Foodscapes Conference 2014: Challenging the traditional-alternative divide

IMG_5769Last week was full of excitement – excitement about a new travel experience to a country where you can enjoy pure mountain spring water straight from the tap, excitement about a challenging (labels in German were, to say the least, puzzling) but enjoyable shopping in supermarkets where pretty much everything you see on the shelves comes with the prefix – bio (i.e. organic), excitement about attending and presenting at a conference all about the issues of production, consumption and representation of food. As much as I would like to dedicate the entire post to delicious Styrian apples sold at the local farmer’s market in Graz, it is the Foodscapes Conference and the insights it’s given me that I will talk about today (apples still get credit in the picture!)

The “Foodscapes Beyond the Alternative/Conventional Food Networks Binary” conference was held in Graz during 5-6 May and has attracted academics from all over the world who came to share the latest empirical findings and theoretical developments in the field of food studies. Having the concept of food networks as its major focus, the event sought to challenge the increasingly problematised division of our current foodways into conventional and alternative ones. I talked about the theoretical framework of my research project drawing on the presentation I’d already discussed here. The comments from the audience, by tradition, revolved around the relationships between ethical consumption and class, consumers’ morals versus their financial means – the questions I have now gotten used to and am able to address (increasingly so as my fieldwork progresses and yields new insights). So instead of talking about my own presentation, I’d like to concentrate on a couple of other projects that I had a chance to learn about.

The first paper was presented by researchers from Copenhagen’s Aalborg University whose study is intended to inform and support the government’s initiative to switch food procurement in Danish jails to organic. This fascinating undertaking is part of the Danish government’s larger pledge to convert the country’s public kitchens to organic food procurement – an investment of as much as 20 million euros is supporting the scheme.

Mette Weinreich Hansen of the Aalborg University talked about a disturbing gap that currently separates food production from food procurement in Danish jails. On the one hand, Danish prisons are significant contributors to the country’s food production in general and big supporters of organic agriculture in particular – in 2000 all Denmark’s jails switched to organic farming  (who could imagine jails to be the biggest supplier of organic milk to Arla foods?). On the other hand though, prisoners’ own meals rely on procurement of food that is anything but environmentally friendly and often simply lacking in quality. Against this backdrop, a target has been set to bridge the gap between organic food production in the jail system and the preparation of meals in its kitchens. Clearly, such a transformation will require not just significant structural reformations but also developing appropriate cooking skills. The educational program scheduled for the summer of 2014 comprises of 5-week instructional courses for kitchen staff, 2-week practical courses on how to transfer from cook-freeze foods to freshly prepared meals, as well as informative program for prisoners to teach them about the benefits and significance of organic food. As promising as the initiative is, there are a lot of challenges to address – from business issues (price negotiations, contracts with suppliers), to social (developing new relationships between kitchen staff and suppliers) and psychological (resistance to change, demotivation) factors, to practical considerations (types of cooking tasks that inmates can be entrusted with – access to knives?). The project is ongoing and I intend to keep an eye on its development – certainly, there will be a lot of lessons to learn.

The second paper was delivered by Katarzyna Ewa Król, a PhD student from Poland, whose presentation addressed the ambiguity of distinctions drawn between trendy urban gardening and traditional rural farming. In an attempt to challenge the stereotypes that each of these food production practices has come to entail, Katarzyna talked about her family’s food growing traditions and her own impressions of being an urban gardener. By drawing on personal experiences, she emphasized the paradox inherent in the radically different perceptions of intrinsically similar ways of food provisioning: growing your own food in the rural context is considered old-fashioned and backward, whereas enacted in the urban setting, it somehow becomes part of an alternative movement imbued with creativity and expressive of social consciousness.

The presentation, although not yet supported by any empirical findings, was good at prompting re-thinking of conceptual divisions between traditional and alternative foodways and reminding that what counts as trendy and alternative for some people can be a long-established way of living and inescapable social reality for others.

Overall, the conference in general and these two projects in particular highlighted that sustainable foodways are increasingly a matter of practical transformations and at the same time the focus of on-going conceptual debates.



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