The relationship between class and food is subtle and complex. Whilst poverty and deprivation are recognised as a major issue by many, the sustainable food movement still suffers from the perception that it is largely the concern of the ‘middle classes.’ Such class distinctions help to segregate an issue that should be of concern to a much broader swathe of people. The distinctions and impacts of class are frequently misunderstood, and serve to complicate our relationship with food, its means of production and ideas about ‘healthy eating.’
I am from a ‘working class’ family and grew up in a small village in Somerset. We have a background in mining and farming, and I now live on a small farm just two miles from where I was born. Having been lucky enough to study International Politics, and then Food and Water Security at university, I now split my time between working at home on the farm, working part-time at Waitrose, and doing some work for the Sustainable Food Trust.
I have come to appreciate the depth of feeling that many people have about class identity, particularly in relation to food, farming, and the land. The problem is that these feelings are frequently hard to articulate, and many people feel awkward or embarrassed when asked to explain what they think and feel. Defining class is always a tricky endeavour that leads inevitably to some generalisations. There are many people who would define themselves as ‘working class’ yet not living in poverty, and there are plenty of people on low incomes who don’t see themselves as part of the ‘working class.’ Class issues go far beyond economic concerns to encompass culture, attitudes, and identity. These are the issues that are less recognised in the nuanced dialogue require to discuss a sustainable food future.
I find language is often a key issue. Words such as ‘organic’ and ‘sustainable’ seem largely unused by people outside of the sustainable food world, whilst words such as ‘community’ and ‘small-holding’ have become buzz-words that now tend to imply something different than their original meaning. This language is part of what breeds associations with the ‘middle class.’ It provokes, particularly in rural areas, an image of wealthier urban incomers with a new-found interest in food. The truth is that there are many people on lower incomes, ‘working class’ and otherwise, who do eat sustainably; people have allotments or gardens, or just grow food in pots on their balcony, and they buy from local shops. They just don’t label this as ‘sustainable.’ The vocabulary of sustainable food is largely acquired, and like much specialist language, it can be alienating. Finding ways of communicating in language not laden in jargon and buzz words is important in breaking down the sense of exclusivity that surrounds sustainable food.
It’s also important to remember that people don’t like to feel patronised. There can be an evangelical element to the sustainable food movement, a sense of do-gooding that can be off-putting, particularly if people feel they are being told what to do. This can cause a knee-jerk reaction, leading people to ignore advice just to retain a sense of independence and self-respect. Class perceptions play into this.
Farmers and other agricultural workers need a special mention in relation to class and sustainability, because their culture and identity is specifically centred on food and farming. It is built around an intense emotional and cultural relationship with the land. Many farmers have farmed the same land for generations. They have a strong connection to the land because of ancestral ties. Farming is more than a job, it is a way of life, in many ways similar to those of indigenous peoples around the world. Unfortunately, our rural communities are rarely recognised as having social and cultural value, and many are facing hardship and decline. Farming families have been forced to leave the land, causing intense grief and ultimately, the loss of an important part of British history and culture. Those who are left living in rural communities find them drastically changed, or have lost a lot of their original community, leaving them feeling, as one lady put it ’like the last of the Mohicans.’
This goes some way towards understanding the attitude of many rural ‘working class’ people when it comes to the ‘new’ world of sustainable food. The problem is that food and farming has always been a central part of their identity and culture, and in some ways there is a feeling that this has been hijacked by ‘outsiders.’ Many also feel patronised by people with little or no background in farming, offering to teach them how to grow food. The idea is quite astonishing when you think about it. It is like offering to teach the Inuit how to catch fish. Whilst there are many in rural communities who have lost key skills, it needs people from within the community to pass them on.
To broaden engagement with sustainable food, we need first to recognise that many people may already be engaged with it, they just don’t necessarily identify or talk about it in the same language. There needs to be a greater appreciation of the skills and knowledge embedded in rural communities. There needs to be more respect for the cultural significance of food and farming, and a recognition of the indigenous attachment between people, their land and agricultural livelihoods.
There need to be more opportunities to get directly involved with sustainable food, a greater sense of inclusion, and less telling people what to do and how to eat. People need to be given a voice, and the chance to contribute from the outset. It can be difficult to get involved in many sustainable food groups because they require working on a voluntary basis, and this simply is not a possibility for most people on a low incomes. To remedy this, more paid positions aimed at employing working class people need to be available to broaden the spectrum of involvement. If people feel that an initiative is coming from within their own community then they will identify with it far more than if it is something imposed from outside. People need to feel that the issues of sustainable food are relevant to their experiences, shared in their culture, and that they have a place in the debate.
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