What We Talk about When We Talk about Food Security
On Gaza, poverty and neoliberal "moves to innocence".
Wishful reading, perhaps, but in the work of writers I admire, I’ve noticed a move away from simplistic, binary analysis towards complexity and nuance. In that spirit, this post pulls on some threads related to the concept of food security. Note: My concern here is function, not intention.
If you enjoy my work, consider recommending this newsletter to a friend. It’s a considerable help. Also, you can find me on Instagram here. -JRS
In its 2022 annual report, the Canadian Centre for Footwear Equity notes that, “since the COVID-19 pandemic began, footwear insecurity in Canada has risen by 21.74%, reaching near-record levels.” In the associated press release, CCFE Co-Executive Directors Daniel Tarsusky and Marie-Ève Talon-Leblanc add, “access to affordable, adequate and culturally relevant footwear represents one of the key factors in the social determinants of health; these numbers, not to mention the fact that most, if not all, shoe banks are operating at capacity, should be concerning to all Canadians.”
The above, of course, is farce, and however you feel when reading the words “footwear security” or “shoe bank”, hold that thought.
The Food-Insecuritization of Gaza
Tomorrow marks a grim anniversary: one-hundred days of Israel and the West’s genocidal campaign in Gaza. As it turns out, genocide has a long-standing relationship to food, specifically intentional starvation and famine. In fact, The Cambridge History of Genocide, which spans three volumes and nearly two-thousand pages, devotes an entire chapter to its historical context, from Antiquity to the modern day.
No surprise, then, that the current genocide is also using starvation as a weapon. In an interview with The New Yorker, the chief economist of the World Food Program recently described the situation as “catastrophic” and “unprecedented”, given the scale and severity. Risk of famine is imminent.
But chronic hunger and malnutrition had been prevalent in Gaza prior to October, a result of Israel’s repeated military operations and the indefinite blockade – which, as Oxfam reported in 2018, “devastated Gaza’s economy, caused widespread destruction and left most people largely cut off from the outside world.” By 2022, 62% of the population required food assistance, according to Unicef.
There are reams of such reports on Gaza and Palestine, i.e. evidence of what Israeli historian Ilan Pappé describes as an “incremental genocide”, but I think you get the point. The sustained hunger of the people of Gaza prior to October, and the dire crisis since, are not organic phenomenona; they have been manufactured.
The question, then: What use are the words “food security” or “food insecurity” in this context? Palestinians in Gaza are not starving, they are being starved. They do not need food assistance, they need freedom.
Hunger here at home
But what about the way we talk about food security here at home, in press releases, in government reports, at talks and presentations, and so on?
My feelings are two-fold. One, outside of a useful, population-level analysis (e.g. how climate breakdown threatens food supply due to decreased agricultural yields), the term food security under neoliberalism serves to render the very real and relatable human suffering of the poor, as well as the structural causes of that suffering, into something abstract and wonky. Two, it can also function as what you might call a neoliberal “move to innocence”.
“Moves to innocence”
In the essay, “Decolonization is not a metaphor”, Eve Tuck and K. W. Yang propose the concept of “settler moves to innocence”, which they define as: “Strategies or positionings that attempt to relieve the settler of feelings of guilt or responsibility without giving up land or power or privilege, without having to change much at all.” These evasions, Tuck and Yang argue, represent a “metaphorization” of decolonization.
Borrowing that framework, you could argue that food security discourse in wealthy societies serves to “metaphorize” poverty, and likewise results in “moves to innocence”: i.e. a way of discussing the symptoms of economic disenfranchisement (here, undernourishment, malnutrition) as the problem; and a set of actions aimed at relieving those symptoms (food charity and distribution, nutritional and behavioural approaches,1 etc.).
In doing so, those of us concerned with the plight of the poor can adopt a posture or sentiment of “doing something about it” – forming non-profits, starting food-allocation programs, holding conferences, publishing reports – without enacting structural change or risking the loss of wealth, status and privilege.
“The other other half”
To clarify, by “us” I mean me, and possibly you, that is, people not in poverty – or the demographic that Matthew Desmond describes in Poverty, By America as the “other other half” and the “unwitting enemies of the poor”. Those of us who not only have regular access to food, but also the privilege to make choices about what, how, when and where we eat.2 Put another way, those of us who benefit materially from the way we have organized our society.
For the truth of the matter is – and this point might seem simplistic or naive, but it isn’t – there’s plenty of food to go around. Plenty of footwear, too.
The article Breadlines, victory gardens, or human rights?: Examining food insecurity discourses in Canada by Tung, Rose-Redwood and Cloutier is useful here.
Or, in the case of Gaza, those of us whose tax contributions and product and media consumption support the ongoing occupation and genocide.