food, culture, and the personal instead of the political

On Friday, Steph went to a symposium on the urban politics of food. How on brand! Today she’s talking about some of the main themes (food as diversity, labelling as tool of racism, urban planning) and her feelings about them.

There were four speakers who presented for ten minutes each followed by a q+a, and it was all very interesting and I am still percolating on my feelings. It was very interesting, but weirdly curated.


Rachel Carey discussed the politics of food on Melbourne’s fringe, specifically the tension between urban and peri-urban (or urban outskirts) agriculture and food sovereignty* in Victoria, and food choices in city planning.

[* Liz says I have to define food sovereignty, which is both evidence that the earlier talks were more than 101 (More on this later) AND that Liz is oppressing me. Food sovereignty is broadly about the ability of persons to provide culturally appropriate food for themselves, with little interference from external mechanisms. So in Victoria’s case, going from 41% local food to 18% local food means that the food supply for Victorians is more easily impacted by international politics and wages, climate changes on other countries, and capitalism, and, to an extent, the fashion of food.]

Until World War 2, Melbourne was mostly self-sufficient in regards to food, because of farmers on the fringe of suburbia (or the peri-urban fringe). But post WW2, we’ve seen displacement of farmland due to rapid suburban growth.

This leads to a problem, not of maintaining farmland instead of turning it into housing and suburbia, as you might guess, but instead a problem of socio-economic policy. In the ’40s, a Melbourne farmer might have been based at Brighton. Farmers have gone from being 20km from the CBD to being 100km away, with increasingly few incentives to stay in the agricultural industry at all.

To ameliorate some of the impacts of this displaced farmland, and, of course, the concerns about food sovereignty in our climate change dystopia, there’s a new emphasis on urban farming in order to increase our capacity to survive if our capitalist society falls over. I’ve fallen into this habit myself, of looking at the hyperlocal ability to provide, and I am generally interested in urban farming, community gardens and similar concepts. But urban farming isn’t accessible to all, and produces an unknown capacity of food. The maintenance of good farmland would have been more productive.

This led me to thinking about policies that give precedence to the individual. Is that what this is? Yet another abrogation of the communal in favour of the individual? Urban farming is very much a hyperlocal pursuit that requires one to consider individual food choices rather than looking at our larger corporate and governmental structures.

So we must look at the underlying power structures around our food sovereignty, and not just preserve farmland. To focus solely on preserving farmland is a band-aid that doesn’t look at the causes of failing farms.

Victoria currently provides 41% of its provisions, but by 2050, on projections, it might be as little as 18%. This combination is especially important because this means that shocks to the food supply, such as severe weather events in climate change, lead to increased food prices and less flexibility and capacity for resilience in our food resources.


The second speaker, Sukhmani Khorana, spoke on second generation migrants who are what she calls ‘hipster ethnics’, repackaging their cultural food for consumption. Her theory is that this is an example of the model minority, that a food can be repackaged to appeal to the wider audience (white people/white Australians).

You know, I have such complicated feelings on the commodification of one’s own culture. You do know, because I’ve blogged and written about it before. It was interesting to be so challenged, then, by Khorana’s idea that to suggest that this sort of repackaging of foods by second generation migrants is a form of gentrification, or is problematic, is taking away their agency; these second generation immigrants consider themselves Australian and are making the decision to repackage their foods as part of their identities. If one chooses to define and use one’s own cultural capital, can one really be faulted for that? Is it really not one’s choice? What a CHALLENGE to me.

Khorana has a book out in 2018 which I cannot wait to read all about this idea. It’s called Bonding Over Food: Becoming ethnically convivial in Australia.

She also spoke on my FAVOURITE topic, the conflagration of multiculturalism with food diversity. Which, reminder, is the idea that because Australian mainstream culture accepts a diversity of foods, Thai restaurants and Mexican at home and dimmies at the fisho, that this means that we’re truly multicultural. But of course, to eat food from multiple cultures doesn’t make Australia actually multicultural. It just means we eat great food.

A case study in her book covers the dancing knafeh truck in Sydney. This reminded me of that one time I was walking in Brunswick at 10pm, and there was a sea container with dancing Middle-Eastern men throwing pastries and singing, so now I know what was up with that.

In an interview, one of the owners, Ameer el-Issa, who is of Palestinian descent, talks about his reasons for repackaging knafeh and making it more widely available but also, incidentally, in the process he softens the dish (making it lighter, more suitable for dessert) and also compares it to creme brûlée.

It’s more accessible – it’s in a truck, crossing boundaries that are often class and racially stratified – but does it also mean that the experience has been dulled and toned down for the Western palate? There are always these discussions of authenticity as well – and what does that mean, in the context of second generation reinterpretations of own cultures and a repackaging for a milder palate?

Khorana also mentioned how el-Issa considers what he does a deconstruction of Middle-Eastern masculinity, as represented on Australian media, through the femininity of dessert and baking and dancing.


The third speaker was Shakira Hussein on food as an instrument of division. I was particularly into the use of halal certification as a weapon by anti-Islam groups, and the subversion of that weaponisation. For example, groups developed an app for identifying halal certified food in order for white people to avoid it, but Muslim people were like, ‘Yes, this is better than ours, let’s use it.’

Hussein spoke on the use of food as both violence and precursor to violence towards Muslims, particularly the use of pigs heads and bacon, and coupled this with the use of halal certification as scare campaign. (She mentioned also the use of dairy milk as evidence of European superiority by white supremacists — because of the alleged superiority of the European digestive system.)

What I think, about the food, and the surprise of people who are used to food being a peace offering or an area of acceptance, is that it’s a continuation of the idea of food diversity equalling multiculturalism. If food diversity is multiculturalism, and one wants to get rid of multiculturalism, one must also remove food diversity. I asked this as a question, and Hussein elaborated that halal certification is also considered ‘sneaky’ — ‘they’ have snuck sharia law into ‘our’ food (an actual opinion by the guy who ran against Aly in WA at the last federal election).


The fourth speaker, Jessica Ison, was on the cruelty of factory farming and what it means for the identity of humans as a whole. The last talk was vegan 101 business, which was interesting as the other three were definitely discussing food politics at a more advanced level. And I’m not just saying that from the point of view of having been vegan for ten years and not needing to see any more chickens in battery farms, thank you very much; I’m quite experienced in food for urban planning and the racial aspects of food politics, too, but the other three speakers definitely had new and in-depth things to say to me.

Overall, I was particularly interested in the idea of certification as emotional labour. Instead of overhauling our food systems to (for example) prioritise organically grown food, we default to labelling and make individuals, mostly women, do extra labour at the supermarket. And certification allows for a different sort of racism, because for example the KKK encourages people to keep non-kosher kitchens, so kosher labelling allows women the opportunity for a different performance of prejudice.

It’s this whole individual thing, which brings us back around to the beginning, and the use of urban farming. Capitalism sees the default for food management as labelling, moving the responsibility back onto the individual, rather than any policy or larger organisational work.

This symposium was hosted by Thrive Research and held at the University of Melbourne. It was free to attend.

Further reading:

Urban sprawl is eating Melbourne’s foodbowl

On being an ‘ethnic killjoy’ in the Asian Century

Food, Race, and Power: Who gets to be an authority on ‘ethnic’ cuisines?

I haven’t read this yet, but it is an open source book and seems relevant to this post: Sustainable Food Systems: The Role of the City

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4 thoughts on “food, culture, and the personal instead of the political

  1. Melina

    This is fascinating – my head’s kinda reeling a little in the best way.

    The area I live in was farming land around 30-50 years ago (probably not my actual street, it was probably bushland, but up the road was). There’s one hold out remaining – a pineapple farm on a rather busy road, owned and farmed (though increasingly less) by an elderly farmer. I can’t see it remaining a farm much longer – town houses seem to be the most popular use of large blocks of land these days, which means the nearest pineapples will be at least 1/2 an hour away – off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other non-meat farming closer. (There are a few cattle farms around here)

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