Tag Archives: food/agriculture

No Such Thing as a Free Lunch: Part I

On any given workday, over 31 million lunches are served to children in school cafeterias. Part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) nutritional assistance efforts, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) aims to deliver affordable and nutritious meals to the nation’s schoolchildren. After all, food plays a key part in helping them learn, grow, and thrive.

To reach those who need it most, the federal and local governments work together to offer free lunch to children whose parents cannot afford to pay for it. But money is just one way a meal can be compensated for: the ‘free’ school lunch comes at other costs.

First, there are the health costs. At its inception, the NSLP was not designed as a social program. Instead, it was a response to agricultural overproduction and a surplus of farm produce, writes historian Susan Levine. The policymakers’ goal was to get rid of excess foods while supporting domestic production.

As a result, nutrition was of secondary concern to them: one year, eggs would be on the menu daily; another, they would hardly make an appearance. It wasn’t until the war, when politicians grew concerned about the ability of the nation’s men to fight, and until it became apparent hungry children don’t do well in classrooms they were newly required to sit in, that anyone took a serious look at what kids at school were actually eating.

1 (2)Photo: Gary Tramontina (New York Times)

By that time, it was too late. The program was already run like a business, and not even the introduction of nutritional standards helped. Today, these normatives are outdated – children snack rather than eat three square meals, and are less physically active, requiring fewer calories – and almost impossible to follow with the budget restrictions school lunch planners face.

The private industry was quick to offer solutions, but is more interested in profits than schoolchildren’s waistlines. Enriched and fortified chips and candies of otherwise dubious nutritional value appear in school cafeterias and vending machines, often a more popular choice with kids than apples. Frozen and convenience foods are replacing fresh meals cooked on premises. And the labyrinthine regulations of meal calorie contents coupled with cafeteria financial realities often mean adding more sugar to students’ plates is the only thing that can bring down its fat content, for example.

The food itself is not the only factor contributing to children’s undesirable health outcomes. Economist Rachana Bhatt finds the amount of time students have to enjoy lunch also matters. Students tight on time – they must squeeze all getting to the cafeteria, standing in line, eating their food, and cleaning up into their lunch break – might choose to skip the meal, leading them to overeat later, or eat quicker, leading them to consume more due to the delay in feeling full. Even if all school lunches offered healthy options, time would complicate their relationship with health outcomes: Bhatt found students who had less time for lunch were more likely to be overweight.

The lunch may be free when children choose their meal and sit down to eat it, then. But it may come at a substantial cost several years down the line, when a young adult is paying for diabetes medication and visits to the doctor to monitor their blood pressure.

Read Part II of “No Such Thing as a Free School Lunch.”

Teja Pristavec is a graduate student in the sociology department, and an IHHCPAR Excellence Fellow,  at Rutgers University. She blogs at A Serving of Sociology, where this post originally appeared. Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

The Sexual Politics of Veganism

Carol Adams has written extensively on the sexual politics of meat, arguing that women and other animals are both sexualized and commodified to facilitate their consumption (both figuratively and literally) by those in power. One result has been the feminization of veganism and vegetarianism. This has the effect of delegitimizing, devaluing, and defanging veganism as a social movement.

This process works within the vegan movement as well, with an open embracing of veganism as inherently feminized and sexualized. This works to undermine a movement (that is comprised mostly of women) and repackage it for a patriarchal society. Instead of strong, political collective of women, we have yet another demographic of sexually available individual women who exist for male consumption.

Take a browse through vegan cookbooks on Amazon, for instance, and the theme of “sexy veganism” that emerges is unmistakable:

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Oftentimes, veganism is presented as a means of achieving idealized body types.  These books are mostly geared to a female audience, as society values women primarily as sexual resources for men and women have internalized these gender norms.  Many of these books bank on the power of thin privilege, sizism, and stereotypes about female competition for male attention to shame women into purchasing.

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To reach a male audience, authors have to draw on a notion of “authentic masculinity” to make a highly feminized concept palatable to a patriarchal society where all that is feminine is scorned.  Some have referred to this trend as “heganism.”  The idea is to protect male superiority by unnecessarily gendering veganism into veganism for girls and veganism for boys.  For the boys, we have to appeal to “real” manhood.

Meat Is For Pussies (A How-to Guide for Dudes Who Want to Get Fit, Kick Ass and Take Names) appears to be out of print, but there are others:

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Then there is the popular tactic of turning women into consumable objects in the exact same way that meat industries do.  Animal rights groups recruit “lettuce ladies” or “cabbage chicks” dressed as vegetables to interact with the public.  PETA routinely has nude women pose in and among vegetables to convey the idea that women are sexy food.  Vegan pinup sites and strip joints also feed into this notion.  Essentially, it is the co-optation and erosion of a women’s movement.  Instead of empowering women on behalf of animals, these approaches disempower women on behalf of men.

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In sum, vegan feminism argues that women and non-human animals are commodified and sexualized objects offered up for the pleasurable consumption of those in power. In this way, both women and other animals are oppressed under capitalist patriarchy. When the vegan movement sexualizes and feminizes vegan food, or replicates the woman-as-food trope, it fails to acknowledge this important connection and ultimately serves to repackage potentially threatening feminist collective action in a way that is palatable to patriarchy.

Corey Lee Wrenn is a Council Member for the American Sociological Association’s Animals & Society section.  This section facilitates improved sociological inquiry into issues concerning nonhuman animals and is currently seeking members. Membership is $5-$10; you must be a member of the ASA to join.

Cross-posted at the Vegan Feminist Network and Pacific Standard.

Eroticized Inequality

Flashback Friday.

We are a species that reproduces sexually and has a penchant for power hierarchies.  One thing that we’ve eroticized, then, is inequality.  In other words, we have sexualized power asymmetry.  I’m not necessarily talking about BDSM, though that may very well be part of it; I’m talking about the everyday gentle or not-so-gentle eroticization of power difference.   If you’ve ever been turned on by the idea of overpowering or being overpowered, that’s what I’m talking about.

This image, used to illustrate a New York Times article about the sexual partners of vegans, is a striking example of eroticized inequality:

So the image, apparently, was chosen because it was a story about sexual relationships between vegans, or “fruity” types. But in order to make fruit look sexual, they positioned them asymmetrically with the pear not just standing next to the apple, or even taller than the apple, but towering over it.  It’s the implication of power difference (and the satin sheets) that make this seem like a sexual image instead of, say, a sleepy one.

This post originally appeared in 2007.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The State of the Dinner

This February, president Obama sat down for dinner with his visiting French colleague, François Hollande. In the company of the first lady, other government officials, and some celebrities, the men enjoyed an appetizer of Illinois caviar, Pennsylvania quail eggs, and 12 US varieties of potatoes. The main dish was a Colorado beef steak with mushrooms, Vermont cheese, and salad, followed by a dessert of Hawaiian chocolate cake, Florida tangerines, and Pennsylvania vanilla ice-cream. Three types of wine accompanied the meal. Not just any types of wine: they were American wines made by French-born winemakers.

Like the food, nothing in this meal was left to chance. But why was the encounter so carefully planned? Would it make a difference if, to celebrate the French-American friendship, the presidents raised a glass of Italian wine instead?

Food provides us with much more than physical sustenance: it is a symbol of relationships among individuals and groups. What was at stake at the February state dinner was not just pleasing the presidents’ palates, but nurturing ties within and between entire nations.

1 (2) - CopyPhoto: Dominic Episcopo

Imagine, first, that the diners were served tortillas or spaghetti as a main course instead of the dry-aged, family-owned-farm-raised rib eye beef steak they had. The former quickly evoke images of Mexico and Italy, while the latter tells a distinctly American story.

Serving dishes associated with particular countries is one way of fostering an imagined community – a nation state – which Benedict Anderson describes as being too great to be maintained by personal relationships, and one that must be continuously symbolized in order to persist. Especially on celebratory occasions, food takes part in producing and communicating national identities.

State dinners aren’t the only such example: another is the festive food used in New Year’s meals. The Vietnamese will eat a tet cake, the Belgians will have smoutebollen, and Slovenians will always have potica. In a melting pot nation, sending a message of a coherent community is even more important. France used banquets in it post-revolutionary times to bring together citizens in defiance of regionally specific gastronomies, writes Julia Csergo. Similarly, during the state dinner, a steak symbolizing quintessential America amidst its diversity was the star of the presidents’ meal.

And imagine, second, what would happen if president Hollande refused any part of the meal. If he skipped the cheese, we might think he is suspicious of the way the U.S. regulates its dairy industry. If he only finished half his potatoes, does that mean American produce does not taste good enough for the French? And if he rejected the dinner invitation to begin with, does this indicate the French dislike the US altogether?

Such presidential gestures would transcend his individual palate. Two political representatives sharing a meal are not only communicating their own food preferences, they are shaping a relationship between two communities. Using commensality as a political instrument is as old as the feasts of ancient Greeks and Romans, writes Richard Ascough: the banquets that took place on special occasions served to maintain connections with gods as much as to foster connections between citizens and forming a political identity. Those who partook in the meal were considered part of a tight group, while those who were not invited, or worse yet, refused the invitation, cast themselves as outsiders. The American and the French presidents enjoying a meal together, then, symbolizes the nations’ peaceful coexistence and firm diplomatic ties.

Offering a bottle of Italian wine instead of a French-American one during the state dinner would not be a disaster, but it would certainly convey a different message, one perhaps of a somewhat colder relationship. But if we are to believe Mary Douglas’ classical 1972 text, Deciphering a Meal, just the fact the presidents were sharing more than drinks is promising: we are almost never reluctant to share a drink with strangers, while sharing meals tends to be reserved for those to whom we wish to signal intimacy. The state dinner, conveniently held right before Valentine’s day, was a political sign of affection.

Teja Pristavec is a graduate student in the sociology department, and an IHHCPAR Excellence Fellow,  at Rutgers University. She blogs at A Serving of Sociology.

Cross-posted at A Serving of Sociology and Everyday Sociology

Will Women Take Whiskey? Male Flight from Feminizing Spirits

This is a Pink Lady: 15 oz. gin, 4 dashes of grenadine, and an egg white.

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According to Shanna Farrell,  the Pink Lady was popularized in the ’50s.  Women were believed to have “dainty palates,” and so cocktails for women were designed to disguise any taste of alcohol.  In the ’70s, the Pink Lady was surpassed by the Lemon Drop and, in the ’80s, the Cosmopolitan.

Farrell asks “What does it mean to drink like a woman” today? Anecdotally, she finds that bartenders consistently expect her to order something “juicy or sweet” — “It’s pink; you’ll like it” — and respond with a favorable nod when she orders something “spirit forward.”

This is typical for America today: women are expected to perform femininity, but when they perform masculinity, they are admired and rewarded. This is because we still put greater value on men and the things we associate with them.

This phenomenon of valuing masculinity over femininity — what we call “androcentrism” — may be changing how women drink, since everyone likes that nod of approval.  Farrell reports that “women account for the fastest-growing segment of worldwide whiskey consumers.”  Well hello, Hilary.

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I wonder how men will respond to women’s incursion into the whiskey market. Traditionally we’ve seen male flight.  As an activity, occupation, or product is increasingly associated with women, men leave.  In a society where women keep infiltrating more and more of men’s domains, this is a bad long-term strategy for maintaining dominance (see, for example, the feminization of education). As I ask in my forthcoming sociology of gender textbook: “What will happen when women are sipping from all the bottles?”

Thanks to the super-cool bartender Naomi Schimek for the tip!

Cross-posted at Jezebel and Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Commodification of Easter Festivities

Flashback Friday.

The word commodification refers to the process by which something that is not bought and sold becomes something that is.  As capitalism has progressed, more and more parts of our lives have become commodified.  Restaurants are the commodification of preparing and cleaning up meals; day care and nannying is the commodification of child raising; nursing homes is the commodification of caring for elders.

We sometimes post instances of commodification that tickle us.  Previously I posted about a company that will now put together and deliver a care package to your child at camp.  A parent just goes to the site, chooses the items they want included, and charge their credit card.  As I wrote in that post: “The ‘care’ in ‘care package’ has been, well, outsourced.”

I was equally tickled by a photograph, taken by sociologist Tristan Bridges, of pre-dyed Easter eggs:

This is a delicious example of commodification.  If you don’t have the time or inclination to dye eggs as part of your Easter celebration, the market will do it for you.  No matter that this is one of those things (e.g., a supposedly enjoyable holiday activity that promotes family togetherness) that is supposed to be immune to capitalist imperatives.

While we might raise our eyebrows at this example, newly commodified goods and services often elicit this reaction.  We usually get used to the idea and, later, have a hard time imagining life any other way.

For more on commodification, peruse our tag by that name. This post originally appeared in 2012.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

From Pale To Pumped With Racial Stereotypes

Flashback Friday.

If whiteness is the neutral category — meaning that people of color are commonly understood to be raced while white people are not — then to be non-white is to be different in some way. The “bad” difference is the deviant (for example, the “welfare queen,” the “thug”), while the “good” difference is the exotic, the interesting, the hip, the cool… the hot or spicy.  Whiteness, in contrast, is boring, bland, or “vanilla.”

This two-page advertisement for Crystal Light beautifully illustrates these cultural ideas.  Notice the way the ad goes from black-and-white to color, from a white model to a model of color (but not too dark-skinned), from straight to curly (but not too curly) hair, from a rather plain dress to one that looks vaguely ethnic, and from awkward standing to dancing (of course).  In the ad, whiteness is, quite literally, bland and being of color is framed as more flavorful.

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Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Is Sugar a Diet Aid? The Answer Depends on the Decade

Last week NPR reported that scientists now trace some of the rise of American obesity to the fear of fat.  Beginning in the 1970s, nutritionists began warning Americans to consume less fat.  This initiated the “low fat” and “fat free” crazes that still linger.

Yet, it now seems that people who followed the advice of nutritionists at the time — to eat less cheese, milk, and meat and more pasta, potatoes, and rice — were likely to get fatter, not skinnier.  The closer a person stuck to the dietary guidelines, the more weight they would gain and, the more weight they gained, the more others would pressure them to stick to the dietary guidelines.  The phrase “cruel irony” only begins to capture it.

The ad below, from 1959, is a peek into another era.  Just a few years before the fear of fat began, the sugar industry was plausibly suggesting that eating more sugar was the best way to stay slim.  This was industry association propaganda, but no doubt the potato and pasta industries contributed to the story in the ’70s just as the meat and dairy industries are in on it today.

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The revision of our nutritional guidelines reminds us to be skeptical of the conventional wisdom.  Moreover, it should inspire us all to check our tendency to judge others.  We don’t have perfect knowledge that allows us perfect control over our bodies.  Scientists are doing the best they can — and hopefully not taking too much funding from for-profit food industries — and individuals are restricted by whatever knowledge and resources they have.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.