As ecologically and socially oriented food initiatives proliferate, the significance of these initiatives with respect to conventional food systems remains unclear. This paper addresses the transformative potential of alternative food networks (AFNs) by drawing on insights from recent research on food and embodiment, diverse food economies, and more-than-human food geographies. I identify several synergies between these literatures, including an emphasis on the pedagogic capacities of AFNs; the role of the researcher; and the analytical and political value of using assemblage and actor-network thinking to understand the far-reaching forces and power disparities confronting proponents of more ethical and sustainable food futures.
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As the interface between the phenomenological world of the subject and the often-expansive networks of food provisioning, the body that eats, enjoys health or suffers disease, and is bombarded with information about food, is viewed by many AFN scholars as a contentious and contingent site where the norms and values undergirding conventional food networks are often contested. As such, while these scholars agree that structures of gender, race, class, and other markers of social identity discipline bodies that eat, this is not a unidirectional process.
A number of critical AFN scholars have drawn on the work of feminist poststructuralist economic geographer Gibson-Graham (1996, 2004, 2006) to understand AFNs not as isolated aberrations, non-capitalist islands in a sea of “the economy” viewed as monolithically capitalist, but as ongoing experiments in (potentially) ethical economic relations scattered across a landscape that is already economically heterogeneous, in terms of what might broadly be called relations of production.
To be clear, the assertion here is not that capitalism is simply “made up,” or that representations alone account for its expansion, but rather that practices of representation and knowledge production are among the many forces constituting any economic formation.
Moreover, as Cameron and Wright point out, the discursive marginalization of diverse food practices in the so-called developed world has unfortunate if unintentional parallels to the long history in economic discourse, well-documented in feminist economic research, of rendering household labor and other unpaid labor illegible, unaccounted for, and thus unimportant to economies or to economic transformation.
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Funding from the Center for Cultural Analysis at Rutgers University partially supported the writing of this article. I would also like to warmly thank Monica Barra, Nate Gabriel, Kevin St. Martin, Sean Tanner, and Luke Drake for their invaluable feedback. All shortcomings of the work however are my responsibility alone.
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Sarmiento, E.R. Synergies in alternative food network research: embodiment, diverse economies, and more-than-human food geographies. Agric Hum Values 34, 485–497 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-016-9753-9
- Food systems
- Alternative food networks
- Assemblage thinking
- Food politics