idiosyncratic,
it is, woefully, the little choices made.
The existence of one may take the existence of another,
but must that also entail an indentured servitude?”
With so many gifts from la Pachamama,
it seems, then, belligerent to steal, hoard, or take prisoner any of her iterations
Sweet honey, a gift
Nourishing almonds, a gift
Bees busily producing, an honor to all of nature,
not, indeed, an invitation to oppress and exploit
Entitlement to gifts, disposable commodities, transactional, and disposable, incites a banality that does give rise to evil, but also to complacency, willful ignorance, and a regime of husbandry that is not an inherent right.
Release the bees; let them give gifts, not sacrifices


watercolour painting of a bee inside a bell jar looking at a flowering branch and almonst
© Andrea Noriega


Honoring Relationships and Companions

Independent we fall, united, we . . . grow
Sturdy and reliable, I am corn
Nimble and giving, I am beans
Cool and protective, I am squash
A whisper from the wind, or visit from the Cucurbita bee brings new life
Together, entangled,
we bring to each other that which we cannot bring for ourselves alone.
We owe strength and resilience to the relationships we have
We flourish because of the championship, not in spite of it


painting of a bee hovering near a corn, squash, and bean plant growing together
© Andrea Noriega


Johnson, S. 2001. Emergence: The connected lives of ants, brains, cities, and software. New York: Scribner.

Kimmerer, R. 2013. Braiding Sweetgrass. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.

Nimo, R. 2015. “The Bio-Politics of Bees: Industrial Farming and Colony Collapse Disorder.” Humanimalia 6(2).

Stewart, K. 2007. Ordinary Affects. Durham: Duke University Press.

Wohleben, P. 2015. The Hidden Life of Tress: What they feel, how they communicate—Discoveries from a secret world. Vancouver: Greystone Books.

Nimo 2015.
Kimmerer 2013.
Johnson 2001.
Wohleben 2015.
Stewart 2007.

Case: Food and Folklore

Lucy Long

Green Bean Casserole: Commercial Foods as Regional Tradition
Lucy M. Long directs the independent nonprofit Center for Food and Culture and teaches at Bowling Green State University, Ohio. She focuses on food, music, and dance as mediums for meaning, identity, community, and power. Her publications include: Culinary Tourism (2004), Regional American Food Culture (2009), Ethnic American Food Today (2015), Food and Folklore Reader (2015), Honey: A Global History (2017), and Comfort Food Meanings and Memories (2017).

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Describe how the environment and history of a region shapes its food traditions.
  • Explain folkloristic concepts of tradition using foods that are familiar to them.
  • Recognize and reflect on the relationship between commercial foods and local cultures.


Green bean casserole, a baked dish of green beans, canned cream of mushroom soup, and canned fried onions, was invented by the Campbell Soup Company in their New Jersey test kitchen in 1955. Marketed across the United States for Thanksgiving, it has since become popular among many families in the eastern Midwest, eaten not only on holidays, but also for everyday meals, potlucks, and community gatherings. It has been embraced in this region, more so than others, as an expected customary tradition.

While it seems odd that a mass-produced, commercial food product could be considered a tradition, folklore studies (folkloristics) sees tradition as more than just old-fashioned ways from the past. From this perspective, traditions are things, behaviors, and attitudes that connect an individual to their past, place, and other people. Traditions are resources for individuals to creatively act upon those connections, expressing—and negotiating—who they are, what they value, and what tastes they prefer.

As a food tradition, green bean casserole represents the identity, ethos, and aesthetics of the culture of the eastern Midwest, all of which are shaped by the history of the region. To understand why the dish has been embraced by so many residents, we need to look at that history. It is not simply a matter of people liking it or finding it convenient to make. There is a logic behind it, in the same way there is a logic to every tradition. This is particularly important to recognize with foods that are frequently made fun of or dismissed as not being ‘serious cooking’, as often happens with green bean casserole. Understanding the logic of a food tradition helps us understand why people eat the things they do. It also helps us understand how things that start out as commercial inventions and are distributed nation-wide can come to be meaningful to specific groups in specific places.

Discovering a Tradition

I first became aware of green bean casserole (GBC) when I began teaching folklore classes at a university in northwest Ohio in the mid 1990s. I frequently included assignments about food traditions, and the dish kept coming up as a standard part of Thanksgiving dinner menus and other meals. At that time, most of the undergraduate students came from the region, which was primarily rural with heavily industrial agriculture, but also included several major cities—Toledo and Cleveland, Ohio. Many of the students felt that the dish held a special place in their own lives, and, even if they didn’t like it, it carried meaningful memories for them.

That I was surprised by the popularity of the dish is a reflection of my own cultural background. I had been living on the urban east coast where there was a high value given to fresh, nutritious, and innovative foods. GBC did not fit those expectations, nor did it fit the food ethos and aesthetics of my southern upbringing where holiday foods were made from scratch and required culinary skill and finesse. In contrast, GBC is made by opening cans of green beans, cream of mushroom soup, and fried onions, mixing the contents together, and baking the mixture in the oven, none of which is too demanding.

As a folklorist, however, I wanted to understand how this tradition came about. Folklore shares many theoretical perspectives and methods with anthropology, and Franz Boas’ concept of cultural relativism is foundational. That means that we need to understand how a practice functions and what it means within the culture using it, rather than judge it according to our own standards.

In order to gain that understanding, I conducted formal and informal interviews with students and residents in the region and did ethnographic research. I then took my observations on GBC as a tradition back to members of this regional culture to see if they agreed with my interpretations. They affirmed that the interpretations made explicit the implicit meanings of the tradition. (This kind of collaborative, reflexive fieldwork ensures the accuracy of conclusions drawn by the researcher and is common practice in folkloristics.)

Observations on a Dish

One of the first observations drawn from my fieldwork is that GBC represents the history of this area (northwest Ohio, specifically) as a cultural region. Because it was largely swampland, it was settled later than other parts of the Midwest. Starting in the 1830s, drainage systems started being developed. The rich land was perfect for farming and its flatness made it ideal for larger machinery and large swaths of crops, setting the stage for industrial agriculture.

The region also was one of unpredictable weather. High winds, tornadoes, droughts, and heavy rainfalls could destroy crops in a moment, and the continued threat of the fields flooding and returning to swamp kept farmers on their toes. This meant that nature itself was seen as a danger, something to be tamed and controlled, rather than worked with—a worldview that embraces technology and industrial agriculture.

The human history of the region also supported that worldview. Although Native American groups had used the area for hunting and fishing, permanent settlements were established by farmers from larger, German areas of Europe. They tended to have a pragmatic and conservative approach to life, valuing hands-on skills and practical knowledge. They wanted their farms to be efficient and orderly, leaving little room for romanticizing nature or “trivial” things like decorative arts. Food was expected to be the same—hearty, filling, with no surprises. Housewives were expected to be frugal and make food guaranteed to be consumed.

Commercial, industrial foods offered those kinds of guarantees, and represented the elevation of human inventiveness and technology over nature. GBC reflects that history and worldview. It also reflects the foodways aesthetic of many of the settlers, who preferred dairy-based sauces and preserved vegetables with little spice other than salt and maybe some black pepper.

GBC also offered the opportunity to participate in a nationally known food produced by a company that represented both tradition and modernity. The Campbell Soup Company began in 1869 in New Jersey by Joseph Campbell, a fruit merchant and Abraham Anderson, an icebox manufacturer. In 1897, the company invented condensed soups, selling them for a dime for a ten-ounce can. This condensed soup was displayed at the Paris Exhibition of 1900, where it won a gold medal, and the image of that medal is still shown on the can labels. In 1916, the company published a cookbook, Helps for the Hostess, that suggested ways to incorporate condensed soups into cooking. In 1931, they began radio ads, including the saying “M’m! M’m! Good!”, which then entered into popular culture. In 1934, cream of mushroom soup was invented and promoted as a sauce as well as a soup. In 1955, the green bean casserole was invented by “Campbell home economist” Dorcas Reilly. Today, more than one million cans of soup are used everyday, and the green bean casserole is one of the company’s most popular recipes. Preparing and consuming this dish, then, is a way to participate in what is perceived as an all-American national tradition.

At the same time, GBC offered the possibility for personal creativity. One of the assumptions about commercially created, processed, and distributed foods is that individuals passively accept whatever is them handed to them. It is easy to see, however, that all of us put our own tastes and identities into foods, whether they come from the industrial food system or from our grandparents’ farm. We do this by changing ingredients or cooking styles, adding flavorings, pairing foods in particular ways, and developing our own rituals and memories around them. Variation is the hallmark of tradition, and GBC is easily varied. Some cooks use commercially canned green beans; others use home-canned. Some add mushrooms, fresh onions, or ‘Italian’ spices. Some substitute crushed potato chips for the more usual Durkee-French’s crispy fried onions. One of my children made the dish completely from organic, vegan ingredients. In this way, individuals adapt the tradition to their express their own identities, tastes, and values.


Mass-produced, commercial foods have been a significant part of American food culture since industrialization enabled their development in the late 1800s. While they seem like the antithesis of home-cooked folk foods, they have frequently been incorporated into family and community tradition. Green bean casserole illustrates how such a product can become a meaningful tradition that expresses both regional culture and individual creativity. It suggests the processes by which all of us adapt commercial foods to fit our own histories, needs, and tastes.

Discussion Questions

  • Are there any food traditions you participate in that others might find silly or distasteful? Is there a “logic” to them that explains why they make sense to you?
  • Can you think of any of your foods or practices that reflect the specific place you are from or live in now? Does the natural history of that place shape those foods in any way? Can you detect the influence of the cultural history?
  • What are some ways that you personalize fast food or other commercially available food? How do those foods relate to your personal tastes or identities? Do you think of those foods as traditions? Does reading about GBC make you think of your own experiences with commercial foodways as traditions?


View this short documentary on Mexican-American food in northwest Ohio. The video focuses on the meanings of tortillas for members of that community and discusses how the artistry and skill needed to make tortillas is oftentimes overlooked. Drawing on your own experience, reflect on foods in your life that might not be appreciated by others.

Ask yourself: Does that lack of appreciation evoke embarrassment, sadness, or even humiliation? In what ways are your foods significant carriers of identity, values, or memories?

Additional Resources

Kim, S. and R.M. Livengood. 1995. “Ramen Noodles and Spam: Popular Noodles, Significant Tastes.” Digest: An Interdisciplinary Study of Food and Folklore 15: 2-11.

Long, L.M., ed. 2015. Food and Folklore: A Reader. New York: Bloomsbury Press.

Long, L.M. 2007. “Green Bean Casserole and Midwestern Identity: A Regional Foodways Aesthetic and Ethos.” Midwestern Folklore 33 (1): 29–44.

Long, L.M. 1999. “Food Demonstrations in the Classroom: Practicing Ethnography and the Complexities of Identity with Tamales in Northwest Ohio.” Digest 19: 46–52.

Long, L.M. 2004. “Learning to Listen to the Food Voice: Recipes as Expressions of Identity and Carriers of Memory.” Food, Culture, and Society 7 (1): 118–122.

Long, L.M. 2001. “Nourishing the Academic Imagination: The Use of Food in Teaching Concepts of Folkloristics.” Food and Foodways 9 (3-4): 235–262.

For more on folklore as a discipline and profession, see the website of the American Folklore Society.

Also see the Center for Food and Culture for more discussion of folklore approaches, as well as our YouTube channel for short documentaries on food traditions in northwest Ohio.

Perspective: Household Foodwork

Mary Anne Martin and Michael Classens

Household Foodwork: An Essential Service, Essentially Devalued

Mary Anne Martin is a White settler woman and adjunct faculty member in the Master of Arts in Sustainable Studies program at Trent University. Her interests include household food insecurity, the impact of community-based food initiatives, and intersections between gender and food systems. She actively participates in food policy initiatives and is dedicated to fostering social change through campus-community collaborations.

Michael Classens is a White settler man and Assistant Professor in the School of the Environment at University of Toronto. He is broadly interested in areas of social and environmental justice, with an emphasis on these dynamics within food systems. As a teacher, researcher, learner, and activist he is committed to connecting theory with practice, and scholarship with socio-ecological change. Michael lives in Toronto with his partner, three kids, and dog named Sue.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Explain the concept, framing, and dynamics of household foodwork
  • Name ways in which household foodwork is organized through structures of inequity such as gender, race, and class.
  • Articulate ways in which individuals’ foodwork and food consumption are inextricable from broader structures and interdependencies.
  • Identify possible paths towards a fairer food system.


How much thought do you give to activities like getting groceries, making meals, and washing dishes? These forms of household foodwork, while so necessary on an ongoing basis for households to survive and for society to function, nonetheless tend to go relatively unnoticed and undervalued, both in the home and well beyond it. They can seem unremarkable, taken-for-granted, almost invisible—at least until one has to do them. And because this work isn’t measured or counted, it doesn’t count in national accounting systems of economic value, like the Gross Domestic Product (GDP)—which, in turn, can make this work even less noticeable in homes and communities.

Household foodwork is defined here as all the tasks and effort involved for a household in planning for, acquiring, preparing, serving, consuming, cleaning up, storing, and disposing of food. It includes not only more obvious, practical tasks (e.g., food shopping or washing dishes), but also cognitive tasks (e.g., determining what food to buy or how to use a recipe), emotional work (e.g., responding to household members’ needs for nurturing or celebration through food) and managerial work (e.g., enlisting the assistance of others with foodwork). The way that households are organized (e.g., nuclear family members, extended family members, individuals living on their own, collections of roommates) affects what household foodwork looks like.

Overall, household foodwork activities revolve primarily around the home and occur on an unpaid basis. However, they are by no means confined to just domestic spaces or non-monetary practices. Feeding households frequently means engaging with businesses (by phone, online, or in public spaces) to procure food and related goods and services. More than ever, people today buy their food instead of growing or making it. This means that the kinds of work that were more common 150 years ago—like growing vegetables, raising chickens, preserving jams, baking bread, or cooking meals—are more often outsourced to those such as farmers, processors, retailers, restaurants, and, increasingly, takeout delivery services. Our ability to eat almost anything relies on other people.

Food for Foodwork

It may go without saying, but at a bare minimum, household foodwork requires food and the means to acquire it. Even though food is one of the most basic human needs, it is still treated as a commodity. That is, food is usually bought and sold, like so many less-important things in our lives. This means, of course, that people with money are seen as “deserving” food, but those without money aren’t. Instead, people who can’t afford food often live with food insecurity, “the inadequate or insecure access to food because of financial constraints.” They may worry a lot about affording food, go without nutritious food, or skip meals entirely—even though many countries have committed to the right of all their citizens to adequate food.As one example, in Canada, a prosperous country, 12.7% of households (or at least 4.4 million people) were living with food insecurity before the global COVID pandemic, while 10.5% of households, or over 35 million people in the U.S., were food insecure.

Paradoxically, as Figure 1 illustrates, some of those with the utmost responsibility for household foodwork, such as parents, often don’t have adequate food with which to accomplish it. In fact, in Canada, the presence of children under the age of 18 raises a household’s risk of food insecurity from 11.4% to 16.2%. Households of lone parents, in particular, experience much higher rates of food insecurity. In fact, 21.6% of male lone-parent households and an astounding 33.1% of female lone-parent households experience food insecurity. Having children means both added expenses and more challenges in maintaining stable and well-paid employment. Furthermore, raising children on one’s own typically means that there is no additional adult to earn an income for a household. And women are much more likely to earn less than men and to assume primary caregiving roles for children. Overall, parenting status, partner status, and gender all affect food insecurity. That is, who you are, who you live with, and who you care for all affect whether your food needs will be met. The individualized assumption that every person should be able to earn enough money to buy all the food that they need does not consider the relationships and social structures of inequality that affect their lives.

bar chart showing household food insecurity figures
Figure 1: Food Insecurity by Household Type (adapted from Tarasuk V. & Mitchell A., 2020)

Household Foodwork, an Essential Service

The right to food itself is critical for, but not the same as, the right to eat. Indeed, a package of rice or dried beans is not immediately consumable. What often gets lost in thinking about food access is the essential labour required to literally put food on the table. Food itself generally needs to be transformed through the use of physical resources (e.g., tools and energy sources for cooking) and the labour of acquiring, preparing, and serving the food in ways that meet eaters’ needs. Since human survival and well-being utterly depend on food, they utterly depend on the foodwork, within or outside the home, that makes food edible. Given people’s varying skills, capacities, and circumstances, it is rare for any person to be completely self-reliant in producing, processing, and preparing all the food that they require.

The start of the COVID pandemic shone a harsh light on the essentiality of household foodwork as expectations for it grew. Household foodworkers, primarily women, faced increased challenges as children required more meals at home, elementary and high school students could no longer access food from programs at school, some supermarket shelves emptied, and all public places, including those selling or donating food, were seen as sites of potential COVID exposure. Foodwork extended to disinfecting groceries, waiting in lines outside grocery stores, and generally reconciling household food needs with the pandemic-related risks and regulations pertaining to acquiring food. This work has been crucial for ensuring that people remain alive and healthy.

Household Foodworkers: Some plates are fuller than others

Despite how necessary it is, household foodwork cannot be separated from a political context in which power, money, food access, and effort are unequally distributed. Social structures of inequity, such as sexism, racism, and poverty, combine so that both the efforts required and the resources available for household foodwork are unevenly assigned. For example, even with significant increases in women working in paid employment and men doing domestic work, women continue to perform the bulk of foodwork. However, except for some mothers’ ability to breastfeed, actual foodwork abilities are not limited to just women. This discrepancy means that mothers in particular, especially those with low incomes, face difficult choices between providing in-person care for their children and participating in paid employment to afford to feed them.

Racialized poverty and racialized food system labour interfere with food access and the opportunity for adults to be physically present and able to feed their own families. Food is persistently kept out of reach for the 28.2% of Indigenous and 28.9% of Black individuals who live in food insecure households. Racialized workers disproportionately fill low-wage, precarious jobs in food retail while their employers post huge profits. Furthermore, a long history continues in which migrant women of colour support their own families in their home countries by providing household foodwork and other caring labour in the homes of North American, mostly White, families. Similarly, (primarily) male migrant agricultural labourers work in underpaid, insecure, and unsafe conditions to feed Canadians, in order to financially support the vital needs of their own families back in their home countries. In addition to these barriers to having the ‘privilege’ to do household foodwork for one’s own family, foodwork can also be impeded by difficulty in having access to culturally specific foods, stigma around the consumption of certain foods, and a lack of understanding by health and teaching professionals regarding the appropriateness of particular foods and food practices.

Foodwork as Heartwork

Sociologist Mignon Duffy states “We should be able to value relationship without reducing care to the warm and fuzzy.” The ways in which household foodwork’s concrete physical necessity and its ‘fuzzier’ emotional and social dimensions intertwine make it hard to perceive its value. Connecting with loved ones by understanding and responding to their food needs places household foodwork activities within social relationships. Here, these activities transform into caring labour, a medium for expressing love, affection, creativity, playfulness, and commitment—but also a source of judgement, guilt, shame, frustration, and anxiety. The breadth of these emotions relates in part to the dual meaning of “caring.” The word can simultaneously act as both a verb and an adjective, both an action and a personality characteristic—so that the work of caring for fuses with the emotion of caring about and the state of being a caring person. The result is that work that comes from the heart (or that is expected to) is easily exploitable and not fully regarded as work. It holds a contradictory position where it is necessary and demanded, but not fully seen or valued. This invisibilization of care operates so effectively that it blocks questions about whether those responsible for foodwork should even be supported in doing so—leaving those with limited resources having to fend for themselves.

What happens when resources are not adequate to meet needs

Because food is treated as a commodity, people without sufficient money to pay for it must be resourceful in finding ways to access it. The low-income mother who drew the dollar signs and almost-empty cupboards and fridge in Figure 2 explained that money is the main reason that she cannot gain access to enough food for her family. Insufficient incomes increase foodwork in many ways: walking long distances for groceries; determining how to make meals from food bank offerings; calculating how to stretch an inadequate budget; and helping children feel valued when ‘special’ foods are not affordable. A significant portion of the foodwork of marginalized women involves acting as “shock absorbers” to bridge gaps between household food needs and available resources.

a simple sketch of a kitchen with many dollar signs floating above the empty cabinets and fridge
Figure 2: A low-income mother’s illustration of food in her household during the COVID pandemic.
a mind map showing a family and their food buying challenges
Figure 3: A low-income mother’s response to “What does a week of food look like in your home?”

As an example, a low-income mother’s drawing in Figure 3 illustrates many of her experiences regarding food in her life. With the ball, she shows the delicate act of balancing considerations around healthy food, affordability of food, other costs (like housing), social isolation, and time demands. At the same time, she recognizes that it is not entirely her responsibility to reconcile these issues and that policy makers (at the “institution”) play a role in allocating money for necessary resources.

When household resources are limited, women often assume added responsibility to make ends meet by using their own resourcefulness. This responsibilization is shown as they stretch food by using sales and coupons, using less expensive ingredients, growing or preserving their own food, and going without food themselves. Women also try to free up more funds for food through juggling other expenses, reducing medication consumption, and putting off expenditures like new clothes or haircuts. They participate in informal economic activities such as bartering, engaging in odd jobs, and selling personal items. This bridging between resources and need also occurs through risky, punishable, and demeaning behaviour, such as asking friends and family for help, applying to social assistance programs, accessing food banks, engaging in adult entertainment or sex work, and participating in dishonest or criminal activity. These kinds of attempts to bridge household food needs with the resources for them clearly demonstrate the cost to women that results from ‘having to figure it out.’ The sense that people are on their own in meeting their basic needs and those of their loved ones demonstrates a form of individualism.

Beyond the Individualizing of Household Foodwork: No eater is an island

Although household foodwork is necessary for human well-being and for all the activities we do in the world, the responsibilities and resources for this work are not distributed evenly. Women continue to take on the brunt of this labour, while many people who work within the industrial food system, especially women and people who are racialized, are prevented from directly or adequately feeding their own families. Food access is far from assured, even in rich countries. For example, despite Canada’s repeated commitments, food insecurity is a growing crisis, especially affecting those who are Indigenous, Black, and/or parenting children. For some, making foodwork tenable comes at a distinct cost, which is often paid by women. Throughout, we see how care is invisibilized and how responsibility rests heavily on individuals to “make it work.” Moving forward towards a fairer food system that values what is essential means addressing an over-emphasis on the individual.

Making the normal abnormal

An important first step in imagining alternatives for ensuring that people can eat what they need is to rethink or de-normalize assumptions. It is important to question, for example: Why are food prices and incomes so incompatible that they make food inaccessible for many people? Are the poverty and food insecurity of single mothers, Indigenous people, and racialized people unchangeable? What is the role of the state, if not to ensure its people’s well-being? Moving towards more equitable futures requires questioning current realities.

Where is interdependence working?

The dominant food system sees people as detached from one another and privileges the choices of individuals—instead of supporting projects that redefine food as being for the collective use and enjoyment of all. Beyond questioning the status quo, it is important to look for existing examples of better alternatives and to discover those places where people work collectively and interdependently. Food co-ops, community kitchens, neighbourhood food exchanges, and community gardens are some of those places.

No eater is an island

Food systems are utterly dependent on human foodworkers and non-human actors (e.g. animals, water, trees). To ensure that everyone can eat sufficiently requires questioning who really depends on whom, and embracing the reciprocity and interdependence of all actors (human and non-human) in the food system. It means thinking about the people, animals, waters, and plants that all played a role in food reaching our plates.

Working on our relationship with the state

The state has an important role to play in ensuring that people can eat. Policies around income, agriculture, land planning, and even housing and childcare influence whether people can access the food that they need. Within the food system, it is important to see ourselves not just as consumers. We also need to see ourselves as citizens with both the right to food and the responsibility to hold the state accountable for ensuring it. This can mean informing ourselves, voting, contacting elected officials, and educating others about the policies that are necessary.

Discussion questions

  • What are some ways in which food access and household foodwork are related?
  • Does it matter who does the dishes? Why or why not?
  • What are some examples of exploiting, devaluing, externalizing, or invisibilizing the resources and labour that support the global industrial food system?
  • What kinds of policies, programs, initiatives, or practices might support household foodwork?


Think about a time when you had to be responsible for your own meal(s). How does that compare with times when you were part of a collective food experience? What was or was not possible in each situation?

With a partner, share your experiences and discuss similarities and differences. Identify some of the key factors that shaped what was or was not possible in each situation.

Additional Resources

Martin, M.A. (2018). Moms feeding families on low incomes in Peterborough and the support of community-based food initiatives.

Ontario Basic Income Network. (2021). The Case for Basic Income Series

Two cases here are particularly relevant to this text: The Case for Basic Income for Food Security; and The Case for Basic Income for Women.

Tarasuk, V. & Mitchell, A. (2020). Household food insecurity in Canada, 2017-18. Toronto: Research to identify policy options to reduce food insecurity (PROOF).

Waring, M. (1999). Counting for nothing: What men value and what women are worth (2nd Ed.). Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press.


Arat-Koç, S. 2006. “Whose Social Reproduction? Transnational Motherhood and Challenges to Feminist Political Economy”. In Social Reproduction, Edited by Meg Luxton and Kate Bezanson, 75–92. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press.

Bakan, A. and D. Stasiulis. 2005. Negotiating Citizenship: Migrant Women in Canada and the Global System. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Beagan, B., G.E. Chapman, A. D’Sylva, and B.R. Bassett. 2008. “‘It’s Just Easier for Me to Do It’: Rationalizing the Family Division of Foodwork.” Sociology 42 (4): 653–671.

Block, S.B. and S. Dhunna. 2020. “COVID-19: It’s Time to Protect Frontline Workers.” Behind the Numbers, March 31, 2020.

DeVault, M.L. 1991. Feeding the Family: The Social Organization of Caring as Gendered Work. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Duffy, M. 2011. Making Care Count: A Century of Gender, Race, and Paid Care Work. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). 2021. “The Right to Food around the Globe.”

Gibson-Graham, J.K. 2006. The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Houle, P., M. Turcotte and M. Wendt. 2017. “Changes in Parents’ Participation in Domestic Tasks and Care for Children from 1986 to 2015,” Statistics Canada.

Jaffe, J. and M. Gertler. 2006. “Victual Vicissitudes: Consumer Deskilling and the (Gendered) Transformation of Food Systems.” Agriculture and Human Values, 23: 143–162.

Martin, M.A. 2018. “‘At Least I Can Feel Like I’ve Done My Job As a Mom’: Mothers on Low Incomes, Household Food Work, and Community Food Initiatives,” PhD dissertation. Trent University.

Martin, M.A. 2018. “Moms Feeding Families on Low Incomes in Peterborough and the Support of Community-Based Food Initiatives.”

Martin, M.A., M. Classens, and A. Agyemang. 2021. “From Crisis to Continuity: A Community Response to Local Food Systems Challenges In, and Beyond the Days of COVID-19,” Trent University, 2021.

Moon, J. 2018. “Supermarkets Are Making Huge Profits at a Time When Food Prices Are Rising and Canadians Are Suffering, Advocates Say,” St. Catharines Standard, November 18, 2020.

Moyser, M. and A. Burlok. 2018. “Time Use: Total Work Burden, Unpaid Work, and Leisure.” Statistics Canada.

Neysmith, S., M. Reitsma-Street, S.B. Collins, and E. Porter. 2012. Beyond Caring Labour to Provisioning Work. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Neysmith, S., M. Reitsma-Street, S. Baker Collins, and E. Porter. 2004. “Provisioning: Thinking About all of Women’s Work.” Canadian Women’s Studies 23 (3/4): 192–8.

Pelletier, R. & M. Patterson. 2019. “The Gender Wage Gap in Canada: 1998 to 2018.” Statistics Canada.

Rideout, K., G. Riches, A. Ostry, D. Buckingham, and R. MacRae. 2007. “Bringing Home the Right to Food in Canada: Challenges and Possibilities for Achieving Food Security.” Public Health Nutrition 10 (6): 566–573.

Silva, C.. 2020. “Food Insecurity In The U.S. By The Numbers.” September 27, 2020,

Statistics Canada. 2020. “Family Matters: Sharing Housework among Couples in Canada: Who Does What?” February 19, 2020.

Tarasuk, V. and A. Mitchell. 2020. “Household food insecurity in Canada 2017-18.” Toronto: Research to identify policy options to reduce food insecurity (PROOF).

Waring, M. 1999. Counting for nothing: What men value and what women are worth (2nd Ed.). Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press.

See Waring 1999.
Jaffe & Gertler 2006.
Tarasuk & Mitchell 2020.
FAO 2021.
This included participation by all provinces and territories but excluded some groups like people living on First Nations reserves, in prisons or in care facilities. Tarasuk & Mitchell 2020; Silva 2020.
Tarasuk & Mitchell 2020.
Pelletier & Patterson 2019; Moyser & Burlok/Statistics Canada 2018.
From 1976 to 2015, the employment rate for women (25 to 54 years) rose from 48.7% to 77.5%. Houle et al. 2017
Moyser & Burlok/Statistics Canada 2018.
Beagan et al. 2008; A study conducted by Statistics Canada among parents found that fathers preparing meals rose from 29% in 1986 to 59% in 2015 and that mothers preparing meals remained high but dropped somewhat during this time from 86% to 81%. Houle et al. 2017; A study of opposite-sex couples living in the same household found that meal preparation was done more often by women (56%), but that dishwashing was done equally by men and women. Statistics Canada 2020; These studies do not consider the full complement of foodwork involved in feeding a household.
Tarasuk & Mitchell 2020.
Block & Dhunna 2020; Moon 2020.
Arat-Koç 2006.
Duffy 2011, 40.
See DeVault 1991; Neysmith et al. 2004.
Martin et al. 2021.
Bakan & Stasiulis 2005, 24.
Martin 2018.
Martin 2018, 7-9; Neysmith et al. 2012.
See J.K. Gibson-Graham 2006.

Creative: Making Mead

Joshua Steckley

Your kitchen is a laboratory

Joshua Steckley is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on the commodification of nature and how capital accumulation both shapes and is shaped by biophysical processes. He is also an avid urban beekeeping in Gatineau, Quebec, which explains his fondness for mead.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Explain how alcoholic drinks were historically a means for consuming calories and nutrients.
  • Name the basic biochemical reactions that occur during fermentation.
  • Ferment honey into mead using simple ingredients and equipment available from their own kitchens.

How to turn honey into mead

Your kitchen is a laboratory. It is the setting for daily chemical reactions that we often take for granted. Sautéed onions, toasted bread, and seared barbecue meat, for example, produce their cacophony of flavours when sugars and proteins are broken down through what is known as the Maillard reaction. Frying an egg initiates the process of ‘denaturation,’ in which heat unspools the egg’s intricately folded proteins to produce those deliciously spongy tastes and textures. Kneading bread smashes glutenin and gliadin together to produce gluten, while the baker’s yeast consumes carbohydrate sugars, expelling carbon dioxide and causing the dough to rise.

But today, we are going to use your kitchen laboratory to set of a biochemical relation that will produce a special drink—so special that the Norse god Odin claimed it bestowed the gift of knowledge to all those who drank it. We are going to turn honey into mead. Mead is perhaps the oldest alcoholic drink known to humankind, and it was (and is) everywhere. Archeologists have found remnants of mead in Northern Chinese pottery dating to 7,000 BCE; in Europe and Egypt, they date mead consumption back to 2,500 BCE. While other fermented drinks like wine, sake, and beer require particular environments to produce the grapes, rice, or grains, mead can be made wherever honeybees have access to flowering plants, bringing the nectar back to their hive, and regurgitating it back and forth to one another until it is transformed into honey.

Mead is nothing else but fermented honey. It is also how we acquired the word honeymoon, since family and friends would make sure the newlywed couple had enough of this ‘honey wine’ to last a month. And yes, mead contains alcohol. While we might connect mead with drunken medieval feasts, much like a keg of beer at a house party, we often forget that fermented drinks have historically provided all sorts of nutrients and enzymes, as well as packing a hefty caloric punch. Alcoholic beverages were not simply a means to a drunken end, but rather a means of sustenance. Beer, for example, was considered essential to pre-industrial English households and thought to be a caloric necessity for anyone engaged in arduous agricultural labour. In addition to the calories, fermentation also synthesizes B vitamins, which are necessary for human health. When some puritanical colonial forces, for instance, forbade Indigenous populations from drinking traditional fermented drinks, they began to suffer nutrient deficiencies.

Mead’s long history—as well as its calories, nutrients, and alcohol—are available to you right now; you only need two simple ingredients and some patience. The first thing you will need, unsurprisingly, is honey. But not just any honey. You need “raw” or unpasteurized honey. Pasteurization is the process of applying heat to liquids to eliminate potentially harmful microorganisms. Unlike milk, however, for which pasteurization is meant to destroy potentially harmful pathogens, pasteurizing honey is largely a means to keep honey in its liquid form, prevent crystallization, and thereby increase shelf life in grocery store aisles. (As a side note, crystallized honey has not gone bad; it has only changed its form. If you want it soft and syrupy again, simply heat it up.) Raw or unpasteurized honey has many health benefits, as it possesses natural yeasts and antioxidants that have been shown to reduce stress, treat wounds, and reduce cold symptoms. For our mead, we want those natural yeasts; they are the microorganisms that will eat up the honey’s sugars and ferment our drink.

But if honey contains yeasts and other bacteria, you might be thinking, doesn’t it ever go bad? Honey’s moisture content is typically around 17%. At this low level, the yeasts lie dormant, unable to eat all the sugars that envelop them; it’s as if you were surrounded by chocolate cakes after you’ve just come back from a long run—you’d probably rather have a glass of water before you cut yourself a slice. The bees, however, need this low water content to preserve their honey stores. Inside the hive, they will actually use their wings to fan the honey, evaporating the moisture to just the right amount, at which point they will seal the honey with wax capping, and keep it stored as food throughout the long, flowerless winter. We humans have figured out bees can produce more honey than they need for the winter, and thus essentially steal their excess throughout the summer and fall. Once in human hands, we slice off the wax caps, spin out the honey, filter it, and bottle it. That’s the unpasteurized honey we want.

So, how are we going to set off this biochemical reaction? Ingredient two: water. Boost the moisture content above 17%, and the yeast will start to feast on the sugars around it. There is no specific measurement of water to add, but I’ve found a ratio of four parts water to one part honey makes delicious mead. Find a nice jar that will hold the quantity of mead you are making.

I am not a proponent of bottled water, but you may want some for this experiment. Municipal tap water will have traces of chlorine in it, which may prevent the fermentation process. Also, we will re-use the plastic bottles later when we bottle the mead.

Stir the water and honey together until well mixed. Take a coffee filter (or some kind of cloth) and an elastic band and cover up the jar. This will protect our concoction from the curious fruit flies that will be attracted to the fermenting scent.

What’s going on in our bottle? Very soon, the yeast will start to devour the sugar. And we all know that whatever goes in, must come out. Fortunately for us, yeast excrete alcohol and carbon dioxide. You may be thinking, wait, does that mean when we use yeast in a bread dough, we’re making carbon dioxide and alcohol? Yes! The same carbon dioxide that makes your drink fizz is the same carbon dioxide that makes your bread rise. And that musty smell of your rising bread? Thats the alcohol. Fortunatelyor unfortunatelywhen you bake bread, you also evaporate the alcohol.

Our mead is not going to have a high alcohol content, only one or two percent. We are making what is called a green mead or a short mead.” This means we won’t have to wait months or years, but can enjoy it after ten to fourteen days. Honey contains two types of simple sugars: glucose and fructose. Once the water is added, the yeast will spend the next few days or so eating up the glucose which is evidenced by the carbon dioxide bubbles youll see drifting to the top. If you want to boost the alcohol content you will have to wait for the yeast to consume the fructose, but it will only do slowly under anaerobic conditions. This requires some more equipment like carboys and air locks. But the point of this video is not to teach you how to increase alcohol content! You can do that research on your own.

After a few days you should see some bubbles rising to the top and may notice a fermented scent. If you don’t see any bubbles or smell any smells, give the mead a good stir.

Stir the mead every day or two and listen for the beautiful fizzing chorus of yeast excrement. Don’t hesitate to take a sip to see how the flavours are changing.

After ten to fourteen days, depending on the temperature and your own personal taste, your mead is ready to drink. If the mead tastes like you basically mixed honey and water together, something probably prevented the fermentation. If by chance it tastes vinegary, it means the alcoholic fermentation has transformed into acetic fermentation where other bacteria and oxygen are now turning your alcohol into vinegar. Either way, you will have to start again. If, however it has a deep, rich, slightly tangy, effervescent taste, then you’re ready for the next step: bottling.

Grab those empty plastic water bottles and, using a funnel, pour the mead into the bottles, leaving about an inch of air space at the top. Ever so slightly, squeeze the bottle and fasten the lid tightly. Leave the bottles on the counter for another two or three days and let the yeast continue to produce carbon dioxide. Your bottles will re-expand and become firm. (You can use glass “swing top” bottles to bottle your mead, but the increasing carbon dioxide will pressurize the glass bottle, and if you’re not careful, it will explode. Stick to plastic bottles for now.)

After a few days, place the plastic bottles in the fridge. The fermentation will slow considerably, and you can enjoy the mead at your leisure. Or, if you are impatient, you can skip bottling all together. Pour the mead from the jar into a bunch of glasses for your closest family and friends and relish in the knowledge that you are imbibing a drink of the gods, thousands of years old, and it all came from your kitchen.


Watch the video:

One or more interactive elements has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view them online here:


Allsop, K.A. and Miller, J.B. 1996. “Honey revisited: a reappraisal of honey in pre-industrial diets.” British Journal of Nutrition 75 (4): 513–520

Blasa, M., Candiracci, M., Accorsi, A., Piacentini, M. P., Albertini, M. C., & Piatti, E. 2006. Raw Millefiori honey is packed full of antioxidants. Food Chemistry 97 (2), 217–222.

Buhner, Stephen Harrod. 1998. Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation. Boulder, CO: Siris Books.

Thompson, E.P. 1963. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Pantheon Books.

Steinkraus, K. 2013. “Nutritionally significant indigenous foods involving an alcoholic fermentation.” In C. Gastanieu, ed. Fermented Food Beverages in Nutrition. Elsevier. 36–57

Vidrih, R., Hribar, J. 2016. “Mead: The Oldest Alcoholic Beverage.” In K. Kristbergsson and J. Oliveira (eds.) Traditional Foods. Integrating Food Science and Engineering Knowledge Into the Food Chain, vol 10. Boston, MA: Springer.

Vidrih & Hribar 2016, 329.
Allsop & Miller 1996, 514.
Thompson 1963, 317.
Steinkraus 2013, 55.
Blasa et al. 2006, 218.

Perspective: Nutrition Paradigms

Alissa Overend

Knowing and Eating: A brief Western history of nutrition paradigms
Alissa Overend is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at MacEwan University, in Amiskwacîwâskahikan, Treaty 6 territory. Her teaching and research interests include critical food studies, the sociology of health and illness, contemporary theory, and social inequality. Her book, Shifting Food Facts: Dietary Discourse in a Post-Truth Culture, was recently published with Routledge’s Critical Food Studies series.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Explain the historical relativity of nutritional paradigms.
  • Differentiate between humoural medicine, the doctrine of signatures, and modern nutritionism.
  • Argue for the ways our understandings of food change our relationships to it.


As a sociologist, I have long maintained that food is cultural. Food ties us to our childhoods, to our families and their ancestral histories, and to our cultures and their traditions. What we eat today—our tastes and distastes—is a reflection of those cultural histories. What we eat today is also a reflection of our access to various foods, whether through geographical location and food availability, or through the social determinants of health, such as income, affordable housing, and job security, which affect our ability to procure and prepare food. While food can be studied through a range of disciplinary lenses (psychological, anthropological, biological, etc.), this chapter analyzes how historic framings of food shape contemporary understandings of health. To understand why we eat the way we eat, we also have to examine the changing social and historical paradigms in and through which we come to know food, and, correspondingly, frame health and nutrition. This chapter offers a broad overview of three paradigm shifts in Western nutritional wisdom: (a) ancient humourism; (b) the Middles Ages and the Doctrine of Signatures; and (c) modern nutritionism. Knowledge about food is contingent and changes over time, depending on the values circulating at any given historical moment.

A brief Western history of food knowledge

Ancient and Renaissance food knowledge

For more than 15 centuries in much of Europe and its colonies, the dominant understanding of food and nutrition stemmed from the theories of humoural medicine. Although the ancient Greek physician, Hippocrates, did not put forth the complete theory of humoural medicine, he is often credited for attributing foods with ‘heating’, ‘cooling’, ‘moistening’, and ‘drying’ properties. It was Galen, a Greek physician and disciple of Hippocrates, who advanced and popularized the idea that disease states were the result of an imbalance of the bodily humours—black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm—which were considered central for the body’s regulation, maintenance, and function. Humoural medicine was part of a broader dietetic understanding of health and medicine held by the ancient Greeks. Dietetics were a set of rules that regulated the care of the self, including eating, drinking, sex, exercise, and sleep. These rules were not the same for everyone—labourers and upper-class bodies were seen to tolerate different foods. Likewise, athletes and scholars had divergent dietetic needs. Unlike today’s almost singular focus on the relationship between health and nutrition, dietetics was a holistic approach—a mode living that combined health, medical, and philosophical orientations to everyday life.

Given the holistic framework of dietetics, it is unsurprising that according to humoural logic, diet was both the cause and treatment of disease. The principal philosophy behind humoural medicine was allopathic—to rebalance the humours by consuming foods with the opposite properties to the symptoms described. For example, a physician would attempt to correct phlegmatic symptoms (i.e., those that were considered a result of an excess of cold and moist properties) with foods that were classified as hot and dry. Likewise, a fever would be rebalanced by cooling foods and liquids (a method still used today). Eating foods with opposite properties to one’s temperament was essential to maintain balance, part of a dietetic regimen of living. While humoural theory was widely accepted from ancient times into the Renaissance, the classification of hot/cold, wet/dry foods was more complicated and widely debated.

Detailed in his book Eating Right in the Renaissance, Ken Albala documents how humoural properties were foremost categorized through taste. The tongue was the first indicator—a kind of litmus test—for effects foods would have on the rest of the body. Black pepper, which burns or warms the tongue, was presumed to have similar heating effects as it passed through the body; sour foods, such as lemons, were considered cooling and constricting (or drying) to the tongue, and were assumed to have similar effects on the rest of the body; and cooling foods, such as cucumbers, were classified as cooling and moistening to the tongue, and were thought to hydrate the body. In addition to taste, a food’s colour was also used to determine its humoural properties. Red and yellow foods, such as bell peppers, were considered heating; green foods, like lettuce or spinach, were considered cooling; and foods pallid in colour, such as rice and bread, were considered to have neutral effects on the body. Another consideration in humoural food classification was the physical environment in which foods grew. Marsh plants, for example, were considered cool and wet, while mountain plants were cool and dry.

Cooking methods, food order, and food pairings also played important roles in the ancient and Renaissance understanding of food’s effects on the body and on health. Potentially harmful foods such as raw meats or eggs were corrected (or balanced) by appropriate cooking methods and by combining foods to counterbalance any insufficiencies. The latter is one explanation for why meats, which were considered heating, were often combined with vegetables, which were cooling, and why denser red meats were often broken down into soups and stews, rendering them easier to digest. Wheat also had to be corrected (or balanced) by salt and leavening processes, rendering it more easily digestible and absorbed by the body. Food order was also debated at great length. The general consensus among ancient and Renaissance physicians was to start with “opening foods,” which is one explanation for why European cuisines tend to start with cooling salads. Jams and cheeses, because of their texture, were seen to “close the meal” by providing a plug between the stomach and the mouth, and likewise still function in many European cuisines as desserts.

By the 19th century, through mass migration and colonization, humoural medicine had spread throughout the various parts of the world, blending with the traditional knowledge systems of local cultural groups. Humoural medicine and its associated theories of food remain one of the longest-standing documented knowledge systems historically and cross-culturally. As E.N. Anderson notes, “by the mid-20th century, the humoral theorof food was the most widespread belief on earth, far outrunning any single religion.” While the bulk of contemporary Western food knowledge has drifted away from humourism, remnants of this 3,000-year-old system still linger. Many people continue to treat the common cold (the name of the ailment itself a vestige of humoural thinking) with a hot soup, refer to a laid back or ‘chill’ person as someone who is as “cool as a cucumber”, and use the word “hot” as a synonym for spicy. Moreover, distant cousins of the humoural system are still widely used by traditional Chinese, Ayurvedic, Indigenous, and some holistic dietary practices where food and diet are used to counteract (or rebalance) disease states. The major Western epistemological shift in food knowledge that followed humoural medicine was the folk concept of the Doctrine of Signatures (DOS). The DOS emerged out of the spiritual paradigm of the late Middles Ages and circulated as an alternative model to humoural theory into the Renaissance period.

Middle Ages and the Doctrine of Signatures

While Galen and Hippocrates subscribed to the healing epistemology of antipathy (i.e., opposite cures opposite), Paracelsus—a 16th-century Swiss physician and alchemist—and his followers espoused the healing philosophy of sympathy (i.e., like cures like). In the spiritual societies of the Middle Ages, the guiding premise of the DOS was that the divine creator had endowed signs-in-nature (i.e., signatures) that pointed healers to the curative potential of foods and plants. Unlike humoural medicine, which focused on a food’s taste, colour, and location of growth, the theory DOS contended that a food’s shape provided clues to the body part or ailment it was intended to heal. A walnut, for example, which resembles the brain, was widely used to treat head ailments; gingerroot, which resembles the stomach, was widely used to treat indigestion and other stomach ailments.

A number of European scholars, including pioneers in modern toxicology and botany, were attracted to the DOS. Paracelsus was one of the earliest proponents of the DOS and contended that humoural theory was too limited to account for the scope and complexity of human ailments. Like many of that era, he maintained that health and eating were best achieved in union with the heavens. Paracelsus, like other supporters of the DOS, believed that the spiritual essence of all things (including food) were best understood by studying their material form as presented in nature. For scholars of that generation, the many wonders of the natural world, including humans and food, were considered a microcosm of the divine, connected by a universal chain of symmetry (or similitude). As Paracelsus explains, humans and the natural world were “two twins who resemble one another completely, without it being possible for anyone to say which of them brought its similitude to the other”. Epochal understandings of nutrition were merely an extension of this spiritual paradigm.

As a broad-scale theory of food, the DOS was eventually replaced and debunked. According to historians and anthropologists, the DOS is best understood as a mnemonic method for recalling and classifying a wide range of curative plants, especially in illiterate societies common to the Middle Ages. Moreover, in highly spiritual societies, the DOS was “rather fancied by men than designed by Nature,” understood in today’s terms as a kind of confirmation bias. Despite the paradigmatic shift away from the DOS, elements of the similarity framework persisted. Into the 18th and 19th centuries, red wine was thought to strengthen the blood and was often given to the ill. Likewise, meat was considered necessary for manual labour—muscle work needed to be replenished with muscle tissue. Even today, walnuts (like other nuts) are high in omega-3 fatty acids and are thus beneficial to brain function, and gingerroot is still widely used (by both Western and Eastern medicine) to treat indigestion and upset stomachs. Finally, Paracelsus’s near 500-year-old claim that “it is the dose that makes the poison” was foundational to the development of modern understandings of toxicology and immunology, which rely on the homeopathic logic developed in the DOS. While sight continued to play a formative role in the incumbent paradigm of modern nutritionism, how one came to see food, and correspondingly, what came to be seen, changed extensively in the era of scientific nutrition.

Modern nutritionism

Commonplace by contemporary Western standards, scientific understandings of food date back to the chemical revolution in France at the end of the 18th century. The identification of chemical properties and the development of methods of chemical analysis led to quantitative ideas concerning food and how food was used by the body and departed substantially from the similarity and humoural paradigms of previous eras. In 1827, summing up the work of chemists of the past three decades, the 17th-century English biochemist, William Prout, divided foods into three substances: saccharine (i.e., sweet), oily, and albuminous (i.e., resembling animal protein). These classifications would later come to be reclassified as carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, respectively, and form the basis of a macronutrient approach to food. Food was no longer understood in terms of its humoural or morphological characteristics, but instead by its internal nutrient properties, launching an empirical focus into the study of food.

The next building block in the scientific understanding of diet was the small unit, but immeasurable force, of the calorie. Derived from the Latin word calor, meaning heat, the unit of the calorie was used to measure the energy contained in food and burned by the body. By the end of the 19th century, German and American scientists led the study of the energy content of various foods and the amount of energy expended during a range of activities. In both countries, considerations about which foods most efficiently maximized human energy were largely focused on questions of labour. Using a calorimeter, American chemist Wilbur Atwater measured the caloric composition of food, aiming to decipher which foods maximized human energy at the cheapest costs. As Atwater itemizes, “[t]en cents spent for beef sirloin at 20 cents a pound buys 0.5 pounds of meat, which contains 0.08 pound of protein, 0.08 pound of fat, and 515 calories of energy available to the body”. These measurements were used to advance empirical understandings of food but also to continue differentiating working- and upper-class food and bodies. As Neswald explains, early nutrition science “aimed for the precision of physics and chemistry, but was confronted with the enormous variability of its subjects, objects, and external circumstances, and with discrepancies between the artificially controlled conditions of the lab and the variable conditions of human life”. In a relatively short period of time, a good diet, which was once understood as a matter of balance broadly defined, aimed to be both uniform and quantified.

As transformational as the caloric model of food was, however, it failed to account for the persistence of scurvy and other illnesses that continued to plague Europe and North America at the turn of the 20th century. In 1912, the Polish biochemist Casimir Funk hypothesized that beri beri, pellagra, scurvy, and rickets were caused by unknown food deficiencies. He went on to propose that these deficiencies were a result of a lack of vital amines, which he shortened to “vitamins” since not all vitamins were amines. For the next 30 years, beginning with Elmer McCollum’s work on “accessory food factors” A and B (later renamed vitamins A and B), vitamins including riboflavin, folic acid, and vitamin D were the central focus of nutritional research and had both replaced and challenged the prior, singular focus on the calorie. Even today, vitamins are hailed as protective agents against disease as well as for their broader promises of health.

In a matter of a couple hundred years, the dominant food paradigm of Enlightenment Europe had swung from holism to mechanism, from individualization to homogenization, from localization to standardization, from community- to expert-driven, and from one largely concerned with quality to one inherently focused on quantity. What was once fluid, contingent, and complex, became increasingly mechanistic—“ordered, controlled, and understood though measurable factors.” Coining the term nutritionism, Australian food theorist Gyorgy Scrinis highlights the reductive nature of empirical understandings of nutrition. While scientific understandings of nutrition have yielded valuable insights into human health, the focus on internal biochemical components of food has also led to the “decontextualization, simplification, and exaggeration of the role of nutrients in determining bodily health.” Culturally, we have swung so far to the role of nutrients, calories, and vitamins, that we have decentralized foods as a whole, the diet of which they are a part, and the broader social, cultural, and economic contexts in which they are embedded.

Discussion and implications

By tracing the broad shifts in historic framings of food knowledge, this chapter sets up the ways that nutritional knowledge is far from continuous and has changed—quite significantly—between paradigms. The language of nutrients, calories, and vitamins, while near ubiquitous by contemporary Western standards, was unknown to past populations. Likewise, the holistic, descriptive humoural understandings of food have been, for the most part, replaced. Using the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s helpful concept of a history of the present, the historical overview of nutritional paradigms offered here provides a critical orientation on how current understandings of healthy eating have come to be constructed. As David Garland explains, Foucault’s history of the present is not intended to judge historical concepts through contemporary values, nor is it meant to reimagine the past in new ways. As its name suggests, a history of the present is a means of critically engaging with and understanding how the contemporary moment has come to be shaped. A critical questioning of current food paradigms, I contend, is beneficial for two reasons.

First, rather than accepting current nutricentric framings of nutrition as static truths, these truths should be positioned as one historical paradigm among others. How we eat today, and prospectively how we will eat in the future, are thus contingent and actively shaped by shifting knowledge paradigms. As new nutritional information emerges, our Western collective understandings of nutrition will also change. Researchers, for example, are only beginning to understand the role of our gut’s microbiome in human health, factors previously unstudied in nutrition. Newer nutritional studies are also only beginning to include situational factors that affect health, such as genetic predisposition, epigenetics, hormone levels, life stage, medications, environmental toxins, and gut bacteria, but these factors are far from the norm in mainstream food research. What other yet-to-be discovered food, bodily, illness, and/or environmental factors will alter our currently held nutricentric views of nutrition? Only time will tell, but if the history of nutrition yields any guidance, it’s probable that nutrition paradigms will continue to change and evolve as new knowledges become available.

Second, by decentralizing nutricentric food truths, we can recentralize social, cultural, familial, ecological, relational, and contextual food truths. While nutricentric understandings of food worked well to mitigate deficiency diseases of the early 20th century, the same model does not equally apply to the many chronic health concerns affecting Western societies in record numbers today. The increase (not decrease) in diet-related diseases of the 21st century indicates shortcomings of a strictly nutricentric food paradigm. Such a paradigm fails to account for the social conditions affecting human health, including but not limited to the accessibility and affordability of healthy food, affordable housing, a secure neighbourhood, a guaranteed minimum income, job security, air quality, access to clean water, stress care and mental health, and social inclusion. (Many of these factors are considered social determinants of health.) In focusing too intently on what we eat, we overlook other questions of healthy eating relevant to contemporary food and social inequality. As we move towards new food paradigms, I hope we learn to better balance social determinants of health alongside nutricentric food truths, to create a more complete picture of the role of food and eating in our lives.


Before looking into the history of food, I did not fully consider why we eat the way we eat. Before studying food as a social object, I did not think that intently about the social or historical contingency of what I routinely found on my plate. The more I studied food and its history, the more I saw how much of what we eat, when we eat, and how we eat is inextricably linked to how we see, understand, and ultimately know food. As history has shown, how we understand nutrition profoundly affects our orientation to it—what we consume, how much, and in what combinations. Organ (or offal) meats, for example, used to be a routine food item on the plates of many Canadians, but are much less popular today. History has also shown that what we eat and consider healthy is continually shifting, not only because our contexts of health are likewise shifting, but also because our food paradigms are in themselves in flux, reflecting dominant ideas of the time. As we continue to move towards new nutritional paradigms, refining and augmenting what we already know about food, health, and the human body, my hope—to borrow from Geoffrey Cannon—is that we continue to maintain one piece of nutrition’s long history: to value it as science as well as a philosophy.

Discussion Questions

  • Do you agree or disagree with Lisa Heldke’s statement that the “unexamined meal is not worth eating”? Justify your answer. What does a historical analysis of food provide?
  • Take a moment to consider how scientific understandings of food affect how, what, and why you eat. What patterns or trends do you notice in your own life? Can you identify elements of food and eating not captured by a nutritionism paradigm?
  • What are some examples of humoural medicine or the doctrine of signatures that remain in circulation today? How do these paradigms encourage a different relationship to food that the scientific paradigm of modern nutritionism?
  • What factors do you think would be important to highlight in the next regime of nutritional knowledge? How might these factors augment previous understandings of food and healthy eating?


Pick a meal you’ve recently eaten, or perhaps one you eat often. This can be an everyday meal or a festive/ceremonial one. What do you notice most about the meal? How is the meal usually organized, presented, or served? What language do you use to describe the meal to others? How do you understand the foods included? Which of the three historical food paradigms helps you best understand or describe your selected meal?


Albala, K. 2002. Eating Right in the Renaissance. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Anderson, E.N. 1997. “Traditional Medical Values of Food.” In Food and Culture: A Reader, ed. Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik, 80-91. New York: Routledge.

Anderson, E.N. 2005. Everyone Eats: Understanding Food and Culture. New York: New York University Press.

Bennett, B. 2007. “Doctrine of Signatures: An Explanation of Medicinal Plant Discovery or Dissemination of Knowledge?” Economic Botany 61: 246–255.

Bitlekoff, C., Mudry, J., Kimura, A.H., Landecker, H., and Guthman, J. 2014. “Interrogating Moral and Quantification Discourses in Nutritional Knowledge.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies 14 (3): 17–26.

Cannon, G. 2002. “Nutrition: The New World Disorder.” Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition 11: S498–S509.

Carpenter, K. 2003. “A Short History of Nutritional Science: Part 1 (1785–1885).” The Journal of Nutrition 133: 638–645.

Crowther, G. 2013. Eating Culture: An Anthropological Guide to Food. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Coveney, J. 2000. Food, Morals, and Meaning: The Pleasure and Anxiety of Eating (2nd edition). New York: Routledge.

DuPuis, M. 2015. Dangerous Digestion: The Politics of American Dietary Advice. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Foucault, M. 1970. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Random House.

Foucault, M. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books.

Garland, D. 2014. “‘What is a History of the Present’? On Foucault’s Genealogies and their Critical Preconditions.” Punishment & Society 16: 365–384.

Gentilcore, D. 2016. Food and Health in Early Modern: Diet, Medicine and Society, 1450–1800. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Hargrove, J. 2006. “History of the Calorie in Nutrition.” The Journal of Nutrition 136: 2957–2961.

Heldke, L. 2006. “The Unexamined Meal is Not Worth Eating: Or, Why and How Philosophers (Might/Could/Do) Study Food.” Food, Culture & Society 9: 201–219.

Overend, A. (2021). Shifting Food Facts: Dietary Discourse in a Post-Truth Culture. New York: Routledge.

Mayes, C. and Thompson, D. 2014. “Is Nutritional Advocacy Morally Indigestible? A Critical Analysis of the Scientific and Ethical Implications of ‘Healthy’ Food Choice Discourse in Liberal Societies.” Public Health Ethic 7: 158–169.

Mudry, J. 2009. Measured Meals: Nutrition in America. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Neswald, E. 2017. “Nutritional Knowledge between the Lab and the Field: The Search for Dietary Norms in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries, in Setting Nutritional Standards: Theories, Policies, Practices, ed. Elizabeth Neswald, F. David Smith, and Ulrike Thoms, 29–51. Rochester: Rochester University Press.

Pearce, J.M.S. 2008. “The Doctrine of Signatures.” European Neurology 60 (2008): 51–52.

Richardson-Boedler, C. 1999. “The Doctrine of Signatures: A Historical, Philosophical and Scientific View.” British Homeopathic Journal 88: 172–177.

Scrinis, G. 2013. Nutritionism: The Science and Politics of Dietary Advice. New York: Columbia University Press.

This chapter has been adapted from “Western Genealogies of Healthy Eating: From Humoural Medicine to Modern Nutritionism, Chapter 1 in my book Shifting Food Facts (Overend 2021, 14).
I use “us”, “our” and “we” in a plural sense to capture multiplicity, not homogeneity, of people, identities, and cultures.
Anderson 2005, 141.
Coveney 2000, 26.
Crowther 2013, 12.
Gentilcore 2016, 19.
Albala 2002, 52.
Anderson 1997, 82.
Albala 2002, 81.
Ibid, 94.
Ibid, 59.
Anderson 2005, 142.
Ibid, 84.
Bennett 2007, 248.
Pearce 2008, 51
Richardson-Boedler 1999, 174.
Quoted in Foucault 1970, 20.
Bennett 2007, 249.
Ray 1717, quoted in Bennett 2007, 251.
Richardson-Boedler 1999, 174.
Scrinis 2013, 54.
Hargrove 2006, 2957.
Neswald 2017, 32.
Atwater 1902, quoted in Mudry 2009, 40.
Neswald 2017, 29.
Scrinis 2013, 63.
Carpenter 2003, 3023.
Scrinis 2013, 64.
Mudry 2009, 2.
Scrinis 2013, 5.
Foucault 1997, 31.
Garland 2014, 367.
DuPuis 2015, 137–144.
Mayes & Thompson 2014, 160–161.
Cannon 2002, 503.
Heldke 2006.

Perspective: Eating Healthy

Jennifer Brady

The Contested Terrain of What it Means to Eat Healthy
Jennifer Brady is a Registered Dietitian and Director of the School of Nutrition and Dietetics at Acadia University in Mtaban/Wolfville, Mi’kma’ki/Nova Scotia.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Describe the two divergent paradigms of healthy eating that are central to current nutrition debates.
  • Identify and define key concepts for thinking critically about healthy eating.
  • Discuss healthy eating as an area of contested meaning that shapes—and is shaped—by power inequities.


What is healthy eating? For many, the answer to this question seems simple: healthy eating means eating a variety of foods with an emphasis on low-calorie, nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables, fibre-rich whole grains, lean proteins, and unsaturated healthful fats, like plant-based oils. Conversely, healthy eating means avoiding unhealthful foods, which are high in calories, fat, salt, and sugar. This description reflects a mainstream account of healthy eating that is championed by nutrition and health experts, as well as via government-issued tools and policies, such as Canada’s Food Guide. Although the answer to the question “what is healthy eating?” may seem simple, this chapter suggests that it is anything but!

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755–1826), a French politician and lawyer, wrote, “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es.” This phrase is often translated into the well-known idiom, “You are what you eat.” However, a more accurate translation reads, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” In other words, who and what we are, our social, cultural, and spiritual identities, and even our bodies, shape and are shaped by what we eat. If we agree with Brillat-Savarin’s observation—and many do—then it is important to think about another question when thinking about healthy eating: If we tell people what to eat, aren’t we at the same time telling them who we think they should be?

This question is important because it invites consideration of the ways in which defining healthy eating and telling others what to eat is inherently political. That is, the ways in which healthy eating is defined and communicated to diverse populations are not neutral. This includes the people, the knowledge, and the language involved in such communications. Rather, as researchers in the fields of critical nutrition studies and critical dietetics have established, healthy eating is a terrain of competing perspectives that are rooted in diverse forms of knowledge. Said otherwise, healthy eating is intertwined with social and structural inequities in society.

Current debates

An important debate within critical nutrition studies and critical dietetics is about who gets to decide what it means to eat healthy and based on what criteria. Although there are a multitude of views about what healthy eating is, at the core of current debates lie two competing perspectives—or paradigmseach of which present divergent ideas about what healthy eating is, the kinds of knowledge that are important to understanding it, and what it means to tell others what they should and shouldn’t eat to be healthy.

On one side of the debate is a dominant paradigm. A dominant paradigm may be described a set of values and ways of thinking about an issue that becomes so pervasive that the underlying assumptions and approaches to understanding it are seen to be normal and completely natural, and other perspectives and approaches are dismissed as inappropriate or false. On the other side of the debate is a critical paradigm. A critical paradigm also comprises a set of values and ways of thinking about an issue, but it is explicitly concerned with relationships of power. More specifically, a critical paradigm is concerned with the ways in which power inequities form and are perpetuated in society. Hence, the dominant and critical paradigms comprise very different priorities and ways of understanding what it means to eat healthy, and what it means to tell others what to eat. The next two subsections explore each paradigm in more detail.

The Dominant Paradigm

Why, at first glance, does the question “What is healthy eating?” seem so simple? How is it that we all seem to be able to recite a version of healthy eating that approximates the one described at the beginning of this chapter, even though it does not reflect what, how, or why many of us eat? In short, healthy eating is the subject of a dominant paradigm. In other words, healthy eating has come to be defined in ways that reflect a particular set of values, ideas, assumptions, and forms of knowledge that are largely taken for granted. More specifically, the values, ideas, assumptions, and ways knowing that underlie hegemonic nutrition frame healthy eating as something that is best understood as a biophysiological concern, and is therefore most accurately described using science and quantitative measure. That is, the dominant paradigm understands healthy eating through an approach to knowledge known as a positivist epistemology. When viewed through this lens, the criteria used to define healthy eating focus almost exclusively on the quantifiable nutrients contained in single food items, which are determined through scientific analysis. Hence, the answer to the question, “What is healthy eating?” is simply understood as the consumption of foods that are high in health-promoting nutrients and low in nutrients that are seen as harming one’s health.

An example of hegemonic nutrition as the dominant paradigm of healthy eating is Canada’s Food Guide (see Figure 1). Canada’s Food Guide reflects the model of healthy eating that is described at the beginning of this chapter, and that stems from a positivist epistemological approach. In other words, Canada’s Food Guide categorizes and promotes foods based almost exclusively on their nutrient content. For example, fruits and vegetables are grouped and promoted based on their relatively high content of fibre and micronutrients, such as vitamins and antioxidants, versus the number of calories and the amount of fat, sugar, and salt. Likewise, the recommendation to “eat protein foods,” particularly those that are plant-based and unprocessed, is intended to encourage consumption of foods such as fish and legumes, which are high in protein and other health-promoting nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids and fibre, and which are low in calories and saturated fat.

cover of the 2019 Canada's Food Guide showing a plate divided into quadrants
Figure 1: The front cover of Health Canada’s 2019 revision of Canada’s Food Guide

The dominant paradigm of healthy eating and the science of nutrition have led to important discoveries about consuming certain nutrients and avoiding others. This in turn can benefit our health and help to manage and/or reduce our risk of various diseases. But consider this: there is also much about food, eating, and health that the dominant paradigm and nutrition science cannot tell us about healthy eating. To explore this issue, consider how the question “What is healthy eating?” might be answered from the perspective of the critical paradigm.

The Critical Paradigm

In contrast to the dominant paradigm, the critical paradigm draws on a different understanding of what counts as legitimate knowledge, known as interpretive epistemology. An interpretive epistemological approach sees food, eating, and health as being highly contextual, and that insights gained from people’s lived experience are also important to understanding healthy eating. In other words, the critical paradigm sees food, eating, and health—and how we understand these things—as inseparable from the social, cultural, economic, political, historical, and geographic contexts in which they exist. This includes the ways in which food, eating, and health are understood and experienced by people. For example, when viewed from the dominant paradigm, chocolate cake is a high-calorie, nutrient-poor, unhealthful food. Yet when viewed with from the critical paradigm, eating chocolate cake is (for many of us) laden with meanings that connect us to who we are, to our relationships with friends and family, and to important social and cultural rituals like birthdays. Hence, from a critical perspective, what healthy eating is depends on a set of unique circumstances related to who, when, where, why, and how one might be seeking to define healthy eating. The critical paradigm thus implies that understanding healthy eating requires knowledge beyond what can be known through science alone.

In taking an interpretive epistemological approach, the critical paradigm also highlights the ways that definitions of healthy eating are intertwined with social and structural inequities, such as sexism, classism, racism, as well as hierarchies of knowledge wherein non-dominant (i.e., non-scientific) ways of seeing the world are dismissed as untrue, deceptive, or deluded. For example, the dominant paradigm sees lobster as a universally healthy food because it is low-fat, protein-rich, and high in omega-3 fatty acids. Yet the dominant paradigm obscures the local context in which lobster may be fished, sold, and eaten. For example, in Mi’kmaw’ki/Nova Scotia, where I live and work, lobster has been at the centre of on-going and sometimes violent conflict between commercial lobster fishers—who are predominantly White—and Indigenous Mi’kmaw fishers, whose right to fish is protected by treaties, but which has been repeatedly threatened as a result of settler colonialism and anti-Indigenous racism.

The fundamental differences between the dominant and critical paradigms of healthy eating are well illustrated by Atlantic Canada’s Food Guide (see Figure 2) and Cape Breton’s Food Guide (see Figure 3), both of which were published as satirical responses to the latest version of Canada’s Food Guide shortly after its release., The Atlantic Canada and Cape Breton food guides may be seen as simply poking fun at the gap between the picture of healthy eating depicted by Canada’s Food Guide and the stereotypical eating habits and food culture of those living in Cape Breton and Atlantic Canada. However, they may alternatively be seen as legitimate critiques of Canada’s Food Guide, which does not reflect the social, cultural, economic, and historical realities of those living in Eastern Canada.

cartoon of a food guide, riffing on the Canada Food Guide, showing Atlantic Canada food specialties
Figure 2: Atlantic Canada’s Food Guide, by world-renowned editorial cartoonist Michael DeAdder, was first printed on January 28, 2019, soon after Health Canada released the 2019 revision of Canada’s Food Guide. Atlantic Canada comprises four provinces in Eastern Canada: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador. (Used with permission.)
satiric illustration, riffing on Canada's Food Guide, showing Cape Breton, Nova Scotia food specialties
Figure 3: Cape Breton’s Food Guide, shared by CMikeHunt on January 25, 2019 in r/halifax, a subreddit of Halifax Regional Municipality, Nova Scotia, Canada. Cape Breton is an island located at the northeastern tip of its home province, Nova Scotia.

One strength of the critical paradigm is its emphasis on the highly contextual nature of food and health, which doesn’t dismiss as unhealthy the foods and ways of understanding health that are meaningful and important to people all over the world. The traditional food and eating habits of Eastern Canadians reflect the region’s rich social and cultural identity that is rooted in its unique history, geography, and climate; some of these are depicted in the Cape Breton and Atlantic Canada food guides. Both guides include a diverse array of foods, such as canned corned beef, lobster, soft rolls, luskinikan, rappie pie, boiled dinner, and donair. Many of these might be unfamiliar or unappealing to those who “come from away” (as those people from the rest of Canada are typically labelled by Eastern Canadians). These foods are also low in fibre and other health-promoting nutrients, and high in calories, fat, sugar, and salt, but are also deeply rooted in the history and culture of the region, and in the identities of those who live here. Are these foods not a part of healthy eating for people living in Eastern Canada?

Another strength of the critical paradigm is its emphasis on the interconnection between social and structural inequities—such as racism, sexism, and poverty—and what people eat and how they understand health. The provinces of Eastern Canada have suffered social and structural inequities as a result of economic hardship and intergenerational poverty. Nova Scotia, for example, and especially Cape Breton island have for decades reported the , compared to all other Canadian provinces. The minimum hourly wage in Nova Scotia falls well below what is considered an adequate living wage, and many people earn salaries that are below or barely above the poverty line The impact of poverty is even more severe for the Indigenous Mi’kmaq individuals and communities who live throughout the region, and who have fought to maintain traditional food and eating habits despite the impact of racism and colonialism. In short, many of the foods that are visually depicted in Canada’s Food Guidesuch as salmon, quinoa, and fresh berries—are both financially out of reach and culturally irrelevant to the people who live in this region.

Canada’s Food Guide, and the dominant paradigm of healthy eating more generally, overlook the contextual factors that shape what is accessible to and considered healthy by Eastern Canadians. What is more, if what we eat is meaningful to who we are (as Brillat-Savarin suggests and as the Cape Breton and Atlantic Canada food guides seem to affirm), then in many ways we are telling people who they should be when we tell them what to eat. The dominant paradigm of healthy eating can thus be seen as overlooking, if not exacerbating, the social and structural inequities that shape what, why, how, and when people eat.

Despite its strengths, the critical paradigm also has shortcomings. Specifically, the critical paradigm provides little concrete guidance about what foods and eating patterns contribute to human health. This insight leads to yet more questions that are important to the ongoing debates about healthy eating that have unfolded within critical nutrition studies and critical dietetics. One such question is: How do we reconcile the strengths of the dominant and critical paradigms? In other words, how can we provide information that may help people eat healthfully, but in ways that do not dismiss or exacerbate inequities, and instead affirm the highly contextual and deeply held meanings of food, eating, and health?

Discussion and implications

The dominant paradigm has led to many health-promoting and life-saving discoveries about healthy eating, including how to manage and treat disease through diet. However, this paradigm has been widely criticized for overlooking the highly contextual nature of healthy eating, which is intertwined with social and structural inequities, as well as the knowledge that is derived from people’s everyday lived experiences of food and eating. Conversely, the critical paradigm has shed light on the highly contextual nature of food and eating, the interconnections between how we define and think about what is healthy to eat, and social and structural inequities. Yet the critical paradigm tends to overlook the scientific evidence, and provides little direction about what and how we should eat to support health. In this light, the question remains: What is healthy eating?

The answer that is currently emerging from critical nutrition studies and critical dietetics points to the need to bring together the strengths and weaknesses of both the dominant paradigm and the critical paradigm. That is, what is needed is an understanding of healthy eating that reflects scientific evidence about the impact of what we eat, but which also incorporates the diverse meanings of food, eating, and health that are rooted in the complex and contextual experiences of people’s everyday lives. How exactly that might unfold is a question on the horizon of the developing field of critical nutrition studies and critical dietetics.


As researchers, activists, practitioners, and students of food and nutrition, our work is often geared toward changing what and how people eat. Questions such as “What is healthy eating?,” and “What does it means to tell others what to eat?” are important and require us to consider the breadth of knowledges that are needed to understand potential responses.

This overview has drawn on key concepts in the field of critical nutrition studies and critical dietetics to explore two epistemological paradigms that provide very divergent responses to these questions. Some of these responses are reflected in the different depictions of healthy eating presented by Canada’s Food Guide and the Cape Breton and Atlantic Canada food guides. Ultimately, what these divergent paradigms indicate is that healthy eating is a terrain of contested meaning that shapes and is shaped by social and structural inequities. In other words, answering the question, “What is healthy eating?” is anything but simple.

Discussion Questions

  • Reflexive thinking is important for being aware of our social positionality within systems of power and privilege, such as those that influence how we view healthy eating. Think about what healthy eating means to you and the role it plays in your day-to-day life and in shaping your identity. What informs your conceptualization of healthy eating? How does your conceptualization of healthy eating reflect the dominant and critical paradigms discussed above?
  • Recall the Atlantic Canada Food Guide and the Cape Breton Food Guide discussed in this chapter. If you were to create a food guide to reflect the town, region, or country that you call home, what foods or messaging about healthy eating would it include?

Additional Resources

Coveney, J. and S. Booth, eds. 2019. Critical Dietetics and Critical Nutrition Studies. Boston: Springer.

Hayes-Conroy, Allison, and Jessica Hayes-Conroy, eds. 2016. Doing Nutrition Differently: Critical Approaches to Diet and Dietary Intervention. New York: Routledge.

Koç, Mustafa, Jennifer Sumner, and Anthony Winson, eds. 2021. Critical Perspectives in Food Studies, 3rd edition. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Parker, Barbara, Jennifer Brady, Elaine Power, and Susan Belyea, eds. 2019. Feminist Food Studies: Intersectional Perspectives. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rebel Eaters Club, S2 E5: “Eating 101 with Dr. Jennifer Brady.


CMikeHunt. “Substitute donair for Lick-a-chick and you’ve got a Halifax version.” Reddit, January 25, 2019.

Brillat-Savarin, J.-A. 2007. Physiologie du goût. Project Gutenberg.

deAdder, M. “Atlantic Canada’s Food Guide,” Chronicle Herald, January 28 2019.

Driscoll, C. and C. Saulnier. “Living Wages in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick 2020” (website). Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Accessed May 1, 2021.

Health Canada. Canada’s Food Guide (website). Accessed May 1, 2021.

Saulnier, C. and C. Plante. “The Cost of Poverty in the Atlantic Provinces” (website). Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Accessed May 1, 2021.

Tarasuk, V. and A. Mitchell. “Household food insecurity in Canada, 2017-18” (website). PROOF. Accessed May 1 2021.

Brillat-Savarin 2007.
Health Canada 2021.
deAdder 2019.
CMikeHunt 2019.
Tarasuk & Mitchell 2020.
Saulnier & Plante 2021.
Driscoll & Saulnier 2021.

Activity: Classifying Food

Erin Sperling and Sara Scharf

Activity: Classification of Food as a Way to Understand Diversity and Socio-cultural History

Erin Sperling, PhD and Sara Scharf, PhD are freelance academics with deep and wide-ranging expertise. Erin, a sessional lecturer, has taught numerous elementary science methods and environmental education courses at post-secondary institutions in Ontario and has a doctorate in the field of food justice education. Sara, a professional academic editor and cybersecurity researcher, wrote her dissertation on the history and development of field guides in botany.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Articulate their understanding of their personal and cultural connections to food and begin to analyze these connections in relation to their own and others’ contexts.
  • Identify a variety of food products and understand their cultural and/or historical origins, including influences of colonization and globalization.
  • Express multiple ways of knowing food and name the various stakeholders in food systems, including ecological, medicinal, industrial, and agricultural interests.

Classification of Food

This activity on the classification of food plants encourages participants to draw on their own cultural and historical backgrounds to explore food-knowledge development in an inclusive way. The activity was developed by working with teacher candidates to encourage them to see food as an inclusive material for teaching across subject areas and supporting knowledge-sharing.

In this activity, students explore and classify food plants as a way to highlight the importance of biodiversity and to examine the role of scientific study and classification as just one of several ways of understanding the world, including Indigenous and other localized approaches. An additional goal is to help participants recognize their own biases, as well as the views and experiences of others. Our biases have an impact on the way we view and encounter the world and the assumptions we may make.

In particular, students may explore specific skills of observation, using inference, classification, and the practices of information organization used to represent knowledge. Participants will draw upon their own experiences with particular foods—including cultural practices and personal preferences—to demonstrate that there are multiple useful ways of looking at our complex and varied world, that scientific classification grew out of local classifications and works as a bridge among different local classifications, and that these different ways of engaging continue to inform each other.

This activity can be done with real food items, paper and pens or markers, paper towels and knives (for cutting open fruits and vegetables). It can be carried out in person, or through virtual delivery, using a Google Images search or the food randomizer site, for example. The latter is helpful for selecting a variety of foods for students to consider, as opposed to having students preselect the food items, which may bring unconscious bias into the activity, and which also eliminates the possibility that students may encounter new food items in the activity. However, it should be noted that a disadvantage to the food randomizer site is that its selection options are limited and already biased toward northern North American or European cuisine. If meeting in person is not possible, the instructor can also pre-select a list of images without letting the students know the names of the items. Students will have their own preconceptions about what each item might be. These preconceptions should also be explored.

For the virtual delivery of this activity, use the website(s) selected to make a list including at least four fruits and four vegetables. Students may draw and colour in the objects as well, based on their own knowledge, or do some quick research online for images to print and cut out or copy. Be careful not to have them read too much detail about the use or origin of the item selected.

Once you have a clear list of 8 to 10 items, have the students follow the directions below, making adjustments for virtual or in-person participation:

  • Arrange yourselves into groups of about four.
  • Put away your phones and close your browsers. Do not look anything up!
  • First, on your own, investigate the contents of the “food basket.” Try not to discuss your thoughts and memories with others yet, but take note of them.
  • On your own, decide how you will organize your items. Write out clusters and sub-clusters (if appropriate) of food items with clear categories. Label the categories. There are no wrong answers!
  • Write down a brief summary of why you organized your items the way you did. What guided your choices?
  • Within your group of four, share and compare your organization and analysis. Respectfully discuss your results and consider how similar and different they are from each other. Consider both the categories you and your classmates have chosen as well as the way you have each organized the information.
  • Come to a group consensus, if possible, about how to organize the items in your “food basket.” Write down and/or illustrate your classification to share with class on big paper/digitally.
  • Some possible ways of classifying the food items include: colour, connections to family or celebrations, cooking method, taste, geographic origins, texture, plant body part (i.e., root, stem, fruit), and others. Possible modes of representing the information could include a flow chart, matrix, pie chart, or graph. There are no limits and no wrong answers.
a long table covered in a paper tablecloth and with six groups of different fruits and vegetables
Figure 1: One way to arrange the food in delivering this activity (photo: authors)

This activity highlights how to include other ways of viewing the world through diversifying modes of classification. The two engagements—individual and group—show multiple ways of looking at our complex and varied world, and that science is just one way among many. Even whether a given item counts as a fruit or vegetable is open for discussion.

Additional options include selecting a food or two from the lists and asking students to do further research to gather additional background information. This may include which of the foods are indigenous to the local site, which ones were introduced but can be grown locally, and which must be imported. It may also include learning which foods have cultural meaning to some groups and why, and/or which foods grow best in certain conditions or climates, and why.

Discussion Questions

  • What did you notice about your connections to food compared to other members of your group?
  • How did your group come to consensus about the final categorizations and organization that was displayed to the class?
  • What factors did your group discuss that helped to determine individual and group representations of the food items?
  • What do you notice about the overall class representations of their food items? What were the more and less common ways of organizing and categorizing food items? In what ways can we use this information to support food studies actions?
  • Scientific classification came out of an effort to produce a common language that would bridge different local ways of knowing and communicating about living things. In what ways is having a common scientific language useful? In what ways is it less useful?

Note: If this activity is to be held in person, tell the students ahead of time that fresh produce will be brought into the classroom and give them the opportunity to indicate if there are any serious allergies that should be taken into account.

Creative: The Foodish Gaze

Annika Walsh

One Day at the Microwave & Savoury Dreams
Annika Walsh is a transdisciplinary artist who was born in Chuzhou, China and adopted at 11 months of age by her family in Canada. She works with a variety of ingredients, materials, and collaborators to form her conceptual pieces. Her practice ranges from exploration of cultural identity to participatory food performances, and everything in between. Striving to blur the lines and push the boundaries, Annika makes a habit of traversing many disciplines, including sculptural installation, performance, and media.

One Day at the Microwave (Nov. 2021)

“One Day at The Microwave” is an interactive installation that situates you in an absurd space that you’ve probably never thought you’d want to be in. From the position of your food in a microwave, you have the ability to set the amount of time for which you would like to be heated up. Sitting and spinning in the small, lit-up box, you are invited to take a break from the day and enjoy the amusing space that the appliance provides.

One or more interactive elements has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view them online here:

Savoury Dreams (Oct. 2021)

Savoury Dreams is an installation that has visual and olfactory elements. A projector is suspended from an overhead lamp; a short looped animation of an array of ingredients glows in the simmering soup pot. The liquid of the softly boiling soup interacts with the projected materiality, adding another form of movement. Visitors to the space smell hints of lemongrass, shrimp, and ginger as the soup slowly simmers away.

One or more interactive elements has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view them online here:

Perspective: Food Allergies

Janis Goldie

When Food Kills: The Impact and Meaning of Food Allergies
Janis Goldie is the incoming Dean of Academic Programs at the Alberta University of the Arts in Calgary, Alberta. Prior to this role, she was Professor and the Chair of the Communication Studies Department at Huntington University in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. Her research on food and public health focuses on Canadian communication contexts, including investigating discourses of food allergies via popular culture artifacts, news media, or governmental sites, as well as the discourse that stakeholders use when considering food allergies.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Explain the basic aspects of food allergies and their prevalence as a public health issue.
  • Describe how food allergies are an important issue of consideration in the broader context of Food Studies.
  • Identify elements of the impact and experience of those living with food allergies.


What did you eat for lunch today? A sandwich? Perhaps some bannock or curry? Maybe a sushi roll or a taco or a slice of pizza? Did you think about the ingredients? How the food was prepared? What oil or condiment was used? Did you consider that eating your lunch might harm you—harm you so severely that you would need immediate medical attention and, if not treated promptly, could even die? If these questions aren’t at the top of your mind before lunch—or every time you eat—then you probably don’t live with a food allergy.

Food allergies occur when the immune system does not recognize a food as safe and responds with an allergic reaction. A serious reaction, anaphylaxis, can manifest as a number of different body-system effects, such as respiratory (trouble breathing, chest pain, or throat tightness), skin (hives or swelling of the face or lips or tongue), gastrointestinal (nausea or vomiting), or cardiovascular (dizziness or fainting), among others. While reactions can range in severity, a food allergy is a chronic health condition, requiring ongoing medical attention and limiting the daily activities of those afflicted.

Roughly 2.6 million Canadians are affected by food allergies that can be deadly if treatment is delayed. In Canada, 7.7 percent of adults and 6.9 percent of children under the age of 18 now report having at least one food allergy. Peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, mustard, fish, shellfish, sesame, soy, and wheat are the priority food allergens in Canada and are responsible for the majority of clinical reactions. (See Table 1 below for breakdown of prevalence by age and allergen in Canada.) Food allergies are a serious and growing public health issue in Canada and much of the world. There has been a significant reported rise in food allergies in the past two decades, with up to a 50 percent increase of prevalence for children since 1997. With prevalence at an all-time high and no agreed upon explanation as to the cause and minimal treatment options available for the food allergic, food allergies are cause for concern.

bar graph showing food allergy prevalences in Canadian children and adults
Table 1: This chart is a representation of data from AlleGen’s national survey. See the complete table on the Allergen website.

Alongside the increasing prevalence of food allergies, research on the subject has also increased over the last few decades. Living with a food allergy qualifies as a legal disability under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada, including an obligation to accommodate. Those with food allergies are frequently bullied, socially isolated, economically challenged, and experience significant negative outcomes on their quality of life (QoL). In this way, “food allergies not only increase the risk of fatality for those most severely affected, they regularly disrupt life for those diagnosed and their families”. Given that eating is a constant and potentially lethal risk, the study of food allergies presents a unique and important perspective to consider within food studies. Whether examining the issue from a food systems, culture, justice, risk, feminist, or policy lens, the topic of food allergies provides an ample area for future study in the field. In the following section, some of the current findings in the research on food allergies are outlined. I then go on to discuss an area that is receiving greater consideration and research—the communication or discourse of food allergies.

Current Research

The Impact and Experiences of Food Allergies

The majority of the research on food allergies to date is biomedical. Biomedical studies examine issues such as current diagnosis options, prevention, treatment, and management strategies, as well as the epidemiology of food allergies and their prevalence. In contrast, social science research on food allergies has focused on the experiences and effects of living with food allergies. For example, recent studies on the economic costs associated with food allergies have found that the overall economic burden is substantial, both for those with food allergies as well as for healthcare systems. In Canada, families with a member who has a food allergy reported higher direct annual costs of just less than $2400 (on average), largely attributed to increased spending on groceries and restaurant meals. Food-allergic families also spent more travelling to medical appointments and on medications compared to families without a food allergy. While healthcare costs in Canada related to food allergies are only beginning to be tracked, the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) reported that between 2007 and 2014, the total number of visits to the emergency departments for anaphylaxis and allergy rose from 69,691 to 84,855 in Alberta and Ontario alone. Other studies have examined billing fees from physicians for common allergy tests across Canada and have found that costs vary widely depending on the service and province.

Beyond the economic effects of living with a food allergy, there has also been a significant focus on the effects on QoL and the lived experiences of the food allergic as well as their caregivers. This research includes examinations of the psychosocial and mental health impacts of living with food allergies, as well as daily management and health-related measures.. These studies show how all areas of life can be affected by food allergies—including emotional, physical, and social—for the food allergic and their family members. Everything from grocery shopping, meal preparation, school attendance, family and social activities, as well as social skills can be impacted. In addition, the effect on caretakers of children with food allergies, as well as the children themselves, can result in high levels of emotional distress and anxiety. Caregivers feel sadness, anger, guilt, worry, and uncertainty about food allergies in their children, and that their distress becomes worse if they have fewer emotional resources, younger children, and/or children with behavioural problems. In addition to the effects on mental health, there are notable psychosocial effects. Living with a food allergy results in significant instances of social isolation, such as not being able to attend or participate in workplace, friend or family functions, restaurant outings, or even travel opportunities, which further affects QoL. For children, not being able to eat what others are eating, or even needing to eat alone, can be particularly challenging in social settings such as schools, parties, and sports events. In addition, bullying is a noted problem for children with food allergies. Anywhere from 16 to 32 percent of children or teens report having been teased or bullied because of their food allergy, often leading to negative emotional/psychological impacts such as sadness, depression, and decreased QofL. Other studies note the stigma surrounding food allergies and the challenges that go along with the consistent self-identification that management of a chronic health condition necessitates.

With regard to vulnerable groups, research has indicated that education, socioeconomic status, and race can affect the experiences and management of food allergies. For example, lower-income individuals in Ontario with food allergies reported difficulty obtaining safe food and medications due to medical misinformation, having to use food banks, and/or general financial barriers. Other studies have found that Caucasian children and those with higher income are more frequently provided a diagnosis than other children, while Aboriginal children have low rates of diagnosis and treatment for their food allergies as well as significant disparities in food allergy management related to healthcare access.

Various other studies on food allergies have examined risk perception as well as risk-taking behaviors, such as the conscious risks teenagers with food allergies are willing to take (trying food without knowing the ingredients, not having their EpiPens on hand, etc.), in addition to management strategies and practices in schools and policies, to name just a few areas. In all, the study of food allergies is a burgeoning area of focus with many facets.

Food and Communication: The Discourse of Food Allergies

In food studies, food is understood to be much more than just a means of survival. Food is sustenance, but it is also “a symbol, a product, a ritual object, an identity badge, an object of guilt, a political tool, even a kind of money.” As Koç, Sumner, and Winson argue, “What we eat, how we eat, when we eat, and with whom we eat reflect the complexity of our social, economic, political, cultural, and environmental relations with food”. Food has much meaning. As such, the combination of a communication studies approach and a food studies approach (both fields emphasize interdisciplinarity and a critical perspective) is a natural fit.

Connecting food and communication is a fairly recent move. The study of communication “is concerned with understanding the ways in which humans share verbal and nonverbal symbols, the meanings of the shared symbols, and the consequences of the sharing.” Because food is a nonverbal symbol in so many ways, unpacking the meanings that we have around food and the consequences of those meanings is crucial to understanding food. Food is also a code, much like language, in that it expresses patterns of social relationships, can be performative, and is directly linked to both ritual and culture. In all of these ways, we “use food to communicate with others and as a means of demonstrating personal identity, group affiliation and disassociation, and other social categories, such as socioeconomic class” so that “food functions symbolically as a communicative practice by which we create, manage and share meanings with others.” We use food in the construction and communication of our own personal identities, in our group associations, and our ability to share and discuss food across a wide variety of social sites and situations. Importantly, our communication about food, which can be referred to as our food discourse, “operates as important ‘sites of struggle’ with significant social and political implications.” Discourses around the local food movement, organic food, or dietary practices such as veganism, for example, all point to social and political implications such as changes in production and consumption behaviours, investments in economic resources, and government policies.

When we understand that not just food and the ways we communicate about food matter economically, politically, and socially, we start to ask questions about the ways issues such as food allergies are represented in talk, text, and media culture more broadly. We also start pay more attention to the implicit and explicit meaning of discourses around food allergies, and what they mean for how we develop resources and supports, approach treatments, management practices, policies, etc. While there is a great deal of research on food allergies, the focus on the various discourses of food allergies is only beginning to receive more attention.

Examining how we communicate about food allergies can be undertaken in various discursive sites of text and talk across various contexts. A few studies have begun to examine the discourse of food allergies within sites of media culture. For example, looking at food allergy blogs, Morlacchi has investigated the ways that food-allergy discourse orients the health risk as an individual responsibility, centered on food consumption and choice. Further, she highlights that that responsibility is represented as a gendered one, so that “allergy foodwork is overwhelmingly seen as the responsibility of women as mothers and as providers of food for their families.” Analysis on the framing of food allergy discourse in the news has pointed to the way that certain stakeholders frame issues differently. Advocates and affected individuals make moral judgments and suggest remedies, while doctors diagnose the cause of food allergies or frame food policy issues. Others point to the harmful effects of representing food allergies humorously in entertainment media. In a recent piece, for example, two short comedic media representations of food allergies were analyzed: an episode of CBC Television’s Mr. D, in which one of the main characters has an anaphylactic reaction; and a short stand-up skit from the Halifax Comedy Festival about food allergies in wartime. These media artifacts represent food allergies as something to be not taken seriously, even ridiculed. The food allergic are shown as weak and unable to survive or cope with life’s everyday challenges. Further, food allergies are represented as an individual problem—one in which the food allergic is responsible for the problem solely on their own.

These messages matter, because like all discourse circulating in the public domain, they can inform our broader beliefs and behaviours, especially when certain representations persist and dominate. Its pervasiveness in North America as a cultural-orientation machine means that media culture offers much social instruction about who we are and what our norms and values are in a society. The ways that food allergies are presented in our popular media such as comic books, news or social media or entertainment texts, can thus influence how we feel, think about, or react to food allergies in our lives. If the messages we hear about food allergies on television, for example, tell us that people with food allergies are weak and that food allergies are not an issue to take seriously, then it might relate to the policies that are created for schools or the real-world bullying that exists for the food allergic.

In all, while the study of the discourses of food allergies needs much more attention, it is an important step in the research on food allergies more generally. When we tie the research on the experiences of those living with, or caring for, the food allergic with research into the way we talk about, and thus understand food allergies, we are much better positioned to provide valuable and meaningful social impact. We must first assess how we understand the meanings behind food allergies in our cultures if we are to come to any sort of health or policy solutions.


The issue of food allergies is an important area of consideration within the broader field of food studies because of its increasing prevalence and the impacts it has on the daily lives of those affected. The study of food allergies also provides a valuable opportunity to examine an area of discourse of food—in which the meanings imbued within a wide variety of talk and text construct and cement our understandings of disease, management strategies, support systems, and policies. We are used to thinking about food as a source of nourishment and identity, as well as for enjoyment and pleasure. But when the food one consumes poses a constant, everyday risk to one’s life, there are very different meanings imbued within it. Understanding the different ways that food means is an important endeavour to continue to build on in the work of food studies.

Discussion Questions

  • Why is it important to connect food discourse to the broader field of food studies? Why do our meanings and language about food matter?
  • Why do you think the research on food allergies has been slow to examine the communication around this health issue?
  • What representations have you seen of food allergies in media culture? Do you recall any scenes in popular films or television series in which a food allergy episode or reaction occurs? If so, what happened? How was the reaction portrayed? How was the person experiencing the reaction portrayed? What meanings about food allergies were constructed? Do these align with the experiences indicated by the academic research?

Additional Resources

Food Allergy Canada

National Film Board, Sabrina’s Law, 2007, documentary available for free online streaming.


Abo, M.M., M.D. Slater, and P. Jain. 2017. “Using Health Conditions for Laughs and Health Policy Support: The Case of Food Allergies.” Health Communication 32 (7): 803–11.

Abrams, E.M., E. Simons, J. Gerdts, O. Nazarko, B. Povolo, and J.L.P. Protudjer. 2020. “‘I Want to Really Crack This Nut’: An Analysis of Parent-Perceived Policy Needs Surrounding Food Allergy.” BMC Public Health 20 (1): 1194.

Abrams, E.M., E. Simons, L. Roos, K. Hurst, and J.L.P. Protudjer. 2020. “Qualitative Analysis of Perceived Impacts on Childhood Food Allergy on Caregiver Mental Health and Lifestyle.” Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology: Official Publication of the American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology 124 (6): 594–99.

Clarke, A.E., S.J. Elliott, Y. St. Pierre, Lianne Soller, Sebastien La Vieille, and Moshe Ben-Shoshan. 2020. “Temporal Trends in Prevalence of Food Allergy in Canada.” The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice 8 (4): 1428-1430.e5.

Cummings, A.J., R.C. Knibb, Michel Erlewyn‐Lajeunesse, Rosemary M. King, Graham Roberts, and Jane S. A. Lucas. 2010. “Management of Nut Allergy Influences Quality of Life and Anxiety in Children and Their Mothers.” Pediatric Allergy and Immunology 21 (4p1): 586–94.

de Silva, D., S. Halken, C. Singh, A. Muraro, E. Angier, S. Arasi, H. Arshad, et al. 2020. “Preventing Food Allergy in Infancy and Childhood: Systematic Review of Randomised Controlled Trials.” Pediatric Allergy and Immunology 31 (7): 813–26.

Desrochers, P. 2016. “Lies, Damned Lies, and Locavorism: Bringing Some Truth in Advertising to the Canadian Local Food Debate.” In Food Promotion, Consumption and Controversy: How Canadians Communicate VI, edited by Charlene Elliott. Athabasca, AB: Athabasca University Press: 229–250.

Derkatch, C. and P. Spoel. 2017. Public Health Promotion of ‘Local Food’: Constituting the self-governing citizen-consumer. Health 2 (2): 154–170.

Dixon, J., S.J. Elliott, and A.E. Clarke. 2016. “‘Exploring Knowledge-User Experiences in Integrated Knowledge Translation: A Biomedical Investigation of the Causes and Consequences of Food Allergy.’” Research Involvement and Engagement 2 (1): 27.

Elliott, S., and F. Cardwell. 2018. “What about the Other 50 Percent of the Canadian Population? Food Allergies Ignored in National Policy Plan.” Canadian Food Studies / La Revue Canadienne Des Études Sur l’alimentation 5 (3): 285–89.

Estimated Food Allergy Prevalence among all Canadians.” 2017. AllerGen.

Fong, A.T., C.H.Katelaris, and B. Wainstein. 2017. “Bullying and Quality of Life in Children and Adolescents with Food Allergy: Bullying with Food Allergy.” Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health 53 (7): 630–35.

Foong, R.-X., J.A. Dantzer, R.A. Wood, and A.F. Santos. 2021. “Improving Diagnostic Accuracy in Food Allergy.” The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice 9 (1): 71–80.

Goldie, J.L. 2019. “The ‘Funny’ Thing About Food Allergies….in Canadian Media.” In The Spaces and Places of Canadian Popular Culture, edited by Victoria Kannen and Neil Shyminsky, 318–27. Toronto, ON: Canadian Scholars Press.

Golding, M.A., E. Simons, E.M. Abrams, J. Gerdts, and J.L.P. Protudjer. 2021. “The Excess Costs of Childhood Food Allergy on Canadian Families: A Cross-Sectional Study.” Allergy, Asthma & Clinical Immunology 17(1): 1-11.

Greene, C.P., and J.M. Cramer. 2011. “Beyond Mere Sustenance: Food as Communication/Communication as Food.” In Food as Communication: Communication as Food, edited by Janet M. Cramer, Carlnita P. Greene, and Lynn M. Walters, ix–xix. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Greenebaum, J. 2012. Veganism, Identity and the Quest for Authenticity. Food, Culture & Society 15 (1): 129-144.

Gupta, R.S., E.E. Springston, M.R. Warrier, B. Smith, R. Kumar, J. Pongracic, and J.L. Holl. 2011. “The Prevalence, Severity, and Distribution of Childhood Food Allergy in the United States.” Pediatrics 128 (1): e9–17.

Gupta, R., D. Holdford, L. Bilaver, A. Dyer, J.L. Holl, and David Meltzer. 2013. “The Economic Impact of Childhood Food Allergy in the United States.” JAMA Pediatrics 167 (11): 1026–31.

Hamshaw, R.J.T., J. Barnett, and J.S. Lucas. 2017. “Framing the Debate and Taking Positions on Food Allergen Legislation: The 100 Chefs Incident on Social Media.” Health, Risk & Society 19 (3–4): 145–67.

Harrington, D.W., K. Wilson, S.J. Elliott, and A.E. Clarke. 2013. “Diagnosis and Treatment of Food Allergies in Off-Reserve Aboriginal Children in Canada.” The Canadian Geographer / Le Géographe Canadien 57 (4): 431–40.

Henderson, M.C. 1970. “Food as Communication in American Culture: Today’s Speech: Vol 18, No 3.” Today’s Speech 18 (3): 3–8.

Husain, Z., and R.A. Schwartz. 2013. “Food Allergy Update: More than a Peanut of a Problem.” International Journal of Dermatology 52 (3): 286–94.

Information Canadian Institute for Health Information. 2015. “Anaphylaxis and Allergy in the Emergency Department.”

Jackson, K.D., L.D. Howie, and O.J. Akinbami. 2013. Trends in Allergic Conditions Among Children: United States, 1997-2011. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics.

Kamdar, T.A., S. Peterson, C.H. Lau, C.A. Saltoun, R.S. Gupta, and P.J. Bryce. 2015. “Prevalence and Characteristics of Adult-Onset Food Allergy.” The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. In Practice 3 (1): 114-5.e1.

Koç, M., J. Sumner, and A. Winson, eds. 2017. Crtical Perspectives in Food Studies. Second. Don Mills, ON: Oxford.

Lizie, ArtAhur. 2014. “Food and Communication.” In Routledge International Handbook of Food Studies, edited by Ken Albala, 27–38. New York, NY: Routledge.

McNicol, S. and S. Weaver. 2013. “‘Dude! You Mean You’ve Never Eaten a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich?!?’ Nut Allergy as Stigma in Comic Books.” Health Communication 28 (3): 217–25.

Miller, J., A.C. Blackman, H.T. Wang, S.Anvari, M. Joseph, C.M. Davis, K.A. Staggers, and Aikaterini Anagnostou. 2020. “Quality of Life in Food Allergic Children: Results from 174 Quality-of-Life Patient Questionnaires.” Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology 124 (4): 379–84.

Minaker, L.M., S.J. Elliott, and A. Clarke. 2014. “Exploring Low-Income Families’ Financial Barriers to Food Allergy Management and Treatment.” Journal of Allergy (February): 1–7.

Morlacchi, P. n.d. “Foodwork as Re-Articulation of Women’s in/Visible Work: A Study of Food Allergy Blogs.” Gender, Work & Organization. Accessed February 24, 2021.

Murdoch, B., E.M. Adams, and T. Caulfield. 2018. “The Law of Food Allergy and Accommodation in Canadian Schools.” Allergy, Asthma & Clinical Immunology 14 (1): 67.

Nettleton, S., B. Woods, R. Burrows, and A. Kerr. 2010. “Experiencing Food Allergy and Food Intolerance: An Analysis of Lay Accounts.” Sociology 44 (2): 289–305.

Nwaru, B.I., L. Hickstein, S.S. Panesar, A. Muraro, T. Werfel, V. Cardona, A.E.J. Dubois, et al. 2014. “The Epidemiology of Food Allergy in Europe: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Allergy 69 (1): 62–75.

Pitchforth, E., S. Weaver, J. Willars, E. Wawrzkowicz, D. Luyt, and M. Dixon-Woods. 2011. “A Qualitative Study of Families of a Child with a Nut Allergy.” Chronic Illness 7 (4): 255–66.

Protudjer, J., L. Penner, L. Soller, E.M. Abrams, and E.S. Chan. 2020. “Billing Fees for Various Common Allergy Tests Vary Widely across Canada.” Allergy, Asthma & Clinical Immunology 16 (28): 1–6.

Rachul, C., and T. Caulfield. 2011. “Food Allergy Policy and the Popular Press: Perspectives From Canadian Newspapers.” Journal of Asthma & Allergy Educators 2 (6): 282–87.

Ravid, N.L., R.A. Annunziato, M.A. Ambrose, K. Chuang, C. Mullarkey, S.H. Sicherer, E. Shemesh, and A.L. Cox. 2012. “Mental Health and Quality-of-Life Concerns Related to the Burden of Food Allergy.” Immunology and Allergy Clinics 32 (1): 83–95.

Sauer, K., E. Patten, K. Roberts, and M. Schartz. 2018. “Management of Food Allergies in Schools.” Journal of Child Nutrition & Management 42 (2).

Shaker, M.S., J. Schwartz, and M. Ferguson. 2017. “An Update on the Impact of Food Allergy on Anxiety and Quality of Life.” Current Opinion in Pediatrics 29 (4): 497–502.

Sicherer, S.H., and H.A. Sampson. 2018. “Food Allergy: A Review and Update on Epidemiology, Pathogenesis, Diagnosis, Prevention, and Management.” Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 141 (1): 41-58.

Soller, L., M. Ben-Shoshan, D.W. Harrington, M. Knoll, J. Fragapane, L. Joseph, Y. St. Pierre, et al. 2015. “Prevalence and Predictors of Food Allergy in Canada: A Focus on Vulnerable Populations.” The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice 3 (1): 42–49.

Warren, C.M., J. Jiang, and R.S. Gupta. 2020. “Epidemiology and Burden of Food Allergy.” Current Allergy and Asthma Reports 20 (2): 6.

Warren, C.M., A.A. Dyer, A.K. Otto, B.M. Smith, K. Kauke, C. Dinakar, and R.S. Gupta. 2017. “Food Allergy–Related Risk-Taking and Management Behaviors Among Adolescents and Young Adults.” The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice 5 (2): 381-390.e13.

“WHOQOL – Measuring Quality of Life| The World Health Organization.” n.d. Accessed February 25, 2021.

Williams, N.A., G.R. Parra, and T.D. Elkin. 2009. “Subjective Distress and Emotional Resources in Parents of Children With Food Allergy.” Children’s Health Care 38 (3): 213–27.

Zhen, W. 2019. Food Studies: A Hands-On Guide. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Nettleton 2010.
AllerGen 2017.
Husain & Schwartz 2013.
Jackson et al. 2013.
Sicherer & Sampson 2018.
Clarke et al. 2020; Soller et al. 2015; Kamdar et al. 2015.
Murdoch et al. 2018.
Elliott & Cardwell. 2018.
Zhen 2019.
Foong et al. 2021; Dixon et al. 2016; Silvaet al. 2020; Nwaruet al. 2014; Warren et al. 2020.
Gupta et al. 2013.
Golding et al. 2021.
Information Canadian Institute for Health Information 2015.
Protudjer et al. 2020.
Cummings et al. 2010; Shaker et al. 2017; Miller,et al. 2020.
Williams et al. 2009; Abrams et al. 2020.
Ravidet al. 2012.
Fong et al. 2017.
Pitchfort 2011.
Minaker et al. 2014.
Gupta et al. 2011.
Harrington et al. 2013.
Warrenet al. 2017; Abramset al. 2020; Sauer et al. 2018.
Reardon cited in Koç et al. 2017.
Koç et al. 2017.
Henderson 1970.
Lizie 2014.
Greene & Cramer 2011.
Ibid, xi.
Fiske cited in Greene & Cramer 2011.
Desrochers 2016; Derkatch & Spoel 2017; Greenebaum 2012.
Morlacchi n.d., 11.
Harrington et al. 2012; Rachul & Caulfield 2011
Abo et al. 2017; Goldie 2019.
McNicol & Weaver 2013.
Hamshaw et al. 2017.

Creative: Form and Matter

Annika Walsh

From Head to Dough
Annika Walsh is a transdisciplinary artist who was born in Chuzhou, China and adopted at 11 months of age by her family in Canada. She works with a variety of ingredients, materials, and collaborators to form her conceptual pieces. Her practice ranges from exploration of cultural identity to participatory food performances, and everything in between. Striving to blur the lines and push the boundaries, Annika makes a habit of traversing many disciplines, including sculptural installation, performance, and media.

From Head to Dough (Dec. 2020)

“From Head to Dough” is a process-oriented work. Starting with a simple dumpling dough, I rolled it out into a large oval, then cut it into the shape of Anhui Province. I then stamped one of my Chinese names, 生, on the location of Chuzhou, the city I was born in. I made some score lines where the Yangtze river runs through the province and put tinfoil underneath to mould mountain ranges. Anhui is known for their mountain topography; for me, it was important to represent the terrain, because I resonate so much with this type of landscape in the Canadian Rockies. Then I let the dough dry for three days on my kitchen island, where it cracked into many uncontrollable pieces, one being the line of the Yangtze River.

“Form” was the word prompt I used to create this project. By allowing the dough to take on its own natural form, after some initial manipulation at the beginning, I was able to highlight how the materiality of the dough interacts with elements such as heat, air, and time. When I decided it was done drying, I flipped it over attached supports—using broken chopsticks—to piece some of the pieces back together and create three larger segments. I then hung each segment separately onto the wall, as I would a canvas. I then garnished it with a bit of gesso and gochujang (red chili paste). The visual simplicity makes of this piece allows viewers to concentrate more on the individual ingredients.


Perspective: Salt

Liam Cole Young

Salt’s Hidden Histories
Liam Cole Young is an Associate Professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, where he teaches and writes about media-technology and culture. He is the author of List Cultures: Knowledge and Poetics from Mesopotamia to BuzzFeed. His favourite salt is Halen Môn from Wales.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Describe the intersections between culture, economics, and technology.
  • Explain how human cultures ascribe symbolic meaning to foods that transcend flavour or nutrition.
  • Build links between the histories of food production, distribution, and consumption and aspects of contemporary food cultures and supply chains.


Salt is so ever-present in our lives as to be banal, so woven into the fabric of our culinary and gustatorial lives that we hardly notice it. Every pantry or spice collection, in every corner of the world, has some form of salt. It is one of the five modalities of taste, along with sweetness, bitterness, sourness, and umami. Salting is the oldest and most popular technique of food preservation. For thousands of years, humans have used it to extend the life of meats, fish, and vegetables, but also of dairy, in the making of cheese and butter. In this way, salt has been an important mediator of nutrients and protein, allowing humans to nourish themselves during periods of climate unpredictability, famine, or war. Some argue our appetite for salt is hard wired. Our neural networks require sodium, but our bodies do not produce it; sodium chloride, the chemical name for common salt, offers a cheap and abundant way for our cells to metabolize precious sodium ions.

This list of common and consequential uses of salt could go on and on. Almost every civilization from which we still have material traces has gathered, traded, and used it for a variety of purposes, making salt a central player in the emergence and history of what we call “human culture.” Its ubiquity across cultural traditions and historical time makes salt fun to think about but also difficult to study. All we can hope to do is scratch the surface. In this chapter, I tackle this challenge by exploring a few episodes from salt’s many histories, using three lenses: taste, trade, and technology.


To think about taste is inevitably to think about culture. It raises questions such as: how is salt used and enjoyed, and where, why, and by whom? Or, what and how does salt signify in cultural practices and texts, like ancient rituals and recipes, or modern representations and advertisements? Culture, as Raymond Williams famously argued, is the stuff of human life—practices, customs, values, rituals, but also the way people imagine and tell stories about their lives, experiences, and relationships. Salt figures at the centre of many such stories.

In fact, the question of how salt became cultural teaches us a lot about this complicated concept of culture. Salt stands at the threshold between ideas of ‘nature’ and ‘culture.’ For many thousands of years, salt was a naturally occurring substance that humans and animals used instinctively to regulate levels of sodium and water in their bodies (this is why salt licks are still used in animal husbandry to herd and organize the movement of animals). But over time and alongside other technological and cultural transformations, salt became a complex and contested object of taste, meaning, and value, one that offers us important insights into more general processes by which the earliest human societies transformed from small, disaggregated bands of hunter-gatherers into sedentary, large-scale, agricultural communities. Anthropologists sometimes refer to this process as one of “hominization” or “becoming-human.” By this, they simply mean that over many thousands of years, Homo sapiens transformed from a hunter-gatherer, quadpedal creature (with which today’s human beings have little in common) into one that we more readily recognize as our physiological and cultural ancestor: people who stood upright, made fire, cooked, pair-bonded, farmed, lived alongside a relatively large number of others for long periods of time, developed rituals, language and other forms of representation, and so on. In short, a species with culture. Salt was present during all these complex transformations. There is archaeological evidence of salt mining in the Araxes Valley of Azerbaijan from 3500 BCE, salt refining in the Mekong River Delta from 900 BCE, and commercial-scale pig salting at Hallstatt during the late Bronze Age. There is even some evidence of a salt trade at Jericho as early as 9000 BCE! Such evidence suggests that, along with cooking and making fire, uses of salt played an important role in these processes of becoming-human.

These early human societies eventually developed systems of writing and representation that allowed them preserve and transmit knowledge toward the future. Such records give us a more precise sense of how they used salt. One area of use was health and wellness. For many centuries prior to modern medical science, healers and alchemists speculated about the machinations of the human body and how certain substances might be used to alleviate pain, remove parasites, and cure disease. These were important goals because, as humans set down roots, transitioning from smaller nomadic communities into longer-term agricultural settlements, viruses, bacteria, and malnutrition settled in place along with them. To combat these problems, a variety of regimes were proposed in which salt played a crucial role. The Charaka-Samhita, a compendium of traditional Indian medicine likely compiled in the 1st or 2nd century CE, suggests salt be used in skin and eye care, enemas, and even to treat wounds after surgery. In the 7th century CE, Isidore of Seville, wrote about the Roman goddess of safety and well-being, Salus, who was named after salt and came to stand as a term for health and even salvation. Chinese medicine has long held that salt is good for the kidneys and liver. It is likely that these uses of salt in early forms of healthcare established habits, or even addictions, that would continue as human bodies became healthier. This leads historian S.A.M. Adshead to suggest salt as “part of the struggle of culture against nature, a weapon of culture supplied by nature,” which “became part of culture itself.”

In spite or because of these practical uses, salt has long served as a powerful metaphor. Most of us have probably heard someone referred to as a “salt of the earth” type, but did you know that phrase comes from the Bible? (Matthew 5:13, “Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt has lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men”). Maybe you’ve had a particularly “salty” teacher, or a friend whose advice you always take “with a grain of salt.” Most languages and cultural traditions have these types of metaphors. “When the Garuda exhausted his ideas, he boiled salt” notes an ancient Burmese proverb about despair. From the Chinese tradition comes the saying, “Just as dishes without salt are tasteless, so words without reason are powerless” (Cà méi yán wúwèi; huà méi lī, wúlì).

To explore such metaphors and other cultural aspects of salt is to be less interested in how salt gets to a kitchen pantry or dining table than in what it means and how it is used by people in such places. The double meaning of the English word “taste” captures these cultural questions. Taste can be used to describe both cooking and class relations; for instance, how salt combines with other foods to create flavour but at the same time can mark one’s status and power (their “good” or “bad” taste). This was particularly true during the European Middle Ages, when only royals and nobility had ready access to salt. Salt at a table signified the host’s power, privilege, and elegant taste. This is why salt cellars from the period (used to store salt on the table, long before the introduction of salt shakers) were ornately designed using the finest of materials such as silver and gold. Such class dynamics inevitably lead to questions of access and power, the focus of the next section.


Many scholars consider histories of salt as a commodity and staple good, asking such questions as: How is salt transported and traded, and where, by whom, and for what? This approach encompasses the question of value; specifically, how in many cultures salt was considered “white gold.” Roman soldiers were once paid not in gold or silver, but salt! That’s where the English word salary comes from—sal was the Roman word for salt.

Salt’s ancient histories are present not only in words like salary, but also in basic infrastructures of transportation that continue to shape global trade and supply chains of food and other goods. For thousands of years, “salt roads”—ground routes established primarily for the salt trade—spread like veins across the continents, moving people, things, and information from place to place. These infrastructure projects took a lot of time, energy, and resources to build, which makes them valuable, heavy, and difficult to change. And so, when it came time to make improvements, people tended not to replace them but instead to build on top of or around them. This is what scholars and historians of infrastructure and communication refer to as path dependency. A great example is how the internet’s fibreoptic cables were stretched around the globe using poles, wires, and undersea cables, originally built for telephone and telegraph networks. The same was true in ancient times. Today, all roads lead to Rome is a metaphor, but it once expressed a basic truth about how all people, things, and information of consequence flowed through the Imperial capital’s city walls. But the Romans didn’t start from scratch, either. They built this network on top of existing pathways and trade routes, many of which were, according to archaeologists, first used in the salt trade.

Roman roads are a famous example of how transport and communication infrastructures are important sites of economic and political power. This continued to be the case during Europe’s Middle Ages (500 to 1500CE). In Northern Germany, for instance, an Old Salt Road (Alte Salzstrasse) linked the inland city of Lüneburg, which stood atop one of Europe’s largest underground salt deposits, with Lübeck, a major port on the Baltic Sea. There was far more salt at Lüneburg than local and surrounding communities required. Therefore, the Church, which controlled the saltworks, began to transport this surplus to Lübeck. From there, it could be exported to countries such as Norway and Sweden, where demand for salt exceeded supply given the importance of salted fish to Scandinavian diets. Given the vast wealth and power derived from this trade route, those who controlled it sought to defend the route from attacks and preserve the free flow of goods and capital. This was a primary factor in the founding of the Hanseatic League, a group of Northern European towns, duchies, and merchants that banded together to protect each other’s economic interests and infrastructure. In some ways, this multi-lateral security and trade agreement was a precursor to modern interstate cooperatives such as the European Union, or even the United Nations. Some scholars in fact point to the Hansaetic League as an important step toward the founding of modern state system inaugurated with the Peace of Westphalia, a multi-party treaty that ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648. This treaty established important principles that continue to inform international relations and law, such as the right of each individual state to sovereignty and law over its own territory, the standardization of international borders, and the principle of non-interference, among many others.

That so many resources and so much human labour have been devoted to the extraction and movement of salt testifies to the value it has held for most of its history. But before labour, transportation, and value become concepts used by scholars to describe the movement of people and commodities, they are simple practices and techniques, forms of work that humans conduct using a variety of technologies. This takes us into the third and final section.


To think about technology is to think about how humans do things—what tools and techniques do we use to enhance or extend our bodies? What systems do we develop to cooperate and coordinate our actions with other people, sometimes across vast distances? What structures do we built to improve and enhance our ability to work, communicate, organize, or accumulate resources and wealth? Who owns them? What are the implications of these activities—on our bodies, environments, other people and creates? These are big questions, all of which can be understood within the broad category of “technology.”

The extraction, movement, uses, and exchange of salt help us to consider some of these questions. Salt was so valuable for so long because methods of production were labour and resource intensive. They took a long time and required a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. By far the most popular technique was to derive salt through solar evaporation. People would take brine (salty water), either from the ocean or an underground source, put it in a large vessel, and wait. Heat from the sun would slowly evaporate the water, leaving salt crystals behind. Some salt is still produced in this way, particularly in coastal regions. But humans are impatient, especially when there is money to be made, and so they began to experiment with ways of speeding up the process. The most effective and thus popular of these new techniques was to heat the brine using non-solar fuel sources. Until recently, the only way to do this was by burning wood or coal. The outdoor, solarpowered” brine vessels thus became cauldrons, and saltworks became encased in structures with protruding chimneys. This had wide-ranging environmental implications—you can imagine how much wood or coal was required to keep the cauldrons hot enough to boil water away almost 24 hours a day. That’s why most of the areas surrounding old European saltworks have very few trees; they were all chopped down to be used as fuel!

Beyond these environmental and geographic impacts, technologies and techniques of salt production had further consequences on statecraft, migration, and patterns of colonization. Salt was at the centre of the so-called “Age of Exploration” in the 16th and 17th centuries, which started with European powers making regular voyages to fish the waters off the coast of what today we call North America. Salt was necessary as a provision for sailors’ diets, but more importantly it was necessary to preserve the catch for return to European markets. Return voyages took days or weeks—much longer than fish would normally keep—so salt helped keep the fish from rotting. Since solar evaporation was then the dominant mode of salt production, countries with a lot of sunshine like France, Spain, and Portugal were at a distinct advantage to cloudy countries like England. Their ships could bring salt from home and thus salt the catch immediately, on board in barrels, without landing the ship. This process required a lot of salt but it was fast, efficient, and easy to do in a confined space like the deck of a ship. As a result, ships from sunny countries could fish to capacity and return to European markets very quickly. Cloudy Britain, by contrast, did not have ready access to salt and had to acquire it via trade. Because this was more expensive, complex, and time consuming, British crews were motivated to find ways to preserve their catch that required less salt. One way was to spread the fish out so it could be dried in the sun before being lightly salted. But spreading out required more space than was available on the deck of a ship, and more time than they could afford to stay at sea. So, British ships began landing at sunny spots, such as Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula, or along the coast of what is today called New England. In drying the catch on land, British crews began to build infrastructure that could be left behind and used again in the future. They even began to leave sailors behind to make room for more fish on the return voyages. These were some of the first European footholds on the North American continent, which had profound consequences for contact with Indigenous communities and the eventual projects of European settlement and colonization. All these decisions, at least in part, were motivated by access to salt.

These examples help us understand that though technological innovation often occurs in the service of what seem like banal purposes—e.g., to find, use, and trade salt—its consequences are anything but. Looking at these tools, techniques, systems, and infrastructures remind us that broad patterns of history settle into place only through practices and objects of everyday life.


In this chapter, I have surveyed some lessons from the history of salt through the lenses of taste, trade, and technology. These lessons show how a substance we today take for granted, or hardly notice at all, has played many important roles throughout human history. German philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer once wrote, “When you take a word in your mouth you must realize that you have not taken a tool that can be thrown aside if it won’t do the job, but you are fixed in a direction of thought which comes from afar and stretches beyond you.” The same is true of food. When we take a mineral like salt in our mouths, we are not just enjoying a tasty flavour. We are participating in ancient and ongoing histories of taste, trade, and technology that stretch far beyond us, which are haunted by complicated and contested meanings, and which teach us about many histories of power and struggle.

Discussion Questions

  • What are other foods or spices that we take for granted and that have consequential “hidden histories”?
  • What are some further consequences of humans learning to extend the lifespan of food through salt preservation?
  • For most of recorded human history, salt was known as “white gold.” What are some of the reasons it seems to have faded in value and consciousness over the last hundred years?


Over the course of two to three days, observe every encounter you have with salt. Count, for instance, the number of times you add it to food while cooking or eating. Consider the salt content on ingredient lists of foods you consume, and keep an eye out for non-culinary salt usage (such as on roads during winter).

  • After a few days, survey and reflect on your inventory of uses and encounters. What surprises you about the role of salt in your day-to-day life? Did you consume more or less salt than you expected? How many “unconscious” uses of salt did you encounter?

Pick a source of salt in your cupboard and try to reconstruct its supply chain. In what part of the world was it harvested, and how? What can you find out about the company on the label? Are they a producer of salt, or just a distributor? How do they move salt from the point of production to sites where it is packaged, then on to sites for consumer purchase? What about the workers that help harvest, package, and ship the salt? What are their working conditions?

  • Find a way to creatively visualize this salt supply chain. How do such visualizations supplement our knowledge about tastes, trade, and technologies of salt? Does your supply chain map onto older supply chains, such as those between European imperial capitals and what were once their colonial holdings in the Global South, or perhaps onto an ancient supply routes like the Alte Salzstrasse?

Additional Resources

Le Goff, J. and P. Jeannin. 1956. “Une Enquête Sur Le Sel Dans l’histoire. Revue Du Nord 38 (150): 225–33.

Kurlansky, M. 2011. Salt: A World History. New York: Random House.

Laszlo, P. 2001. Salt: Grain of Life. New York: Columbia University Press.

Mintz, S.W. 1986. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin.

Mumford, L. 2010 [1934]. Technics and Civilization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,

Multhauf, R.P. 1978. Neptune’s Gift, a History of Common Salt. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.


Adshead, S.A.M. 1992. Salt and Civilization. London: Palgrave.

Gadamer, H.-G. 1975. Truth and method. New York: Seabury Press.

Williams, R. 1958. Culture and Society, 17801950. London: Chatto & Windus.

Innis, H.A. 1978 [1940]. The Cod Fisheries: The History of an International Economy. Revised edition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

See Williams 1958.
Adshead 1992, 26.
Innis 1978 [1940], 30–51.
Gadamer 1975, 496.

Case: Artisan Cheese

Amy Trubek

Artisan Cheese: A Category, A Set of Practices, A Shared Sensory Experience
Amy Trubek is a Professor in the Nutrition and Food Sciences department at the University of Vermont. Trained as a cultural anthropologist and chef, her research interests include the globalization of the food supply, the relationship between taste and place, the development of food agency, and cooking and sensory evaluation as cultural practices. Dr. Trubek is increasingly involved in transdisciplinary, collaborative research with scholars focusing on nutrition, public health, and sensory science.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Name the differences between artisan and industrial (or mass-produced) cheese making.
  • Describe the relationships among artisan cheese, certain cheesemaking practices, social networks, storytelling, and places.
  • Explain the importance of terroir and its influence in making artisan cheese unique.


Over the past 20 years, the category of artisan cheese has become important in understanding contemporary production and consumption of this fermented and aged dairy product. This category very much exists as a counterpoint to the category of industrial (or mass-produced) cheese.

There are several reasons why artisan cheeses are categorized differently than industrial cheese. One is that the conditions of production are dissimilar. Industrial or mass-produced cheese is based on a production model that seeks consistency. For example, if there are two Kraft factories making Cracker Barrel cheddar cheese, both of them will aim to make a product that is identical in appearance, taste, flavor, and texture. The industrial model of production also assumes that the labor involved in making the cheese is exchangeable and interchangeable, thus adding to the cheese’s role as a commodity. A second reason is that, in the case of industrial cheese, there is an assumption that it will be integrated into a spatially distributed supply chain. In other words, someone on the West Coast of the United States and someone else on the East Coast will have roughly equal access to the cheese. On the other hand, in the case of artisan cheese, the primary commitment is to a clear or present connection to a specific place. When foods are linked to a certain place—due to geographical conditions or cultural traditions—regionally based practices (in terms of making such foods) emerge. In this way, it is understandable that cheeses produced in Vermont should be fundamentally different from cheeses produced in Oregon or Wisconsin. The connection to place also has an impact on the conditions of production and the spatial distribution of the product. Both are based on smaller scales, and there is an implication that specific people (and not just machines) put skilled labor into the products.

Many food scholars are interested in artisan (as well as traditional and/or craft) products because of their social implications. This includes researching the stories, practices, and politics of these products to understand both what they reveal and reflect about our contemporary food system. Social scientists also examine the strong connections between products defined as artisan and the geographic regions where they are produced. In other words, artisan products can be understood as crucial to the identities of individuals, groups, and places—as much or more than anonymous commodities sold in a generic retail marketplace. In this way, the intrinsic and extrinsic attributes of a certain product are assumed to be intertwined with both their social and natural environments. There are numerous examples, including Comte cheese, Burgundy wine, and Darjeeling tea.

With artisan cheese (as with other similar products), it is widely understood that these products are unique due to their connection to the identity of a group of people, a set of shared practices, and a place. A powerful expression of this set of connections is identified in the unique sensory characteristics of, for example, a three-year aged Shelburne Farms cheddar cheese or a Cabot Clothbound cheddar. Both of these cheeses are made using similar production techniques; the ‘recipe’ for cheddar involves stacking blocks of cheese curd on top of each other to encourage the removal of moisture. That means these cheeses will be similarly dry and tangy. However, there are also sensory differences between these cheese (the Shelburne Farms is tangier and the Cabot Clothbound cheddar is nuttier). The differences can be ascribed to the breed of cow, the type of pasture the cows graze on, and the location and type of aging facilities for storing the cheese. The intersection of place, sensory qualities, and social embeddedness is expressed in the concept of terroir, or the taste of place.

Integral to terroir is that the intrinsic and extrinsic attributes of a food or drink are based on certain environmental conditions and/or human practices. In the case of cheese, this includes the breed of the animal, the plants eaten by the animal, and the traditional practices for transforming the fluid milk into the finished cheese (e.g., the type of rennet, other ingredients, aging, etc.) Although these can be understood as objective factors, they are all in fact the results of decisions made by human actors. Such human-made decisions act in ways that transform a wild landscape into a domesticated one, responding to what works in that natural environment while simultaneously creating an indelible human imprint on the landscape, the animals and plants, and the conditions for sensory evaluation. The analytic framework used in the sensory analysis of foods and drinks shaped by terroir relies on the articulation of these underlying environmental conditions, leading to an explanation of the ultimate sensory experience. At the same time, the story of terroir, of the unique natural environment and specialized human practices that make such foods and drinks, is very important to the appreciation of these practices.

Recent investigations into artisan cheese provide excellent evidence for the sensory importance of the story when it comes to eaters’ sensory experiences. In a qualitative study of the development of the market for Vermont artisan cheeses, people who were interviewed indicated that their preferences for and experience of these products were influenced by their knowledge of the cheeses’ stories. These included how the products were made, who was making them, and their connections to the landscape and community of Vermont. In this study, people became Vermont artisan cheese consumers because of specific connections and encounters with these cheeses (e.g., amongst friends, in restaurants, at a special tasting), and those same connections and encounters became their personal context for understanding and appreciating these products. In other words, the story of the products was relevant to the eaters because of their own stories. These qualitative findings were supported by a second quantitative consumer study in which subjects tasted, evaluated, and described Vermont artisan cheeses in two different “story” conditions. The first included accurate but general information about the technical production process for each cheese, and the second included a more specific description and story provided by the cheese’s actual producer.

In both research studies, the people involved reported higher liking and more positive experiences when provided with the specific stories. More intriguingly, they also reported significantly different sensory experiences. Specifically, the producers’ stories allowed them to understand their intrinsic experience of strong or challenging flavors (like those of a ripened, blue-mold cheese) into positive experiential frameworks related to the making of the product (or the extrinsic conditions). This finding seems to be consistent with what is known about the importance of context and information when it comes to sensory experience. Where the cheese comes from and how the cheese is made matter to consumers tasting it, as do the stories told about both.

An exploration of artisan cheese as a category within the world of all cheeses helps reveal the various structures, perceptions, and practices that constitute our contemporary food systems. It reveals the pervasiveness of industrial processes when it comes to making food, as well as the various other strategies that can be used. It also helps us see why producers who use industrial, large-scale production practices sometimes also adopt aspects of artisan production. For example, Cabot Creamery, a mid-sized, nationally marketed cheese producer that otherwise produces industrial cheeses, also makes Cabot Clothbound cheddar, an artisan cheese. This product draws on connections to place and tradition by using a single production line and single herd, located in Vermont, to produce the cheese. (It is also widely accepted and lauded in the artisan-cheese world.)

At the same time, artisan cheese reveals the importance of both social context and natural environments when it comes to the ways in which we make and appreciate food. No food is consumed in isolation (even if an eater of Kraft Cracker Barrel cheddar or Cabot Clothbound is alone). There are always larger cultural contexts and social values—as well as specific personal memories—that inform our sensory experiences and preferences.

Discussion Questions

  • What are some of the different cheeses you consume in your everyday life, given the distinction that is made between artisan and industrial (mass-produced) cheeses? How do your cheese preferences reflect your social or cultural context?
  • Recall a personal experience with a food or drink that involves the celebration of place (as defined by a natural environment) and an appreciation of the tastes of the food or drink. What was the place and how would you explain the tastes? What were the intrinsic and extrinsic attributes of the food/drink? If you haven’t had such an experience, are there other foods or drinks that you connect to certain celebrations and/or communities? How would you explain these tastes? What are the intrinsic and extrinsic attributes of that food/drink?
  • What is the place of artisan cheese, informed by terroir, in our food system? How might the place for artisan cheese change, given contemporary changes in how we live and work today, and our increasing reliance on urban centers for both?


Lahne, J. and Trubek, A.B. 2014. “’A little information excites us.’ Consumer sensory experience of Vermont artisan cheese as active practice.” Appetite 78. 129–38.

Paxson, H. 2013. The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bowen, S. 2011. “The Importance of Place: Re-territorialising Embeddedness: Embeddedness in the Comté supply chain.” Sociologia Ruralis 51 (4). 325–48.

Shields-Argelés, C. 2016. “The Comté Aroma Wheel: History of an Invention, Ethnography of a Practice, A Look at the Early Years”. In McWilliams, Mark, ed. 2016. Food & Communication: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food 2015. S.l. 363–72. London: Prospect Books.

Besky, S. 2013. The Darjeeling distinction: Labor and justice on fair-trade tea plantations in India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Black, R. and Ulin, R. 2013. Wine and Culture: Vineyard to Glass. London: Bloomsbury

Demossier, M. 2010. Wine drinking culture in France: a national myth or a modern passion? Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Demossier, M. 2018. Burgundy: The Global Story of Terroir. New York: Berghahn Books.

DiStefano, R. and Trubek, A. 2015. Cheese Stories: Cheesemongers, Vermont Artisan Cheese and the Value of Telling Stories. Cuizine 6 (1). n.p.

Paxson, H. 2010. “Locating Value in Artisan Cheese: Reverse Engineering Terroir for New-World Landscapes.” American Anthropology 112 (3). 444–57.

Paxson 2011, 2013.
Bowen 2011; Shields-Argeles 2018.
Demoissier 2010, 2018.
Besky 2014.
Trubek 2008.
DiStefano & Trubek 2015.
Lahne & Trubek 2014.
Shields 2015.

Perspective: Disordered Eating

Danyael Lutgens and Andrew Ryder

Disordered Eating

Danyael Lutgens is a psychology instructor in the Department of Social Sciences at Capilano University in North Vancouver, Canada. Her research focuses on psychopathology, well-being, and flourishing in developmental and sociocultural context, with a growing interest in the use of mixed methods. Over the years, she has trained in psychology, neuroscience, and journalism at universities in British Columbia, Québec, and the Netherlands

Andrew Ryder is professor of psychology in the Centre for Clinical Research in Health and the Department of Psychology at Concordia University in Montréal, Canada, where he directs the Culture, Health, and Personality Lab. His research focuses on cross-cultural variation in emotional disorders, the mental health of migrants, and how best to train researchers and clinicians in cultural-clinical psychology. He is also a licensed clinical psychologist in the province of Québec.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Name and describe the differences among key eating disorders.
  • Express disordered eating as an intersection of sociocultural, physiological, and psychological elements.


Have you ever heard someone describe themselves as “hungry for love”? Or conversely, so “heartbroken” that they cannot eat? Or more extreme, that they are “dying to fit into this dress”? If you are East Asian, there is a good chance you have been asked “have you eaten rice today?” instead of “how are you?” And if you are feeling ill, there may well be a dish, personally and culturally significant, that can make you feel a bit better—one preferably made by, or at least following the recipe of, a parent or grandparent. At the core of these links are expressions of care. Elsewhere in this book are descriptions of how food may be used as a tool for cultural ritual and social cohesion. Here, we consider how food may also work within these sociocultural frames to serve individual psychological needs. One person may fail to find the love they are “hungry” for in their environment and turn to food instead. Another may fail to live up to unhealthy body image norms and turn away from food, despite mounting hunger and malnutrition.

Indeed, food is a daily necessity and key to sustaining life and health. The search for food is thus essential, not only to being human, but to being any living thing. Biological evolution brought teeth and tongues, throats and stomachs to the animal kingdom. Those who ate lived to survive and procreate. In this sense, food and eating are central and truly universal. But then in humans, cultural evolution also brought a series of innovations, from tools for hunting and gathering, to agricultural techniques, to contemporary mass-production and mass-marketing. Moreover, cultural evolution built innumerable innovations on top of the basic biology of food. To take one example, disgust, which is an emotion grounded in the ancient physiological imperative to expel potential poisons. Yet this same emotion system also scaffolds a very complex, culturally shaped, set of responses: moral disgust.

The human experience of food and eating is at once deeply shared and personally idiosyncratic, biologically grounded and culturally shaped. One lens through which to view this complexity is that of disordered eating: the various ways in which our experience of food and eating goes wrong. As with any other form of what are commonly called “mental disorders,” or psychopathology, we can understand disordered eating at the complex intersection of three levels: culture (and society); mind (and behavior); and brain (and genetics). In this chapter, we consider some of the major ways in which eating can go wrong, considering several disorders described within the psychiatric manual commonly used in North America: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5. We look first at emotional distress, in which problems of anxiety and depression can lead to weight and appetite change. Then, we turn our attention to the eating disorders of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating. After describing these disorders, we explore some research-based examples of how they are shaped by culture, mind, and brain. Finally, we will look at traditional and contemporary treatments, noting ways in which food has been used to treat emotional problems, along with ways in which psychological interventions have been used to treat eating problems. We observe effects in both directions because culture, mind, and brain are not three separate domains, but are instead deeply interconnected.

Disorders Affecting Food and Eating

Imagine that you have an upcoming exam or that you are getting ready for a first date. Many people find that increased levels of stress or anxiety will suppress their appetite. For most, the situation passes and the appetite returns—but for someone with an anxiety disorder, appetite may be compromised for a prolonged period of time. This occurs because stress and anxiety lead to arousal of the autonomic system, which leads to many different physiological changes including symptoms that reduce appetite, such as nausea, diarrhea, and a subjective sense of bloating. Chronic sadness or loss of pleasure can also have an impact on appetite, with depressive disorders including weight and/or appetite change as one of the core symptoms. Appetite may be lost because of direct physiological effects of depression on the gastrointestinal system, but also because depression can affect the hedonic pleasure obtained from the senses. When someone is exceptionally sad, foods that were previously enjoyed and ordinarily very tempting, like chocolate cake or French fries, may be described as unappealing, tasting instead like cardboard.

Stress, anxiety, and depression do not always lower one’s appetite. A sizeable minority of sufferers instead report increased appetite, often accompanied by weight gain. Some people cope with anxiety through what is popularly known as “stress eating.” This phenomenon can be observed, for example, in people who are quitting smoking and no longer experiencing either the subjective calming or the appetite suppression caused by nicotine. One subtype of Major Depressive Disorder, known as “atypical depression,” involves weight and appetite gain, along with other less common symptoms, such as increased sleep. Another subtype follows a seasonal pattern where sufferers are prone to depression during the winter months. A common feature of this Seasonal Affective Disorder is weight and appetite gain, driven especially by powerful cravings for carbohydrates.

DSM-5 also includes a chapter on specific “Feeding and Eating Disorders.” The most widely studied eating disorder is Anorexia Nervosa, characterized by marked restriction of caloric intake resulting in strikingly low body weight. Bulimia Nervosa, meanwhile, involves a pattern of recurrent episodes of binge eating in combination with recurrent compensatory behaviors, such as purging or use of diuretics. A more recent inclusion in the diagnostic system is Binge Eating Disorder, characterized by consumption of a vast amount of food in a discrete period of time. Up to 4% of Canadian women report an eating disorder. Although men generally face pressure to increase musculature, eating disorder symptoms are observed in some men. There is evidence that these rates, especially among youth, are steadily increasing.

Focus on Feeding and Eating Disorders

“Convinced that any extra weight would slow her down, and hearing coaches make offhand remarks about whether she had gotten bigger, Ruck began to fixate…

Out with her teammates that evening, Ruck later ducked into a nearby cafe and forced herself to throw up the meal, telling no one. Purging had become as much a part of her routine as 7:30 a.m. laps in the pool.”Canadian Athlete Taylor Ruck

Description and Symptoms

Anorexia nervosa. The North American obsession with thinness as an ideal of beauty grew steadily over the 20th century, but came to public attention in the 1980s as several celebrities died from anorexia nervosa–related complications. Others, such as Princess Diana, began to talk openly about their struggles with food and its relation to their self-identity. Anorexia nervosa is a serious disorder associated with a high mortality rate if left untreated. Indeed, death rates are about ten times higher for people with anorexia nervosa compared to the general population. This disorder is considered “visible,” in that we can often see when a person has abnormally low body weight. Other tell-tale signs include the appearance of fine downy hair on the body (Lanugo hair), loss of tooth enamel, and fidgeting. Subjective experiences of people with anorexia nervosa include intense fear of gaining weight, distorted body image, and difficulty understanding the consequences of the problem. Although some impacts such as gastric complications are reversible, physical features such as low bone density may remain.

“And when I feel lonely, my heart feels hungry and I end up bingeing”

—Demi Lovato, “Simply Complicated,” 2017

Bulimia nervosa. In contrast to anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa is an “invisible disorder,” as those who suffer from it are often normal weight, or even overweight. A person struggling with this disorder may thus be able to keep their overwhelming hunger a secret for a very long time. An individual with bulimia nervosa will experience repeated episodes of binge eating, especially of highly palatable (e.g., ready to consume, high calories) and easy to purge (soft texture, mild flavour) foods, such as pizza, ice cream, or donuts. These episodes are not like the overeating you may have occasionally indulged in at a holiday or celebration with good, plentiful food. Rather, a binge averages 3,400 calories—and up to 10,000 calories—in a single episode, along with a subjective sense of little or no control during these times. The sufferers then engage in various activities to counteract the feared weight gain, including: self-induced vomiting; misuse of laxatives, diuretics, or other medications; or excessive exercise. Over time, a person with bulimia nervosa may experience serious physical complications. Some may find it more difficult to convince their body to purge, further worsening mood.

Binge eating disorder. Binge eating disorder has received much less research attention, as it is a relatively new addition to the diagnostic system. As in bulimia nervosa, people with binge eating disorder will regularly eat large amounts of food in a short period of time. Unlike bulimia nervosa, however, they do not engage in compensatory behaviors. Moreover, people with binge eating disorder are likely to eat for reasons other than hunger, such as coping with stress or loneliness, and find this behaviour to be significantly distressing. Subjectively, they report low self-esteem, even self-hatred, as a consequence of the binges; they often report feelings of repressed anger and depressive symptoms. Although people with binge eating disorder are often overweight or obese, some may have a body weight within the normal range. Now that this disorder has been admitted into the DSM and formally defined, we should expect to see more research on it in the future.

Causes and Contexts

Culture and society. In the 1980s and 90s, anorexia nervosa was thought to be a disorder of young, white, upper class, Western women. This is no longer the case. As industrialization and globalization increase the reach of the internalization of Western beauty ideals through media, including social media, so too does the prevalence of eating disorders increase around the world. For example, in the mid-1990s, after television was introduced to the island of Fiji, eating disorders that were previously unheard of escalated dramatically. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa were previously thought to be infrequent in China, but this may have been because many Chinese eating disorder sufferers lacked the “fear of fat” required for a DSM diagnosis. Moreover, there is evidence from Hong Kong that greater cultural familiarity with Western concepts of eating disorders has actually shifted the symptom presentation of these disorders, closer to Western norms. Eating disorders are especially common in social subgroups where body image is particularly important, such as models or dancers. Bulimia nervosa in particular seems to affect ethnoracial minority women in North America.

Mind and behavior. People suffering from eating disorders are likely to have distorted thoughts, especially about their body but also regarding their self-esteem and relationships with others. Some research suggests that individuals with eating disorders may have difficulty being aware of their own bodily sensations (like being hungry or satiated). Childhood trauma and mood difficulties, including with depression and anxiety, are also linked with eating disorders. Anorexia nervosa stands out as having a particularly strong association with obsessional self-control, with sufferers reporting that they experience a feeling of reward in their ability to exert control to override their hunger instinct and “successfully” limit their eating. People with bulimia nervosa may be more prone to act impulsively and they may also be more likely to prefer novelty and stimulation. They may be particularly prone to being people pleasers and may feel an averse reaction to negative social interactions, which may even trigger a binge. People with binge eating disorder may find that they use food to avoid, cope with, or “numb out” negative emotions.

Brain and genetics. A child who restrains their eating is more likely to have a mother with anorexia nervosa, or a family with high expectations for their child or one that emphasizes the importance of weight. Genetic studies suggest that inheritance plays a role in eating disorders and that chemical messengers in the brain (neurotransmitters)—such as serotonin and dopamine, responsible for regulated mood and feelings of well-being—are implicated. In many cases, stress may trigger a desire to eat an abundance of food containing carbohydrates, which help the brain to create and release serotonin, in an effort to calm the body down. Unfortunately, in both bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder, the brain and body simply do not register the chemical message that the body is now satiated. Some studies have even shown that foods high in carbohydrates and sugar present the brain with such a powerful reward that it overrides the body’s signals of being full and even of the associated pain. Indeed, foods high in sugar trigger the same reward hormone (dopamine) in the same brain pathway associated with addiction to narcotics.

Treatment Interventions

Antidepressant medication is often incorporated into eating disorder treatment, as mood (depression/anxiety) and eating problems are often co-occurring. Appetite and weight symptoms in mood disorders respond to anti-depressants but prescribers need to be careful: many of these medications have weight gain as a side effect, although some of them instead can lead to nausea and weight loss. Anorexia nervosa, in particular, can demand quite radical interventions because it is potentially life-threatening. The most immediate goal of treatment is to introduce food incrementally, safely increasing weight to an acceptable level. In some cases, such treatment (food) may need to be given involuntarily.

Psychological approaches to anxiety, depression, and eating disorders often include interventions grounded in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). For people with eating disorders, the aim is to help develop normal eating patterns; a similar goal can be seen in CBT for anxiety or depression when applied to weight and appetite symptoms. Eating journals may be employed as a technique to keep track of moods and to connect various emotional states to eating. CBT can also be used to bring attention to internal processes—such as stress, sadness, or anger—and to exchange unhealthy coping mechanisms with healthy coping (e.g., exchanging binge eating for breathing exercises). Exercise may also be utilized to improve mood and increase bodily awareness. For bulimia nervosa, the core of this approach is a focus on dismantling unhealthy beliefs about the self and the body. Individuals who binge may learn to override the impulse both to continue eating after eating a ‘forbidden’ food and also to purge in response. People who previously binged on pre-packaged foods may learn to cook and prepare foods carefully, thereby re-establishing a new relationship with food.

The sociocultural context should also be considered when discussing treatment. In many cultural contexts, food is an essential part of maintaining or recovering good health. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, various conditions—which can include mood or appetite symptoms—are understood as deficits of hot and cold, wet and dry. Specific foods are then prescribed to help correct any imbalances. In Ayurvedic Medicine, disorders might arise through a person eating foods that are not compatible with one’s body type; treatment would then correct this. In any case, clinicians working with eating disorder patients should not assume that these patients inhabit a cultural world similar to the clinicians themselves. Culturally sensitive treatment involves finding out about the patient’s own beliefs about food, weight, and health, as well as beliefs commonly held in the patient’s community. There are also direct interventions at a societal level, although these are most often implemented by public health officials and policy-makers, rather than psychiatrists or psychologists. For example, some magazines have introduced a diversity of models into their fashion pages, thereby attempting to widen the definition of beauty, to include a variety of body shapes. Psychological interventions can also help young people to increase their self-esteem and body image satisfaction.


Food and eating can be understood as biological necessities grounded in evolution, as deeply shaped by sociocultural context, and as varying across individual people depending on their temperament, family of origin, social network, and so on. Disordered eating can be understood in a similar manner. Dividing our overall story into sections—on culture and society, on mind and behaviour, on brain and genetics—makes it easier to tell.

This chapter began by considering both North American but also cross-cultural metaphors and analogies linking food and eating with expressions of longing, of pain, and of care for another. We see that human relationships with food and eating are deep and universal. These relationships bring such pleasure, joy, and facilitate connection but when they go wrong, can also be a signal that it is time to pay attention to the confluence of mind, body, and culture where suffering and healing are both possible.

If you or someone you know needs help with an eating disorder, please visit the National Eating Disorder Information Center (NEDIC) for information and to find links for local resources.

Discussion Questions

  • What are some of the common impacts of emotional stress on eating habits?
  • What are the key characteristics of each of the three main eating disorders described in this chapter?
  • This chapter identifies three intertwined causes/contexts of disordered eating: culture and society, mind and behaviour, and brain and genetics. How are each of these contexts/causes distinct? How are they related?
  • How might an understanding of the intersection of the sociocultural, physiological, and psychological dimensions of disordered eating contribute to an integrative approach to treatment?


Consider the following synthesis of a case study in disordered eating:

A girl in her late teens, a competitive dancer, has recently moved to Canada from abroad. She has an evolved biological tendency to seek out food and eat it when hungry; but she also has evolved biological tendencies to seek the company of others, fit in reasonably well with them, use high-status people as models for behaviour, and so on. At her new dance school, she is among the heavier dancers—and the high-status dancers are particularly thin. Unlike in her home country, she now frequently sees unusually skinny models on billboards and in magazines. Just as frequently, she finds many more opportunities to eat food high in sugar and calories. Her dance teacher criticizes her weight; the teacher also criticizes several other students in a similar way, but this girl already has a family history of parental criticism and a temperament that is unusually likely to respond badly to such criticism.

She starts to restrict her food intake, her classmates give her some positive reinforcement for it, the teacher is still critical but starts easing up a little. But she finds it hard to resist junk food, the sugar is so readily available and helps her deal with her stress. Then she regrets it and starts to purge. The more she purges, the more she starts to like the flood of endorphins and the feeling of relief that comes. But she needs to hide her purging, so as not to alarm her parents; her parents might be critical, but mostly about school performance rather than weight, as she is normal weight where they come from. Indeed, she is normal weight outside the dance context, except that her slimmer frame is now attracting some positive feedback from her regular classmates, outside of dance. Acceptance by some of these classmates helps her feel a bit less foreign, but they also want to go out for fast food. She starts to contemplate increasing her exercise routine. A cycle of disordered eating is now well underway. And we would be hard pressed to describe what is happening as strictly biological, psychological, or sociocultural—or even where, precisely, one ends and the other begins.

Consider the etiology (causes of) of the teenage dancer’s eating disorder and describe how this might lead you towards different interventions. What interventions might follow from culture, mind or brain perspectives? Given that culture, mind, and brain are intertwined, how might your proposed interventions be integrated?


American Psychiatric Association. 2013. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).

Attia, E. 2010. Anorexia Nervosa: Current status and future directions. Annual Review of Medicine 61: 425–435.

Bardone-Cone, A. M., Wonderlich, S. A., Frost, R. O., Bulik, C. M., Mitchell, J. E., Uppala, S., & Simonich, H. 2007. Perfectionism and eating disorders: Current status and future directions. Clinical Psychology Review 27 (3). 384–405.

Becker, A. E., Burwell, R. A., Navara, K., & Gilman, S. E. 2003. Binge eating and binge eating disorder in a small‐scale, indigenous society: The view from Fiji. International Journal of Eating Disorders 34 (4). 423–431.

Buhrman, S. 1996. Ayurvedic psychology and psychiatric approaches to the treatment of common affective disorders. Protocol Journal of Botanical Medicine 2. 1–8.

Chentsova-Dutton, Y. E., & Ryder, A. G. 2020. Cultural models of normalcy and deviancy. Asian Journal of Social Psychology 23 (2). 187–204.

Davis, H. 2017. Simply complicated. Youtube.

Fava, M. 2000. Weight gain and antidepressants. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 61 (11). 37–41.

Flaws, B., & Sionneau, P. 2001. The treatment of modern Western medical diseases with Chinese medicine: A textbook & clinical manual. Blue Poppy Enterprises, Inc.

Frank, G. K., Shott, M. E., Stoddard, J., Swindle, S., & Pryor, T. L. 2021. Association of brain reward response with body mass index and ventral striatal-hypothalamic circuitry among young women with eating disorders. JAMA Psychiatry 78 (10). 1123–1133.

Langlois, K. A., Samokhvalov, A. V., Rehm, J., Spence, S. T., & Gorber, S. C. 2012. Health state descriptions for Canadians: Mental illnesses. Ottawa: Statistics Canada.

Le, L. K. D., Barendregt, J. J., Hay, P., & Mihalopoulos, C. 2017. Prevention of eating disorders: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review 53. 46–58.

Le, L. K. D., Hay, P., & Mihalopoulos, C. 2018. A systematic review of cost-effectiveness studies of prevention and treatment for eating disorders. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 52 (4). 328–338.

Mehler, P. S., Krantz, M. J., & Sachs, K. V. 2015. Treatments of medical complications of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Journal of Eating Disorders 3 (1). 1–7.

Polivy, J., & Herman, C. P. 2002. Causes of eating disorders. Annual Review of Psychology 53 (1), 187–213.

Robertson, G., & Brady, R. 2021. Dangerous Games. The Globe and Mail (December 18th).

Rozin, P., & Haidt, J. 2013. The domains of disgust and their origins: Contrasting biological and cultural evolutionary accounts. Trends in Cognitive Sciences17 (8). 367–368.

Simmons, W. K., Burrows, K., Avery, J. A., Kerr, K. L., Bodurka, J., Savage, C. R., & Drevets, W. C. 2016. Depression-related increases and decreases in appetite: dissociable patterns of aberrant activity in reward and interoceptive neurocircuitry. American Journal of Psychiatry 173 (4). 418–428.

Singer, M. 2021. Generation America: The Models Changing an Industry. Vogue (September).

Telch, C. F., & Agras, W. S. 1996. Do emotional states influence binge eating in the obese? International Journal of Eating Disorders  20 (3). 271–279.

Vyver, E., & Katzman, D. K. 2021. Anorexia nervosa: A paediatric health crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic. Paediatrics & Child Health 26 (2). 1–2

Wu, J., Lin, Z., Liu, Z., He, H., Bai, L., & Lyu, J. 2020. Secular trends in the incidence of eating disorders in China from 1990 to 2017: A joinpoint and age–period–cohort analysis. Psychological Medicine, Advanced online publication.

Rozin & Haidt, 2013.
Chentsova-Dutton & Ryder, 2020.
Simmons 2016.
Langlois et al. 2012.
Vyver & Katzman 2021.
Robertson & Brady 2021.
Attia 2010.
Mehler, Krantz & Sachs 2015.
Telch & Agras 1996.
Becker 2002.
Wu et al. 2020.
Bardone-Cone 2007.
Atiye et al. 2015.
Polivy & Herman 2002.
Frank et al. 2021.
Fava 2000.
Flaws & Sionneau 2001
Buhrman 1996.
Singer 2021.
Le et al. 2017.
A possible response to the question above: A pharmaceutical intervention might introduce chemical alterations that include boosting her tolerance of criticism. A psychotherapeutic intervention might help her to think through ways of navigating her still-new social world, helping her to make better choices about how best to balance food, exercise, dance, and social approval. A social intervention might involve rethinking the easy availability of fast food in her school, or the posters on the wall at her dance studio. Importantly, the effects of any of these interventions can eventually have an impact on culture, mind, and brain. The key is to find a place in the situation where it is relatively easy to intervene, and to do so effectively. Indeed, in mild-to-moderate depression, change in diet (along with sleep and exercise) is one of the simplest ways to intervene early in a course of treatment. If we can understand disorders as vicious cycles that play out across the complex system of culture, mind, and brain, so too can we understand treatments as attempts to intervene within that system. In effect, treatment interventions represent different ways of attempting to interrupt the system, turning vicious cycles into virtuous ones.

Case: Superfood Advertising

Anne F. MacLennan and Irena Knezevic

Advertising Food for Health and Happiness: Bovril to superfood

Anne F. MacLennan is an Associate Professor in Communication and Media Studies at York University and editor of the Journal of Radio and Audio Media. She is co-author of Seeing, Selling, and Situating Radio in Canada, 1922–1956. Her research focuses on radio, media history, research methodologies, women, poverty, advertising, and labour. She is published in Media and Communication,Journal of Radio & Audio Media,Women’s Studies, Radio Journal, Relations Industrielles/Industrial Relations,Urban History Review, and edited collections.

Irena Knezevic is an Associate Professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University, and the director of the Carleton Food and Media Hub. She is a co-editor of Nourishing Communities: From Fractured Food Systems to Transformative Pathways  and has published in CanadianJournal of Communication, Canadian Food Studies, Food, Culture and Society, and Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Identify some advertising strategies used to promote commercial food products.
  • Describe historical precursors of “superfood” advertising.
  • Articulate links between food, health, and advertising.


Many cultures have versions of the sayings, “you are what you eat,” “a hungry person is an angry person,” and “let food be thy medicine.” Food, health, and well-being are inextricably linked, and advertising has long capitalized on this. Promotional messages that describe food products as linked to diets, low in undesirable ingredients like added sugars, or high in desirable ones like fiber, always imply that such products improve health. While those qualities can be beneficial to human health, their impact is sometimes exaggerated as a magical solution to the pursuit of health and well-being.

In much of the world, the average person is exposed to thousands of advertisements every day. People receive information from advertising, alongside nutritional advice from news media, social media feeds, science reporting, and public health messaging. Competing interests, evolving nutritional science, and cultural trends shape the abundance and the complexity of available food information. That information is now made widely accessible with new media technologies, which have also enabled anyone—not just recognized experts—to offer opinions and recommendations to tell consumers how to choose their food. This—rather than making us more knowledgeable about nutrition—leaves us sifting through conflicting and confusing messages looking for shortcuts to wise food choices. We want simple, magical solutions to health and well-being. This desire is bolstered by promotional messages that highlight individual responsibility for personal health. Health and nutrition are often portrayed as individual choices, encouraging those practices that are deemed healthy as moral imperatives. Even for people who have little choice—for economic, mobility, geographical or other reasons—this view imposes a cultural norm of individual responsibility for managing diet and appearing healthy. Food products that promise to aid in dietary management benefit from this cultural norm.

The Bovril Example

In 1871, butcher and amateur food scientist John Lawson Johnston acquired the contract to supply canned meat to Paris after the Franco-Prussian War. Commercial production of his meat-extract paste commenced in Montreal in 1874. The product was soon available widely and continues be sold to this day. The international promotion of Bovril in the early twentieth century offers a fascinating glimpse into the historical trajectory of food advertising that promises “health, strength, and happiness.” Bovril advertising evolved, but the core message has remained consistent—this food product offers an easy, convenient path to well-being through consumption.

We have been collecting and analysing Bovril advertisements for more than a decade. The product’s century-and-a-half long existence has generated hundreds of advertisements; many from the early 20th century are widely available in physical and digital archives.

A more focused sample from 1930 to 1940 was collected from major Canadian newspapers, where a keyword for Bovril produced a sample of unique 288 advertisements. The decade of the Great Depression was a time of post–World War I recovery and unstable global politics that would eventually lead to World War II. It was also a decade of food precarity that made a meat substitute like Bovril more significant. Moreover, the early 1900s are considered the golden age of advertising, when transportation and printing technologies speedily evolved, and industrialization allowed for large-scale production and expansion of markets outside of manufacturers’ local communities. However, by the mid-1920s in North America, print media suddenly had to compete with radio for advertising revenue, and in response, print ads became increasingly catchy, intricate, and colourful. The archives from the decades that followed offer an abundance of diverse and clever print ads.

Health and Strength

A close reading of the advertisements revealed that science, medicine, and health figured heavily in the campaigns. In the advertisement, “Yes, Doctor – Bovril is just what he needed” (Figure 1), a nurse is on the telephone. Bovril sits outside of the frame of her photograph, connecting it to the nurse and her report to the doctor. The advertisement’s claim that “Bovril Gives Strength Quickly” is expanded, indicating its “unique power of enabling convalescents to get more nourishment from other foods.” Bovril’s Human Document campaign offered testimonials attesting how Bovril improved customers’ health. “Bovril helped me save my Boy” (Figure 2) chronicled a Montreal mother’s story about her worries after her son’s surgery, proclaiming “I would…shout to everyone ‘try Bovril, when everything else fails, Bovril won’t…’ The campaign, with its numbered “document” entries, implied research-based evidence of Bovril’s success. This was at a time when scientific innovations, acceptance of germs, and the ability of people to influence their own health through practices like exercise, diet, anti-spitting laws, and initiatives other than prayer became important. Montreal, Canada’s largest city in the 1930s, was second only to Mumbai in tuberculous infections in the 1920s and 1930s. Public health campaigns of the time worked to change traditional practices of sanitation and health. In Canada, 1926 to 1930 infant mortality rates averaged 93 per 1000 live births, 75 from 1931 to 1935, and 64 from 1936 to 1940, making the health of surviving children a pressing concern. Pablum, a prepackaged, vitamin-enriched cereal for children developed by Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, is an example of a dietary innovation used to strengthen the body during an era when other remedies failed to safeguard children against polio, Scarlett fever, tuberculosis, measles, rickets, and other diseases.


Echoing the concerns about childhood health, the campaign “Why Children Need Bovril” (Figures 3 and 4) featured toddlers and older children. It promoted Bovril’s “body-building powers” and encouraged parents to mix Bovril into milk and add it to their children’s daily diets. The promotion of the body-building characteristics of the product extended to adults emphasizing “remarkable experiments upon human subjects” and the “astonishing body-building power of Bovril proved by famous Physiologist.” The appeal to scientific research and medical authority in text was paralleled by visuals. “Realize the difference made by one spoonful of Bovril” (Figure 5) incorporated an image of Bovril being poured into a spoon like medicine. While no medical claims were made in the advertisement, the daily use of Bovril was promoted. “It must be Bovril” (Figure 6) became the catchphrase of a Bovril campaign, reportedly quoting Sir Ernest Shackleton preparing for his Antarctic Expedition. Bovril was described as essential for homes and sickrooms attended by doctors and nurses. The association with strength and health extended well into the 1970s with testimonial advertising from mountaineers and elite athletes. Health remained a constant element in the campaigns. While the imagery and text changed to reflect the sensibilities of each decade, Bovril advertising repeatedly featured notions of health, medicine, and science, over several decades.


Magic and Transformation

Magical, physical, and mental transformation was always a strong component of Bovril campaigns. Canadian 1930s advertising portrayed Bovril as a comforting, hot drink, especially in the winter. The power of beef in the formula was credited with great feats of strength, such as the man in office attire holding an elephant above his head (Figure 7). Advertising the power and stimulating taste of Bovril was crucial in a period when regular access to protein through meat was precarious. Concentrated beef was a key selling point in the advertisements, and the bull, a symbol of strength and authority (Figure 8), was a reminder of this ingredient and what it promised to deliver. Avoiding the chills and ills of winter were routinely part of the advertising, whether it featured a sick or injured person, or outside gatherings. Further, meat was expensive and at the same time considered a necessity for nourishment and strength.


In the advertisement “Keep warmer with Hot Bovril” (Figure 9) the association with the heroic continued, with two men rescuing another man, who had fallen through ice, by offering him a hot cup of Bovril rather than pulling him from the icy water. The magical qualities were reinforced with the image of a large cut of prime beef hovering over the tiny bottle of Bovril to show all the “concentrated savoury goodness of the best there is in Prime Beef” (Figure 10) packed into the small bottle.


T.J. Jackson Lears, a cultural historian, argues that industrialization ushered neurasthenia, a type of depression associated with changes wrought by the modern working world. Bovril captured that early-20th-century concern for mental health and well-being in its “Bovril Prevents that Sinking Feeling” campaign, and in advertisements such as “…but men and women are not machines… Every Body Needs the Strength of Bovril” (Figure 11). Bovril’s advertisements illustrated the constant work, including women’s unending work (Figure 12), and the euphemistic visualization of sinking represented by a man clinging to a buoy at sea. Along with advertisements demonstrating physical strength to ward off physical illness, these showed how Bovril could make life brighter, as a cure and remedy, but also as a daily treat. It was promoted as an ingredient in soups and stews, mixed with milk, or as a sandwich spread (Figure 13). Health, well-being, and Bovril were linked as a daily routine.


Discussion, implications, and conclusion

Advertising equates the purchase of food with a sense well-being and overall good health. Recent promotions of “superfoods” are examples of promotions that echo the tone of early Bovril advertising. In recent years, many foods like acai berries products, green tea, and fermented milk, like kefir and “probiotic yogurt,” have been touted as superfoods that can instantly improve health and extend lifespan. In 2021, OSU, owned by Mizkan in Japan, launched a campaign to promote its apple cider vinegar in the U.K. market. It cast three stylish nonagenarians from Tokyo to convey vitality and health. The eternal quest for health and happiness continues to feature prominently in advertising.

Social theorists have long identified the link between dietetic management and capitalism. Bryan Turner proposed that dietetic management of one’s body stemmed from two key characteristics of capitalism: (a) the privileging of Western science and medicine, and (b) the need for functioning, labouring bodies to participate in industrial commodity production. Mike Featherstone expanded on this to include another tenet of capitalism—individualism. The emphasis on individual freedoms and responsibilities has made “body maintenance” both an individual responsibility and a requirement for economic participation. Together, these values have rendered dietetic management a pillar of being a good citizen.

The resulting cultural pressure on individuals to pursue “good” diets makes promises of easy solutions to healthy eating particularly appealing. Bovril’s longevity on the market suggests that their messaging has resonated with consumers, serving as a historical example of successful food advertising.

Contemporary advertising for various “superfoods” is but a continuation of promotional messaging that offers shortcuts to dietetic management. Bovril’s 1930s advertisements may seem laughable now, but a closer reading reveals that they were also trailblazing.

Discussion Questions

  • How do current advertising campaigns convince consumers that their foods make them healthy and happy?
  • What advertising messages have prompted you to buy a food product to improve your health?
  • What do historical examples of food advertising tell us about the evolving understandings of health and nutrition?

Additional Resources

Readers can find numerous Bovril print and television ads with a simple internet search. Bovril even has its own Wikipedia page!

Product information about Bovril is available on the manufacturer’s website.

John Lawson Johnston’s papers are held by the City of Edinburgh Council Archives.


Adams, A., K. Schwartzman and D. Theodore. 2008. “Collapse and Expand: Architecture and Tuberculosis Therapy in Montreal, 1909, 1933, 1954.” Technology and Culture 49 (4): 908–942.

Bovril. “Bovril helped me save my Boy.” Advertisement. The Vancouver Sun. November 19, 1937, p. 7.

Bovril. “Bovril stands alone”. Advertisement. Vancouver Daily World. October 22,1920. p. 16.

Bovril. “Enjoy the stimulating taste of Bovril nourishing concentrated beef.” Advertisement. The Vancouver Province. December 14, 1938. p. 32.

Bovril. “Keep warmer with Hot Bovril.” Advertisement. The Ottawa Citizen. December 1, 1930. p. 17.

Bovril. “Men and Women are Not Machines” Advertisement. The Ottawa Citizen. February 1, 1940. p. 7.

Bovril. “Prime Beef is tempting, tasty, and nourishing.” Advertisement. Regina Leader-Post. January 5, 1938. p. 16.

Bovril. “Realize the difference made by one spoonful of Borvil.” Advertisement. The Regina Leader-Post. November 5, 1931. p. 4.

Bovril. “Tempting and Tasty Bovril Sandwiches are so delightfully different.” Advertisement. The Vancouver Province. August 5, 1932. p. 9.

Bovril. “They Must Have Been Giving Him Bovril.” Advertisement. The Ottawa Citizen. November 13, 1940. p. 5.

Bovril. “When Illness Threatens.” Advertisement. The Montreal Gazette. November 5, 1930, p. 11.

Bovril. “Why Bovril Prevents that Sinking Feeling.” Advertisement. The Montreal Gazette. February 3, 1931, p. 11.

Bovril. “Why Children Need Bovril.” Advertisement. The Vancouver Province. September 25, 1935. p.10.

Bovril. “Why- Children Need Bovril.” Advertisement. Edmonton Journal. October 3, 1935. p. 2.

Bovril. “A woman’s work is never done”. Advertisement. November 3, 1933. The Vancouver Sun. p. 11.

Bovril. “Yes, doctor – Bovril is just what he needed.” Advertisement. The Toronto Globe. January 17, 1933. p. 10.

Copp, T. 1974. The Anatomy of Poverty: The Condition of the Working Class in Montreal 1897-1929. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

Featherstone, M. 1982. “The Body in Consumer Culture.” Theory, Culture & Society 1 (2): 18–33.

“Great British Brands: Bovril – Created for the French army and used by Scott and Shackleton, Bovril has a rich past and retains consumer loyalty.” Advertising. (August 1, 2002): 11.

Lears, T.J.J. 1981. No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation American Culture. New York: Pantheon Books.

MacLennan, A.F. 1984. “Charity and Change: The Montreal Council of Social Agencies’ Attempts to Deal with the Depression.” Master thesis, McGill University.

McCuaig, K.E. 1979. “The Campaign Against Tuberculosis in Canada 1900–1950.” Master thesis, McGill University.

Poutanen, M.A., S. Olson, R. Fischler, K. Schwartzman. 2009. “Tuberculosis in Town: Mobility of Patients in Montreal, 1925–1950.” Histoire sociale/Social history 42 (83): 69–106.

Steinitz, L. 2014. “Making Muscular Machines with Nitrogenous Nutrition: Bovril, Plasmon and Cadbury’s Cocoa,” in Food & Material Culture: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2013. ed. Mark McWilliams: 289–303. Devon: Prospect Books.

Tetreault, M. 1983. “Les Maladies de la Misère: Aspects de la Santé Publique a Montréal 1880-1914.Revue d’histoire de l’amerique française 36: 507–526.

Turner, B.S. 1982. “The Discourse of Diet.” Theory, Culture & Society 1 (1): 23–32.

Williams, R. 1960. “The Magic System.” New Left Review 4: 27-32.

Due to the parallel development of print technologies and expansion of colonial trade in the 17th century, the earliest food ads featured imported spices and other non-perishable goods, and livestock auctions were frequently promoted in print as early as the 1600s. The imported goods were sometimes unfamiliar to the readers, and the ads had to convince the readers of the benefits of such foods, so even early food ads suggested these foods would support health, strength, and well-being.
“Great British Brands” 2002.
Winnipeg Tribune, Montreal Gazette, Vancouver Province, Windsor Star, Calgary Herald, Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, Victoria Times Colonist, Ottawa Citizen, and Globe/Globe & Mail.
Bovril. "Yes, Doctor – Bovril is just what he needed.” 1933
Bovril. “Bovril helped me save my Boy.” 1937.
Copp 1974; MacLennan 1984; McCuaig 1979; Tetreault 1983.
Poutanen et al. 2009; Adams et al. 2008.
Statistics Canada.
Bovril. “Why Children Need Bovril.” 1935; Bovril. "Why Children Need Bovril.” 1931.
Bovril. "Bovril stands alone". 1920.
Bovril. "Realize the difference made by one spoonful of Bovril.” 1931.
Bovril. "When Illness Threatens." 1930.
Bovril. British television advertisement featuring Chris Bonington, who climbed Mount Everest.
Bovril. British television advertisement featuring Wendy Brook, fastest swimmer to cross the English Channel.
Williams 1960.
Bovril. “They Must Have Been Giving Him Bovril." 1940.
Bovril. “Enjoy the stimulating taste of Bovril nourishing concentrated beef.” 1938.
Steinitz 2014.
Bovril. "Keep warmer with Hot Bovril." 1930.
Bovril. “Prime Beef is tempting, tasty, and nourishing.” 1938.
Lears 1981.
Bovril. "Men and Women are Not Machines" 1940; Bovril. "Why Bovril Prevents that Sinking Feeling.” 1931; Bovril. “A woman’s work is never done.” 1933.
Bovril. “Tempting and Tasty Bovril Sandwiches are so delightfully different.” 1932.
Kiefer 2021.
Turner 1982.
Featherstone 1982.

Perspective: Breast Milk

Janet Colson

Breast Milk: The Past, Present, and FuturE
Janet Colson‘s interest and experience in breastfeeding began during her work with the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women Infants and Children (WIC) in rural Mississippi. After five years of teaching new mothers how to feed their babies with WIC, she transitioned to university teaching. Currently, she is a professor at Middle Tennessee State University, where she teaches life cycle nutrition classes.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Trace the history of infant feeding practices over the last three centuries.
  • Explain the importance of human milk for infant survival.
  • Differentiate between cross-nursing, wet-nursing, and milk-sharing.
  • Identify the pros and cons of pasteurizing human milk.


Shortly after my father’s birth in 1918, his mother developed the Spanish flu, requiring her to be hospitalized for several weeks. During my grandmother’s absence, a neighbor cared for my father, who was less than a month old at the time. The neighbor fed him from her own breasts, a practice known as wet-nursing.

A century later, the global COVID pandemic had a similar effect on newborns. Today, because wet-nursing is taboo in most countries, mothers too ill to nurse have the option to purchase another woman’s breast milk. Human milk is available to buy from accredited milk banks or from enterprising women selling their milk for extra income. Some lucky parents may have a friend or relative willing to supply breast milk free of charge, a practice known as milk sharing. According to public health officials, mothers unable to nurse should only use another woman’s milk that has been pasteurized, similar to the milk sold in grocery stores. This type milk is known as pasteurized human donor milk.

How did we, as a global community, transition from a birth mother nursing from her own breasts, to outsourcing infant feeding to paid wet nurses, to having a market for pasteurized human milk? We can trace the history to at least 1000 BC.

Milk for Human Infants

Human breast milk has always been the gold standard for feeding infants. Humanity would not exist today had our ancestral mothers refused to nurse. Perhaps one of the earliest written records of nursing is found in Exodus from the Old Testament bible. The author describes how Moses’ mother hides him in a basket to prevent his execution and a princess finds the young infant and decides to adopt him. Realizing that he will need a wet nurse, Moses’ big sister tells the princess that her mother is willing to nurse the babe. Not knowing that the woman is Moses’ actual birth mother, the princess pays her to serve as his wet nurse.

Although not common, hiring a wet nurse is still an option for today’s parents, but there are several other methods. As shown in Table I, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends human milk, fed directly from the natural mother’s breasts, as the best method. If an infant is too weak to nurse from the birth mother’s breasts, the woman should pump and feed her milk through a bottle or other feeding device. If the birth mother cannot produce enough milk to meet the needs of her infant, use of pasteurized human milk from an accredited donor milk bank ranks third. Fourth in this ranking is the use of a wet-nurse. Because it is not socially accepted in all cultures, WHO clarifies their stance: “Wet-nursing may be an option depending on acceptability to mothers and families, availability of wet nurses, and services to support mothers and wet nurses.” Commercial infant formula is the least favorable method of infant feeding and should only be used if other methods are not feasible.

Table 1: The World Health Organization’s hierarchy for infant feeding

Rank Type of Milk and Feeding Method
First Human milk fed directly from the birth mother’s breast
Second Human milk pumped from the birth mother and fed through a bottle or other feeding device
Third Pasteurized human milk from an accredited donor bank
Fourth Wet-nurse if acceptable to mother and family
Last Commercial infant formula
(source: World Health Organization)

Most commercial formulas are made from cow’s milk—with vitamins and minerals added to make it resemble human milk—or from soy protein formulated in a similar way. In 1981, after WHO’s concern about the global decrease in breastfeeding, the organization published the “International Code of Marketing Breast-Milk Substitutes.” Their aim was “to contribute to the provision of safe and adequate nutrition for infants, by the protection and promotion of breast-feeding, and by ensuring the proper use of breast-milk substitutes, when these are necessary.” The same year, the Codex Alimentarius established regulations specifying the minimum content of 29 nutrients in infant formula. The regulations have been updated several times to coincide with advances in research on nutrient needs of infants. The Codex requires that infant formula labels include a statement describing the superiority of breastfeeding such as “Breast milk is the best food for your baby.”

Infant Feeding AND GROWTH During the Early Months

Ideally, breast milk should be the only source of food given to infants for the first six months of life, with continued breastfeeding as the baby begins eating cereals and other solid foods. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding until age one and beyond, whereas WHO and the Canadian Pediatric Society both recommend continuation to two years of agin and beyond. Some mothers define “beyond” as five or six years, a practice criticized by mainstream parents, but acceptable to less traditional parents.

Human milk has the perfect nutrient content for optimal infant growth. Table 2 includes a few of the nutrients found in various mammalian milks. Human milk is much lower in protein and minerals than milk from other mammals, which is the ideal amount needed for a human baby’s growth pattern. Humans grow much more slowly than other mammals, gaining about one ounce per day in the first few months of life, whereas calves add an extra two to three pounds a day, topping out at 500 to 800 pounds by twelve months. A healthy human infant may weigh a mere twenty-one or twenty-two pounds by their first birthday.

Table 2: Comparison of nutrients in mammalian milks per 100 grams

Nutrient Human Milk Cow Milk Goat Milk Buffalo Milk
Energy (kcal) 70 64 69 97
Protein (g) 1.03 3.28 3.5 3.75
Fat (g) 4.38 3.36 4.14 6.8
Carbohydrate (g) 6.89 4.65 4.45 5.15
Calcium (mg) 32 119 134 169
Phosphorus (mg) 14 93 111 117
Sodium (mg) 17 49 50 52
Vitamin C (mg) 5 1.5 1.3 2.3
(source: USDA Food Data Central)

Background on Preterm Babies

Weight and gestational age at birth reflect the health status and survival rate of newborns. Infants born at or after 38 weeks of gestation are considered full term; those born earlier are pre-term. Birth weights vary by stage of gestation, as noted in Table 3. Based on 2019 U.S. data, slightly less than two percent of infants are born at very low birth weight (less than 1,500 grams). These very small preemies frequently do not survive. Eight percent are low birthweight, weighing less than 2,500 grams. Those weighing at least 3,000 grams are the healthiest, with few complications.

Table 3: Typical infant birthweight by gestational age of infants

Birthweight Category Birthweight (g [lbs.]) Gestational age (wks.)  
Very low birthweight 1000 (2.2) 28 (pre-term)
1500 (3.3) 31
Low birthweight 2000 (4.4) 33
2500 (5.5) 35
Average birthweight 3000 (6.6) 38 (term)
3500 (7.7) 40
3700 (8.2) 42
(Adapted from the Utah Department of Health Fetal Growth Chart)

Until neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) became common in the 1970s, preemies weighing 1,500 grams or less had a very low chance of surviving. Today, necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) is a life-threatening intestinal condition occurring in about 10% of these very small infants. The condition, characterized by intestinal inflammation and perforations, often results in death. Neonatologists recognize that giving these babies infant formula worsens NEC; survival is much greater if infants are fed human milk. However, many women who deliver prematurely are unable to produce an adequate amount of milk. Survival of these infants improves when given pasteurized human donor milk.

Nutritional Needs of Young Infants

Infants’ bodies are unable to digest and metabolize the high amounts of protein, calcium, phosphorus, and sodium in milk from cows and other large mammals. Commercial infant formula mimics the low protein and mineral content of human milk. Before the availability of commercial infant formula, infants given cow’s or goat’s milk developed severe diarrhea and eventually died due the damage it caused in their immature bodies. Today’s infants should not be given cow’s milk until at least age one because of this high protein and mineral content.

A woman’s breast milk fulfills her own baby’s nutritional needs, not those of a baby who is older or younger than the child she birthed. Nutrients in breast milk vary by the age and needs of a woman’s biological child, not for the infant of a friend, family member, or complete stranger.

Health Benefits of Human Milk

In addition to the ideal balance of nutrients, human milk is often called “liquid gold” because of the numerous bioactive substances such as hormones, immunoglobulins, probiotics, prebiotics, and oligosaccharides it contains. In addition to the immunoglobulins that are absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract, current research shows the high levels of oligosaccharides contain anti-adhesive properties that may decrease absorption of viruses and bacteria, thereby reducing infections. Even though formula manufacturers claim their products are “closest to mother’s milk” by trying to replicate the nutrient and bioactive ingredients, they will never be able to replicate nature’s nutriment.

Methods of Feeding Human Milk

Although wet-nursing is rare in developed countries, the practice was common from prehistoric time until the early 1900s, when widespread use of infant formula became the norm. In fact, it was the only way to keep infants alive. Throughout history, wealthy families sent their newborns to live with a wet nurse until the child could drink from a cup and eat regular foods. Even poor families turned to wet nurses if the mother died at birth or was too ill to care for her own infant.

Hormonal changes that occur at the delivery of a newborn stimulate milk production in a woman’s breasts. Nutrients are highest in milk produced for the first few months, when infants are growing rapidly, and decrease substantially after six months. Therefore, the ideal wet nurse is one who has recently given birth, when her milk is at its prime. During the 18th and 19th centuries, slave owners throughout the Americas often forced enslaved women who had recently given birth to nurse their wives’ newborns, instead of allowing the slaves to nurse their own infants. This practice often resulted in death of the enslaved infants, who were given cow’s milk or dirty water.

After abolition and slaves were set free, poor women took over as wet nurses for the wealthy. It became a well-organized profession, with doctors often helping wealthy new mothers hire a suitable wet nurse. Because a nursing woman needed to have recently given birth, the woman’s biological infant often suffered because she gave preference to the the paying infant, similar to the fate of enslaved infants.

Today, nursing another woman’s infant is still practiced, although not broadly publicized. Mothers may join an informal nursing co-op and nurse each other’s children, a practice known as cross-nursing. A quick internet search will show the top websites for promoting wet-nurse services, and also for buying and selling expressed milk. Only the Breast and Breast Feeding Moms Unite are two top sites. Of the 3,500 postings on Only the Breast, 17 are for wet nurses.


“Chestfeeding” is term and practice that has emerged among people who choose to feed their babies from their chest, but who do not identify with the term breastfeeding for one of a number of reasons. Trans men who have undergone surgery to remove most of their breast tissue (“chest masculinization” or “top” surgery) as well as cis-gender women who have have experienced breast-related trauma often prefer this term. Similarly, a non-binary person may choose not to use the term breastfeeding, given the female-gendered association it carries. If a trans man chooses to retain their uterus and ovaries, pregnancy is possible, and lactation is often possible after delivery. Alternately, some trans women may want to feed an adopted baby, in which case hormone therapy with nipple stimulation can make lactation possible.

Breast Pumps and Expressed Milk

Breast pumps have been around for about 200 years. The earliest ones consisted of a syringe connected to a glass bowl. These early pumps were painful and not efficient in suctioning milk, unlike the double electric pumps available today that work on both breasts simultaneously. (See Figure 1.) In the U.S., the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 requires insurance companies to provide a pump for breastfeeding parents and specifies that employers allow time for women to pump during the workday. The U.S. does not require employers to give paid maternity leave like most other developed countries, resulting in many women returning to work a few weeks after birth. Providing a pump encourages continued breastfeeding throughout the first year.

torso of a mannequin wearing a double breast pump
Figure 1: A double electric pump speeds the time needed to collect milk for working mothers or for women who choose to donate or sell their excess milk. (photo: Wikimedia Commons.)

Women vary in their milk production, with some able to pump an additional 20 to 30 ounces each day after feeding their own babies. Entrepreneurial mothers may choose to sell their surplus milk to other parents as a source of income. Based on Only the Breast postings, most women charge between US$1.00 and US$2.00 per ounce, with vegan milk priced slightly higher. A few altruistic mothers freely give their excess milk, representing a huge savings to parents in need.

One problem with pumping and storing milk is that it loses some nutritional value. Small amounts of nutrients cling to the tube and collection container while pumping. Pouring milk into a plastic bag to freeze, and from there into a bottle for feeding, results in additional nutrient loss. An infant nursing directly from their mother’s own breast thus provides the highest quality nutriment.

The Practice of Milk-Sharing

Research has also been done on the experience of milk-sharing mothers. Representing both milk recipients and milk donors, mothers from various continents shared their opinions about the bonds formed with the donor or recipient, health aspects of giving milk, and opinions of other family members. As they noted:

“In Islamic culture, we have to maintain the relationship because me giving my milk to another baby has created a familial bond [meaning that] my children and my milk children cannot marry one another.” [Donor]

“It gives you kind of a lifelong connection. It’s hard to explain but I look at my son’s ‘milk siblings’ with fondness.” [Donor]

“For so long I was very cynical about life and other people, but being able to be involved in the modern ‘It takes a whole village to raise a baby’ idea has changed my perceptions of what is going on in our society.” [Recipient]

“My son gained 10 pounds in 3 months after we started receiving donor milk. He did not gain any weight his first month of life. He is healthy and happy.” [Recipient]

“I think the only negative repercussions were from my family who [are] not keen on breastfeeding. I got weird looks and disgusted words.” [Recipient]

Unpasteurized Human Milk

Health care experts frown on individuals selling or giving breast milk because it is unpasteurized. Researchers at Ohio State analyzed the microbial content of breast milk bought online. They found bacterial contamination in 75% of the samples, reflecting poor collection, storage, or shipping techniques. Pasteurization would have destroyed the bacteria, making it safe for babies. In another study, the same researchers bought 102 human milk samples; a shocking ten percent contained cow’s milk. Parents buy human milk assuming it is 100 percent human milk, devoid of cow’s milk or other additives. Infants who have a milk allergy may suffer a life-threatening reaction when given the adulterated milk. Some parents may also be tempted to water down their milk to increase profit, resulting in inadequate nutrients and calories.

While pasteurization protects against pathogenic microbes, it has its downside. The high heat processing destroys many of the bioactive substances and vitamin content. In a review of 44 studies that examined the nutrient and bioactive content of pasteurized human, results showed that the immunoglobulins, enzymes, and vitamin C levels were much lower in the pasteurized product than in the fresh milk. However, most other nutrients were unaffected.

Non-Profit Human Milk Banks

Human milk banks are services that accept, pasteurize, and bottle donated breast milk and provide it to the frail pre-term babies in hospital NICUs. The first American milk bank opened in the early 1900s in Boston, after physicians realized that very small infants failed to thrive if given the cow’s milk formula common at the time. The word spread and human milk banking grew steadily in North America. By the 1980s, Canada had 23 milk banks and the U.S. had 30. However, the HIV/AIDS crisis in the mid-1980s resulted in closure in all but one in Canada and the vast majority in the U.S.

In 1985, the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA) organized and now accredits nonprofit milk banks in Canada and the U.S. The Association developed international guidelines for pasteurized human donor milk. Canada has four HMBANA-accredited milk banks and the U.S. has 25, with several applying for accreditation. Milk banks face several problems. In addition to health crises (such as the COVID pandemic’s effect of decreasing donations), their operating cost is high. They must pay to screen the mothers, test for purity and bacterial levels in the milk, then pasteurize, bottle, package, store, and ship the final product. As a result, the banks must charge US$4.00 to US$5.00 per ounce for the pasteurized human milk to cover their expenses. A tiny preterm infant may drink only one ounce per feeding, but as they grows, the amount increases to 20 to 30 ounces per day.

Although North American efforts are better than most other countries, Brazil is considered the global leader in donor milk banks:

With a history of the practice dating back to the 1930s, the country also has a three decade-old public health law that stipulates all the steps required to operate a [human donor] bank, based on advice from scientists at the respected research organization, FIOCRUZ. Today, Brazil has 217 milk banks, plus another 126 milk collection points, with at least one bank in each of the country’s 26 states—from Amazonas to São Paulo. Last year, 166,848 Brazilian women donated breast milk; an even larger number of infants reaped the benefits.

This huge system is centrally organized; every state has a reference bank… An online portal called RedeBLH, which has won praise from foreigners, facilitates a vast data collection operation, and enables the public, as well as the government, to stay informed. FIOCRUZ’s Fernandes Figueira Institute—where the national reference bank is kept—also disseminates information via a newsletter, conducts research, and runs undergraduate and graduate programs on policy and applied methodologies for milk banking.

Human Milk for Profit

In contrast to the non-profit endeavors described above, two U.S. companies buy human milk, process it into human milk fortifiers, then sell if for a profit. Both were founded by entrepreneur Elena Medo. Her first was Prolacta® Bioscience, which began in 1999 and sold its first 100% human milk products to hospitals in 2006. The California-based company pays women US$1.00 per ounce for their milk, processes it into a variety of 100% human milk forms, and sells it to hospital NICUs around the world. In 2009, Medo left Prolacta® to form a new company Medolac® that follows a similar model.

The Future of “Human Milk”

The future of commercial ventures for human milk appears to be endless. In 2020, two visionary entrepreneurs introduced “mammary biotechnology” at their North Carolina-based Biomilq™. Their company is developing a process to grow human milk in the lab. The four-step process will include: collecting a woman’s mammary cells; culturing the cells in a lab; collecting the milk made by these cells; and shipping the milk to hungry babies. Their current research focuses on the protein and carbohydrate content of human milk. It will be easy to add the needed vitamins and minerals following the Codex Alimentarius infant formula standards. However, the seemingly unlimited variety of bioactive substances provided in the “liquid gold” secreted from a woman’s real breasts will be more complex, if not impossible, to replicate.

Will the public accept this lab-grown substance as a new form of human breast milk, or will they consider it an artificial substitute? Will the WHO add this type milk to their hierarchy for infant feeding? Will this milk be superior to commercial infant formula or just another expensive alternative? Only time will tell.


Human milk is the sustenance that has allowed civilization to continue; it is considered the gold standard for feeding babies. Originally, infants received the life-saving substance directly from breasts of the birthmother. Today, natural secretion serves as a source of income for some parents and a profitable venture for private industry. It is well known that processing and pasteurizing milk results in losses of many of the beneficial bioactive substances in human milk, yet pasteurization is recommended by all health organizations. Pre-term infants, at high risk of life threatening NEC, depend on the pasteurized human donor milk for survival. Wet-nursing, a practical profession and a major source of income for women in the past, has become taboo (or secretive) in many developed cultures. Is cross-nursing or milk-sharing any different? Would society be healthier if wet nurses became a new and recognized profession or should we wait until biotechnology allows growing “human milk” in a lab to replace human breasts? Although, the future of infant feeding holds many uncertainties, the one universal truth is, infants must be fed to survive.

Discussion Questions

  • Breastfeeding mothers of today often produce more milk than is needed to feed one infant, resulting in a surplus of stored milk. Describe three ways a mother with excess expressed breast milk can use the milk, and the protocol she needs to follow in handling the milk.
  • Tiny Treasures Milk Bank is Prolacta Bioscience’s route for women to donate (at US$1 per ounce) expressed breast milk. Using their Frequently Asked Questions, answer the following:
    • What are the steps a parent must take to donate milk to Tiny Treasures?
    • In you were lactating and had a surplus of milk, would you consider “donating” to Tiny Treasures or to your local HMBANA milk bank? Explain your decision.
  • In the early 2000s, commercial infant formula in China was found to be adulterated with melamine, resulting in several infant deaths. New working mothers resorted to hiring wet nurses to feed their infants. Image that you were one of these working mothers looking for someone to wet-nurse your infant. Write a posting for the internet, specifying your requirements and the salary you would pay to the wet nurse.
  • You adopt a newborn and are told about ways to induce lactation through the use of hormones. Because you work full time, you decide against it. You still want your baby to have the best nutrition possible. Discuss the pros and cons of feeding your infant by the following methods:
    • commercial infant formula
    • asking a friend who is lactating a 10-month-old to give you breast milk
    • buying breast milk from a stranger on the internet
    • buying pasteurized 100% human milk from Prolacta
    • hiring a wet nurse


Breastfeeding and paid maternity/paternity laws vary by country. Select two countries and compare their laws to those of your own country.

  • Explain the food system associated with human milk that is being prepared to be sold to a hospital neonatal intensive care unit.


Breastfeeding Moms Unite.” Accessed February 20, 2021.

Only the Breast.” Accessed February 20, 2021.

Baumgartel, K., L. Sneeringer, and S. Cohen. 2016. “From Royal Wet Nurses to Facebook: The Evolution of Breast Milk Sharing.” Breastfeeding Review: Professional Publication of the Nursing Mothers’ Association Of Australia 24 (3): 25–32.

BIOMIQ. 2021. “Unlocking Human Potential with Breakthrough Mammary Biotechnology.” BIOMIQ™ Human Milk for Babies. Accessed May 10, 2021.

Bologna, C. 2020. “200 Years of Breast Pumps: In 18 Images.” Huffington Post. Updated July 30.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2020. “Breastfeeding: Frequently Asked Questions.” Reviewed May 28, 2020.

Critch, J.N. 2014. Canadian Pediatric Society. Nutrition and Gastroenterology Committee. “Nutrition for Healthy Term Infants, Six to 24 Months: An Overview.” Paediatrics & Child Health 19 (10): 547–52.

Exodus 2:1-9

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, World Health Organization. 2007. “Standard for Infant Formula and Formulas for Special Medical Purposes Intended for Infants.” Adopted 1981, Amended 1983, 1985, 1987, 2011, 2015, 2016, and 2020. Revised 2007.

Gribble, K. 2018. “’Someone’s generosity has formed a bond between us’: Interpersonal relationships in Internet-facilitated peer-to-peer milk sharing.” Maternal & child nutrition 14 (Suppl 6): e12575.

Human Milk Bank Association of North America. 2021. Accessed February 20, 2021.

Kapinos, K., L. Bullinger, and T. Gurley-Calvez. 2017 “Lactation Support Services and Breastfeeding Initiation: Evidence from the Affordable Care Act.” Health Services Research ˆ (6): 2175–2196.

Keim, S., J. Hogan, K. McNamara, V. Gudimetla, C. Dillon, J. Kwiek, and S. Geraghty. 2013. “Microbial contamination of human milk purchased via the Internet.” Pediatrics 132 (5): e1227-35.

Keim, S., M. Kulkarni, K. McNamara, R. Billock, R. Ronau, J. Hogan, and J. Kwiek. 2015 “Cow’s Milk Contamination of Human Milk Purchased via the Internet.” Pediatrics 135 (5): e1157-62.

Martin, J.A. 2021. “Births: Final Data for 2019.” National vital statistics reports : from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, National Vital Statistics System 70 (2): 1–51.

Medolac. 2021. “Human Based Milk for Hospitals.” Medolac® A Public Benefit Corporation. Accessed May 10, 2021.

Moore, R., L. Xu, and S. Townsend. 2021. “Prospecting Human Milk Oligosaccharides as a Defense against Viral Infections.” ACS Infectious Diseases 7 (2): 254–263.

Paynter, M., and K. Hayward. 2018. “Medicine, Body Fluid and Food: The Regulation of Human Donor Milk in Canada.” Healthcare policy = Politiques de santé 13 (3): 20–26.

Peila, C., G. Moro, E. Bertino, L. Cavallarin, M. Giribaldi, F. Giuliani, F. Cresi, and A. Coscia. 2016.“The Effect of Holder Pasteurization on Nutrients and Biologically-Active Components in Donor Human Milk: A Review.” Nutrients 8 (8): 477.

Petherick, A. 2015. “Milk Banks Around the World.”

Prolacta. 2021. “Leader in Human Nutrition.” Prolacta® Bioscience. Accessed February 22, 2021.

Quigley, M., and W. McGuire. 2014. “Formula versus donor breast milk for feeding preterm or low birth weight infants.” The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 4. CD002971.

Slavery Facts. 2019. “Breastfeeding Masters’ Babies: The Wet-Nurse Slave.

United States Department of Agriculture. 2019. Agriculture Research Service. “Food Data Central.” April 1, 2019.

Utah Dept. of Health. 2021. “Fetal Growth Chart.” Accessed February 20, 2021

World Health Organization. 1981. “International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes.” January 28, 1981.

World Health Organization. 2021. “Clinical Management of COVID-19.” Accessed May 10, 2021.

CCD 2020
Exodus 2:1-9.
WHO 2021.
WHO 2021.
WHO 2021.
WHO 1981.
WHO 1981.
FAO 2007.
FAO 2007.
CDC 2020.
WHO 2021.
Critch 2014.
USDA 2019.
Utah Dept. of Health 2021
Martin 2021.
Utah Dept. of Health 2021.
Quigley 2014.
Moore et al. 2021.
Baumgartel et al. 2016.
Slavery Facts 2019.
Only the Breast 2021.
Breastfeeding Moms Unite 2021.
Bologna 2020.
Kapinos et al. 2017.
Only the Breast 2021.
Gribble 2018.
Keim et al. 2015.
Keim et al. 2014.
Peila et al. 2016.
Paynter & Hayward 2018.
Human Milk Bank Assoc. 2021.
Human Milk Bank Assoc. 2021.
Petherick 2015.
Prolacta 2021.
Medolac 2021.
BIOMIQ 2021.

Perspective: Food Insecurity

Michael Classens and Mary Anne Martin

From Charity to Solidarity: Food Insecurity and Imagining Other Worlds

Michael Classens is a White settler man and Assistant Professor in the School of the Environment at University of Toronto. He is broadly interested in areas of social and environmental justice, with an emphasis on these dynamics within food systems. As a teacher, researcher, learner, and activist, he is committed to connecting theory with practice, and scholarship with socio-ecological change. Michael lives in Toronto with his partner, three kids, and dog named Sue. .

Mary Anne Martin is a White settler woman and adjunct faculty member in the Master of Arts in Sustainable Studies program at Trent University. Her interests include household food insecurity, the impact of community-based food initiatives, and intersections between gender and food systems. She actively participates in food policy initiatives and is dedicated to fostering social change through campus-community collaborations..

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Describe the systemic dynamics that contribute to food (in)security
  • Understand the be able to express the limits of food charity
  • Interpret new paradigms that can reframe food insecurity and support its solutions


The global COVID pandemic has had far-reaching food systems implications, including for those experiencing food insecurity and for food justice organizations, advocates, and activists. Community-engaged scholars witnessed first-hand how food justice and allied organizations shifted the focus of their work as COVID descended. In a moment of acute and cascading crisis, many organizations returned (if perhaps temporarily) to a charitable food bank model. This case, looking at an example from Ontario, Canada, provides reflections on a number of themes that emerged in the intervening months related to food insecurity, food systems change, and broader issues of social change.

Setting the table

How we understand the problems associated with our food systems is a function, in part, of how we conceive of our food systems in the first place. For interdisciplinary food scholars and activists, understanding food systems means being attentive to a wide range of issues, including “historically specific webs of social relations, processes, structures, and institutional arrangements that cover human interaction with nature and with other humans involving the production, distribution, preparation, consumption, and disposal of food.” What this means in practice isn’t always so clear, however. Nonetheless, thinking through food insecurity, and responses to it, can help provide some clarity and demonstrate why the way we think about food systems matters. For an illustration capturing some of the complexity of these dynamics, see Figure 1 below.

By any measure, food insecurity is a crisis in Canada, and around the world, and it has worsened during the pandemic. The United Nations World Food Programme estimates that there are nearly 700 million food insecure people worldwide, 270 million of whom experience crisis levels of hunger, meaning that they face severe calorie deficiencies and are at high risk of mortality. In more stark terms, the organization estimates that between 6,000 and 12,000 people may be dying of hunger every day. In Canada, about 4.4 million people were living with food insecurity before the global pandemic. By May of 2020, just a few months into the pandemic, food insecurity had risen by 39%.

It is important to keep in mind that these alarming food insecurity rates are unequally distributed across the population, so some demographic groups are much more likely to experience food insecurity than others. For example, a study conducted in Toronto found that Black households are about three-and-a-half times more likely to be food insecure than White households. Indigenous populations throughout the territory known as Canada experience rates of food insecurity from as high as 33% off reserve to 100% on reserve. Among all income brackets, rates of food insecurity are highest for households in the lowest income bracket, and the prevalence of food insecurity declines as household income increases. These numbers (and others) demonstrate that food insecurity isn’t just a food issue, narrowly conceived. Food access is structured within unequal socio-economic, cultural, and ecological systems. In other words, food insecurity is an issue of equity and justice.

One of the main ways we have attempted to address food insecurity in Canada is through food banks. While they may seem like timeless institutions, Canada’s first food bank opened in Edmonton in 1981 to provide temporary measures to support people struggling within the compounding context of high rates of inflation, recession, and scaled-back federal unemployment and provincial social supports. These interventions were always intended to be short-term, stop-gap measures, and yet, by the mid-1980s, there were over 75 food banks across Canada. This was just the beginning of the normalization and institutionalization of the charitable food banking model in Canada—Food Banks Canada reports that there are now more than 3000 food banks and frontline food-serving agencies in their network. The problem is, there are far more food insecure people in Canada now than ever before. So, if the point of food banks is to provide food to those in need of it, they aren’t succeeding even on their own terms. In fact, research shows that only about one in five food insecure people even use food banks.

In contrast to food banks, many organizations can be considered food justice organizations. These organizations don’t understand food insecurity as simply the absence of food, but rather they conceive of food insecurity as a result of broader, inequitable structures resulting from colonialism, White supremacy, misogyny, and unfettered capitalism. Consequently, they also frame food insecurity as more than simply a food issue. As a result of looking at the entire food system through interdisciplinary and equity lenses, many food justice organizations understand the root causes of food insecurity as comprising intersecting social, political, and ecological inequities, and therefore propose solutions beyond food banks.

FoodShare Toronto, a leading food justice organization in Toronto, Ontario, was founded in 1985. It was originally established as a temporary initiative to coordinate among the City of Toronto’s 45 front line emergency food service agencies. Very quickly, the organization understood that broader systems change was required to address the systemic and root causes of hunger. Today, FoodShare is dedicated to pursuing food justice in ways that centre the experience of those most impacted by poverty and food insecurity—Black, Indigenous, People of Colour and People with Disabilities through a variety of programs and initiatives that go far beyond the food bank model.

So, for example, rather than simply providing low-quality, highly processed food to those in need, some food justice organizations offer weekly fresh-produce box programs. Some support the establishment of farmers’ markets in low-income, marginalized, and racialized communities (communities that typically don’t have access to farmers’ markets). In some cases, these organizations buy directly from local growers, in an attempt to address food insecurity while also supporting local, small-scale growers—attending to the struggles of both marginalized eaters and growers.

Beyond providing food for those who need it, some food justice activists, organizations and networks also agitate for policy change. As an example, there have recently been various efforts by a diverse network of food justice and other organizations to compel the federal government to institute a basic income (BI) in Canada. This means that all Canadians would be provided with a sufficient and guaranteed income to meet their basic needs, including food. Research shows that when people have a reliable and sufficient income, rates of food insecurity are significantly reduced.

Other research points to the political economy of our food system, noting that food is in fact a human right, and that Canada is legally bound by international agreements to fulfill the right to food. In Canada just four companies—Loblaws, Metro, Sobeys, and Walmart—control upwards of 80% of the retail market. And these companies prefer establishing larger stores typically in higher-income areas, resulting in an unequal distribution of food access across Canada. Food, many advocates argue, is too important to be treated as a commodity governed by a retail oligopoly.

When the impact of the COVID pandemic began to be felt across Canada, and rates of food insecurity began to spike, we saw many food justice organizations—at least temporarily—adopt a food charity/food bank model. In part, this reflects the efforts of food justice organizations to respond to the increasing intensity of the food insecurity crisis during the pandemic in whatever ways they could. However, this response was also the result of the federal government nudging organizations in the food bank direction. By December 2021, the federal government made $330 million available through the Emergency Food Security Fund. These funds were disbursed through a handful of national and regional emergency food and food justice agencies to smaller, front-line serving organizations. The money was earmarked for the purchase of emergency food provisions, personal protective equipment, and to hire additional workers. In other words, the Canadian federal government conscripted food banks as well as food justice and community development organizations into its efforts to address dramatically increasing rates of food insecurity across the country through charity emergency food provisioning.


concept map showing many elements of food security and food insecurity
Figure 1: This graphic was produced by illustrator Jason Wilkins at a webinar titled “Thinking outside the donation box,” featuring Dr. Elaine Power and Dr. Rod MacRae. It captures some of the ways we can think about addressing food insecurity beyond food banks.

Solidarity, not Charity

The first six months of the pandemic were profoundly challenging for many food justice organizations as they adjusted to increased demand for basic food-provisioning services, a reduced volunteer base, emotionally exhausted staff, intense uncertainty, and increasingly marginalized community members. While these challenges persist, many organizations have recalibrated within this difficult context and, in ongoing recognition of the need for food justice, are redoubling their efforts to realize broader structural social change. FoodShare, a leading food justice organization in Toronto, for example, has recently underscored their commitment to food justice, democratic control, and political mobilization as we transition out of the global pandemic.

The COVID pandemic—and the spectre of new, different pandemics resulting from our corporatized and globalized food system—makes the words of feminist philosopher Val Plumwood truer now than ever before, “If our species does not survive….it will probably be due to our failure…to work out new ways to live with the earth, to repower ourselves… We will go onwards in a different mode of humanity, or not at all.” One way to reframe this sentiment within the context of food insecurity is to move beyond thinking about how to end food insecurity, to thinking about how we can create a world within which food insecurity is unthinkable.

As dissatisfying as it may be, there are no clear blueprints to direct us on how to do this. However, there are paradigms and ways of thinking that can inform the development of a comprehensive and integrated plan to transition toward more just and equitable food systems. The feminist economists J.K Gibson-Graham illuminate how ways of knowing and being in the world are already informing how we can move beyond the need for charity. They see hope in reciprocal relationships, mutual support, care work, and myriad other everyday occurrences that exist outside of the formal capitalist economy. In this, they see the beginnings of a new economic ethic for the Anthropocene—a way of reclaiming the economy as a site of equitable decision making, not simply the accumulation of profit.

The global peasant movement, La Via Campesina, similarly understands food systems as entanglements of human-nature relationships through which to advance equity and justice, a perspective that contrasts markedly with the dominant capitalist food system within which food is treated as a simple commodity. La Via Campesina advances food sovereignty and agroecology, food systems paradigms that promote equity, democratic control, and empowerment of traditionally marginalized groups of people. In various places around the world, these approaches espoused by La Via Campesina have demonstrably resulted in better overall nutrition and enhanced food security.

Another paradigm that can help broaden our political imagination is the notion of mutual aid. This perspective contrasts explicitly with the charitable model by weaving ways of supporting each other into the very fabric of everyday life. It should also be noted that in contrast to some of the approaches summarized above, mutual aid assumes that it is unlikely that the state will ever substantively support food justice. However, the significant resources and policy levers of the state are still necessary for effecting change on a profound and universal basis. As the Big Door Brigade puts it, “Mutual aid is when people get together to meet each other’s basic survival needs with a shared understanding that the systems we live under are not going to meet our needs.” The movement is gaining traction, and recently the United States Congresswoman Alexandrian Ocasio-Cortez collaborated on the development of a “how to” mutual aid strategy resource. The trans-rights activist and lawyer, Dean Spade, argues that moving from charity to solidarity through mutual aid strategies “will be the most effective way to support vulnerable populations to survive, mobilize significant resistance, and build the infrastructure we need for the coming disasters.”

(Re)setting the table

That the negative consequences of the global pandemic have been so disproportionately shouldered by those who are already struggling underscores the fundamental inequities in our world. In Canada, our initial response to deepening food insecurity was to double down on a 40-year-old food charity model that we already knew was ineffective. However, this acute crisis has also inspired many food justice organizations, activists, and scholars to intensify their commitment to food justice, and to imagine new ways of organizing our relationships with each other and nature in ways that make inequity unthinkable.

Discussion Questions

  • Why might one’s social location have an impact on their level of food (in)security?
  • What other food issues might be reframed by looking at them through interdisciplinary and equity lenses?
  • How can we reframe our relationship with food in our everyday lives? What are the limits of individual actions on those relationships?


Find and compare websites of a food bank and a food justice organization in your area. How does each frame food? What activities does each organization do? What differences do you notice?


Agriculture and Agri-food Canada. 2021. “Emergency Food Security Fund.”

Big Door Brigade. n.d. “What is Mutual Aid?”

Food Banks Canada. 2020. “Relieving and Preventing Hunger in Canada.”

Food Secure Canada. 2012. “The Right to Food in Canada.”

FoodShare. n.d. “FoodShare’s Locally-Rooted Food Justice Approach to COVID-19 Response.”

Gibson-Graham, J.K. 2006. A Postcapitalist Politics. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Gibson-Graham, J.K. 1996. The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Health Canada. 2004. “Canadian Community Health Survey, Cycle 2.2, Nutrition (2004). Income-Related Household Food Security in Canada.”

Koç, M., J. Sumner, and A. Winson. Critical Perspectives in Food Studies. Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press.

Minister of Health, Office of Nutrition Policy and Promotion, Health Products and Food Branch, Health Canada, Ottawa, Canada. 2006.

MacRae, R. 2021. “Equitable Access to the Food Distribution System.”

Ogle, B., H.T.A. Dao, M. Generose, and B.L. Hamnbraeus. 2012. “Micronutrient Composition and Nutritional Importance of Gathered Vegetables in Vietnam.” International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition 52 (6): 485–99.

Plumwood, V. A review of Deborah Bird Rose’s Reports from a Wild Country: Ethics of Decolonization. Australian Humanities Review 42 (2007): 1–4.

Riches, G. 1986. Food Banks and the Welfare Crisis. Ottawa: Canadian Council on Social Development.

Roos, N., M.M. Islam, and S.H. Thilsted. 2003. “Small Indigenous Fish Species in Bangladesh Contribution to Vitamin A, Calcium and Iron Intakes.” Journal of Nutrition 133 (11) (Suppl. 2): 4031S–26S.

Simran, D. and V. Tarasuk. 2019. “Race and Food Insecurity: Fact Sheet.” Research to PROOF Food Insecurity Policy Research and FoodShare.

Spade, D. 2020. “Solidarity Not Charity: Mutual Aid for Mobilization and Survival.” Social Text 142 (1): 131-151.

Statistics Canada. “Food Insecurity During the COVID-19 Pandemic, May 2020.” June 24, 2020.

Tarasuk, V. 2017. “Implications of a Basic Income Guarantee for Household Food Insecurity. Research Paper 24.” Thunder Bay: Northern Policy Institute.

Tarasuk, V., A.-A. Fafard St-Germain, and R. Loopstra, R. 2020. “The relationship between food banks and food insecurity: Insights from Canada.” VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations. 31, 841–852.

Tarasuk, V. and A. Mitchell. 2020. “Household Food Insecurity in Canada, 2017-2018.” PROOF Food Insecurity Policy Research.

Thompson, S., A. Gulrukh, M. Ballard, B. Beardy, D. Islam, V. Lozeznik, and K. Wong. 2011. “Is Community Economic Development Putting Health Food on the Table? Food Sovereignty in Northern Manitoba’s Aboriginal Communities.” The Journal of Aboriginal Economic Development 7 (2): 14–29.

Wakefield, S., J. Fleming, C. Klassen, and A. Skinner. 2012. “Sweet Charity, Revisited: Organizational Response to Food Insecurity in Hamilton and Toronto, Canada.” Critical Social Policy 33 (3): 427–450.

World Food Programme. 2020. “World Food Programme to Assist Largest Number of Hungry People Ever, as Coronavirus Devastates Poor Nations.” June, 29 2020.

Koç et al. 2012, xiv.
World Food Programme, n.p.
Tarasuk & Mitchell 2020, 8.
Statistics Canada 2020, n.p.
Dhunna & Tarasuk 2019, n.p.
Health Canada 2006, 15.
Thompson et al. 2011, 24.
Tarasuk & Mitchell 2020, 10.
Wakefield et al. 2012.
Riches 1986, 22.
Food Banks Canada, 2020.
Tarasuk et al, 2020, n.p.
Tarasuk 2017.
Food Secure Canada 2012, n.p.
MacRae 2021, n.p.
Agriculture and Agri-food Canada 2021.
FoodShare 2020, n.p.
Plumwood 2007, 1.
See for example, Gibson-Graham 1996; 2006.
Ogle et al. 2001; Roos et al. 2003.
Big Door Brigade n.d., n.p.
Spade 2020, 131.

Creative: Food System Blues

Faris Ahmed and Tommy Wall

Fractured Food System Blues: A Blues in Five Voices

Faris Ahmed has been working on food, farming, and environmental issues in Canada and internationally for more than 20 years. He is an Ottawa-based consultant and policy researcher, specializing in ecosystems, biodiversity, climate resilience, and human rights. He has played leadership roles in international civil society networks, policy processes, and advocacy campaigns on these issues. Faris has a Master’s degree in International Development from the University of Toronto and has worked as a writer and documentary photographer in Asia. He dabbles with music in his spare time.

Tommy Wall is an environmental communicator and researcher with professional interests in public education, engagement, research and writing on nature, ecology, environment, and climate change in everyday life. He currently works as a strategic communications advisor for domestic climate change policy at Environment and Climate Change Canada, consulting with federal policymakers on how to communicate to the public about subjects ranging from carbon pricing to climate change adaptation. He’s still figuring out the best ways to get his fellow humans to understand the “so what, who cares” of global environmental problems.

Fractured Food System Blues

In 2016, researchers from the Food: Locally Embedded, Globally Engaged (FLEdGE) partnership published Nourishing Communities: From Fractured Food Systems to Transformative Pathways. The book documents many years of collaborative work focused on building towards more sustainable and more just food systems. In November 2017, Carleton University’s Faculty of Public Affairs hosted an event bringing together academics, activists, and others focused on the same issues. Several people provided commentaries on Nourishing Communities, including Faris Ahmed, who gave his response to the book in the form of a spoken word piece.

This performance, as well as a short interview with Faris about his work at USC Canada (now SeedChange), offer a lively, alternate way of thinking about sustainability when it comes to food systems. Tommy Wall interviewed Faris and produced and edited the audio.

Listen to Faris’s performance of “Fractured Food System Blues.”

One or more interactive elements has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view them online here:


They call me a small farmer, but I’ve got a big list of to-dos
They call me a small farmer, but I’ve got a big list of to-dos
Feed the world. Cool the planet. Try walking just one day in my shoes
Because I’ve got the fractured food system blues


I’m Jamaican, but I’m kneeling down on your land
Never Canadian. No, but what you’re eating was picked by these hands
No rights, no shelter, no heat in winter, and the worst kinds of abuse
I’ve got the fractured food system blues


I’m a community garden right in your neighborhood
I can connect friends and families, young and old
Leafy greens, peppers, tomatoes of all sizes, shapes, and hues
To wash away your fractured food system blues


We’re food policy councils. Now, how do you put that in a song?
People’s voices and ideas that make decision-making strong
But, hey, inclusive governance mechanisms will never make the news
We’ve got the fractured food system blues


Agroecology and food sovereignty
We’re more than just words, or theories, or novelty
We’re the roadmap and the journey. So, go ahead and take your cues
We’re transformative pathways for your fractured food system blues

Fractured Food System Blues: Tommy Wall in Conversation with Faris Ahmed

In late 2017, Tommy Wall, a student of Communications and Environmental Studies at Carleton University recorded an interview with Faris Ahmed about his spoken word poem, Fractured Food System Blues: A Blues in Five Voices.

Listen to Tommy’s interview with Faris.

One or more interactive elements has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view them online here:

Interview Transcript

[slow blues baseline plays]

Tommy Wall (TW): My name is Tommy Wall. I’m a fourth-year communications and environmental studies student at Carleton University, and I’m interested in climate change and global environmental sustainability. Agricultural sustainability and food security are important issues in Canada and around the world. In the fall of 2017, a public discussion took place about a new book that attempts to tackle some of the problems associated with food and agriculture. Nourishing Communities: From Fractured Food Systems to Transformative Pathways, was published by Springer and focuses on community-based practices that can mend fractures in the food system. One of the participants in the public discussion that marked the release of the book, was Faris Ahmed from USC Canada. Faris leads USC’s policy work and closely collaborates with ecological agriculture, biodiversity, and food sovereignty networks in the global south and in Canada. Faris joins me today to discuss his response to the book release and to speak on his own work. Hello, Faris.

Faris Ahmed (FA): Hello, Tommy.

TW: Thank you for taking the time today to talk about your work and about the issues that you deal with. Can you tell me a bit more about your work, and the work of USC?

FA: Sure. USC is an organization based here in Ottawa and our work is basically about ensuring a healthy and diverse food for everyone. And, the way we grow our food should be strengthening biodiversity and ecosystems, and not diminishing them. And we also feel that the food that has grown is determined by the choices of the people who grow the food. We work with farmer organizations in 12 countries around the world, including in Canada, and a new program we started about five, six years ago. And, essentially, we support farmers and Indigenous people, women, youth, to grow healthy and resilient agricultural food systems. And their goal is to ensure that biodiversity—the diversity in plants, and seeds, and genetic resources in animals as well—is determined by their own research questions. So, they consider themselves researchers. And their goal is to enhance their biodiversity and seed systems because that has impact on a whole bunch of things. It has impact on their food, and their ability to eat around, around the year. It increases their resilience to climate shocks. If it’s too wet or too dry, they have the varieties to, to serve their needs. It engages young people in a way that other types of agriculture do not. They are very passionate about ecological agriculture, which is what we support. And it’s healthy, it’s nutritious, it creates livelihoods. And so, we find that this one intervention has quite a lot of impact on a whole bunch of things, and it’s driven by the farmer’s own needs. And now my own work at USC is about policy and ensuring that policies support the work of farmers and not constrain them. For example, trade and investment policy or seed policy that can inhibit what farmers do, that can impose restrictions on the kinds of seeds that they can produce and save and sell. Or trade that encourages the kind of market that will not support the prices of, the kinds of prices that farmers are expecting or wanting, or imposes restrictions on them that they can’t sell or exchange their own products. So, we try to create a conducive environment for farmers to really flourish in their food systems, to serve them as well as their communities.

TW: And so, you participated in the public book release for Nourishing Communities back in November. What’s your connection to the book and to its authors?

FA: Well, I’m lucky enough to have, to know and have worked with all five of them: Irena, Alison, Charles, Phil, and Erin. I’ve been involved in many things that they’ve initiated, or I’ve participated in research initiatives, workshops and so on. Also, with Peter Andrée and Patricia Ballamingie, both of whom are at Carleton. These people are leaders in their field, I’d say, I mean, they’re researchers in the truest sense. They’ve got the academic tools and the research methodologies, but they’re also grounded, and they’re connected to what they’re researching, whether it’s, you know, the food system and food justice organizations or practitioners, or farmer organizations, food providers. And I think that they have a sense of what the community needs because of that, and it makes them better researchers. So, when I saw the book, I was quite captivated by it. And, I did, I did read quite a lot of it, and it gave me all kinds of ideas. And it’s a culmination of researchers and practitioners working together. And these guys are some of the best.

TW: They come from a lot of very well-rounded backgrounds too, so, it’s good to have multiple perspectives on food security and agriculture coming from a lot of different people. And the book inspired you to do more than to just simply comment as well. How did you respond to the book and to its messages?

FA: Well, I first did a traditional book review as I was asked to do. And that was, I mean, rewarding enough. But that I was inspired by the diversity of the methodologies I guess, the tools and narratives in the book that came from different peoples and communities and different ways of even gathering the information. And, given that we were, you know, quote unquote on stage in Irene’s pub and my own love for music, and Irene’s is known for life performing, performances, and I’d never performed there. So, I just thought that a spoken word rendition of some of the voices and narratives in the book would be fun and hopefully complimentary. So, I just sat down at the computer and it came out pretty quickly and naturally. So, I constructed a spoken-word poem with five voices. And afterwards, decided to add a bassline to it.

TW: And so you have no shortage of musical resources at your disposal down here in your studio. So, we’re going to play for you, “Fractured Food System Blues in Five Voices,” and we’d like to thank Faris so much for his time today. Thank you, Faris.

FA: My pleasure, thanks.

Discussion Questions

  • There are five distinct voices in the poem, “Fractured Food Systems Blues.” What are these voices and what are they saying about the food system?
  • If you were to write a spoken word poem about your experience of the food system, which five voices would you highlight? What would those voices say?
  • Each section of the poem identifies a major critique of our fractured food system or a potential “transformative pathway.” What are these critiques and pathways? Can you think of other critiques/challenges? Can you imagine other transformative pathways?

Additional Resources

Ahmed, F. 2021. “Biting Back Climate Change: Let’s take a bite out of climate change.” TEDxOttawa.

Andrée, P., J.K. Clark, C.Z. Levkoe, and K. Lowitt (Eds). 2019. Civil Society and Social Movements in Food System Governance. New York: Routledge.

Global Alliance for the Future of Food. 2021. The Politics of Knowledge: Understanding the Evidence for Agroecology, Regenerative Approaches, and Indigenous Foodways. n.p.: Global Alliance for the Future of Food.

La Via Campesina


Knezevic, I., A. Blay-Palmer, C. Levkoe, P. Mount, and E. Nelson, eds. 2017. Nourishing Communities: From Fractured Food Systems to Transformative Pathways. n.p. Boston: Springer International Publishing.

Creative: Food Waste

Pamela Tudge

The Eat, Waste, Make Project
Pamela Tudge is a PhD candidate at Concordia University, exploring critical design and public pedagogy as a methodology to respond to food-based waste. Her academic and creative work is driven by design, which makes her think differently about critical issues in food and the environment. Over 15 years, her writing and teaching has spanned environmental science, food studies, new media, and social movements. Pamela has worked in the fields of cartography, climate science, education, and the arts.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Describe food-based waste and why it is an issue in our society.
  • Articulate ways critical design can increase the visibility of waste.
  • Identify variation in the food-based waste in their own homes.

Exploring my domestic food-based waste through critical design learning encounters

We all produce and manage waste to varying degrees, across our living environments and daily life. Discarded edible food—food waste—is gaining significant attention globally as a contributor to climate change, through the production of methane gas in landfills. The United Nations (UN) estimates that, globally, humans waste about one third of all food produced, a resource that could be used to alleviate global hunger.

Imagine you are preparing a meal at home. Think of all of the materials that you might throw out. All of the food remnants, like vegetable peels, is food-based waste, but so is food packaging. Few government policies limit the types of materials companies can use to package their foods. Instead, most policies target consumers, through efforts such as banning or limiting the use of plastic bags. Packages remain important because they protect food in transportation and enable promotional messaging, corporate branding, and the communication of critical consumer information (e.g., nutrition values and ingredients). However, the environmental impact from plastic pollution is significant, polluting oceans and threatening species. Little (less than 10%) of our discarded plastics are ever recycled. How can we reduce our food-based waste?

For most of history, women’s knowledge of food and their labour in the kitchen determined what became domestic waste. Contemporary studies show that responding to food-based waste remains women’s work. Previous generations valued the reduction of household waste, as it was essential to the economics of North American households. A post-war cultural shift in the 1950s, however, redefined waste as a sign of privilege and modernity. The implication of this change in values and behaviour is the loss of food-related knowledge, devaluing this critical work. Today, there is little monetary incentive for households to engage in the labour needed to reduce food-based waste; instead, a renewed ethical value of care for the materials of food-based waste is called for.

Through the Eat, Waste, Make project, I explored my relationship to food and waste and extended my findings to teach others through public workshops. As a food studies scholar and a woman, I began researching my topic through my own practices. Designers are experts in materials, and critical design is an approach to design that focuses on making things that challenge the role of products in everyday life. Identifying my waste through the food I eat, and exploring the materials through critical design methods, provides a different kind of attention to what I discard, allowing me to develop a mindful relationship that extends taking care of the materials I encounter. The learning encounters I create (and depict in the GIFs below) form a method for developing care and enabling material visibility. Caring for materials means doing things differently, such as composting non-edible peels, repurposing glass, or limiting the use of plastics. Achieving a better practice with these materials requires enhancing my attention and acknowledging the individual waste materials that I encounter. Finally, through the learning encounters, I can identify the significance of labour and reflect on the unique care women held for generations to repurpose materials, re-use food waste, and ultimately prevent waste from entering the environment.


animated GIF of a pair of hands tearing up food packaging waste

animated GIF of two hands crushing egg shells in a mortar

animated GIF of many hands tearing up food packaging waste


Learning Encounters at Home

For this activity, you will conduct exploratory research and respond to the questions in each step. At the end of the learning encounters, use your responses to write a reflective paragraph on your research, noting any new questions or ideas from your food-based waste exploration encounters.

Have ready the following material:

  • Construction paper, poster board, or anything similar (but not foam core!)
  • Wood glue
  • Scissors

Step One: Collect Waste 

Identify and collect ten pieces of material from your recycling bin, compost, and garbage that is are forms of food-based waste.

Lightly clean any packages and arrange the waste on a large piece of paper.

Question: What types of waste materials are in your home?


Step Two: Document Waste 

Document the waste using a digital camera; take a single picture of all the materials together and separately.

Create a portrait with one chosen piece of material (e.g., a banana peel, a yogurt container)

Question: What material did you choose for your portrait, and why did you choose it?


Step Three: Break down your waste

Break down each piece of waste into smaller pieces, using scissors or your hands.

Mix the materials.

Questions: What colours, textures, or shapes can you identify with the materials together? What food products can you identify from the pieces?


Step Four: Make a Collage

Using the paper and glue, arrange all the pieces, including food waste, onto your paper.

Make any design you choose with the pieces, and allow glue and materials to dry.

Questions: How do the materials in your collage reflect your food practices around cooking and eating? What transformations to food practices do you feel you can make in your home to reduce waste?

Additional Resources

CBC News. People waste way more food than thought, UN finds. Here is how Canada compares. March 4, 2021.

Dunne, A. and F. Raby. Critical Design FAQ.

Environment and Climate Change Canada. Taking Stock: Reducing food loss and waste in Canada. June 2019.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Food Loss and Food Waste.

Plastic Wars.” Frontline Documentary. Produced by Rick Young, Laura Sullivan, Emma Schwartz, and Fritz Kramer, PBS, USA.

Perspective: Food Access

Laine Young

Food Environments and Access to Food: Examples from Toronto
Laine Young is a PhD Candidate from Wilfrid Laurier University in the Geography and Environmental Studies program. She works with the Laurier Centre for Sustainable Food Systems on her dissertation research exploring intersectional feminist analysis in urban agriculture projects in Quito, Ecuador. Laine is a Contract Teaching Faculty at Laurier and is the co-producer of the podcast, Handpicked: Stories from the Field.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Differentiate among the concepts of food deserts, food swamps, food mirages, and food oases.
  • Articulate the differences between food environments in specific urban areas.
  • Identify the barriers to food access—like transportation, income, and time—and the socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic disparities in food access.


There are many factors that influence people’s access to food in a town or city. Some are specific individual barriers (e.g., income), but often there are larger structural issues (e.g., racism, discrimination, resource inequity). These barriers can be social, economic, or physical. To evaluate food access, it is important to be able to differentiate among the food environments that people belong to. Neighbourhoods struggling with food access within cities can be food deserts, food swamps, or food mirages. Those with superior access to food are considered food oases. The number and quality of healthful and affordable options for access to food in each neighbourhood determines which food environment the area belongs to. We differentiate between these environments because each problem is unique and requires specific solutions to improve food access. This chapter explores the different food environments in communities and how they affect access to food. It provides examples of work that has been done to mitigate these barriers to access in the city of Toronto, Ontario.

Food Environments

While health promotion materials tend to emphasize the importance of individual food choices, access to healthy food is primarily determined by the social and built environments, including “community” and “consumer” nutrition environments. The community nutrition environment is determined by “the number, type, location and accessibility of food outlets such as grocery stores,” and the consumer nutrition environment is categorized by what “consumers encounter in and around places where they buy food, such as the availability, cost, and quality of healthful food choices.”1 Food environments are affected by both community and consumer nutrition environments.

The conditions of different food environments within neighbourhoods can have an impact on access to food for the residents that live there. Negative food environments are those in which healthy food access is limited or difficult due to lack of retail options, cost, transportation and mobility, and availability of culturally appropriate foods. They have been linked to communities whose demographics indicate they have a lower socio-economic status, as well as racial and ethnic disparities. These inequities in the food environment can be partially attributed to racial segregation in neighbourhoods. For example, certain neighbourhoods in the U.S. where residents are predominantly Hispanic and Black have less access to large, chain grocery stores, and more access to fast food.2 This is not always the case, as we sometimes see higher-income neighbourhoods without grocery stores and other nutritious food sources. The difference is that people living in higher-income communities typically have the money to purchase more expensive options close by, have vehicles to drive to buy food, and typically don’t have the same time constraints or accessibility issues as those in lower-income neighbourhoods.

There are currently four examples of food environments that appear in the literature: food deserts, food swamps, food mirages, and food oases. It is important to distinguish between these environments, given that different strategies are needed to mitigate the different risks in each3. Food deserts are areas of a city where residents lack physical and/or financial access to nutritious food. People living in rural areas may also need to travel long distances to get their food and are often left out of the food environment literature.4 In Canada, people are more likely to experience food swamps, areas that have nutritious food stores but also have an abundance of unhealthy options that are more accessible.5

Another food environment that is important to discuss is food mirages. In this case, healthful food options are available, but not affordable to those with low incomes, requiring them to travel long distances for access to affordable food.6 Food mirages differ from food deserts because it appears that the neighbourhood has healthful food options close by, but they are not actually usable resources for some members of the community (because they cannot afford to shop there). In addition to affordability, there are also other potential access issues for the residents of the neighbourhood. Food access is more than financial, as a household’s physical ability to get to and navigate the stores (e.g., because of disability or age) can restrict their access. Many also experience time poverty,7 for example, if they work several jobs, use public transit, or are the primary caregiver in their household; in these cases, the number of hours left in their day to acquire food is much less than in other households. Finally, a food oasis is a neighbourhood with superior access to nutritious foods.8

Table 1: Negative food environments and their characteristics (Young 2021)

Food Deserts Food Swamps Food Mirages
Residents lack physical access to nutritious food. They are unable to walk to find nutritious food. They must have access to transportation. Residents have access to nutritious food, but unhealthful options are more abundant. Residents have nutritious food options close by but they are unable to afford it.
There are few options in the community to purchase nutritious food (i.e., grocery store, healthful restaurants). Community has nutritious food options, but the unhealthful options are more accessible (i.e., fast food, convenience stores). Community has nutritious food options, but the unhealthful options are more affordable (i.e., fast food, convenience stores).

Measuring Food Access

In order to determine how to classify a neighborhood’s food environment, community food assets need to be measured. A food asset is a place where local residents can go to “grow, prepare, share, buy, receive or learn about food”9 through, for example, community programs, retail outlets, urban gardens, and fresh food markets. Determining the number of food assets in a community can be challenging without a tangible way to collect the data. Toronto Public Health’s Food Strategy and the Toronto Food Policy Council created a way to measure the available food assets in the city, providing a tool to advocate for food environment change.

Toronto’s Food by Ward project was created as a way of measuring the unequal distribution of food assets across the city’s neighbourhoods.10 This information was collected through grassroots organizing in each city ward. In each area, Food Champions led the data collection through several rounds of community consultations. Food Champions are “people who care about food, healthy communities, and economic development, and (who) are working together to protect, promote, and strengthen food assets.”11

map of Toronto, Ontario showing food programs and access points throughout the city
Figure 1: Toronto’s Food by Ward mapping project. (Mapping/Design: Amanda Jekums; source: Toronto Food Policy Council/Toronto Public Health [Food Strategy])

The food asset categories that were collected within the Food by Ward project included: emergency food programs, community food services, local food retail outlets, food markets, children’s meal programs, community gardens, and urban agriculture projects.12 The data was collected and mapped, so residents and policy makers could visualize the assets, as well as determine which communities were lacking or had an abundance of food. This provided community organizers with the data needed to approach City Council representatives in their specific wards and advocate for change. This project makes the case that food-related projects and development are just as important as other urban infrastructure.13

graphic representing Toronto, Ontario's Food by Ward project
Figure 2: Toronto’s Food by Ward mapping project. (Mapping/Design: Amanda Jekums; source: Toronto Food Policy Council / Toronto Public Health [Food Strategy])
statistics about food access in Toronto, Ontario's Ward 8 / York West
Figure 3: Statistics for Ward 8 for Toronto’s Food by Ward mapping project. (Mapping/Design: Amanda Jekums; source: Toronto Food Policy Council / Toronto Public Health [Food Strategy])
map of Toronto, Ontario's Ward 8 / York West and this food access points
Figure 4: Toronto’s Food by Ward mapping project showing Ward 8/York West. (Mapping/Design: Amanda Jekums; source: Toronto Food Policy Council / Toronto Public Health [Food Strategy])

Food by Ward is an excellent example of measuring food access, but is highly dependent on resources to maintain the data. Without dedicated funding, the tool is not sustainable. While the tool itself is not currently being maintained across all of metropolitan Toronto, some individual neighbourhoods, like Rexdale, have taken on their own asset mapping on a smaller scale. This allows each neighbourhood to ensure that their maps are updated and reflect their current situation. Food asset mapping has a lot of potential for measuring access to food, but there needs to be a sustainable approach, including the human and technical resources needed to maintain the data.

Toronto’s Response to Negative Food Environments

Cities have the potential to mitigate the impact of challenging food environments through initiating policy and programs that increase nutritious food access in the areas that need it most. The city of Toronto has many geographic areas that fall under the above-mentioned negative food environments. Toronto Public Health’s Food Strategy has implemented many initiatives to combat this in the city. The Food Strategy uses a “food-systems perspective” that focuses on nutrition, prevention of diseases, food literacy, social justice, food supply chains, economic development, environmental protection, and climate change mitigation.14

Grab Some Good

In 2014, one of the key projects of the Toronto’s Food Strategy was called Grab Some Good. This project was initiated to combat the lack of equitable access to healthy food across the city.15 Many Canadian cities, Toronto included, technically do not have food deserts and, for various reasons are far likelier to have food swamps.16 Grab Some Good was a partnership between the Food Strategy and community partners like FoodShare.17 (FoodShare is a food justice organization in Toronto that provides nutritious food to people across the city. They collaborate with the people most affected by poverty to create long-term solutions to food problems.) The three major projects that evolved were Healthy Corner Stores, Mobile Good Food markets, and Subway Pop-Up markets. The goals of Grab Some Good were:

  • To offer healthy, affordable and culturally diverse fresh food to residents living in areas that are underserved by healthy food retailers.
  • To provide fresh produce at convenient locations at prices that are lower than the average grocery store.
  • To promote healthy and sustainable eating habits among all Toronto residents and to support good nutrition and disease prevention interventions.18

The Healthy Corner Store initiative provided logistical and infrastructure support to local corner stores, aimed at increasing the healthy food available to people in the surrounding neighbourhoods and at ensuring that the owners were making profit from the endeavor.19 To address the issue of minimal grocery store availability in underserved neighbourhoods, the Food Strategy and FoodShare launched mobile food markets in 2012. These retrofitted wheelchair buses were transformed into mobile food markets and served affordable, healthy food to 11 low-income neighbourhoods in Toronto.20 The Toronto Transit Commission pop-up markets, another partnership with FoodShare, were established in major transit hubs and provided commuters with access to healthy snacks, as well as fruits and vegetables to take home with them without needing to stop at a grocery store.21

Each of these three projects attempted to mitigate the negative effects of neighbourhoods found in food swamps in innovative and community-focused ways. They were successful in improving access to nutritious food in the neighbourhoods they served. They offered innovative solutions to food environment problems. Unfortunately, the overarching issue with these types of projects is the lack of financial sustainability. As they all required some degree of municipal funding, the longevity of the projects was not guaranteed and they are therefore no longer running. Nonetheless, these cases show that if municipal governments can prioritize funding to address food swamps, deserts, and mirages, or if community organizations can build self-sustainability, there is great potential to make changes to the way food is accessed in these communities.

Good Food Markets

One of FoodShare’s many successful projects is the Good Food Markets. These markets are found across the city in neighbourhoods that lack access to nutritious food and are run by the community members themselves. The program trains community members on the necessary skills and information needed to run the markets and provides the tools and resources necessary for sustainability.22 The Good Food Markets not only provide access to food, they work more holistically—as community hubs that engage and connect residents in their own neighbourhood.23 This type of community engagement is important for neighbourhoods to build social cohesion and strengthen the residents’ ties to their community. This model has great potential for success because it is sustainable and driven by the needs of those who use it.


To ensure healthy communities, it is important to measure food access within specific neighbourhoods. Identifying the type of food environments that communities reside within can help inform targeted responses by municipal governments and community organizations.

It is critical to address the racial and ethnic disparities present in negative food environments. This necessitates structural change through policy-making, planning, and development, in order to address diet quality (related to food environments) within white and minority populations.24 Such efforts should address the disparities in access to healthful food in neighbourhoods to limit the impact on nutrition and health outcomes.25

Toronto Public Health’s Food Strategy and FoodShare have shown great examples of engaging in innovative solutions to manage food access, but there are funding challenges that can have an impact on the capacity to help communities in the long-term. Moving towards the community hub model has great potential to improve food access and serve communities in a holistic way.

Discussion Questions

  • How might systemic discrimination, based on the demographics and experiences of residents within a neighbourhood, influence their food environment?
  • Do you notice any differences in perceived access to food between low- or high-income neighbourhoods in your community?
  • What kinds of impacts related to food access might residents of diverse racial or ethnic backgrounds experience in their communities?


Choose a neighbourhood in your city. Either walk around the area or explore it through a maps app and note all of the food stores/restaurants. Determine if they sell healthy or unhealthy food. Check out the demographics of the neighbourhood online. According to your research, decide if this area fits within one of the food environments you learned about in this chapter.

Additional Resources

FoodShare website

Food by Ward Website

Agincourt Food Asset Map

Yang, Meng, Haoluan Wang, and Feng Qiu. “Neighbourhood Food Environments Revisited: When Food Deserts Meet Food Swamps.” The Canadian Geographer 64, no. 1 (2020): 135–54.

CBC article, “Chinatown BIA slams study calling area ‘food desert’.

Canadian Public Health Association “Mobile good food market brings healthy choices to neighbourhoods in ‘food deserts’.”


Advancing Food Access.” FoodShare. Accessed June 9, 2021.

Food by Ward.” Toronto Food Policy Council. Accessed June 9, 2021.

Food Deserts.” Canadian Environmental Health Atlas. Accessed June 9, 2021.

Chen, T. and E. Gregg. 2017. “Food Deserts and Food Swamps: A Primer.” National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health.

Glanz, K., J.F. Sallis, B.E. Saelens, and L.D. Frank. 2007. “Nutrition Environment Measures Survey in Stores (NEMS-S).” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 32 (4): 282–89.

Stowers, K.C., Q. Jiang, A.T. Atoloye, S. Lucan, and K. Gans. 2020. “Racial Differences in Perceived Food Swamp and Food Desert Exposure and Disparities in Self-Reported Dietary Habits.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 17 (19): 1gx+.

Toronto Food Strategy: 2016 update.” Toronto Public Health.

Vancouver Food Asset Map.” Vancouver Neighbourhood Food Networks. Accessed June 9, 2021.

Yang, M., H. Wang, and F. Qiu. 2020. “Neighbourhood Food Environments Revisited: When Food Deserts Meet Food Swamps.” The Canadian Geographer 64 (1): 135–54.

Glanz et al. 2007, 282.
Stowers et al. 2020.
Yang et al, 2020.
Chen & Greg, 2017.
Yang et al. 2020.
Canadian Environmental Health Atlas, n.d.
Yang et al. 2020.
Vancouver Neighbourhood Food Networks.
TFPC, n.d.
TPH, 2016.
Ibid., 16.
TPH 2016.
FoodShare n.d.
Stowers et al, 2020.

Case: Food Rescue

Leda Cooks

Systemic Analysis of a Food Rescue Network
Leda Cooks is a Professor in Department of Communication University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She teaches communication and food studies courses from a critical social justice orientation. Her research addresses the ways ideas about identity, ethics, power, relationships, community, culture and citizenship intersect in spaces and performances of both teaching and learning as well as producing, preparing, consuming, and communicating about and through food. Recent work includes articles on food rescue networks and food rescuers, the communicative pedagogy of land acknowledgment statements, and the rhetorical appeal of food waste apps.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Identify ways in which food waste is often connected to hunger.
  • Describe how food rescue networks function.
  • Articulate ideas about systems theory as it relates to food systems and food rescue networks.
  • Situate food rescue and food rescue networks as sub-systems of food.


What if for every three bags of groceries you bought, you threw one in the trash? More than one third—or one trillion dollars—of the food produced in the world is lost or wasted. In the U.S., estimates of food waste have varied between 33% and 50%, and these numbers have only grown because of the COVID pandemic.

Along the food supply chain (production, transformation, distribution, retail, and consumption), exactly where waste occurs the most is less clear, but internationally, food waste happens primarily at the production stage, with fruits and vegetables leading the losses. In countries with higher gross domestic product (GDP), such as the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Australia, food waste occurs more often at the consumer end of the chain, where oversupply by food businesses is deemed necessary to sell their products.

Given its origins in everyday life as a material and relational byproduct of production, waste is profoundly important to the ecosystem. And yet, especially in nations with highly industrialized food systems, and amongst the middle classes, waste also represents material and unnecessary excess. Waste is both unnecessary and necessary—it is both overly abundant and thus not wanted or chosen and that which is needed to survive. Food waste, especially, causes both guilt and ambivalence, because it indicates the casual disregard or devaluation of food, even as many people don’t know when or where they will get their next meal.

In highly industrialized nations, foodwaste reduction campaigns by governments, nonprofits, food-related businesses, and other groups have proliferated on mass and social media platforms. In conjunction with these campaigns, the excessive waste of food has become a frequent topic for news stories, documentaries, and even competitive cooking shows. The immorality of wasting food when so many go hungry is the primary theme of these shows, and it is a powerful one. In the U.S., there is an incredible overabundance of food, where piles of perfect produce are displayed in supermarkets, and seemingly endless choices over what and how much to eat are necessary to attract consumers. This phenomenon has led many scholars and activists to proclaim that we waste more than enough to feed the estimated 820 million hungry people globally. Indeed, the connection between waste and hunger has come to serve as the foundation for a very popular method of waste reduction: food rescue.

venn diagram showing food rescue at the intersection of food waste and food insecurity
Figure 1: Food rescue is in many ways at the intersection of food waste and food insecurity.

Food rescue, or food waste recovery, describes the sanctioned activity of collecting food from markets, farms, educational institutions, restaurants and other food-related businesses, which would otherwise be wasted. The rescued food is then delivered or transported to food shelters or other recognized food aid providers. The terms “recognized” and “santioned” are important to food rescue transactions, as these designations are necessary for legal protection (under the Bill Emerson Act) and to apply for tax breaks and government (or other) aid. Food donors, rescue agencies, and recipients of rescued food must work closely together to communicate about what, where, and how much food can be donated, as well as specific logistics of dates, times, and transport. Over time, these food rescue networks learn how to coordinate their actions to donate and rescue, in order to serve as many community members as possible. Food rescue agencies primarily serve as the hub of these networks and, as such, must match suppliers with recipients, ensure the safety and quality of the food, and calibrate amounts of food to match supply with need. In this manner, food rescue networks work as a system, communicating among themselves to ensure that food is donated, rescued, and received as optimally as possible.

Systems Theory and Analysis

The following case looks at the systemic operations of a food rescue network in Western Massachusetts, U.S. Systems theory posits that everything living and non-living, from organisms to organizations to official policies, draws from and contributes to its broader environment. Systems are made up of various elements, and those parts, through coordinating processes, make up the whole. Systems analysis shows the interconnections among the various parts (e.g., roles, functions) and their relationships to the whole systems effectiveness. For instance, within food systems, there are various sub-systems of production, transformation, distribution, retail, and consumption. Those sub-systems interact with larger food systems, and all are interconnected to other systems that have an impact on each other (for instance, the health system, transportation systems, energy systems, etc.). A structural change in any of those ‘other’ systems (e.g., health systems during a global pandemic, or the shutdown of a natural gas pipeline) will have an impact on food systems and their various sub-systems.

Several systems principles are useful in analyzing the communication of food rescue networks. Interconnectedness refers to the relatedness of all things to each other, and to the interdependence among the various parts for the system to function. Food rescue agencies are central to food recovery, but food donations and food shelters supplying food to hungry people are necessary for food rescue to be successful. Food security means that people don’t have to worry about gaining access to nutritious food. For food rescuers and shelters, achieving food security requires a constant excess of otherwise wasted food, and so the cycle begins again. Synthesis focuses on how parts of the system become a network and make meaning in relation to each other. It offers a birdseye view of both the whole and its parts, as they work together. Food rescue is made meaningful through the actions and reactions of food donors, rescue agencies, and receiving shelters and centers. As a system, food rescue also shapes attempts to reduce food waste and food insecurity. A system adjusts and readjusts itself based on feedback about the functioning of various elements. When a system is maintaining its normal levels of performance, reinforcing feedback loops sustain the patterns established by working together toward the goal. Food rescue networks have as their goal the diversion of otherwise wasted food to feed hungry people, and that goal is constantly reinforced by rising levels of food waste and food insecurity. Balancing feedback loops, however, use feedback to change reinforcing loops, in order to alter or correct systemic relations at a larger level, such as addressing environmental issues caused by food waste at the point of production. Finally, causality describes the ways parts of the system influence each other and how systemic processes (relationships, feedback loops) lead to various consequences.

Food rescue in Western Massachusetts

In what follows, I apply these concepts to better understand how the network functions as a system. A research assistant and I conducted 30 interviews with food donors and staff at rescue agencies, food pantries, and shelters in the network. We conducted five of the interviews twice, before and after the start of the COVID pandemic, to evaluate how the network managed such a massive event. Members of the network expressed interconnectedness through being able to understand and respond to the logistics of everyday food rescue. This appeared in the ways they communicated about what was expendable and needed for donation, and how to get the product from one place to another safely. For instance, one staff member at the local food bank told me that she was in frequent contact, twice a week, with the most regular donating organizations and shelters, to determine needs and supplies. She regularly received data from shelters about what kinds of food was most needed (fresh vegetables, meat), and went about trying to secure consistent sources for supply.

Synthesis was expressed by members of the network in comments about how food rescue acquires meaning, not through individual actions, but through members’ relationships with one another and the community. Speaking shortly after the 2020 pandemic shutdowns led to difficulty maintaining the network, one shelter director stated, “The number of checks that we’ve gotten, the amount of calls, people that have dropped off masks or supplies we couldn’t get. You ask for it, they [community members] give it to you.” Food rescue is therefore meaningful not only in terms of the various parts of the network, but also as representative of the community.

Reinforcing feedback in the network is heightened by increases in the amounts of food donated (either through outreach or government incentives) and the need for food donations as food insecurity continues to increase in the U.S. These feedback loops strengthen the motivation to continue to rescue food. As a food shelter director noted, “I think something else to take away from [COVID] is the flexibility aspectJust having the ability to go with the flow, to make those adjustments accordingly.” Where flexibility allows for greater latitudes of adjustment and reinforcement to the system, balancing feedback loops do not occur. As food insecurity has risen during the pandemic, food waste has grown in tandem. On the consumer end of the food chain, studies in the U.S. and U.K. showed that in the first months of the pandemic, when there was chaos and uncertainty over food supply, household food waste decreased, but then increased again as the food supply became more normalized. Further up the food chain, when farms and other food purveyors shut down or lost employees due to illness, food was not sold and waste increased. In a crisis, the donation of otherwise wasted food provides the easiest and quickest route to feed hungry people, and food banks and shelters now rely more than ever on food rescue to help with the increasing numbers of people who need food.

The increased need for food rescue has resulted in continuous changes to the food networks we studied. These changes, such as increasing government incentives for large-scale food producers and suppliers to donate/divert their food waste, recruiting more volunteers, and adding a third shift at food banks (to allow them to be open longer), have helped to strengthen the network and increase rescue activities. For donations to match the needs of a food shelter, more waste (non-retail food) needs to be constantly donated. Causality, then, ensures that food rescue is a functional short-term solution that will resolve neither food insecurity nor food waste reduction in the long run. Using the logic of causality and the reinforcing loop, we will (perversely) need to waste more to feed more hungry people.

However, causality within systems theory is dynamic and multiscalar, and there are systemic consequences to food rescue and its networks on the relational and community level that are more beneficial, and which raise community awareness of food insecurity, if not food waste. Before and after the pandemic began, as one food rescue agency director stated, “We were seeing some creative partnerships happening. The one that comes to mind is a restaurant that wants to keep their staff engaged, so they were making meals using the product they couldn’t normally serve to customers and making them for the local food bank.” Similar, informal initiatives to help combat food insecurity, such as mutual aid, indicated the presence of grassroots motivation to help others, perhaps for the first time.


Systems theory and systems tools are helpful in describing relationships, patterns and functions in organisms, networks, and organizations. For our food systems, and food rescue in particular, systems thinking allows us to see whats working, diagnose problems, and see consequences. Systems thinking about food rescue foregrounds cyclical processes where food rescue often focuses on linearity (e.g., the diversion of food waste from point A to point B), structural problems (unemployment), and other ways to focus on feeding (literally and figuratively) the immediate issues. Systems theory also allows us to see how systems (and not just parts of the whole) are interdependent on each other, as the food system depends on other environmental, economic, and political systems. Finally, systems analysis points to consequences of reinforcing feedback loops, or of systemic interdependencies of which we may otherwise be unaware. Food rescue networks then, communicate systems theory in action, as a sub-system working within the broader food systems and the constellation of systems that contribute to their functioning and consequences.

Discussion Questions

  • Why is waste unavoidable?
  • How do principles of food rescue systems function within our overall food systems?
  • How does food rescue reduce food waste?
  • How is food rescue related to other options for reducing waste?
  • How or does food rescue address food insecurity?
  • What (if any) food rescue organizations operate locally?

Additional Resources

Acaroglu, L. 2017. Tools for systems thinkers: The six fundamental concepts of systems thinking.Medium. September 7.

Cooks, L. 2019. “Food Savers or Food Saviors? Food Waste, Food Recovery Networks, and Food Justice.” Gastronomica 19 (3): 8–19.

Frequently Asked Questions,” Food Rescue U.S. 

Food Loss and Food Waste.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 

Last Week Tonight, [television]. Director: Jim Hopkinson, July 19, 2015.

Sewald, C.A., Kuo, E.S. & H. Dansky. 2018. “Boulder Food Rescue: An Innovative Approach to Reducing Food Waste and Increasing Food Security.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 54 (5): S130–S132.

Wasted! The story of food waste [documentary]. Directors: Anna Chai, Nari Kye, 2017. 

The Bill Emerson Food Donation Act offers Federal (U.S.) protection from civil and criminal liability for persons involved in the donation and distribution of food products to food insecure people under certain conditions. Namely, a person must donate in good faith apparently safe and good quality food to a nonprofit organization for distribution to individuals in need to receive protection under the Act. The Act also provides protection against civil and criminal liability to the nonprofit organizations that receive such donated items in good faith.

Perspective: Financialization of Food

Phoebe Stephens

Financialization in the Food System
Phoebe Stephens is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto where she studies the role of finance in the food system and is particularly interested in assessing the potential of alternative financing mechanisms to support transitions towards more sustainable and regenerative food systems. Phoebe has published a number of book chapters and peer-reviewed journal articles on this topic. She holds a PhD in Social and Ecological Sustainability from the University of Waterloo and is a 2018 Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Scholar.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Explain the context for the rise of financialization in the food system.
  • Outline the core debates amongst scholars of financialization
  • Identify the main manifestations of financialization in the food system and how they impact social and ecological outcomes


Have you ever wondered how decisions made in the abstract world of financial markets affect something as intimate as the food you eat? Did you know that the investment landscape of food and agriculture has significantly changed in the last two decades, in ways that influence your choices at the grocery store? The reality is that we live in a highly financialized era, that is, profits made through financial markets—rather than productive activities—are taking on a greater share of our economy. In big and small ways, our food systems are being shaped by financial investment patterns. It is important to understand such structural forces in our food systems, as they profoundly shape realities on the ground, often in unsustainable ways. If we want to have any hope of changing those realities, we must know how the system is structured and which levers to pull.

The academic literature on financialization gained momentum after the 2007–08 financial crisis, and has grown rapidly in the last decade. It is a broad area of scholarship that originates predominantly from political economy and geography, but is also informed by other disciplines, including sociology, anthropology, and development studies. Mainly, scholars of financialization seek answers to and explore the implications of the increasing role of finance in the economy. At its core, the literature on financialization contributes to the study of contemporary capitalism. Its primary contribution is to challenge the belief in the neutrality of money, that is, the literature on financialization critically analyzes the financial system.

There are many definitions of financialization. A common one is by economist Gerald Epstein, who describes financialization as “the increasing role of financial motives, financial markets, financial actors and financial institutions in the operation of domestic and international economies”.