Interview: Food is THE Connecting Issue

By Christine Petit LOUDmouth 12 Spring 2006.

According to activist scholar Amory Starr, she was politicized pretty late in life. She was 20. As an urban-studies graduate
student, Starr was turned on to activism through anti-racist, anti-colonialist neighborhood organizing. While continuing her
activism, Starr went on to earn a Ph.D. in sociology. She currently teaches at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and at Colorado State University. Her books include Naming the Enemy: Anti-corporate Movements Confront Globalization(2000) and Global Revolt: Guidebook to Alterglobalization(2005).

While most of Starr’s work is not specifically food-focused, the implications of corporate globalization for food and farmers often come through. This Is What Free Trade Looks Like,a documentary written and directed by Starr, for example, highlights the impacts free trade has on several stakeholders, including farmers impacted negatively by World Trade Organization policies and agriculture subsidies. Starr also stewards a small permaculture in Colorado and has helped students in the same state protect a campus vegetable garden from institutional attempts to get rid of it, participated in activism around biotech and trade and worked on a research project that helped Colorado farmers direct-market to local restaurants.

Her most recent food-related social-justice activism has been in solidarity with the South Central Farmers in Los Angeles (see page 28). The last time I saw Starr she had just finished a talk on the policing of social movements and went on to encourage people to get involved with the SCF struggle. Discussing the farmers’ seemingly impending eviction from the 14-acre farm they have been tending since just after the L.A. uprising in 1992, Starr spoke with a passion that is often
lacking in academia. She and students have participated in events at the farm and have protested at the office of Ralph Horowitz, the developer seeking control of the land.

Wanting to explore further the ways in which food and social justice are connected, I recently caught up with Starr over e-mail.

CP: I remember you gave a talk at UCR during my first month or so as a grad student. Your presentation didn’t count for our
colloquium requirement because it wasn’t considered “sociological research” by some in the department, but I left that talk feeling inspired by your ability to combine activism and your work as a sociologist …
AS: Thank you! I became a sociologist as a way to express my activism. I think that’s true for a lot of people actually, but it’s quite difficult to do! Some things that have helped me are promising myself that I would never think of research or teaching as activism. I’m sorry. It’s just not enough. This world is in bad shape. That’s not enough. Teaching/research jobs pay the bills: The real work is what I do in the precious “flex time” that this profession and a few others offer. (Activists need to look for jobs that may not pay them to do the work they want to do, but that do leave them the time and energy to do it!)
Second, I’m really disciplined with myself about accountability and democracy. I check myself A LOT about ego, elitism, dialogue, honoring the voices of the people who really know. In reality, I have managed to achieve a high degree of integration between teaching, research and action. That’s partly my personality too. I know a lot of good activist scholars who don’t want that. I think that’s OK, as long as you don’t make excuses for stopping activism. I get really mad at people
who use raising their kids as an excuse. I want to say, “You’re going to wait and not do anything and then let them clean up this mess in another 20 years?” I think it’s cruel, actually, to do that to their kids. But I guess it’s none of my business.

How do you think food issues are connected to a larger social justice and/or feminist agenda?

I think food is the connecting issue between our personal lives (health, happiness, security), social-justice issues (everyone should have healthy, culturally appropriate, fresh food), economic issues (corporations are trying to take over the food supply from seed to table, destroying farmers, small processors, safety and quality of food) and ecological issues(the top agenda item for a sustainable system is to reduce transport distance, so we need our local farms). The cutting edge of the organic movement is NOT happening at Whole Foods, and it’s not about rich yuppies getting their bodies pure. It’s in urban communities of color who are asserting the right to “community-food security,” which is an amazing movement in this country. See

Yeah, food security is definitely connected to issues of social justice on many levels — racism, poverty, sexism … . I’ve read that women and female-headed households in particular are especially susceptible to food insecurity. What other connections do you see between food and gender?

I think it’s very complicated and sad that people don’t cook anymore. I think it’s sad that post-feminist women have lost interest in it, partly because they see it as a degraded “homemaker” job and partly because they have decided (arbitrarily) that other things are more satisfying. These amazing culinary traditions, community traditions, intergenerational traditions are being lost, and no one cares. It’s internalized sexism, on one hand, and cultural haste on the other hand, both in the guise of feminism. One of the most important books I’ve ever read is The Subsistence Perspective by Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen. For years they have been taking on this notion that producing anything is anti-feminist. It’s a powerful book. Wendell Berry was writing about this same thing years ago, about how the American culture has contempt for the land and for work, and how dangerous that is to our culture and psyche (and economy!).

So it sounds like these sorts of things may’ve prompted you to develop the Political Economy of Food course that you teach. How did that end up coming about and what issues does it cover?

One day my dear colleague Tony Samara and I both had this idea separately, and when we ran into each other we were so excited. We wanted to teach political economy to our undergraduate friends who were concerned about justice but felt disempowered in discussing economics. We both had the idea in the same day to trace the production and distribution of food because everyone would be interested in that. It worked! We started out teaching the course in our living room
because the university wouldn’t pay us or give us a room. [The course is now fully supported by both universities.] We first taught it in 1996, and I’ve taught it once a year since then. We still have a meal at every course session, and the course really
builds community. There are many alumni of the course who are now doing progressive food work. [The course is] heavily focused on Global South issues. We study production — industrial, biotech, “organic” and other alternative methods. We study distribution issues, including hunger, debt, free trade and alternative economic systems. Then we study food culture a little bit and how it’s affected by colonialism, by horizontal and vertical integration of the food
industry …

Wow. We could go in a lot of directions with this. But since there’s a lot of talk about organic food, why’d you put
“organic” in quotes?

Well, you know that something like 80 percent of “organic” produce is owned by Dole, which is still using DDT on bananas
[and] beating up workers all over Latin America. You have to check out this very depressing chart. And that’s only for the processed food! What happened is [that] this beautiful grassroots movement built by farmers and moms and environmentalists to create a space for organic food has been turned into a major growth industry, so the food corps want in, of course. Way too many of the pioneers of this movement succumbed to the fantasy of power and money and believed that the big guys would maintain their values. They let it slip. They sold their farms and companies. The result is that the meaning of organic is being undermined, in so many ways. Soil health has been abandoned.

Sustainability, in general, is totally irrelevant to what we call “organic.” Fresh and unprocessed food is no longer part of the
framework. Animal husbandry has been abandoned. Farmers and social justice is gone, along with a lot of other scientific details that there has been a lot of public debate on. So the federal certification for organic may mean that it’s free of synthetic pesticides, but it bears little resemblance to the kinds of farmers and ecologists who built the movement.

Have you always been interested in food and food politics, or is it something you came to … ?

Part of why food is important to me is that it was one of the things that helped me to recover from anorexia. My friend Rachel and I had this wild idea that we should just eat what we wanted — that all the self-restriction was messing us up. You know if what you want is rich chocolate cake, you can eat 2 gallons of nonfat chocolate frozen yogurt and not be satisfied. If you go find a good $4 slice of cake, you don’t need 3 pounds of it. You may not be able to finish one slice, but it will satisfy you. We started living by one very strict rule: eat what you want. That means don’t eat one bite after you don’t want anymore. You do NOT need to finish your meal. (That’s what the refrigerator is for. Really, it’ll be there later.) Don’t eat because someone put it in front of you, or because it “looks good,” or because it’s “time” to eat. This takes a lot of discipline. I ate Dreyer’s rocky-road ice cream for about two months, breakfast lunch and dinner. I lost 20 pounds. After that period, which broke [me] of the crazy scarcity mentality, I started craving normal things too, like arugula and garbanzo beans. Later I found out that Geneen Roth had written some books about this way of recovering from anorexia.

That’s great that the two of you were able to come to that and to recover together. What does your relationship with food look like these days?

Well, I call the farmers’ market my church. I’m devout. I go like three times a week. I try to give as much of my food budget as possible directly to farmers and to other artisanal producers. I buy more than I can eat and cook for anybody I can get my hands on. The worms get the rest. It’s a myth that organic food is more expensive. I think organic processed food is probably more expensive than its counterpart, but I don’t buy that stuff. I mostly eat kale, collard greens, dandelions, swiss chard. A bunch a day. They cost about $1.50 each. That adds up to … what? $11 a week? I only buy tomatoes when they’re in season. $2.50 a pound seems like a lot, but they are so full of flavor and nutrients when they are in season. I read an interview with a farmer who charges like $3.50 a dozen for his eggs. He said, “Well, yes, they’re expensive. You can pay me, or you can pay your doctor.”

That’s a lot of produce. Do you eat meat? Fish?

People think of fish as the “clean” meat to eat, but environmentally it’s really the rape of the ocean. It’s almost totally unregulated. The waste and ecological damage is incredible. I see sushi [in its U.S./western context] as a very elitist food — it’s skimming the top from this disgusting, destructive industry and presenting it as if it’s so fine and elegant and sophisticated. Very colonial mentality.

I eat farm-raised meat. Farmers have had thousands of years to learn animal husbandry and to manage farms ecologically. That system is sustainable. Another reason to eat meat is that it’s very hard for small farms to make it economically or ecologically just on vegetables. Without animals they have to import nutrients for the soil. Animals also bring the farmer some products with a more stable price and higher profit margin. You can only charge so much for a vegetable, and it takes a lot of work to grow it. Animals grow lots more mass per unit of labor. They output nutrients instead of uptaking them. Then they walk themselves off the farm when the farmer is ready to harvest, bringing a big price that helps to stabilize the farm economy.

You must cook a lot, buying all this fresh food …

I cook very, very simply. I cook almost all of my meals, and I rarely spend more than 20 minutes doing it. Takeout takes longer! I like to cook alone for myself. A lot of people say they can’t do that, but I think it’s very basic, to care for yourself. We’re so colonized by this idea of romance and the nuclear family that we only want to do work if it’s in a selfless serving kind of way, but there’s another form of joy in doing those things for yourself, to give your body something delicious, in a gentle way. To select it, touch it, smell it, stir it. I think the most powerful form of deep psychic healing is to follow your intuition. And food and cooking is the easiest way to start doing that.

You have to start asking yourself what you really want. In order to find out what we really want in any regard — career, relationship, lunch — we have to break the programming about what we are told will taste good and be satisfying. Well, we might as well get started on that. The farmers’ market is a great place to coax your intuition out. What appeals to your eye? To your hand? What colors, sizes, shapes feel comforting or happy? What are you drawn to? My whole nutritional principle is that if it appeals to you, your body probably needs it, but you really have to learn to trust yourself. I figure when I crave ice cream for a few weeks straight, I’m needing something in dairy. I find that only happens every few months; the rest of the time I don’t even think about ice cream.

Also, you can let the farmers guide you in experimenting with new flavors. Ask them what is their favorite thing right now. I have one farmer I buy my fruit from, and every week I just say, “What should I buy?” and he tells me what is best. Last week he made me buy grapefruit, which is something I don’t eat much. So then I had this pile of grapefruit, and on a whim I grabbed this little hand juicer and squeezed one grapefruit into a glass. What a revelation! So simple and so good.

I really think cooking and the kitchen can be very simple. And when you use fresh food from the market the flavor is exponentially better than anything else. It’s going to be good whatever you do to it! What about someone who knows nothing about cooking, wouldn’t even know where to begin … ?

My favorite cookbooks are from the River Café in London. I like it because many of the recipes have only four ingredients; some don’t even have quantities at all. It’s about a simple assembly of flavors, prepared straightforwardly without a lot of steps. I have really good knives, big wood cutting boards, cast-iron skillets. That’s about all you need. I’ve eliminated all my kitchen gadgets. I hated cleaning them, and so I would avoid using them. My dance partner just bought me a big rock for Christmas — a mortar and pestle! Now I have one gadget again, but using it is like meditation. It feels so old to use it, like stepping out of time.

So no hot-dog-cooker/bun-warmer combo for your kitchen?

I saw those in an airplane magazine. I was stunned. Who has that much counterspace that they can give it up for just one food?

I know! But seriously, as you said earlier, food really is a connecting issue — from issues of community access to safe and
healthy food to personal well-being …

It’s weird, when I think about my village, a lot of the places I go and the people I know are food artisans or people who market food. I am so grateful to good bread bakers and cheese makers — and the farmers, of course. I don’t mind paying a lot for those things. In the United States, generally we don’t pay enough for food. People think food should be “cheap,” which of course ruins farmers. Our farmers haven’t gotten a raise for decades. This is misplaced priorities. Good food is much more important to our health and happiness and the maintenance of our communities and culture than Tivo and big-screen TVs, but people don’t want to pay for food. They’re proud to pay for technology and electronics! But the TV makes them feel bad about themselves and isolates them from other people and nature. What makes us feel connected and empowered? Cooking for each other …