The food system in America has become vastly complex, and people are becoming increasingly removed from the sources of their meals. Food production and consumption has vast effects on the environment and many serious implications for women in particular. A panel discussion in Grand Rapids recently addressed the environmental implications of the food system in America.
Dr. Kirsten Bartels, Katie Brandt, and Dr. Wynne Wright led the second panel discussion of the recent Women and the Environment symposium at GVSU. Bartels is a professor of Liberal Studies and Environmental Studies and an Honors Faculty Fellow at GVSU, teaching on food and food systems and researching eco-criticism and sustainability. Brandt is the co-owner of Groundswell Community Farm, a small-scale organic vegetable operation that sells all of its produce within 25 miles of the farm. Wright is an associate professor in the department of community agriculture, recreation and resource studies at MSU, and she specializes in social change in the agricultural food system.
The complexity of the food system, the way in which humans organize their food, how they negotiate, how they assign meaning to food in agriculture, how they come into conflict with one another and duke it out, who wins and who loses and what are the trade-offs, this is what motivates Wright as a rural sociologist.
Katie Brandt started Groundswell Farm with a friend in 2006, acknowledging that two women starting up a farm in a very conservative, rural area might be a bit of a scandal. “It was,” she said. “But we were fortunate in that we both had a lot of farming experience, we knew what to do in the field. It was still a challenge; there are a lot of male-oriented skills that we went into farming without: construction, mechanical skills. But you could just go to the hardware store and they would want to sell you things and tell you how to do it, so we got past those challenges.”
Now Brandt is selling to 150 CSA members, both in Grand Rapids and Holland, as well as to Fulton Street Farmer’s Market on Saturdays. “We’re really lucky to have a market with so much community support, there’s about 2 million dollars going into the Farmer’s Market this year to make it a permanent structure.”
Dr. Bartels suggested that we are becoming increasingly removed from our food system, so the need for food literacy is more important than ever. “If we don’t pay attention to what goes into our food systems, then we don’t pay attention to what goes in our bodies, and what goes in our children’s bodies, and what goes in our rivers, our lakes, our air, and what’s happening to our soils,” she said. “If we don’t pay attention, if we don’t demand to know, then we have no control, and then we have no one to blame.”
She cited the thousands of slaughterhouses that used to exist when meatpacking was “a noble industry,” where now there are less than six that process all our meat. “And what happens when you mix all that meat together, and the bacteria and contamination? If we don’t know then we have no one to blame – it’s now that we have to be active and now that we have to learn. Ignorance isn’t bliss, it’s just setting up our kids for a horrible future.
“It’s not simple or neat, there’s no one quick and dirty answer,” said Wright, discussing how food production affects women. “Particularly think about a sustainable food system, and women’s role in producing a sustainable food system. It’s been quite a mixed bag because women have helped and are helping considerably to advance a sustainable food system, and yet many women and their work get in the way of that at the same time.”
She said she encourages her students to see the roles of women in food production beyond cooking. “Mothers provide nourishment and often neglect themselves to concern themselves with their families and others,” she explained. “But in cooking and preparing food we’re also perpetuating tradition and culture. When immigrant women come to this country, they reproduce their culture, their ties to their kin and their homeland through food.”
“Provisioning work can be a burden,” Wright continued, “And when women are invisible, when they’re abused and exploited for these reasons, this is not sustainable.”
On a more optimistic note, Wright said that right now women are reclaiming certain opportunities in ways of food production. According to her, the face of agriculture today is more likely to be a female than “that old white guy in overalls.”
She stated that the fastest growing category in farming these days is young women with small-scale operations who are reinventing agriculture through direct ties and new relationships. “There’s a little over 8 thousand female farmers in Michigan, this number has soared to the point where the USD is actually counting women, they didn’t even count women as farmers until just a few years ago.”
In 1978, according to Wright, 5% of farmers were women compared to today’s 14%, which she said is significant because that’s the only area apart from organic production that’s currently growing.
“So women are finding new ways of overcoming gender inequality. They’re no longer invisible. There are new opportunities for young women to be much more visible, to create opportunities, and to move us a little bit closer to a sustainable food system.”
Brandt suggested that one big opportunity in the food system right now for women is getting involved in agriculture as a grower. “…we almost never have the opportunity to hire any males, it’s all women that contact us looking for work,” she said, “So one of the advantages in that for women is that they choose to work at a farm for several years and then they go on to start their own farm with a ton of experience, and a lot of thought that went into the business planning.”
Wright, who wrote a book called The Fight over Food, said that the fight she refers to is different ways of thinking about our food future. She is interested in how this fight will “cultivate those democratic voices, how people in Grand Rapids, for example, will create their food systems. Will this system be driven by industrial elites, like the industrial food system has been for the past 50 to 75 years? Or will it be driven by the citizens who are eating food and doing the work of maintaining their communities, their families, and the ones who are most concerned about living the trade-offs, the negative impacts of environmental toxins, health problems, and those sorts of things?”
“For me, she concluded, “It’s not about a 5th grade cafeteria food fight, but it’s about this question that we’re asking ourselves at this particular moment in our society. And who will win this debate is still to be seen.”