Opinion

Bodies | Caring | Eating: Gender in Food Provisioning

Professor Elspeth Probyn explains the focus of an upcoming symposium on gender, class and ethnicity within food politics.

Eating is a part of all our lives. But from exploited migrant workers picking, packing and processing foods that are sold to the time-poor middle class mothers caught in the bind of providing healthy and ethically responsible food to their families to the rice farmers in Cambodia or the tuna fishermen in Sicily, there are simultaneous relations involved in the production, supply and transportation of food from the local, global, regional, terrestrial to the oceanic level. These are the invisible, gendered labouring bodies.

The upcoming “Bodies | Caring | Eating: Gender in Food Provisioning” symposium hosted by the Sydney Environment Institute on Tuesday 24 November will focus on the caring of eating and how it can help unpack the complexities of food politics. This event questions how eating brings together bodies. Professor Elspeth Probyn of the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney is organsing the event and says the major emphasis of this symposium is to bring attention to questions of gender, class and ethnicity within food politics. “Dominant views privilege issues like seasonal local food or urban farmers’ markets.” She is critical of alternative food markets being seen as the “antidote to industrial food provisioning as they still remain the preserve of the white middle class, which is fine but doesn’t resolve overall food structures”. Furthermore, she believes too much attention is put on the consumer to change things – “vote with your fork”. “But structural inequality isn’t going to be solved by middle class people not buying this or that,” she said.

Professor Probyn believes there is still a significant gulf between the humanities and social sciences of food cultures and the sciences of nutrition, although she sees the necessity of bringing the “two cultures” together to understand the immensity of food and eating.

The symposium’s keynote speakers include Professor Julie Guthman of the University of California Santa Cruz and Professor Annemarie Mol of the University of Amsterdam, both of whom are visiting Sydney for the first time. Professor Mol, who’s a philosopher and anthropologist, is looking to rethink human bodies and, along with them, being, doing, knowing and relating, through the lens of eating practices. Meanwhile Professor Guthman will discuss a small study she has conducted on the meanings of volunteer farm labor with University of California Santa Cruz students who had or were planning to volunteer as farmworkers. Amongst other things, she looks at whether they had considered the potential impacts of their volunteer labor on those who are relegated to doing farm labor for a living. Professor Guthman is also presenting her new research at a Sydney Ideas event ‘Lives versus Livelihoods? Fumigants, Farmworkers and Biopolitics in California’s Strawberry Industry’ (Mon 23 Nov) on the effects of pesticides on agricultural workers in the Californian strawberry industry – the largest in the world.

Amongst the other speakers are Australian Leadership Award PhD student, Rany Pen (University of Sydney) who will be presenting her work on the gender of farming bodies in the rice paddies of her homeland Cambodia. Associate Professor Kane Race (University of Sydney) will present his ‘Drinking Water: Provisional Arrangements in Bangkok Households’ paper, Assistant Professor Bethaney Turner (University of Canberra) will present her ‘Gendered work? The embodied labour of food waste avoidance in homes’ paper, PhD student Luke Craven (University of Sydney) who’ll present his ‘Local food and the politics of scale’ paper and PhD student Kate Johnston (University of Sydney_ will deliver her ‘Matters of Care and Masculinity in a Southern Italian Tuna Fishery’ paper.

The symposium takes up Professor Guthman’s challenge: ‘to investigate the structures of inequality so that everyone can eat well’.

For more information to this invitation-only symposium please contact Professor Probyn elspeth.probyn@sydney.edu.au or check out the full agenda here.

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