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Check Your Privilege

Yesterday, the circulation of a photograph of a new Hackney café, The Advisory, caused a minor flurry of controversy on social media. The restaurant has been established on the site of the – now closed – Asian Women’s Advisory Service. As many pointed out, its decision to retain the Service’s sign and to appropriate the language of the centre in the name of foodie-ism, is in exceptionally poor taste. A sign on its window advertises: ‘This centre is responsible for a refined preparation of brunch, lunch and dinners.’ It adds: ‘We also respond to thirst related needs.’

In response to this criticism, The Advisory has removed the sign and, in a statement, explained that the building had been derelict for several years. A review of the café on Cherie City – which praised its ‘rough-luxe feel’ – has also been taken down.

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Regardless of whether the building was empty or not, The Advisory’s decision to model itself as an advice centre in one of the UK’s poorest boroughs, and in the midst of debates over the effects of the ‘hipsterfication’ of east London, is deeply insensitive.

This certainly isn’t the only example of tone-deaf foodiesm that I’ve encountered. A couple of years ago, I attended an event in Cape Town where a well-meaning author attempted to recreate the life of Nelson Mandela for the audience by providing us with meals he ate at key moments, supplied by … Woolworths. (It’s rather like Marks & Spencer handing out packets of rice to help punters to understand Gandhi’s struggles better.)

These are, admittedly, particularly bad examples of foodie thoughtlessness. But I think that they point to a wider problem within the ‘food world’ (so to speak – I mean restaurateurs, food writers, and journalists). Since its emergence in the US and the UK, during the late 1960s, the food movement – which questions industrial agriculture, supports small farmers and co-operatives, opposes GM and buys organic – has remained largely middle class. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it does mean that the movement has a tendency to ignore its own, vast privilege.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, after having come across a new book on how Londoners can eat locally and sustainably. It’s called The Modern Peasant. I understand why Jojo Tulloh wanted to call her book that – she wanted to evoke the small, self-sufficient, self-contained world of the peasants of pre-industrial Britain – but I think it’s an immensely problematic choice, not least because it seems to imply that peasants no longer exist. They do. In their millions. The vast majority of farmers in Africa and south Asia are small farmers. These peasants produce 70% of the world’s food supply.

La Via Campesina celebrates the tenth anniversary of its founding this year. It is the largest peasant organisation in the world and is, arguably, one of the most significant forces within food politics at the moment. It originated the concept of food sovereignty, which puts power relations at the heart of creating a fair food system:

Unlike food security, often defined as ensuring people have enough to eat, food sovereignty zeroes in on questions of power and control.

‘Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations,’ reads the final declaration of the Forum for Food Sovereignty, held in 2007, held in 2007 in Sélingué, Mali. ‘Food sovereignty implies new social relations free of oppression and inequality between men and women, peoples, racial groups, social classes and generations.’

So calling a book about eating well in London ‘The Modern Peasant’, displays rather a lot of ignorance about how the world’s food systems operate.

My point is not to bash well-meaning, if occasionally tin eared, middle-class foodies who only want to encourage others to eat good, ethically-produced food. But, rather, to argue that they need to recognise that – by virtue of their whiteness and class – they operate from a position of power.

There has been a lot of debate among feminists over the past year or so about the usefulness of asking or telling straight, white, middle-class feminists to ‘check their privilege’ when addressing issues relevant to LGBT and working-class feminists, or women of colour. Although I have fairly mixed feelings about how ‘privilege checking’ has been used, it is a useful way of encouraging those in privilege to become aware of how powerful they are – and to recognise that any attempt to remedy broken food chains and to ensure that everyone has enough (of the right kind of) food to eat, is dependent on addressing power imbalances. And not only foraging for wild garlic in Hackney.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Dear Sarah Emily,

    I did indeed take the post offline yesterday, due to receiving abuse and personal insults, which I don’t accept.

    Regards,

    Neilufahr Alimohamadi
    Cherie City

    June 24, 2013
    • I am sorry about the abuse. Criticism is one thing, but personal attacks are absolutely unncecessary.

      June 24, 2013
  2. Hello, Sarah!

    I would love to see this fleshed out more. As written, it isn’t entirely clear (apart from the peasanty title of a book) what’s wrong.

    Giving the poor more power over their food and food options seems like a good thing. Making sure all classes of society make better food choices also seems like a good thing. What’s not clear from this blog post is the connection between the two. And perhaps more importantly, what one should be doing differently.

    Thanks!

    June 25, 2013
    • My point is that middle-class foodies write from a position of privilege of which they are – frequently – unaware. This means that they tend to ignore that people’s access to food is usually determined by power.

      June 25, 2013
      • Sure, I got that. My question is, what should the average, privileged, middle-class foodie be doing to address that imbalance? I mean beyond watching for tone-deaf titles and the like.

        June 25, 2013
        • Well, lots of things, dependent on where they live. For instance, in the UK, helping out at food banks and getting involved in the anti-austerity movement. In the US, supporting small producers against the power of Big Food, getting involved in campaigns to support farm workers’ rights or to limit junk food advertisements to children. These are just some things that spring to mind immediately.

          June 25, 2013
          • Awesome — that’s the sort of thing I was looking for in the original post.

            I’ve been trying not to call people out without offering alternatives — in fact, leading off with the positive steps seems to help me get the important points across. So your suggestions help a lot, thank you.

            June 25, 2013

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