Guthman, Julie. “Bringing Good Food to Others: Investigating the Subjects of Alternative Food Practice.” Cultural Geographies 15 (2008): 431-47. Print.

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In this article, Guthman describes the experiences of students at her home institution (UC Santa Cruz) who do extended field work with alternative food programs. More specifically, Guthman’s article deals with the frustration and disappointment many students experience during this fieldwork when the communities they are working in (largely urban communities of people of color) appear to reject the alternative food projects meant to help them. Guthman argues that the primary problem with these alternative food projects is the fact the way that whiteness unconsciously runs through them, such that these programs are designed more so with the interests of white outsiders in mind than with the specific needs and desires of the communities of color they are meant to serve. Guthman argues that the experiences of her students illustrate both the importance of this kind of work for illustrating to students the need for establishing more cooperative relationships with communities and the need for food politics to reflect on the ways whiteness is constructing its discourses and its activism.

As she carries out her research, Guthman aligns herself with Toni Morrison’s call to shift focus from the objects of racism to its subjects. In this movement, Guthman also aligns herself with researchers who have tried to challenge the invisibility of whiteness by taking whiteness up as a critical site of analysis, and she builds on this stance to argue that whiteness is constructing food justice movements in unseen ways that we need to understand better in order to create a more progressive and more effective movement. Guthman identifies a set of three discourses that largely structure conversations about food justice. In detailing these different discourses, Guthman argues that each involves significant tensions that emerge primarily from raced histories that mainstream, white food justice movements haven’t taken into account. These discourses include:

  1. The discourse of “the aesthetic of organic, natural food” (435). For many white organizers, the symbol of soil is vitally important while some black groups are trying to distance themselves from the historical associations of dirt, filth, slave diets, etc.
  2. The rhetoric of “getting your hands dirty.” This discourse assumes that the desire to work with and tend land is universal, but it ignores how fraught agrarian images are in the US, especially for African American and Latino communities.
  3. A focus on alternatives as the best way to transform food systems in the US. A lot of these alternatives are based in countercultural movements and Guthman argues that the most popular of these alternatives depend on localism. But an emphasis on the local can also be tied to problematic associations between localism, xenophobia, and conservatism.

Guthman explains that the majority of the students who do alternative food field work are motivated by these three discourses and, informed by these discourses, are motivated to go into the field to educate people in urban communities of color about how to eat and grow “good food.” According to Guthman, “if people only knew…” becomes a refrain among students, implying that if people only knew where there food was coming from, they would make different, better choices about what they ate. Guthman argues that this refrain implies a missionary zeal to educate the other towards enlightenment. While the students all take coursework prior to going into the field that deals with issues of privilege, whiteness, and the limits of alternative food programs, Guthman argues that their responses prior to and after field work show that only the experience of working in these communities for extended periods of time can productively reveal the problematic whiteness and privilege at work in these discourses.

In the field, the students begin to understand the tensions inherent in the discourses above as the people they are working tell them things like that they feel like they are being asked to work without pay, that they have no interest in getting dirty, that the foods grown in community gardens and brought in via CSAs and farmer’s markets don’t interest them, and that they feel they would most benefit from having access to a basic grocery store. Through these interactions, students begin to understand the need for programs that don’t depend entirely on alternatives and that are more collaborative with community members.

Ultimately, Guthman draws on the students’ changing perspectives through their field work to make two arguments. First, she argues that while the students’ field work experiences might create discomfort, they are necessary for helping students internalize the limits of discourses constructed through whiteness and privilege, and necessary to help students envision more productive ways of engaging in food justice work in the future. Second, Guthman argues that the limits of alternative food programs and the largely white discourses they depend on illustrates the need for a shift in activist focus from alternatives to the systemic issues that give rise to food justice issues in the first place.

Key Quotes:

“[T]he intention to do good on behalf of those deemed other has the marking of colonial projects, in that it seeks to improve the other while eliding the historical developments that produced these material and cultural distinctions in the first place. In this case, the mission of correcting eating practices is kept ideologically separate from the fact of US capitalist development, much of which is founded on the devaluation of racialized labor, most manifestly in the food and farming sectors, that made many who work(ed) in that sector dependent on cheap food. In this context, it is also worth remarking on the language of ‘food deserts’ which, like the ‘dark continent’ is itself layered with colonial codings, evoking images of places beyond repair separated from the processes that make them seem so.” (436)

“Indeed, one conclusion to be drawn from this article is that addressing the food desert problem through an alternative supply side emphasis is inadequate and possibly misguided. […] If this is the case, it may well be that the focus of activism should shift away from the particular qualities of food and towards the injustices that underlie disparities in food access.” (442-3)

“So, if an objective is to enable whites to be more effective allies in anti-racist struggles–indeed to draw upon the resources of white privilege, there is much to be said for participatory action, despite the multiple discomforts it creates. By the same token, such participation seems to call for a different sensibility than is currently operative, one that encourages those who wish to convert, to listen, watch, and sometimes even stay away instead. This approach might allow others to define the spaces and projects of food transformation.” (444)

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