Some Empathy With Your Food Movement?

One of my most frequent criticisms of the food movement and the way it frames food reform is the lack of empathy for people who are not in a position to implement some of the changes recommended. Perhaps they are parents who are trying to balance work and children with food preparation, and need to consider the needs of members of the household who may have very specific ideas about what is edible and what is not. Maybe they are people with disabilities who have limited financial resources and can’t make a big investment in sustainable food. Or they’re people living in low-income neighbourhoods with limited access to fresh foods, let alone those produced sustainably.

The movement has long had a habit of primarily considering food issues from the point of view of middle class folks with stable living situations and no additional factors that might complicate their ability to do things like buying organic, making meals from scratch, or buying in bulk to save money in the long term on food purchases. This has resulted in fundamental alienation for a lot of people who might have been interested in the movement, because it is so clearly presented as not for them.

Why bother, after all, to join a movement where recipes start with ingredients you can’t obtain, steps you can’t physically complete, time estimates that are laughable, given your schedule? And why participate in a movement that shames you for your inability to follow the teachings of its leaders, that makes you feel bad for not having time, money, or health? Foodies acted surprised about some of the backlash against the movement when they really shouldn’t have been, because so much of the core messaging of the movement was in fact highly elitist.

I’m pleased to see some shift in the way the food movement presents itself and talks about food, because this suggests that real change is definitely possible. In January, Ali Benjamin ran a column at Grist that really cut to the heart of a lot of issues with the food movement from her perspective as a parent—a parent who belongs to the movement, at that, and wants to see people eating more sustainably, considering the sources of their food, and working to achieve a more just world.

I’d like to propose a change to how we think about parents and food: that rather than seeing parents’ constant reaching for convenience food as some sort of moral failing, let’s view it instead as a call for help — a form of crying “uncle” amidst a staggering number of stressors in our not-very-family-friendly society.

Benjamin went on to connect a series of important issues in her post, arguing for more compassion from the food movement to make it possible for parents to participate, for a radical change in the way people approached food politics, and it was exciting to see someone bringing intersectionality into the conversation. Especially since parenting, and the fact that this society is not very supportive of families, are subjects that are often not covered in the food movement; in fact, the movement sometimes reinforces sexist attitudes about who should be responsible for preparing food, which puts more pressure on mothers.

Working mothers have a hard time balancing their work and their home lives unless they have supportive employers who are willing to be flexible, and are willing to value family life as an important part of the lives of their workers. Many of them work long or irregular hours, and when they get home, they have a second shift of housework to do; truly labour-balanced households are hard to find, and the other partner may also be working outside the home, which makes it hard to assign household duties fairly.

When you are concerned with feeding children, thinking about how to provide them with nutrition, you need to think about how to balance time for food preparation, what a child will actually eat. Some people don’t know how to cook, and can’t make the connection between a static recipe and active cooking, Benjamin pointed out; as someone who has been cooking and participating in food preparation my whole life, many things are intuitive to me, but I wouldn’t know how to explain them to someone who hasn’t cooked. I can’t explain when a quiche is done or not done, I just know.

Benjamin’s argument is one integrating compassion into messaging in the food movement, and meeting people where they are instead of standing at a distance and making inflexible demands. She recognises that for some people, what the food movement says is ‘right’ and appropriate is just not doable, not under current conditions, so you have a choice: You can either continue to not include people, or you can make a conscious effort to make them part of your movement. And by doing so, you may win new converts who can add to the movement, reach out to the people they know, and build support for greater integration within the movement.

At the same time, it’s also important to tackle some of the systemic issues behind why working parents, and mothers in particular, are disadvantaged in the food movement. Why is it that many parents have little time to spend on food preparation? Why is it that many parents lack cooking skills? Why is it that many parents lack social support? These are issues that also play a role in whether, and how, parents can participate in the food movement, and they are about larger social problems, not just those specifically related to food. By making these issues their issues, members of the food movement can start to deconstruct some of the larger problems making it hard for people to use, and access, sustainable food.