While many aimlessly add items into their shopping carts, most consumers aren’t acknowledging the history behind their foods and may not realize it’s political ties. Food is for consuming, but behind the product itself are years and years of rich history. Food is political.
How can food be political? Must we politicize everything in today’s day and age? VALLEY is here to explain just how some of the items in your fridge and pantry are a part of political history and the impact the ties between food industry and government have on a consumer’s daily life.
Amy Sentementes, PhD, food writer and assistant teaching professor at Penn State is teaching students about food politics in Penn State’s newest political science class. Sentementes’ curriculum focuses on unpacking food production, distribution and consumption.
“Food is political in so many ways, both implicitly and explicitly,” Sentementes said.
“Food production is inherently political because so many political institutions are involved on the production side,” Sentementes said.
The Food and Drug Administration is a government agency which offers both industry guidance as well as regulation and enforcement of certain policies and laws within the world of food.
“The U.S. government has been telling people what to eat for more than a century, and the history of such advice reflects changes in agriculture, food product development, and international trade, as well as in science and medicine,” Paulette Goddard Professor at New York University, Marion Nestle said in her book, Food Politics.
Nestle continues explaining ways in which the industry conflicts within itself as well as its message of promoting a healthier country. These agencies may be inclined to favor one or the other as they aim to push the agendas into effect.
“The knowledge we have of these foods is given to us through the political systems,” Sentementes said. “Lobbyists, members of congress and other political actors are involved in shaping these dietary guidelines for us.”
These lobbyist are able to accomplish their tasks through various means including “hard” and “soft” money which can come in forms of direct donations or gifts.
Food Security — Food Deserts
Many citizens throughout the nation live in food deserts. Food deserts are geographical areas in which there is limited access to nutritious and affordable food. This then changes the consumption pattern in comparison to one who may live in a food oasis where these problems are seen on a daily basis.
“Are consumption patterns vary on socio-political levels,” Sentementes said. “What foods we choose to eat are based not only on what foods taste like and our preferences, but what food we have access to in terms of where we live and the resources we have.”
Many individuals have been bringing awareness to the dangers of food deserts across America including @Beyondfoodmarket on Instagram and TikTok.
Creator of Beyond Food Market, Jose Rojas, has advocated for change in these areas including his hometown, Chicago. Hoping to see improvement in access to allergy friendly, nutritious, plant-based food, Rojas continues sharing with his audience the realities of his underserved community.
We associate different things with certain political parties. Going hand in hand with stereotyping we often find specific food items associated with one party or another.
In the most recent election, many worldwide took to the internet to see various anonymous fridges and categorize it as a “Biden fridge” or a “Trump fridge” through a quiz.
Many see common trends within political parties on their consumption patterns. As for one example, democrats tend to opt for more environmentally conscious food items while republicans differ.
Another way in which food is politically tied to a specific party is when there are public records indicating a restaurant chain/food supplier is donating funds to a particular candidate.
These records are for the public and many can discover their favorite restaurants political ties by browsing Opensecrets.org. At times, the chain itself may not contribute directly to either a democratic or republican candidate but employees and management can be found donating.
Many often associate these contributions as a reflection of the entire establishment which can be detrimental to the industry as a whole and specifically that chain as an increased divide amongst political parties soars.
Stereotypes — Race and Gender
“Food can be political in a way as an extension of ourselves,” Sentementes said. “When we offer someone a taste of our culture’s food and they are able to consume that dish and see the flavors that make the heritage more rich, it can potentially lead them to be more open-minded about food.”
Race and the food industry have a long history. There have been years of cultural appropriation and ideas of colonialism within the industry that have negatively impacted these groups.
“Implicitly it does harm those who aren’t in the dominant group,” Sentementes said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in the dominant group in society, if you wield a lot of political power, these things don’t affect you and you can carry on. You don’t worry about someone looking down on you and thinking “that’s weird” or “that’s dirty.” These people can afford to look towards new foods and colonize ingredients.”
While purchasing items off the shelf including Aunt Jemina products, Cream of Wheat and other items of that sort, one may not be directly hurting that community it is feeding into the stereotypes that have impacted the community for decades, according to Sentementes.
“Some of this awareness is very new to some people which is coming in light following the protests this past summer,” Sentementes said. “This moment of reckoning where we see this pandemic and racial injustice interesting to expose the flaws in our political system.”
Women in the kitchen has been a romanticized idea created by men to continue their ideals of a domesticated companion. From decades past, many young girls and women have been targets of campaigns which promote their work in a kitchen rather than a man.
These gender stereotypes of the roles played in a household stem from a young age as children begin to socialize and play with toys that have already been divided as “boy” or “girl” with no balance in between. This then leads to the idea of “prescriptive norms” which focus on how the individual should act instead of how they really are.
These young toys and food advertisements focused on one group in particular add an effect in the shaping of the individual. This has resulted in why many in today’s society are pushing away the ideals of the past as they look to educate and reshape a woman’s role in the kitchen and society as a whole.
As political divide and tensions increase due to recent events, many wonder if food is a way to unite the masses or if it continues to emphasize the divide.
“The messaging about food as a common unifier is surface level and ignores the differences so many people have fought to protect,” Sentementes said.
Many during the time of the Civil Rights era, used restaurants as a way to polarize the nation on where individuals can eat. These restaurants became places of nationwide sit-ins where people fought against the divide that had been created.
In today’s day and age, individuals are allowed to eat and converse wherever and whenever they decide to do so. However, these restaurants contain histories which reflect directly the correlation between food and politics.
Sentementes explains ways in which food is continuing in the divide as many are colonizing dishes to feed into the needs which thus align with their political values.
One example she used included the heavy value placed on hispanic food in American culture with fast-food chains booming across the United States such as Taco Bell. While chains and restaurants claim to be “authentic” or claim to be a direct representation of the actual culture, the people behind it are forgotten and mistreated by the society that claims to love their food.
“Food can be assimilated into American culture but it doesn’t not bring a sense of empathy to the people who contribute the food to the culture,” Sentementes said.
While many begin to acknowledge the political aspects of the food industry, many seek to sources in which they can be provided deeper insight and a more detailed explanation of the topics mentioned.
Books to read:
- The Cooking Gene by Michael W. Twitty
- Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health by Marion Nestle
- Eater — offers a diverse group of contributors
Making an effort to understand:
- Check social media to find food writers and see their perspectives as members in the food industry
“It’s harmful if you close your mind to the new developments and gaining a new understanding of the context in which these foods are produced,” Sentementes said.