Lunch Cooked by a Man!

Women’s conceptualisations of food sovereignty as an entry point into the ethics of food system relations.

I recently attended a workshop in Kampala, Uganda which focused on short and long-term approaches to improving regional food security. After sitting down for an elaborate lunch of both African and Indian dishes prepared with the freshest ingredients, one of the participants heaved a contented sigh and remarked to the workshop organiser: “Thank you so very much for lunch, David. It was delicious… I mean, it was a lunch cooked by a man – I never eat lunch prepared by men! – so it tasted fantastic!”

Cooking is perhaps one of those obvious areas in life where differences in assumptions about gender roles are easily observed. While I myself have the good fortune that many of my lunches (and dinners) are cooked by a man who doesn’t think that doing so affects his status as a man, for many women this is not the case, as the conversation I observed in Uganda suggests. In many cultures across the world the preparation of food for children and other members of the household remains predominantly seen as a ‘natural woman’s task’. The ability to cook- alongside a host of other domestic talents- is what makes a ‘good woman’. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi also noted this in her essay ‘We should all be feminists’:

Today, women are more likely to do housework than men – cooking and cleaning. [..] Is it because women are born with a cooking gene or because over the years they have been socialised to see cooking as their role? I was going to say that perhaps women are born with a cooking gene, until I remembered that the majority of famous cooks in the world are men.

Indeed, the prestigious The Chefs’ Choice Award, which is an award based upon peer recognition, has not been awarded to a woman since 2008.

Food preparation is not the only area related to food in which women’s roles are undervalued and/or obscured, as Sachs has observed.

Women perform the bulk of food processing activities in the household, the informal economy, and the formal economy … Yet, the value of women’s activities in meeting food needs in difficult times and providing diverse diets has been under recognized’.

Women are thus actively involved in modern food production even though this is not always visible. Where it is visible, women’s participation in food production processes tends to be concentrated in the lower and less well remunerated segments (Barrientos, forthcoming).

Well-known food sovereignty advocate Raj Patel also connects a feminist agenda to questions of food security and food sovereignty. Importantly, he does not discuss the politics of food in isolation from broader political structures. Reflecting on the crucial significance of policies related to land reform and ownership as well as the nature of democratic practice itself, Patel concludes that ‘Egalitarianism, then, is not something that happens as a consequence of the politics of food sovereignty. It is a prerequisite to have the democratic conversation about food policy in the first place’. For Patel this means that unequal relations in the household must be overturned. He argues that for women’s rights to be respected, ‘the patriarchal traditions that characterise every household and every culture must, without exception, undergo transformation’ (Patel 2009, p.671).

Patel’s position provokes a number of complex questions with regards to the nature of feminist projects and with respect to questions of collective and individual rights. I’m going to write more about these topics in future blog posts, but the sections above make clear that casting a look at the role of women in the reproduction of food system relations is a fruitful way through which to consider women’s positions in the world and the ethics of food systems. I will use these two questions as entry points into the global politics of food throughout the postdoctoral research I am carrying out at the University of Sheffield. In taking a feminist approach to the politics of food, the point is not to merely single out and highlight women’s oppression. Rather, I want to focus on women’s voices in order to investigate the possible foundations for more socially just food systems. The complexity of the topic alone warrants further writing and research. I hope you will join me as I explore and write about these topics in more depth.

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