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.