May 15, 2015
The 4th Food Justice Workshop was held at MSU yesterday. There was some hand-wringing about “who is at the table.” Mostly academics was the answer, though a few people active in various community organizations dropped by for short stints. By the time we got around to the serious hand-wringing they had all gone home, as had all but one of the non-White participants. I’m sure that the “drop-in” visitors to the Thornapple Blog (as distinct from my regular readers) must have some sympathy with the thought that there can’t be anything more useless than a bunch of pontificating academic types sitting around in conference rooms talking about food justice.
Some of the hand-wringing comes out of the thought that the young scholars who were there (mostly graduate students) want to “make a difference” and they are aware that most people who are active in trying to change food systems for the better are totally bored by what they are writing in their dissertations. The activists already know what food justice is and they are only interested in very practical discussions that help them do it. And even that is a bit of an overstatement, because even practical discussion is a lot less useful to them than greater resources of money and time. So why waste money (albeit the registration was only $25 and you got three great vegan meals + coffee for that) and especially time sitting there listening to a bunch of 30-somethings gas about food justice? And for the most part, young scholars agree with this assessment. They are keenly aware that it would be presumptuous of them to expect food activists to find participating in their rarified conversations about the male-privilege embedded in our cultural construction of what it means to be a farmer interesting.
As ripe for sarcasm and parody as that scenario is, I’m going to take a serious turn this week. I’m going to say that we academics need this kind of space and that the food system activists out there need be patient with us. First off, I need to point out that the Food Justice Workshop is, in fact, a pretty unusual thing. Most of the people who attend represent fields of study (philosophy is the big one) where food is not a standard topic. It’s a good sign that young academics are taking up the study of food justice. They will think about it, talk about it amongst themselves, write books and articles about it, and most importantly teach about it in courses that will be taken by hundreds and possibly thousands of students who are disaffected from politics and unconnected to the food they are wolfing down between classes. Just getting food justice outside the narrow coursework in food and agricultural science or rural sociology will be a big thing. Take my word for it.
I was ranting against “stink of the lamp” food ethics in this space just a couple of weeks back, so don’t take me wrong. It’s too easy for a bunch of philosophers to get totally sidetracked. Yet I do think that maybe, just maybe, some small percentage of this highly rarified and over-theorized talk actually will come back and make a difference. It probably won’t happen because some food activist showed up “at the table” and decided to take a pearl of wisdom back to the streets, however. Change in ideas occurs through a process of diffusion that’s a bit like those homeopathic treatments they use in biodynamic farming. Too small and indirect to make a difference according to the basic principles of physics and chemistry, somehow it works anyway.
So give us a break and the space to sit around at these annual workshops. We’d love to have you drop by next year, and be assured that you’ll be taken seriously if you do. Don’t expect to come out with a recipe for food justice, because you can teach us more than we can teach you. But one more thing: what you can teach us IS NOT that we are a bunch of pompous gasbags sitting around talking nonsense that means nothing on the street.
We already know that.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University