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University of California Press
The Unending Hunger: Tracing Women and Food Insecurity Across Borders / Edition 1

The Unending Hunger: Tracing Women and Food Insecurity Across Borders / Edition 1

by Megan A. CarneyMegan A. Carney


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Based on ethnographic fieldwork from Santa Barbara, California, this book sheds light on the ways that food insecurity prevails in women’s experiences of migration from Mexico and Central America to the United States. As women grapple with the pervasive conditions of poverty that hinder efforts at getting enough to eat, they find few options for alleviating the various forms of suffering that accompany food insecurity. Examining how constraints on eating and feeding translate to the uneven distribution of life chances across borders and how “food security” comes to dominate national policy in the United States, this book argues for understanding women’s relations to these processes as inherently biopolitical.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520285477
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/23/2015
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Megan A. Carney is Assistant Professor in the School of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Regional Food Studies at the University of Arizona. Her writing has appeared in The Hill, The Conversation, and Civil Eats.

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The Unending Hunger

Tracing Women and Food Insecurity across Borders

By Megan A. Carney


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95967-5


"We Had Nothing to Eat"

The Biopolitics of Food Insecurity


It is mid-December 2010 and I am arriving at the home of Betanía, a woman in her early sixties whom I met at a nutrition outreach event organized by the food bank. The address she provided me over the phone takes me to the Eastside neighborhood of Santa Barbara, a predominantly Latino residential area flanked on one side by the range of mountains that separate Santa Barbara from Montecito and on the other side by the commercial zone of Milpas Street. As I approach the carport leading up to a side entrance of the small, nondescript house whose address I hope matches the one I was given by Betanía, I notice the door is slightly ajar. Betanía beckons me in with a wave and shouts "Pásale!" from inside. As I push through the doorway, she dusts off a white plastic chair for me in the center of the kitchen. In the corner of the room stands an artificial Christmas tree decorated with colorful lights and various ornaments. Joining us is Betanía's daughter Paula, who hovers over the table making cheese enchiladas, as well as Betanía's grandson, who is sent to play in another room shortly after we begin conversing. Paula occasionally chimes in during the interview to help answer my questions.

I learn from both women that four families live together in this two-bedroom home and that they help each other—"cooperamos todos"—by sharing household resources and expenses. Betanía's husband earns money as a dishwasher at a Chinese restaurant, where he has been employed for the past nine years. Sometimes he collects aluminum cans and glass bottles to turn in at a local recycling station for extra cash. Betanía explains that she tends to domestic chores such as grocery shopping and helps with preparing meals for everyone in the household.

Responding to questions on my dietary survey, Betanía and Paula explain that they have had to limit themselves to eating only one meal per day because that is all they can afford right now. Also referring to others in the household, they report regular instances of hunger, reduced food intake, and diets that they consider to be unbalanced, even among the children. They complain that often they have "solo frijoles ... y arroz" (only beans and rice) to feed the children. Betanía further discloses that food is especially scarce around the time that rent is due to the landlord, the fourth or fifth day of each month.

Since arriving in the United States, both Betanía and her husband have developed diabetes. Without access to health insurance they must pay out of pocket for any medical expenses related to their condition. Betanía's US-born granddaughter has also been hospitalized from a serious illness for the past couple of years, but some of this care is subsidized. Although Betanía visits her granddaughter in the hospital almost daily, she notes that others in the household also take turns in making these visits. Between expenses related to Betanía's diabetes and her granddaughter's hospitalization, the family does not see an end to the medical debt they have accumulated over the years.

Betanía and Paula describe life in Santa Barbara as "muy difícil" (very difficult) because there is "poco trabajo" (little work). They shop at the stores within closest proximity to their home, seeking "las especiales" (specials) because they do not have access to a car and cannot afford items at full price. Any supply of fruits and vegetables they have comes from the food bank. Unfortunately, however, Betanía is often unable to attend distributions organized by the food bank because of scheduling conflicts with her medical appointments. She rarely buys meat because she says that it is "tan caro" (too expensive). Toward the end of my visit on this day in December, Betanía leans over to me and whispers out of earshot from her daughter that although she often lacks meat or vegetables, she can always whip up an egg with beans, or beans with salsa, or huevos a la Mexicana, all the while gesturing with her hands.

Despite the family's struggles with limited resources, Betanía reports that her diet has improved since coming to the United States. In Mexico she could not buy rice, beans, or vegetables, for instance, because she and her husband had no source of income. Her town lacked much in the way of employment opportunities, and although her family farmed for subsistence, severe droughts prevented them from producing enough food for the household. "No lo quiero recordar porque estábamos bien pobre" (I'd rather not remember because we were so poor), she says in attempting to recall the inevitable hunger that would follow unfavorable harvests. Season after season of poor yields and poor earnings prompted Betanía's family to leave the Mexican state of Guerrero for the United States. Her husband was the first to arrive, almost a decade before Betanía; he strived to regularly send home a portion of his earnings, but he was only able to do so occasionally. By the time I met Betanía, she had been living in the United States for nine years.

Betanía learned to cook from her mother, like many other women in my research, and to grow corn and other crops from her father. In Mexico, her family lived in a casita (small house) and they were very poor. She went to school for only one year and never pursued employment outside of the home. She married at age fifteen and had her first child two years later. She is the mother of eight children, five of whom are living in the United States; two daughters and one son are still living in Guerrero. All of her daughters, both in the United States and Guerrero, have followed in their mother's footsteps of becoming traditional house wives, and they do not have formal employment outside of the home. Her son in Mexico is a farmworker, while her sons in the United States are employed as landscapers or as restaurant kitchen staff.

I continue to regularly visit Betanía at her residence in Santa Barbara, specifically—and of all places—in her kitchen, which doubles as the site of sleeping quarters with her husband. On a rainy day some months following my initial visit, I arrive again at Betanía's home at our scheduled time. Her daughter Paula greets me at the door and informs me that Betanía has gone to the store but should be returning shortly. It seems that Betanía had missed the food bank distribution the prior day because of the rain and has gone to the store in hopes that she might find items on sale today. A few of Betanía's grandchildren wave from the corner of the room and motion for me to take a seat. Paula explains that the children stayed home from school today because they woke up feeling sick. One has a sore throat, and three have the flu. The four of them sit wedged together in their pajamas on a short stack of twin mattresses set against the wall, watching cartoons on a small television set.

As I wait for Betanía to return from her shopping excursion I watch as Paula proceeds to prepare food for the children. She lifts the lids of a couple steaming pots on the stove to reveal their contents: pinto beans in one and a caldito de pollo con verduras (soup of chicken and vegetables) in the other. Perched on the wall shelves behind me are packages of store-bought tortillas, bags of dried beans and lentils, crates of eggs, and a bottle of Nutralife tablets. I am reminded of the Nutralife brochures that have been left behind by Spanish-speaking sales representatives in the homes of my other research participants; I have learned that mothers sometimes substitute these tablets for fruits and vegetables when finances are not available to purchase the latter.

Around the kitchen there are also decorations such as silver streamers hanging from the ceiling and a sign on the wall that reads Es Niño, Es Niño, Es Niño (It's a Boy, It's a Boy, It's a Boy), left over from a recent celebration to welcome Betanía's newest grandson into the family. Paula orders all of the children to wash their hands before eating. The older boy does not like anything in his soup, and carefully removes each sliver of onion from the broth and sets it aside. In coaxing the children to try the soup, Paula tells them that "caldito es bueno para la gripe" (a little soup is good for the flu) and "te curarás" (you will heal). Meanwhile, Paula's two-year-old daughter sits in her stroller in front of the television, intermittently crying to her mother for attention. Paula gives her Cheerios, asking if she would like some milk; the little girl nods. Paula proceeds to heat milk on the stove and then adds it to the cereal. Stacking plastic chairs one on top of another to function as a high chair, Paula props her daughter up at the table, yet the two-year-old still refuses to eat her Cheerios. For the boy who won't eat his soup Paula begins to prepare a sandwich of fried eggs, cheese, ham, slices of hot dog links, and mayonnaise.

About an hour past our scheduled meeting time Betanía finally returns home from the store, but with empty hands. She closes her umbrella and sits next to me with a look of resignation, indicating that her excursion was not a success.

These scenes from Betanía's home attest to the everyday constraints faced by many low-income, immigrant women in meeting the nutritional needs of households. With limited material means, they must resort to exercising their creativity and finding alternatives in this endeavor. While women such as Betanía attribute their decision to migrate to conditions of food insecurity, they regretfully report only minimal improvements to their household food resources after arriving in the United States. These constraints on nutritional needs compound the embodied aspects of structural vulnerability: "a positionality that imposes physical/emotional suffering on specific population groups and individuals in patterned ways ... it is a product of class-based economic exploitation and cultural, gender/sexual, and racialized discrimination" (Quesada, Hart, and Bourgois 2011, 340). The cumulated effects of structural vulnerability, James Quesada and colleagues (2011) argue, translate to "very real consequences: shorter lives subject to a disproportionate load of intimate suffering" (351). This chapter examines how women attempt to subvert the structural violence of food insecurity through migration, even if they are reacquainted with food insecurity once living in the United States.


Multilateral trade agreements, structural adjustment programs, and other modes of uneven economic development have contributed to widespread displacement of people from agrarian occupations and livelihoods in the world's less wealthy countries, as well as to mass migration of those displaced (Green 2011). A lack of economic opportunity in the home countries of migrants and a demand for workers abroad in the ser vice sector has also translated to increased feminization of migration in the past two decades. In fact, a 2013 report by the United Nations estimated that women accounted for 48 percent of the total international migrant population, and that female-to-male ratios were even higher when looking at migration to the United States and Europe (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division 2013). Migration from Latin America has specifically been linked to global capitalism, neoliberal economic development, and geopolitical instability in the region (Durand and Massey 2010; Kearney 1995; Robinson 2008). Jorge Durand and Douglas Massey (2010) identify three predominant channels of this outward migration: intraregional migration (i.e., migration within Latin America), south-to-north migration, and transoceanic migration. This book focuses on south-to-north migration, specifically from Mexico and Central America to the United States.

Since the late 1970s women have migrated from Mexico to the United States in equal numbers as men as a result of increased "economic integration of Mexico and the United States" and "feminization of labor" (Segura and Zavella 2007, 2). Much of this migration is unauthorized, meaning that individuals who are migrating do not have formal permission to do so. However, some scholars have actually argued that such migration is indeed authorized but that it is only fashioned as such "informally" through the labor demands waged by US-based employers (Plascencia 2012). Eleven million unauthorized immigrants are estimated to be living in the United States (Passel and Cohn 2011), one-third of whom are women (Segura and Zavella 2007). Compared to other states, California has the largest number of foreign-born residents from Latin America and the largest number of unauthorized immigrants employed in its economy (US Census Bureau 2010; Van Hook, Bean, and Passel 2005). Recent studies have suggested, however, that economic conditions related to recession accounted for a decline in the number of people migrating to the United States and even prompted some return migration to Mexico (Passel, Cohn, and Gonzalez-Barrera 2012). Durand and Massey (2010) note that although rates of Latin American intraregional and transoceanic migration are likely to intensify if the US economy slips into further decline, the actual number of immigrants from Latin America living in the United States continues to exceed populations in other regions. Thus, despite a temporary tapering off in the number of people arriving from Mexico, the United States continues to be an important site for analyzing migration from Latin America.

The ways in which women form a large part of this migration have received considerably little scholarly attention. Denise Segura and Patricia Zavella have, for instance, alluded to an underrepresentation of women "in the vast literature on migration from Mexico" (2007, 3); they note that migrant women's strategies for "[coping] with social inequalities based on racial, gender, class and/or sexual differences ... of feeling 'in between' cultures, languages, or places" (4) are often masked by "negative representations" circulated through the media and cultural norms (11), therefore adding insult to injury. These negative representations of Mexican (and Central American) women living in the United States insinuate that they lack "agency, resources, and knowledge—a portrayal that fuels a continual disavowal of their central role in sustaining the wellbeing of their families, cultural traditions, and a workforce upon which many of us depend" (Mares 2014, 46). For instance, US-Mexico borderlands anthropologist Deborah Boehm highlights the double standard in which a man migrating without legal authorization is valorized as a "good man," while an undocumented migrant woman proceeds with shame (2012, 97). Feminist scholar Grace Chang has also critiqued the popular misconception that Latina women represent a "new menace" to US society, being portrayed as "idle, welfare-dependent mothers and inordinate breeders of dependents" (2000, 4). She claims that a focus on allegedly high birth rates and immigrants' consumption of public resources "is clearly not gender neutral" (5). She writes, "Just as black women have babies in order to suck up welfare, we are told, immigrant women come to the United States to have babies and consume all of the natural resources in sight" (34). Chang finds that some women come to accept these portrayals, even engaging in rhetoric that is self-effacing, for the reason that they find few outlets for formal social belonging in US society.

Ethnographic research on women's migration from Mexico and Central America to the United States has identified several factors that influence women's decisions to migrate: desire for reunification with family members; desire for improved economic opportunities; intimate partner violence; and political violence and instability (Boehm 2012; Chang 2000; Segura and Zavella 2007). Women's levels of education, their prior marital status, and the strength of their social networks in the United States are also important predictors of migration. Segura and Zavella contend that the numbers of women migrating within the US-Mexico borderlands specifically are increasing: "More and more women migrate within Mexico and from Mexico to the United States, a development that exacts particular regional effects in both countries, including women's incorporation into the labor market and the feminization of specific occupations on both sides of the border" (2007, 5). They suggest that migrant women's entry into the labor market facilitates their negotiation "for an enhanced social space in households, local communities, and the state" (3). It is important to point out that in noting how women's migration is now almost on par with or surpassing that of men Segura and Zavella call for research that will enable us "to understand better the nature of this shift in the gender composition of transnational migrants and what it means for women's work and family experiences as well as women's identities and cultural expressions in the United States and in Mexico" (2007, 7). A fundamental aspect of endeavoring to understand shifts in the gender composition of transnational migrants is inquiring into how the very notion of gender is constituted through the process of migration. Given Judith Butler's assertion that "[g]ender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceed; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time—an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts" (1998, 519), research on women's migration might delve into how women contest, negotiate, and enact social expectations tethered to gender identity.


Excerpted from The Unending Hunger by Megan A. Carney. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations

1. “We Had Nothing to Eat”: The Biopolitics of Food Insecurity
2. Caring Through Food: “La Lucha Diaria”
3. Nourishing Neoliberalism? Narratives of “Sufrimiento”
4. Disciplining Caring Subjects: Food Security as a Biopolitical Project
5. Managing Care: Strategies of Resistance and Healing

Appendix A
Appendix B


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