Food Justice on Campus

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If your message is forced upon someone in a vulnerable moment, it might not have a great leg to stand on.

This article is gonna talk about food, obviously, and eating practices on campus and the practice of policing eating practices on campus, and why it’s fucked up, and changing eating practices, so if any of that would be a bad thing for you to read, here’s your heads up.

So. You’re in Iowa, and you’ve made literally three-thousand jokes to your friends back in New York, or Los Angeles, or Chicago, or Minneapolis, about the corn. I know. I K N O W. But it’s really time to dig deeper into food politics on Grinnell’s campus. Iowa, and other states across the Midwest and Plains, are the breadbasket (corn basket, wheat basket, beef basket, chicken basket, pork basket, rice basket… I could go on) of the nation, and yet many students here know next to nothing about the web of food politics and practices they engage in.

First of all, even though we all spend at least eight months out of the year in the Midwest, people still think it’s acceptable to shit on practices that, stereotypically or not, define Midwestern standards of life. If I had a dollar for everytime a hipster from Portland or Seattle (I always confuse the two) told me about how atrocious the coffee is here, I’d be able to send them back to wherever it is they’re from. Same goes for people who complain about the quality of fish at the dining hall—you’re right, it’s terrible, sorry that Iowa, like much of the middle of the country, exists in the middle of the country and as such is landlocked with no access to fresh fish on a level to feed all of us. I’ve even heard professors from coastal areas talk about the trauma of finding out what comprises Midwestern buffet dinners, to which I say, if seeing jello and potato salad next to each other is so life-changingly awful maybe just eat at home from now on.

And, Walmart. People at this college talk as if they’re buying food from Walmart ironically—they would N E V E R consider buying food from there if they weren’t so isolated in this god-forsaken town. What, we can get a rifle distributor but we can’t get a Whole Foods? The humanity!

As if this problem were indicative of how little the school and town value you. As if this absence of high-quality food wasn’t indicative of a much larger trend. As if a myriad of economic factors are not colluding all across the country to keep high-quality food out of the hands of the people who make it, and shuttling it to the people who can afford it. As if the draining of resources away from poor and working class folks to create food deserts where the only resource is Walmart is directly targeted so that you can’t buy your brand name free-trade specialty organic GMO-free hand-crafted artisan bullshit.

Never mind the fact that the Midwest supplies the raw materials and manufacturing of the country’s domestic foodstuffs.  Never mind the fact that laborers, both in fields and in factories for processing raw goods from farms, are nearly invisible to consumers of the goods in urban and/or coastal areas.

You don’t need to read Marx to think about how distancing the consumer from the means of production is a means of sanitizing the production process so that the vast majority of consumers don’t see the man-hours that go into that nice neat sandwich or whatever.

Ultimately, my beef with the popular vegan discourse on campus is this: it is irresponsible, neoliberal¹ and over-simplistic to “raise awareness” of systemic issues such as exploitative labor markets, animal abuse, economic inequality and food deserts while claiming that these issues can be adequately addressed–even solved!–through individual students’ decisions to go vegan. What this approach leads to is policing. Food policing, body policing, and all other forms of surveillance which dictate the “proper” way to live and act are always predicated on the existence of a group of rejects. The rhetoric of food specifically always seems to target fat people. Being over a size 8 on this campus is being hypervisible, especially in the dining hall where a nutritionist is hired to police what we as students should and shouldn’t eat. Every time people here engage in rhetoric that talks about food consumption, you are by necessity calling for people to surveil their food and their friends’ food. And that inevitably does more harm than good for people who are fat, who don’t have normative bodies, who deal with disordered eating, or any other manifestation of the fucked up relationship people can have with food.

I mean, vegan activism on this campus is a self-referential parody, right? I can’t be at an educational institution where the narrative of veganism is that the only acceptable means of consumption is to eat the vegan bar at the dining hall. I know the vegan day wasn’t just their organization, I know it was a nationwide movement, but I don’t know how it could have been implemented in a worse, more destructive way around campus. If your message has to be forced upon someone in a vulnerable moment, like in a bathroom or at a meal time, then your message might not have a great leg to stand on. Paying people to watch a video of animal abuse, which is not representative of the farming industry of the whole, is a flagrant disregard for the truth in order to sell a deluded agenda. I don’t endorse every farming practice used in this country and abroad. Nonetheless, I think that misleading and disgusting people in their own dorm bathrooms and directly in front of one of the most critical spaces for food consumption on campus shows a remarkable lack of consideration for how one’s actions affect others.

So, while I stand by efforts to see where our food comes from², I don’t support distasteful narratives told about our food. Ethical consumption on the whole is pretty impossible—throwback to those machinations of late capitalism again. Critical consumption, to whatever degree we are capable of achieving that under the current system, is the best we can work towards. All I’m saying is, our discourse has to dig into the meat of the issue.

¹ I’m not an econ person, but here’s my operational definition of neoliberalism: “‘Neoliberalism’ most often refers to a loosely cohering set of economic, social, and political policies that (1) seek to secure human flourishing through the imposition of free markets and (2) locate “freedom” in individual autonomy, expressed through consumer choice. But it is also a mode of belonging, where ritual acts of consumption initiate individuals into a global community of consumer agents. Within neoliberal logics of religious and political action, consumer transactions and corporate expansion are recast as forms of spiritual purification and missionary practice. And within conscious capitalism, the ‘higher purpose’ is a world in which all people have a chance (or obligation) to participate in free markets—understood as a multicultural community of consumers.” HA I tricked all of you I stole that definition from one of the most insightful and eviscerating commentaries on neoliberal economies I’ve ever read by Lucia Hulsether called “TOMS Shoes and the Spiritual Politics of Neoliberalism” from the site religionandpolitics.org.

² My first year, we bought and raised 3 piglets in a sustainable manner, slaughtered them humanely, and then they were eaten at Easter Brunch. I use the passive voice there because I do not eat ham, but I know it happened. I think this is a prime example of how sustainable, knowledgeable food production and consumption should be carried out. If the idea of eating an animal you raised is repugnant, then it’s absolutely ok to not eat it. What I admire about this model is that it is personal and educational. Instead of a selective filter applied to information, it allows the incredibly bright people here to make a well-informed decision about the food they consume, and unites production and consumption in one experience.

9 Comments

  1. YAS, THIS <3

  2. Ok.

    In this post, you are completely bashing the vegan movement for working to change. I have to ask you, when is it not ok to show people where their food comes from, and what they can do to try to make a difference? According to the USDA’S 2002 Census of Agriculture, Over 99% of meat is produced through factory farms. You may feel like it is ok to work for “efforts to see where our food comes from”, but yet you bash these incredible people who are raising awareness of this topic. You could say that it is “distasteful” to show people a video about factory farming, but you cannot deny it. Over 10 billion animals a year are slaughtered for food, and if you understand basic supply and demand; if more people choose a animal free option, then the demand and supply goes down, thus helping animals. By trying more plant based foods or going vegan, you aren’t “policing” ones self, in fact as a vegan for 2 going on 3 years, you expand all of the foods you can eat, and you try things that you wouldn’t have before. I am sure you don’t understand veganism, it is not a “diet”, it is a overwhelming lifestyle of abundance. I no longer feel insecure about myself, and I get to eat delicious food that is good for me, the enviroment, and animals. What could be better than that? Living vegan doesn’t help or encourage any disorderly eating, in fact it can help those with it. Vegans have no stigma more than any other groups on what is acceptable for body shape, and everyone of every size is fine by me! You also need to look at your group on campus. Do they receive anything? Are they doing this for some of their own agenda and personal gain? No, and they don’t get paid, or even remotely compensated for their time. They do it of unaltered passion for their cause of helping others with their health, the enviroment, and animals. They work hard, not so that you can call them desensitized beings who have disregard for people’s emotions, especially after them seeing what most of the animal industry is like. I myself wish that someone would have told me there was something I could do, or to have opened up my mind to what is going on all around the world which could be stopped.

    • I honestly don’t know where to start with this, Tayler, but here are just a few points:

      #1 The ability to pursue a vegan diet is dependent on an individual having the financial capital to pursue an expensive, highly specialized, and time consuming diet that is out of reach for many of us, as well as the educational capital to make sure that this diet is balanced and supplemented correctly. Policing non-vegans with moral judgements is highly elitist/classist.

      #2 One major issue I have with vegan discourse is the assertion that moving to a plant-based diet eliminates modes of exploitation in our awful neoliberal food system. All industrial agriculture has a massive human, non-human, and environmental toll. Pretending that the pursuit of a vegan diet does not make you complicit in this system is as dissonant as me pretending that my (consciously limited) meat consumption ends CAFOs.

      #3 Veganism might work for you, and that’s just swell. It is just one path out of many that go to subverting the massive human/non-human/environmental toll of the industrial food system, but your assertion that veganism is a panacea to all these problems is a gross oversimplification.

      #4 It is insulting that you assume that Tess, and other people who pursue a non-vegan diet are unaware of the systemic exploitation in our food system, and are making our dietary choices without consideration for how we are complicit in the system.

    • I’d like to just mention, that I despite your well intentions, you don’t really see the big picture. The author of this article was addressing the vegan movement (and any modern day cultural trend for that matter) not you personally and your personal eating choices. It is fine that you have real-life experiences as proof to say that veganism is good for the environment and for the body, but the author was not saying that it isn’t. The fact of the matter is, not everyone can afford to live off of a vegan diet, when it comes to the money and time and opportunity you need to have in order to sustain such a habit. And imagine being in a small student community, where you are surrounded by a way of life that you cannot conform to. It is disappointing, but not surprising to me that you do not see this.

      I view this agenda to change the things that other people consume as a transgression, veiled as a humanistic gesture. It assumes that the people across America (and the whole world) who are suffering from obesity just need to be taught how not to be fat. It is way more than that. It is the system that people are born into and can’t get out of, without a significant amount of luck.

      Our mainstream culture branches out into various contradictory parts, and this vegan movement feeds into one of them. There is the mindset that endorses eating large amounts of meat, because it is funny or manly or american, and then there is the moral requirement that we should all be #green, and on top of that there is the very evident expectation that people’s bodies need to be a certain size. These cultural expectations are portrayed through the massive amount of media that we modern people take in everyday. (Take for example the fact that Beyonce posted a picture of her In-N-Out Burger meal only a short time before announcing that she would be vegan. Around the world people what to be her, have her body, have her fame. Her goal is their goal even if it her dietary choices go in erratic directions. But their choices should really be up to them, and they should not be expected to attain her body, because everyone has their own already.)

      A “food movement” like this that asserts that people should put certain things into their bodies, follows the same line of reason as the expectation that all people should be skinny: People should (fill in the blank) with their bodies.

      #vegan #greenpeace #sustainable will not be what changes the world. It takes action without ignorance.

      Know your privilege, you are very lucky.

  3. Animals matter morally. We all believe that. There is no such thing as ‘humane’ slaughter because animals have the desire to live and I would question anyone that thinks differently.

    Look folks, we all know that animals can feel pain and want to be free. We hide behind so many false justifications. Slave holders in the 1800s hid behind justifications for keeping slaves.

    The sooner you set yourself free from these lies, the sooner you will be happier. Align your actions with your beliefs. Yes, you believe that animals matter morally, you actions are just not reflective of that. Go Vegan today.

    We can live just fine without exploiting, causing pain and killing animals, so why wouldn’t we?

  4. Why take issue with the nutritionist? She has nothing to do with any particular diet and comes in to advise students on things like nutritional balance and caffeine intake. I know it was a minor point in the article but it feels like a really cheap shot.

  5. “Being over a size 8 on this campus is being hypervisible, especially in the dining hall where a nutritionist is hired to police what we as students should and shouldn’t eat.”

    While I feel your viewpoint has validity, I would like to challenge the claim that this is the only “point” of the nutritionist. We have the ability to choose whether or not we pay attention to the nutritionist. Sometimes we like to call out occupations hired such as nutritionists about forcing values, or scientifically proven research, on people since they may create body image issues or more serious issues. Why is a nutritionist a negative. Many may enjoy the fact, or have asked, for a larger nutritionist presence or program so that people could be able to make educated decisions for their own health, or for whatever purpose they would want to use the nutritionist’s information for. I just think that if one doesn’t want to utilize the nutritionist then don’t, but bashing the position is almost like bashing any accomodation made for people who have made a life decision or cannot control one aspect of their life due to God, or other higher power one may believe in.

  6. James believes that the ability to pursue a vegan diet is not economically viable for most people?

    That is an odd view to have, when most of the world, through most of history has been nearly vegan — simply because whole plant foods are less costly to produce then meat and dairy, (unless of course a warped economic system like ours heavily subsidizes animal agriculture) use fewer resources to produce and require less land. (excluding royalty of course — who ate much more like the today’s average American — and were plagued with same diseases as the average American too.)

    James you apparently are also not very familiar with nutritional science to think that vegans are more at risk of deficiencies then omnivores. Vegans should supplement b-12 (as should EVERYONE over the age of 50!) But consuming dairy, increases the risk of iron deficiency anemia. Heavy meat eaters tend to be deficient in fiber, (hence the profitable laxative industry) Meat eaters are also often deficient in folate, and thousands of phytochemicals that protect against cancers.

    Those of less economic means actually stand to benefit MORE from eating plant-based, as it reduces medical costs .

  7. Former vegan of 3 years here. It’s not for everyone. Everyone has different dietary needs, and not everyone is suited to a strict vegan diet. There are reasons beyond industrial slaughter of animals to go vegan. I chose to for spiritual ones. Let me say that once I switched to a more diverse food palette, I’ve gained weight, but feel less lethargic. In large part this is due to the miserable state of vegan food in the dining hall. I stayed with veganism as long as I could, but mostly was able to do this because I had my own reasons, rather than being coerced into someone else’s agenda. Furthermore, I found the campaign to be disrespectful and condescending. To use footage of animals being killed in brutal ways is one thing, but to then move on and then attempt to manipulate the viewer through editing turns their suffering into propaganda, can you purport to see their suffering as significant, if it also needs to be enhanced through editing and background music?

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