Four questions on food 11/29/2017

In our webinar on December 12, 2017, we spoke with sociologist Dr. Alice Julier about how inequality plays out in our food culture. From the farmers’ market to the dinner table to the food movement, we looked at how race, gender, and socio-economic inequalities reveal themselves. Alice brings a unique perspective, exposing these inequalities in our daily lives, connecting the personal to the political to the organizations and people working for food justice. Here are four questions we posed to Alice.

1. You've worked on topics ranging from job skills training in the food service industry to the obesity crisis to cooking for friends. What's the thread or the motivation that ties this work together?

When it comes down to it, to me, labour is at the heart of all food work — whether it’s agriculture, cooking, nutrition, or community food sovereignty. I mean labour in the sense of what makes us humans is our ability to produce. And so, I am interested in how we value and learn to do various kinds of work: labelling it skilled or unskilled, paid or unpaid. And I am interested in the results of the way we value this kind of labor — does it lead to inequality? Community? Or something else?

2. You launched a food studies master’s program at Chatham University in Pittsburgh so you've thought a lot about how we teach food systems. How do you think a complex topic like food ought to be taught to produce meaningful change outside the classroom?

The knowledge that students gain has to be both theoretical and applied. We unify critical thinking with experiences by “learning by doing.” Students read the history of how wheat became a dominant global crop and study the scientific properties of grains, but they also attempt to grow, harvest, and cook grains. While not everyone agrees, food is so multi-faceted, and so I believe it needs its own field of study, requiring different methods, disciplines, and ideas in order to analyze and understand it.  To become an effective practitioner, students have to understand how growing and cooking work, how they’ve changed over time, how they might continue to change, and how to engage people in that understanding.  

3. Food as a vehicle for gentrification seems to rear its head at every corner these days. How are communities fighting back against this in lower income neighbourhoods? Why is it important for these communities to have a political voice?

I am really interested in the way people use social media and community forums to speak back and how they frame the issues in different terms than politicians, corporations, and developers. Urbanization is not a bad thing but coupled with growing income inequality, places quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable. Restaurants, grocery stores, and corner stores are the most visible signs. In these changing places, how do service workers find work and get to work? How are their housing, social services, and access to food and schools made vulnerable? And how can they participate in shaping their worlds? Responding on social media is a critically important tool.

4. You've written about the role of food in our daily lives at home, from women's responsibility for cooking and serving food, to how people of colour share meals with friends in unique ways. What can our daily lives at home centred around cooking and eating tell us about inequality?

I am interested in the boundaries between home and the larger world because they are very permeable — consider how little of our meals were produced entirely at home. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the fact that we render it invisible is often an issue because that means the work and cost of it is also hidden due to the unpaid labour of women and people of colour. Culturally, we harbour a lot of contradictions: we may care deeply about the bonds created when we eat together but we don’t attend to all the kinds of work that make it happen.

This interview has been edited and condensed.