CREN 2015 Conference programme piece: Food Matters in Critical Spaces

by Beth Kamunge

written for CREN Conference 2015

This blog post originally appeared in the CREN 2015 conference programme. On the day of the conference, we predominantly had positive engagement; ranging from the poignant-

to the light-hearted:

to the troll with the unconstructive, exaggerated comments on how much wine there was in the conference (we wish!) or that we hadn’t considered that it was Ramadan (read below!). It implied that we were elitist organizers who misused public funds in our having 4 bottles of wine in the forum. Sigh.  This comment brought me back to critical spaces, and the language that is used, and the problematics of men speaking over women. Hmmm, food truly is political! But that’s for another blog-post. Here is the original article:

In ‘choosing’ the food and drinks for the conference, we were guided by the simple yet profound idea that food matters. This is especially the case in a space that is aiming to be critical, and that is predominantly made up of People of Colour, who are disproportionately affected by injustices in the food system-whether that injustice takes the form of a lack of geographical and financial access to adequate, appropriate foods; and/or the disproportionate representation of People of Colour amongst the farmers, farm and restaurant workers working in exploitative hazardous conditions. Food, therefore, both in its materiality and symbolic form, needed to and did matter to CREN.

We considered the materiality of food on many fronts: the fact that certain foods when ingested by particular bodies can make those bodies severely ill or even be fatal. As a result we ‘chose’ to have some foods that were free from dairy/lactose, nuts, gluten, carrots and tomatoes. We asked the caterer that all foods be clearly labelled. We thought about how to balance considerations for food safety (and the requirement from the catering team that left-over food be discarded) with the moral and ethical imperative to avoid food waste.

Additionally we also considered the symbolic nature of food and the ways in which identities are (re)produced through the foods that we (do not) eat. These could be racial, ethnic, ‘ethical’, religious amongst other identities. Slightly more than half of the registered participants for the conference specified being either Vegetarian, Vegan or on a Halal or Kosher diet. For this reason, we do not have any products with pork, chicken or beef.

When sourcing for caterers, we were aware of the ways words such as ‘fresh’, ‘local’, Fair-trade, ‘healthy’, ‘organic’, ‘home-made’ etc. are often used to persuade/manipulate us as consumers. One caterer pitched their quote on the basis that everything they sold was British e.g. home-made British crisps, and 100% British beef.   Considering that even ‘ethical’ terms such as ‘local’ are strongly contested (what is local food? is local food always the more ethical/sustainable option, or is it a form of protectionism? etc.) should this have mattered in how we chose catering options? In this regard, at the beginning of the process we tried to work with small restaurants in Sheffield, but it ended up being significantly more expensive, and logistically more challenging, than using the University catering service. This dilemma reflects the ethical dilemma facing consumers on a daily basis (for example, compare the debates in the UK around the price of milk).

As with any other venture, there were unresolved dilemmas. Some of these thoughts may form a substantive blog post in future, but for now here are the highlights:

a) Food can be a site where differences are constructed as deviant, leading to the shaming of Bodies that are seen as ‘Other’.  Personally, I (Beth) have lost count of the number of times I have been at a forum whereby Veg*n food was served separate from all the other foods, and I have shown up at the appropriate food station and been met with an “OH”- Oh, *you* are Veg*n?!” The “OH” is always loaded: Oh you are a Fat Veg*n/ Oh you are a black Veg*n; oh you are a Fat, black Veg*n. It has happened enough times for me to be sure that I am not simply “reading too much” into situations.  We therefore considered how to eliminate such scenarios, whilst also considering the anxiety that bodies feel, when they are stuck in a queue unsure as to whether they will find any food left for the them that is appropriate;

b) What would have been the politics of following up on the allergen that were sent in? For example, some of the allergens were listed as “large buns”, “Greek, Thai and Chinese food”, amongst other food allergens (dislikes?) that provided opportunity for critical thought. This is a real dilemma for two reasons:

i.     We were left unclear as to whether some request reflected allergens or personal preferences. For example, what counts as “Greek food”? Considering that food is any substance deemed to be edible, is it possible to be allergic to a whole cuisine, or 3 cuisines for that matter? Are tomatoes, for example, Greek food? Do they only become Greek when combined with other foods in particular ways? If a Greek salad was called a Kenyan salad for example, but with the exact same ingredients, would it still be allergy inducing?  Would it have been appropriate to follow up this request and clarify whether it was actually an allergy or dislike, or would that have been a form of ‘policing’ people’s bodies and thereby problematic? (in our case, we did not follow this up)

ii.     CREN is not shy about saying that the use of problematic language in CREN spaces will be called out and challenged, and people could be asked to leave. For the sake of discussion, assuming that this scenario had nothing to do with allergies but with disgust (finding Greek, Chinese and Thai food disgusting), and in light of the fact that disgust is not a neutral feeling, but can be a way of Othering, what would have been the politics of (not) calling this disgust out?

  • For the poetry evening, wine and soft drinks will be served. Was it appropriate to have any alcohol in the first place, or does this have implications for how (in)accessible the poetry evening is? In order to be inclusive, should critical spaces be alcohol free spaces, or is it enough to ensure that soft drinks are also served in addition to any alcoholic drinks?
  • The conference is happening during Ramadan season. What considerations, if any, should we have thought through?

Overall, food mattered. But food is only one of many other important issues that needed to be taken in account, by a network that is critical of White hegemony and therefore has limited sources of funding. In the end, here is a list of what will be served.

CREN Annual Conference 2015 Menu:

Freshly brewed Coffee, Tea and Fair-trade Biscuits
Fairtrade Orange and Apple Juice
Still/Sparkling Mineral Water
A selection of Vegetarian and Vegan wraps with a tray bake, fresh fruits, juice and water
Bowls of Mixed Garden Salad
Bowls of Mediterranean roasted Vegetable with  cous-cous
Bowls Kiln Roasted Salmon and New Potato Salad
Salty snacks
Cheese, fruits and crackers served with wine and fruit juice for poetry evening.

We did our best to pay attention to our food ‘choices’ but we are under no illusions that we got everything perfect. What are your thoughts on these issues? We would love to hear from you on contactcren@gmail.com

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