Consume This! Why “Eating for Change” Won’t Fix the Food System

In our March issue of Consume This!, Sinikka Elliott, Joslyn Brenton and Sarah Bowen draw from their recently published book, Pressure Cooker, to highlight some of the many tensions between holding individuals responsible for ‘eating for change,’ and the need for collective solutions to the ills of our contemporary food systems.

—Jennifer Smith Maguire (Section Chair)

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Why “Eating for Change” Won’t Fix the Food System

By Sinikka Elliott, Joslyn Brenton, and Sarah Bowen

“Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.”

— Anna Lappé, food activist and writer, in O Magazine (2003)

Sometimes Greely Janson feels like her whole life revolves around food. As the owner of a pay-what-you-can restaurant, she works with food all day. At home, her efforts to provide and prepare “good food” for her family take on the magnitude of a second job. For Greely, every bite can literally, and symbolically, change the health of individuals and the nation.

Greely’s food philosophy involves making meals from scratch, using mostly organic ingredients, on a daily basis. This requires shopping at a variety of places. “We get meat at the farmers’ market,” Greely explains.

They have more vendors who have sustainably raised meats. We usually get our eggs and meats and some of our produce from there, and then Whole Foods as well. When the farmers’ markets are in season, we try to get more produce from there.

Greely’s husband is “an involved father,” but she does most of this work on her own: planning meals, budgeting, and comparing options at different places.

Pressure Cooker coverAs we describe in our new book, Greely is part of what scholars call the “eating for change” movement, centered on the idea that individuals have the power to change the food system by paying attention to what they put on their plates and where they put their money. The “eating for change” message is one of “consumer citizenship,” notes sociologist Norah MacKendrick. The idea is that we can engage in political action through our shopping decisions.

While Greely finds her intensive food efforts personally rewarding and environmentally necessary, not everyone has the money to vote with their fork. This approach may also inadvertently reproduce stigma and inequality. When shopping for organic or local food is seen as a sign of good parenting and ethical consumption, it can divide us—becoming an indicator of who is, and who is not, caring and thoughtful. Emily Kennedy and Julie Kmec find that “feeding ideals” shape people’s judgments of parents’ capabilities, and even their morality, with mothers judged more harshly than fathers for what they feed their children.

We spent five years talking with 154 mothers of young children about their food decisions and conducting in-depth observations with 12 families as they shopped, cooked, and ate meals together. What we learned challenges modern messages about how to change our relationship to food and the food system. Lots of people are doing their best, every day, to get meals on the table that their kids will eat and that will nourish them and help them grow.

Lots of people are “voting with their forks” to support the small farmers in their areas, many of whom struggle to get by themselves. These are all good things. But they all rely on individual people somehow managing to work better, try harder, and commit more. The solutions to the problems in our food system cannot rest solely on individual kitchens and efforts. Families are already trying very hard. And it’s not enough.

Voting with her fork gives Greely a sense of power in a food system she thinks is unhealthy and unsustainable. It’s critical not to dismiss the power many women exercise through their food practices, argue Kate Cairns and Josée Johnston. Women have long used their household purchases as a way to assert political power, but voting with your fork also takes a lot of time, energy, and effort.

Although many of the most visible advocates of “voting with our forks” are male chefs, farmers, and activists, it’s usually women who do the bulk of the shopping and cooking for their families. And Rebecca Som Castellano finds that women who engage in alternative food practices exert more physical labor in food provisioning than women who don’t adopt alternative food practices.This creates a gendered solution to the problems in our food system, whereby female foodies like Greely are the ones doing the actual work—shopping at multiple stores, searching for new recipes to make use of seasonal produce, spending extra time chopping vegetables—required to make the movement successful.

Moreover, because people can only vote with their forks through their food purchases, it’s the people with the most money who have the most votes. And even Greely cannot always cast as big a vote as she would like. “I would like $250 a week to spend on groceries,” Greely says with an embarrassed laugh. Greely’s household income is above the median in the United States and they try to stick to a budget of $150 dollars each week on groceries to feed their family of three, but it isn’t enough.

For many of the poor and working-class mothers in our study, voting with their forks was impossible. After Melanie Richards’ husband was diagnosed with a chronic degenerative illness and stopped working, Melanie had to learn to feed their family of five on a budget of $75 a week. “If we could afford to buy things that were organic, with less hormones, absolutely [we would],” she says.

“I’d love to have chickens of our own. And we would buy a lot more fruits and vegetables…We’ve thought about joining a co-op where they deliver you a box every week, but it’s like $90 a month. That’s a lot of money—it’s too much.

Poor, middle-class, and wealthy Americans express similar levels of interest in eating organic food, but middle- and upper-class consumers are more likely to actually buy it.

We can’t keep asking people to do better, or do more.

Trying to solve environmental and health ills by calling on individuals to take responsibility for buying organic, sustainably-produced foods is unrealistic. It is a weight of responsibility that will most likely be felt by the women who tend to occupy this space already and a solution that will further exacerbate the already gaping food and health inequalities between rich and poor households in America. It can also make those with fewer resources to vote with their fork feel as though they are failing at food and failing their families. While it is not a bad thing to be thoughtful about what we buy, we need to rally together for collective solutions that serve all of us.

About the Authors

Sinikka Elliott is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of British Columbia.

Joslyn Brenton is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Ithaca College.

Sarah Bowen is Associate Professor of Sociology at North Carolina State University.

They are authors of Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It (Oxford University Press, 2019).

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