Sustainable Food and Privilege: Why is Green Always White (and Male and Upper-Class)

by Guest Contributor Janani Balasubramanian

When asked to name the heroes of food reform and sustainable agriculture, who comes to mind? Michael Pollan, Joel Salatin, Eric Schlosser, Peter Singer, Alice Waters maybe? Notice any patterns? The food reform movement is predicated on rather shaky foundations with regards to how it deals with race and other issues of identity, with its focus on a largely white and privileged American dream.

Still, what could be better than a return to family farms and home-cooking, which many of these gurus champion? The images are powerfully nostalgic and idyllic: cows grazing on sweet alfalfa, kids’ mouths stained red with fresh heirloom tomato juice, and mom in the kitchen rolling out dough for homegrown-apple pie. But this is not an equal-access trip down memory lane. While we would like to think the American dream of social communion around food is a universal one, this assumption glosses over the very real differentials in gender, class, race, ethnicity, and nationality that were enabled and exacerbated by specific communities (white plantation owners, for example) through the use of food.

This is not to say that activists in the sustainable food movement are unconcerned with issues of identity, but that their rhetoric tends to disallow discussions on race, history, and food in a number of ways. First, Pollan and others situate the current state of American consumption in a patriarchal paradigm. These writers speak about a disappearance of food culture that for the most part accompanies male privilege. For example, Pollan, in an article for the New York Times on cooking and entertainment aptly titled “Out of the Kitchens, Onto the Couch,” explores the relationship between second-wave feminism and the gender politics of cooking. He argues that Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique convinced women to regard their housework, specifically cooking, as drudgery. Friedan did not, in fact, construct this sentiment herself; she merely observed the existent trends in white women’s attitudes about food and housewifery. Pollan goes on to describe how Julia Child inspired his mother and other women like her, empowering them to channel their creativity into the kitchen. This is apt praise for the lively and engaging cook, but can Pollan not drive home the point that Americans need to cook more often without guilting American feminists?

Second, the emphasis on the local food economy, though admirable, has certain anti-global and overly nationalist undertones. Let us take the example of Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface Farms, featured in many of Pollan’s books, as well as the movies Food Inc. and Fresh!. Salatin is an ex-lawyer, of considerable means, who moves to the countryside, establishes a dynamic, organic, solar-powered farm, and sells top-quality animal products at top-quality dollar. If the nation is truly to scale up sustainable foods, we cannot fixate on the early image of the American farmer as white, male, and conservative. Instead, we must acknowledge (as USDA statistics tell us) that the face of farming is changing, and women and people of color will continue to grow in number as stewards of sustainable agriculture. Furthermore, we need to consider the real impact of foods we purchase, rather than mindlessly buying produce labeled “local” and “organic.” The United States supports a lot of global agriculture through its food purchases, and this is a relationship we should not break off entirely. True, we can do more to support efficient, environmentally friendly purchasing, but we should also not be too hasty to reject globalization.

Finally, the major voices in food are not talking about race and class as often as they should. Food justice is fundamentally a race and class issue. Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation elucidates labor practices that disproportionately affect people of color, but does not engage the issue of race specifically. Partly, this stagnancy is a matter of perception: after all, activists of color like Bryant Terry and Winona La Duke do brilliant work in their communities with regards to food justice. For some reason, however, their work goes largely underappreciated.

All social movements need a variety of voices, but I argue that food reform requires this diversity even more urgently because it is so universal in its reach. And if we can reach all those voices, then think of all the activists we will have as allies—feminists, anti-racists, interfaith leaders, and so on—interested and involved because food justice speaks to the needs of their communities and their call for action (activists: this is on you too—get on board!). As consumers of this kind of liberal rhetoric, we need to demand that the powers and big hitters in the food world diversify their representations. The food movement can only grow more powerful for it.