Unreasonable Expectations: Women and the Food Movement

The juggernaut that has become the food movement gets called on its sexism on a pretty regular basis, which isn’t a big surprise, because it’s got a whole lot of sexism. It’s notable that one of the icons of the movement, one of the most universally recognisable names associated with it, is a man, Michael Pollan, and if you’ve done a bit of poking around in his work, as I have, you will find that there are some seriously sexist assumptions embedded in it.

One of the core messages of the food movement is that people should dedicate more time and energy to seeking out and producing food. There’s a focus on connecting with local producers and your food, making things from scratch, mastering cooking techniques, learning more about the science of cooking. I’ve talked about some of the problematic assumptions embedded in this in the past; the fact that, for example, low income people may not have access to fresh, local food, and do not have the time to dedicate to seeking it out and preparing it because they are often working multiple jobs trying to make ends meet.

But there’s also a fair amount of embedded sexism going on, because when I see people talking about who should be collecting and preparing all this great local fresh food, it’s usually women who are singled out as the responsible ones. A lot of foodie campaigns are aimed specifically at mothers, for example, not parents in general or people in general. Mothers are responsible for providing nutrition. Mothers are responsible for setting examples for their children. Mothers are the preparers of food, the bread-givers, as it were. Mothers are responsible for this, and it’s the most important responsibility. After all, what other responsibilities or jobs could they possibly have?

I note that men in the food movement like to make sweeping big picture pronouncements and scare us with the spectres of big agriculture and big pharma, and their roles in food production and the culture of food. A lot of women in the food movement get shoved behind the stove with a whisk and an apron for a photo op, including women who are scientists, activists, workers in other areas than the kitchen. I see women being promoted as the people doing all this collecting and cooking; it’s women photographed in the farmers’ market looking pensive over an array of tomatoes, it’s women talking about how to freeze food for the winter, it’s women leading canning workshops.

Butchery and charcuterie are really the only area where I see more men represented, I guess because those are ‘manly’ tasks. Certainly no lady would pull out the shotgun and take care of business. Now, obviously, I am generalising; there are men in the movement who are primarily seen in the kitchen, just as there are women butchers and women talking about policy and big picture stuff as opposed to being trapped in the kitchen with the measuring cups.

But I do think it’s notable that there seems to be a focus, in the movement, of returning to an earlier era when at least one member of the household was able to be at home most of the time, working on cooking projects. A garden. Kitchen organising. Going to multiple markets to corral the ingredients for dinner. It doesn’t escape me that this earlier era people are so nostalgic for is an era when the person staying at home and taking care of food was usually a woman, and some foodies are pretty open about thinking that women belong in the kitchen. In a progressive, hipster way, of course.

Who remembers when Michelle Obama was told she should spend more time in the kitchen? Because I sure do. The fact that the First Lady isn’t that interested in cooking and being in the kitchen comes up in the media on a regular basis, like clockwork, and it’s treated like a big joke. I mean, really, a lady who doesn’t like cooking! What will they come up with next? She can promote her White House garden all she wants, but people still view her with suspicion because she’s not interested in cooking.

There are a lot of undertones there, but the one that comes through loud and clear is the sexism. I don’t hear anyone saying that Mr. Obama should be spending more time in the kitchen. Oh, but he’s busy, leading the free world. Yet, isn’t food the most important thing? Isn’t it critical to reform the way we shop, cook, and eat? If that’s the case, surely he ought to be donning the apron now and then, so to speak. After all, Michelle, like many First Ladies, is also involved in policy stuff and has an interest in social issues, she’s not lolling around the White House eating bonbons (or swanning though the Spanish countryside looking at castles, depending on which media narrative we’re reading this week).

Why is it women who are being saddled with the responsibility to fix the food system? Women are statistically more likely to be poor, especially when we start talking about women of colour and women with disabilities. Women are statistically more likely to be working and tasked with childcare responsibilities, with less time in their schedules than men. This society has been structured around unpaid work on the part of women for a very long time, and the food movement has fallen neatly into that; surely women can take on some more responsibilities in the kitchen! After all, it’s important. It might save the world.

If it’s that important, I say the food movement start talking about how to get everyone in the kitchen more. Start talking about the barriers to cooking, because they are real and very present, and work on ways to break those barriers down. Let’s make the kitchen accessible to everyone, and not pigeonhole it as women’s work.