Monday, 25 March 2013

FCC: Food and Communication

Greetings from CMH! For those of you who don’t know, I’ve been in Boston since this past Thursday, attending the Eastern SociologicalSociety’s annual meeting. I’ve definitely been enjoying the foodie scene and taking in Beantown, but before I get too ahead of myself, I must first catch you up on last Wednesday’s Food and Culture Colloquium. Last week, Communication Professor and Department Chair Amanda Gunn’s FCC presented on food communication, a timely module as we soon prepare to close out the Colloquium in about a month’s time. In retrospect, her presentation was especially helpful for me both personally and professionally as my participation in this week-end’s ESS meeting was geared most specifically to its Mini Conference on Food Studies.

Amanda first began by noting her angst around the subject of “food” and a dissonance she felt when I had first asked her to present on any intersection of food within the context of her field of communication studies, a dissonance that seemed to pose greater internal turmoil when particularly highlighted by the term “foodie.” With this in mind, her presentation sought to understand and name this dissonance. And so, Amanda purposefully contextualised her presentation within her field of Communication Studies, a field which she notes studies “meaning making,” and from there, eventually found comfort in Feminist Communication which in brief focuses on two themes: interdependence and power & privilege.

In sum, Amanda’s presentation focused on words and the meaning behind or perhaps more accurately the construction of their meaning (i.e., communication). After asking us what words we typically associate with the food (foodies, stylised, color, nature/art, organic/pesticide-free, good-looking, authentic, comfort, allure, experimentation, family), she asked what we thought of when we saw “insecure,” “desert,” and “obesity.” The leap between the denoted meanings of these words (as objective definitions) and the socially constructed/understood connotated meanings suggests that it is within our power to change the language of the discourses in play (or rather, not in play) as they pertain to the larger issues of food insecurity, food deserts and food obesity.

As a prominent health issue, obesity and its counterpart of malnutrition beg the questions of accountability and solution-making, both of which tend to veer away from recognising these issues as human issues. Instead, we are blaming “the individual” or “the system” and as such, our language/symbols (words)/meanings being constructed need to adapt to return us to the human element facing us. As “foodies” then, this places us in an awkward space. And though we may not have a solution to this dissonance, one step moving forward and away from that space is to first recognise and claim the privilege we have to even be able to talk about food the way we have been for the entire Colloquium, to claim the privilege of being a part of a system that can and does look at these issues often devoid of the human element, where language no longer has a meaning. For Amanda, the dissonance she had been feeling was in presenting on a topic as important as the intersection of food, nutrition and health that seemed disjointed because of the problem she recognises with the terms the collective “we” have to work with and use without much thought. In short, the language we use to see and talk about food reveals injustices, the injustice in the language being at the forefront. For example, Amanda shared that since 2008, the language of “food deserts” has been watered down to an even weaker and less human “food environment.” In this way, human lives and their suffering are hidden and unknown; we reduce our data to facts and numbers, not lives; our civic responsibility is questionable unsaid and unchallenged. Until today.

As we come face-to-face with the dissonance—an awareness of all of the other things, the topics that often go unsaid among everyday foodie parlance—we must find a balance between the joy of food we all share with the acknowledgment of all those who are suffering. We must pay attention to our role in the language and ask ourselves: what does it matter to me to be engaged with food?

And so, as we acknowledge our foodie privilege we must also acknowledge the power we have to seek solutions to equalising that privilege. One great start is to push a paradigm shift by proposing new language for food insecurity/deserts/obesity. We should start calling these by their true name: human neglect among the food privileged. And we, as the people with privilege, must be willing to interrogate ourselves, to claim hunger as a personal, political act, a voting issue. In embracing our food privilege, we can only become more openly honest in our food identity/-ies; indeed, with this self-reflection comes a greater understanding through food.

For more information regarding the 2012-2013 Food and Culture Colloquium at Denison University, click here. To check out the growing album of photos from our second semester of colloquium modules, click here.  

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