Critiquing the Alternative Food Movement – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Critiquing the Alternative Food Movement

In April, Professor and Food Activist Julie Guthman joined the Fisher Center for the Study of Women and Men, concluding the center’s year-long discussion of the politics of food.

Guthman’s talk, titled “Having Your Cake and Eating It Too: Reflections on the Origins and Character of Contemporary Food Activism,” addressed the current alternative food movement.

“I encourage people to think critically about how food advice has come to transform politics,” said Guthman, noting First Lady Michelle Obama planting an organic garden on the White House lawn.

Showcasing the extent to which food politics has captured the national imagination, Guthman noted that many organizations have sprung up to address the spectrum of the alternative food movement, from the mainstream market-based theory to the food justice movement toward self-provisioning.

Although the concept of educating others on how to grow their own food and pursue healthy lifestyles is not an inherently negative one, Guthman argued that such food activism ignores deep social injustices that are propagated in the production and consumption of food.

“In short, the movement has become more about food than real social change,” said Guthman, noting that the University of California at Santa Cruz recently held a conference that was centered on labor in the food market. “Instead of food, these experts and scholars emphasized the need to address border policies, pesticide control and fair wages in order to encourage better practices in the food industry, where more than 38 million people work.”

Guthman explained that she is in a position to track the evolution of food movements.”I can track how alternative food movements evolve by what students are interested in,” said Guthman. “After talking extensively to my students over the course of several classes, I have also come to the conclusion that many are drawn to food politics out of fear. They have this apocalyptic thinking and the fear for the future drives them to want to be able to care for themselves and their communities if and when things do go wrong.”

Students from anthropology, environmental and science courses attended the talk.

“I found the talk to be extremely thought-provoking and I felt that Professor Guthman offered a lot of insight on food movements and politics,” said Brianne Ellis ’12. “I learned a lot from her discussion and felt compelled to do more research following her talk, even though I had not previously been very interested in food movements.” 

George Trimble ’14, a political science major, ordered and read Guthman’s book after hearing that she would be speaking on campus. “After attending the discussion and reading her novel, I am able to understand why the increasing prevalence of obesity in our country is not just the result of bad eating habits, or economic disparity among community structures,” said Trimble. “Guthman’s argument about how the country must revaluate its entire economic system and markets if we want answers to obesity epidemic was mind blowing. We should not punish the obese because of their individual actions; instead we must reexamine the way capitalism is affecting the entire food system and own up the fact that those of lower socioeconomic classes pay the price for our cheep markets through health issues and obesity.” 

An associate professor in the University of California at Santa Cruz, Guthman teaches courses primarily in global political economy and the politics of food and agriculture. Since receiving her Ph.D. in geography from the University of California at Berkeley, she has published extensively on contemporary efforts to transform the way food is produced, distributed, and consumed, with a focus on voluntary food labels, community food security, farm-to-school programs, and the race and class politics of “alternative food.”

Her first book, “Agrarian Dreams: the Paradox of Organic Farming in California,” won the Frederick H. Buttel Award for Outstanding Scholarly Achievement from the Rural Sociological Society and the Donald Q. Innis Award from the Rural Geography Specialty Group of the Association of American Geographers. Her new book, “Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism,” which challenges many of the taken-for-granted assumptions about the so-called obesity epidemic, recently won the James E. Blaut Award for Innovative Publication from the Cultural and Political Ecology specialty group of the Association of American Geographers.