Tag Archives: health

    About the Author

    Tammy L. Anderson is in the sociology department at the University of Delaware. She is the author of Rave Culture: The Alteration and Decline of a Philadelphia Music Scene.


    Molly Deaths and the Failed War on Drugs

    To Olivia Rotondo and Jeffrey Russ, the three-day 2013 Electric Zoo (EZoo) festival on New York’s Randall Island seemed like an idyllic end to a summer of part-time work, hanging out in suburban malls, and life with Mom and Dad.

    These two 20-somethings—and nearly 100,000 others—planned a three-day trip to experience pulsating electronic beats spun by the world’s most famous electronic dance music DJs. “Am I ready for @ElectricZooNY or what,” Olivia tweeted in anticipation of the event. But on the second day of the festival, things went terribly wrong. Thirty-one ravers were arrested on drug charges, four were hospitalized, and Olivia and Jeffrey lay dead from Molly overdoses. (Molly is a powder form of MDMA that many consider to be purer, and ultimately more dangerous, than Ecstasy.)

    Such tragedies are not uncommon. At a rave at Washington, D.C.’s Echo Stage nightclub the same day as Electric Zoo, Shelley Goldsmith, a 19-year-old college sophomore, died from Molly toxicity.

    Years ago, 17-year-old Jillian Kirkland from Alabama overdosed on Ecstasy at a 1998 rave at the State Palace Theatre in New Orleans. Her death motivated Congress, led by Senator Joe Biden, to pass a controversial law called the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act (commonly referred to as the 2003 RAVE Act) to halt a perceived rave-related Ecstasy epidemic. This anti-rave and clubs campaign would become the government’s latest battle in the War on Drugs.

    The 2003 RAVE (Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy) Act prohibits “an individual from knowingly opening, maintaining, managing, controlling, renting, leasing, making available for use, or profiting from any place for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing, or using any controlled substance, and for other purposes.” It constituted an expansion of a 1986 law wielded against the crack cocaine epidemic.

    The 2003 Rave Act immediately put party promoters on notice for organizing events for drug-related purposes or sponsoring one knowing that drug use might occur. As sociologists Steven Tepper, Julie Baldwin and colleagues showed, copycat laws in cities like Chicago, Gainesville, and New Orleans extended the federal government’s fight to the local level.

    But the 2003 RAVE Act is an ill-conceived law that has not only failed to prevent drug-related harm at raves but has inadvertently caused it to increase. By discouraging electronic dance music business promoters from providing health services to sick or dehydrated ravers, for fear of signaling to authorities that they have knowledge of drug use at their events, the RAVE Act, a relic of the last century’s War on Drugs, does more harm than good.

    From Gen X to Millennial Ravers

    Raves began after disco’s death in the early 1980s, according to Simon Reynolds’s book Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture. A rave is an all-night dance party featuring different kinds of electronic dance music (EDM). Generation X teens and young adults created raves in abandoned warehouses and other spaces they gained access to surreptitiously. In the beginning, raves were small, but they quickly grew in size as promoters moved them to rural and suburban fields. Typically, organizers announced the gatherings at the last minute in order to keep them hidden from law enforcement.

    Raves featured many different musical styles and lots of DJs. A room or tent might specialize in a musical genre, such as house, drum and bass, or techno, etc. Their general ethos was encapsulated by the acronym PLUR—peace, love, unity, and respect. Participants’ (ravers’) aesthetic style included bright and neon-colored track or parachute pants and t-shirts with rave or antiestablishment messages. Common props were bracelets, pacifiers, lollipops, and stuffed animals—a nod to the ravers’ celebration of the lost utopianism of childhood. Illegal drug use was an early defining rave characteristic, and so-called “club drugs” permitted all-night dancing, such as Ecstasy, (a form of 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine, or MDMA), acid, ketamine, and GHB.

    Though widely popular as an illegal, underground phenomenon in the 1990s, raves eventually declined after the RAVE Act was passed. Generation X’ers (born between 1965 and 1980) aged out—or burned out—of raves. Older members of Generation Y, or Millennials (born between 1977 and 2000) preferred other music scenes, such as hip hop, and were often turned off by raves’ excessive debauchery and drug use. The legal assault on raves at the federal and local levels had a chilling effect on the scene, discouraging club owners and promoters. The commercialism of raves also deterred potential participants by banning alcohol consumption among those under 21 years old, or making the events cost-prohibitive. Large, illegal raves gave way to smaller club-based events that specialized in one type of music, featuring fewer, and less costly, DJs.

    Today, rave parties are coming back to life in a more commercialized form. A global EDM industry, dominated by entertainment companies like Made Events, Go Ventures, and Insomniac Productions, has brought raves to corporate-branded festivals, stadiums and mega-nightclubs. EZoo, Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC), and Ultra Music Festival, in major metropolitan areas, draw thousands of young people to the heart of Las Vegas, New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Miami.

    Raves showcase the youngest Millennials—not Generation X. These avid fans of today’s commercial dance music turn out in droves for the parties, festivals, and superclub events where the music is played. As 21-year-old Rotondo announced in a tweet on the day of her death: “The amount of traveling I’ve done today is unreal. Just get me to the damn zoo.”

    As in the 1990s, the popularity of raves today has been overshadowed by drug-related tragedies. Fourteen young adults and teenagers died between 2006 and 2013 at large raves organized by Insomniac Productions in Los Angeles. Since the passage of the 2003 RAVE Act, participants’ MDMA use has fluctuated, declining in the immediate aftermath of the law, and then increasing markedly six years later. Since then, the use of hallucinogens has either plateaued or dropped, especially among teenagers, but also among 18-25 year olds—the age range of Rotondo, Russ and most other EZoo attendees.

    While the number of MDMA users has declined, health complications from the drug have increased. There has been a 128 percent uptick in emergency room visits among MDMA users between 2005 and 2011, according to the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN). The growing incidence of overdose among young college students worries people like C.L. Max Nikias, president of the University of Southern California. After a 2011 rave at the Coliseum in Los Angeles, which led to 17 students being taken to the hospital, Nikias wrote to the USC student body: “I wish to warn you about a specific danger that has become increasingly prevalent in the city of Los Angeles: raves. Occasionally, these are held close to our campuses, often at the Coliseum or the Shrine, and they present serious risks to all who attend. Therefore, with the collective support of the university’s senior administration—and as the father of two USC students—I strongly discourage your participation at rave events.”

    Rants and Raves

    The 2003 RAVE Act places young ravers at great risk of harm. Because the act treats raves’ cultural traits as evidence that promoters are permitting drug use and sales, it places festival stakeholders in a bind over how to protect ravers without being shut down. For example, rave promoters are perceived to sanction drug use if they permit cultural props such as glow sticks, lollypops, and massage oils to be sold at their event, or if they provide chill rooms and free bottled water to ravers. Since MDMA use (in either its Ecstasy or Molly varieties) and dancing at raves can produce extreme dehydration, critics interpret the distribution of free bottled water as a sign that promoters are trying to hydrate, and therefore accommodate, ravers’ drug use. Promoters even told me that “rave” language on flyers or other promotional materials could serve as evidence of a legal violation.

    If they offer drug intervention services, such as drug testing and education, promoters may be at even greater legal risk. Rotondo died from MDMA toxicity; a MDMA/Methylone combination killed Russ. Had drug testing and education been offered at EZoo, Rotondo might have learned not to take so many hits of Molly and Russ would have learned that his Molly had been mixed with extremely dangerous methylone (“bath salts”).

    In short, the RAVE Act discourages rave promoters and production companies from taking the precautions needed to protect their customers. Party promoters walk a fine line between steering clear of the law and putting on a safe and profitable event. A few weeks prior to the EZoo deaths, at the Paradiso Music Festival in Washington, a young man died from Molly complications. A local harm reduction group, Stay Safe Seattle, had approached the festival’s organizers to permit them to test for drugs and educate ravers about the drugs they planned to consume, but the owners and organizers of the Paradiso festival turned the group down. By affording them access, they feared they would “self-incriminate” or admit to violating the RAVE Act.

    As Nathan Messer, a spokesman for the national organization DanceSafe explained, “If we are there educating people about drug use, whether or not they’re using drugs at that particular venue, that might indicate to law enforcement that the venue is being operated for the purpose of drug use and it will make them liable [to the RAVE Act] so they just want to avoid it all together.”

    Ten years ago, journalist Will Doig wrote about the very same dilemma: “Because the RAVE Act’s effectiveness rests on prosecutors’ proof that club owners and party promoters ‘knowingly and intentionally’ made their space available for drug use,” he wrote, “even mild harm reduction efforts could be used against the people throwing the parties.” Therefore, promoters may decide to “eliminate even the most basic safety measures, such as on-site ambulances, for fear that they could be used in court later to prove that promoters knew drugs were present.” In a 2003 Salon article, Janelle Brown put it even more succinctly: “The backward logic of this thinking punishes club owners and rave promoters for trying to keep their customers safe.”

    Researching and writing my book Rave Culture, I often witnessed this dilemma firsthand. In a techno room at a rave, I once saw a young woman vomiting a white frothy liquid over and over again. When I alerted a security guard to the situation, thinking he might be able to get the woman some help, he picked her up, dragged her to the back door, and dropped her outside. Astounded by his actions, I asked the guard if he could call 911 for a medic. He told me he could not, and then told me that the club could be liable for her drug use.

    As Benjamin, a long-time promoter on the rave and dance scenes said, “The RAVE Act has taught us that we [promoters and club owners] have to say that there is a zero-tolerance policy and that there are no drugs going on inside the club. This is, of course, turning a blind eye to what is actually happening, but we can’t admit that it’s even going on, let alone saying, ‘We want to have a medic here just in case what isn’t going on is actually happening.’”

    In an effort to shield themselves from responsibility and stigma, industry stakeholders blame the EZoo or EDC tragedies on the RAVE Act’s constraints—and the hedonistic actions of a few ravers like Rotondo, Russ and Goldsmith. They do not speak of their own complicity. For example, in the FAQ section of EZoo website, there is little discussion about drugs; nowhere on the EZoo webpage is there a clear and compelling message prohibiting illegal drugs. Instead, there is a single entry called “illegal substances” on a long list of things attendees cannot bring to the festival. On the EZoo webpage a blog post entitled, “Helping each other stay safe” contradicts the company’s benign prohibition policy. “Electric Zoo strongly advocates against the use of drugs. Avoiding drug use is the only way to completely avoid drug-related risks,” it announces. “You don’t need drugs anyway when world class music is swirling all around you. Know that mixing drugs and alcohol, or frequent and increased use, will increase your risks of life-threatening problems. Here’s some math to go with that: Drugs or alcohol + Non-stop Dancing + Sun Exposure = Dehydration and a whole spectrum of other dangerous conditions. So stay safe, stay hydrated, take frequent breaks, remember to eat, and you will successfully pull off having the time of your life! If you suspect that someone is ailing from a medical issue or the overuse of drugs or alcohol, seek immediate medical attention.”

    This warning sends contradictory messages to attendees. It discourages people from using drugs rather than prohibiting them from doing so, and fails to warn them about penalties for drug use, sales or possession. It cautions attendees that it is risky to use drugs and drink alcohol when dancing in the sun, but reminds them to stay hydrated, eat, and take frequent breaks— assuming they will take those risks. A stronger prohibition policy and anti-drug educational message on the EZoo webpage may have served as a clearer warning to Rotondo, Russ and friends about taking drugs into the festival—but posting such information may have served as evidence of a RAVE Act violation.

    Ezoo’s webpage remains mostly unchanged for its 2014 festival. However, promoters have responded to last year’s tragedies by requiring participants to watch a short educational video on the dangers of drugs when purchasing their tickets online. This video is likely to warn attendees about drug-related dangers, but it may also signal the inevitability of drugs at Ezoo and ultimately a RAVE Act violation. The addition of drug-sniffing dogs, however, might just keep Ezoo promoters on the right side of the law.

    Repairing the Damage

    Electronic dance music is widely popular among young people today. The commercial EDM industry is thriving because fans like Olivia Rotondo and Jeffrey Russ are turning out to hear world-famous DJs at massive raves that garner huge profits. MDMA use will probably continue to be popular at such events, spurred in part by pop celebrities like Miley Cyrus, Rhianna, Kanye West, Madonna and others, whose song lyrics endorse Molly use.

    But as young people journey to EZoo, EDC, Ultra Music Festival, and other raves, the 2003 RAVE Act will keep EDM business folks in an impossible position, forcing them to balance abiding by the law and protecting partygoers.

    Today, most observers acknowledge that the War on Drugs was ineffective in stamping out Americans’ drug problem, and often makes a bad situation much worse. Collectively, we are now repairing some of the damage it wrought. We are reforming marijuana laws, narrowing sentencing disparities, endorsing approaches that treat drug abuse as a medical rather than a criminal problem, campaigning against mass incarceration, and restoring drug offenders’ right to vote and retain funding for higher education.

    The 2003 RAVE Act has eluded such reforms. By seeking to prohibit parties where drug use takes place, it fails to reduce drug use, and continues to endanger young ravers more than it protects them. Instead, we need a cooperative strategy that is organized to reduce harm, one that entails beefing up health resources at parties and educational efforts to warn about drug-related dangers and other health risks, banning participants from events if found with drugs rather than arresting them, and establishing partnerships among EDM business professionals, local law enforcement, and community officials. It’s our best hope for protecting young ravers like Olivia and Jeffrey.

    Recommended Resources

    Collin, Matthew. Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House, updated version (Serpent’s Tail, 2010). Definitive text on ecstasy culture, told by some of the central characters in the scene’s early days. It focuses the drug use, ideologies, criminal activities, and deviant image that ravers adopted to launch a spectacular youth movement of the twentieth century.

    Hunt, Geoffrey, Maitena Milhet, and Henri Bergeron. Drugs and Culture: Knowledge, Consumption and Policy (Ashgate, 2013). Volume offers diverse perspectives on psychoactive drugs, focusing on the socio-cultural features of drug use and how they are controlled in contemporary societies, and how consumption of specific psychoactive substances becomes associated with particular social groups.

    Reynolds, Simon. Generation Ecstasy: Into the Worlds of Techno and Rave Culture (Routledge,1999). Comprehensive discussion of the origins of rave culture in the UK and US. It chronicles the rise of raves, the pioneers of the scene and the cultural traits that would earmark this global youth phenomenon of the 1990s.

    Tepper, Stephen. “Stop the Beat: Quiet Regulation and Cultural Conflict,” Sociological Forum (2009), 24 (2): 276-306. Analyzes raving in the city of Chicago, how moral crusades can take on a form of “quiet regulation,” and how opponents linked raves with drugs, sex, and deviance in order to control them.

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    About the Author

    Yuki Kato is in the sociology department at Tulane University.


    Growing Concerns

    First lady Michelle Obama attracted major media attention when she took a shovel to the White House’s South Lawn in 2009 and pitched the home vegetable garden as one of the solutions to childhood obesity. She was among a growing movement of Americans who promote gardening’s health benefit by emphasizing how it offers greater control over the food we eat.

    So why doesn’t everyone pick up the shovel and start digging? For starters, gardening requires space, time, and money—not to mention horticultural knowledge—which are not widely accessible. Julie Guthman, in a 2008 article in The Professional Geographer, notes how the movement’s supporters tend to presume the lack of knowledge and will—not resources—as the key impediment. Many Americans believe that low-income citizens are ignorant about the benefits of fresh produce, and would change their eating behaviors “if they only knew.” Yet this attitude blames those who are most vulnerable to health and financial challenges, she argues.

    Alison Hope Alkon and Julian Agyeman, who edited Cultivating Food Justice in 2011, use the concept of “food sovereignty” to describe how poor and minority communities not only lack access to good food, but are often cut out of conversations about what good food actually is. Food justice movements, they argue, empower local communities to gain access to food that is both nourishing and culturally appropriate, rather than “educating” them about what they should do.

    So while the first lady’s call for home gardening raises public awareness about food and health, the broader food justice movement goes even further, showing us that improving food access requires us to think about broader social inequality, and not just where one’s food comes from.

    About the Author

    Ashley Wendell Kranjac is in the sociology department at the State University of New York-Buffalo.


    McDonaldizing Croatia

    Formerly a part of Yugoslavia, Croatia has a complex heritage dating back to the seventh century. Because of its diversity, traditional Croatian gastronomy is referred to as “the cuisine of regions.” From the Austro-Hungarian influence of intensive meat consumption in the north, to the Mediterranean-inspired coastal cuisine of the south, culinary traditions differ significantly across the country’s cobblestone streets and pebbled beaches. A typical meal in the north consists of mixed meat and fried potatoes, whereas in the south, seafood risotto is more frequently on the dinner table.

    Today, globalizing processes are challenging Croatian food culture—in sociologist George Ritzer’s terms, “McDonaldization,” a process aiming to increase efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control. The end of communism in the early 1990s left a vast and open land of opportunity for McDonald’s and other corporations to take over and rationalize Eastern European eating. The uniformity of fast food and its predictable dining experience are among the reasons why Croats are consuming such food in increasing quantities.

    While eating at McDonald’s is rather expensive by Croatian standards, particularly when comparing gross domestic product per capita—$47,200 in the United States versus $17,400 in Croatia—more and more Croats are choosing Americanized foods and dining experiences. Not only is this changing Croats’ taste buds and cultural patterns—American fast food restaurants are facilitating new spaces for socialization, particularly for women and children—it is also altering agricultural and farming systems.

    Croatian supermarkets are also McDonaldizing. Until the second-half of the 1990s, Croatia’s retail sector was dominated by socially-owned chains. In the 2000s, foreign direct investment transformed the market and the share of supermarkets in food retail increased from around 25 percent at the end of 2000 to 51 percent two years later.

    During socialism, a wealth of natural resources and well-developed manufacturing and service sectors enabled the Croatian government to satisfy food demand. Today, small, family-owned farms are experiencing diminished returns on investment, due in part to Croatia’s entry into the European Union and the enactment of Common Agricultural Policy.

    Deep-rooted taste preferences for traditional foods such as pljeskavica (a ground meat patty) are weakening; Western-style fast food restaurants are contributing to Croats’ globalizing palates. According to the Croatia Food and Drink Report of 2013, Croats are also snacking more frequently, and the sale of canned and frozen food items is on the rise. Croatian meals, in contrast, are traditionally prepared with fresh ingredients.

    This rapid transformation of food, culture, and economics will lead, some critics predict, to a massive national stomachache.

    About the Author

    Teja Pristavec is in the sociology program at Rutgers University.


    The Social Life of Leftovers

    Thanks to busy schedules, ever-growing food portions, and poor meal planning, many of us find ourselves with a lot of leftovers. Over 36 million tons of food brought home become waste annually, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. But at least some of those reheatables may be finding a second life.

    While many of us see leftovers as food that has lost value, that lacks novelty and excitement, and that is less tasty, the act of sharing leftovers can create closer family ties, according to marketing lecturer Benedetta Cappellini in a 2009 article published in the Journal of Consumer Culture. Leftovers are also, at times, a type of sacrifice. Mothers take it upon themselves to finish yesterday’s meal, while preparing something fresh and nutritious for the rest of the family, expressing care for family members, according to Cappellini and Elizabeth Parsons, writing in The Sociological Review in 2013.

    So the next time you’re staring down a container of leftovers, remember that they say more about us than just what we ate last night.

    About the Author

    Michael A. Haedicke is a sociologist in the Department for the Study of Culture and Society at Drake University. He studies alternative food and farming initiatives, including the organic foods sector, with a special focus on environmental sustain- ability and social justice.


    Small Food Co-ops in a Whole Foods® World

    Sociologist Michael A. Haedicke explores the world of organic foods co-ops and examines how these countercultural stores are defending their democratic ideals and practices in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

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    About the Author

    Michael Bader is in the sociology department and Center on Health, Risk, and Society at American University, where he studies neighborhood change and the health impacts of inequality.


    Weighing the Evidence

    Sociologist Michael Bader reviews two books, Fat Chance and What’s Wrong with Fat?, that hope to reshape the debate about obesity in America.

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    About the Author

    Helene M. Lawson is the director of the sociology program at the University of Pittsburgh, Bradford, and the coordinator of gender studies.


    Happy Meals

    As a child growing up in the city of Chicago, I never gave much thought to where the food I ate came from. While I knew it came from an animal, the meat in the butcher’s glass cases seemed a world apart from the cats and dogs I knew intimately as pets. And I loved my pets very differently than I loved food.

    But moving to rural Pennsylvania as an adult challenged the difference between animals I loved and animals I ate. With a grant to interview farm families in western New York and north central Pennsylvania, I met countless families who loved their animals. At a Highland beef cattle farm, steers came running when their names were called, and young calves hurried over to be bottle-fed.

    But the farmers never forgot that these animals were ultimately food. One sociology major, who also happened to be the local “dairy queen” at her county fair, brought me to her family farm and introduced me to Sweet Pea, whom she described as “a big fat pig that has a good life.” As she told me, “We got Sweet Pea from a shelter. He’s our beloved pet.” I sat with Sweet Pea for a while; he was like a big dog.

    Later, she informed me that Sweet Pea bit her grandfather. “We slaughtered him and ate him for dinner,” she said.

    How could someone eat a pet? On a small farm, it is part of the deal. Livestock may ultimately be food, but they need love to thrive. Again and again farmers told me that their animals led pleasant lives until they were slaughtered—a juxtaposition that may seem strange. Most of us see nurturing and killing as emotionally incompatible with one another.

    But as I watched families care for animals that would ultimately end up on someone’s plate, I came to wonder whether a hamburger from a beloved cow was any better—ethically superior, and tastier, than meat from an unloved one?

    Some observers, such as food critic Michael Pollan writing in his best-selling book Ominivore’s Dilemma, suggest that livestock which are treated as pets may be healthier and tastier than that which is raised in the crowded anonymity of large-scale farms and ranches. They are less likely to subsist on corn and suffer from diseases, and more likely to get the exercise that develops a better-tasting product. They’re also likely to be free of antibiotics and steroids, which most experts agree is dangerous to consumers’ health.

    Livestock that is loved is also more marketable to “green” consumers. Labels like USDA Organic, Third-Party Certified, Hormone-Free, and now “Certified Humane Raised & Handled” help to resolve any potential indigestion a consumer may suffer as they contemplate their meal’s past life. Perhaps that’s why the California Milk Advisory board spent over $18 million to create an ad campaign featuring “happy cows.” In one ad, a herd of Holsteins leaving the Midwest on foot welcome a California earthquake—and the foot massage it will give them—and discuss what they find most attractive in bulls.

    For growing numbers of meat manufacturers, it seems, burgers from happy cows go down much, much better.

    Further Reading

    Read Helene Lawson's full-length article on this topic: The Experience of Existing: small family farms in the Northeast United States.

    About the Author

    John T. Lang is in the sociology department at Occidental College.


    Labeling to Distract

    Vermont, Maine, and Connecticut recently passed legislation requiring companies to label foods that contain genetically modified (GM) ingredients, and roughly half of all state legislatures are also considering doing so. While such labels are appealing, giving consumers the illusion of control when making purchasing decisions, the passage of labeling laws for genetically modified food are likely to have a modest impact on the American food system, which in recent decades has shifted toward genetically modified commodity crops.

    According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, roughly 90 percent of all soybeans, more than 75 percent of cotton, and over 80 percent of corn are genetically modified. Food manufacturers use these crops and their derivatives, such as high-fructose corn syrup, cornstarch, soy lecithin, and vegetable oils, as ingredients in a vast array of processed foods. In addition, more than one-third of sugar used in the United States comes from genetically modified sources. At least 75 percent of all processed foods contain a genetically modified ingredient, according to conservative estimates.

    Proponents of labeling note that we label food products even when the ingredients do not pose any health risks. For example, it is common to see religious preferences, such as Halal and Kosher statuses, as well as vegan and vegetarian ingredients, indicated on packages. They say that people have a right to know what’s in their food and that GM labeling gives discerning consumers choices.

    But by labeling, people may believe that they have successfully insulated themselves from the problems of modern agricultural practices and may therefore lack motivation for organizing for change. As sociologist Andrew Szasz explains in his 2007 book Shopping Our Way to Safety, if individuals believe that they have shielded themselves from a perceived threat, there is a false sense of security.

    With GM food labeling, the “protected” consumers would feel less urgency to push for the kind of regulatory controls needed to address structural issues in the food system, and regulators would have little incentive to defy the powerful influence of agribusiness. Therefore, labeling may impede the development of a significant mass of consumers who are committed to critical thinking about the American food system.

    And labeling laws can only do so much. Rather than changing consumer behavior at the point-of-purchase, truly meaningful change must start long before products hit the shelves—in reforms that address the broad availability of diverse and nutritionally adequate sources of food, intellectual property, national sovereignty and colonialism, consolidation in the agricultural chain of production, and the regulation and management of environmental hazards.

    Recommended Readings

    • Charles, Daniel. Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food (Perseus Publishing, 2002). Explores the how and why of the technology rather than making a pro or con argument.
    • Clapp, Jennifer A., and Doris A. Fuchs. Corporate Power in Global Agrifood Governance (MIT Press, 2009). Places corporate power in the center of worldwide agricultural governance.
    • Falkner, Robert, ed. The International Politics of Genetically Modified Food: Diplomacy, Trade and Law (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). Integrates political, economic and legal dimensions of the international politics of GM foods.
    • Nestle, Marion. Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (University of California Press, 2002). Essential analysis of the intersections between science, politics, and industry.
    • Pinstrup-Andersen, Per, and Ebbe Schioler. Seeds of Contention: World Hunger and the Global Controversy over GM Crops. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000). Argues for the potential of GM crops to address agricultural problems in developing countries.
    • Schurman, Rachel, and William A. Munro. Fighting for the Future of Food: Activists Versus Agribusiness in the Struggle over Biotechnology (University of Minnesota Press, 2010). Shows why anti-GM activists were sometimes successful and why agribusinesses were successful in other circumstances.
    • Szasz, Andrew. Shopping Our Way to Safety: How We Changed from Protecting the Environment to Protecting Ourselves (University of Minnesota Press, 2007). Introduces the concept of an inverted quarantine as a form of political anesthesia that reduces willingness to participate in collective action.

    About the Authors

    Will Allen is founder of Milwaukee-based Growing Power, Inc., and innovator in urban agriculture.

    Rob Efird is an environmental anthropologist at Seattle University


    Revolutionizing Food And Space

    Is it possible to develop diversified, sustainable agriculture in cities? Will Allen believes that it is. In 1995 he founded Growing Power, Inc., based on his innovative ideas about growing food in urban centers. Today, this Milwaukee-based organization employs a staff of 65 and is involved in more than 70 urban agriculture initiatives, including 15 Regional Outreach Training Centers throughout the United States, and a number of international projects devoted to practicing and teaching integrated urban agriculture. This pioneering work in urban food development earned Allen the MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” in 2008, and in 2010 he was named one the world’s 100 most influential people by Time Magazine. The son of a sharecropper, Allen played professional basketball and pursued a career in corporate sales and marketing before returning to farming in 1993. His autobiography, The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities, was published in 2012 to great acclaim. For this interview he visited with environmental anthropologist Rob Efird of Seattle University.

    Allen and some of his young farmers in Milwaukee. (Tami Hughes)

    Allen and some of his young farmers in Milwaukee. (Tami Hughes)

    Rob Efird: In The Good Food Revolution, you write that, “Equal access to healthy, affordable food should be a civil right, every bit as important as access to clean water or the right to vote.” What do you mean?

    Will Allen: We have a food system today that just doesn’t give people access to healthy food. You could go into so many communities that are “food insecure,” and in these communities you have poor quality food that leads to early death. So if people continue to eat bad food in these communities, there’s not a way out of poverty. If people are hungry, when people are under stress, when people are sick, there’s no way they can build healthy communities. So it really starts with healthy food. What we’re doing as an organization is making sure that we come up with strategies that lead to getting food to everybody in the community, regardless of their economic situation.

    RE: How does that work?

    WA: We’re not only educating people who are food insecure to take responsibility for their own health: we also have to educate the power brokers in the community—whether they’re corporate companies or politicos, or universities, a lot of top-down operators—to get them at the table. Because we need them. A lot of social justice is wrapped around policies that different communities have, and the fact is, if you go from community to community, there are different policies. And many of them really are against some of the things that we’re doing. The only way to change that is with concrete examples of what a good food system looks like. So part of our work at Growing Power is to prove that you can grow enough food to feed X amount of people and to really quantify a lot of the things that we’ve developed.

    RE: You’ve mentioned the importance of first lady Michelle Obama’s personal example, and the significance of her “Let’s Move” campaign and the White House garden in getting people to think differently about urban agriculture; but you’re saying we also need policy changes at the local or national level to ensure food justice?

    WA: Absolutely. And we’re starting to see that happen, as urban agriculture has become one of the fastest growing, if not the fastest growing, piece of agriculture in this country. One of the basic policies is to be able to farm in all three or four (or whatever they have) zoning areas of a city. For example, in Milwaukee, we can grow food in any zoning area, whether it’s residential, commercial, or industrial. In an industrial area, you might have vacant buildings, and you may have large parking lots where you could put up hoop houses on top of asphalt and use the inside of the building to build fish systems. So you can have this kind of integrated food system in an old building that may have been sitting there for 10, 15 years. Those buildings are all over the country now. A lot of foreclosures not only on homes, but on businesses, have happened in the last several years. But in some cities you can’t grow on industrial property. So, if you can get that changed, then you’d be able to grow.

    RE: That makes a lot of sense.

    WA: You take commercial zoning and do the same thing. And some cities have no policies at all, so they have to develop policies. People are farming, but they’re kinda doing it illegally. The other piece is to have permitting. If you’re gonna put up a hoop house, you want to make sure that those hoop houses are structurally sound, so in Milwaukee, you have to get a permit. Doesn’t cost you anything, but the city uses our schematic that we’ve developed over the years. Anybody wants to put up a hoop house has to present a schematic that we developed to be able to get a permit to put up a hoop house or a green house. And we’ve got it approved for school properties. That opens up a lot of possibilities for folks to grow food. Because that’s a secure area. Usually schools are very secure. And closed school properties: our headquarters is on 55th and Silver Spring, and this school was closed for five years, and now we have 25 hoop houses growing food year-round on that old school property. It opens up all kinds of possibilities.

    RE: What about policies at the national level?

    WA: Probably one of the biggest challenges we have is we don’t have enough farmers. We have to grow some farmers! If you look at the farm bill, it has some language in there for training farmers. So we need to take some of those subsidy dollars and put it into training farmers. We know the industrial farm system is reducing the number of farmers, because they use a lot of technology. So we need to be able to grow jobs. And there are so many jobs in a new food system. I mean, you think about it, it’s not just putting a plant in the ground, we need to have folks who are engineers, renewable energy people, truck drivers—there are hundreds of different jobs that are connected to the food system. So from an economic development perspective inside cities this could be an economic engine, if we’re able to grow more food in and close to cities versus out in rural communities.

    RE: You just mentioned the need to grow a new generation of farmers. How do you see this happening, particularly among urban youth?

    WA: We started as a youth-serving organization. And there are thousands of youth-serving organizations around the country that are doing similar things. Not that they’re cranking up a lot of production, but at schools and nonprofits they’re teaching kids who live in high-rises and apartments, kids who would never have contact with Mother Earth, to be able to understand where their food comes from. And to taste what natural food tastes like, grown without chemicals and grown in good soil. One of the things that we did last year is put in 50 daycare gardens. We think of K-12, putting gardens in schools, but we really need to start with the preschoolers. So many kids, especially in food desert areas, because their parents have to work two or three jobs, their primary meal is at school or in after school programs. So it’s important for us to put these gardens in and let these kids take a taste of even what a cherry tomato tastes like grown in healthy soil.

    RE: How do kids respond to that?

    WA: Kids are very interested in touching the soil and getting involved and growing stuff and tasting it, creating meals and learning how to cook at that age. Because, a lot of times, it’s not happening at home. Every person in America’s family was connected to farming, if you look back generations. But we’ve had a disconnect, because the last few generations that hasn’t been passed on. So now we have this big, long gap where people really don’t know where their food comes from. They’re dependent on what we tell ‘em via the media, and companies that talk about their food as though it’s wonderful for us. People don’t make their own choices. So that’s an important piece that we try to bring to schools and to young people, is to really think about— every time you sit down to eat—think about where that food came from! Think about whether that food is nutritious.

    Urban farms provide educational opportunities for local youth and economic opportunities for surrounding neighborhoods. (Tami Hughes)

    Urban farms provide educational opportunities for local youth and economic opportunities for surrounding neighborhoods. (Tami Hughes)

    RE: You write that “urban agriculture is not yet reliably profitable.” What’s needed to make it economically viable without outside funding?

    WA: One of the things is production. We have very little production, so we need to scale it up so that it becomes cost effective. And we need to come up with more strategies to reduce the production costs. All of that is really around training folks how to grow food in a different kind of way, inside cities. You need to look at agriculture in terms of square footage instead of in terms of hectares or acres. How efficient can you become in growing in a square foot? Our goal is to grow food at $5 a square foot in a year, minimum. Some things, like sprouts, you can get up to $50 a square foot, which equates to a million dollars an acre. And at $5 a square foot, you’re talking $200,000 an acre, whereas the average row-crop farmer in America probably makes $500 an acre. We don’t have the kind of land you have out in the far rural areas, so you have to be able to maximize the space that you have in the cities. Some cities have a lot of land, and some cities don’t have that much land, but even a city like New York, where you’d look and say, “Wow, there’s no vacant land,” there’s still 10,000 acres of vacant land on the ground, and there’s 6,000 acres of rooftops. And there’s the vertical farm concept: we’re working to build the first vertical farm in the world, to be able to grow food with greenhouses on multiple floors. That’s another long-term possibility as we look into the future.

    RE: One of the many eye-opening aspects of your book is your description of the long tradition of African American farming and agricultural expertise in this country. You mention the great educator and agricultural scientist George Washington Carver as a personal inspiration to you. For people who are interested in urban agriculture today, what are the lessons of this history?

    WA: George Washington Carver was a genius. He had such deep passion for being inventive: many people don’t know he developed much of the cultivating equipment that large-scale farmers are using today. He worked with Henry Ford, who was also a farmer. I think it would be fascinating for young people to get educated about the fact that 20 percent of our farmers were African American back in the ‘20s and ‘30s, and now we’re down to less than 1 percent.

    RE: What happened?

    WA: African American folks from slavery were involved in agriculture through Reconstruction and share-cropping. When my father came from South Carolina to Maryland leaving share-cropping behind, he had all this agricultural knowledge. Most of the people in the Great Migration who came from the South for these industrial jobs, one of the things that happened is that we left our agricultural roots behind. Because it was such a negative thing, when you think about slavery and share-cropping, where sharecroppers got the short end of the stick and couldn’t make a good living. That’s part of the history that young people—all people—need to understand and that’s why [The Good Food Revolution] was really about my family’s journey. Which could have been any African American family’s journey that paralleled ours.

    RE: So few families farm in the U.S. now. WA: I think the biggest problem is that break. Everybody’s family was involved in farming. When that got broken, the food system got broken. If we would have been able to pass on all those ways of growing food, whether you were Irish or whether you were Italian or African American, Latino, it didn’t matter. If you were able to continue that history, then you know, things would be much different. So now we have to fix it. We have to fix these problems by going back, getting people inspired so that they become passionate about their food and understanding their food, connect it to economic development, connect it to health.

    RE: If people engaged in urban agriculture and the folks around the country who are working along your model are not yet reliably making big profits, what is it about urban farming that keeps people inspired and engaged?

    WA: Well, I think a lot of people believe in the mission. Especially young people—for the first time about 70 percent of the people who are involved and wanting to change the food system are under 40 years of age. Before it was crusty old farmers like myself, and those studying the food system from the universities. But now it’s young people who want to come back to their communities and fix them. So this is not a fad or something that’s gonna go away. This is something that people are deeply committed to: a movement that’s now turned into a revolution.

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    About the Author

    Norah MacKendrick is in the sociology department at Rutgers University. She studies and teaches food politics, gender, and environmental risk.



    Consider the places and spaces where you acquire food, prepare food, talk about food, or generally gather some sort of meaning from food. This is your foodscape. The concept originated in the field of geography and is widely used in urban studies and public health to refer to urban food environments. Sociologists have extended the concept to include the institutional arrangements, cultural spaces, and discourses that mediate our relationship with our food.

    Locating Foodscapes

    Corey Fields

    Corey Fields

    A foodscape centers around a food environment. Where I live, my foodscape includes two grocery stores, a community garden, two food banks, several public school breakfast and lunch programs, multiple bodegas, a farmers’ market, food trucks, and several fast food restaurants. Although these are all within walking distance of my front door, foodscapes are not always proximate spaces. In many rural and urban areas, shoppers must drive or ride a bus to get to the nearest grocery store, restaurant or farmers’ market. In the suburbs of major cities, shoppers can find “big box” grocery stores that offer deep discounts and substantial choice. For middle-class shoppers, foodscapes extend to online spaces that allow consumers to order food from distant warehouses through grocery delivery services or websites like Amazon.com. The foodscape is never fixed; its boundaries shift depending on how the food environment expands and contracts.

    A Multi-Faceted Analytical Lens

    Sociologist Anthony Winson has written critically about the vast amount of processed foods and fast food restaurants clogging Canadian and U.S. foodscapes (as well as arteries). Reflecting on the so-called obesity “epidemic,” he identifies the profit-seeking motives of agribusiness, rather than consumer demand, as a primary force that has led to the dominance of “pseudo-foods” in many foodscapes. Consequently, healthy eating becomes the burden of the individual shopper who must learn to navigate their grocery store and neighborhood in search of healthy food.

    Winson’s research is an example of a multi-faceted lens that captures the interplay of institutions and organizations, as well as spaces within foodscapes. Institutions, such as food assistance programs, and organizations like corporate grocers, play a fundamental role in determining the food we eat, as well as who eats and who does not. For children from low-income households, free school breakfast and lunch programs are integral to their foodscapes. Likewise, food banks and communal meal programs are vital components of the foodscape for many low-income individuals, particularly the elderly.

    The institutional and organizational dynamics that contribute to a foodscape are often reflected in what kind of food is available. Mark Winne, a social activist working in New Haven, documents the struggles of poor, inner city residents who are at the mercy of the bodegas and small neighborhood grocery stores that serve their community, which are unlikely to carry affordable fresh produce and healthy food items. He also cites several examples of groups that have successfully convinced grocery stores to open in their neighborhoods. Winne’s work illustrates the inter-connections of corporate grocers and non-profit groups in both creating and responding to barren foodscapes.

    Foodscapes reflect not just profit motives, but also racial prejudices. In her research on African American health, human ecologist Naa Oyo A. Kwate explores the ways in which fast food chains tend to target predominantly lower-income black neighborhoods in the United States. Grocers often need a lot of convincing to open stores in poor communities, especially those with high proportions of black and Latino residents. Referred to as “retail redlining,” this is a form of spatial discrimination whereby businesses choose not to locate a fresh food supermarket in an area that shows demand because of racial prejudices (e.g., that black neighborhoods have poor retail viability). Foodscapes are therefore classed and racialized environments.

    The heterogeneity of foodscapes is not just a function of consumer demand. Healthy and unhealthy foodscapes owe more to deep-seated prejudices and the industrial food system’s hunger for profit than the spatial distribution of food cravings—those who desire hamburgers versus those with hankerings for kale chips.

    Food Politics and Cultures

    Corey Fields

    Corey Fields

    The contours of foodscapes are also shaped by cultural politics and trends about the meaning and significance of food. The slogan of “voting with your fork” is a powerful articulation of food politics and one that influences contemporary foodscapes. As a discourse, food politics draws from the ideals of the organic food movement of the 1960s and suggests that individual food purchases have the potential to transform the industrial food system into one that is more ethical, healthy and environmentally sustainable. This discourse encourages eaters to be more ethical consumers by supporting local farmers, organic production, and fair labor practices. Physical spaces such as farmers’ markets and Whole Foods Market, and cultural spaces like Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the documentary Fresh reflect the discourse of food politics. And online commercials and an upcoming TV series produced by the fast food chain Chipotle suggest that the discourse is expanding.

    In our own research, my colleagues and I have found that the discourse of food politics has been incorporated into a new foodscape: the corporate-organic foodscape. Over the past dozen years, global food processors like Heinz, ConAgra, and Kraft Foods have acquired a significant proportion of the original organic food brands. The marketing of these products draws on key themes related to food politics. A box of cereal from Cascadian Farm (owned by General Mills), for example, shows an image of the lush Skagit Valley in Washington State to highlight how production happens within “local” spaces. The packaging includes a narrative about the dedication of its founder to the principles of organic agriculture. These discursive techniques, along with an industry structure of corporate ownership make this a corporate organic foodscape. At first glance, this appears to be a promising outcome of current food politics, but as long as it maintains the organization and logic of the industrial food system, it will be at odds with food-based social movements that focus on local environmental sustainability, food security and workers’ rights.

    In their book Foodies, sociologists Josée Johnston and Shyon Baumann explore the narratives of the gourmet foodscape. As cultural omnivores, foodies mark their distinction from other eaters by highlighting their love of both highbrow dishes like truffles and foie gras and lowbrow favorites like hamburgers and chicken wings. Whether high- or lowbrow, they note that the gourmet foodscape requires the creation of boundaries that mark certain foods as exotic or authentic, and reinforces a dichotomy of “good” versus “bad” food.

    The gourmet foodscape is also constructed through popular culture, including magazines like Bon Appétit websites such as Chowhound and food television. Food Network, for example, broadcasts dozens of shows in any given week, from Diners, Drive-ins and Dives (a show highlighting various working-class eateries) to Chopped (a show featuring competing chefs). Food trucks and food festivals in urban areas are also part of this foodscape. Their menus and branding blend the highbrow with the lowbrow, and produce messages about the authenticity or exoticism of their dishes. For example, the ramen burger (a meat patty encased by fried ramen noodle ‘buns’) that debuted at the 2013 Smorgasburg food fair in Brooklyn, and the Cronut (a croissant doughnut) are just a couple of the many new food “inventions” to come out of the gourmet foodscape.

    Foodscape Horizons

    Several foodscapes beckon the sociology of food. Groups interested in creating alternative foodscapes that use more democratic food distribution systems and involve communities of eaters with similar values and goals are growing as a response to the corporate-organic foodscape. These groups are taking the form of food policy councils, community gardens, food cooperatives, and community-supported agriculture. Digital and online spaces are another component of foodscapes that deserve more attention. In what ways do food blogs and applications like Instagram (where eaters upload photos of dishes they made or are about to eat) mediate our relationship to our food and the places where we get our food? Finally, as more and more affluent grocery shoppers simply log-on and “add to cart,” does online food shopping further stratify an already uneven foodscape? Eating is political. Identifying and analyzing foodscapes illuminates connections between food and social inequality.

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