6 Important Reasons Food Is a Political Issue

Listen, we’ve all got that friend – the one who thinks they know everything about food. Maybe they even (irritatingly) call themselves a foodie.

They’re constantly talking about new-American cuisine, farmers’ markets, “real food,” and the next best thing when it comes to restaurants. The thing is, food is more political than Becky with the wheatgrass may lead us to believe.

At the mention of terms like “farm-to-table,” people think they’re being thoughtful about where their food comes from. But there’s a lot missing from conventional conversations about food – even in these supposedly thoughtful discussions.

Most people in the US eat three meals a day – which means that three times a day, you’re deciding what to buy, where to buy it, and how to prepare or not prepare it before you even take your first bite. The World Bank estimates that the food and agriculture sector is worth about $4.8 trillion – making food a commanding commodity, both in terms of consumption and trade. In addition, the way that food is produced has a huge human impact.

But few of us think twice before buying a granola bar or checking Yelp for a new restaurant to try. But in this piece, we’re going to encourage you to do exactly that – think. Because food is far more political than most people know. Here’s how.


1. What We Think of as ‘Good Food’ Is White Food

Let’s start strong: “Good food” is code for white American or European food. Hear us out.

I’ve been watching a lot of Netflix’s award winning show Chef’s Table, and here’s the one thing I’ve learned (other than the fact that you now have to be a millionaire to eat a great taco): What we think of as “good food” is white food.

In this Debateable podcast, delightfully titled “If You’re In LA, It’s Not Worth Eating At A White Person Restaurant,” Michelin-rated chef David Chang talks about why LA’s white restaurants don’t hold a candle to its Black and Brown counterparts. He (and others on the show) argue that Latinx, Asian, and Black food is far superior to those farm-to-table, new American places. Chang even goes so far as to name a few.

Yet, these same mediocre restaurants are the ones with heaps of accolades and recognition. They’re “destination” restaurants, while their counterparts are not. 

The metrics we use to gauge whether or not a restaurant is “good” are racially coded and depend on class. 

A standard Yelp page considers things like “ambience, noise level, waiter service.” And the famed Zagat guide takes “food, décor, service and cost” into account. 

But noise level and service are not considerations that many low to middle class people of color owned establishments can take into account. Family owned and run restaurants can often run short on staff – not to mention the cash required for fine table linens and fresh flowers on every table. 

Yelp and Zagat don’t judge restaurants on food alone. Even when food is judged on its own merit, the standards of excellence are Eurocentric. 

There’s a widespread phenomenon of white chefs adopting the food of a culture to which they are non-native and becoming renowned. 

People like Rick Bayless and Andy Ricker become famous by doing what Mexican and Thai cooks have done for centuries, with one important difference – they’re white. 

Luke Tsai of the East Bay Express asks, “why is it that these mostly white, ‘pedigreed’ chefs attain such incredible fame and success when equally talented immigrant cooks might labor in obscurity for years? And what does it mean that food pundits are so quick to hail these chefs as authorities on their adopted cuisines?”

Even success stories of chefs who’ve made it by cooking their cultural foods their way, but even tethered in some way to French technique. Most, if not all, have been trained in the French tradition. The designation of “haute cuisine” – or high cuisine – is itself French.

We have euphemisms that cloak the food of communities of color in colonialism. We call them “modern,” “elevated,” or “fusion” versions of soul, Korean, or Mexican food. 

A personal favorite example of mine is the Slanted Door right here in San Francisco, where you have to pay $14 for a spring roll that would cost you $5 elsewhere. 

The primary difference? French influence and technique.

In order to be considered “haute cuisine,” the food of communities of color has to be made to resemble American or European standards.


2. Racial Stereotypes Play Out in How We Conceptualize Food

Illustration by  Studio Patten

Illustration by Studio Patten

Over the last 150 years in song, dance, and visual arts, tropes of Black people as chicken chasers and watermelon stealers whose culture ends and begins with heaping mounds of both proliferated. 

This makes Black food heritage strained, fraught, and public. Comedians Dave Chappelle, Wanda Sykes, and Wyatt Cenac all have bits in which they discuss the challenge of enjoying fried chicken because of racial stereotypes. 

Claire Schmidt at the University of Missouri traces the chicken stereotype back to the seminal film Birth of A Nation, about the founding of the Ku Klux Klan. The film depicted Black legislators being lazy, shiftless, untrustworthy and yes, eating fried chicken. 

Schmidt claims the imagery “really solidified the way white people thought of black people and fried chicken.” Watermelon exists in as a similar racial trope.

There exists an impossibility imposed upon Black American folks and the consumption of fried chicken and watermelon that comes down to three major factors:

  • These foods are hella delicious; 

  • Black cultural food productions from the South do, in fact, incorporate these items; and 

  • racism has made it an absolute necessity to consider whether you, as a Black person, want to consume either of these because they’re so entangled with controlling imagery.

So even if the food itself is a meaningful part of Black culture, consuming it, particularly in public, is fraught because of an unavoidable and always ever-present stereotype. 

We’re not ever free to consume certain foods, even when they’re parts of our culture.

While everyone may say “It tastes like home” in reference to something, for communities of color, food is a cultural through line. It connects us to our heritage and a land from which we were displaced. It is, in essence, who we are.

But these connections are also made into sources of internalized racism and racial conflict. 

When I was a kid, I begged my mom to stop packing me shrimp soup for lunch because I was mercilessly teased by the white kids at my school for eating it. I wanted to be like them, but the food I brought made sure everyone knew I wasn’t. 

NBC Asian America’s “Lunch Box Moment” series documented countless participants whose stories were similar to mine. Asian American children can experience overt racism and shame when they eat culturally specific lunches.

Experiences like these describe the ways in which simply eating a meal is both irrevocably public and inevitably linked to stereotypes, whether of enslaved Blackness or perpetually foreign Asians.

Our food itself becomes a marker of our oppression and the fact that we don’t belong. 


3. Food Has a Human Cost

Clearly, animal rights matter. Veganism within Western online communities has taken up this cause as vital –  and we’re here for that. One of the most common arguments for veganism is climate change, and we agree that we should all probably not eat meat on that basis and the conditions of the farming industrial complex alone.

And while we are familiar with and agree that animal abuse and consumption occurs at astronomical rates, there’s a striking absence in the conversations about the inhumane treatment of animals: farm workers. This systematically abused and violated workforce must be addressed within these conversations about animal cruelty.

The language being used to talk about veganism as a path toward humanity is oftentimes deeply problematic. For example, in a UC Berkeley bathroom are written the words: “Slavery is always wrong – go vegan,” in reference to the poor treatment of animals. 

This kind of statement, which is super common in white, mainstream vegan discourse, erases the history of chattel slavery, or the contemporary farm worker struggle which is also inhumane, toward people.

Instead of relating black enslavement and 20th century torture to the farming industrial complex, perhaps looking at the actual enslavement of workers within the industry would offer a more compelling debate.

There are people who pick your vegetables and fruit, who wash and bag them for your grocery stores and food delivery boxes. 

A year ago, farmworkers from BerryMex, Mexico’s biggest grower and a big supplier for Driscoll’s went on strike. They earned $6 a day. Laborers included children working 12 hours a day for less than adults. The workers also did not get lunch or rest breaks and were subjected to terrible housing conditions.

Moreover, it’s disappointingly common to come across people equating rape with industrial farm animals – while the sexual abuse and exploitationof farm workers goes unaccounted for within the larger landscape of vegan conversations.

It is crucial that conversations about plant-based diets being kinder to the environment and animals include discussions about farmworkers and the conditions they face in producing the food we eat. Their liberation matters as a part of what we eat and how.


4. The Cultural Appropriation of Food is Super Common

From Instagram posts of white people making black eyed peas and greens for the new year – something that is culturally inherited from hoppin’ John as a dish of good luck for black folks with enslaved ancestry – to Whole Foods telling people to eat a “new” and “amazing” green, collards, food is a primary site of cultural appropriation

The cultural appropriation of food is built on the erasure of our histories and experiences as marginalized communities of color. 

In the Washington Post, Ruth Tam documents the way the white American has moved from shaming Asian food as “gross” and foreign to hailing it as the next new thing. 

She writes, “immigrant food is often treated like discount tourism – a cheap means for foodies to feel worldly without leaving the comfort of their neighborhood – or high-minded fusion – a stylish way for American chefs to use other cultures’ cuisines to reap profit. The dishes of America’s recent immigrants have become check marks on a cultural scavenger hunt for society’s elite.” 

The much maligned foods of Asian people have suddenly gone vogue. Yet the reason they exist have been left behind. 

It’s incredibly jarring to see the spring rolls, Vietnamese sandwiches, and pork belly you ate as a kid being touted as part of a gluten-free diet or a fad. 

For communities of color, these foods are rooted in power and oppression. Poverty requires preservation techniques like pickling while meat scarcity gave rise to eating the discarded parts of an animal – offal. 

As children, many of us were shamed for eating things like kimchi and pork belly – so having them advertised at Whole Foods without the recognition of their connection to the people who eat them is classist and racist. 

Finally, these moves assume that we as people of color 1) don’t go to Whole Foods, and 2) haven’t been eating spring rolls, collards, or kimchi for hundreds of years already. 


5. Food Can Be Tied to Religion 

Food is a part of cultural and religious practice.

In many Buddhist sects, for instance, vegetarianism is considered “a natural and logical ramification of the moral precept against the taking of life,” an undeniable and vital part of what it means to be a practicing Buddhist.

Some food guidelines include the obvious restraining from eating meat and animal-derived products, but also from drinking alcohol and even eating root vegetables. And while there are Buddhists who eat meat, for many followers, vegetarianism or veganism is a foundational part of their belief system.

And if you think religious food restrictions are a joke, they’re not.

In India, a small number of extreme Hindu nationalists are killing Indian Muslims and Dalits people because they consume beef. According to the Dalit Freedom Network“Dalit” means “broken, downtrodden, or oppressed.”

Dalits are people born into families in the lowest rung of India’s rigid social system. 250 million Dalit men, women and children face normalized prejudice, abuse and oppression everyday. 

For upper-caste Hindus: Bahmins and Kshatriyas, cows are sacred and revered, but beef is an important part of the Muslim and Christian diet. And for Dalits, it’s a source of affordable protein.

But consuming and even transporting beef can be dangerous in India. The LA Times reports that vigilante groups have been emboldened by the ascension of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which came to power in May 2014 resulting in “brutal and even fatal attacks by radical Hindu groups.”

The current climate around beef in India illustrates both the religious importance of food and how that, in and of itself, affects the lives and deaths of marginalized people.


6. Access to Food Is Racialized

In the 1980s, Ronald Regan went on a war against food stamps, what we now call Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The reduction of food assistance was associated with a rise in hunger in the US during the 1980s.

In his policy and discursive assault, Reagan created rhetoric around food assistance that has withstood the test of time – that these programs are mainly used by unproductive people of color, specifically Black Americans.

This argument has been so persistent that Newt Gingrich used it in 2012 for his Republican campaign. 

But The Pew Research Center finds that “despite Gingrich implying that lazy blacks were the personification of food-stamp recipients, only 22% of those who receive food stamps are black (33% are white). Of the roughly 47 million Americans on food stamps, nearly half are children.”

Across racial lines, one in every six Americans suffers from hunger. Despite such clear numbers, food assistance programs in the US, like EBT, Calfresh, and Food Stamps all suffer from outright threats, if not plain and simply consistent cuts, because of their coded racial meaning.

The political vitriol around food assistance for the neediest and, oddly enough, whitest Americans makes it nearly impossible to subsist in many states. 

***

Being a “foodie” often means people are interested in good meals, yet know nothing of the low wages, food instability, and stereotypes that are a part of each and every thing we eat. But there are a tremendous number of folks working with all of the issues we mentioned above.

In Oakland, California alone, there are organizations like Acta Non Verba, founded by Navy veteran Kelly Carlisle, to help economically disadvantaged youth grow their own food and sell it at farmers’ markets.

Phat Beets Produce provides affordable access to fresh produce, facilitating youth leadership in health and nutrition education, and connects small farmers to urban communities via the creation of farm stands, farmers’ markets, and urban youth market gardens.

And Planting Justice aims to “democratize access to affordable, nutritious food by empowering urban residents with the skills, resources, and knowledge they need to maximize food production, expand job opportunities, and ensure environmental sustainability in the Bay Area.”

And that’s just one city.

We’re listing only three of the many (maybe even countless) community organizations doing this work because they illustrate two things: 1) that food is unavoidably political 2) that you can be a part of food justice.

Because food is more than finding the best produce, next big restaurant, or cronut. If done in a socially conscious manner, eating, purchasing, cooking and even just talking about food can be an important way to create racial justice. Three times a day.


about the authors

Kim Tran is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She’s also a collective member of Third Woman Press: Queer and Feminist of Color publishing.  Her academic and activist commitments are to laborers, refugee and queer communities.  She facilitates workshops on uprooting anti-black racism in Asian American communities. She is finishing her Ph.D in Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley where writes on race, gender and economics.  Her work has been featured on Black Girl Dangerous, Nation of Change and the Feminist Wire.  She can be found in any of these capacities at www.kimthientran.com

Essence Harden was born and raised in Oakland, California. She holds a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts from UC Berkeley. She is currently a Ph.D Candidate in African Diaspora Studies at UC Berkeley. Her dissertation explores black masculinity via hairstyling practices from Black Power to the Digital Age.  She currently resides in Los Angeles, CA where she is a contributor for SFAQ: International Arts and Culture, a researcher and writer at Sugar Sky Pictures, and runs the pop up Flat Top Biscuits. 

This article was originally published in Everyday Feminism.