«Nicolas Larchet École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales Abstract The problem of changing food habits has once again become a major public ...»
Scientists and philanthropists have long complained that the American working classes do not eat enough fruits and vegetables, and that they buy unnecessary luxuries. Most famously at the end of the nineteenth century, pioneer nutrition scientist Wilbur O. Atwater35 called for a ―dietary reform‖ directed in particular toward ―the classes who work for small wages,‖ and consisting in the ―use of less food as a whole, and in many more cases in the use of relatively less meat and larger proportions of vegetable foods.‖ Atwater did not hesitate to mix scientific facts with moral judgments, as he blamed ―the extravagance of the poor‖ in their food choices, resting on ―a curious foundation made up of pride, ignorance and indifference‖ (Atwater 1886).
While today‘s food reformers who look at popular food habits no longer talk about ―ignorant‖ people with ―extravagant‖ ways, they may unconsciously reproduce the same class prejudices that their predecessors openly expressed. This may take the form of taken-for-granted, naturalizing assumptions about the poor, such as their lack of nutritional knowledge and cooking skills,36 or their irresponsible use of money, as was recently shown by proposed bans on using food stamps to buy soda, from New York City to South Carolina (McGeehan 2011; Shanzenbach 2013). Some in the food reform movement are well aware of this prejudice, and struggle to make their voice heard. As an educator at a food bank and member of the food policy council put it, answering to the charge of elitism in the
That‘s sort of my issue, that‘s one of the things that really would get my blood pumping. You know, the Alice-Waters-slow-food folks … What people eat is a very personal thing. It‘s a very intimate experience. Pass those value judgments, no matter how you frame them, it‘s still a value judgment, and you‘re looking down somebody who is not eating the way you think.37 Appendix: Methodological Note—An Outsider among Regulars Searching for a corner store to carry out observations, I decided to focus on the ―Innertown‖38 neighborhood, having noticed a large amount of corner stores in the area during previous fieldwork on unrelated matters. Riding my bicycle on a winter Saturday afternoon, I stopped first at the ―Royal Food Store.‖39 As it was located only a couple of blocks from the place where I was living during my stay in the city, I naively hoped that I could pass as a neighbor there. Heading for the kitchen in the back of the store, I ordered a hamburger when the cook said to me: ―Is it cold enough for you?‖ (the weather was then surprisingly cold and windy for the city‘s standards)—―At least you don‘t get cold when you‘re working on the grill,‖ I replied, adding that I was used to severe winters in my homeland of Eastern France. As I was going to pay at the counter, the manager said to me, in French: ―Cinq dollars quarante-cinq, s’il vous plaît.‖ When I entered the store that day, I had noticed that the man behind the counter appeared to be of North African descent. If my impression was correct, then there was a chance he would speak French.
Letting the cook know I was French, I hoped the manager would hear it, and that it would be a good conversation starter. And so it was: we talked for fifteen minutes or so about American cultural peculiarities, engaging in ―folk ethnography‖—―Why is it that Americans care so little about controlling their information?‖ I remember him asking me (we reverted to English after a few minutes, up to the end of my visits). I returned to the store two other times the following week, buying food and cigarettes, before I dared asking Mohamed if I could hang out there to do a sociological survey of the people‘s social interactions, their food and culture. He told me I was welcome anytime, if not on a daily basis. In return for his gratitude, I offered to help him at the store—he would accept it only once.
From then on, putting my foot in the door, I would stay at the store for several hours every second day or so, over the next four months.40 I decided to observe and listen to the customers instead of interviewing them, to give them a chance to express their own classifications, and to avoid collecting data that would merely reflect my own values.
At first I tried to keep a detailed account of the customers‘ purchases, but I soon realized that I could not grasp the social meanings of consumption practices without paying attention to other statements customers made in their dress, appearance and mundane conversations. On my first week there, I sat near the entrance door taking notes in my journal from time to time, until Mohamed told me to sit in the back after one customer apparently mistook me for an undercover cop and left.41 Then, I used to spend more and more time at the counter, chatting with Mohamed, who would disclose details about the regulars after I gave him a copy of Elliot Liebow‘s Tally’s Corner.42 It was not until a few months later that he invited me to sit behind the counter.
During my long visits to the store, I had little success in making contact with the regulars, while those people who came to me were invariably outsiders: a few white neighbors and non-profit volunteers, an Ethiopian immigrant, a black real-estate investor, etc. Despite my good-hearted, if clumsy efforts to share more than a few words with the regulars, being a white upper middle class college graduate, I constantly hit against the ―plate-glass pane‖43 or ―chain-link fence,‖44 that stands between the observer and the observed.
Acknowledgment A version of this paper was first presented at the 2nd conference of the British Sociological Association‘s Food Study Group in London in June 2010. I am indebted to Celia Bense Fereira Alves and Florence Pelosato for their corrections and helpful comments on earlier drafts, as well as to the anonymous reviewers of this journal and of Critical Public Health. All remaining errors are mine alone.
Nicolas Larchet is a doctoral student in sociology at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris. He works at the Center for Urban Cultures and Societies (CSU) and teaches at Sciences Po. His current research is on American social movements that center around food, popular eating habits, and the social construction of hunger and obesity in American cities. He has recently written an entry on the history of food reform movements in the United States for The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (2nd edn). Department of Sociology, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), Paris, France (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Notes 1 Becker himself refers to ―people who are excessively fat or thin‖ as an example meeting the statistical definition of deviance (Becker 1963: 5).
2 Some 31.6 percent of black men are obese versus 25.4 percent of white men, and 39.2 percent of black women are obese versus 21.8 percent of white women (CDC 2009). Obesity prevalence is generally similar at all income levels among men, while it increases as income decreases among women (Ogden et al. 2010).
3 The first food policy council was founded in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1982 (Haughton 1987). As of 2012, according to the Community Food Security Coalition, there were close to 200 food policy councils in the United States and Canada, bringing together various stakeholders of the food system at the city, regional or state level.
4 At 28 percent, the city‘s obesity rate is five points above the national average according to the Centers for Disease and Prevention Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System in 2011.
5 In this case, the dominant model of knowledge is undoubtedly the quantitative social survey (or questionnaire), which, alongside the use of maps, is critical in framing the problem to secure grants from the government or foundations. Beyond their use of ―hard‖ quantitative data, the success of these methods can be attributed to their totalizing, ―democratic‖ coverage of an area or population (sample).
6 Naming this social group is no easy task as employing one term instead of another amounts to a statement on the respective importance of race, culture and class in its formation. Terms used by social scientists to describe it have ranged from the somewhat folkloric ―ghetto dwellers‖ to the ideologically loaded notions of ―underclass‖ and ―black subproletariat,‖ among others. I have here chosen to use the more neutral term ―black urban poor‖ and its derivatives to describe the black residents of American cities living near or below poverty levels.
7 Supermarkets were defined as ―full-service grocery outlets with three or more registers.‖ 8 This observation echoes Warren Belasco‘s characterization of food co-ops as ―nonprofit specialty stores supplying countercuisine staples to the already converted‖ (Belasco 2007 : 93), and Rachel Slocum‘s description of a Minneapolis farmers‘ market as catering to ―the culturally middle class who might be some combination of bourgeois suburban, left, hippie, alternative, academic, non-profit urban or tourists out for a day in the market.‖ (Slocum 2007: 528).
9 While those institutions often work as gateways for urban ethnographers exploring the ―field‖ (Whyte 1943;
Liebow 1967), they are rarely studied for their own sake. Among notable exceptions are Elijah Anderson‘s study of patrons of a bar and liquor store (Anderson 1978) and Mitchell Duneier‘s study of black working class men in a restaurant catering to a racially mixed clientele (Duneier 1992), both located in Chicago‘s South Side.
10 Progressive reformers‘ frustrated efforts to contain working class wage demands and to Americanize immigrants by promoting ―scientific eating‖ at the turn of the twentieth century is well known to historians (Kirkland 1974; Levenstein 1980; Aronson 1982; Shapiro 1986; Jass 2004; Jou 2009). In another context, social scientists serving on the National Research Council‘s Committee on Food Habits during the Second World War have given a first-hand account of Americans‘ resistance to changing their food habits to adjust to wartime conditions (Mead 1943).
11 I have conducted several months of volunteer work with these two organizations and I am deeply indebted to their staff for their cooperation. I hope they will understand that the following critique aims to reveal the pitfalls of a system, and not individual failures.
12 Interview with the market manager at a restaurant, May 25, 2009.
13 Interview with the president of the CSA in his office, April 30, 2009.
14 I selected customers in a random fashion, inviting anyone who was leaving the store with food baskets and followed an interview grid composed of fourteen questions. Only one person refused to answer the survey, citing a lack of time. This sample amounts to roughly 15–20 percent of the CSA‘s estimated 100 to 150 weekly customers.
15 On ―white flight‖ and ―commercial devastation‖ in American inner cities in the 1960s and 1970s, see Cohen (2003: 370–87).
16 In the words of Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University‘s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, ―It is always easy to advocate for more grocery stores, but if you are looking for what you hope will change obesity, healthy food access is probably just wishful thinking‖ (Kolata 2012).
17 In a review of the literature on food access and obesity, Martin White has similarly indicated that ―the research presented so far does not provide strong evidence that food retailing in isolation affects diet‖ (White 2007).
18 According to OECD health data from 2011, the prevalence of obesity in the United States is 33.8 percent, in the United Kingdom 23 percent, in France 11.2 percent and in Italy 10.3 percent (OECD 2012).
19 This legacy is often claimed by epidemiologists researching environmental health issues, especially in the context of obesity prevention. For instance, see Tom Farley and Deborah Cohen‘s discussions of Edwin Chadwick (Farley and Cohen 2005: 21–36).
20 Julie Guthman talks about ―supply-side interventions‖ to describe such localized efforts (Guthman 2011: 87– 9).
21 On this field experience, see the methodological note in the appendix.
22 In any given year, the average murder rate in the city is between 50 and 100 per 100,000.
23 The average monthly food stamps benefits in the state amounts to US$300 per household (that is, a little more than 1 dollar per person per meal), which is on par with the national average.
24 Interview with Mohamed at a restaurant, April 11, 2010.
25 Urban ethnographers have pointed to the centrality of notions of ―decency‖ and ―respectability‖ as folk classifications among the urban poor (Bourgois 1995; Anderson 1999) 26 Mohamed makes a point of not selling alcoholic beverages, despite the fact that the store would be more profitable by doing so.
27 As a substantial part of the store‘s clientele is unemployed, one might argue that Mintz‘s framework is here irrelevant, as it applies to populations engaged in heavy manual labor in a particular phase and location of industrial capitalism. It might be replied that food habits and taste are deeply entrenched cultural patterns that do not quite keep up with economic fluctuations. That the last forty years have seen a rise in unemployment among the urban poor does not mean that they will readily abandon eating habits passed to them by generations of workers.
28 In a similar fashion, comparing family budgets from different European countries in his PhD thesis, durkheimian sociologist Maurice Halbwachs showed that the consumption patterns of industrial workers significantly differed from those of employees, even at the same income level (Halbwachs 1912).
29 Cooking figured prominently among the practices observed by de Certeau to account for the everyman‘s resistance to commodification (de Certeau et al. 1998 ).
30 Mohamed observed the same behavior among Nouakchott‘s poor. This was not the first time my informer helped me in elaborating my observations. In many respects he could be mentioned as a co-author of the present study.
31 Also known as ―white tees,‖ these inexpensive and versatile clothes are sometimes associated with gang or criminal activity as they can make suspect identification more difficult.