In Canada, our southern neighbour casts a long shadow, and 2017 commenced with a deep distemper in my community of practice on food and health. I had conversations with friends that ranged from glum (celebrating food seemed a bit pointless now, didn’t it?), to restrained (working for policy change in the health field has always been a long game), to bellicose (in a world where reality had been upended, direct confrontation was needed, now).
The malaise suffused everything. I buried myself in the reassuring solitude of writing, and learned that others were trying to do the same. I tried to change my media habits: alternately glued to or avoiding social media; taking out new subscriptions to newspapers and magazines. I shovelled snow. I baked.
This was strange for me, because since I started working on food and health a decade ago, I had taken it as almost a truism that food brings people together. We needed to assemble, but it had become difficult to gather with colleagues to talk about what was happening, let alone take action.
Why We March
Then on January 21, women around the globe marched in solidarity.
They marched for different personal reasons, but collectively for a public purpose, to express that the result of the US election had been an affront to women—that despite events that had anticipated this era, this was different, and it was not alright. Marchers spoke of gender equity, human rights, social justice, and outrage. They marched to convene.
The local Women’s March on Washington in the city of St. John’s, where I work, was reportedly the only march to be snowed out by a blizzard (23cm snowfall and wind gusts up to 100km/h, if you were counting). This was very Canadian, and naturally uplifting. The event facilitators later reported that the reorganized online event had attracted 13,000 participants, virtual marches from across Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Women’s March has since been described—and debated—as a landmark instance of the mainstreaming of intersectional feminism in collective action. Intersectionality describes how our identity and sense of belonging, rooted in the structures that oppress, affect us in layered-up, complex ways. It is the lens of the social determinants of health rendered as a hard-edged kaleidoscope, where social disparities that affect health amplify each other, creating new social disadvantages in the process.
When I reflected on the place of the Women’s March in my work on food and health, I thought about women in the public sphere. The Women’s March had unified where other movements had not. It manifested how we are members of many publics. The March had demonstrated that these differences do not divide us; they strengthen our obligations to one another. These multiple memberships intensify our public roles.
Food, Health, and Intersectional Feminism
Food brings people together, not because everybody eats, but because it is an intersection in the polis.
Who we are as persons and as members of several social groups at once, affects the opportunities we have to eat well and healthfully, and our capacity to engage and lead in the economic and political systems that allocate food and income as resources.
Intersectional feminism is sometimes treated as academic jargon. But it can be a practical concept for action on food and health.
In my research on retail food environments and health, for example, I investigate how stores are more than nutrition environments, how the same store can treat people in it differently.
Grocery stores are places where privilege sits right on the shelf, in the form of prices, what’s available, targeted marketing, the organization of aisles, the freshness and quality of goods. The aisles of the store, in comparison to the fresh perimeter, only magnify differences. Retail food stores have an impact on everyone, because the act of shopping at a supermarket to buy your food in the first place is a result of your situation in the economy and society, even more so when you work there. Food stores are different kinds of places if you supply the food or oversee it from miles away. Supermarkets can increase our food choices, or create obstacles to the choices we want to make. Stores function as a result of labour, and that labour can be fair or not. Stores connect the local with the global, and public space with the home. Retail food stores are everyday political spaces.
I have increasingly come to cherish the idea that we cannot improve the health of individuals and populations without an intersectional approach to food and food policy.
An intersectional feminism brought to food policy means making a reciprocal commitment to empower those who identify as women across the food system, and when we do so, taking steps to lift the status of each woman as she experiences overlapping burdens related to food.
For International Women’s Day on March 8, 2017, I invite you to join me to:
- Reject the circumstances that make women more likely than men to hold precarious forms of food employment, and to be paid less than men, often with a higher level of qualification;
- Advance food economies through securing access to productive resources for women including land, property, and capital (economic assets);
- Address historical discrimination that limits diverse women’s control of and opportunity to lead in food;
- Eliminate the substantial variation in the status of women who work in different regions and food subsectors, and between rural and urban women;
- Enshrine social markers of difference among women in how we set priorities for and measure the outcomes of food policy decisions, including indigineity, race and ethnocultural identity, ability, religion, and sexual orientation;
- Claim women’s rights to found, grow, and fail food businesses, and to embrace entrepreneurialism among all women in each of our fields of work;
- Refuse to accept the uneven advancement of women investigating food in academia and particularly in science, and the disparities in achievement among women scientists by age, career stage, discipline, and rank;
- Champion with ferocity institutional conditions that enable women to discover and share their food knowledge;
- Frustrate the charlatans who attempt to divide by peddling falsehoods and temporary coalitions, with evidence and relationships cultivated over time;
- Subscribe wholeheartedly, which includes dissent, to the actions of women who are shaping the future of food and health in political systems; and to
- Confront prejudice where it seeps and surges in every step of the food system in which a human hand touches food, from earth to table and earth again, but especially where we cannot see food at all, because that is where we need to work most urgently for change.
International Women’s Day is on March 8, 2017. This year’s theme is #BeBoldForChange. The United Nations’ theme this year focuses on Women in the Changing World of Work, and Canada’s theme is about why #EqualityMatters.
This blog post was inspired by my amazing food colleagues and in particular by my students in the Policy class of Fall 2016 in the Division of Community Health and Humanities, Faculty of Medicine, at Memorial University.