Law For Food: The law affects what you eat. What you buy to eat affects the law.

Feminism v. Locavorism

For some reason, a number of stories have made it onto the radar about the apparent tension between feminism and locavorism. Nathalie Jordi, an acquaintance of mine, writes:

[T]he very things that the young liberationists of my mother’s generation eschewed have become real pleasures for (some) of the liberated women of mine. We don’t necessarily see cooking, mending clothes or growing food as oppressive. Of course, that’s because we have the luxury of choosing not to do these things. Still. I see my friends run toward the stove at the same speed my mother fled from it. How quickly the tables have turned!

In an interview at Eating Liberally, Dr. Nestle considers, but fails to locate, the guilt for industrial, processed food with the late Peg Bracken, second wave feminist and author of The Compleat I Hate to Cook Book:

EL: Overworked, stressed-out moms are taking a lot of heat from some quarters for getting out of the kitchen, but who’s really to blame for our convenience food-dominated diet? Was the I Hate to Cook Book a progressive, pre-Friedan feminist manifesto, or a culinary cop-out?

MN: . . . If we want people cooking, and teaching kids about where food comes from and how to cook it, the doing of all that needs to be easy and fun and the results need to taste great at the end. People have to start somewhere. It’s just fine with me if they start with Rachel Ray. If she gets people — men, women, and children — back into the kitchen once in awhile, she is performing a great public service.

Back in June, Jennifer Jeffrey asked whether cooking and eating locally is just another way for women to feel inadequate, and whether local, sustainable eating is “friendly to the larger community of women.” In a follow-up post, however, she eloquently addresses the greater dimensions to local, sustainable eating. I don’t want to put words into Jennifer’s mouth, and I want to give her own words greater exposure:

The System is Broken. It’s not the fault of the farmer’s market that I feel overstressed. Rather, the game itself is rigged. The workforce rewards people who are willing to put in ridiculous hours and disregard personal health and long-term wellbeing. It does not reward self-nourishment or play or rest. Even more insidious is the fact that our buy-more culture has lured us into a devil’s bargain with debt. Even if we’re working at a job we love, it requires an insane juggling act to live a balanced life. That there aren’t enough hours to nourish ourselves properly, or that we have to make a choice between eating well and building our careers is just… craziness.

Convenience Has a Dark Side. Convenience has been our friend, but not a trustworthy one. We can put dinner on the table in 30 minutes or less, but those cans and jars are slipping us toxic additives and chemicals on the sly. Like the friend who keeps borrowing money but never pays it back, Convenience has become a liability. The fault lies with us: we haven’t set proper boundaries. We need to speak out, vote with our dollars, and support products that are healthy and safe.

The Bar is Being Raised. The slow-organic-local movement is putting pressure on the mega-grocers and Big Ag in ways that will confer advantages to all women. I happen to think that WalMart’s foray into organic products and Safeway’s new “O” line are moves in the right direction; the more options, the better. The goal is for more people have access to better food. Hopefully, the bar will continue to rise, and “organic” will just be the starting point.

. . .

It Isn’t All or Nothing. One home cooked meal a week is better than none. One trip to the farmer’s market in a month will introduce locally grown vegetables and fruits into your diet and help support the local economy. Some weeks I’m going to have the time and inspiration to roast my own beets and make my own marinara sauce; other weeks, it’s not going to happen. And that’s okay.

. . .

The Slow-Organic-Local Movement is a Boon for Female Entrepreneurs. Here in the Bay Area, a new crop of small women-owned businesses has sprung up around the growing demand for quality food products. I don’t have the time or desire to make my own preserves, but June Taylor does, using the best fruit ever. Alison McQuade makes amazing chutneys (Glasgow Spiced Apple + double cream Brie = bliss). Donna Eichhorn and Shirley Virgil make incredible handmade tamales and corn tortillas. No matter where you live, I guarantee that you can find women who are taking advantage of this growing opportunity.

If not for the surge of interest in small, local producers, these women might not be in business. They are, and we all win.

Lastly, I’ve framed this discussion in a feminist context, but of course this is a universal concern. While I still believe that this issue is of particular importance to women, since women have historically been the “nurturers” and therefore the convenience and ready availability of food has been a key factor in the changing landscape of women’s rights, I’m really a “people-ist” more than anything – someone who desires the equality of all people, everywhere. I’m thrilled that the quality of our choices is growing, and that so many people are talking about the myriad ways in which food affects our lives.

I suppose you can guess which side of the fledgeling debate I find myself on. I don’t believe that it is wrong per se to outsource your domestic labor, but doing so on the scale that the industrial world has done distorts the whole food supply, and the costs of these distortions aren’t being equitably distributed. First, I think there is this residual underlying sense, left over from the second-wave, that housework like cooking is something that holds women back, and I think this idea is just plain wrong. It seems mistaken to say that the labor of cooking is in some sense intrinsically inequitable. Indeed, I’m not even sure what that would mean. The distribution of that labor may still be inequitably shared between men and women, but that doesn’t make the act of cooking locally unfair. Even if it were, it would be an irresponsible and regressive feminism which attempts to shift the burden of this labor from middle- and upper-class households onto the backs of lower-class and increasingly illegal laborers. Even if cooking is slavery, we still do not liberate women by enslaving Guatemalans.

Yes, it is difficult to balance the demands of a career with the expectations of locavorism, but locavorism is anti-feminist only if we retain the notion that women are solely or primarily responsible for nourishing the family. Why shouldn’t men share in the messy early-morning fun of the farmer’s market? If fifty years ago men were helpless in the kitchen, it a paltry equality indeed that has made women just as helpless today. Eating, like the consumption of any other good, is in the end a political act, and not liking to cook doesn’t exempt man or woman from the basic obligation to pursue justice and equality.

Update: Edited for clarity.

Update II: Ethicurean points out today that “locavore” is the New Oxford American Dictionary word of the year, and that the term was coined by four socially-conscious women. (Readers: let’s make “ethicurean” the word of the year next year, shall we?)


8 Comments so far
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Other factors are at play here: In the competitive world we live in, after-school sports (soccer for us and gymnastics for example) grew to cut into family time. All of our Saturdays were spent taking our children to games or practice or meets, birthday parties or scout events. Getting kids to and from soccer or baseball or whatever practice in crowded urban areas kept moms out of the kitchen preparing food or minimized shopping time. No matter how healthy you do a school lunch, once there, kids will swap for junk food. How do you tell a kid not to eat the junk the scout mom brought for her turn for snacks? How do you overcome the advertising for junk on tv? How do you overcome coke machines on campus that the school justifies for the added income paid to put them there?

As women began to have careers, these lifestyle factors make mothering — healthy mothering by all mothers — a sysephian (sp) task against cultural trends.

From your post: “The fault lies with us: we haven’t set proper boundaries. We need to speak out, vote with our dollars, and support products that are healthy and safe.” — It also means putting these things over and over and over again on the agenda. It might mean that being a femist is a different thing — caring for social and cultural issues that negatively affect the family.

My food post linking to you came up today.

Comment by H.A.Page


Thanks again for the link!

You are right that socially-responsible mothers face no small task. It’s not easy to protect kids from the omnipresent messages of conspicuous consumption, and it seems particularly self-defeating when our tax dollars go to fund those very messages we are trying to filter out.

I know it’s not realistic to say, “just quit your job and homeschool your kids,” and I certainly don’t want to turn this site into me telling anybody how to raise their kids, but it seems to me more and more that staying at home, throwing out the TV, and growing her own vegetables might be some of the most subversive things a woman can do. Or a man; I don’t really care.

Ethicurean recently posted a food pyramid for ethicureans, and the accompanying article points out that the USDA organic certification is just the beginning of food values, and that ultimately these are values which can’t be bought but have to be performed. I don’t feel that I understand the concept of value incommensurability enough to say whether locavorism or any other form of ethical eating is an incommensurable good. Instead, I would say that in the exchange of money for food labor there are transaction costs which are non-economic and are not recoverable.

I don’t want to be doctrinnaire about it, and I can certainly imagine times when the good of soccer practice outweighs the good of homemade dinner from local food sources. But I think that the costs of not having homemade dinner ought to be considered when we make these decisions.

In short then, yes, absolutely — it means putting these things, these values, on the agenda and into public discussion over and over again.

Thanks for writing. Warm regards,

Law for Food

Comment by lawforfood

Great post! Really, this is an excellent question. I think it points to the necessity of organizing politically to do something about these questions– because if you approach the question of locavorism/ethical eating from a strictly individual standpoint, then yes, the burden *does* mostly fall on women. That’s why it has to be approached politically– how do we change the systems of food production and distribution? How do we change the sexism of a society that places the burden of child care on working women’s shoulders?

Comment by therealpotato

30 years ago, Phyllis Schlafly named Clarence Birdseye of frozen food fame as the greatest contributor to feminism. Why? Because convenience food “liberated” so many women from the “drudgery” of cooking. Are we really going to agree with that line of thinking?

Comment by Kei

I’m not too inclined to take the word of Phyllis Schlafly when it comes to feminism!

But there’s no question that inventions like ‘convenience foods,’ dishwashers and laundry machines, etc. certainly made it possible for more women to do things like go to school and have careers while still taking on the burden of housework. Convenience foods didn’t ‘liberate’ us– they just made ‘women’s work’ a lot easier to do. They pick up the slack because men don’t, and society doesn’t. Human beings could easily share all those burdens, but they’re left to the individual because our society is structured around profit, and liberating women is a lower priority. Maybe if we all pitched in and shared the burdens of housework, we could make high quality food instead of having only five minutes to spare to prepare dinner.

Comment by therealpotato


That’s a fascinating bit of history I didn’t know about, and no, in principle I definitely don’t agree with Schlafly’s thinking on the matter, because it perpetuates the idea that housework is “women’s work” and possibly, the idea that a woman should only work outside the home insofar as her doing so doesn’t cause the housework to suffer.

I do kind of suspect, however, that as a practical matter these “convenience foods” may have made it easier for women to work outside the house without too much domestic discord — that is, without disturbing the husband’s false idea that his day’s work ended when he came through the door at 5:30.

Which gets at Potato’s observation that “convenience foods” are feminist only if the labor that they save is “women’s work.”

I confess that I do still worry a bit that locavorism may prove to be regressive — not because cooking is “women’s work” but because it removes a great deal of labor from the market and back to the home, and because as a practical matter it may prove difficult to share this labor among two partners who both work full-time jobs. Ultimately, I suspect that the tension I am seeing winds up being more directed at the two-income household than at women specifically. Moreover, a good argument can be made that the costs of the two-income lifestyle wind up being higher than we think.

Thanks for reading!

Comment by lawforfood

I want to expand on your comment: “Why shouldn’t men share in the messy early-morning fun of the farmer’s market?”

Seems to me that phrasing it as “feminism v. locavorism” gives the game away. That phrase suggests that there’s a choice between women’s liberty and eating well.

I’d rather call the problem “ethicureanism v. patriarchy.” As I see it, men have been the benefactors of convenience food, not women. For women, spending less time in the kitchen merely means spending more time at work. If that is liberation, then Patrick Henry’s famous phrase–give me liberty or give me death–seems redundant. (“Give me taxes or give me death” just doesn’t have the same ring.) Rather than having feminists duke it out with locavorists, I’d have them both tag-team against men who heretofore have been sitting back, cold beer in hand, enjoying the spectacle of modern living.

Surely eating well requires more time in the kitchen, and that labor will fall disproportionately on women. No worries. Women who appreciate the manifold benefits of eating well ought to be willing to work a little toward that end. Benefits always require work; having a choice of which benefits to earn is liberty, not freedom from the labor required to obtain benefits. The problem is how to get men to contribute. As I understand it, locavorism entails more than cooking with local ingredients; perhaps a larger effort must be devoted to sourcing good food than to cooking it.

The traditional role of the man as provider, I think, should be leveraged against men. Men want the benefits of good food, not only to their food tastier but to benefit their families as well. (If a man’s family isn’t his most valued possession, would he really be interested in such oddities as being a “locavore” or “ethicurean”?) Who’s to say that shopping–perhaps beginning with manly things like hunting down a local butcher and buying freshly slaughtered meat, then moving to finding fresh dairy, then fresh produce, eventually being okay with picking up mundane items at a grocery store–shouldn’t be the man’s job? Make it an adventure to find the perfect food rather than a test of patience at the megastore checkout line, and then I think men could buy into this.

Thing is, most guys I know don’t like patriarchy. Most guys don’t think it is real, but that’s because they don’t like the idea of it and so don’t know about it. But if a couple wants to shift their diet toward locavorism, they both say: hey, this is a lot of work. Then they both can say: hey, I can do some, you can do some, and not only will we enjoy the result together but we’ll have a stronger relationship because of it.

Sure, running public service announcements about this during American Idol won’t change anyone’s behavior, but those of us who are interested in these ideas already, and just need to be exposed to the “who, what, where, when and how” of the matter might be amenable to making it work. In short, feminism and locavorism ought to co-write a book describing just how much fun men can have at an early-morning farmer’s market.

Comment by Jon

[…] seemed to me that Mr. Berry was quite concisely making a point that I had clumsily hoped to make in Feminism v. Locavorism, and I felt suddenly ashamed. I had plowed through the preface to the book, “The Joy of Sales […]

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