Feminism and Processed Food: Friends or Enemies?
What now? Is that title correct? Could I possibly post an article about TV-dinners on a blog where we cover international issues including abortion access, maternal mortality, and the intersection of organized religion and feminism? Why, yes I can. When one half of the population is associated with a particular room in the house, I’m referring to women and the kitchen, it means that we will never escape the connection, for better or worse. I’ve written before about Food & Feminism: it’s a connection I continue returning to over and over again. We can empower women (and men) to earn a living wage by buying Fair Trade food. Many feminists who choose a vegan or vegetarian diet do so in order to abstain from what they consider a destructive and imbalanced system of power similar to one that regards women as lesser citizens.
Although I try to avoid sweeping generalizations, I think it’s safe to say that globally, women are primarily responsible for preparing meals at home. (Insert reader comments to the contrary here.) With the introduction of processed food, ranging from bread with more preservatives to make the loaf last longer to a fully prepared, microwaveable meal, food preparation time has been reduced, leaving the women responsible for preparing meals with more time to pursue other endeavors, namely education or full-time employment. When you conjure images of a feminist revolution, you might think of a burning bra or a burqa. I think of a microwave: a lowly 800-watt appliance that brought freedom to millions. So why aren’t feminists universally praising the hyper-influx of processed food into our diet?
A friend of mine once described food, for all the joy it can bring, as “the intersection of all the -isms: classism, sexism, racism, etc.” Most women (and men) do not have the option to buy processed food at their local grocery store; they must prepare meals from the food available to them. For those of us who do, however, there are conflicting messages about the importance and safety of some of these foods. For those who do favor convenience, and low price, over purity, there are a myriad of health problems to worry about. From birth complications for obese mothers to the myriad of health problems to be expected from artificial sweeteners, we have much to fear in our convenient food.
Well, it’s easy enough to buy some fresh food, no? No. There aren’t too many CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) programs in low-income neighborhoods, save this new initiative in Hunt’s Point, the poorest zip code east of the Mississippi. (A CSA program is one in which individual people purchase “shares” in the harvest from a farm, and then have fresh produce delivered to their homes on a regular basis. They generally reduce the price of produce, especially organic produce.) As corporate food manufacturers drive down the production price of staple foods like potatoes and meat, food stamps stretch farther with cookies than carrots. It’s easy to cook fresh food if you have the financial stability to purchase and prepare it, like this woman living in affluent Westchester county New York who quipped, “I no longer feel as though I’m letting my feminist forebearers down. Being in the kitchen, with Dad too, is no longer being trapped; it’s quite the opposite.”
So while processed food may have saved some of us time in the kitchen, and put more food on some of our tables, it has also sickened and weakened us. What should we do? Those of us with the time, money, land, and entrepreneurial attitude might do just what this 14-year-old Michigan girl did: start your own farm and/or CSA. As for the rest of us, well, frankly my first instinct is always to insist that corporations swallow the losses while producing cheaper goods without exploiting the laborers used to produce them. Any other ideas?