Food is food…or is it?

This blog post asks the question–Should we make distinctions between different foods, depending upon where those foods come from? 

I started my academic career researching entrepreneurship and innovation (see Blake 2001, 2006, 2010, Hanson and Blake 2005, 2009, Blake and Hanson 2005). Specifically, I was interested in the entrepreneurship of women, and how their businesses and innovation may be constrained by local institutional contexts.  I was also concerned with  what the contributions of businesses owned by women are that extend beyond profit making.  One of the things that bothered me was the way that women’s businesses were (and still are) framed as women’s entrepreneurship, whereas male-owned businesses are  just straight-up entrepreneurship.  Likewise, innovation that is technical–that makes things–for a large amount of profit–is framed as innovation, whereas social innovations–those that change the status of women, that improve communities and support families–is always social innovation.  Or reframed, why is it that some forms of activity are naturalised while others are always a modified and therefor always cast as an alternative to what is considered normal and why is it that what is normal is based on presumptions that reward gendered (1) disadvantage and profit seeking over care and well-being?

Food is subject to these same processes of narrative divisions. Most of us purchase food from a supermarket.  Food we buy is embedded within a capitalists food system where socially acceptable food is food purchased from a supermarket’s that make a profit.  Food acquired through other means is alternative food. Alternative food, just as in entrepreneurship, can then be divided into a number of sub-categories, such as, for example, local food  or surplus food (I have written about surplus food here and here) or charity food that is gifted through donations by consumers.

What bothers me is that in producing these divisions around food and then naturalising them there is a tendency to not acknowledge the processes through which ordinary food comes into being (although there is a considerable literature and a number of social movements aiming to challenge the ordinary food system’s inequalities in terms of sovereignty and fairness (for a review see Blake 2018).  When the language of food is such that commercial food is food, while other forms of food are modified forms of food, the result seems to be that modified forms of food are subject to value judgements depending upon who the eaters of this food are most likely to be.

Local food and surplus food offer two contrasting examples. According to some, buying food from local sources through farmers markets and small shops is what we all should be doing, however Guthman, Slocum, and many others have pointed out that in advocating for buying local food we also overlook how this movement is sometimes advantaging white, middle-class sensibilities and abilities.  Buying from the local farm shop can be expensive (sometimes but not always the food is more expensive when you compare like for like) but accessing the shops can also mean it is more difficult if you must take public transportation and it takes time to visit multiple shops.  Buying from a local fruit and veg shop, also doesn’t guarantee that the food itself is local, as I detail in my paper on local food. Additionally, local producers are historically embedded in the food ways and land ownership histories of dominant cultures, as a result food that is available to buy locally can be food that doesn’t meet the needs of dietary cultures that are not part of this dominant group.  A colleague who was discussing farming in the UK was recently explaining to me that while there is a concern that the population of farmers, who are predominantly white-british is ageing, it is structurally difficult to enter farming if you are a young person, unless you already have a connecting to farming in the UK (e.g., your parents or other relatives are farmers).  Thinking about this then, immigrants groups, who may have the knowledge of farming, are less likely to be able to access the land needed to do the farming itself and grow the food that they eat.  Unless native farmers are willing to explore new foodways, buying food varieties that are ‘unusual’ is going to remain more difficult, and more expensive.  This food becomes thought of as aspirational and special food. The point here though is, that when the racialised and classed dimensions of local food are overlooked within advocacy for an alternative local food system, the framing is often one whereby those who are excluded are also blamed for not sufficiently caring about the environment or their families (see for example this discussion I recently had with a local food advocate on BBC1 Sunday Morning Live).

Surplus food is a different example of an alternative food source that also carries value judgement with it.  As I’ve explained elsewhere, surplus food  is food that was initially part of the commercial food sector, but which for a variety of reasons is no longer able to achieve its intended price point.  For example if machinery breaks down and the food cannot be packaged, it becomes surplus (or is thrown away).  The recent Two Sisters chicken scandal resulted in the closure of their processing plant in the west-midlands in the UK.  The chickens did not stop just because the processing plant stopped. The chickens continued to grow and become ready to be turned into food.  But because the chickens could not be packaged, they were thrown away.  Thousands of chickens were wasted, because of greed and an inability to transport and package the chickens.  If someone could have taken on the task, the chickens could have become available to people to eat. When food can be rescued from the vicissitudes of the commercial system, it becomes surplus.

When food is rescued from the vicissitudes of the commercial system, it becomes surplus. Food surplus is sometimes sold to retailers like Company Shop, Approved foods, Home Bargains and the like. These retailers sell the surplus for a lower price than the standard price of the item when it is found in a supermarket.  Sometimes this food is donated to organisations such as FareShare, Community Shop, City Harvest (NY and London), Food Cycle, Real Junk Food Projects, Feeding Hong Kong and others. This donated food is then distributed directly to eaters, or indirectly to charities and third sector organisations who then feed people in a myriad of ways—not just as emergency food providers. We do not really know how much surplus food is rescued. FareShare, for example, helped distribute the equivalent of 28.6 million meals to nearly seven thousand UK organisations in 2017. Despite this, figures suggest that considerably more could be rescued.  Wrap estimates that nearly 2 million tons of food was wasted annually from the UK commercial sector, of which much of this could have been eaten.

The links that this food has with waste and commercial rejection renders surplus food as inferior food, despite its edibility.  Furthermore, these associations make it more difficult to encourage some eaters to eat this food and some organisations to accept it(1). The associations also complicate how organisations aiming to help communities through food, can do so and preserve the dignity of those who are eaters. On the one hand, access to surplus food can be a means for expanding tight organisational budgets, enabling community interactions, and enhancing personal and household wellbeing through social cooking and eating activities, and though bringing people together (NatCen 2016).  On the other hand, some in an attempt to shame governments, make equivocations such as “left over food for left over people” (see also this Conversation article). The effect of framing surplus food as second class through these associations dismisses the positive social, cultural, environmental and economic values of this food, while at the same time the commercial food sector is not interrogated.  Futhermore this framing vilifies those who are helping people who are already marginal because eating surplus food becomes shameful as it demonstrates a failure or inablity to engage with the commercial supply chain.

Perhaps we should refer to surplus as shared food or social food to reflect the role this food plays, just as commercial food reflects its role as an economic agent?  Defining surplus food through its direct relationship to the commercial food system has the effect of prioritising and reifying the commercial system.  Calling this food shared or social food aligns it more closely with non-commercial aspects of life and helps express the values of care of self, family, community and planet and generosity that this food also enables.  A social framing also disrupts easy alignments that enable snappy phrases that suggest that this food is somehow responsible for making a second class, thrown away, surplus or leftover group of people.  It is more difficult to argue with or feel indignant about social food for social people, or shared food for sharing people.  We, as a society, help make people what they become known to be.   We do it by supporting our governments and the policies they design, the ways that we value (or not) the work and inventiveness of people, and we do it in the ways we use language.

Returning to the question: Should we think of all food as food, wherever its provenance? There are certainly advantages to this (e.g., reducing food waste, reducing social stigma). On the other hand, focusing on distinctions between foods and how they help position eaters–we are what we eat, after all–makes visible the assumptions and biases that are inherent within society and tells us something about how we try to establish distinctions among ourselves through everyday interactions with the material world that go unrecognized or unnoticed. In some instances a re-framing of the language when we use distinctions can help to adjust social understanding. Certainly, though, when making distinctions between different food domains, it should be clear that naturalising one side of the dichotomy as normal while distinguishing or modifying the other, enables us to ignore the inherent problems within that domain that is normalised.  So if we have women’s entrepreneurship, then we should also have men’s entrepreneurship and likewise if we have social innovation, then technical innovation is its opposite.  If we recognise local food or surplus food or social food as distinct, then we should also recognise that it sits in relation to commercial food, not just food.



(1) Businesses in western countries owned by non-dominant groups where white, western populations are the predominant group, are also subjected to this alternative status through the attachment of ethnic to the front of entrepreneurship as well.

(2) This is not to say that some surplus food may not be as desirable for use by some organisations because it may, for example have a high sugar or fat content.  But this specific food is not the totality of surplus food and these same foods can be found in the commercial sector, as in fact, that is their origin. Moreover, some surplus food my not be as attractive, and while one might not want to display a bruised up banana, for example, this banana makes excellent banana bread.  Sometime surplus food needs a bit more work to make it appealing, this does not make it inedible.

By coincidence–this post also fits the weekly photo challenge for this week, variations on a theme, which is about discovering the endless variety that one thing can contain.  When I started doing this blog, I used the weekly photo challenge to help inspire my writing.  It is lovely to return.