Reflections on Julie Guthman’s New Food Activism

On October 12th, USC Professor Julie Guthman visited Boston to present a lecture on Social Justice and New Food Activism at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. This is Gastronomy student Madison Trapkin’s take on the lecture.

“The new food activism.”

I stared at this phrase on the projector screen, accompanied by a picture of a basket of ripe strawberries. I felt out of place as a BU student sitting in a Harvard lecture hall, but those little berries put me at ease. Julie Guthman is a food person, I reminded myself. You’ll feel better once she starts talking. And I did feel better. But I also felt worse.   

Julie Guthman, courtesy of UCSC News

I’d arrived early to get the perfect seat and now I watched as students, professors, and members of the community filled the empty spaces surrounding me. As the lights dimmed, the usual hush fell over the audience, and Guthman took the stage. I was struck by her stature. A petite woman with short grey hair wearing black glasses and a basic black top stared at me from behind the lectern.

I forgot about her height as soon as she started speaking. Guthman began her lecture with Mark Bittman and the issues surrounding foodie culture, the group of epicures who enjoy watching cooking shows and participate in the sort of voting-with-your-fork activism that both Bittman and Guthman reject. The problem with this kind of activism, according to Guthman, is that it doesn’t do enough. Foodies focus on the pleasures of food, but Guthman urges us to consider what happens when we go beyond pleasure as she moves into the next part of her lecture.

We need to consider food producers. Bottom line. The often-undocumented laborers working tirelessly to give us tomatoes year-round, these are the people we need to look at. The farm crew working daily in an environment laden with harmful pesticides, we have to consider them too. What about the companies these people are working for? What has been done to underline the systems of oppression within the food systems that give us, a privileged group of scholars, our daily bread?

Guthman told us to question it all. And to get active.

After a brief history of the alternative food movement, Guthman moved into three cases studies that illustrated potential successes and failures of food activism. However, what struck me the most was her closing segment: what to do in the age of Trump.

The New Food Activism, edited by Alison Hope Alkon and Julie Guthman

Guthman’s lecture was a call to arms and an acknowledgement of what we’re up against. Food systems in America are about to be hit hard under Trump’s reign. From school lunch programs to genetically modified crops, things are going to change. And as activists, we need to be ready. We need to look at the underlying policies that threaten our foodways; immigration policy, income and health inequality, insufficient health and safety regulation. We need to educate ourselves and empower each other. Guthman cited movements like Black Lives Matter and Occupy as she pointed out the following: it IS possible for people of color to lead, to vote with more than your fork, and to affect the public conversation.

Her closing comment gave me chills. “We have to continue on in the vein of increasing awareness and activism,” Guthman stated, matter-of-factly. She meant business. And now, so do I.

I’m sure you could ask someone else who attended that lecture for his or her take and you’d get a different response, but that’s the beauty of the way Guthman speaks. She covered so much ground that it was almost impossible to narrow it down for the purposes of this blog post. The world of food activism is huge and filled with countless issues, platforms, and policies to get behind (or fight against), so we need to fight where we can.

Julie Guthman’s talk gave me hope for our country and for our foodways.

You can read more about Guthman’s lecture here.

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