Who speaks for the food makers? While recently listening to one of my favorite food-related podcasts (“Good Food,” with Evan Kleiman, from KCRW), I heard a story by Frank Shyong, a reporter with the LA Times, about Cambodian refugees and the Louisiana Famous Fried Chicken chain in southern California. According to Shyong, the chain was started in Los Angeles by a white guy from Michigan, with shops in predominantly African American and Latino neighborhoods. Over time, Cambodian refugees came to own around 90 percent of the franchises and the chain itself is now run by a Cambodian man. There does not appear to be any connection to Louisiana. The story is fascinating and parallels the history of Cambodians and donut shops in California. It allows us glimpses into classic stories in migration studies (networks among immigrants, whether for financing or for drawing on the labor of kin), the shape of cities (the placement of fast food restaurants in working class and poor neighborhoods and the kinds of ethnic relations that shape place), labor law and policy (fast food workers are at the center of struggles for a living wage), and much more. And it takes us beyond the debates among public intellectuals about who owns or speaks for “ethnic” cuisines and into the real lives of the immigrants who work in every part of the American food system.
Shyong is not an anthropologist, but his story inspired me to think about the direction of food and nutrition related research in anthropology. Everyone in anthropology seems concerned with making their work relevant to policy makers and accessible to people outside of the academy. It seems to me that this ought to be easy enough for those of us who work in food and nutrition. The things we study are already part of popular culture in many countries and there is (dare I say) a hunger for rigorous insights into what people eat and drink in the media. Anthropologists already study the core issues that ought to confront policy makers, from work conditions and wages in food-related industries, to sustainability in food systems, consumption habits, and much more. Our intellectual tradition, one that honors comparative analysis and insists that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, means we have crucial insights and evidence to help address the “wicked problems” of our modern food system. Want to know how fishers are creating value chains that can keep them in business and help people eat better? Or how schools are turning gardens and lunches into classrooms where students can learn nutrition? Want insights into the racial and gender politics in commercial kitchens? How we can better understand the place of industrial and craft foods in the food landscape? Anthropologists study all of this and quite a bit more. The challenge is to write about this in ways that can make sense to the general public.
SAFN has been pursuing some strategies that can help us get there. We have, for the last few years, developed our section blog (FoodAnthropology) as a site that welcomes writing about food and nutrition in an accessible way. We have contributors and readers from all over the world and our work has been picked up by popular media with increasing frequency. We welcome contributions from any anthropologist (including students) doing food and nutrition related work. We also publish book reviews and analyses of public policies, calls for papers related to conferences and books, and announcements of events related to the blog’s themes.
The section also has two awards that aim to support and encourage research related to this mission. The Christine Wilson Award is presented annually to outstanding undergraduate and graduate student research papers that examine topics within the perspectives of nutrition, food studies, and anthropology; the Thomas Marchione Food-as-a-Human-Right Student Award supports student research that engages with food security and food sovereignty issues. Both awards come with cash prizes and a year of AAA and SAFN membership, as well as fame and glory. Details on the awards and how to apply are on the FoodAnthropology blog. Apply!
From public drinking in New Orleans, to fried chicken in Los Angeles, female restaurateurs in Lyon, and fermented fish in Japan, there are some amazing stories to tell. Telling people’s stories through food is at the core of what SAFN is set up to do. Making those stories relevant to the debates that animate public culture must also be one of our central objectives. To engage with food and to reveal its centrality to the human experience is rewarding and important. Join us!
David Beriss is associate professor of anthropology at the University of New Orleans and SAFN president-elect.
Cite as: Beriss, David. 2017. “From Food Culture to Food Policy, Writing Awards, and More!” Anthropology News website, August 4, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.555