Read an Excerpt
Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism
By Julie Guthman
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS Copyright © 2011 Julie Guthman
All rights reserved.
What's the Problem?
A PERSONAL PROLOGUE
This book begins with me, even though starting this way makes me profoundly nervous. Over the years I've learned that just about all scholars have autobiographical connections to their research, although the connections don't always matter. I have an urge to come clean with mine, because I do have a personal stake in my arguments. Here at the outset I'm going to admit that I'm a foodie, and I'm going to have to convince you that I'm not a hypocrite. I'm going to admit that I'm not very thin, and I want to convince you that the current public conversation about obesity is wrongheaded. I'll even admit that I'm fairly privileged and still find much to fault in contemporary capitalism. In fact, the topics in this book come full circle for me. It all begins with my father.
My father was a "health food nut" long before natural foods were popularized. A sickly, bedridden child, in 1945 he moved to California as a young adult in search of the California dream and its promises of health. His first business was a health food store in Pasadena. Over the years, he followed and even befriended many of the health food gurus of the day, including Jack LaLanne, Paul Bragg, and John Robbins. He never met a dietary restriction he didn't like, constantly badgered his loved ones about weight and eating habits, and, while he valorized the "natural" above all, he too readily conflated the natural, the healthy, and the aesthetic. My father went from being a sickly, bedridden child to a singular specimen of physical health in adulthood, overcoming all odds of early death through his unflagging daily practices of rote exercise and orthorexic eating. (Orthorexia is a neologism that refers to self-imposed strictures concerning what foods one eats—a discipline now quite fashionable.) At the age of eighty-five, he refused one bite of (as I recall, additive-free, organic) ice cream with his one beloved grandchild (my daughter) providing the temptation. He deemed this one bite poison and, as with many of his other refusals, took obvious pleasure in the denial. He died a year later in a bizarre accident, an apparent result of his Alzheimer's-diminished cognitive abilities and an ironic ending to a life defined by efforts to ensure longevity.
As for me, well, I drank raw milk as a kid, ate lots of meat (because at the time he thought it was healthy), and was allowed ice cream only once a year. If I wanted a treat, I had to eat carob-chip whole wheat cookies made with honey, which in the mid-1960s were truly awful, or our homemade peanut butter "candy" made of natural peanut butter, honey, and dried milk. When our family ate out, we never went to McDonald's or anything like it but ate at those late-1960s hippie restaurants that dotted Los Angeles, including the one where a famous scene in the movie Annie Hall was filmed. Early on I discovered how dietary strictures provoke desire, and I came to love Wonder Bread, found in the cupboards of my school-age friends' homes, and luncheon meat. By the time I went to college at UC Santa Cruz, I had come to love brown hippie food—but also Doritos and Budweiser.
As an adult living in Berkeley, California, I have long since dropped the Bud and Doritos and have developed a penchant for yuppie food. Like many others of my boomer generation, I first started drooling over restaurant menus in the 1980s and soon learned to love mesclun, or salad mix. In fact, my fascination with salad mix—then selling at fifteen dollars a pound—provoked the research that eventually became the subject of my first book, Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California. Agrarian Dreams, which examines the production of organic food in California, shows how and why organic agriculture was unable to break away from the legacies of industrial farming in California. Much of it turned on California real estate, something I knew quite a lot about too, since many years ago my father shifted from health foods to the real estate business, another archetypal Southern California endeavor. Real estate figures in this book, too, because the kind of urban environments seen as not contributing to obesity tend to be extremely expensive places to live.
Today, as anyone who knows me will tell you, I'm one of those annoying San Francisco Bay Area foodies who shop at the farmers market once, twice, or sometimes thrice a week and get very excited about the deep yellow hues of egg yolks from pasture-raised hens, the sweetness of dry-farmed tomatoes, and the paradoxically relaxing work of shelling beans. I also read the food section of the newspaper diligently, spend a good deal of my disposable income on food and wine, and, worst of all, can barely conceal my distaste for food that doesn't meet my particular standards of quality, which for me turns on how it was farmed and processed. Still, as I continue to fluctuate between both ends of the "overweight" category about which you will learn, one of my doctors has invoked the "obesity epidemic" to warn me to watch my weight. As my blood glucose level has crept just above the "normal" range, another one of my doctors has told me to cut down on sugar. For the record, I never drink sodas of any kind and I would wager that my diet is as close to what the food guru Michael Pollan recommends as his own. In researching this book, I now have reason to believe that my body mass and blood glucose levels, along with the hypothyroidism I have developed, may have something to do with environmental toxins. Or maybe just middle age. Of course, I will never really know.
To continue my story: After receiving my PhD in geography at UC Berkeley, I had the good fortune to join the Community Studies Department at the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC). Established in 1969 as a way to provide students an academically rigorous understanding of social change efforts, the community studies major has been an outstanding and unique laboratory for examining the shifts in social movement objectives, strategies, topics, and institutional forms over the past several decades. Tellingly, the past decade has seen unprecedented student interest in food and agriculture as both site and means of social transformation.
This interest owes its intensity, in no small part, to the pervasiveness of foodie culture on California's central coast and in the San Francisco Bay Area. As I discuss in Agrarian Dreams, UCSC and the county of Santa Cruz were ground zero for the US alternative food and agriculture movement. Today students at UCSC can be rapt in their devotion to various permutations of local, organic, vegan, and so forth. Witnessing this interest, my department created a position in local/global political economy of food, and I was hired in 2003 to accommodate the many students who wanted to work in this area. Student interest has grown even more since then, buoyed by the sheer number of people and organizations involved in alternative food. I use the term alternative food as shorthand to describe institutions and practices that bring small-scale farmers, artisan food producers, and restaurant chefs together with consumers for the market exchange of what is characterized as fresh, local, seasonal, organic, and craft-produced food. These have taken hold mainly in certain coastal regions and university enclaves, whose rarified character can be measured by the degree to which my arguments will make more sense to those who live in or frequently visit those regions.
I tell you this because the insights my students bring from the community studies curriculum also figure in this book. To earn a community studies degree, a student is required to do field study with a social justice or social change organization full-time for six months. I have worked most closely with the students who work with organizations trying to transform food systems or otherwise address food- and environment-related inequities. How they first frame their social justice aspirations is telling. Many of my students want to enable people to make "healthy food choices" and even to "teach people how to eat." Typical statements to gain entry into the class include:" I would love to be a part of the food justice movement.... I would love to work with families that do not have the opportunity or proper education to live healthy and in harmony with the food they are living off of." Some have explicitly discussed obesity as evidence of the problem of inequity in the food system.
I refer to my students quite a bit in this book because I've come to see their comments as indicative of pervasive discourses in current food movements. My own research on food security and access to healthy food has shown me that my students' ideas are accurate reflections of how the alternative-food movement discusses social justice: namely, as a problem of lack of access to alternative food, with obesity as a consequence of this lack of access. In fact, what originally animated my interest in obesity as a research topic was that I observed activists invoking the obesity epidemic in support of programs to bring more fresh fruits and vegetables into the schools. I wondered how and why the alternative-food movement would latch on to this problem to which it could be a solution.
Meanwhile, I have watched my daughter make her way through the Berkeley public school system and, hence, exposed to the cooking and gardening curricula conceived by the chef-cum-activist Alice Waters. Although the goal of these programs is to connect children to nature and the taste of wholesome food, ideas about acceptable bodies have never been far off the agenda. In middle school, my daughter told me of how her cooking and gardening teachers discussed calorie counting. She also was asked to write a school essay on the value and ethics of student weigh-ins, and had been encouraged to watch cable television shows in which children policed their families' eating practices through various healthy eating initiatives. As a preteen she came to hear and know more about obesity, anorexia, and bulimia than I did at that age. As a teenager she has clearly internalized norms of body and good food—both for better and for worse.
At one point I noticed that all of the food writers who are rightful critics of the modern food system, including Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Raj Patel, Eric Schlosser, and Jane Goodall, were taking up the cause of obesity in epidemic fashion. Following in the footsteps of several generations of writers and activists who have criticized industrial food for both the environmental effects of producing it and the probable health effects of eating it, Pollan stands apart in bringing these ideas to what is likely the broadest audience ever. If Amazon. com commentary and various blogs are at all reasonable indicators, his bestselling books have convinced many people of the ecological irrationality of the conventional food system and transformed many diets to include much more local, seasonal, and organic produce—and much less processed food and conventionally raised meat. His 2008 letter to the president-elect and "farmer in chief" and his vocal activism on the 2008 farm bill have brought long-absent public attention to food and farm policy by showing how it matters for more than just farmers (Pollan 2008a). And in foodie enclaves, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, he has achieved a godlike status. I constantly hear him invoked in conversations at farmers markets, upscale restaurants, and food-related conferences, meetings, and fundraisers. It is precisely because he is having such a visible effect on the shape of food politics that I feel compelled to engage some of his claims in this book.
Having stated that, I want to make something very clear at the outset: although I take issue with alternative food, for reasons that will be elucidated in this book, I am not an apologist for the conventional food system and this book should not be read as a defense of it. I rarely disagree with Pollan or these other authors regarding their critiques of industrial food production and corporate influence on food policy. If anything, I find that Pollan's critiques, especially, do not go far enough since they don't effectively challenge inequality in the food system. Eating local, organic, seasonal food that you prepared yourself may be pleasurable but it is not universally so, nor is it tantamount to effecting social justice. Of course, Pollan is echoing what many in the alternative-food movement for years have asked us to do: buy sustainably produced food, so that the market will respond and the food system will eventually transform to provide food that is grown with attention to agroecological principles. Not only is that logic highly aspirational but also, as I will argue in this book, the alternative-food movement's embrace of, well, alternatives that are in seeming opposition to what is bad in the food system works against broader transformation. This is because the creation of alternatives simultaneously produces places and people that for various reasons cannot be served by an alternative and therefore are put beyond consideration.
Obesity enters into this discussion because Pollan, more than any other food writer, has become carried away with linking growing girth to the US food system. In the Omnivore's Dilemma, for example, his primary narrative is that corn became the foundation of the national diet and made Americans fat. After Zea mays easily took hold in a variety of microclimatic conditions and outdid wheat in terms of its yield and easiness to grow, its strength turned into a weakness: corn was prone to systematic overproduction in US agriculture, so that even historically, surpluses ended up to no good, with corn liquor becoming the beverage of choice (and necessity) in pre-Prohibition drinking binges. Corn overproduction was later buttressed by a farm policy that subsidizes corn production to appease the farm lobby. Pollan then jumps to the omnipresence of corn in a fast-food meal: the high-fructose corn syrup that sweetens the soda, the feed of the steer that goes into the hamburger, often the oil that fries the potatoes, one of the many microingredients that stabilizes the bun. And he uses his own personal experiment to write about a broader "us" driving down the road and stuffing a McDonald's Happy Meal into our collective face, in a sort of daze of unnatural satiety. The narrative of corn is capped with what appears to be a simple fact. "When food is abundant and cheap, people will eat more of it and get fat"(p. 102).
One aim of this book is to make you question this claim—to show that it is not as simple as it appears. Why, for example, is food so cheap? Do people really eat it just because it is there? Do they eat more than they used to? Why isn't everyone fat? Simplified problems lead to simple solutions, and because local, organic, fresh, and seasonal food has been posed in opposition to all that is wrong with the food system, it is being posed as what is right for our bodies and health. So the solution has become education to encourage us to make a different set of choices. Never mind that the importance of organic, fresh, and local was constructed in advance of and independent of the obesity issue, so that this particular solution seems to have found a new problem. As a result of this articulation of problem and solution, we are being presented with a self-serving, self-congratulatory discourse that exalts certain ways of being and disparages others, and places blame in many of the wrong places. This is not only a superficial but also an unjust way to have this conversation. It may be time to put other things on the table in addition to that healthy, organic, local food and pay closer attention to the problem. But what is the problem? I hope this book gives you an answer other than obesity.
AN INTERESTING PARALLEL
In April 2009, researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine released a study that "showed" that obese people add more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than thin people. Assuming that obese people eat and drive more than thin people, they deduced that the extra fuel devoted to feeding and transporting the obese was exacerbating global warming. As one of the principal investigators, Phil Edwards, put it, "The main message is staying thin. It's good for you, and it's good for the planet" (Landau 2009).
Excerpted from Weighing In by Julie Guthman. Copyright © 2011 Julie Guthman. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.