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From Companion Planting to Cross-Pollination: Thoughts on the Future of Food Studies

Alison Hope Alkon publishes her plenary remarks from the 2017 Graduate Association for Food Studies conference.

Published onDec 11, 2018
From Companion Planting to Cross-Pollination: Thoughts on the Future of Food Studies

In the fall of 2017, the Graduate Association for Food Studies asked me to give a plenary address during their annual conference. I struggled to figure out how best to comment on the conference’s theme, “The Future of Food Studies,” because, although I have spent the past two decades researching and writing about food, I consider myself relatively new to the field. My background is in sociology, but I am also heavily influenced by cultural geography, and I work primarily in the area of food justice, which sits at the intersection of food, racial, and economic inequalities, environmental sustainability, and social movements. I read and have published in food studies journals like Food, Culture & Society and Agriculture and Human Values, but more often, I have been one of a growing number of “food people” in more disciplinary-specific social and professional worlds. Additionally, and unlike a surprising number of my colleagues in this field, I have never been a professional chef, a popular food writer, or a farmer, and though I work closely with food activists, I have never worked for a food justice organization.

The launch of University of the Pacific’s MA in Food Studies encouraged me to think of food studies as one of my primary intellectual identities. In the past few years, I’ve attempted to look beyond my own research interests to learn about the general contours of the field, the potentials of interdisciplinarity, and the kinds of questions that interest a wide variety of scholars. Through my students, whose work crosses disciplinary boundaries with a freeness that I both admire and envy, I am learning more and more about the broader field of food studies.

At the conference, it felt vulnerable to attempt to outline a field I had only recently begun to till. But the response from my colleagues there suggested that many of them were thinking along the same lines. And although my program has recently been discontinued because it did not garner profits quickly enough, I believe these insights are still worth sharing.

Preparing the Beds

To the degree that there is a cohesive field of food studies, a debatable proposition to be sure, I believe that what brings us together is a desire to look through the lens of food to examine larger social processes. In this field, social processes become legible through the interrelated questions of consumption (what do/did people eat), production (how do/did they get these foods), and cultural context (why do/did they eat them). Food studies is also distinguished by strong connections beyond academia. Many scholars have worked, or converse regularly with, members of the food industry and food media, health and nutrition professionals, and food activists, planners, and policymakers (well, maybe policymakers is wishful thinking). But unlike so many other disciplines and interdisciplines, there is very little policing of boundaries in food studies. Scholars are reading and taking seriously the thoughts of writers not only from different academic disciplines but also the popular food world.

Beyond these broad, unifying themes, I see the field as split into two relatively distinct camps, each guided by their own questions, disciplinary traditions, and perspectives. The first is what I call the food cultures camp. Broadly, scholars in this camp tend to investigate the following questions:

Why do various groups of people eat the ways they do, and how has this changed over time? What are the histories of various foods and dishes? What kinds of meanings do particular foods hold for various groups of people? How have representations of foods and eating practices shifted over time?

These kinds of questions most often highlight the consumption of food and the broader cultures of which food is an essential piece. They can be seen as basic research, meaning they are driven by curiosity and a desire to understand the world rather than to address practical problems. Many studies in this tradition are historically-oriented, although lessons for the present are sometimes available by implication. Scholars here also attend to, and are sometimes in dialogue with, popular food media, especially writers and chefs.

The other camp can be summarized under the heading of food systems. Often defined as the path that foods take from “seed to table,” a food systems approach highlights the material processes involved in growing, processing, selling, and disposing of food. Scholars working in this tradition tend to ask the following sorts of questions:

How and by whom is food produced and consumed?
How have systems of agricultural production changed over time?
How do politics and policy affect food systems?
How can food systems become more environmentally sustainable and socially just?

In contrast to the food cultures approach, food systems scholars are more often driven by applied questions that explicitly seek to improve food systems. Although there is some attention to the past, they are far more concerned with understanding the present in order to create a more just and sustainable future. They tend to approach food systems from the interrelated perspectives of political economy and ecology, the latter of which views human-environmental actions as governed by power relations, resulting in highly variable access to resources, and through activism that attempts to shift these power relations.

The split between these camps is evolving as the interdiscipline continues to develop. Some of the newer graduate programs like Syracuse and Marylhurst are squarely on one or the other end of the spectrum, but others are trying to span the field. Too often, however, even those trying to do it all create tracks, like NYU does, in which students can focus on food policy, food business, or food cultures. Or, in my own program, each faculty member has our own location on this continuum, and we teach our own classes from our own perspectives. It is to our credit that our students seem to be the ones spanning them, but we, as a field, can do more to guide this emergent work.

In some ways, the split between food cultures and food systems is a microcosm of what sociologists refer to as the split between structure and agency. Too much focus on the microlevel, on agency, and on identity leads to research that ignores the roles of policy, economic trends, and shared and popular culture on the lived experiences of communities. In other words, too much emphasis on agency can lead to a lack of ability to see the forest for the trees. But too much focus on structure, on laws and politics and economic processes, does not tell us anything about how they play out in the lives of people on the ground. And giving up our ability to tell stories about one another’s lives leaves our field devoid of both the style and relevance that have come to characterize it.


I work mainly in the area of food justice, and while it is clearly in the domain of food systems, I want to use it as a location from which to imagine what bridging the divide between food systems and food cultures might look like. Like the field of environmental justice, to which food justice traces some of its roots, food justice is both a social movement and an area of inquiry. While there are many definitions, I often borrow the one coined by my former graduate student Rasheed Hislop (2014), who writes that food justice is “the struggle against racism, exploitation, and oppression taking place within the food system that addresses inequality’s root causes both within and beyond the food chain.” I like this definition because it foregrounds race while also nodding at other, intersecting forms of oppression and because it acknowledges that the kinds of inequalities that we see within the food system also operate beyond it. This insight implies that, while food can be a lens through which to understand and shift social injustices, we need to look beyond food itself to see the intersecting social, political, and ecological landscapes that shape our lives.

Academic research on food justice has mainly focused on activism and particularly the creation of local food systems in, by, and for communities of color (although of course these are different things). As scholars, we are asking who is doing this work, how are they doing it, and, in the forward-oriented tradition of food systems research, how can they do it better, and how more privileged communities can support it. In addition to a slew of articles and graduate theses, there have been four monographs published in the past few years that deeply examine food justice activism: my own Black, White, and Green (2012), Kristin Reynolds and Nevin Cohen’s Beyond the Kale (2016), Garrett Broad’s More than Just Food (2016), and Josh Sbicca’s Food Justice Now (2018), with several more under contract. Each of these monographs follow activists in communities of color in their attempts to create just and sustainable food systems, as well as opportunities for grassroots economic development, in places devastated by redlining, urban renewal, and the loss of working-class jobs. All three books lay out the historical circumstances that have led to food insecurity as well as the complexities and contradictions involved in attempting to make changes both within and beyond the food system.

But in thinking about the field of food studies, I am reminded of something one of my dissertation advisors, Julie Sze, often said about environmental justice. She argued that this academic field is more than just studies of the environmental justice movement and more than just documenting the environmental inequalities that the movement is trying to address. She argued that environmental justice scholarship should examine the intersection of inequalities and environments, and thus put forward a broader research agenda for how inequalities affect environments and vice versa. I want to see food justice do the same thing for food. In doing so, it will necessarily encounter the food cultures tradition from food studies.

In my first attempt to lay out food justice as an academic field, I wrote that it brings together aspects of environmental justice, critical race theory, sustainable agriculture, and food studies. With regard to the latter, I wrote that:

The field of food studies has devoted significant attention to the relationship between food and cultural identity, but has not examined the structural context in which these relationships occur. It is in this newly emergent body of work on food justice that the racialized political economy of food production and distribution meets the cultural politics of food consumption.[1]

Today I would argue that we, in the academic field of food justice, still have not really engaged with the cultural politics of food consumption, but that this calling is ever more urgent. It is a call for food justice research to move beyond its focus on activism to encompass the breadth of work analyzing the intersections of inequalities and food. In doing so, it can draw more heavily on work that attends to the racialized, gendered, and classed nature of food consumption, work rooted in the food cultures part of the schema that I propose.

This broader, more culturally-informed notion of food justice research can pair food cultures’ detailed attention to history, narrative, and food itself with food systems’ attention to production, land, and policy. In other words, food justice offers us the ability to bring these two paradigms together, transforming both itself, and the field of food studies in the process.

This work is urgent if our goal as a field is to truly deploy food as a window into larger social processes. Inequalities are certainly not the only social processes ripe for analysis through food, but they are among the most important ones and intertwined with all others. And because inequalities are structural, but the identities upon which they are often based are cultural, they are a particularly poignant subject through which we can write across the divide.

In their 2011 “focus” piece for Food, Culture & Society, Psyche Williams-Forson and Abby Wilkerson described the potential revelations for food studies if we “put intersectionality at the center”:

When we move from thinking of food as unraced, unclassed and unfettered by the binds of sexuality and physicality and therefore socially equal, to discussions of food as an inherent part of the social inequality of our lives, then the “real” complicated nature of our field begins to unfold.[2]

Among the things we might begin to see in this unfolding are new insights about the relationship between structure and culture, the systems that shape our lives, and the ways we make meaning within and transform them.

Amending the Soil

If food studies scholarship is to incorporate both food systems and food cultures, we are going to need to think about what can be taken from previous work in food studies that attends to inequalities and that spans both food cultures and food systems. Here, I want to offer examples of a few books that I believe are foundational to this way of thinking, as well as a few from each camp that have missed important opportunities to span it.

Judith Carney’s Black Rice (2001), for example, reclaims the essential role of enslaved Africans in bringing rice to the Americas and creating a prosperous plantation economy in the Carolinas. Its central question comes from both the food cultures category—examining the ways that foodstuffs have traveled from one place to another—and also from the food systems category—namely, who has grown what sort of food and how. Written by a geographer, this text is a work of rich historical detail that makes explicit the ways that racism and the political economy of slavery shaped food systems. And, of course, the role of historic and present-day Black communities in the creation of not only wealth but also cuisines, particularly in the South, is a current research trend that stands on Carney’s shoulders. This sort of work, most notably Michael Twitty’s recent book, The Cooking Gene (2016), is, I would argue, primarily motivated by questions of food justice, ensuring that contributions to United States food and agriculture are recognized, valued, and rewarded.

Psyche Williams-Forson’s Building Houses out of Chicken Legs (2006) is another example of a culturally rich work that predates the term food justice and offers an important precedent for how we can bridge the divide between food cultures and food systems. The book is tremendously methodologically robust, ranging from political economy to analysis of popular culture to autoethnography. From the food cultures category, it gives us the history of a dish and its associated meanings. But what I think makes it a standout is its consistent focus on the ways that racism and sexism shape not only popular culture but also the political economy, and thus, the context from which Black women have made meaning (and money) from this particular dish.

I believe these two books are essential models for the future of food studies, particularly because they contain a critical perspective often missing from earlier work. These books are explicit about the role of racial capitalism—and in the latter case, also sexism—in shaping the foodways that they analyze. Too often, the food cultures discourse has talked too little about the structural inequalities, including policy and political economy, that shape and are shaped by the cultures that they analyze.

For example, one part of the dominant discourse in food studies that I think we should all strive to move beyond is the labeling of the movements of foods from Europe to the Americas as contact or exchange. Foods may have been exchanged, but these terms imply a mutuality that glosses over the violences of slavery, colonization, and genocide. To examine the development of cuisines without attending to these inequities is to gloss over the horrors of mass extermination that have shaped political processes, economies, and lived realities ever since.

For example, Donna Gabaccia’s We Are What We Eat (1998) was one of the early books to discuss the role of immigrant and ethnic foodways in shaping U.S. cuisine. Despite the fact that this book is twenty years old, it remains widely cited in work on food cultures. Gabaccia depicts not only the Columbian exchange but also describes ethnic food as creole or gumbo, a stew bringing together ingredients from a variety of cultures, adapted by enterprising cooks and entrepreneurs to suit newly formed American tastes. I believe a further engagement with the food systems literature could have prompted a work like We Are What We Eat to more critically analyze how this gumbo was formed and which ingredients were deemed worthy or not (and by whom).

In another example, Nature’s Perfect Food (2002), Melanie Dupuis’s excellent book on the history of milk, which in many ways does span the food cultures/food studies divide, investigates the way that this whitest of foods comes to be promoted as essential to the all-American diet, despite the fact that people of color are far more likely to be lactose intolerant. Milk strikes me as a metaphor for how whiteness becomes a stand-in for the United States and the ways that non-whites are often deprived of social citizenship and regarded as other. Aaron Bobrow-Strain’s more recent White Bread (2012) also seems to miss this potential metaphor, which in this case could have also examined links between white bread’s and white people’s associations of purity.

Even Arjun Appadurai’s “How to Make a National Cuisine” (1988)—despite its exposition of class and gender norms in contemporary India—does little to interrogate the role of food in the process of building a national identity. There are scant references to the postcolonial context and no exposition of the ways that national identity needed to be forged, as various regions brought together under British rule had to self-consciously forge a unified sense of nationhood. He also fails to mention Partition, and his only mention of Muslim cuisine is no different from his analysis of other Indian regional cuisines. In sum, much of the foundational work in the food cultures field could do more to incorporate social structure, particularly with regard to racism and racial formations, but also to political economy and ecology more generally.

For its part, food systems researchers can do more to address the kinds of foodways that communities have developed, both in response to food injustices and through their activist responses. In this way, scholarship can offer insights into human societies, such as how communities produce collective identities in the context of racialized and gendered capitalism and how food has and can be used as a tool to resist oppressions.

To begin with my own work, Black, White, and Green is a comparative study of farmers’ markets in predominantly white, wealthy and eco/foodie-conscious North Berkeley and the predominantly Black, low-income Oakland flatlands that birthed the Black Panther Party. The book focuses on the social and political goals of each market’s managers, vendors, and most devout shoppers but tells us very little about what people buy at these various farmers’ markets, and even less about how they prepare it, with whom they share it, and whether they think about it as somehow different from food purchased elsewhere. Looking back, I think this lack of attention to meaning robs the study of some of its potential richness. I missed an opportunity to describe how the everyday practices of procuring, preparing, and consuming foods connects us to our broader worldviews. This is an omission that Ashanté Reese’s forthcoming book Black Food Geographies (2019) will certainly attend to as she turns her ethnographer’s eye for detail to the everyday food procurement and consumption practices of the communities that she studies.

Julie Guthman’s Weighing In (2011), to give another example, is a brilliant analysis of how our collective increase in size is the product, not of a lack of willpower among individuals nor of spatial distance from healthy food, but of capitalism’s various crises, including overproduction, distribution, and a backlash against the healthism that associates thinness with moral citizenship. But we learn very little in this book about how anyone actually eats. Even in the chapter based on in-depth interviews, there is no sense that food, whether fast food or alternative food, gives anyone any sense of meaning or pleasure. More focus on how people eat and how they feel about what they eat might have given us a greater sense of how the macrolevel trends operate in the lived realities of everyday people.

In the food systems literature, and the food justice literature in particular, there is a bit of a redundancy problem. So many of us are writing about community-based organizations working to increase access to healthy food in low-income communities of color. And so many of us come to the same conclusions: that the contributions of outsiders need to support, but not replace, the contributions of community members. That community members need to be included in, if not lead, the processes of identifying and resolving problems. That links to broader movements for social and environmental change need to be solidified. But all of these conclusions stem from questions of efficacy. How effective are these organizations and how can they be more so?

I believe that the food justice literature can bear more and different varieties of fruit by thinking more deeply about food itself. About where it is obtained, how it is prepared, and what meanings people draw from it. This move will require the empirical richness of the food cultures tradition. Thinking about political economies and ecologies generally necessitates broad strokes and, too often, writers settle for a stiffness with the written word. When the lives of everyday people do show up in these texts, it is often as stories or anecdotes to support a broader argument, rather than the essence of the work. And too often, work in food systems does not try to, or poorly gets at, the questions of what and how people eat and what food meanings they assign to food practices.

Bearing Fruit

I want to offer a few potential avenues for future research that can contribute to this newly broadened notion of food justice in a way that can span the food system/food culture divide. One idea could be to examine the social significance of convenience food, fast food, takeout, meal kits, and other foodways that we too often critique without really understanding. There is a lot of work on what this sort of food means transnationally, but I have yet to read anything about how it works here in the U.S. We often assume that this way of eating is without meaning, but I do not believe this is the case.

I would also like to read more about what, where, and when various groups of people cook (because my research shows that people do still cook, at least sometimes) in the context of the political economy of food and agriculture. I should mention that this is the most common thesis topic that I have seen in the first few years of our MA program. I can think of three theses in which students who are members of a particular group, Syrian refugees, Korean adoptees, and visually-impaired individuals, want to better understand how people like them cook and eat. But these investigations necessarily require looking at how these groups were formed (for example, why have Syrian refugee communities come to the United States and what provisions does the U.S. government extend to them) in order to get at their foodways.

Relatedly, I would particularly like to understand the kinds of foodways advocated by food justice activists. Maybe that is learning about the kinds of food that these programs prepare and promote, either by sitting in on cooking classes, following families home from farmers’ markets, or talking to activist chefs. Jessica Hayes-Conroy’s Savoring Alternative Food (2014), which shows the ways that kids attending school cooking programs use them as a basis for discussions of racial difference, could be foundational here.

I would also like to see a deeper investigation into chef-led food justice programs, like The People’s Kitchen or Decolonizing Our Diet in Oakland, or Conflict Kitchen in Pittsburgh, where not only are the goals to increase food access and to contest the reproduction of inequalities through food systems, but where the chefs are incredibly deliberate about choosing food and ingredients that speak to their various histories and identities. While food justice scholars tend to be good at attending to the political and economic circumstances that created various inequalities, we have not, at least thus far, been as interested in questions of food, meaning, and identity. If racial formation is an ongoing project, then what notions of racial identity are embodied by various food justice projects?

Relatedly, I would like to see more work standing on the shoulders of Krishnendu Ray’s Ethnic Restaurateur (2016). I want to know more about how chefs of color think about their own identities in relation to the food that they serve and the customers they seek. How do they deal with micro-aggressions? With being cast as “other” or “exotic”? With questions of authenticity and the common assumption that non-white cultures should be static and unchanging? This line of inquiry also brings in exciting work on gastrodiplomacy, but rather than assuming that acceptance of a food will bring acceptance of a people, it interrogates the complicated processes through which foods and people continue to be racialized even as we are all eating one another’s cuisines.

I would also like to read more about inequalities in access to capital in the restaurant industry, particularly as more and more restaurants seem to be hiring consultants and PR teams and using big data to guide their strategies. I am based in the Bay Area, where I see a particularly interesting set of questions regarding the role of venture capital, and tech innovations more generally, in driving the food and restaurant industries.

One of the big themes in popular writing about race and food recently has been cultural appropriation. This discourse is too often limited to the question of who can or cannot cook a particular food and yields a polarizing debate about “rights.” But food studies scholars can draw on both the food cultures and food systems perspectives to compare how food media differently regard insider and outsider chefs. We could interview chefs to compare their processes of recipe development. And we could bring in the above questions about access to capital to better understand the state of the restaurant industry, as well as larger questions about the relationship between race and capitalism.

Lastly, I think both fields could be more in tune with understandings of food as part of living systems. How have various ecologies affected the cuisines that have developed there? How do communities deal with the endangerment or extinction of a species? How can we expand visions of sustainability beyond organic and local? Some of the work on immigrant gardeners gets at these questions to some degree, looking at the ways that species have been carried across borders and cultivated and the ways that cooks make substitutions and cuisines evolve. But further work in this area can tell us more about the relationship between race, culture, and nature in a way that does not draw a binary between humans and other species.

Companion Planting

Food studies has evolved in a way such that it encompasses attention to both food cultures and food systems, but these two discourses do not always interact as much as they could or should. They are, both literally and metaphorically, being discussed in two different rooms at the same conferences, in different chapters of the same edited volumes, or at separate tables in the same restaurants. But together, they make for a much stronger field, one that can attend to social systems and everyday lived experiences, that can be relevant to both art and policy, and that gets at the nature of food as a physical necessity, a system of economic exchange, and a vessel for deeply held beliefs about who we are and how we should live.

Because food is so bound up with our individual and cultural identities, as well as industry, politics, technologies, and economies, it has the ability to cross many of the boundaries that I have described. It is not surprising to me that there is growing interest in the field, driven mainly by young scholars and students, who have both made homes in their own disciplines and helped to build this interdisciplinary field. And, as we produce more scholars who are trained in food studies itself, or who are grounded in a discipline but are widely read in food studies, it will become both easier and more essential to read, write, and think across these divides.

I titled this essay companion planting to invoke the metaphor that we are sowing different seeds in the same fields. Some of us are the peas, fixing nitrogen so that others bear more fruit, some of us are the marigolds, protecting the tomatoes from aphids, and some of us are the cornstalks, offering the beans and squash a place to climb. In the future, I hope our guiding metaphor moves beyond companion planting to cross-pollination. Instead of different species, this concept paints us only as different varieties, mingling our genetic material to select for the best characteristics of each of our work and to create new, hybrid forms of inquiry that are both hearty and richly flavored.

Further Reading

Alkon, Alison. Black, White, and Green: Farmers Markets, Race, and the Green Economy. Athens: UGA Press, 2012.

Appadurai, Arjun. “How to Make a National Cuisine.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 30, no. 1 (1998): 3–24.

Bobrow-Strain, Aaron. White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf. New York: Random House, 2016.

Broad, Garrett. More than Just Food: Food Justice and Community Change. Berkeley: UC Press, 2016.

Carney, Judith. Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.

DuPuis, E. Melanie. Nature’s Perfect Food: How Milk Became America’s Drink. New York: NYU Press, 2002.

Gabaccia, Donna. We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Guthman, Julie. Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism. Berkeley: UC Press, 2011.

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

Hislop, Rasheed. “Reaping Equity Across the USA: Food Justice Organizations Observed at the National Scale.” Master’s thesis, University of California–Davis, 2014.

Ray, Krishnendu. The Ethnic Restaurateur. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.

Reynolds, Kristin, and Nevin Cohen. Beyond the Kale: Urban Agriculture and Social Justice Activism in New York City. Athens: UGA Press, 2016.

Reese, Ashanté. Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance and Food Access in Washington DC. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2019.

Twitty, Michael. The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South. New York: Amistad, 2017.

Williams-Forson, Psyche. Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power. Raleigh: UNC Press, 2006.


Alison Hope Alkon is Associate Professor of Sociology at University of the Pacific. Broadly, her research investigates the intersections between race, class, and sustainable food systems. Alison is the author of Black, White, and Green: Farmers Markets, Race, and the Green Economy (2012) and co-editor (with Julian Agyeman) of Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class and Sustainability (2011).

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