First you have free breakfasts, then you have free medical care, then you have free bus rides, and soon you have FREEDOM! --Fred Hampton, Deputy Chairman, Black Panther Party, Illinois
Having studied as an undergraduate under Warren Belasco, a pioneer in the field of food studies, I have for years been conscious of the politics behind food production and consumption. In my own research and teaching, however, I returned to food studies not with an interest in food, per se, but as a means of investigating structures and systems of power and inequality. Historical moments that transformed my own insular undergraduate worldview--namely, the black freedom struggle, the Vietnam War, and the emergence of second wave feminism and gay liberation--sometimes barely registered with my students, many of whom saw little connection between their own fields of study in communications or the health sciences and current issues involving race relations, capitalism, gender inequality, gay rights, or international affairs. After two years meandering through stacks of literature about the black freedom struggle in search of a new topic or innovative approach suitable for a dissertation, I attended a fascinating presentation by Alondra Nelson in 2011 about the Black Panther Party's efforts to combat medical discrimination. I began to consider the potential of reaching media- and science-minded students by de-emphasizing key historical figures and events and instead focusing on the human body itself as a site of social and political struggle. (1) Food, I came to realize, is often a weapon in these battles.
The dynamics and tensions of agency and coercion, autonomy and oppression, at play in the global food system--manifested in myriad recent controversies surrounding the Farm Bill, food stamps, GMOs, obesity, healthcare, hunger, school lunch programs, food waste, food deserts, food safety, farmers' markets, fast food wages, globalization, and slave labor around the world-- directly reflect and implicate historical patterns of marginalization and oppression. Current realities have historical roots, and historical campaigns and programs have modern-day reverberations. In an age where student activism largely occurs in cyberspace, if anywhere, many undergraduates see little point in attempting to challenge or even question systems of power when 1) the target is so diffuse, and 2) prospects for immediate, tangible gains are dim, to say the least. Relatively recent stories, for example, about fast food workers striking for a $15 minimum wage or Walmart's revealing move to place bins for customers to donate food items to help feed the company's own employees, make clear that food insecurity persists. But many voice surprise, even disgust, with the notion that McDonald's employees "deserve" a living wage or believe that a carefully-constructed hunger safety net will catch those who fall through the cracks. Rarely have my students articulated an impassioned belief that change can be effected from the grassroots. In U.S. history and food studies courses, I often turn to the Black Panther Party and its food service programs to raise questions about how "poor people's movements" develop, how tactics and strategies develop, and, in the words of Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, "why they succeed" and "how they fail." (2)
Resisting the object-centered lens of much food studies work, Kyla Wazana Tompkins's Racial Indigestion (2012) calls for closer examination of "texts and [historical] moments during which acts of eating cultivate political subjects by fusing the social with the biological, by imaginatively shaping the matter we experience as body and self." (3) Following her lead, I frame my undergraduate food course, "The Politics of Food," around questions of identity and agency, access and accountability, health and sustainability, rather than commodities, flavor principles, etiquette, or culinary innovations. Though certainly the material delights of food are laden with cultural significances that reflect and reinforce social dynamics and political relationships, eating as an act itself, the meaning of which primarily stems from the identity of the eating subject rather than the eaten object, speaks to the reality that some have far greater access to "good" food than others. The Black Panther food programs represent an opportunity to approach food less as a forum of cultural and community expression than as a tool for political mobilization. As a historical case study, the Panther food programs offer several useful angles for classroom interrogation of hunger and emergency food relief specifically, as well as struggles for liberation and movements for social change more broadly. Their message remains relevant today, or as The Black Panther newspaper proclaimed in March 1969, "Plunger is one of the means of oppression and it must be halted." (4)
Speaking of the newly renamed "Food for Peace" program in 1961, President John F. Kennedy highlighted a reality that many African Americans and civil rights activists already acknowledged. "Food is strength," Kennedy proclaimed, "and food is peace, and food is freedom, and food is a helping to people around the world whose good will and friendship we want." (5) In light of the rediscovery of poverty in the United States, initiated by Edward R. Murrow's documentary treatment of the plight of migrant farm workers in 1960's Harvest of Shame, Kennedy's pronouncement would prove both profoundly insightful and painfully short-sighted. Amidst the prosperity and abundance of postwar America, the persistence and pervasiveness of poverty--and its most pressing symptom, hunger--grew both more pronounced and less palatable. Despite the lofty rhetoric of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, tellingly launched on the porch of white Kentucky sharecroppers in 1964, tangible gains for America's poor were piecemeal, politically-contentious, racially-charged, and ultimately fleeting. The intertwining of racial oppression and class inequality, which has characterized American history since slavery, expanded the implications of poverty beyond issues of material welfare, fostering a crippling physical and psychological condition that diminished prospects of justice and freedom for the poor. Religious charities like those run by the Catholic Church and mutual aid societies formed by immigrant communities have deep roots in American history. While they provided needed services, they worked toward no long-term solutions. During the Great Depression, hunger amidst surplus became a national scandal, as the government paid farmers to overproduce while millions continued to starve. (6) During this time the communist Alabama Sharecroppers' Union worked to mobilize a racially-conscious class-based movement to secure rights for tenant farmers, recognizing the connection between the race of most Alabama sharecroppers and the biases of a system that kept hardworking families in an intergenerational cycle of debt. Decades later in neighboring Mississippi, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) quickly realized that civil rights work in the poorest counties of the Delta would be pointless if people were too paralyzed by hunger and food insecurity to move. In fact, the long black freedom struggle has repeatedly underscored the cultural and political significance of food, explicitly calling attention to interlocking structures of racism and social inequality embedded in the politics and culture of food. Conceptualizing food as a site of conscious and concerted social activism calls attention to the problematic interstices of the "racialized political economy of food production and distribution" and the "cultural politics of food consumption" in the United States. (7) Offering a new vantage point from which to scrutinize and formulate questions about racial equality and social justice, food studies encourages a more inclusive, expansive understanding of the black freedom struggle. The lens of food justice and what Tompkins has termed "critical eating studies" in particular requires a broadening of the term "activist" to include all those seeking to resist systems of oppression in efforts to improve their daily lives. It also mandates a revision of more conventional definitions of "freedom," most of which have focused on...