Reading Collective Notes

Omnivore Books.

Session 3

Book: Gaddis, Jennifer E. 2019. The Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools. Oakland, California: University of California Press.

Section: Introduction, Chapter 2, Chapter 4, and the Conclusion

Date|Time: March 11th, 2020 | 4:30 EST/ 1:30 PST

Host(s): Allison Hellenbrand.

Number of Attendees: 5

Notes on Session 3:

This GAFS Reading Collective was hosted by Allison Hellenbrand, a Ph.D. student in the  School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where her work explores ways to build equity and resilience in food systems, aiming to foster community-building while simultaneously addressing environmental concerns. 

To start the session, Allison had us introduce ourselves, and answer the question: did you bring lunch to school, did you eat lunch at school, did you participate in the national school lunch program if you are international what type of school lunch programs did you participate in?

  • Brought packed lunch, whether her parents packed it or she did when she was older
  • Always brought lunch to school, dad did it for her even if she wanted to pack it (though later realized this was an expression of love), randomly would buy lunch at school
  • 50/50 bought lunch and packed lunch, wasn’t involved in the decision making process whether it to bring or buy lunch
  • Packed lunch, was a source of jealousy of other students and it was a treat to buy lunch at school
  • Most often packed lunch, but it was a treat to buy lunch at school

A common theme among answers was about pizza and lunch at school as a treat! Allison deftly pointed out that while we hadn’t done so, we could have participated in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), and how reading the book reflects different ways that we may not have known how the NSLP operates.

We then discussed our first impressions and thoughts about the book – and it was clear that The Labor of Lunch was a fruitful ground for the multi-faceted work of food studies:

  • In light of COVID-19, connecting labor to other things that we think about with food studies. 
    • How this impacts restaurant workers, who get overlooked when we talk about sustainability, how workers’ rights drop out. 
    • Relating this to paid leave in light of COVID-19
  • Cheapness as political & economic philosophy. Linking to jargon in academia, and how neoliberal is, in part, about cheapness. 
    • Using different ways of communicating ideas as writing tactic
    • For example, the author’s audience: wrote this book to speak to a larger audience than just academia. Did a lot of public press and media as possible to reach a broad audience. Built community resource guides. Wrote this book for the families packing lunch, 
  • Was odd/surreal to re-read the intro in light of COVID-19 and how we see crises and difficult times as teasing out the limits of the policy
    • Also teasing out relationships between food and beyond food, how our intimate relationships do or do not work
    • What does care work look like now that we are socially isolating ourselves?
  • How identity influences who gets paid for their work and who doesn’t
    • Talking about whose work we value, when does care work get valued. Community and care work should be funded and appreciated as such. This was exciting to read about! Refreshing to see this book as a political framework around carework, valuing work without seeing it as volunteer work. Frustrated by lack of discussions of labor and political framing, but this book gives language for and resonates.
  • Challenge of the book (maybe ch. 2) financial structure of NSLP, funded through how many people are participating so when less participate, this is where we get problems around lunch shaming. More people would mean better access and quality of food
    • Thinking around middle-class pulling out of NSLP – cheapening of food made them rethink if program was ‘for’ them; this affects participant numbers, and thus funding
    • In capitalist systems, ability to ‘opt out’ of systems/programs – causes inward turning in times of crisis rather than a communal approach
    • We need “community organizing rather than band-aiding”
  • We are talking about so much of our own experiences, in this present moment and as teachers/organizers/etc. And in the wake of all of the events going on: UCSC wildcat strike, WV teacher wildcat strike, school lunch in light of COVID-19, etc.
  • Deskilling of lunch work, what would happen if we went to more local, communal, production of food – what are the potentialities when we move away from deskilled lunch work.
    • What about the relationship between regulations of school lunches and efforts to move towards local food.
      • Not just about school lunch, but about production, distribution, and selling
    • Also what about in communities where there is no local food? Where there is soil contamination?

Then, we were joined by Dr. Jennifer Gaddis, author of the book, for a Q& A session!

  • Q: How do you see yourself as scholar and activist? Could you talk about your community resource guide?
  • Q: You use such different forms in disseminating your writing – what is that like, and what resources did you use?
    • Used resources from Op-Ed Project, training is useful but the materials are free online! – https://www.theopedproject.org/
      • Have a basic template about how to structure, “what is a lead”? Etc.
      • How to pitch a piece and thinking about that audience segmentation
    • Knew other scholars who are more senior, (example of Sarah Bowen), who published a bunch of op-eds in the last couple years
      • Read these people and their public scholarship
    • Each publication has their own vibe, what will your piece sound like in each publication
      • Look at recent publications in the op-eds to get a sense for what they are publishing
    • Podcasts – they are always looking for guests!
      • Great way to start talking about your work and translating your work to other publics
    • Advice to “don’t let it languish” when you have something
  • Q: As part of your argument, you trace legislation related to school lunches, could you tell us a little bit about this research method?
    • There were two books already published about school food policy, which gave her a solid foundation to start from; didn’t feel she had to start from scratch or write exhaustive legislative history
      • Looking at where things were changing, especially due to social or industry pressures
    • Actually found that textbooks were helpful, as there were a couple of nutrition textbooks written by people who worked in school nutrition and gave the history of school lunches 

Further Resources List

  • See links in Q&A section above

Session 2

Book: Penniman, Leah. 2018. Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Sections: Introduction and Chapter One.

Date|Time: Feb 12th, 2020 | 4:30pm EST/ 1:30pm PST

Host(s): Vanessa Garciapolanco

Number of Attendees: 4

Notes on Session 2:

Our second session of the GAFS Reading Collective started out with some technical difficulties, but once that settled James and I got started with what was to be a thought-provoking conversation. While our group was small – four participants in all – we all agreed that a smaller format would let us really dive into the book and specific things we wanted to discuss.

We started off by introducing this session’s host, Vanessa García Polanco, who is a scholar-activist and graduate student at Michigan State University Department of Community Sustainability. Vanessa also works with the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems, recently helping to publish the updated An Annotated Bibliography on Structural Racism Present in the U.S. Food System, Seventh Edition. Vanessa also told us how Leah Penniman wrote Farming While Black by establishing a writing regime of sitting down from 9-5 two days a week, and how this is something that we as graduate students might be able to incorporate into our own lives! Vanessa also has a Discussion Guide for the book on her website.

After going around and introducing ourselves, Vanessa kicked off the session by asking a series of questions, to which we all responded. James captured the questions and responses, but for anonymity, has written them randomly below the questions:

  • Q: How do we relate to the land?
    • With Privilege, Transactionally, Foreign, Identity
    • Yards, Dirt, Difficult Access, Gardening
    • Connection to identity, exploration, farms
    • Privilege, Opportunity, growth, healing, reflection, aspirationally
    • Story, historical
  • Q: How many black-owned farms are in your county/state?
    • Unsure —> Urban Area
    • Unsure —> No demographics but very few non-white farmers
    • Unsure —> New to area
    • Response from Polanco: Michigan has 341 Black farmers but Polanco’s country count zero non-white farmers. USDA Ag Census propagates institutional racism through its exclusionary practices.
    • Vanessa discussed ways to find out how many black-owned farms are in your area, which includes looking beyond the census data and asking questions, observing, and getting involved.

Several themes came up during our discussion:

  • This work is very much connected with the idea of “food justice” and is connected with the larger narrative
    • Penniman starts from a baseline —> what can you do if you know nothing when you pick up this book? It, therefore, shows something of her journey
      • It is a textbook AND a guide (and a memoir too)
    • Work talks about how food has been used as a weapon and suggests that land is liberation.
      • Even though the content is somewhat heavy, Penniman’s tone is positive and hopeful
  • Cooperative/Collective/Organizing
    • This is a theme threaded throughout —> that land, farming, and food is beyond transactional
    • Work asserts that Black culture is traditionally cooperative and organic so it aligns with good farming practice
  • Q: What resources does your institution/university provide for supporting black-owned farms?
    • Not a land grant
    • No specific help is known
    • Farmer’s unions help!
      • Racial justice group in the farmer’s union helps
    • Gardening
    • Urban Food development
    • Networking and facilitating learning
      • Fostering networks/alternative discussions about black farming is a type of institutional support!
  • Black Farmers are not only organic, crunchy, communal —> this work also considers people of color in conventional/industrial/traditional agriculture as well
  • The idea of land stewardship connected to land reparations 
    • “Deconstructing the concept of wealth when an injustice has been committed”
    • The idea of what reparations should look like should not be told but asked
  • Culture shift about ownership —> Land reform
    • The US does not have a history of land reform/distributions
    • Globally south nations do:
      • Venezuela —> Chavez and Mission Zamora
      • D.R. —> any parcel of land over 3000 acres gone fallow, was redistributed to poor folks
      • Mexico —> Land redistribution to indigenous people
      • Chile —> nationalized land
      • Latvia —> Postsocialist anti-forced collectivization 

Further Reading List:

Williams, J.M. and Holt-Giménez, E. (Eds) (2017). Land Justice: Re-Imagining Land, Food, and the Commons in the United States. Oakland, CA: Food First Books.

Readings for Next Time:

Next month’s book will be The Labor of Lunch by Jennifer E. Gaddis. If you plan on purchasing the book, you can get 30% off when buying from UC Press with the code 19V3712.


Session 1

Book/Sections: Reese, Ashanté M. Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington, D.C. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019. Chapters One, Three, and Five.

Date|Time: January 8th, 2020 | 4pm EST/ 1pm PST

Host(s): Erica Zurawski. GAFS Co-President, Alanna K. Higgins, GAFS Board Member, and James Edward Malin, GAFS Board Member

Number of Attendees: 12

Notes on Session 1:

Our new inaugural GAFS Reading Collective meeting started with a bang! Erica, Alanna, and I hopped into the zoom meeting a bit early to discuss some logistics and check-in. All three of us were psyched and prepared! As the minutes ticked by, participants started trickling in. By 4:05/1:05 (EST/PST) our entire group had arrived — eleven participants!

Our discussion began with introductions first of GAFS, the reading collective program, and then of ourselves. Our intimate-enough group allowed us to thoroughly get to know all the participants in the call. Grad students (and at least one future-grad student!) represented diverse fields, degrees, geographic locations, and disciplinary interests.

We began our chat about Dr. Reese’s work simply — each of us discussed what we really liked or appreciated about the work. Some topics discussed were:

  • Dr. Reese’s extraordinary writing style. Some adjectives discussed the style were: Very Human, Brief, Clear, New directions in food studies, interesting methodologically.
  • It was clear that Black Food Geographies was received as something of a grey area between history and ethnography. Reese researches in historical archives, but also blurs the line between oral history and ethnographic methods. This grey area undergirds the works with a multifaceted and compelling narrative style. Reese presents her subjects’ contexts while capturing their actions and works.
  • Another aspect of this methodology that folks seemed to enjoy was that Reese deeply focuses on people as subjects. (The subtext here, of which I had not truly appreciated, is that much of academic food justice or geography work hinges on place. A neighborhood, rather than the people within it.) This had the positive effect of humanizing the subject matter. This scholarly monograph almost reads like a nonfiction narrative. However, the work’s lack of a specific villain or hero added a refreshingly critical appraisal to a food justice narrative.
  • An essential theme discussed in Black Food Geographies was “nothingness.” What is nothingness? Where are the gaps? Who is silenced in the archive, in the academy, in boardrooms, and capitol buildings?
  • Another theme discussed was People, Place, and space
  • I posed a question (in my ignorance) about “what is geography, anyway? Why does geography scholarship seem to run parallel with the food studies? What is the ‘geographic’ aspect of Black Food Geographies?” GAFS’ resident Geographer, Alanna K. Higgins, explained how geographers tend to study, what she described as, manufactured spaces. This runs parallel to food studies because the cultural economies wrapped up in food. To use Dr. Reese’s example again, “food deserts,” are a place manufactured by companies or governments, to denote a market or policy gap. Similar to the way food studies tends to approach archival methods against the grain (What is missing? who is writing them? Who cooked their dinner?) geographers use space, archives, geographic information, and maps, to do the same.

Around this time in our discussion, a twelfth surprise member joined our zoom reading. Ashanté Reese herself! After the initial surprise, our group offered greetings and general praise for the work. Then, Dr. Reese offered a bit of an introduction. She described herself as a historian at heart, but anthropologist as well. Her evidence is what she described as “oral history-ish.” Some of her inspirations were the work of Zora Hurston and Ralph Trulio(?).

 Next, Reese let us do some Q&A. Here are some notes from that part of the session:

  • How do you use theory so clearly in your writing?
    • She asks herself “what’s the point?” How does the theory enhance an argument? How does it make sense applied to this scenario? etc.
    • Also, Reese took a creative nonfiction class in graduate school and recommends many authors do the same. Taught her how to tell a story really well!
  • What are moral economies?
    • An example of a moral economy in Black Food Geographies might be a group’s economy about cache.
      • An example is a Deanwood family that, when their store was burnt down, decided to stay in town, even when they had the opportunity to leave. This commanded respect, even among young people.
      • (By the way, eldership, and age, an underrepresented concept in Food Studies)
  • Black Food Geographies’ Resonance Beyond the Academy
    • Reese says she’s writing within the academy but “to people doing food justice work”
    • Her work takes a scholarly approach to many of the critical of problems with the current food justice system, itself.
  • How do you succeed working among or within multiple disciplines?
    • Reese said suggests to ask yourself “what can a discipline do for you?”
      • It might professionalize you, perhaps but your interest and scholarship might be of multidisciplinary interest

Further Reading List:

Abarca, Meredith E. 2006. Voices in the Kitchen: Views of Food and the World from Working-Class Mexican and Mexican American Women. 1st ed. Rio Grande/Río Bravo, no. 9. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.

Hope Alkon, A. 2019. “From Companion Planting to Cross-Pollination: Thoughts on the Future of Food Studies.” Graduate Journal of Food Studies, 5(2). https://doi.org/10.21428/92775833.cf836d34

McKittrick, Katherine. 2013. “Plantation Futures.” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 17 (3): 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1215/07990537-2378892.

Sbicca, Joshua. 2018. Food Justice Now! Deepening the Roots of Social Struggle. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Thompson, E. P. 1971. “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century.” Past and Present 50 (1): 76–136. https://doi.org/10.1093/past/50.1.76.

Further Authors:

  • Zora Neale Hurston
  • Andrew Newman

Suggested Readings for Next Time:

Gaddis, Jennifer E. The Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools. California Studies in Food and Culture 70. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2019.

Penniman, Leah. Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018.