Thursday, April 25th, 2013...7:42 pm

Grappling with Paradoxes

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At the beginning of this semester when I was deciding what the theme of this blog should be, I was grappling with some of the paradoxes of our food system in both my thesis and my life. As I did more research into topics like “local food” and “food deserts,” I kept coming across things and situations that just didn’t make sense. The questions were everywhere. Why is farmwork a poorly respected job if it’s one of the most important services to our nation? The questions were not new, though; people had asked them before. How can a significant portion of the American population be obese but starving? Because of the sheer amount of questions that arise in studying the food system, my paradox-themed blog about the food system ended up being, more or less, a blog about the food system in general.

The incredible pervasiveness of paradoxes in our food system makes them worthy of study, or at least attention. I looked at and found topics in foodie news sources like Civil Eats and Grist, as well as food-related news from the New York Times. I did not limit my sources to the news; because each of us is involved in some way in the food system, personal stories and experiences are in no shortage. I pulled some of my topics from things going on in my own life and in the lives of my family, friends, and various communities to which I belong.

A lot of articles and sources I read were trying to figure out ways to address problems present in our food system. How do we get fresh food into low-income areas? How can we pay farmworkers more? How do we decrease the amount of food we waste? These are questions being asked, and some viable solutions are being offered for these questions. However, very few of these articles are asking how we came to have these problems, or what is going on behind those problems.

On a very basic level, a lot of our problems are furthered by the conceptual divides we create. We, being participants and authors of the food movement, have formed such divides between the “good” food movement and the “bad” industrial food system. Very few articles acknowledged where the “good” and “bad” actually overlap and create the paradoxes we seek to address.

I looked at several topics over the course of the semester and endeavored to consider those spaces of overlap in most of them. For example, I did one post on farmlands being food deserts (farmland or food desert). Often we separate our producers from our consumers, but at times they are one in the same. By conceptually distinguishing between producer and consumer, we leave those who are both in a strange void that can easily be ignored in how we talk about systems and supply chains. Ignoring or excluding these people from the categories we shape creates opportunities for problems to arise. When the problem gets big enough, we wonder how this could happen, but rarely search far back enough or enough into how we think about things to realize the impacts of our categories. Instead, we attempt to offer solutions to a now-third category of people, which may—or may not—help.

Categories can be not only problematic, but also divisive. One of my posts concerned the categories people identify with in their eating habits, specifically that of veganism. In the strict sense of veganism being about not eating animal products, it does seem to make sense that we could distinguish between people who eat animal products, people who restrict their animal intake to select items, and people who avoid almost all animal products if they can.

However, these categories are often also laden with values. In the article that sparked my blog post, the author argued that to be feminist is to be vegan. I took offense and responded in a way that defended my own eating habits, a reaction often provoked when someone’s morals are being questioned. By mapping values of ethics, morality, feminism, and awareness onto an eating habit, the category of “vegan” suddenly became about a lot more than what people physically consume. This author is not in any way alone in grouping values in with eating habits, but the article and my reaction does happen to demonstrate how categories can put people in the defensive and make them less willing or accepting of other people’s dietary identification.

Another problematic distinction, perhaps the most notable in the articles I read for this blog, is between the industrial food system and the “food movement.” Too often are they talked about as distinct and separate, but as I concluded in my thesis and touched upon in my post about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, there is a lot of overlap and intersections between the two. By mobilizing an industrial product (the tomato) as a tool of protest and way to appeal to values of ethics that are usually associated with the food movement, the Coalition was showing how the industrial food system can “leak” into the food movement, and vice versa.

We can see where the borders and boundaries we create fall apart by looking deeper into the problems in our food system. Categories can create gaps that people fall through, leaving them without a home or a voice. Categories can put people and ideas into conflict and make it difficult to move beyond one’s own category because of a stubborn need to be right. Categories can also restrict how we think, making us miss important or helpful opportunities that arise from accepting that solutions might come from working with both participants in the industrial food system and the food movement.

Acknowledging the divisions and distinctions that we create in our food system has been a major takeaway from my thesis, these blogs, and the class in general, which all complimented each other very nicely. I was largely unconscious of it in the beginning of the semester, but as I explored the paradoxes I identified, I became aware that there was something deeper going on that drives the contradictions of local food being globally traveled, of farmland being food deserts, and of supermarkets touting worker benefits yet denying farmworkers higher wages.

These paradoxes often arise because we make conceptual distinctions that enforce an artificial divide that both creates the possibility of a paradox and furthers thinking in the categories made by that divide. As I wrote in a recent post, there are some people and groups that see the divides in our food system and are trying to bridge them by bringing people from either side of these divides into the same room.

However, this work has not gone far enough yet. There are wider gaps, perhaps, that need bridging, or there are gaps that don’t just need to be bridged, but also to be grappled with in a more permanent way. For example by acknowledging and putting less stock into the divisions between the food movement and the industrial food system, perhaps we can shape a better, more inclusive food system that can simultaneously provide cheap, healthy food and protect our natural resources and respect workers.

Currently, however, “healthy,” “natural,” and “respect” only seems to belong to the domain of the food movement, while efficiency and cheapness fall under the industrial system. There is reluctance on both sides to engage with the “enemy,” which has been shaped as such in a similar way to how the whole feminist vegan/proud carnivore dichotomy has been framed. The animosity stems from an idea—perpetuated in how we talk—that there is the self, who is secure in their values, and the other, who is wrong in their actions and beliefs. Often there is little wiggle room for switching or moving between sides without seeming like a traitor or a flip-flopper, although most people might find themselves in the space between the categories the majority of the time.

Of course, perhaps not every paradox is explained by an underlying conceptual division. This does not mean, however, that these paradoxes wont be addressed by the motions of acknowledging and overcoming bounded distinctions. Reaching across the divide from the food movement to industry and back again may help solve some of the persistent problems. And perhaps some of the paradoxes don’t need to be “solved,” or confronted, but are actually instances when boundaries and borders are being crossed in a way that is revealing. For example, the “healthy” fast food may not be a necessarily “bad” paradox, especially if the food movement discourse does not frame it as a detriment to their cause, even though the entire fast food industry is a product of the industrialized food system.

My blog, my thesis, and the class readings and discussions have helped me reach a point where I better understand what is going on, but the system I’m trying to understand has become infinitely more complex and complicated. When it comes to my own participation, however, I am much more aware that changing our food system for the better (in my opinion) does not just mean participating in alternative economies or systems. It can’t just mean that. We would not get very far if we only stuck to systems we think fall into our categories and entirely demonized systems that support other people (and ourselves, quite often) but are outside of what we consider to be part of the “food movement.” We must also reach beyond our invented borders and engage and work in the systems we may peg as “bad,” to improve them in the spaces they share with alternative systems. Working across these designations and identifications may open up spaces for creative solutions, for empowering those marginalized by both systems, for catching people falling through the gaps we create when we try to fit people, things, and systems into neat, little boxes.

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