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Gendered and Racial Injustices in American Food Systems and Cultures


Abstract and Figures

Multiple factors create food injustices in the United States. They occur in different societal sectors and traverse multiple scales, from the constrained choices of the industrialized food system to legal and corporate structures that replicate entrenched racial and gender inequalities, to cultural expectations around food preparation and consumption. Such injustices further harm already disadvantaged groups, especially women and racial minorities, while also exacerbating environmental deterioration. This article consists of five sections that employ complementary approaches in the humanities, design studies, and science and technology studies. The authors explore cases that represent structural injustices in the current American food system, including: the racialized and gen-dered effects of food systems and cultures on both men and women; the misguided and de-territo-rialized global branding of the Mediterranean Diet as a universal ideal; the role of food safety regulations around microbes in reinforcing racialized food injustices; and the benefits of considering the American food system and all of its parts as designed artifacts that can be redesigned. The article concludes by discussing how achieving food justice can simultaneously promote sustainable food production and consumption practices-A process that, like the article itself, invites scholars and practitioners to actively design our food system in ways that empower different stakeholders and emphasize the importance of collaboration and interconnection.
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Humanities 2021, 10, 66.
Gendered and Racial Injustices in American Food Systems
and Cultures
Sally Kitch 1,*, Joan McGregor 2, G. Mauricio Mejía 3, Sara El-Sayed 4, Christy Spackman 5 and Juliann Vitullo 6
1 School of Social Transformations’ Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287-6403, USA
2 School of Philosophy, Historical, and Religious Studies, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85281, USA;
3 The Design School, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287-6403, USA;
4 School of Sustainability, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 875502, USA;
5 School for the Future of Innovation in Society, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 875603, USA;
6 School of International Letters and Cultures, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287-0202, USA;
* Correspondence:
Abstract: Multiple factors create food injustices in the United States. They occur in different societal
sectors and traverse multiple scales, from the constrained choices of the industrialized food system
to legal and corporate structures that replicate entrenched racial and gender inequalities, to cultural
expectations around food preparation and consumption. Such injustices further harm already dis-
advantaged groups, especially women and racial minorities, while also exacerbating environmental
deterioration. This article consists of five sections that employ complementary approaches in the
humanities, design studies, and science and technology studies. The authors explore cases that rep-
resent structural injustices in the current American food system, including: the racialized and gen-
dered effects of food systems and cultures on both men and women; the misguided and de-territo-
rialized global branding of the Mediterranean Diet as a universal ideal; the role of food safety reg-
ulations around microbes in reinforcing racialized food injustices; and the benefits of considering
the American food system and all of its parts as designed artifacts that can be redesigned. The article
concludes by discussing how achieving food justice can simultaneously promote sustainable food
production and consumption practices—A process that, like the article itself, invites scholars and
practitioners to actively design our food system in ways that empower different stakeholders and
emphasize the importance of collaboration and interconnection.
Keywords: food systems; race; justice; food safety; diet; design
1. Introduction
Food injustices in the United States (U.S.) have multiple causes, at multiple scales.
These injustices further harm already disadvantaged groups, especially racial minorities
and women (Holt-Gimenez 2011; Odoms-Young and Bruce 2018). Such injustices are evi-
dent in the exploitation of underpaid and non-unionized immigrant farm and factory
workers (Pulido 1996; Brown and Getz 2011). They are also reflected in historical patterns
of discrimination that restrict food supplies in minority communities (Penniman and
Washington 2018), in public policies that impose uniform nutritional standards on mil-
lions of people without regard for cultural values or individual needs, and in the decima-
tion of Native food systems in Indigenous communities (Whyte 2015). In addition, the
American food system’s enormous carbon footprint—including its heavy reliance on fos-
sil fuels and extravagant use of polluting pesticides and fertilizers—contributes to the so-
cial inequities exacerbated by climate change (Aleksandrowicz et al. 2016).
Citation: Kitch, S., McGregor, J.;
Mejía, G.M.; El-Sayed, S.;
Spackman, C.; Vitullo, J. Gendered
and Racial Injustices in American
Food Systems and Cultures.
Humanities 2021, 10, 66.
Received: 16 December 2020
Accepted: 30 March 2021
Published: 8 April 2021
Publisher’s Note: MDPI stays neu-
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claims in published maps and institu-
tional affiliations.
Copyright: © 2021 by the authors.
Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland.
This article is an open access article
distributed under the terms and
conditions of the Creative Commons
Attribution (CC BY) license
Humanities 2021, 10, 66 2 of 29
The industrialization and commodification of food in the U.S. is a key perpetrator of
food injustice (Patel 2007; Gottlieb and Joshi 2010). Such commodification undermines
food’s significance as a cultural, nutritional, creative, emotional, spiritual, and deeply per-
sonal aspect of people’s lives. Policies and practices that situate eaters as consumers make
eaters into passive selectors of available products rather than active partners in food pro-
duction and food system design (Alkon and Mares 2012; Alkon 2014). Instead of increas-
ing choice, as manufacturers claim, corporate, profit-based food economies actually re-
duce choice. Production of (often nutritionally inferior) industrial foods contributes to en-
vironmental degradation, worker exploitation, constrains the food supply, and devalues
ethnic and Indigenous foodways (Nestle 2002; Whyte 2015).
The corporate food economy’s perpetuation of gender and racial inequities found in
wider society is another source of food injustice in the U.S. For example, gender and racial
stereotypes render the low-level and poorly paid labor of women and minorities invisible,
even though it is essential to commercial food preparation and production. In addition,
prevailing gender norms frequently disadvantage women in the production and profit
sectors of the food system. Racialized histories, stereotypes, and assumptions have re-
duced the availability of fresh foods in many communities. Meanwhile, industrialized
food systems treat people like “embodied landfills”, unevenly exposing Black and Brown
bodies to “sugar ecologies” that decrease community health (Hatch et al. 2019, p. 603).
Food justice activists themselves, who seek to create alternatives to the food insecurity of
the industrialized agri-food system, may also back down from the challenging and time-
consuming discussions of race and gender and the collective traumas and racialized ineq-
uities that alternative systems most need to address (Cadieux and Slocum 2015; Slocum
and Cadieux 2015).
Food injustices have material as well as cultural consequences. The prevalence of
White landowners (who own 98% of all U.S. farmland) and male farmers suggests sys-
temic discrimination against women and minorities in agriculture (Horst and Marion
2019, p. 36). These historic injustices combine with economic and structural changes to
undermine possibilities for more diverse food production practices (Leslie et al. 2019).
Similarly, women in the kitchen are categorized as cooks, while men dominate the more
valued, vaunted, and remunerated role of chef (Harris and Giuffre 2015). Minority com-
munities that lack access to nutritious and/or culturally preferred foods also face race-
based health disparities that become inscribed in the body in the form of diabetes, hyper-
tension, and heart disease. Poverty and racial discrimination can exacerbate these chal-
lenges. Gender and racial discrimination also contribute to the incidence of eating disor-
ders among women of all races, with especially harsh consequences for women of color
(Julier 2019, p. 468; Thompson 2019). By the same token, market forces and popular nar-
ratives promote certain foods and diets that increase profits but do not account for the
cultural contexts or practices.
This article explores such food injustices in five separately authored sections, paying
particular attention to the racialized and gendered effects of the American agri-food sys-
tem and the culture around it on both men and women; the misguided and de-territorial-
ized global branding of the Mediterranean Diet as a universal ideal; the role of food safety
regulations around microbes in reinforcing racialized food injustices; and the benefits of
considering the American food system and all of its parts as designed artifacts that can be
redesigned. We come from different disciplines and cultures, have had different experi-
ences within the American food system, and even learned the English language in differ-
ent ways. We thus retain our distinctive voices rather than attempting to create a homog-
enized tone.
The article concludes by discussing how design principles can guide actions to pro-
mote both food justice and sustainable food production and consumption practices. That
process, like the article itself, requires us to redesign our food system in ways that em-
power different stakeholders and emphasize the importance of collaboration and inter-
Humanities 2021, 10, 66 3 of 29
2. Wrongs without Wrongdoers: Structural Food Injustices That Disadvantage Women
and Minorities
2.1. Dolores’s Choices
Dolores Bateman, a single mother of five children, lives in South Memphis, a pre-
dominately African American neighborhood without a supermarket accessible on foot to
most of the area’s residents (Jones et al. 2019). Dolores is a janitor at a local elementary
school who must rely on public transit to and from her job and the grocery, a store which
is a 45 min bus ride from her home. Many low-income children like those of Dolores get
their meals covered by the federal free breakfast and lunch programs at school. While
those school meals include key nutrients, they tend to be high in sugar, fat, and salt, and
consist mostly of refined processed foods. This places them at risk for type-two diabetes
(Hopkins and Gunther 2015). Lack of public amenities, parks or playgrounds due to red-
lining further exacerbates this risk.1 A history of underinvestment means that low income
minority neighborhoods have few commercial outlets (Badger 2017).
In short, Dolores’s neighborhood is a “food desert” (Karpyn et al. 2019), although
“food apartheid”, a term for human-created systems of segregation that relegate certain
groups but not others to food opulence, may better describe her neighborhood (Penniman
and Washington 2018, p. 4; New York Law School Racial Justice Project 2012 ). These back-
ground conditions, most of which are not of Dolores’s choosing, limit her food options.
Entrenched social norms about gender roles mean women are usually the sole caregiver
for children. These norms also track women into low-paid work. (Schieder and Gould
2016). This is not to say that Dolores has no agency in her food choices. She obviously
wants a better life for herself and her children and tries to obtain healthy foods. But long
work hours, constrained transit options, geographically limited access to healthy foods,
and a low income, minimize her options. Social and environmental structures disad-
vantage her. Dolores is not in the same “choice” situation as middle-class suburbanites in
neighboring cities. She must work harder to create a healthy life for her children.
Dolores’s story reflects the unjust social structures in the U.S. that have perpetuated
patterns of unequal food distribution (Elmes 2018). These patterns of unequal distribution
are not necessarily enacted by individual wrongdoers. Rather, they result from “human-
created” societal arrangements and, therefore, constitute social/political wrongs. “Social
structures” include the background conditions, rules, policies, practices, and norms which
govern individual actions, collective actions, and government actions. When social struc-
tures unfairly constrain or limit some people’s opportunities and their capabilities vis à
vis others in society, they create structural injustices. “Capabilities” refer to the set of val-
uable functioning—being well-nourished, having control over some property, being edu-
cated—that a person can effectively access. Mere freedom to consider these functionings
is not sufficient; the key is effective freedom to choose among them and thereby to choose
the life that one values (Nussbaum 2003).
2.2. Wrongs with(out) Wrongdoers
Most individual and governmental actions do not explicitly aim to limit opportuni-
ties or harm particular groups. These actions rather work within the norms of social struc-
tures, historically developed by and for privileged majority groups. Racist underpinnings
of policies such as those that produce heavy concentrations of pollutants in minority com-
munities, can render invisible how regulatory guidelines produce wrong outcomes
1 Redlining was the discriminatory practice by lenders, backed by the federal government starting in the 1930s, whereby they
would “redline” or flag communities or neighborhoods, mostly where minorities lived, and deny them mortgages due to their
supposed higher risk of default. Richard Rothstein (2017) in The Color of Law (W.W. Norton and Company) details how the FHA
subsidized builders creating suburbs with the requirement that no houses be sold to African-Americans. Even when redlining
was explicitly outlawed in the 1960s, the underinvestment and lower property values continued.
Humanities 2021, 10, 66 4 of 29
(Downey 2005). Similarly, the underlying social structures framing food systems may re-
main invisible; they are products of systemic racism rather than the consequences of overt
actions by current individual racists.These unjust social structures that appear inevitable,
such as redlining and disinvestment in inner-city minority neighborhoods (Rothstein
2017), are products of human agency in the past. So too are gender expectations and ap-
parently obvious norms around work that have historically limited women’s ability to
enter well-paying careers.
Though created and maintained by design and human agency, it remains difficult to
identify any single racist or sexist actors in creating many of these unjust background so-
cial conditions. Neighborhoods may no longer be redlined, but redlining’s legacy persists:
limited access to housing loans has kept most BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of
color) families poorer than than White families by limiting residents’ability to build
wealth in property (Bloome 2014). Other infrastructures, like corporate actions and gov-
ernment policies to subsidize commodity crops, have created an overabundance of
cheap junk food swamping minority neighborhoods (Franck et al. 2013). Although not
explicitly motivated by racism, that result has nevertheless harmed minorities and the
poor (Petersen et al. 2019). Likewise, the continuation of those policies in agriculture and
the food industry, which support corporate profits over human health, are not necessarily
designed to harm minorities or the poor. Nevertheless, they have the same or similarly
harmful impact on the poor, women, and minorities as explicitly racist or sexist policies
Despite the lack of intentional discrimination, then, there is a discriminatory outcome
(known in law as a disparate impact). Injustice under such circumstances entails more
than simply the fact that people suffer fates they do not deserve. Rather, it concerns how
institutional rules and social interactions conspire to narrow the options many people
have. As Iris Marion Young notes:
Social structures do not constrain in the form of direct coercion of some
individuals over others; they constrain more indirectly and cumulatively as
blocking possibilities. Part of the difficulty of seeing structure, moreover, is that
we do not experience particular institutions, particular material facts, or
particular rules as themselves sources of constraint; the constraints occur
through the joint action of individuals within institutions and given physical
conditions as they affect our possibilities (Young 2012, p. 55).
Why consider these outcomes injustices as opposed to disadvantages that are not
entitled to be redressed? Justice requires that individuals have the social conditions of
freedoms to function as equal citizens. When there are structural barriers, particularly
when those barriers are the result of governmental policies and other collective arrange-
ments that restrict the social conditions for exerting freedom, those limitations constitute
Thus, if injustices are created by designed social structures—laws, policies, practices,
and social norms—that largely result from human action and maintenance; structural in-
justices should be redressed by new or redesigned social structures (Haslanger 2012). Of-
ten, however, creating new structures further harms the disadvantaged. For example, re-
sponses to Hurricane Katrina—decisions about who received aid and what kind of aid—
led to structures that narrowed opportunities for many victims, limiting their capacities
to do and be various things (Sen 1992, pp. 39–42). The social structures that create food
apartheid function in a similar fashion. Living under food apartheid limits food choices
for poor, female, and minority populations. In relation to others in society without those
limitations, the victims of structural injustices are unequal and their capacities are dimin-
ished. The constrained capacities are not simply products of misfortune; they are the by-
products of collective social arrangements.
Humanities 2021, 10, 66 5 of 29
2.3. Situating Responsibility
This account claims that the disadvantages and harms resulting from the food system
are largely a result of the social structures which place complex and varied barriers in the
way of individuals’ option networks, closing off or not providing certain options. That
does not mean that individuals have no agency. Individuals do make choices, but struc-
tural obstacles can undermine their sense of agency and social equality. Limited oppor-
tunity constrains the social conditions of freedom.
If social structures cause the injustices, then who is responsible for those injustices,
for rectifying or compensating for them? Who can we blame for the food situation that
Dolores finds herself in? Is it the grocery store chain that does not locate in her neighbor-
hood? The executives of banking and insurance companies who perpetrated redlining are
long gone. Dolores’s education level, resulting in a low-paying job, and her role as a single
parent are the consequence of an even more complex set of factors, including gender
norms, unequal funding for school and child care where she lives, etc. There may be no
clear individual bad actors in the background conditions that structure the relationships
creating Dolores’s unjust and unhealthy food situation. Yet, there is a need for accounta-
bility of decision-makers at all levels about how their choices have negative consequences
for the low-income minorities and the planet. Solving the problems of injustice inherent
in the food system requires changing those conditions, which can also be done by design.
In section five, we offer some suggestions for a critical and systemic approach to designing
food systems where decision-makers can actively understand the needs of disadvantaged
groups and transform the social structures that harm them. Again, quoting Young: “pro-
moting justice in social structure and their consequences implies restructuring institutions
and relationships to prevent these threats to people’s basic well-being” (Young 2012, p.
34). Focusing on individual wrongdoers perpetrating injustice leaves structural cases un-
accounted for.
If we acknowledge that social structures oppress some groups in society, particularly
women and minorities, and if we are committed to everyone having the social conditions
of freedom in terms of basic capabilities for well-being (Anderson 1999, p. 316), then we
are collectively responsible to change those social structures that restrict some people’s
social conditions for freedom. Although societies may not have to guarantee equality of
resources, a just society is obligated to ensure that people’s capacities for basic well-being
are roughly the same. There is particular responsibility for redress if limitations on free-
dom result from social arrangements created and sustained by the political system, some
of which were authorized by historical overt discrimination.
Acknowledging that harms perpetrated by the social system within which individu-
als act in relation to the food system identifies them as violations against the principle of
providing people what they are owed. This means, among other things that all people
deserve equal opportunities for developing their capabilities to live good lives through
healthful eating (Nussbaum 2003). If their opportunities for well-being are constrained by
collective social arrangements, then they do not have those capabilities—that is an injus-
3. Women and Womanliness: Gendered Food Injustices in American Culture
3.1. The Hazards of Gendered Food Injustice
A young African American woman named Joselyn was told by her White grand-
mother from an early age that she was fat, even though she was not overweight. The
grandmother teased Joselyn that she would never be as pretty as her lighter-skinned cous-
ins. Soon Joselyn’s Black father, whose business was booming, joined in admonishing her
and her mother and sisters to lose weight. To him, the women’s thinness signified the
family’s upward mobility. Even before puberty, Joselyn was put on diet pills and encour-
aged to downsize. At the same time, the father insisted on having large meals in his home
and bought treats for his daughters. The confusion about food abundance and body size
Humanities 2021, 10, 66 6 of 29
expectations, especially as related to class mobility, coupled with Joselyn’s determination
to be thin, since she could not change her skin color, led to a pathological cycle of dieting,
compulsive eating, and bulimia from which she suffered well into adulthood.2
Joselyn’s story about dysfunctional eating and the female body’s connection with the
social symbolism of food illustrates how talking about food means talking about gender.
Food defines people, often in destructive ways, both as gendered individuals and as gen-
dered members of families, races, social classes, communities, and nations (Weismantel
1992). Joselyn’s is also an intersectional story, meaning that her social identities as a Black,
middle-class, heterosexual, urban female function together. Biases, stereotypes, expecta-
tions, and cultural and material oppressions affecting her life are simultaneously racial,
gendered, sexualized, and classed. Thus, Joselyn’s eating disorder reflects the impact of
trauma and intersectional sociocultural comorbidities, connected with gendered racial ste-
reotyping and racism, on young Black women’s self-esteem and body dysphoria, resulting
in eating pathology (Hawthorne et al. 2017).
Not all American stories about gendered food injustice are linked to affluence. In-
deed, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed and exacerbated many existing food injus-
tices, as increasing numbers of people in the U.S., especially people of color, have tumbled
into unemployment and food insecurity because of poor federal management of the pan-
demic’s economic effects. Gender only compounds the negative impact of the increasingly
unjust distribution of and access to food affected by race, geography (urban or rural), and
economic status. That happens because social and cultural expectations typically imposed
upon women exacerbate economic dislocation and marginalization suffered by commu-
nities. Thus, on top of race- and class-based food injustices that impact groups, such as
non-unionized essential workers and Indigenous communities, women in those groups
are often subject to food-related role expectations and prescriptions for their bodies and
womanly identities. In short, specifically gendered collective background conditions, like
those addressed in Section 2 of this article, exacerbate the injustices for women.
Drawing upon Joselyn’s case and other examples and data, this section will analyze
several of these gendered super” oppressions through which women experience food
injustice in two categories: (1) oppressions and deprivations in food cultures, systems, and
industries; and (2) oppressions tied to racialized, heterosexualized, and classed ideas
about womanliness in American culture.
3.2. Responsibility without Agency
Stereotypes, hierarchies, and discrimination in food cultures, systems, and industries
constitute a major source of gendered food injustice in the U.S. At the root of this injustice
is a contradiction. Women in many cultural and racial groups may be regarded as natu-
rally inclined to provide food for others and, therefore, expected to do so as “good”
women. At the same time, because of (hetero)sexist stereotypes and discrimination, many
women in the U.S. continue to have limited control over food production systems. They
are largely courted as consumers but not recognized as agents, even if they are the primary
food providers for their families.
Thus, on the one hand, fulfilling the gendered expectation to feed her family can be
a key aspect of an American woman’s social value: she displays her womanliness and love
for family through the food she serves (Figure 1) (Vester 2015, pp. 137–38). Advertisers
often connect women’s sex appeal, happy marriages, and healthy children with the act of
feeding a family (Parkin 2006). This expectation has been especially strong for African
American and immigrant women, who may be considered engineers of family connect-
edness through the meals they provide, despite costs to their own health (Reese 2018, p.
2 This vignette is based on a true story recounted in Thompson (2019, pp. 186–87).
3 Stereotypes of Black women as powerful food providers have generated accusations that they are natural castrators of black men
(Avakian and Haber 2005, p. 24).
Humanities 2021, 10, 66 7 of 29
Figure 1. A 1963 Jello advertisement epitomizing stereotyped post-WWII associations of married
White women’s domestic and interpersonal powers with the provision of food.4
For White heterosexual women even today, associations with food-giving model
wives linger from post-World War II images, like the fictional Betty Crocker, who epito-
mized the fulfilled, perfect homemaker-cook. Some American women still struggle with
that role expectation almost 50 years after Friedan’s (1963) The Feminine Mystique high-
lighted the stultifying limitations of the housewife ideal. Contemporary postfeminist”
(usually White, heterosexual) women, who believe they are choosing to stay home, cook
from scratch, and even raise their own chickens, may not realize the structural constraints
on their choices or how their apparent choices can exacerbate gender inequities and patri-
archy. Thus, the contemporary young wife who, like her grandmother, bakes cookies to
4 (accessed on 2 February 2021). This image, like all others used in this essay, is in the
public domain.
Humanities 2021, 10, 66 8 of 29
show her appreciation for her husband’s role as a provider may not recognize that em-
bracing her food-giver domestic role, however deliberately, can nevertheless reinforce the
gender binaries that still produce gender injustice throughout society (Sharp 2018, p. 852).
Expectations of women as food givers also haunt contemporary lesbian women, who
face their own food-related role stereotypes. Images of masculinized lesbian eaters, gnaw-
ing on rare steak with bared teeth, have historically been pitted against equally stereo-
typed images of the daintily nibbling “real” women associated with the heterosexual
“food giver” role (Probyn 2018; Lindenmeyer 2006, p. 470). Lesbian writers, like Alice B.
Toklas, have challenged dominant heterosexist interpretations of food-giving by embrac-
ing the role of cooking for and eating with a beloved same-sex partner (Vester 2015, pp.
166–69). More recently, queer theorists have contributed to a general understanding of the
way that “emotionally charged foodstuffs become shorthand for sexual identities or
political standpoints”. Instead of reductionist gender stereotypes, they assert the “com-
plexities of eating/feeding relationships between lesbians”, which can be symbolized by
the varied eating preferences and cultural histories that shape a potluck meal (Linden-
meyer 2006, pp. 479, 481).
Alternative perspectives and food movements have not, however, eliminated even
Lesbian mothers’ assumed responsibility for the health and weight of their children in the
U.S. (as in other countries). Indeed, the greater acceptance of lesbians as mothers has
thrust them increasingly into “the system of meaning that envelops motherhood” in
American culture (Lewin 2018, p. 190). The social construction of motherhood is even
more connected than conventional wifehood to women’s roles as food providers. This as-
sociation further reinforces socially unjust gender binaries, despite differing sexual iden-
tities, obscuring the structural inequalities and stereotypes that shape what appear as in-
dividual choices.
Among those structural inequalities are limitations on access to healthy foods. Moth-
ers who do not provide healthy foods for their children may be judged inadequate by
those privileged with easy access to fresh produce. Yet, that disdain ignores the economic
structures, housing policies, and racialized poverty that limit access to such foods for
many Black, Latinx, or Indigenous women, as discussed in Section 2 of this article. The
problem can be compounded by the resulting association of White, middle-class women
with alternative food sources. Such racializing of farmers markets and organic food
(Alkon 2012, pp. xi, 4) may alienate women of color from advertising campaigns promot-
ing healthy products. It may also provoke censure for poor women seen buying expensive
organic products instead of cheaper substitutes (Martin et al. 2019, pp. 185–87, 190). By
the same token, racial associations with alternative food sources can obscure marginalized
women’s own alternative food practices, such as growing vegetables, participating in
community gardens, creating mobile markets, and organizing ride-sharing to purchase
fresh produce (Reese 2018, pp. 202–3).
On the other hand, and despite these stereotypical associations of food provision and
preparation with heterosexual womanliness and motherhood, American women often
lack agency in the operation and design of food systems. Male dominance in the high-
status world of master chefs is one example of gendered obstacles to women’s agency in
the food industry. Even as numerous televised cooking shows featuring male chefs have
brought more men into the domestic kitchen over the past 50 years, gender norms in pro-
fessional cooking circles have changed little; women still hold a small fraction of head chef
positions in the culinary industry—18.7 percent in the U.S.5 The percentage of female
chefs awarded Michelin Stars is about half that figure—9.2 percent. The disparity between
the sexes in that prestigious and lucrative rating system underscores male privilege in the
5 This figure is from the U.S. Department of Labor, 22 January 2021. (accessed on 2 February
2021). The percentage of female head chefs has increased from 4.7 percent in 2014 (Walkinshaw 2014).
Humanities 2021, 10, 66 9 of 29
industry.6 Women of color are a third less likely than White women to be accepted as
chefs or authorities on food, thanks to their intersectional social disempowerment (Net-
tles-Barcelón et al. 2015).
Moreover, men’s increased involvement in home kitchens, “often comes with a disa-
vowal of feminized cooking”. Cis-gender men tend to preside at weekend barbeques but
participate less in the everyday routine of feeding a family. Thus, gender injustice per-
sists—or possibly increases—as men invade the traditionally female kitchen domain and
capture status and profit by connecting cooking with masculine prowess. Even more un-
just are the bullying and sexual harassment women face in the macho cultures of commer-
cial restaurants, where rates of sexual offenses are higher than in other employment sec-
tors (Herkes and Redden 2017, p. 126).
Gender stereotypes also persist in farming, despite American women’s recently in-
creased control of agricultural land and capital, self-identification as farmers, participa-
tion in agriculture without a male partner, and growing influence in sustainable produc-
tion practices (Sachs et al. 2016). Nevertheless, farming women, especially in the Mid-West
U.S., are still ridiculed for considering themselves farmers. Some report that peers and
consumers expect them to offer advice about canning vegetables or making jams, like ste-
reotypical farm wives. One farmer explained that her wholesale clients would not talk to
her. “They were always looking for Brad [her husband, who is not a farmer]”. “There
remains considerable public speculation about women’s ability to farm …for the public
and … farmers themselves” (Wright and Annes 2020, pp. 376–77).
Such obstacles limit women farmers’ opportunities for financial independence and
hamper their sense of empowerment from their non-traditional role. They often face an
inhospitable climate among their male peers, as well as in financial programs and agricul-
tural organizations. Because the masculine coding of farming remains strong, as the above
examples suggest, women farmers who dare to infiltrate a masculine arena like an Agri-
cultural Extension meeting “are often viewed as wives or cheerleaders to promote male
interests” (Wright and Annes 2020, p. 379).
3.3. Women as Food
Another source of racialized and heterosexualized gendered food injustice is the cul-
tural equation of food itself, rather than the role of food provider, with women’s identities,
social value, and sexiness. The advertising industry has for decades made that equation
visible by assuming the male gaze—judging and commodifying women’s bodies accord-
ing to White heterosexual male standards of female value—and by objectifying women as
consumable goods through associations of food with female bodily shape and sex appeal
(Adams 2014; Ponterotto 2016; Cairns and Johnston 2015). Touting specific diets for
women and men is part of that commodification, which further distorts people’s relation-
ship to the food they consume. Since the American food industry “creates three times as
many food products as [our] society need[s]”, it can justify spending “billions of dollars
selling endless variety and constructing new needs” and tastes in food to create demand
for its products (Julier 2019, p. 468). Gendering and sexualizing food is part of that sales-
pitch (Figure 2).
6 “Five Female Chefs with Michelin Stars: Get Inspired by Them!” Artemis.
michelin-star.html (accessed on 2 February 2021).
Humanities 2021, 10, 66 10 of 29
Figure 2. Women as literal food, Nando’s advertisement, 2015. Chiowama—Beauty Blogger, (accessed on 10
December 2020).
Thus, food advertising, packaging, and appearance in movies and other media con-
vey gender- and sexually coded messages that expose the vexed relationship between
gender and power in the U.S. (Inness 2001; Contois 2020). For example, thin White women
are typically associated with salads, diet foods, and small meals, which thus become signs
of high-status femininity (Figure 3). Meanwhile, men of all races (and maleness itself) are
associated with large, hearty, spicy meals and processed snacks, dubbed by some market-
ers as “dude food” (Contois 2020). Abundant meat is overwhelmingly coded as masculine
and associated with power (Brissette 2017). Indeed, across societies, meat-eating conveys
a message of male dominance, as eaters are thought to absorb a slaughtered animal’s
prowess. At the same time, meat’s presence on the table dis-empowers women, who are
the “absent signifier” implied in the masculine consumption of flesh. Women are thereby
devoured with the meat: “swallowed and … swallowers, consumers and consumed”
(Adams 2014, p. 241) (Figure 4).
These gender associations have material, sometimes life-threatening, consequences
for both sexes. For women, the association of high-status (White) femaleness with low-
calorie diets can produce body anxiety and eating disorders, as it also stokes male fanta-
sies about female bodies (Jovanovski 2017).For men, meat-heavy, highly processed junk-
food diets can engender numerous potentially fatal diseases, such as diabetes and heart
disease. Moreover, masculine imagery associated with that diet makes some men reject
healthier foods. To counter the latter hazard, both Weight Watchers and Nutrisystems
launched multi-million-dollar campaigns in the early 2000s to attract men to diet pro-
grams that had historically been 90 percent female. Program advertising highlighted
male-centered sports and celebrity images to convince men that dieting was not solely a
feminine pursuit, although the dieting technologies for men and women were identical
(Contois 2019, pp. 124–25). That the campaign worked moderately well demonstrates how
vulnerable both men and women can be to gendered fantasies about food’s relationship
to their bodies’ social value.
Humanities 2021, 10, 66 11 of 29
Figure 3. Body control as key to social value and status for women. MacDonald’s advertisement, 2007. https://eng- (accessed on 10 December 2020).
Figure 4. Women as heterosexualized, implicitly swallowed, swallowers of meat. Burger King
advertisement, 2014.
picted-negatively/ (accessed on 10 December 2020).
Humanities 2021, 10, 66 12 of 29
Joselyn’s story further demonstrates that women of color can be as susceptible as
White women to cultural messages about the desirability of controlling female bodies for
social purposes. That means they are also susceptible to eating disorders, such as anorexia,
bulimia, and compulsive overeating and dieting in seeking or being frustrated by alleged
feminine ideals (Hawthorne et al. 2017; Thompson 2019). The thinness-as-status message
reinforces heterosexism and racial stereotypes related to food cultures and “obscures the
underlying structures of inequality that foster [individual] problems”. At the same time,
that message implicitly and explicitly demonizes fat female bodies, especially those of
lesbians and women of color (Julier 2019, p. 468; Thompson 2019). These food-related ste-
reotypes and biases can lead to further prejudice and social injustice (Figure 5).
Figure 5. Racist context for food injustice. Social Media advertisement for Dove Body Wash, 2017.
The ad caused a furor and was featured in numerous tweets, internet articles, posts, and podcasts,
cle-1.3556259;; https://www.socialsa-;
for-controversial-body-wash-ad/ (all accessed on 10 December 2020) Dove apologized for the rac-
ist implications of the ad, which a spokesperson said were unintentional. However, the company’s
lack of awareness is part of the problem of racism in the U.S. The Black model said she had no idea
how her pictures would be used.
4. The “Ideal” Mediterranean Diet?: The Risks of Promoting De-Territorialized Food-
ways without Cultural Context
In the 1950’s the now-famous physiologist from the U.S., Ancel Keys, “discovered”
the Mediterranean diet (MD) during a research trip to Naples. Together with his wife
Margaret Chaney Keys, he popularized that diet in their best-selling advice manual, Eat
Well and Stay Well (Keys and Keys 1959). Ever since, tension has existed between Keys’s
place-based research and the call for this diet, based largely on plant foods, seafood, olive
oil, and limited consumption of meat and dairy products, to be universally translated
around the world (Anderson and Sparling 2015, pp. 165–67). Keys’s focus on the nutri-
tional advantages of the diet and the scientific authority substantiating those benefits ob-
scures the historical and ideological reasons for the development of those cultural prac-
tices in certain Mediterranean communities, which were the result of subsistence food
producers’ creativity in the face of poverty, oppression, and the threat of malnutrition.
Humanities 2021, 10, 66 13 of 29
4.1. The De-Territorialization of the Mediterranean Diet
It is often remarked that Keys embodied the MD; he lived in Cilento, a region in
Southern Italy, for over 30 years, joining the ranks of the community’s famous centenari-
ans. However, Keys’ life in Cilento carried distinct economic, racial, and gender privileges
that facilitated his own access to fresh food and good health. Historically a poor region,
Southern Italy and its predominantly farmworker inhabitants have faced significant dis-
crimination. In contrast to many of his neighbors, Keys could afford a gardener and a
cook. His personal chef and housekeeper, Delia Morinelli, was an important knowledge
source for local foods and recipes. These recipes were often passed down orally through
generations of mothers and daughters (Moro 2014, p. 46). Yet, Morinelli has only recently
received some recognition for her contributions to Keys’s research. In recent interviews,
Morinelli and other women of her generation and their daughters explained how women
participated in vegetable and wheat production, milled their own flour, made their own
breads and pasta, learned to conserve important foods in their culture such as eggplant
and anchovies, and transported fish from the seaside to the hilltop towns where families
practiced terraced farming and produced olive oil (Granai del Mediterraneo 2013). Keys
obscured the knowledge and experiences of these women by translating their Cilentan
traditions into a scientific paradigm.
Instead of focusing on the MD as an Indigenous set of food practices developed over
centuries by peasants, a tradition in which women played a crucial role in production,
Keys created his own mythological roots for his “discovery”. From his adopted home in
the seaside town of Pioppi he could see the ruins of the Ancient Greek city of Elia, the
apparent location of one of the first schools of medicine in the West. In that setting, Keys
saw himself and the other male scientists who joined him in Cilento as historical heirs to
an authoritative tradition of Western knowledge about health. He combined the name of
his home city in the U.S., Minneapolis, with that of the Ancient Greek city Elia to form the
title of his Pioppi-based scientific community, Minnelea (Moro 2014, pp. 114–18). Alt-
hough he noted that Minneapolis was a name derived in part from the Sioux word for
water, Keys never considered that the Indigenous populations of the U.S. might have
place-based food traditions that were equally worthy of study (Moro 2014, pp. 118–19).
With the reduction of Pioppi’s food system to a nutritional schema that could supposedly
be applied to any person in the U.S. and beyond, especially wealthy American men suf-
fering from high rates of heart disease, the MD lost its historical and geographic context
and actual creation stories.
If Keys’s scientific paradigm of the MD started the de-territorialization of Cilento’s
practices, the movement to have it recognized as one of the first food traditions considered
a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity continued the process. Starting in
the 1990s, experts from governmental and non-governmental organizations, scholars from
universities, and business organizations like the International Olive Council successfully
linked the scientific construct of the MD to the Med Label, which represented the interests
of the agro-food market. The benefits to that market were obvious: “It is clear today that
the olive oil lobby made a visionary move with a durable effect” (Marques da Silva
2018, p. 580). In 2006 these same interests initiated a campaign to have the MD officially
recognized as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO, granted in 2010 (Marques da
Silva 2018, p. 583; Nestle 1995; Nestle 2018, pp. 173–75). In this way, the UNESCO process
of recognizing the importance of traditional foodways was appropriated to market certain
products, especially olive oil, rather than used to address contemporary public health
challenges and the racial and gender histories that shaped them.
4.2. The Dangers of the “Best” Dietary Model
Keys’s notion of the MD as a universal solution for nutritionally based chronic con-
ditions persists despite dramatic increase of those diseases during the decades-long volu-
minous record of academic studies and the diet’s popular promotion. For instance, from
Humanities 2021, 10, 66 14 of 29
2018 to 2020, the U.S. World and News Report proclaimed the MD as the best diet of the
year. That influential magazine’s version of the MD illustrates “nutritionism”, the perils
of privileging quantifiable analyses of discrete nutrients while avoiding discussions of
economic, social, or cultural perspectives (Scrinis 2015, pp. 259–60; Kimura et al. 2014, p.
37). Although Keys’s model for the MD was a community of relationships in Cilento, in
which people, land, water, animals, and plants shared a deep history, media descriptions
emphasized individuals and weight loss. The Cilentan variety of the MD, developed
through many generations as a form of collective knowledge and practices to deal with
evolving challenges, including food scarcity, is now ironically used to promote food re-
striction, especially for women.
The 2019 Eat-Lancet Commission’s report on Food in the Anthropocene also chose
the MD, which it defines as “similar to the diet of Crete in the mid-20th century”, as the
primary reference model for the future’s healthier and more sustainable diet. The com-
mission chose the MD as representative of plant-based Indigenous food traditions
throughout the globe because it is the “best studied” (Willett et al. 2019, p. 454). Although
the report emphasizes that other traditional diets also offer healthy eating patterns, in-
cluding the consumption of less red meat, it does not question the failure by scholars and
nutritionists to pay similar attention to non-European alternatives.
Continued promotion of the Mediterranean as the “best” dietary model brings up
several concerns. This dietary advice is based on a model developed in a largely pre-in-
dustrialized society, when traditional practices, intergenerational relationships, and em-
bodied learning created production and consumption habits that are impossible to repli-
cate in contemporary urban, or even rural areas of the U.S. With the push to imitate food
practices that focus on seasonality, fresh rather than processed food, and commensality,
the burden of achieving those nutritional goals often falls on women, especially mothers
(as discussed in Section 3), “without giving them resources to provide better food, such
as flexible work hours, reductions in the gender wage gap, and changes to a welfare sys-
tem that has pushed many women to low-wage jobs” (Kimura et al. 2014, p. 41). The re-
sponsibility to ensure that all children are food secure should belong to the whole society,
yet a continuing focus on the nutritional requirements for individuals and the moralizing
approach to the issue of childhood obesity evades larger questions about economic struc-
tures and policies. This makes it difficult for parents to dedicate time and other resources
to feeding their families healthy foods.
Additionally, the MD model perpetuates a colonialist, racialized dietary hierarchy
(Kimura et al. 2014, p. 38). The MD today is usually associated with White European iden-
tities (Spain, Italy, and Greece). Its “best” ranking is due to decades of scientific research
that have ignored other Indigenous foodways. As a result, many BIPOC communities’
traditions remain under-studied even though they also offer plant-based models, like cer-
tain Native American communities’ emphasis on the three sisters (corn, squash, and
beans). These traditional foodways encourage the consumption of more legumes and less
meat, one of the goals of the Food in the Anthropocene report for a healthier, more sus-
tainable world (Wall Kimmerer 2013, pp. 128–40; Willett et al. 2019, pp. 455–57). The pro-
motion of the MD could, in fact, have the opposite effect of pushing immigrant families
or vulnerable communities to question the healthfulness of their own traditional practices
(Moffat 2020).
4.3. Re-Territorializing Traditional Foodways
In the Southwest U.S., recognizing and valorizing Native food traditions is particu-
larly important. Diné storyteller, Sunny Dooley, notes that the pandemic has revealed the
cultural and physical traumas perpetuated against Native populations that have left them
vulnerable. Dooley explains that the violent colonization of Diné culture and territories
produced a crisis in their land-based spiritual and food practices, which led to both emo-
tional trauma and chronic physical illnesses, such as diabetes. “COVID is revealing what
Humanities 2021, 10, 66 15 of 29
happens when you displace a people from their roots”. She notes: “The truth is the dis-
parity: of health, well-being and human value. And now that the truth has been revealed,
what are we going to do about it”? (Dooley 2020). Dooley highlights the clear nutritional
and environmental health inequities among Indigenous peoples. CDC data supports
Dooley’s concern, demonstrating that the incidence of COVID-19 among American Indian
and Alaska Native people is 3.5 times more than for White people, especially among peo-
ple under age 65 (Hatcher et al. 2020).
Maria Parra Cano of Phoenix, who identifies as a Xicana Indigena, asked a similar
question to Dooley’s in 2004, when both of her parents were diagnosed with diabetes.
Parra Cano looked for answers within her family’s own traditions for healing practices,
as she had also developed nutritionally based chronic illnesses. She responded by attend-
ing culinary school. The French-based curriculum failed to meet her cultural and dietary
needs. Therefore, she applied what she learned at culinary school to her knowledge of
Mexico’s Indigenous food traditions, gained from years of cooking alongside her mother
(Zah 2020, p. 20). Using ingredients native to the Sonoran Desert, such as nopales (prickly
pear pads) and verdolagas (purslane), Maria successfully healed her family and herself,
enabling them to stop taking medications for diabetes (Zah 2020, p. 22). Maria now dis-
seminates her delicious, plant-based cuisine, together with cooking workshops and pro-
grams for children where she passes down her knowledge to the next generation. Maria’s
work demonstrates culturally meaningful and place-based food education, which recog-
nizes the importance of diversity to human health (Hoover 2017, pp. 57–59).
The superficial translation of the MD, as promoted by agro-food interests, nutrition-
ists, and the weight-loss industry, focuses on the universal prescription of olive oil con-
sumption as the best source of lipids. It emphasizes individual consumer habits rather
than a holistic approach rooted in geographical and cultural relationships. Clearly, the
mass exportation of olive oil from Spain and Italy cannot on its own develop healthier
food practices in the U.S., or even protect traditional practices in the Mediterranean terri-
tories producing the olive oil (Grosso and Galvano 2016, p. 16).
A better approach is a deep translation that re-territorializes foodways. Re-territori-
alization includes localized racial and gender histories in the study and practice of tradi-
tional foodways. It attends to Indigenous food cultures, often passed down by women,
which have been rendered vulnerable by racial injustice. Seeing the MD as a cluster of
distinct traditional foodways, which are also facing steep challenges by the industrialized,
globalized food system, counters the “diet of the year” approach and opens the way to
considering Indigenous traditions, both those where we live and those that are compatible
with various cultural and biological ecologies, as guides toward developing healthier,
more equitable, and more sustainably diverse relationships within food systems.
5. Food Contamination Standards That Can Foster or Reduce Food Injustice
5.1. Practicing Gotho in a New Land
“The concept of gotho is very important, it means impurity or contamination… I teach
my kids no double dipping … taking a piece and eating it ‘til it’s done is fine, but taking
a bite and putting back is unacceptable. If you take something, it’s not returned”, ex-
plained a Nepali mother and nurse practitioner in Mesa, Arizona, as she demonstrated
traditional food safety practices for making gundruk. Gundruk is a fermented then sun-
dried food made from sun-dried leaves of vegetables such as cauliflower or mustard
greens (Figure 6). Even if Nepali communities are integrated within American society,
they maintain a strong connection to traditional foods like gundruk. It is either produced
in homes or brought back, often illegally, from trips to Nepal. U.S. customs control re-
stricts the border crossing of many traditional foods, especially ones produced in collab-
oration with microbes through a fermentation process.
Gundruk production relies on tacit knowledge with its own norms and values passed
down by generations (Fonte 2018). A light lactic acid fermentation produces gundruk’s
Humanities 2021, 10, 66 16 of 29
characteristic sour smell (Farag El sheikha 2018). Often used to create hearty soups and
salads, gundruk is high in dietary fiber and carotene (Ranjan Swain et al. 2014). Tradition-
ally produced in the Himalayas by women, gundruk usually circulates among friends and
family; it is rarely bought from a stranger. These close networks depend on noses tuned
to detect when the product is not properly produced through gotho, the traditional safety
regulations that shape production to minimize the possibility of contamination. Producers
recognize that traditional knowledge is part of the foods’ safety protocols. Yet, women—
and men—in the U.S. producing gundruk under the informal, extra-legal boundaries of
gotho cannot bring their product to market without making major changes to the produc-
tion method, changes that separate their foods from long tradition.
Figure 6. A Nepali, in Mesa, Arizona chopping the dried greens before placing them in jars for fermentation (Photo Credit:
Nalini Chhetri, 2018).
People get sick from unsafe food. Figuring out that microbes in food make people
sick was one of the central public health triumphs of the late nineteenth and early twenti-
eth centuries. National and state governments responded by passing laws and regulations
to minimize danger to the public. Informed by twentieth-century scientific insights, these
legal structures have increasingly defined food production. Yet, food safety is not just sci-
ence. It is a regulatory practice shaped by history and culture (DuPuis 2002). People have
harnessed microbes for centuries as part of cultural practices to preserve foods like lutefisk,
nato and parmesan-reggiano that link microbial action with traditional food cultures. Con-
temporary food safety regulations often sit uneasily alongside these traditional practices,
in part because food safety regulations can easily slide into “regulatory phobias” that ex-
clude some peoples and practices from marketplace access (Paxson 2019).
Food safety regulatory frameworks seek to order the world (Law and Mol 2008). We
see this as a dual ordering. On one level, food safety regulations order physical materials
to reduce the danger inherent in eating. On another level, food safety regulations order
Humanities 2021, 10, 66 17 of 29
practices. These orderings tend towards binaries that pit humans against nature (Baur
2016; Merchant 1996) and promote a zero-tolerance policy; that is, zero tolerance for cer-
tain forms of microbial life (Wilson and Worosz 2014). However, in reaching that conclu-
sion food safety regulations have stripped out cultural norms from the process of food
production, replacing things like wooden shelves and vats with easily sanitized steel. As
eaters with no interest in dying from our dinners, we see a lot of good in this ordering.
However, we note that ordering practices also order people. In contemporary food safety
frameworks, there exists little space for materials and practices outside of non-binary con-
structions, such as clean v. dirty, pure v. contaminated. This, we posit, unequally impacts
women and minorities’ ability to bring their traditional foods to market—foods that of-
tentimes have significant health and cultural benefits but are produced in ways and
through methods foreign to contemporary food safety structures. We are concerned that
the increasing stringency of national and transnational food safety regulatory structures
are producing regulatory phobias that disproportionately circumscribe traditional food
production practices and the cultures they stem from.
In order to examine how language about contamination contributes to a larger at-
mosphere of regulatory phobia, we draw on newspaper articles around food safety in the
state of Arizona as well as interviews with members of the Arizona-based Nepalese com-
munity who produce gundruk. Regulatory tensions around gundruk include its domestic
locations of production and approaches that rely on tacit knowledge, resist using stainless
steel, and expose foodstuff to the elements. As gundruk has a legacy as a safe and sanitary
foodstuff, these practices, while producing tensions with regulators, strongly suggest that
food safety can exist without the excessive technological and fiscal intervention that often
keeps traditional foods from market. Perhaps a more expansive lexicon for speaking about
food safety—one that extends beyond contamination—could help mitigate some fears
about traditionally produced foods that have emerged from culturally situated regulatory
phobias. Changing how legislators and regulators manage microbial life first requires
changing how they talk and think about microbes, moving beyond contamination and
seeing opportunities for more culturally inclusive regulations.
5.2. Talking about Food Safety
The language currently used to describe food safety reflects a reductionist and often
binary lens. This “food safety lexicon” is not codified. Rather, the language used to de-
scribe food safety creates an informal lexicon that reflects current regulatory and social
understandings of food safety. To capture this lexicon, we conducted a literature review
of newspaper articles published in Arizona from 2011 to 2019 on Food Safety News7, the
Phoenix Business Journal, ProQuest Magazine, and NewsBank. Arizona has been especially
impacted in the last five years by food-borne illnesses traced to foods produced in the
state, making it an ideal locale for considering these questions. We conducted a general
Google search of news articles for the following keywords: Food, Contamination, Out-
breaks, Microbes, Fermentation, Salmonella, E.coli, Saccharomyces, Probiotic. The majority
of articles found reflected negative impressions of microbes. Of the 73 articles identified
in our searches, 51 focused on negative aspects of microbes and 40 focused on food-borne
illnesses. The majority of articles discussed different types of outbreaks. Primary among
them was the 2018 discovery of E. coli on lettuce produced in the Yuma region. Using the
data analysis software, MAXQDA, we assessed the most commonly used terms and gen-
erated a word cloud from the gathered articles to visualize our findings (Figure 7). Thirty-
four out of the 73 articles portrayed the benefits of fermented foods and drinks. However,
even articles describing beneficial bacteria also presented a skepticism about their safety,
with negative connotations. While food safety is of public interest, with regular reports of
7 accessed 15 July 2020.
Humanities 2021, 10, 66 18 of 29
some new and increasingly alarming hazards in our food supply (Nestle 2003), conversa-
tions about the benefits of foods produced through small-scale partnership with microbes
remain limited.
Figure 7. Word cloud created on MAXQDA showing the most recurring words from articles gathered from Arizona News
from 2011 to 2019.
The word cloud highlights the significance that the romaine lettuce outbreak had on
the news cycle. Microbial life’s negative impacts are at the heart of the food safety lexicon,
with just a few terms such as beneficial and good appearing primarily to illustrate the im-
portance of soil microbes. This overall negativity overlooks the role many microbes such
as lactobacilli play in keeping foods safe. This language carries consequences. It is reflected
in the reactions of the leafy green industry in California and Arizona, where strong regu-
latory structures have been put in place through the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement
(Baur 2016), which requires preventative measures to ensure the safety of these greens. As
these regulatory structures are implementable at scale, however, they target safety
measures used by big industrial players rather than by small-scale and traditional food
producers. A small subset of scholars has recently argued that food safety should be tai-
lored to different scales and made adaptable to other modes of production (Hassanein
2011), but such ideas have not yet gained widespread traction. Issues of food safety con-
tinue to follow what Baur (2016) calls a “patchwork with big holes”. We see the language
in the informal food safety lexicon as one of those big holes, missing the voices of different
human and microbial players who do not easily travel already-present regulatory or tech-
nological pathways.
5.3. Making Gundruk, Safely
Traditional Nepali practices for producing gundruk do have a form of ordering, albeit
one rooted in traditional values and networks of trust in gotho, rather than in Western
scientific practices. In order to produce gundruk, the women interviewed said that gundruk
makers should wash their hands regularly, pull their hair back, and exclude animals from
the production quarters. Interviewees added a temporal restriction to the hygienic prac-
tices mentioned above, pointing out that when women or girls menstruate, they do not
participate in food preparation. These cultural guidelines act like food safety standards.
Humanities 2021, 10, 66 19 of 29
They limit how food is prepared and by whom but rely on trust, tradition, and long expe-
rience rather than on regulations. These too constitute regulatory practices. The multiple
steps in the process of producing gundruk ensure that only beneficial bacteria, such as
lactic acid microbes, are introduced. Those steps include: (1) washing the leaves, covering
them with a light mesh, then leaving them to wilt in the sun in order to avoid rot; (2)
cutting leaves into small pieces to increase surface area for fermentation and squeezing
out any excess liquid; (3) leaving the leaves in an airtight container for a few days to a few
weeks to complete anaerobic fermentation; (4) testing halfway through that period to de-
termine whether the fermentation is proceeding correctly; and (5) sun-drying the fer-
mented product covered with a light mesh to remove any remaining liquid. Finally, the
gundruk is stored in jars for up to one year. These steps represent a holistic, rather than
binary, system developed over generations and based on experience to ensure the flavor
and safety of the product.
5.4. New Lexicon, New Culture
To the Nepali community gundruk represents a longing for home. Social justice schol-
ars argue for understanding food as translocal, where traditional foods of immigrant com-
munities are invited to become part of a new country’s food system (Huang 2020). Cur-
rently, there is no avenue for gundruk with its accompanying socio-cultural aspects to en-
ter U.S. marketplaces. It is a food produced within a regulatory framework that under-
stands food safety from an alternative perspective. For gundruk to make the jump into the
U.S. market would require a more holistic approach to food safety, one where microbes
are understood not just as contaminating threats but also as companions and collaborators
in making food safe. Research shows that live active bacteria, such as lactic acid bacteria
(including Lactobacillus, Streptococcus, and Leuconostoc), provide health benefits that are
shared with many other probiotic organisms (Tamang et al. 2018). Many traditional prac-
tices such as making gundruk have benefitted from these properties.
One step that could make room for traditional practices within current regulatory
structures like those in the U.S., is to start by addressing the common narrative employed
around microbes. Microbes are naturally ubiquitous across ecosystems and organisms
(Dunn 2018), meaning that while some are harmful, many are beneficial. Yet, current reg-
ulatory language fails to address the healthful potentials of microbial life, as does the pre-
dominant public narrative around food safety. We anticipate that as public-facing narra-
tives around the healthfulness of microbial life expand in conjunction with increased in-
terest in the health possibilities of harnessing microbial potential, regulatory language
may eventually follow. We anticipate that regulatory language could, rather, lead the
way. This could happen through additional funding to spark research into tools capable
of harnessing beneficial microbial life to promote food safety, such as new tools and tech-
niques for identifying beneficial microbes found in fermented foods, as well as for the
assessment of their presence and impact (Bokulich et al. 2016). Currently most tools avail-
able primarily assess harmful E.coli, salmonella and listeria. This change could also happen
through funding research into traditional food production practices. As illustrated by the
concept of gotho employed by Nepalese women, safety rules shaping traditional produc-
tion already exist. Tacit knowledge, passed down through generations, can work in con-
cert with contemporary food safety concerns; doing so could produce a more inclusive
food system, but requires expanding conceptions of how we talk about and enact food
Humanities 2021, 10, 66 20 of 29
6. Designing Food Artifacts for Social Justice and Sustainability
6.1. Micro and Macro Level Food Systems by Design
Imagine a new snack product based on corn. The cheap, tasty snack is marketed for
children (usually identified as a consumer), easy to store, and profitable. The product is
an efficient technical and economic solution in terms of production, transportation, deliv-
ery, and profit, even though it may be unhealthy (highly processed, high in added sugars)
and unsustainable (high in chemicals and waste). At a micro level of design, packaging
and advertising designers propose labels and campaigns that are appealing to parents
using descriptors such as low-fat, vegan, vitamin-loaded, or convenient. Although prod-
ucts like this imagined corn snack are not the sole cause of food injustice and health dis-
parities, it, along with similar products, contributes to complex problems, such as child-
hood obesity and unsustainable industrialized agricultural practices. While the designers
of this product seek to improve profitability, the product generates other consequences.
It’s presence, and designed deliciousness, may exacerbate systemic racism and health de-
ficiencies, especially for vulnerable or disadvantaged populations.
Next, consider this corn snack from a macro design level. A local policymaker might
propose improvements to current school lunch standards. Usually, policy makers follow
national nutrition guidelines and consider economic viability, but they are also subject to
lobbying from national industries or local businesses. As policymakers seek to optimize
technical issues around food production, transportation, preparation, and economic dy-
namics, they may pay limited attention to specific social and health needs of the commu-
nity or the environmental sustainability of their program, ignoring issues such as packag-
ing waste. Even when they follow national guidelines, policymakers may not address di-
etary imbalances or cultural needs among minorities. They will always encounter highly
processed food products that are high in added sugars but fewer all-vegetable or high
protein options. Given the structural disadvantages faced by students who depend on
school food (see Section 1) poor food choices by school administrators can be doubly
harmful, perpetuating structural food inequalities limiting what foods they find at home.
Furthermore, poorly designed school menus, which reflects mainstream food preferences
or cultural biases, such as gender stereotypes or Mediterranean food imaginaries, may
push cultural minorities away from healthier traditional alternatives.
6.2. Critical and Systemic Design
In previous sections of this article, authors have discussed various social structures
that privilege dominant cultural practices and generate gendered and racial injustices. The
examples of micro- and macro-level designed food artifacts highlighted in this section also
illustrate how decision-makers in food systems produce injustices. While there may not
always be clear individual wrongdoers in these situations, food systems have been de-
signed via accumulated human decisions. Thus, there is an urgent need for a critical and
systemic approach when designing what can be considered food artifacts.
Food products, food services, and food systems can be conceptualized as designed
artifacts because they emerge from design activities at many levels: from the micro level
of designing consumer products to the macro level of designing organizations and poli-
cies central to national and international food systems. The term design is appropriate be-
cause it means changing any artificial situation into a preferred one (Simon 1969, p. 111).
In the domain of food production and consumption, product designers propose food
products, service designers propose food delivery systems, school administrators design
food menus, and policymakers design food guidelines for their communities. All of these
designers aim to achieve preferred situations, and they may have success in their own
terms. However, their preferred situations are often driven by economic or technical goals.
Like product designers in general (i.e., industrial designers, packaging designers, and/or
advertising designers), they may focus on elements such as visual appeal, product trans-
Humanities 2021, 10, 66 21 of 29
portation and preservation, or consumer preference data, while passively adopting cul-
tural biases such as gender stereotypes or popular dietary trends like the Mediterranean
diet. Policymakers/designers will also focus on logistics, ease of implementation, guide-
line compliance, affordability, or resident majority preferences. These pushes and pulls
narrow design practices, focusing on short-term results driven by capital. As a result,
food-related design exacerbates already-existing injustices and undercuts environmental
sustainability goals. To counter such tendencies, design practices offer critical and systemic
approaches for creating socially just and environmentally sustainable food systems.
First, a critical approach expands designerswork from crafts to social action and
ethical practice. Critical design, also known as speculative design, aims to question social
norms and the social status quo. Speculative design offers creative alternatives and reac-
tions to design consumption and efficiency. Speculative design artifacts are conceptual
provocations intended to generate social debates (Dunne and Raby 2013). These concep-
tual artifacts usually work at a micro level with physical products that create provocations
without specific practical goals. Some speculative designers argue that designers can no
longer afford an apolitical practice, which means designers question the rich and power-
ful, whose decisions are guided primarily by economic growth. They charge designers to
understand that technical solutions are insufficient and to adopt a post-growth political
position. Designers should challenge capitalism by proposing bold collective action for
environmental sustainability and social justice. Even without the leverage, agency, or
power to effect wide scale social change, designers can start with awareness, develop a
critical reflective practice, and develop alternative tools that address social justice and sus-
tainability factors present in any design situation (Nardi 2019).
Second, systemic design approaches provide frameworks for design action through
sense-making of complexity and future-oriented participatory activities. This is particu-
larly relevant for food artifacts that depend on complex interests and tensions that result
in long term effects for communities. One emergent systems-oriented discipline is ‘transi-
tion design,’ which aims to generate long-term visions of sustainable futures while chal-
lenging existing socio-economic and political structures (Irwin 2015). Terry Irwin’s Tran-
sition Design Framework (Irwin 2018) challenges designers to perform activities organi-
cally by visualizing the system that will be addressed, understanding cultural and histor-
ical context, involving multiple stakeholders, co-creating desired future visions, designing
interventions, and observing long-term results.
Irwin’s approach is promising for designing food artifacts. Food problems at micro
and macro levels require boldly challenging existing social structures while involving
stakeholders. For example, a designer of food policies, should actively explore ways to
restore the rights of minorities with actions, such as giving voice to the community, and
assess continuously how decisions are harming or benefiting them.
Another systems-oriented discipline is DesignX (or design for complex sociotech-
nical problems). DesignX highlights the psychological, social, political, economic, and
technical challenges of macro level systems (Norman and Stappers 2015). For example,
redesigning a school food menu is not just a problem of selecting food items; rather, it is
a challenge involving political-power interactions between communities, food industry
interests, and government officials. The problem also involves issues of transportation,
storage, economy, nutrition, and health. At this level designers should focus on long-term
collaborative implementation and ‘muddling through’ the situation by proposing modu-
lar-incremental solutions. Similar to transition design, DesignX centers on long-term ac-
tion. However, DesignX suggests a technical approach to cope with political tensions, in-
stead of challenging them. While these emergent design approaches—transition design
and DesignX—seem to center the discourse at macro levels, designers at all levels should
adopt mindsets for more critical and systemic practices.
Humanities 2021, 10, 66 22 of 29
6.3. A Critical and Systemic Approach to Designing Food Artifacts
Critical and systemic design approaches must address issues of gender and racial
injustices in food systems by being critical and systemic at all levels, from micro to macro.
A critical and systemic approach to design requires understanding and anticipating how
design activities at micro and macro levels might result in unintended food injustices and
how they could instead promote justice and sustainability at all levels. Beyond practical
models, this entails intensive efforts and strong commitment to prevent (re)producing so-
cial injustices and undesired environmental harms. The following principles of a critical
and systemic approach to design can be used by designers of food artifacts at all levels
(see Figure 8).
Figure 8. Principles for a critical and systemic approach to the design of food systems.
First, food designers should facilitate stakeholder collaboration. Usually food system
designers act as experts who make decisions for others. Some argue that they use empathy
to design better proposals for people. Yet, this approach is insufficient because it main-
tains designers’ expert roles. Members of communities such as parents, teachers, or mi-
nority leaders should not only have a voice but also an ability to shape their own food
systems. Designers should promote and facilitate such involvement.
Second, food designers should focus on complex sense-making of the food and social
systems. Food designers’ work is set up to solve practical and economic challenges. Un-
derstanding broad social interactions in context should also be part of the design process.
This is achieved when there is more time for making sense of complex situations, refram-
ing problems, and making visible their complexity, along with the ability to challenge
power forces in the food systems.
Third, food designers should have political awareness and assume an ethical prac-
tice. Even efforts to neglect politics is a political choice. Designers of food artifacts should
increase awareness of political implications—or situational power relations—and make
ethical decisions. From the typeface choice in a food snack package to a school food menu
guideline, designers’ decisions entail political framing and consequences. For example,
Humanities 2021, 10, 66 23 of 29
including a picture of a male cooking on food labels or adopting Indigenous foods in
school lunches can be seen as a political design action directed toward reinforcing gender
and racial equality. Thus, community participation is not just a tool to legitimize hidden
political agendas, but a bold action to give agency to community members in shaping their
food policies.
Fourth, food designers should recognize technological limitations as they address
design situations. In today’s world, many people imagine that technology will solve any
problem. For example, industrial agriculture has been marketed as a way to feed billions,
without attention to its environmental hazards and cultural harms. While it is tempting
to believe that industrial technologies, technical guidelines, artificial intelligence inven-
tions, or persuasive technologies are the key to a future food system, food designers
should also prioritize lifestyle possibilities, ethics of care, and respect for humans and non-
Finally, food designers should work with stakeholders to create future visions that
prevent the unintended risks and benefits of their practices. These visions should promote
social justice and environmental sustainability. Future-oriented practices can also reveal
and mitigate the limits of science through creative speculation. While no crystal ball can
prevent all unintended consequences, trying out alternative scenarios can help. In consid-
ering alternative plans, designers should follow up, observe patiently, propose incremen-
tal implementation activities, and adjust their proposals for the long term.
These five principles are not a comprehensive list for a critical and systemic approach
to food design. Their purpose is to present alternative practices that could help reduce the
social injustices and environmental unsustainability of mainstream decisions about food
artifacts. In the concluding segment of this article, authors will briefly discuss critical and
systemic approaches to design and apply essential principles for designing socially just
and environmentally sustainable food systems.
7. Conclusions: Using Critical and Systemic Design Principles to Promote Food
Justice and Sustainability
As the authors of this article investigated approaches for turning our analyses into
action, we decided to adopt principles of critical and systemic design (Section 6) as a
framework. Recognizing that all aspects of food systems and cultures are designed al-
lowed us to think about ways in which they could be redesigned. Our goal is two-fold:
addressing food injustices faced by marginalized groups in American society; and ad-
vancing environmentally sustainable food production and consumption practices. Our
conclusions about reaching those dual goals parallel people-centered work by sustaina-
bility scholars who recommend increased community participation, attention to equity
and justice, redistribution of power, and implementation of democratic processes (Nicol
and Taherzadeh 2020).
We seek not to provide definitive answers or solutions to the injustices and unsus-
tainable practices our research reveals. Rather, we hope to identify a process or series of
steps for developing actionable strategies applicable across varied circumstances, such as
those in our article: the background social structures curtailing Dolores’s access to health-
ful food for her family; Joselyn’s unhealthy relationship to the food she desires and con-
sumes; the underappreciation of Indigenous foodways in the U.S.; and food safety regu-
lations that unfairly target immigrant food products and manufacturing processes.
One critical design principle we recommend adopting is stakeholder collaboration,
which could be used to facilitate equitable decision-making in developing food products
and systems. Too often decisions about issues surrounding school lunches, for example,
are made by agencies and institutions without much public engagement. Thus, those de-
cisions may protect corporate interests more than human health and well-being. They may
also inadequately consider what constitutes a culturally appropriate, environmentally re-
sponsible school lunch in a particular community. By the same token, U.S. farm policies
Humanities 2021, 10, 66 24 of 29
made without consulting diverse publics may inadequately regulate the use of pesticides,
synthetic fertilizers, and the conditions of farm laborers.
Stakeholder collaboration can produce different kinds of decisions. For example, re-
quiring community membership on zoning and regulatory boards that can incentivize
grocery stores to locate in neighborhoods where there are currently none (“food apart-
heid”) can give agency to community residents in the design of their food systems. Like-
wise, new, more robust governance approaches that include the entire spectrum of food
producers, large and small, could result in expanded definitions of food safety. Such in-
clusion could, for example, enable the Nepali women producing gundruk in Arizona to
challenge biases in the current legislative environment, which is accustomed to consider-
ing larger-scale, industrialized food production. This outcome would require going be-
yond the current comment period approach in U.S. rule-making, as well as finding a way
to maintain best practices from Western science while also making space for additional
practices. Such changes could, in turn, expand democratic participation and increase mar-
ginalized communities’ sense of belonging.
The principle of expanding stakeholders includes promoting processes of collabora-
tion on future visions. Bringing together diverse stakeholders can be challenging, but tech-
niques such as back-casting from some agreed upon goals to the steps required to reach
them and scenario design for discovering both conflicts and overlaps can be useful tools.
Collaboration in constructing future-oriented agricultural policies using such tools could,
for example, simultaneously address gendered and race-based food injustice and improve
the sustainability of the American food supply. A future vision of gender justice could
emphasize how including and supporting more women farmers could expand sustainable
agricultural practices, as women tend to advance such practices more than men farmers
do (Barbercheck et al. 2014; Sachs et al. 2016; Wright and Annes 2020; Costa 2010; Harper
2020; de Boer and Aiking 2017). Women farmers also tend to adopt practices that reduce
the impact of climate change, preserve heritage seeds, and regenerate the soil (Gohal
2017). Greater gender and racial justice in farming and food production could also help to
revive lost sustainable food cultures, like gundruk, among immigrants and Indigenous
Americans. Those diverse food cultures are often dominated by women and approach
food production with a sense of reverence for natural resources and with restraint in their
use (Klindienst 2006).
Stakeholder engagement and future visioning cannot on their own address cultural
issues, however. The many gendered, sexualized, and racialized prescriptions for food
preparation and habits of consumption that have characterized U.S. foodways are embed-
ded in preconceptions about racial differences, masculinity and femininity, and appropri-
ate gender roles. They do not necessarily result from regulations or policies. Rather, they
are historically contingent reflections of gender and racial politics, which we understand
as culturally driven power relationships. In the U.S., this includes histories of settler colo-
nialism, patriarchy, and misogyny, and even appear in some non-traditional or marginal-
ized cultural arenas. Food producers and marketers often reinforce those attitudes and
beliefs and ignore their histories, as well as the profit motive that dominates the American
economic system and recreates these unequal power relationships. Producers and mar-
keters may even claim that they are only meeting public demand and have no responsi-
bility for the individual and cultural consequences of the desires they create.
Utilizing the design principles of complex sense-making and political awareness is
the best way to address deep cultural assumptions and stereotypes. Reducing the implicit
racialized and sexualized gender injustices inherent in current food practices and cultures
in the U.S. requires understanding and making visible the complexity of gender, sexual,
and racial ideologies, recognizing how the politics of White male dominance have shaped
food choices and dietary practices, including eating disorders, and challenging the
power dynamics in the American food system. Together these interconnected approaches
could reduce harmful gender associations with foods, such as masculinity’s association
Humanities 2021, 10, 66 25 of 29
with meat and processed foods, and promote healthier and better balanced eating behav-
iors. Reducing gendered food associations could also contribute to more sustainable farm-
ing and food production practices (Counihan and Kaplan 1998). For example, disrupting
the masculinized meat-heavy American food environment could make environmentally
friendly plant-based diets more popular (Schösler et al. 2015).
In addition, developing political awareness of ethnic, racial, and gender hierarchies
in the design of food policies could increase respect for cultural and biological diversity
in American foodways. For example, national guidelines for school meals could create
incentives for programs that provide children time and space to share and explore the
cultural and social practices connected to different food traditions within their communi-
ties. By emphasizing the quality, origins, freshness, and taste of foods, school meals could
increase awareness of the connection between the environment and food and encourage
future generations to learn more about the Indigenous agricultural practices, food tradi-
tions, and peoples where they live.
We invite policy makers to consider possibilities for re-territorializing local and tra-
ditional foods, as well as the foodways of immigrant communities, which are often the
province of women, back into their food systems. These changes would create a larger
role in educational programs for food producers from non-European food traditions. Ma-
ria Parra Cano’s culturally appropriate and successful work as a Xicana Indigena chef and
educator who nourished herself, her family, and other members of her community back
to health in Arizona is an excellent example of a food activist who recognizes and ques-
tions the political assumptions that promote a European model, such as the Mediterra-
nean diet, as a universal solution to nutritionally based chronic diseases.
Finally, the American food system in the past 100 years has emphasized technical
solutions and efficiency. Technical solutions can be valuable. For example, new technolo-
gies could offer spaces of opportunity for expanding the food production environment to
include foods like gundruk. Existing “standards tell us what is relevant, what is valued,
what is important; …by implication, they tell us what is not important” (Busch 2011). Cur-
rent food safety standards situate microbial diversity in food systems as secondary to a
narrow definition of food safety. Drawing on the design principles discussed here, U.S.
Department of Agriculture policies could increase funding for research into methods that
detect, evaluate, and promote the presence of beneficial microbes. Adjusting the food
safety regime to allow diverse cultural groups to contribute to scientific definitions and
the ensuing formal and informal lexicons shaping what is considered safe could be a small
but critical step in addressing unintended injustices imposed by current approaches to
managing food safety.
Too often, however, technological solutions entail reductionist and top-down ap-
proaches that struggle to account for the complexity of food systems. Thus, the U.S. food
system suffers from technological limitations, such as an exaggerated focus on efficiency
in food production. That exaggerated focus excludes important ethical and moral values
that food systems should preserve, especially ensuring human well-being and planetary
health. Recognizing such limitations of technological solutions—another critical design
principle—as well as the socially and environmentally disruptive potential of food tech-
nologies, designers and policymakers should adopt solutions that advance those values.
We recognize that reaching solutions in complex systems is neither easy nor straight-
forward. Values may conflict. Economic realities may stymie progress. The goals of food
justice cannot be reduced to a single principle, such as place-based food traditions, when
other values—such as translocality, environmentally sustainable agricultural practices
and/or racial and gender justice—may or may not coincide with that principle. The multi-
phase process we recommend entails both honoring and critiquing traditions. Like de-
mocracy itself, achieving food justice is an on-going struggle and demanding balancing
act. We hope that our design-based implementation tools prove useful for resolving vari-
ous food-related challenges and for pursuing the intertwined goals of food justice and
environmental sustainability.
Humanities 2021, 10, 66 26 of 29
Author Contributions: S.K., J.M. and J.V. contributed to the abstract and Section 1, introduction.
They also authored individual sections (G.M.M., Section 2; S.K., Section 3, J.V., Section 4). C.S. and
S.E.-S. wrote Section 5. G.M.M. wrote Section 6. All authors contributed to section 7, the conclusion
and edited the article as a whole.
Funding: Spackman and El-Sayed are grateful to the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems
for funding that supported interviews and transcription.
Institutional Review Board Statement: Spackman and El-Sayed’s study was granted exempt status
by the Institutional Review Board of Arizona State University on 4 December 2019.
Informed Consent Statement: Informed consent was obtained from all subjects involved in the
Acknowledgments: The authors are grateful to Meredith Clark for her assistance.
Conflicts of Interest: The authors declare no conflict of interest.
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