Food Politics

Saswat Pattanayak interrogates the politics of food, in its various manifestations, which doubly victimise people who lack adequate access to high quality food – because of their gender, disability, class or any other marginal status – by blaming them for their poor food ‘choices’.


“First of all, being a vegetarian should never be associated

with being a revolutionary or being open minded, that’s a dietary choice

…I don’t castigate people for not eating steak sandwiches

And I would never diss someone for being a fucking broccoli head

or living off radishes or eating grass with tofu

I like a lot of vegan cuisine but the illogicality

of expecting everyone to adopt your particular idea

of what being healthy is, is just preposterous.

….I’ll be damned if I let somebody else push their agenda on me

You know, I don’t eat pork, not cause I’m a Muslim

I just don’t really like it.”

(Beef And Broccoli by Immortal Technique)

The idea behind ideal health, the demand for dietary obligations, the acceptability of specific body images, the celebrations of ableism and the treatment of privileges as virtues remain fundamental features of the burgeoning food policing phenomenon. Moralist assertions regarding food habits are inherently laced with elitism of various kinds, fostered, as they remain, by the classes and societies that we inhabit.

What is food policing? If someone looks at your food plate and comments that it is too oily, too sweet, and finds it “yucky” when you find it “yummy”, that is food policing. If you gladly report “I went to that biryani place and enjoyed the plate” and someone says, “That food has too much fat”, then that is food policing. Offering unsolicited opinions to belittle, ridicule, undermine or criticise someone’s food choices comprise food policing. If on the other hand, someone replies in the above context: “Glad you had a good time. Alas, I have a problem digesting biryani”, then that would be just about right.

Why do we then constantly lecture others about their food choices? Why was Immortal Technique so seething in anger in the verse cited above? It could be because we take for granted a variety of social locations and only employ our own convenient lens to make judgments, even while we may think of those as well-intentioned suggestions.

Food and Class:

Too often, we ignore the economic backgrounds and access levels of the eater we choose to condemn. We fail to reflect upon critical questions beforehand. Does the person have the required facilities to cook? Does she have the ample amount of time that is needed to prepare a dish? Does he have the capacity to procure all the ingredients? Do they have access to various cuisines or the leisure to take a cooking class or an upbringing with supportive family privileges?

Likewise, no serious attention is paid towards ensuring wages for millions of ‘housewives’– the ones who are jeered for being unproductive, the proverbial phulka roti-makers,  who feed their families on a daily basis. There is indeed a struggle, long waged by Selma James, that aims to recognise housework as work. An even worse situation, possibly, is that of the wage-labourer, the big elephant in the room, the increasingly indispensable maid servant. In the Indian context, the situation is especially problematic, as maid servants now fill greater voids, with more educated couples on their respective accomplishment sprees. What about the food choices of the poor cooks? When does the waitress get to choose her lunch from the customer menu?

Food and Sexism:

Whereas celebrity chefs mostly remain highly paid men, everyday cooks in domestic kitchens are unpaid women. In what capacity can we instruct someone about the virtues of cooking, if the task is not equitably delegated across family members? What about cleaning the dirty dishes? What about the motivation for doing the same chore time and again, while treating it as just a duty? The unending excitement around the Rotimatic may well be attesting to the monotony of making rotis by hand, but considering its price points – and its ads, where men effortlessly make chapattis in minutes– it also points to the gender dynamics: only after the task is automated, the men will then begin to play.

Deeply embedded within this, is the idea of homemade food tasting magically superior. Maa-ke-haath’s miracle is something the wife needs to aspire to. What about the father’s skills? The neighbour’s? The friend’s? The neighbourhood restaurant’s? And besides, is taste everything? Doesn’t variety matter? Doesn’t quantity matter? Shouldn’t unbiased quality-inspection matter? It would be quite a funny comparative analysis, if these questions were not so sadly embroiled in a dispute with the need to challenge patriarchy.

Food and Ability:

Rarely do we consider disability as part of our ethical food campaigns. Whereas advocating in favour of cooking at home, we overlook specific possibilities or limitations. Cooking requires plenty of patience. What if someone does not prefer to spend time in kitchen, because she has a short attention span? What about issues of sensory sensitivity and subsequent overload from loud noise and sudden whistles? What about the kitchen space and how accessible is it for someone with physical disabilities? What about food allergies? What about a person’s ability to digest a certain item? What about the specific medical history of a person whom we are offering food advices to?

Deciding a diet plan for oneself and deciding the same for others are two different things, unless one is a trained nutritionist. Does the person who prescribes how much sugar is good for others also look forward to being monitored by others regarding the sugar amount he/she needs to consume?

Food and Religion/Belief:

Most food-based dramatisations involve denouncing foods while ascribing to them universal values. The most popular variant is that meat is bad for health, and the reason provided behind this claim is that human beings were not designed to consume meat. In dominant western cultures, vegans claim that human beings were not designed to consume products from another animal, let alone meat, they must not even eat dairy products, eggs or honey. Some activists rejecting gluten-based products claim that since grains were cultivated much later in history, human beings were not designed to consume wheat. Then there is the much-debated Paleolithic diet which takes us back to our roots when it comes to prescribing what to eat.

Human beings “designed” to eat something or possessing a certain “nature” forms a belief system that is rooted in organised religions.

If dietary restrictions as social prescripts still continue to form the core to religious belief systems, the intersection of caste with diet is legendary in the Hindu context. The near-absence of beef in Indian meat markets is part of a moral regulation that finds place even in the Directive Principles of State Policy, in a country otherwise successfully claiming to be secular.

Beyond the symbolisms, the identification of food with virtues and vices remains central to Brahminical legacies in India, a case in point being strict vegetarianism that excludes onion and garlic from diet, since they are considered tamasik as opposed to sattvik and rajasik. The biggest fallout from such food strictures is the endorsement of untouchability –now an unconstitutional act, but one that, in practice, still remains in place at various levels. Even under the leadership of Mayawati, a UP school in 2010 famously sacked the cook Vimla Jatav, after students refused to eat lunch prepared by her after it was revealed that she was a Dalit. The school resumed normalcy only after she was replaced by a Brahmin.

Food and Organic Politics:

Ideally, organic food should not be about food policing. Organic food should be made available at regulated prices. Food should always be free of harmful artificial treatments and food should always be kept affordable. This is why organic farming is a top priority for the socialist government in Cuba, despite financial hardships it endures through imperialistic trade sanctions.

And yet, the organic food industry in the capitalistic world is a luxury; it remains inaccessible to the poor, thus reinforcing a class-stratified society. Against the myth of healthy competition, what capitalism in reality promotes are monopolistic practices. The organic food industry is no exception to this rule. Multinational corporations either own or end up acquiring the organic food enterprises while selling them under different names, so as to lend favourable impressions to unsuspecting consumers.

Friendly and trusted organic labels such as Kashi, Bear Naked and Wholesome & Hearty belong to Kellogg.  Walnut Acres, Spectrum Organics and Health Valley belong to Hain Celestial, of the Heinz fame. Naked Juice belongs to PepsiCo. Honest Tea is owned by Coca-Cola. Other big corporations which are monopolising the organic market include Cargill, ConAgra, Kraft, M&M Mars and General Mills. They are ably aided by fellow major players Dean Foods, Cropp, Driscoll, Whole Foods, Earthbound and Zirkle.

These corporations, in turn, attempt to approve new herbicides as organic for their profit motives. An advocacy group Cornucopia Institute in its research titled The Organic Watergate surmised that too many additives, including DHA (docosahexaenoic acid algae oil) and ARA (arachidonic acid single cell oil), have been added to the list of acceptable organic products. The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) which approves and prohibits substances is dominated by corporate voices today, which have ensured that even carrageenan as a non-organic ingredient is to be allowed for use in “certified organic” products. Cornucopia concluded, while exposing high-level corruptions in the organic food regulatory sector, that the environmentalist, public interest and farmer slots of NOSB have been occupied by agribusiness corporate members who do not have appropriate legally required qualifications to serve.

Because the demand for organic products far surpasses the supply, and because the entire industry is controlled by a handful of mega corporations, most of whom also sell conventional food at a lower price-tier, organic products are sold at unreasonably higher prices. Like Big Pharma, the Big Food also has been exploiting the sector by positing itself as luxury, which should ideally have been made available as a necessity.

To top it all, the organic industry is now collaborating with the world’s largest GMO company, Monsanto. Whole Foods, Organic Valley, and Stonyfield Farm have embraced mass commercialisation of genetically engineered crops, including Monsanto’s Roundup Ready alfalfa. Increasingly, the traditional organic markets are selling “natural” processed foods, much to the delight of biotech giants Monsanto, Bayer, Dow, BASF and Syngenta.

Instead of challenging the monopolisation of organic industry by profiteers who limit access of high quality food to the wealthy, food policing continues glorifying organic foods while accusing those who simply fail to afford them. Instead of holding the monopolists responsible for their unethical control over food that should otherwise be a health right, the focus is mostly on criticising the poor for ignoring ethical food practices. Instead of the owners of Whole Foods being held accountable, it is the consumer of McDonald’s who is being accused of causing food crimes.

In virtually every documentary in recent times (except Fat Head) that deals with food politics, judgments are made about the disabled, the obese, and the poor. People keep getting mocked for their waistlines and are being blamed for the unhealthy lifestyle choices they exercise. The fixations on six pack abs and vegetarian, stress-free, yogi lifestyles are so in vogue that serious body image issues are impacting people like never before in history. Long gone are the days when Susie Orbach could get away with arguing ‘fat’ as a feminist issue. What we have today is the culture of fat-shaming. The associated leisure time, disposable incomes, personal trainers, unadulterated pricey food items, specialist chefs – factors that foster class society are rarely interrogated. In quick and easy attacks on fast food chains for luring away the kids, much of the necessary discourse on food politics remains unaddressed.

When the Abercrombie & Fitch CEO makes comments about “fat” people being outside his target audience, we attack his position on body image as immoral. When Supersize Me makes a case against fries and burgers, we demand fat-free foods in restaurant menus. These are necessary activism elements, but far less productive than if we were to locate the roots of the crisis. Since no human being deserves food-induced miseries, the need is then to make access to quality food a fundamental right, and to eliminate class society within the food culture.

What should not be permissible is for the organic food industry to deliberately remain out of reach, or to falsify ingredient merits. What should not be allowed is for the food police to judge food plates without empathising with the contexts or to doubly victimise “obese” people via further marginalisation. What should not be done is to compare animal-raising with slavery or genocide, or to treat food choices as a lesson in moral science. Otherwise, in a macabre sense of tamasik humour within the privatised landscape of food politics today, we would be continuing to shame the victims, and to glorify the perpetrators.

Saswat Pattanayak is a New York-based journalist, photographer, atheist, third-wave feminist, LGBT ally, black power comrade and academic non-elite who refuses to give up his association with Kindle. A true comrade.

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