The Plate is Political: Food, Feminism and Transformation

United Nations Committee for World Food Security in session.This International Women’s Day, SERS Assistant Professor Andrea Collins reflects on the gender politics of food.

Mural I love food. I am just as likely to get excited about Hallowe’en candy as I am about a home-cooked meal or trying a local specialty when travelling. And I can’t think of a better way of spending a morning than by walking around a farmer’s market. But it wasn’t until I started considering how, and why, particular foods make it to my dinner plate that I came to appreciate that food itself was itself deeply political. It comes down to this: who grows, who harvests, who sells, and who eats?

I started to examine food by thinking about it as a global political, social, and environmental issue, and a deeply personal one. But what really piqued my academic interest was the realization that the global food system and food security are also deeply shaped by gender relations. Thinking about the value chains that bring food to our local supermarkets meant thinking about all of the labour done along the way, who has control of the resources to produce and sell food, and who makes decisions about purchasing and consuming food. And I also considered who doesn’t have control of those resources. Very often, it is women who lack secure access to agricultural land or whose labour in agricultural production goes unnoticed and unrewarded. And though laws exist that mandate gender equality in land ownership and equal pay, we also know there are much bigger challenges in implementing such laws and understanding the norms and expectations that make gender equality such a monumental challenge.

This link between the personal and political is one that feminist scholars have discussed for decades. As a recent issue of Canadian Food Studies (CFS) highlights, feminist food studies helps us to see how gender shapes our relationships with food and agriculture. Thinking about our economic, socio-cultural and bodily connections with food helps us to understand unequal and unsustainable practices in new ways, and help to establish new ways of producing and consuming that are more equitable and sustainable.  

In October 2017, the United Nations Committee for World Food Security agreed in principle to incorporate women’s rights, women’s empowerment and gender equality in their future work to address food security and nutrition. This agreement came after several months of meetings of CFS members and observers, and after several decades of organizing on the part of civil society organizations pushing for more recognition of how we need to think about gender in all aspects of food. But the key takeaway from this meeting was the realization that the work does not end by having global recognition of this issue. It means continuous research to consider the multiple links between inequality and food, from seed to plate.

And so every time I sit down to a meal, I think about how fortunate I am to have this food, as well as recognize the work of all the people whose labour went into it, and everyone striving to make their lives better as well.

Further Reading:

Canadian Food Studies, Vol 5, No 1 (2018). Special Issue: A spotlight on feminist food studies.