Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition
Volunteered - Oral Presentation Session
The truth is that we need food. Theory, however, has gotten in the way of accepting a corollary so obvious that it errs on tautology: food therefore has power over us. The merest insinuation of material objects’ power tends to invoke actor-network theory (ANT) and so provoke ontological debates. I seek to make much more modest claims about the world than ANT implies with its emphasis on agency, the false friend with which ‘power’ is often confused. Following Kipnis (2015), I intend to differentiate power from agency by focusing on the role of food during my ethnographic fieldwork distributing vouchers to Chinese-speaking customers at a Washington, DC, farmers market.
The power of food infiltrated multiple levels of this research. First and most conspicuously, the promise of free produce drew customers to the farmers market. I will argue that the voucher program could only have effected such a change to these low-income customers’ consumption behavior—for indeed, it was a change in most cases—because of food’s intrinsic power. Secondly, this power of food, and particularly of the types of food (fruits and vegetables) that could be obtained with the vouchers, was heightened for my customers based on their understanding of diet’s health impact, as expressed during interviews. This methodology necessitated reflection on my own positionality in the interview context, especially in light of my status as a volunteer for the farmers market incentive program in which they participated; the power of food thus manifested in this third sense.