Social justice and equity are important areas of exploration in the political ecology of the world food system. Socioeconomic factors contribute greatly to resource and information access, and those in vulnerable circumstances seem to have significantly increased risk factors in both overall health and exposure to contaminants due to the food they consume. As Norah MacKendrick points out, for her study volunteers who sought to regain “control” of their chemical consumption and engage substantively in conversations about food chemicals were primarily white, educated women. Although she points out that perceptions of “age, gender, race, and education [are] identified as just some of many relevant factors” of exposure to contaminants, the fact that these are generally compounded in inequitable situations with socioeconomic status only works to demonstrate the lack of control these individuals likely have over their exposure.
Although it may not be the answer to the decline in Earth’s environmental viability, the current “individualization of responsibility” Michael Maniates points to is yet another inaccessible social norm for many families of limited access. Recycling practices, replanting, home gardens, etc. are often nonexistent in low-income multi-family housing. Without accountability or participation, the suggestion that “rich consumers and poor alike…demand eco-technologies” (Maniates, 46) seems like a tall ask. Who can afford these more sustainable practices, and who is being absolved of their responsibility?
Given the targeted marketing of processed, unhealthy foods to the lower-income demographic, a response closer to Julie Guthman’s be expected: a defense of “lifestyle choice” and minimization of the value of examination of the historical shift in food processing and growing. Some of her commentary seems to empower a movement of rejecting whole foods and embracing unhealthiness. But overall, the message that a holistic look at the entire food system, and specifically the food marketers, is resoundingly necessary to empower those most at risk.
The interconnected systems working to shape the socioeconomic disparity in food selection – politics, health systems, culture, corporate interests, the food industry, education, etc. work to create great inequity for already at-risk populations. From children who are eating provided school lunches with nutritional content dictated by the lobbyists influencing government agencies, to families without farmers markets, Whole Foods, or green patch of grass to source, to mega corporations only supplying low-income neighborhood convenience stores with the most inconvenient foods, this particular human subset seems especially lost in the system.
Maniates, Michael F. “Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?” Global Environmental Politics, Vol. 1, No. 3, 2001, pp. 31-52.
Guthman, Julie. “The Food Police: Why Michael Pollan makes me want to eat Cheetos.” Gastronomics, Jan/Feb 2008.
MacKendrick, Norah. Stevens, Lindsay, M. “’Taking Back a Little Bit of Control’: Managing the Contaminated Body Through Consumption.” Sociological Forum, Vol. 31, No. 2, June 2016, pp. 310-329.