Thoughts on Isa's free food study

Last year I had a very interesting time reading and engaging with Isa Ritchie's masters thesis on Weston A Price style food movements.  Now she's back, with a PhD project on no less than the 'democratisation of nourishment,' a phrase redolent with academic speak which actually translates to looking at very interesting movements of freeganism, free foraging and community gardening. 

Today, Isa is thinking out loud about defining the parameters of her study (something I was never good at.  Like Isa, I fancied looking at everything).  She writes:

"I want to focus on practices that either generate food (largely) outside of the corporate food system and aren't bought or sold using conventional currency or that glean food that would otherwise be wasted, and, therefore, do not contribute to the corporate food system.  I'm interested in concepts such as abundance, scarcity, freedom, community and participation - and I'm interested in what people involved in this sort of thing think and their lived experiences."

I have some thoughts. I cannot promise you Isa that they are the slightest bit helpful in terms of narrowing your focus.  Food isn't just a system in itself.  Food is what makes everything else possible.  Even if you define the terms of your focus on explicit movements, publicly accessible organisations with names, I think it's worth acknowledging and considering the silent and largely invisibile free food people.  I'd wager that they are mostly, though not exclusively, women.  A long time ago, when reading about conscientious objectors like Archibald Baxter, one of the things I noticed was about the food.  Despite the ban on supporting conscientious objectors, families of objectors would sometimes find food at their doorstep in the morning.  To me, this is an important gesture of silent and valuable support, one which has no tangible reward.

Then there is food for financial survival.  Whereas taking a bag of supermarket groceries around to a friend or acquaintance or neighbour in need seems to bear the neon label of "charity", sharing home grown garden produce is much more acceptable.  The sharing of glut produce can take place in a mutually beneficial web of reciprocity, but it can also be a means of redistribution for the financially vulnerable.

Then there is community fundraising outside of the corporate model.  Otherwise known as a cake stall.  Our school gala is not far away now and the newsletters requesting help flow in each week.  I'll be collecting money and marshalling children on the facepainting stall on the day, but before then I will be pulling out my cake and loaf tins (gifted by Mary K, my elderly cousin who is now unable to bake herself) and whipping up cakes and loaves using the recipes my mother gave me, one of which comes from her grandmother.  My Mum is the queen of cake stall baking in my opinion.  I expect she has earnt thousands for local community groups over her lifetime.  I know this isn't free food precisely, but it is food outside of a corporate model.

Free food movements are an interesting phenomenon.  They are edgy and often radical.  Dumpster diving wasn't cool when it was the elderly homeless, but when relatively affluent, university educated food activists starting doing it, ... well suddenly we had an actual movement.  Free food as a lubricant which enables vulnerable people to function is sometimes semi-institutionalised, as in the case of food banks, and sometimes it happens through the quiet efforts of unfashionable matrons.


Isa Ritchie said…
Hi Sandra. I do enjoy reading your reflections!

I find it interesting that homeless people dumpster diving is looked upon with pity and possibly disgust but since the emergence of freeganism the practice has become more 'edgy' - drawing attention to the excessive wastefulness in industrialised countries. It irks me that there is so much negative stigma around the most vulnerable members in society - homeless people, beneficiaries, teen mothers - don't they have it hard enough already? There is also something about the concept of 'charity' that makes me uncomfortable, although it depends on the context - and fundraising for a good cause is certainly a worthy motivation to bake and give.

"Food isn't just a system in itself. Food is what makes everything else possible."

I love this. That is partly why I want to focus on food - because it is so essential. It really should be a human right (adequate quantity and quality of nutrition) and in some of the articles I have been reading it is portrayed as one. But, if so, it is a right that is only really accessible with priviledge - with money. If food was really a right, as drinking water is, then shouldn't it be more easily accessible and not so horrendously processed that it is harmful to the body? The concept of rights is probably quite problematic in itself.

It is definitely worth acknowledging the silent and invisible free food people. Food gifting and sharing practices must surely go back as far as human history does. Perhaps it is hard-wired into our genetics by now. Although it seems to me that there must exist a level of abundance to make sharing possible - or at least more likely. You have to have food in order to be able to share it and having a surplus of garden produce makes gifting almost necessary (especially if you grow more than you can pickle). I would be interested to know what motivates some people to give more than others. Could giving food to objectors be a form of resistance, of solidarity, or merely charity? It would be so easy to try to cover too much in this thesis and not get into enough depth - something I fear I did in my Masters. But I am constantly asking myself why it is that I'm looking at these particular practices (I don't want to call them movements because social movement theory is a horrible mess!)

Partly it is because when I hear about these things I feel a kind of thrill - I have seen the contents of supermarket dumpsters and marveled at the waste and felt a kind of satisfaction that in being plundered, the food is at least being eaten - and perhaps a little less needs to be bought as a consequence, which, over time, might mean less needs to be produced (optimistic!). I have been the recipient of boxes of dumpster food - the generosity of which was only made possible through abundance. I think the same kind of spirit can come out of community gardening, land sharing and foraging - although theft in community gardens creates a scarcity that somewhat unhinges my optimism.

I have been to festivals where no money is exchanged - where people attend with great plans of what it is they can share and give. It's an amazing social environment to be in. I would like to live in a society that is more like that.

I suppose, like the WAPF, it is mostly the luxury of the middle class that allows the time to participate in these sorts of things - and the political mobilisation of the middle class is something that interests me, as I've said before because it seems to have so much potential influence - but there is a certain kind of middle class guilt that seems to affect researches when they question whether they should really be looking at a more worthy cause...

Thanks for giving me the opportunities for reflection.


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