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8 Books to Read About The Politics of Food

Everybody eats. How can such a routine activity be so loaded with politics?

Food is about land—whether it is planted, grazes or swims, food takes land to produce, and who owns that land is often political. Food is about the environment—because without clean soil and water, we cannot have clean food. Food is about labor—who is hired and how much is paid to those who produce, deliver, stock, prepare and cook it. And of course, food is about culture—what we eat and how we eat it are deeply ingrained parts of any culture.

Italian activist Carlo Petrini explores many of these intersections in his book Slow Food Nation: Why Our Food Should be Good, Clean, and Fair. He defines “good” as tasty to eat, “clean” as grown in a way that is both humane and environmentally responsible, and “fair” means economic and social justice for those involved in its production.

Petrini has been considering these issues for a long time. Back in 1986, Petrini organized a protest in Rome against the opening of its first McDonald’s. That movement against processed, globalized food production and in favor of fresh, local food became Slow Food, an organization which has since grown to more than 100,000 members in 150 countries. He has a wealth of experience to share.

The current famine in Somalia illustrates the disastrous outcomes of government policies that affect access to food. According to the relief agency Oxfam, “Crop failure and poverty leave people vulnerable to starvation – but famine only occurs with political failure. In Somalia years of internal violence and conflict have been highly significant in creating the conditions for famine.” To put it plainly, we must concern ourselves not only with how our food is being produced and how much workers are paid for its production, but also who has access to food.

Taking Off the Blinders

Food is fraught with issues from racists stereotypes to prejudices in what people are willing to pay, and even human trafficking. Restauranteur Soleil Ho and journalist Zahir Janmohamed take on the politics of food in their podcast The Racist Sandwich. Ho says, “We normally consider food to be apolitical, so pushing against that notion is important for us, because there’s so much to learn and uncover in that world”.

Here are eight books for readers interested in learning more:

Food Activism

This collection of case studies stands out for its global approach, with essays about Islamic food activism in Egypt to urban agricultural projects in Seattle. With sections on “local engagements”, “national actions”, and “transnational networks”, the essays speak to a range of topics and perspectives.

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Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating with More than 75 Recipes

Bittman examines at how government policies, food industry marketing and global economics impact the choices of what we eat every day, and in turn, how those choices impact the environment as well as the labor market. Best of all, renowned cookbook author Bittman includes 75 recipes that enable readers to put learning into practice, emphasizing local and sustainable production and consumption.

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Tomatoland

A closer look at the production of just one crop reveals genetic manipulation, nutritional deterioration, and even modern-day slavery. 2012 IACP Award Winner in the Food Matters category.

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The Ethnic Restaurateur

Chair of the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, Ray takes a scholarly approach to what he describes as a 'global hierarchy of taste.' He delves into the lived experiences of immigrants working in the food industry in New York City, and examines how cultural valuation is assigned to the cuisines from different countries.

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The Omnivore's Dilemma

Called “the most important food politics book of the past 50 years,” Michael Pollan brought the issues of food politics into mainstream discourse. Tracing the origins of four meals back to their original ingredients, the prevalence of corn in the American diet (some form of corn is found in roughly a quarter of supermarket products) and agribusiness’s dependency on oil.

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Reader, writer, globetrotter. Seattle native who has lived in six countries (current home: New York). Food obsessed. Bylines in NPR, Wall Street Journal, Vice MUNCHIES, Budget Travel and more.

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