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Scholars’ Conversations: Joshua Sbicca, Food Justice Now!
By Erik Withers
In this interview, Joshua Sbicca talks about his past, present, and future endeavors as a social justice focused scholar. At an early age, he started volunteering to provide food for the homeless, which eventually launched an interest in better understanding the food system.
Currently, Sbicca focuses on the nuanced ways that social inequalities develop and persist within food systems and the heterogeneous practices of food justice. In his new book Food Justice Now!: Deepening the Roots of Social Struggle, he deploys a historically informed comparative case study that uncovers how carceral, labor, and immigration crises intersect with food politics. Sbicca’s scholarship serves as a notable example of how sociology can meet the needs and desires of people committed to social change.
Erik: When did you take up consumers and consumption as an area of research and why did you do so?
Joshua: When I was a kid, my mom would take my brothers and me to a local soup kitchen in urban San Diego to volunteer. From a young age, I was able to see that not everybody ate the same things or ate the same way, but everyone had preferences. I noticed people who were hungry but still wanted their food to taste a particular way. Like, if it wasn’t salted enough, we would hear about it.
So that was something that carried into my adult life. When I was in college I did a lot of work with the homeless doing things like meals on wheels in the San Jose area. It was right after the ‘dot com’ crash, and there were people living underneath bridges. We would be giving out food, and hearing stories about our economic system. And so, I started to draw connections between structural realities as the causes of these disparities.
I took it a step further in graduate school when I started to become really curious about how people were trying to solve these problems of lack of access to healthy and affordable food. I worked on a case study of an organization called People’s Grocery, and I started to learn more about food justice and the food justice movement. And so that led me to complicated sociological questions about how food came to be, how groups were impacted, and in what ways by our current food system, and how food can be tied to social change as well.
Erik: How do you see consumption as a lens through which to investigate and integrate social inequalities?
Joshua: I would begin by saying that consumption is—by no means—a neutral or isolated act. As somebody who studies the economic, political, and cultural dimensions of food, there are many inequalities in who can access healthy food, and, at the same time, exert particular cultural foodways. The American food system, for example, is obviously a capitalist system to the core. It is really predicated on producing social divisions in order to maximize profit. As a result, I am always tickled, to some degree, when we talk about the “standard American diet” or the “S.A.D.” diet for short. It’s not funny in terms of who experiences the S.A.D. diet, but in the U.S. we have diets that are commonly high in refined processed foods, starches, and meat. So, this has forced me to think about how capitalism operates through racial, gendered, class, and other divisions.
This shows us as scholars that it is important to pay attention to particular group experiences and cultures. And, as this pertains to food, the political and social implications are quite vast. For example, we can consider the history of colonialism and its disruption of different foodways. Or, the irony that food chain workers are more likely to need food assistance than other workers. Or, the role that food and bodies play in producing social and symbolic boundaries, which takes place in many ways. And so, these examples just show that there are many opportunities to interrogate social inequalities through consumption studies.
Erik: Can you give me a little bit of a backstory to your new book Food Justice Now!: Deepening the Roots of Social Struggle?
Joshua: It goes back to my master’s research and the case study I did with People’s Grocery. One of the takeaways from that experience was how the activists who worked in this organization talked about food justice through the lens of anti-oppression. It got me thinking that the practice of food justice needs to address all forms of oppression. Essentially, oppression is not a bottomless experience or process, it’s variegated based on things like we were talking about: race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etcetera.
Then the question becomes: what does this look like in practice? How do you move from an analytical place, to what people are actually doing on the ground? I wanted to develop a social history and comparative case study that would help me determine the diversity of food justice and food justice practices and politics. So that was part of the intellectual impetus.
But then there is also a personal backstory. My own history as an activist and organizer informed a more heterogeneous view of food justice. For example, when I was in college I was involved in a campaign to support food workers. I was in college when the Coalition of Immokalee Workers launched their first major boycott of Taco Bell, which was their first national boycott of a big food company. The goal was to get them to sign onto the Fair Food Agreement, which would get Taco Bell to pay a penny more per pound for tomatoes picked in Immokalee, Florida.
One of their strategies was to get college students on board and use universities as sites for education and then also for political organizing. So, I started thinking more about the justice implications of the hands that feed us. And then I was working post-college with a group of close friends that were starting a food justice non-profit, which became one of the cases that I highlight in my book: Planting Justice. They were linking very closely their food justice work to carceral politics and prison reform work—so I began working with formerly incarcerated people. Some of that history informed me wanting to take a more heterogeneous approach and look at the practices of food justice.
Erik: What is something in your research that you are currently really excited about?
Joshua: There is a strong commitment by scholars and activists to apply what we learn by studying food justice to pressing needs. One of the ways that I try and do this is in the conclusion of Food Justice Now!, and I hope is one of the ‘take homes’ that people reading the book really sit with a little bit. I think through the parameters of what a food justice national policy or plan might entail. I argue that this should include equity related to land, labor, urban and rural community development, and sustainability.
One of the things I think is really interesting is that we have some unique political opportunities that have been opened up by the release of the Green New Deal, and the resolution that has been proposed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey. What I found by reading through the resolution is that it includes strong justice language and a focus on the food system. So many of my colleagues and I who are paying attention to this are excited because there is an opportunity for us to think through how to tie some of our work and research to the shifting political landscape
Erik: What are some of the challenges you face in your research?
Joshua: I’ve sometimes had challenges balancing academic pressures to produce rigorous scholarship with the ethical obligation to develop sociological research that meets the needs and desires of people. While studying topics like social movements and food politics it becomes beneficial to work alongside activists who have their own unique view of what social change should look like and have their own view of what information they need. And then there is the pressure that I have in my academic life to produce rigorous scholarship that meets a particular academic standard. This is a challenge that I grapple with.
One way that I’ve worked with that is finding partnerships with non-profit and grassroots organizations, troops on the ground working towards some kind of change effort, to leverage some of my skills as a researcher and scholar to produce knowledge that is requested and desired.
Erik: What is a book or article, academic or non-academic, that has influenced your scholarship?
Joshua: My list is long [laughs], which I am sure is the case for others. But one book that continues to influence me is the Prison Notebooks by Antonio Gramsci. I first read this book as a senior in college as part of an independent study, and it was the first time I was exposed to ideas like hegemony and thinking about capitalism beyond just a means of production to include its ideologies and really the production of culture. In more recent years, it has formulated some of my ideas in Food Justice Now!. I revisited Gramsci and I found that his conjunctural analysis is a really helpful approach to unpack how crises create the conditions for many forms of social change.
I also like the Prison Notebooks because in it Gramsci suggests that there is an important role for scholars in analyzing problems, recognizing human agency, and engaging social change efforts. So as somebody who continues to study consumer food politics, I am reminded of the opportunities that I have to do this in my own research and teaching.
I want to end by giving a quote from Gramsci that I think really encapsulates this. And it encapsulates a lot of my approach in Food Justice Now!. He wrote in the Prison Notebooks: “The most important observation to be made about any concrete analysis of the relations of forces is the following: that such analyses cannot and must not be ends in themselves…but acquire significance only if they serve to justify a particular practical activity, or initiative of will.” I really like that because it puts the onus on scholars to actually solve real-world problems.
About the Scholars
Joshua Sbicca is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Colorado State University. He is the co-editor (with Alison Alkon and Yuki Kato) of a forthcoming NYU Press edited volume on food and gentrification.
Erik Withers is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of South Florida and will begin as an Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin River Falls in the Fall of 2019. His research focuses on racial, ethnic, and gendered representations and inequalities within consumer cultural settings. Erik’s scholarship has been published in the journal Sociology Compass, and in two edited volumes on sociology and craft beer. He is co-editing an upcoming special edition Humanity and Society, titled: “Inequalities in Contemporary Cultural Spaces.”
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