Review: Savoring Alternative Food

Josiah Taylor

Jessica Hayes-Conroy. Savoring Alternative Food: School Gardens, Healthy Eating, and Visceral Difference. Routledge, 2014. 208 pp.

In Savoring Alternative Food, Jessica Hayes-Conroy studies school garden and cooking education programs (SGCPs) to reveal how social factors like culture, class, gender, and race contribute to exclude some people from the table. In order to represent a diversity of SGCPs and participants, Hayes-Conroy studies two sites on opposite coasts of North America. Through this research she shows how these programs are empowering their students while simultaneously promoting exclusive and problematic assumptions about food. Hayes-Conroy uses perspectives from anthropology, social geography, and gender studies to contextualize and challenge assumptions regarding food experiences. Ultimately the author gathers and helps envision ways to make SGCPs more inclusive of geographic, cultural, and socio-economic diversities to improve their pedagogical impacts. Savoring Alternative Food offers readers applicable insights on how to connect SGCPs to larger socio-economic issues.

The SGCPs that Hayes-Conroy studies are in Berkeley, California, and in rural Nova Scotia, Canada, allowing for demographic and geographic diversity while only studying two sites. This choice was also prompted by the author’s ability to collaborate with her sister and colleague Allison Hayes-Conroy who focuses on Slow Food movements in the same two regions. Berkeley demonstrates an SGCP with great racial and cultural diversity, with high levels of Black and Latino/Latina students, in an urban area. Berkeley is also the origin of celebrity chef and food activist Alice Waters’s Edible Schoolyard project (which began in 1995) which was seminal for spreading the current rising trend of food and garden education programs. On the other hand, rural Nova Scotia is predominantly White and has relatively high levels of rural poverty. Nova Scotia is also generally less politically and socially liberal than Berkeley and slower to engage with new trends. While there are commonalities, insights from these two different study locations give readers a wider grasp of the state of SGCPs. This variety of settings and participant backgrounds helps the research relate to populations in many parts of North America. While additional case study sites could help create a broader cross section of observations, these two settings were effectively chosen to provide comprehensive information.

Methodologically, Hayes-Conroy relies on participant-observation as her primary research practice. With three months at each site, she worked as a teaching assistant in both gardening and cooking programs. As the author shares, initially much of this work consisted of extensive weeding, planting, and other routine garden work. After establishing herself into the programs however, she talked extensively with staff, students, parents, and food activists, allowing her to administer a total of 144 interviews. At the same time, she resorted to using pen pal letter writing, having students from one program write their thoughts to students in the other program under study. This method proves to be a brilliant and effective way to get students to share their perspectives on food and thoughts on participating in SGCPs. When writing to their pen pals, students expressed similar enjoyment for cooking, but also a desire for more independence. One student from California writes: “we like to cook, but not with the teachers on our backs, like we are gonna burn something” (168). Another student in Nova Scotia echoes: “I cook all by myself, when there are no grownups. Then I would like to eat it… cooking is fun [here] but you always have to follow the rules and stuff” (168). For Hayes-Conroy, these quotations suggest that program leaders in SGCPs would do better by recognizing their students’ abilities to be responsible, work independently, and offer valuable critical feedback. Through the letters, students seem less hesitant to share their thoughts than might have been the case in a formal interview, revealing needs that are not being met in some SGCPs.

In chapter one, “Exploring visceral (re)actions,” Hayes-Conroy shows SGCPs as embedded in socio-economic and political contexts by using Actor Network Theory. The author interprets Actor Network Theory (ANT) as advancing notions of interconnectedness of both human and non-human actors. She describes that ANT developed as a critique of older theories that assumed false divisions between individuals and socio-economic factors. In ANT, actors are interdependent within local and global systems. For Hayes-Conroy, ANT works as a starting point to consider the internal and external mechanisms of the material body as situated in and emergent from greater webs of food systems.

More significantly, for Hayes-Conroy, Actor Network Theory translates into what she calls “visceral geographies,” conceived as a way to theorize embodied experiences, understood as both biological and socio-economic. She defines visceral geographies as the way in which “bodily human experiences are reproduced relationally and materially through complex interconnections with both social forces and physical ‘bodies’ including food and environments” (7). Another way of describing visceral geographies is that how we feel, taste, and interpret things is informed by current and past experiences related to food but also culture, socio-economics, and marketing. Visceral geographies include our perceptions of bodily health and healthiness relating to foodways.

Observing SGCPs and interviewing participants, Hayes-Conroy gleaned different viewpoints around the meaning of “good” or “healthy” food. From perspectives shared in Savoring Alternative Foods readers come to understand that many assumptions shared by SGCP teachers and activists are often derived from, or at least related to, Alice Waters’s Edible Schoolyard project. Such activists, parents, and teachers may often refer to healthy, good food as “fresh” or “simple,” though the reality is more complex than these descriptors reveal. Many of these beliefs are centered in economically and educationally privileged, White, cosmopolitan, urban foodways—what could often be represented by the loaded, sometimes divisive and self-congratulatory term “foodie.”

Additionally, Hayes-Conroy explores how beliefs of healthiness often center around perpetuating low-fat diets. These perspectives are most often obvious in the types of recipes used and created in school cooking programs, and are based in older (and somewhat obsolete) nutritional information. This low-fat paradigm is based on the idea that simply cutting away excess fats can curtail the obesity epidemic and other health issues. As food activists and educators privilege low-fat diets they sometimes invalidate more common diets that include processed foods loaded with fats, sugars, and empty calories. While accurate about healthier eating habits, an unforeseen consequence of these assumptions is that families and students whose diets incorporate high levels of processed foods, or who use ingredients or foods that are unrepresented in SGCP’s concepts of healthy eating, are shamed into feeling their habits are bad or wrong. This shaming also potentially alienates students and families who are not “in the know” of how to practice and appreciate “good” or “healthy” food.

Savoring Alternative Food is a helpful and illuminating read for anyone working in food and nutrition education programs, but also more widely for those involved with food service, small-scale agriculture, or community development. In this book, Hayes-Conroy depicts the complex—but oftentimes overlooked—realities of school garden and cooking programs, where the interaction of biology, culture, society, economics, and taste informs future food preferences. Moreover, Hayes-Conroy’s contextualization of these programs helps us better understand underlying assumptions about food education, and ultimately increase inclusion and improve the reach and mission of SGCPs. For researchers and educators in related fields, this book builds a foundation for understanding the social situatedness of food education systems, and serves as a starting point for further inquiry and action.


Josiah J. Taylor completed a B.A. in cultural anthropology and environmental studies at Colby College. Love of food runs deep for him, and he has apprenticed and worked as a chef, and also studied and worked as an organic farmer internationally, and then completed a M.Ed. at the University of New Brunswick, compiling interviews with Wolastoq First Nations Elders, archiving their narratives, focusing on community and family food systems. Additionally he has researched with William Woys Weaver, working to preserve endangered, historic food plant varieties through propagation and dissemination. In 2015 the teaching garden he founded in Pennsylvania won 2nd place educational and community garden in the U.S. by America in Bloom. Now at the University of Vermont as a Food Systems PhD candidate, he is studying universal school nutrition programs, and community food sovereignty projects.