Sunday, July 10, 2011

Thought for food

I'm currently in the process of applying to enroll in a PhD, a much more difficult task than I imagined as it seems I'm expected to know, more or less, what I'll be doing for the next 3 - 4 years.  The more I think and learn about 'free food' the bigger the topic gets and I don't really want to limit it - because it's all so interesting!

I'm not sure if anything is actually free... there is always energy going into producing food, and often energy exchanged for it.  Sometimes that energy is in the form of formal currency, sometimes it is in other forms such as labor or other goods.  I don't know if food that is given away with nothing expected in return is actually the main kaupapa for what I want to research, but I do want to focus of food that's outside the corporate food industry.

This is the outline I have come up with so far:

Contemporary grass-roots initiatives focussed on the democratisation of nourishment or ‘free food’ have become increasingly more common in recent years in correlation with increases in food prices and growing awareness of social, cultural, evironmental and ethical problems with the global corporate food system (Hassanein, 2003; Germov & Williams, 2004; Scrinis, 2008).  The intention of this research is to analyse a collection of these initiatives in light of the understandings around the food systems in advanced capitalist countries of some of the people involved.    The concept of global food scarcity has long been held as a common lay belief, although, as early as the 1970s criticism emerged arguing that the myth of food scarcity has been perpetuated by the corporate food industry, which relies on it to sustain market value (Moore Lappé & Collins, 1977).  This system has been shown to be excessively wasteful, as over-produced food is discarded rather than flooding the market, as Colquhoun (2007) describes: “between 30 and 40 percent of the food produced in Britain is never eaten, and the amount thrown away has increased 15 percent in the last decade” (p.372).  Stuart (2009) estimates that in the United States around 50 percent of all food is wasted.  As Shantz (2005) states: “It is not surprising that within societies of mass consumerism, consumption practices would be key areas of struggle. Indeed the rise of mass consumerism has given rise not only to corresponding criticisms of consumerism, but to movements organizing to challenge regimes of mass consumption” (p.1). Along these lines freeganism[1], food foraging, guerrilla gardening and community gardens have sprung up and grown in recent years, creating their own informal economies as alternatives to participation in the corporate food industry.
While there has been considerable recent research into freegan activities such as dumpster diving, a practice and philosophy that has grown widely in recent years (Rush, 2006, Darrell, 2009, Shantz, 2005), many other activities, organisations and practices that could be classed as being situated within the wider 'free food movement' have yet to be explored.  These include food foraging networks, community gardening, land sharing programs, renegade or guerilla gardening, free stores and so on.  While some research had been undertaken into some of these (Shantz, 2005; Rush, 2006; Hassanein, 2003), others are yet to be explored from a sociological perspective or similar social science paradigm.  This research will fill in some of the gaps in the literature regarding these concepts as well as explore the connections between these different practices, particularly focusing on shared values and philosophical views.  This research can also be considered socially important due to the absolute necessity of food and the flaws in the current global food system which have led, on the one hand, to excessive food waste and simultaneous starvation and malnutrition (Stuart, 2009).  This imbalance is a serious social justice issue and this thesis intends to explore grass-roots and community-based alternatives which work outside the market system and attempt to fill some of the gaps it creates. 
This research will employ a variety of relevant research methods in order to undertake comparative case studies in New Zealand and internationally, predominantly, in advanced capitalist societies where food is not necessarily scarce but where a false scarcity is created by the market.  The internet, with its immense potential for information sharing and communication, is an important vehicle for the formation and growth of food democratisation initiatives.  Therefore, as part of this research, online initiatives will be explored alongside face-to-face initiatives.

Key arguments:
  • 1. The global corporate food industry creates a state of false scarcity in order to maximise profits which means that nourishing food is less accessible to people of low socio-economic means.  
  • 2. Food democratisation initiatives create abundance through growing food or redistributing food that would otherwise be wasted
  • 3. These initiatives can be considered part of a wider social movement resisting global capitalism through proactive, constructive, productive grass-roots food activism

Research questions
  • What is the relationship between global capitalism and food?  
  • How does the global corporate food industry create food scarcity in order to maximise profits?
  • In what ways have people responded to the inequities within the global distribution of food (commodity chain and food scarcity)?
  • What is the relationship between the democratisation of food and food scarcity?
  • What groups and initiatives are involved in the democratisation of food?
  • What political and ethical values do different food democratising initiatives share (and what values differ)?
  • How can these micro level grass roots initiatives create wider social change? 
  • How can they be supported or set up?
  • What motivates the initiatives at the micro level?
  • How can the discourses of these initiatives contribute to the critique of global capitalism?

[1] Freegans live on food that would otherwise be wasted, for example, food found in supermarket rubbish bins.

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