Food Injustice and Neoliberalism. Are we throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

I recently attended a conference were I was on a panel with several other speakers. We were asked to consider two questions. The first, addressed to all of us was:  

For you, what are the main theoretical, practical and political challenges to the concept of food justice?”

 Each panel member was asked to consider a second question addressed only to them.  Mine was:

What is the relationship between food justice and neoliberalism?

Here is the text of my response where I argue we can despise how current practices of neoliberalism are making lives poorer and creating contexts of hunger, but we should be more wary of dismissing the components that make up a more abstract neoliberalism outright as firstly a justification for a state based response as there may be some scope to repurpose those tools of neoliberalism in the service of fairness.

For me these two questions are inseparable, but I’ll try to make a start … What is food Justice—for me it is Fair Food for All. Easy to say, but its in the unpacking of those 4 words that it all becomes difficult.

In the context of Food Justice, what is Food? Is it calories and tolerances and culture and commensurability or just some of these elements? Is it only first harvest or does it also include what is left over or discarded? What safety tolerances are tolerable and what counts as unsafe.

Who is the all? Is it eaters, after all we are all eaters. But it is, of course much more than that as food is a material medium that helps shape a whole range of social practices from farming to families.

And then there is Fairness. What does that mean? Is it affordability? Is it access? Is it the opportunity to be able to make our own choices about what we eat in order to meet our own social, cultural, and bodily needs? Or is it a more generalised understanding—a move away from individuals that gives rise to a recognition that some individuals will find making those choices more difficult, but this difficulty is not woven through a system whereby certain groups are systematically subjected to unfairness.

So my theoretical conceptualisations direct toward tying to understand how social practices give rise to institutions and social meanings that, in turn, produce problematics for some through the ways that power circulates and helps to differentiate.   Cadieux and Slocum’s 2015[i] paper on Food Justice and Food Sovereignty is helpful here:

“When being conscious and creating alternatives, we must not forget to do the hard, really , really hard work of reforming and lifting the people who are most harmed in the conventional system.”

The thing is, I am not sure we really know these people who are harmed and how that translates into understanding that is more than just one in a number. We need a more fulsome investigation of the logics of lives of people as they engage with food.  

Working in both an Asian and European context, I am aware to some extent that I am appropriating the term Food Justice away from its North American Activist context and in doing so necessarily refocusing the term for these contexts. There are people who are systematically struggling to feed themselves because of the ways that the practice systems within which they live make it not just harder, but nearly impossible to live. So one of my questions concerns the extent to which food justice is undermined or produces a racialise landscape of hunger and also to what extent that landscape is also incorporated into the production of class in different geographic contexts.

While in the US the emphasis and thrust of much of the food justice movement, as I see it, has been on challenging the food system which not only marginalises some eaters through practices that racialise, but also limits access to food by the poor. In the UK the ways in which racialised food insecurity is made manifest is not well researched or documented. We do not, for example compile figures on hunger in the UK, let alone how that breaks down between groups with different foodways.

I acknowledge that the counting and classification systems of academics and governments are a technology of differentiation and control. Moreover, hunger is hunger after all, whatever colour ones body happens to be, so does it cause more or less harm to consider differences between (non-) eaters? On the other hand, much of the food redistribution in the UK, for example, is directed toward a white, British diet and as we have learned from the US Food justice movement, its not just calories or nutrition people need but also the commensurability and belonging that comes from eating food one can call their own. It may also be the case in the UK that low income minority communities are more resilient with regard to nutrition and health inequalities, because of the different foodways that they practice. It may also be the case that the problems of food insecurity are affecting these groups in ways that are particular and require different types of solutions than those of the poor who are British and white. There is some evidence, for example that in Pakistani communities rates of type 2 diabetes are very high, but whether this is linked to income disparities we do not know. Likewise, there is also evidence that Eastern European and Chinese poor migrants in the UK do not take up entitlements such as school meals as a result of mistrust of the government and social stigma.

This brings me to the question I was asked to address specifically… What is the relation between food justice and neoliberalism. In preparing for this I reread two books. I looked at Julie Guthman’s book, Weighing in, and I looked also looked at a book that pre-dates what we commonly understand as starting point of neo-liberalism, Susan George’s book, How the other half dies. There are a lot of similarities between the two. My point being it is easy to blame neoliberalism for the problems of food injustice, but the fact is that, in the words of LaDonna Redmond, a food activist in the US, We have never had a fair or just food system.

This is not to say that neoliberalism has not had a hand in reproducing food injustice. We know that since the 1980’s things have gotten worse for people around the world and not just in the global south. Clearly figures in the UK show that hunger is on the rise. And I would put this largely at the feet of that system.

But putting the blame at the feet of a political and economic theory and then rejecting all the elements that that theory entails throws up some problems for me.

Firstly, is how we conceptualise and then use that conceptualisation of neoliberalism to address the problems of hunger. We can consider neoliberalism as a discursive thing—clearly defined with identifying characteristics. Including individualisation, recourse to citizen consumers, privatisation, etc. Research then tends to identify how, various performances of states conform or act out these dimensions. Those interested in effecting social change then seek to identify a credible alter/anti. There is a slippage here between neoliberalism as a discursive system and neoliberalisms as practiced. There is a conceptual tendency to start theoretically with the abstract system, look to practice to see its physical manifestation and then seek to propose an alternative system to solve the problem. In doing so we forget that it is people, with specific agendas who are wielding the tools of neoliberalism and making decisions. It is people who practice neoliberalism in particular ways, which in turn produces neoliberalisms. But rather than reform the practices we then reflect back to the abstract system and either accept it or reject it as a whole.

An example from McEntee and Naumova. Neoliberalism has been used to describe the “political philosophy that promotes market-based rather than state-based solutions to social problems” (McEntee and Naumova 2012, p.248).   On the one side of the divide is neoliberalism and on the other side its anti–namely a (as unspecified) state-based solution. The creation of this dualism effectively shuts down our options for finding solutions to the problem. For those unsatisfied with the neoliberal market the only way to solve the problem is via the state.

Yet, states, before neoliberalism became a thing, were complicit in re-producing the inequalities that neoliberalism, as it has been applied on the ground, has only deepened. Moreover, there are not state models that in practice address the problem of inequality, nor have there ever been. Likewise, models of exchange, of which capitalism is one, are similarly ineffectual in producing social equality, when they are practiced on the ground. I say this while acknowledging that proponents for most versions of exchange have claimed, at one time or other, that equality would be the outcome if only the model were applied appropriately. Logically, then, when operating at the discursive systems level the only solution is a completely new and completely different way to organise ourselves socially in space in a way that is just. Given that it has taken all of human history thus far and we haven’t yet found a solution, it seems reasonable to consider that while we must continue to try, there are a lot of people who will go hungry in the mean time and this seems unacceptable to me.

This is a round-about way of saying that rather than start at the discursive systems level for our analysis and search for solutions, perhaps there is more scope if we reconfigure those systems from the standpoint of social practices and via the institutions that focus those practices into particular social systems such as capitalism or neoliberalism, etc. It is by looking at the real world, that we see neoliberalisms rather than neoliberalism. … or capitalisms… or racialisations…or families.   When we examine neoliberalism on the ground as a project we can perhaps unbundle the project from the tools it uses to achieve those ends—currencies, subsidies, and so forth.

The conceptual hammers, when used by those practicing the current neoliberal project break windows and bodies in the service of an economic elite. What I see in the critique, including my own, is the tossing out of these tools because of their guilty association with that project. But what if we remembered that hammers can also build and repair when directed toward other ends.

So consumer citizens, devolved action, accounting, and market mechanisms may be subject to re-appropriating into the service of rights and fairness, because people are hungry right now and time needed to effect larger structural change is, in truth, a luxury afforded to those who can afford to eat while they think of a plan. But in that re-appropriation the key is to understand and always ask, in whose service are these tools being put to use and whom are we letting off the hook.

Certainly, environmental accounting has been suggested as a means for identifying a real cost of food. But it is clear that we also need a better and wider accounting mechanism and a clearer understanding of what the other costs are as they are enfolded in producing food. What proportion of the costs of food we buy, for example goes toward packaging and washing, for advertising, for pesticides and fertilisers and so forth. Can we use accounting to count differently? Can we redesign our tax and subsidy system to make organic food cheap and industrial food more expensive through, for example, taxes on pesticides? To make wages for those who actually touch the food as they bring it to us a higher proportion of the total cost of food while at the same time reducing the proportion that is attributable to all the ancillary elements that go into bringing our food to us?

And lastly, if we acknowledge we have not a food system, but multiple food systems, what does that multiplicity afford us in terms of enabling food for all today as well as tomorrow?

Thank you.

[i] Kristen Valentine Cadieux and Rachel Slocum. 2015 What does it mean to do food justice? Journal of Political Ecology 22: 1-26.

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