first published May 7th 2020

allotmentsView from one of Brighton & Hove’s allotments. Photo: Adrian Ely Adrian ElyLeave a comment

As we approach the end of week 7 of the UK government’s Covid-19 social distancing measures, we have been witnessing a combination of remarkable efforts to sustain the country through this challenging time.  Workers from the National Health Service (supplemented by volunteer responders) and other ‘key workers’ are applauded across the country on a weekly basis.  Local authorities and neighbourhoods have been mobilising to look after their most vulnerable.

Like many academics, I’ve been asking myself how my work is relevant in this context. The combination of national/government-led and bottom-up approaches has led me to reflect on whether our international work on ‘grassroots innovation movements’ and ‘hybrid pathways to sustainability’ might offer lessons about how these various efforts may come together to enable longer-term transformations in our food systems?  Maybe not… but I offer some thoughts below.

At the national level, the arrival of the virus has posed significant challenges to national food planning and prompted calls for more government intervention to ensure healthy diets for all.  Recent news stories have suggested that food supplies are sufficient, but that panic-buying temporarily led to reduced supermarket stocks in March and disrupted conventional supply chains.  Responding to the threat of increased food insecurity since the Covid-19 lockdown (explored in this study), the government has now reported delivering over a million food boxes to those at highest risk across England.  At the same time charities have played a central role, working alongside and with some support from retailers in a hybrid approach.

Brighton & Hove is a city of nearly 300,000 people on the South Coast of England. As part of the work of the ‘Pathways’ transformative knowledge network, the UK hub adopted Brighton and Hove’s food system as its focus for action research.  Since a co-design workshop in 2015, we have been conducting research and working with local organisations to better understand how the food system could be made more sustainable, both in terms of food production and distribution.

People sit around a table talking about sustainable food systems.
A Pathways Network event on sustainable food in Brighton and Hove. Photo: STEPS

Central to the local organisations we have worked with is the Brighton and Hove Food Partnership, a multi-stakeholder platform that has been adopting a citywide approach to food through various ‘City Food Strategy’ processes since 2006. This approach has brought together key groups around food and acted as a focus for co-ordination, building trusted relationships and mutual understanding of the different roles that these groups can play in building a healthy, sustainable and fair food system.

These kinds of relationships have come to the fore during the pandemic response. As illustrated in this blogpost written over a month ago by Iain Chambers, they have enabled a speed of collaboration that would have been impossible if it had relied on formal contracts, impact assessments or command structures.  This kind of mobilisation has reduced the risk of food insecurity at household levels, with a consequent reduction in various knock-on social impacts of the pandemic.

More broadly across the city, the Food Partnership has been supporting a citywide Covid-19 emergency food network. This has included existing food banks (for example, see this blogpost by Simeon Elliot for a ‘view from the front line’). It has also involved setting up some temporary neighbourhood food hubs to distribute parcels or meals to people who find themselves without money – both people who were previously using food banks or shared meals, and people who have never done so before.

There are now 45 organisations working as part of the network, with more emerging and joining up. During the week of 30 March, the network delivered 1,400 parcels and 1,800 meals (up from 420 parcels a week prior to the crisis). Last week (commencing 27 April) that total had increased to approximately 2,416 food parcels*.  A crowdfunding campaign to buy food and essential items raised well over £30,000, a sum that is being matched by Brighton & Hove City Council.

On the production side, the city’s allotments are buzzing, and neighbours have been sharing free seeds that they had saved from the UK’s largest community seed swap, ‘Seedy Sunday’, in February. The Food Partnership has been supporting a campaign for gardeners to ‘grow an extra row’ (of vegetables) to supply to food charities.  Without central co-ordination, the city is experimenting with the potential for urban agriculture.


At the same time, the UK Cabinet is considering the possibility of easing some lock-down measures, and local food networks are beginning to discuss what an exit strategy from this emergency response might look like. There is clearly a role for both government and communities here, but how do they come together? And where do they lead?

Our work on grassroots innovation movements suggests that government interventions can either support or disrupt community-led activities.  Imposing managerialist targets, rigid structures or formal financial arrangements may work in official circles – but they may also neglect the values, trust and community ownership that are central to the functioning of these local initiatives.  Sustained political and financial support to grassroots efforts would provide a more flexible and adaptable response, and may be more welcome.

Where does this all lead us?  In early April, Phil Holtam asked a similar question, calling for a right to healthy, sustainably-produced food for all citizens. On 22nd April  Vicki Hird of the campaign group Sustain asked whether Covid-19 was driving a new food and farming system, suggesting approaches through which the government could support food supplies to consumers in need, strengthen and replicate shorter supply chains and infrastructure, and diversify cropping and agro-ecology through the new Agriculture Bill.

These all sound sensible to me, but the transformations they represent will be far from easy. And they will need to address the underlying causes of poverty and our unsustainable food system.

Over the longer term, for a city like Brighton and Hove, these measures will represent significant additional burdens for the local authority, food networks and retailers. They will require political commitment from national and local government (supported by citizens) and careful attention to how these hybrids come together.  They will also need to draw on knowledge and experience from diverse quarters.  But despite the challenges ahead, these are transformations that are worth striving for.

* Data provided by Brighton & Hove Food Partnership (1/5/2020), partially on the basis of informal reporting from across the network


Adrian Ely is a Reader in Technology and Sustainability at the University of Sussex, a member of the Brighton & Hove Food Strategy Action Plan expert panel and co-convenor of the Brighton and Sussex Universities Food Network.

What makes good food? Podcast

  • What makes good food, good? PhD students at SOAS University of London Francesca Vaghi and Brandi Miller join Coral to discuss why “”good”” food is often contigent on nutritional, economic, political, or moral conditions, and why the distinction changes across cultures and scale.

Fascinating book and article by Australian Christopher Mayes – Is eating a settler-colonial act? Food justice and Indigenous sovereignty

Farmland in West Gippsland, Victoria
How can we talk about a just food system when the original inhabitants and traditional owners of the very land on which our food is grown still struggle with past and present injustices?Image: Australian Scenics/Getty Image

In 1946, Elyne Mitchell published a book titled Soil and Civilization. This short and largely forgotten text lamented the way Australian agricultural practices had “indiscriminately denuded our landscape.” The introduction of sheep and rabbits, and removal of trees had dramatically altered the conditions necessary for soil health and climatic stability. Sand choked the once flowing streams and the absence of humus meant the soils were incapable of absorbing rain water. Mitchell blamed commercial farming for these developments and argued that those living in cities as well as the country needed to “deeply know the land” in order to “rebuild the living soil of Australia.”

For Mitchell, the greed of commercial farming and hubris of scientific interventions had disrupted the “organic rhythm of the universal life cycle.” Part of her solution to restoring the organic rhythm was small-scale agricultural methods that worked with natural cycles and organic materials.

Today, small-scale agriculture continues to be advanced as a means of creating a just and sustainable food system. Researchers and activists advocate for small-scale forms of agriculture as a means of regenerating the Australian landscape and repairing the damage caused by input-intensive commercial practices. Farmer-scholars like Charles Massey and Bruce Pascoe, as well as organisation such as the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance, articulate the environmental, public health and social damage wrought by industrial agriculture.

Debate continues over the impact and sustainability of large-scale and small-scale agriculture in Australia. There are also global debates about how to produce food in the Anthropocene and how best to establish a just food system in a changing climate and unequal world. While these are important debates to have, the impact of agriculture on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is often absent from the talk of creating a just food system. This silence is troubling considering the central role of agriculture in dispossessing Indigenous Australians. Agriculture is uniquely implicated with dispossession on two fronts:

  • European farming practices were used as an evolutionary marker to distinguish the “civilised” from the “uncivilised”; and,
  • these farming practices physically occupied the continent by grazing livestock, planting crops, erecting fences and damming rivers.

Furthermore, the spread of agriculture, particularly grazing, instigated violent clashes and severely disrupted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of life. These aspects of agriculture cannot remain in silence if we sincerely desire food justice in Australia. How, then, can we talk about a just food system when the original inhabitants and traditional owners of the very land on which our food is grown still struggle with past and present injustices?

Food sovereignty after the Uluru Statement

After the Coalition government rejected the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA) national committee issued a press release expressing their disappointment and calling for the Prime Minister to reconsider his decision. The press release stated that as “stewards of the land, our farmer members are endeavouring to work with the original owners of this country to create a more socially equitable and ecologically sustainable nation, and a truly food sovereign future.”

The practical implications of this statement are unclear. However, the AFSA put this endeavour into the context of their association with La Via Campesina, an organisation representing 200 million peasant farmers from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. The AFSA expresses “solidarity with the global movement for recognition and inclusion of indigenous and Frist Nation Peoples everywhere, without whom there can be no true food sovereignty.” This statement raises important political and practical questions regarding the relationship between food sovereignty and Indigenous peoples, particularly by making the inclusion and recognition of Indigenous peoples as the condition for “true food sovereignty.”

Food sovereignty is an evolving concept, but it can be generally defined as “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 has its conceptual and political roots in the struggles of peasant and Indigenous farmers in Central America. In that context food sovereignty overlaps with indigenous sovereignty politics.

Food sovereignty in settler-colonial societies

In settler-colonial contexts such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States, there is potential friction between non-Indigenous farmers using food sovereignty rhetoric to promote their interests. In recent years, Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars have started to question what food sovereignty looks like in a colonial settler context. While much of this literature is from North America or New Zealand, it can provide some clues for thinking about food sovereignty in Australia. Central themes are decolonisation, resistance against global capitalism and resurgence of Indigenous ways of life.

In discussing the resurgence and resistance of Indigenous peoples in the United States and Canada, Kyle Whyte frames indigenous food sovereignty in terms of collective continuance, by which he means “the overall degree of adaptive capacity a society has when we take all its collective capacities into account.” Whyte considers food systems to be a collective capacity as “they motivate human institutions that produce or facilitate certain valuable goods, such as political sovereignty, nutrition and spirituality and avoid preventable harms, such as starvation and undernourishment.” Collective capacities of a food system describe an ecology of humans, nonhumans, entities and landscapes that enable and facilitate “adaptation to change.” According to Whyte, U.S. settler-colonialism severely undermined the Indigenous food systems and thereby jeopardised their collective capacity to adapt and continue.

In Whyte’s framework, food sovereignty is control over the food system capacities necessary for a people to continue and adapt. For example, the collective continuity of the Karuk people in the Northern California and parts of Oregon revolves around salmon ecologies ― “without salmon there is no treaty.” Yet, the interventions of settler-colonial governance have jeopardised these ecologies through various activities and laws, such as mining and outlawing traditional fishing methods. Whyte argues: “Violations of food sovereignty are one strategy of colonial societies … to undermine Indigenous collective continuance in Indigenous peoples’ own homelands.”

Here it is vital for those advocating for food justice to listen to and be troubled by settler-colonial history in a manner that leads to a re-evaluation of the assumptions regarding land-use, belonging and justice.

Indigenous food sovereignty is not necessarily just for Indigenous peoples. Michelle Daigle writes that indigenous food sovereignty is a space for solidarity and collective action among diverse actors. Daigle makes a crucial point regarding the scale of resistances ― that is, “everyday acts of resurgence” can be cultivated overtime to open up “renewed possibilities for negotiations, engagements, power sharing and solidarity building amongst diverse sovereign actors and institutions at multiple levels.” Small and everyday acts can develop overtime into something that has a more widespread effect.

However, there is a danger that such acts never proceed further than symbolism. This leads Daigle to ask a related question: “How might well-intentioned settler food activists impede Indigenous efforts for land reclamations and self-determination?”

Indigenous food sovereignty in Australia

There has not been significant scholarly attention to Indigenous food sovereignty in Australia. A notable exception is Zane Ma Rhea, who discusses indigenous food sovereignty in the context of debates about an Australian national cuisine and ecological concerns with industrialised agriculture. Ma Rhea suggests that indigenous food sovereignty could achieve three interrelated goals:

  • retrieve Indigenous food practices and incorporate them into a uniquely Australian cuisine;
  • develop an Indigenous food industry that serves the material and cultural interests of Indigenous communities; and
  • re-introduce food practices that are more suited to the Australian environment and do not exacerbate ecological damage.

The AFSA has also recently moved towards exploring the relationship between Indigenous food practices and food sovereignty by running workshops with Bruce Pascoe and issuing statements regarding constitutional reform. In the conclusion of their press release following the federal government’s rejection of the Uluru Statement, the AFSA implored the parliament “to revisit its decisions, and to begin implementation of the recommendations this historic report and statement.”

Like some of the literature on Indigenous food sovereignty in other settler-colonial contexts, Australian advocates of Indigenous foods tend to focus on the restoration and retrieval of traditional Indigenous food practices and remote communities. Certainly, these are important issues. The capacity for Indigenous people in remote communities to hunt traditional foods and gather bush tucker is crucial for well-being and connection to country. Likewise, the food insecurity faced by Indigenous peoples living in remote areas is a pressing public health concern. However, conceiving Indigenous food sovereignty as primarily concerned with traditional practices and remote communities relies on a rather narrow conception of indigeneity. This conception mirrors the settler-colonial imaginary that “authentic” Indigenous people live “out there” in the bush, and that “authentic” Indigenous culture is static.

What does Indigenous food sovereignty look like in the Macedon Ranges (Victoria) or the Central Tablelands (NSW) where a lot of regenerative agriculture and alternative food producers operate? Importantly, this is not only a question for producers, but also eaters. If the adage “eating is an agricultural act” is true, and agriculture is entwined with colonial dispossession, then eaters also have a responsibility to attend to this history. What does Indigenous food sovereignty look like in the urban farms and gardens of inner-city Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane or Perth? What does Indigenous food sovereignty look like in our kitchens, restaurants and supermarket aisles? Or to borrow a question from Daigle, “what do everyday practices of responsibility and accountability look like for settler food actors as they live and work on contested and occupied Indigenous lands?”

There are no easy answers to these questions. But engaging with them is necessary if food justice and Indigenous justice are to be achieved, and we can never have the former while ignoring the latter.

Christopher Mayes is a Research Fellow in the Alfred Deakin Institute at Deakin University. He is the author of Unsettling Food Politics: Agriculture, Dispossession, and Sovereignty in Australia, from which this article is adapted.

Talk 21 May and blog post on history of soup kitchens in Spitalfields

See the wonderful Spitalfieldslife blog for a brief history of soup kitchens in Spitalfields run by Huguenots and Jewish people and photographs of a Jewish run soup kitchen in 20c.

The talk is called

Feeding the poor of London: soup kitchens in the nineteenth century.

Link to book below or at eventbrite.

Information posted on – see copyright info.

Programme for Sustainable Foodwork Symposium Bristol Uni May 17th

Sustainable Foodwork: Gendered, Classed and Racialized Labour

Friday 17th May 9:30-3:30pm

7 Priory Road, G1

Organised by Maud Perrier, University of Bristol and Elaine Swan, University of Sussex

            supported by the Perspectives on Work Faculty Research Group

9:30-10:00 Welcome and Introductions

10-11 Session 1

Sustainable Orientations: Race, Gender and Food Partnerships Elaine Swan, University of Sussex

Constructing a more-than-human commons through experimental food practices: Insights from the Somali Kitchen and Permaculture movement in El Salvador by Naomi Milner, University of Bristol

11:00-11.30 break

11-30-1230 Session 2

Farm work, care and activism: The shifting gendered moral economies of agroecological transformation in Northern India Divya Sharma, University of Sussex

Informality and diversification: Living with and responding to food insecurity across the Turks and Caicos Islands Jessica Paddock and Egle Cesnulyte, University of Bristol

1230-130 Lunch

1:30-2:00 Paired discussions

1.30-230 Esther and Beth

A Case Study of Distancing and Financialisation through Middle-Classed Routine Food Choices in Bristol, UK. Beth Benker, University of the West of England

Best intentions and breaking points: mothers and sustainable food work. Esther Muddiman WISERD, Cardiff University

3.00-3.30 Roundtable Reflections

Book here…

Sustainable Foodwork Symposium May 17th Bristol Uni

Another foodwork symposium to follow up on our Sussex Foodwork event but this one is focused on sustainability and hosted by Maud Perrier at Bristol Uni. Please tweet and do other social media things. Divya Sharma from SPRU at Sussex will be speaking about Farm work, care and activism: The shifting gendered moral economies of agroecological transformation in Northern India and Elaine Swan will be speaking about her new project on Tower Hamlets and the Women’s Environmental Network and Bangladeshi women. More details below and register at eventbrite…


Food sustainability discourses, spaces and movements often have exclusionary effects and reproduce classed, gendered and racialized hierarchies, bodies and markets (Slocum, 2008; Paddock, 2016; Pilgeram, 2012; Guthman, 2008). Moreover, calls for a return to more time and labor intensive food practices add to women’s already overburdened workload in food production, procurement and preparation providing an unsatisfactory solution to reforming industrial food systems (Kimura 2011; Johnston, Szabo and Rodney 2011). At the same time, women of colour are at the forefront of attempts to change food systems and consumption practices individually and collectively and to establish environmentally sustainable and socially just food cultures (Swan et al., 2018; Brady et al., 2012). Critical race and feminist food scholars have emphasized the gendered and racialized social relations which reproduce the unequal division of labour in the home and the invisibilization and devaluation of feminized, racialized and classed food work but these insights have yet to be fully connected with the scholarship on the challenge of food sustainability.

During this one day workshop, we explore how foregrounding the gendered, classed and racialized dimensions of foodwork provide an important perspective to consider ongoing debates across academic, public and policymaking about ways of increasing sustainable food production and improving food justice. The concept of Foodworkchallenges binaries of productive and reproductive work, and the formal and informal economy and speaks to pressing political themes of work, embodiment, class, race, emotional labour, and debates on the sensory, political, material and discursive (Swan and Flowers 2017; Sayers 2010), and captures the multiple labours across sites of production, planning, budgeting, procurement, preparation, cooking, consumption, digestion, cleaning up and waste (Sobal, 2017; Brady et al., 2012; Flowers and Swan, 2018).

What are the unequal divisions of labour shaping sustainable food discourses, practices and spaces? How do feminist, postcolonial and critical race perspectives disrupt the whiteness and middle-classness of (some) food sustainability movements and practices? What are the gendered, classed and racialized labours involved to transform food cultures and systems (Sachs at al., 2014; Kimura, 2011; Johnston, Szabo and Rodney, 2011)? What are the hierarchies between different types of sustainable foodwork? We wish to explore how sustainable foodwork occurs across the sites of unpaid labour in the domestic sphere, the food industry, agriculture, the health sector, the digital sphere, popular culture, schools, food social entrepreneurship and food activism amongst others.

Confirmed Speakers

Dr Elaine Swan, University of Sussex

Dr Jessica Paddock and Dr Egle Cesnulyte, University of Bristol

Beth Benker, University of the West of England

Dr Esther Muddiman, Cardiff University

Dr Divya Sharma, University of Sussex

Dr Naomi Milner, University of Bristol

Sustainable Orientations: Race, Gender and Food Partnerships Elaine Swan, University of Sussex

In this paper, I draw on ethnographic research of a food partnership based in Tower Hamlets, London, ‘hosted’ by the Women’s Environment network (WEN), a 30 year old UK national, feminist, environmental not-for-profit organisation which seeks to inform women about global environmental issues, especially connected to food production, consumption and waste. Food partnerships are place based, cross-sectoral, multi-level networks delivering food interventions according to the Sustainable Food Cities framework (Moragues-Faus and Marceau, 2019). In particular, I explore how gendered and racialised food and sustainability knowledges might be considered ‘vernacular designs’, ‘localised solutions emerging from the creative remixing of existing objects, traditions and ways of making’ (Vanni, 2018). As a feminist organisation, WEN has been interested in food knowledge production and sharing along feminist lines, and at a local level, ‘transnational experienced based knowing’ of say Bangladeshi and Caribbean gardening has ‘produced communally situated knowledge in East London’ (Vehviläinen, 2017). But to date, such feminist, gendered, racialised and transnational food knowledges are marginalised and obscured in food partnership policy making and food strategies. As Krishnendu Ray (2016) has written, social scientists assume that taste, dreams, beauty and aesthetics are marginal to minoritised migrants because their lives are seen to be structured simply by poverty and suffering. Accordingly, in this paper, I explore how British African Caribbean and Bangladeshi women’s skills and expertise in food growing, sustainability and food health have been routinely neglected through what Sara Ahmed (2006) calls ‘an orientation’, which puts ‘white’ objects closer, excluding others.

Informality and diversification: Living with and responding to food insecurity across the Turks and Caicos Islands. Jessica Paddock and Egle Cesnulyte, University of Bristol

Increasing food insecurity in the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) – a British overseas territory south of the Bahamas – is chiefly linked to environmental and political economic change. On the one hand, the TCI are experiencing climate change-related environmental degradation (soil erosion, loss of fisheries); on the other hand, TCI’s dependence upon food imports (90%) means that formal structures of accessing food are defined by the corporate (mainly US) food regime, and the little food produced by the national food industries (fish and seafood) is largely re-directed to the growing industry in tourism. In a country with multiple geographical barriers (the TCI is composed of 40 different islands and cays), social inequalities (Gini index is stable at 65 for the past few decades) and large undocumented migrant population, this means that formal channels to access food are too expensive for many, while subsistence agriculture is increasingly disappearing not only due to the environmental change, but also due to land appropriation for real estate. This leaves large segments of society dependent upon covert, informal trade with fishermen coming from the Dominican Republic and Haiti for nutritious and appropriate foods. We suggest that further examination of informality in the trade of food commodities as well as increased diversification of trade relations with the wider Caribbean – an example of islanders’ resistance and resilience to global environmental, economic and political shocks – is important for understanding the potential to develop fair and sustainable future foodways. In this presentation, we reflect upon our first pilot research field-trip in relation to ongoing debates across academic, public and policymaking about ways of increasing sustainable food relations of production and improving food justice.

A Case Study of Distancing and Financialisation through Middle-Classed Routine Food Choices in Bristol, UK. Beth Benker, UWE.

My presentation would focus on a case study of distancing among middle-classed individuals living and working in Bristol, U.K., and is orientated towards solutions – namely understanding how far the ideal of agrarian urbanism (Parham, 2015) is from those outside environmental interest groups. Interviews are analysed through Bourdieusian (Bourdieu,1984) frameworks. Based on 20 interviews, with equal gender split, the research focuses on the routine/daily habits of single and cohabiting households of food preparation, procurement and eating. Interviews found that food choices were primarily based on flavour preference, with environmental factors “losing” against competing interests; weight maintenance, convenience, animal welfare, human welfare and price. The majority of participants demonstrated a pseudo anti-capitalist narrative through which they brought up sustainability concerns, but these did not translate into routine choices, preferring instead to rely on convenient food choices. Further, convenience foods, understood in context of distancing and financialisation (Clapp, 2016), were utilised throughout the interviews and were occasionally avoided only for short periods to save money. Convenience foods were taken up/viewed through different gendered priorities; ease, weight/appearance maintenance and cost; men using them much more regularly to avoid preparation labour. This includes meal box schemes; in which basic food preparation is completed. Further, there were a hierarchy of food retailers prioritised for geographical convenience in all of the interviews; demonstrating how deeply convenience guides food choices. Convenience food was, for all participants, preferred over sustainable food choices and completing the associated labour. Women were much more likely to prepare their own and other’s food from scratch, meaning that men are much more likely to utilise unsustainable, distanced convenient foods. Put simply, these findings offer a snapshot of contemporary, urban, routine food priorities – when unhindered by financial hardship. These will be foundational in considering ways forward, particularly focusing on sustainability aims in urban environments.

Best intentions and breaking points: mothers and sustainable food work. Esther Muddiman WISERD, Cardiff University School of Social Sciences

The issue of food sustainability has become increasingly prominent on the public agenda, and in addition to macro-level changes, transitions at the level of everyday practices are vital. Domestic households are major consumers and how families choose what to buy and how to dispose of waste can have a huge environmental impact. Taking a relational and practice based approach, this paper draws on empirical research with twenty families to explore how the sustainability agenda permeates family food practices, and the ways in which these practices are classed and gendered.The relationship between families and food is one of the most socially significant, highly charged and politically contested issues in contemporary Britain (Jackson, 2009) and many argue that routine activities – such as cooking and eating together – are significant for the formation of family identity (Finch, 2007; Moisio et al. 2004). My data suggest that the contemporary environmental significance of food practices is seen as an extension of the feminine caring role. Parenthood magnified both mothers’ and fathers’ concerns about environmental sustainability. However, whilst fathers spoke positively about opportunities to engage with their children to discuss environmental issues around the dinner table, mothers described a significant tension between their ideals and the pressures experienced in their daily practices of meal planning, shopping, preparing food and catering for the tastes of different family members. Barriers to sustainable food practices were felt most keenly by working-class mothers. Indeed, whilst middle class parents focussed on the new and different ways to consume afforded by the sustainability agenda, and constructed environmentally-conscious selves around these practices, for the less affluent buying organic, Fairtrade or locally produced food often felt out of reach. Instead, working class parents were more likely to highlight practices that combine frugality and sustainability – including reducing their energy usage – rather than practices that incurred paying more to feed the family. The accounts of middle class parents also suggest that the adoption of sustainable food practices helped them to ‘offset’ or assuage a sense of guilt about other resource-intensive behaviours such as owning a car and taking family holidays abroad. I conclude by considering how spaces for sustainable food work can be expanded and shared more equally across the family.

Farm work, care and activism: The shifting gendered moral economies of agroecological transformation in Northern India. Divya Sharma, University of Sussex

It is now widely recognized that the so-called Green Revolution, an energy and water intensive agricultural intensification project unfolding since the 1960s, displaced and devalued women’s work in Northern India. As synthetic agrochemicals, tractors and combine harvesters entered the fields, labour of women particularly from landowning households, gradually became dispensable on monocultural farms. A profound shift in relations between work and care accompanied the reorganization of farming, including complex transformations such as nuclearization of households, ‘individuation’ of risk and precarity, reshaping notions of drudgery as well as autonomy and status. In this paper, I trace these shifts through oral history narratives of older women from landowning and landless households in the south-west cotton-belt of Punjab, a region that was the epicenter of the Green Revolution. Further, I examine how these memories intersect with the critique of industrial agriculture articulated by a grassroots movement for agroecological sustainability that has been active in this region since the early 2000s. Even as the primary focus of the movement is on ecological degradation and economic crises faced by farmers, the mobilization practices of women activists within the movement invoke and challenge old and new forms of gendered hierarchies entwined with rethinking farming and food practices.

Constructing a more-than-human commons through experimental food practices: Insights from the Somali Kitchen and Permaculture movement in El Salvador. Naomi Milner, University of Bristol

In this paper I revisit two collaborative food projects, grounded in very different geographical realities, but connected by common concerns – specifically, with the alienation of people from decision-making in terms of food availability and production. The first project emerged out of a process of community mapping and community researcher training within a Somali women’s project in Bristol, as part of the larger Productive Margins project, which focused on addressing regulation through experiences of marginalisation and poverty. The second recalls a collaboration with agroecology and permaculture collectives in El Salvador, which explored how colonial histories and memory were being renegotiated through innovative soil and seed practices. In both cases we follow experimental practices led by women that arose from collective dialogue over the limiting relationships of power and visibility that define dominant – especially ‘cheap’ — food production in their contexts. These practices open up exciting avenues for rethinking a ‘more-than-human commons’, or commoning as a basis to reorienting the design of food systems to relational, community, and ecological concerns. On the other hand, emphasis on lively materiality and practice can obscure the labour relations in play and paint an overly hospitable culture of reception to such novel approaches. In both contexts these collectives have formed out of anger and resistance to the structure of food provisions, as well as to cultural stigma and gender violence. Meanwhile, valorising the experiment can miss the precarity out of which such experiments arise. Many of the women involved in these projects juggle multiple jobs, are single parents, and have learned skills in social enterprise in conditions of austerity. Reflecting on these contradictions I highlight the importance of food – particular foods – as ‘boundary objects’ in given contexts. This leads me to offer insight into the taste, feeling, and fabric of food justice.

Food regimes exhibition and events at Delfina Foundation


New exhibition and series of events on food regimes – see link for details

Adapting [verb]
Adjusting to new conditions.
Making something suitable for a new use.

The food system is broken. Seismic systemic change is an inevitability waiting to happen. Confronting this issue Adapting, the fourth programme in Delfina Foundation’s The Politics of Food series, curated by Dani Burrows, will investigate ideas responding to the changing environment of food production.

A new exhibition, Accumulation by Dispossession by Asunción Molinos Gordo, forms part of this programme. The exhibition provides a rich visual journey through some of the most stark contradictions and inequalities of the current global food system using what Asun terms “economic objects” to reveal  the mechanisms shaping it.

Also as part of Adapting, Marta Fernández Calvo, Luigi Coppola, Vivien Sansour, Josefin Vargö, and Nick Laessing will undertake research residencies at Delfina Foundation. Exploring how cultural legacies infuse food production both in the field and the kitchen, their areas of research range from translating recipes, to heirloom seed saving, and DIY urban hydroponic cultivation. The residences will culminate in a series of events taking place in June.

The Politics of Food: Adapting programme is supported by Acción Cultural Española and Arts Council England.