Rousing Mini-Conference Kicks Off ASA 2014

By Sharon Zukin, Section Chair

Nearly 70 people participated in our section’s mini-conference at the Faculty Club of the University of California-Berkeley on Friday, August 15, which included a morning of 19 fascinating presentations, and an afternoon of exhilarating visits to organizations that work for sustainable local food systems and social justice.

Members at the mini-conference. (Sharon Zukin)
Members at the mini-conference. (Sharon Zukin)

I think everyone was thrilled by the depth and variety of research that was presented. Many presentations questioned the elitism and gender assumptions of common food practices and narratives, even—or especially–those associated with American farmers and farmers’ markets. Several focused on specific kinds of products, such as Yuki Kato’s work on “local” food in farmers’ markets in New Orleans, and Jennifer Jordan’s forthcoming book on “heirloom” fruits and veggies. Still, other presenters looked closely at ethical practices: how they emerge, are promoted, and connect to different social groups.

One of the most dramatic presentations was given by Julie Guthman, a geographer who specializes in the political economy of the food industry, and whose work on organic farming in California is well-known in our section. She spoke about the negative public response to the state’s allowing farmers to use a cancer-causing pesticide, methyl iodide, which has been banned by the federal EPA.

While we heard about such “trendy” topics as the exoticism of gourmet foraging (from Zachary Hyde) and the racializing discourse of Yelp restaurant reviews (from me and my graduate students), we also enjoyed presentations of ongoing dissertation research by seven student members, including Zack. One of the benefits we have tried to build into the mini-conference format is dissertation workshops where students can crowdsource references while they are still working on their dissertations. Kudos not only to the seven students who spoke about their research, but also to Alison Alkon, who offered more good suggestions than many of us ever hear from our dissertation committee.

We headed out to Oakland by chartered bus for lunch and field visits that were arranged by the stalwart local organizing committee: Rebecca Elliott, Kjerstin Gruys, and Helena Lyson, led by Jeremy Schulz.

First we stopped off for lunch at Arizmendi Bakery, a worker-owned cooperative affiliated with the Cheese Board in Berkeley. By this point we were famished, yet we quickly realized that Arizmendi’s pizza is among the best on the planet. Two members of the coop spoke with us about their founding, decision-making process, and selection of members.

Members inside Arizmendi Bakery in Oakland. (Sharon Zukin)
Members inside Arizmendi Bakery in Oakland. (Sharon Zukin)

Then we drove to City Slicker Farms, an urban farming operation that recruits gardeners among, serves, and sells locally grown produce to longtime, mostly low-income residents.

Produce thrives at City Slicker Farms. (Sharon Zukin)
Produce thrives at City Slicker Farms. (Sharon Zukin)

The third visit was to People’s Grocery, which opened a community garden at the California Hotel about five years ago. The hotel, which began in the 1920s as an inn that accepted black guests at a time when racial segregation drastically limited their options for shelter while traveling, suffered through several periods of disinvestment, and was reborn as housing for low-income tenants a few months ago. People’s Grocery involves the hotel’s tenants in managing and staffing the garden and provides fresh produce from the plots and hothouse.

A mural at People's Grocery. (Sharon Zukin)
A mural at People’s Grocery. (Sharon Zukin)

You can enjoy the mini-conference again—or see what you missed!—by viewing our photo album on Facebook. Please add your comments and photos to the mix!

At our meeting in San Francisco, the section council decided to organize the next mini-conference three years from now, at the 2017 ASA meetings, which will be held in Montreal. At that time our section day will be scheduled on the first day of the meetings, which makes it easier to plan to arrive the day before for a special section event.

I don’t think we have had any section members from Montreal, so let’s recruit some new members who can organize another mini-conference in 2017!

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